Winston: The First Decade and the Beginnings

Written and compiled by Peter J. Gossett
First published in the September 2013 "Trail Tracker" newsletter.

A vast forest, sparsely populated, was Winston County before and shortly after it was created. It was Walker County for years until the northern portion was divided to start a new county, which was named Hancock by an Act of the General Assembly of Alabama approved February 12, 1850. This name came from a Revolutionary War soldier named John Hancock. The name was changed to Winston County on January 22, 1858 in honor of the first born Governor of Alabama, John Anthony Winston. The county seat was selected at Houston (a couple of miles northeast and across Brushy Creek of the present town of Houston) where a courthouse was soon built. The only thing that marks the site of Old Houston is a cemetery.

Apparently, the reason the name was changed to Winston was the work of one person: Ap Little. The following is taken from the Mountain Eagle, April 5, 1899: "Mr. John Wilson of Clear Creek spent a day or so in Jasper last week enjoying himself among friends. John says he lives on the same place on which he was born, has never lived anywhere else, yet he has lived in three counties. He accounts for this in this manner: His home place at one time was in Walker County; afterwards a slice was cut off and Hancock formed, the name of which was later changed to Winston County. Ap Little, known to many of our older citizens, was sent to the legislature, which changed the name from Hancock to Winston, that question being the main issue between him and his opponent. "Uncle Ap" did not like the name of Hancock."

Late in 1850, the census was taken showing a population of 1,542. When the 1860 census was taken, the population had more than doubled to 3,576, mainly due to the fact that the government lands sold for only 12 1/2 cents per acre. This was called the Land Graduation Act of 1854. In 1850, there were only 144 farms, 251 dwellings, and four schools. The land was poor for farming in many places due to the sandy soil and rock outcroppings. Some of the first white settlers were Peter Ingle and Jim Tittle, who came to Winston about 1814 and settled near Lynn. Richard McMahan was the first person to secure title to land in what is now Winston on January 10, 1820, the land being near Haleyville.

According to Jerry Burnsí book History of the Clear Creek Baptist Association, there were four churches in Hancock County in 1850: two Methodist (at Littleville and Falls City) and two Baptist. The Baptist churches were New Prospect in Haleyville and probably Bethlehem near Falls City. It was probable that the Sardis Church near Lynn had formed by this time or shortly thereafter. New Prospect in Haleyville was organized in 1824, and even though there were many buried at New Prospect, most of the older tombstones are long gone or unreadable. The first known burial there was in 1866. The same holds true for Sardis near Lynn. The first known burial was in 1862.

The only way to receive mail in the 1850s in Winston County was by horseback and/or stagecoaches. In 1855, the rate structure of the Post Office Department was three cents for a letter weighing a half-ounce and traveling up to 3,000 miles. The regular stagecoach lines were utilized to carry mail between such points as Houston and Columbus, Mississippi. Star routes were established to carry mail from the river ports to the mountain communities. Buggies, covered wagons, and horseback were used in getting the mail through, but daily deliveries were long delayed in many rural offices. The post offices themselves were often in a room adjoining the postmasterís house, though many were located in general stores. Before Rural Free Delivery, mail was picked up at the post office.

Early towns and post offices in Winston County, opened before 1860, included Houston, Clear Creek Falls, Larissa, Littlesville, New London, Cheathamís Stop, Seraloo, and Thorn Hill. Houstonís Post Office established August 16, 1853. Clear Creek Falls, Houston, and Littlesville were the only three post offices in Winston in operation during the Civil War. Some of the southern habitants actually had their post office listed as Eldridge and Kansas in Walker County. Clear Creek Falls established a post office on September 29, 1853, which later became Elk and then Falls City. Andrew Jackson Ingle was the first postmaster at Larissa, which was located near what was to become Lynn and established on May 6, 1857. The Larissa Post Office operated for almost two years before it closed and did not open again until 1866 when Mr. Ingle became the postmaster again. In 1888, Larissa was located exactly one mile north of the present town of Lynn. Littlesville Post Office established September 17, 1857 with M.M. DeGraffenreid as the first postmaster. The Seraloo Post Office only operated for one year, established August 29, 1859 with William W. Shields as the only postmaster. The location of Seraloo is unknown. The New London Post Office was located near Pebble and operated for nearly four years, first opening December 28, 1835. Another nearby place and post office was Thorn Hill, one of the oldest communities in the county. The Thorn Hill Post Office was established on April 18, 1836, with the first postmaster being Thomas Thorn, who the community was named after. This was the first post office to open in what is now Winston County. It was discontinued sometime in the 1880s, and a school opened in the town in 1856. The town appeared on the state map in 1842. Other postmasters were Jeremiah Walker, Thomas Cord, George Cleere, and the slave-owning Orrin Davis, who was probate judge in Hancock/Winston County. For some unknown reason, as the twentieth century got nearer, the town moved over into the edge of Marion County.

