The 27 acres of land owned by Magnolia Church of Christ are an integral part of the very interesting history of our great city. Situated close to the banks of the beautiful Tennessee River – making the property susceptible to springtime floodwaters prior to the completion of Wilson Dam in 1925 – there is little doubt that Native Americans lived on or near the property hundreds of years ahead of the establishment of Florence as a city in 1818.
The original map of Florence primarily reflects the grid that we know today as the central core – downtown Florence. Beyond that area, the map is fairly wide open. But not many years passed before the eastern side of town began to boom as, one after the other, a series of industries came into being. Though there was a wide variety of industries, the Florence Wagon Works and several textile mills provided the longest-lasting impact because of their size and the large numbers of people they employed. A great many of the workers chose to live in the neighborhood of our church building because of its proximity to their work.
As the property now owned by Magnolia and the areas adjacent to it were divided into streets and individual lots, the developers named some of the streets in honor of early leaders in Florence. For example, our building is located on the southern tip of Kirkman Street. (The northern tip is several blocks beyond Huntsville Road.) The Kirkmans were among Florence’s earliest families. They lived in Thimbleton on West Tuscaloosa Street; it is the only Italianate-style house in Florence. Elizabeth Kirkman married Emmet O’Neal who practiced law in Florence. He and Elizabeth and their children lived in what we know today as Rogers Hall on North Court Street when word reached Florence that he had been elected Governor of Alabama.
One block west of and parallel to Kirkman Street is O’Neal Street, named for another early Florence family. Edward O’Neal and his wife Olivia lived, along with their children, in the house on upper North Court Street directly across from Coby Hall. Edward was a lawyer, a Confederate officer in the Civil War and, later, Governor of Alabama. (He and his son, Emmet, were the first father and son Governors in Alabama.) O’Neal Bridge connecting Lauderdale and Colbert Counties, is named for Mr. Edward O’Neal.
Moving just one block west of and parallel to O’Neal Street is Patton Street which is named for yet another Governor of Alabama. Robert M. Patton, owner of the locally-famous Sweetwater Plantation, was known for both his business acumen and his philanthropy. Patton Island in the Tennessee River is named for him, as was Patton School (which no longer exists), the very first public school built in Florence after the City School District was officially formed in 1890.
Just a few streets west of Magnolia’s property is a historic marker on Veterans Drive which notes the site of the Florence Wagon Works. From 1891 to 1941, this company manufactured wagons of various sizes and styles. Small wagons with a clever covering were used as delivery wagons – even for delivering mail! Others were sturdy farm wagons, while still others were used in war zones. The U. S. Army used what were dubbed “the fast-running Florence wagons” to transport munitions across Europe during World War I. Some wagons produced by this highly-successful company are still in existence. One that has been meticulously restored rests under an open structure in the rear yard of Pope’s Tavern, a city-owned museum in downtown Florence.
MORE TO COME…