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Another article for my employer’s monthly publication Reference Notes:

Montgomery and the River Region: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Mary Ann Neely

Ref 976.1

As an educator, author, and scholarly writer, Mary Ann Neely has studied and lovingly documented Montgomery’s history for many years. She is a graduate of Alabama’s own Huntingdon College and Auburn University. As businesses and historic homes change hands, city landscapes are damaged and rebuilt by flood and fire, and philosophies for management of city resources have changed, Mary Ann Neely leads us through a whirlwind tour of Montgomery, Autauga, Elmore, Lowndes, and Macon Counties – and we don’t even have to brave the heat and tired aching feet to see it.

Her extensive knowledge of the history of our community is accompanied by old daguerreotypes of Montgomery then, and critically acclaimed photographer Robert Fouts’ images of Montgomery now. Mr. Fouts spoke alongside Ms Neely at the Alabama Center for the Book’s Book Festival this past April. His dedication for his work shone through. He noted the loving, extremely painstaking work of sorting, cataloging and preserving his mentor John E. Scott Jr’s extensive collection of historic photographs.

Mr. Fouts and Ms Neely then got themselves into many situations that were precarious at best in an effort to reproduce the angles and views in those old photos, to allow the reader to compare then and now. Stories of knocking at the doors of complete strangers in remote areas, ‘not really’ trespassing, and hanging precariously off of bridges or standing in traffic in an effort to get the exact shot added enjoyable detail to their description of the process of writing the book.

Each section of the book details the origins and growth of a section of our community. We see the inevitable losses of time—the Parkmore Drive in is now the site of Advance Auto Parts. Mothers will no longer purchase their daughters’ bridal trousseaux at Al Levy’s.

Court Square here in Montgomery has come a long way from the Wild West look of 1874 to its serene, small-scale urban look today. The “Hog-Wallow in the Square” became the graceful fountain decorated by Hebe, the Goddess of Youth and Cup-Bearer of the Gods, in 1885. Our current downtown revitalizations reflect a similar spirit of progress and awareness of the need for beautification of public places.

Driving around downtown Montgomery on one important errand or another, one might wonder about this or that landmark—the Commerce Street tunnel, for instance—but never have time to follow up on its significance. The tunnel flooded the basements of buildings along Commerce Street in 1929 and was closed for nearly fifty years. Restored and re opened nearly fifty years later, it is the gateway to the River and the Amphitheatre.

Painful moments in our community’s history are documented as well. The city’s effort to make ‘separate but equal’ truly equal after the 1901 constitution was sincere. Mayor William Teague ordered arrest of Montgomery Traction Company officials and employees who refused to create equal trolley routes for blacks. As we know now, this effort deteriorated into the conditions which led to the bus boycott of 1955. But today, improvements to the Court Square area have restored it to a more pedestrian friendly, graceful nod to the area’s original proportions and purposes.

Our riverfront, in 1898 piled high with muddy bales of cotton waiting to be shipped to Mobile, is now a place for outdoor recreation and city-sponsored entertainment.

In the second half of the book, Charles Barnette’s corporate profiles highlight the people and institutions who built our area from the frontier-like towns of 100 years ago to the growing metropolitan region we live in today. The history and the movers and shakers of businesses from hospitals to utilities to churches to higher education to industry remind us of where we’ve been and the potential in our future.

My only complaint about the book is that it leaves me hungry for even more details. As time passes, the marks of the personal and communal history of our community fade. How did the people live who rode those trolleys and built those businesses and boycotted those buses? What was the shipping business centered on our river like, and how much of it remains? How do our citizens live now, so that we can have a record for future books like this one? It would take several volumes, I am sure, for Ms Neely and Mr. Fouts to cover all the many, many changes to Montgomery and other neighborhoods and communities. I hope they are still working on it!

In closing, I quote Mary Ann Neely. She echoes my hunger for additional detail. On pages 19-20 she writes:

‘In some instances, there are images that may be disturbing where once elegant mansions or simpler cottages have given way to industrial sites, car lots, or vacant weed-infested fields, but in others there is a tree, a building, a view that instills that wondrous sense of continuity that gives the viewer such a satisfactory personal feeling of “I have been there, and I like what I see.” That is the purpose of this book—to give the reader the understanding that, yes, we have been there – that all humanity has connections with every other generation. Of course, we wear different clothes, travel in different vehicles, live in different houses, but look into the eyes of an individual in an old photograph, wonder how it felt to live in a dogtrot house in the winter, attend Tuskegee Institute in 1890, wade through Downtown Prattville in the flood of 1939. We are all a part of what we have met, either in this life or through the pictures that reflect the change and the continuity of Central Alabama’s unique and beautiful River Region.”

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