The popular state roads through what was to become Winston were the Byler and Cheatham roads. The Byler Road followed roughly through Pebble, down Hwy. 195 through Haleyville, and then down Hwy. 13 through Natural Bridge and Lynn. The Cheatham Road came through what is now the Sipsey Wilderness, down Hwy. 33, and through Double Springs following closely to Hwy. 195. About five miles south of Double Springs where Cheatham Road forded Clear Creek, was Wyatt Cheathamís place. It was most likely a stagecoach stop and a place where people could get their mail. The "Cheathamís Stop" Post Office established April 10, 1832 and lasted for over a year. Wyatt Cheatham was still living in Winston County on the 1850 census.

The construction of the Byler Road in the early 1820s was a large contribution to northwest Alabama and especially to what is now Winston County. John Byler lived in Lawrence County in 1819 and the early 1820s. He was the builder of the Byler Road, sustained by the record in several acts of the Legislature of Alabama from December 16, 1819 to December 24, 1823 inclusive.

In the early days, John Byler realized the greatest need for northwest Alabama was roads. John Byler had a vision, a plan, wisdom, and courage. He succeeded in getting the Legislature of Alabama to pass: "An Act to establish a public road therein named," which Act was approved by the Governor of Alabama, William W. Bibb, December 16, 1819. This was while the capitol of the State was at Huntsville and just two days after Alabama became a state.

Section one of said Act reads as follows: "That a public road be and the same is hereby established, as follows, to wit: "Beginning on the great military road, leading from Columbia in Tennessee to Madisonville in Louisiana, at or near the place where Samuel Crag now lives, on the west side of Big Shoal Creek in Lauderdale; thence, the nearest and best way to the Tennessee River at the ferry opposite the town of Bainbridge, Franklin County; thence, southeast from southern part of said town, the nearest and best way to the county line between the Counties of Lawrence and Franklin; thence south along said County line, wherever the situation of the ground will admit, and at all times as near the said line as practicable, to southern boundaries of the Counties of Lawrence and Franklin; thence, the most eligible route to the falls of Tuscaloosa river."

Sections two and three provided that the citizens of Lauderdale, Lawrence, and Franklin Counties shall open and keep in repair said road under overseers and commissioners under the direction and supervision of the "Judges of the Inferior Court of Lauderdale County," and the County Courts of Lawrence and Franklin Counties respectively.

The following is a copy of Section 4 of said Act:

"And be it further enacted, that John Byler of the County of Lawrence and his Associates be, and they are hereby authorized and empowered to continue the said road from the southern boundary of the Counties of Lawrence and Franklin to center of southern boundary of township No. 18 of range No. 10 west, the most eligible route which they can or may have discovered. And the said John Byler and his Associates are hereby authorized, so soon as they have opened the said road, to erect a turnpike gate at some convenient place thereon; and persons traveling the road shall pay to the said John Byler and his associates the following rates of toll, to-wit:

On a four wheel carriage and team, 75 cents
On a two wheel carriage, 50 cents
On a man and horse, 12 Ĺ cents
On each pack horse, 6 ľ cents
On a loose horse, 6 ľ cents
For each head of cattle, 1 cent
For each head of hogs or sheep, Ĺ cent

"And if any person shall break through or round the said turnpike gate, with an intention to avoid payment as required by this Act, they shall forfeit and pay for every such offence, triple the amount by them due to the said John Byler and his Associates, to be recovered by any action of debt before any Judge or Justice of the Peace. And the said John Byler and his Associates shall continue to keep said road in good repair, and to receive all of the profits arising from the same, for the term of twelve years; at the expiration of which the same shall be held subject to the disposition of the Legislature of this state."

Section 5 of said Act provided and required the authorities and citizens of Tuscaloosa County to complete the road from southern boundary of Township No. 18 on into the town of Tuscaloosa. This completed a road from Nashville, Tennessee to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the later part of 1823.

By an Act amendatory to the foregoing, approved June 16, 1821, "John Byler and his Associates" were required to "make good and sufficient causeways on all the soft ground, clear the grubs at least 12 feet wide, straighten the road where necessary, and keep it in good repair."

Section 2 of last named Act authorizes "John Byler and his Associates to demand and receive from each and every person traveling said road" as follows:

For every four wheel carriage, $1.00
For every two wheel carriage, .50 cts
For every man and horse, .12 Ĺ cts
For every pack horse, .12 Ĺ cts
For every loose horse, 6 ľ cts
For every head of cattle, 2 cts
For every head of hogs & sheep, 1 cent.

Section 3 of said Act appointed three Commissioners to "examine the aforesaid road, and if the road on November 1, 1822," was "not in the condition required by Sec. 1," no toll could be legally charged until Sec. 1 was complied with.

Section 4 authorizes a penalty of as much as $20.00 against Byler and his Associates to be received by any person from whom toll was taken unlawfully.

The last section, Section 5, reads: "That John Byler and his Associates shall have all the benefits and profits arising from the tolls of said road for the term of 20 years forward, from and after the passage of this Act."

An amendatory Act approved December 24, 1823, authorized John Byler and his Associates "to erect a toll gate at some convenient point between township 12 and 17", for the purpose of receiving toll; but the toll gate keeper was required "to give each and every person passing inward, a note or ticket," or receipt, authorizing the travelerís admission through the other gate, "toll free."

The toll gate established by John Byler on or near the north end of Bylerís turnpike was near what is now Pebble School, and in 1824 it was moved to South Haleyville. During 1824, John Byler erected a toll gate at or near New Lexington, in Tuscaloosa County. Byler did not, perhaps, realize when he was building his turnpike, that he was helping to locate the capitol of this State at Tuscaloosa, and that it would remain there from 1826 to 1846, but that was what followed.

Soon stage coaches drawn by horses were seen daily all of the way on Bylerís turnpike. Stagecoach stations where horses were changed at regular intervals, some fifteen to twenty four miles apart, were necessary, and were established by the stagecoach operators. In the early days, many farmers in the Haleyville section would travel Bylerís turnpike north to Mt. Hope, to Leighton, to Bainbridge, and later to Tuscumbia to sell their cotton and to buy "what they had to have."

Five years and eight days after the passage of the first act authorizing the construction of the Byler Road, the first act authorizing "Wyatt Cheatham and his associates" to construct "a public road beginning at a point on Payneís Road, about seven miles south of Moulton in Lawrence County, and running in a direction towards Tuscaloosa, the nearest and best way for a good road."

Section 2 of said act required the road to be "18 feet wide, 12 feet of which, in the middle of said road, shall be cleared of stumps and grubs, the sloping grounds and banks of water courses shall be so worked on as to ensure the safe and easy passage of horsemen and carriages of every description, all marshes, swamps and low grounds, where necessary, shall be cause-wayed with good durable timbers, which cause-ways shall be at least 12 feet wide and well put together; Sipsey and Loss Creeks, and others if necessary, to ensure safe travelling shall be bridged with good durable timber, well put together, at least 12 feet wide; and those over Sipsey and Loss Creeks shall have strong railings on each side."

"Section 3. And be it further enacted, That when Wyatt Cheatham and his associates shall have completed side road and reported the same to the County Court of Lawrence County, it shall be the duty of said Court to appoint three suitable persons to examine said road and report to said Court whether Wyatt Cheatham and his associates have opened and completed the same as prescribed by the second section of this act; which persons shall proceed to examine said road and report the true situation thereof to said Court, and said persons shall be allowed by said County Court such compensation as is reasonable to be paid by the said Wyatt Cheatham and his associates."

Section 4 sets out that after the road has been completed in conformity with, this act, that "Wyatt Cheatham and his associates are hereby authorized and empowered to erect a turnpike gate at some convenient place on said road, and to demand and receive of each and every person, who shall or may travel said road, the following rates of toll, to wit:

"For every four wheel carriage, 75 cents;
for every two wheel carriage, 25 cents;
for every man and horse, 12 Ĺ cents;
for every loose horse, 6 ľ cents;
for every head of cattle, 3 cents;
for every head of hogs or sheep, 2 cents;

and if any person shall pass around said gate with the intent to avoid the payment of toll, he or she shall forfeit and pay to said Wyatt Cheatham and his associates tribble the amount which his or her toll would have been, to be recovered before any Justice of the Peace, with cost of suit."

Section 5 of said act contemplates that said road shall be kept in good repair; otherwise, the toll gate is to be opened to travelers free of charge and a penalty of $5.00 is required to be paid by Cheatham and his associates when travelers are charged in violation of this section, to be recovered by any Justice of the Peace.

Section 6 grants to Cheatham and his associates, and their heirs, "all the benefit and profits arising from the toll of said road for twelve years after the erection of the turnpike gate."

This turnpike road was completed in what is now Winston County in 1825, and on to Tuscaloosa in 1827, the next year after Tuscaloosa became the State Capital.

The Cheatham Road, as stated, started from the Payne Road at or near what is now known as the "Emmitt Armstrong old place," about seven miles south of Moulton in Lawrence County, and ran a little west of south, crossing the northern boundary of Walker County, now Winston, about eleven miles east of where Bylerís Road crossed said boundary; thence via old Mt. Olive Baptist Church, crossing Sipsey at or near the "Ike Martin ford", through Double Springs, Old Godfrey, crossing Clear Creek at the Cheatham ford, Black Water, at "Old Nauvoo Mill;" thence near what is now Townly to Tuscaloosa.

This road in the early days was second in importance only to Bylerís Road. It connected Moulton, the county seat of Lawrence County, with Tuscaloosa, the State Capital. The Cheatham Road had crossed several large streams, Sipsey, Clear Creek, Black Water, and Loss Creek; these streams, for the road to be passable the year round, at all times had to be kept bridged, and this was expensive and difficult in the pioneer days. Notwithstanding this handicap, the Cheatham Road was traveled by many people for many years.

Judge Orrin Davis was one of the richest in early Winston County history. He had a school for girls located on his property that opened in 1856. By 1860, he had accumulated at least 600 acres of land in Winston, mostly about one to two miles north of the present town of Haleyville. In 1850, Hancock County only had six slave holders, one being Orrin Davis who owned 42 slaves of the 62 that inhabited the entire county. He was still the largest slave-holder in 1860. Judge Davis served as Probate Judge from June 17, 1856 until June 9, 1857. From the Moulton Advertiser, August 29, 1873: "Died at his residence, in Winston County, on the 22nd inst., after a long and painful illness, Hon. Orrin Davis-in the 79th year of his age. Judge Davis was among the first settlers of North Alabama, and lived many years in the early history of the Commonwealth in the beautiful and fertile Tennessee Valley, in the neighborhood of Courtland, Alabama."

John R. Phillips came through Winston County in 1858 from North Carolina and eventually settled in east Marion County in what was called the "Cove." In his autobiography, he had this to say about Winston County at that time: "The country in many places was uninhabited. Occasionally we would come to a cross road store and get some needed groceries. When we struck the line of Winston County our rations had run very short. The county site of Winston County was then Houston on the east side of Crooked Creek. We kept inquiring of every one we saw for the distance to Houston. The last information we had it was three miles. We traveled on and on for several miles before we saw anyone to inquire of, then we were told that we had already passed through Houston and that there was no store there and never had been only one house where Judge Hoskins lived and it was a little off the road. We stopped on the east side of Sipsey River where one McAlister lived. He had an empty house which he let us have until we could look around and find a location. We were looking for government lands which we could get under the Gradation Act at twelve and a half cents per acre. There was a great deal of it as very little had been taken up at that time but it was all poor land, all about the same quality."

More from his autobiography: "We struck the Biler Road near what was called Littleville, the home of Ap Little. Then to old Thorn Hill where Judge Orrin Davis lived. He had a lot of nice cottages furnished for the accommodation of summer visitors, for it was a health resort, also for the accommodation of the traveling public. The many horse and hog drovers, also Negro drovers, found lodging and board here. He had a post office here also, the only one that was known of in that part of the country. That was where Haleyville now is. I had an introduction to Judge Davis. He was a large slave holder. He had a Negro quarter on Lost Creek where Carbon Hill now is, also had land cultivated on Buttahatchee and Bear Creek by slaves. He was a native of North Carolina. He showed considerable courtesy and gave me encouragement. We went on down the Biler Road to what was known as Boar Tusk Springs, where Crooked John Cagle lived. After we left there William Bradford who had bought land from Judge Davis, and lived in the Cove, came along and Judge Davis told him about us. He followed and overtook us and went on with us and spent the night and the next day with us. He had over bought and wanted to sell some of his land. The next morning we struck the Cove at the "Right Roden Deadening". The land was very rich and in very small bodies. It was heavily timbered with no improvements and no roads. We proceeded down the road to the land that Bradford wanted to sell us. It lay in much better bodies and a good deal of it had been in cultivation but had grown up in cane, elder, muscadines and grape vines. I liked the land fine and bought it that day. I let him have one of my ponies on it and owed him for the balance, which was to be in payments. He turned my notes over to Judge Davis for his payments, or rather to meet them. Then I went back in fine glee to move right on to my new purchase. This was about February 1, 1859."

The following is named "Early Settlers in Winston" and written by Judge John Bennett Weaver:

The white people who settled in Winston were poor, but generally honest. They settled near water - a spring, branch, or creek. They came on the land animal trails, or through the woods, on pack horses, and lived under bluffs, for a few days, until the log-cabin home was ready.

Sometimes, in the early days, it would be ten, fifteen, or twenty miles to the nearest settler. It did not take long to find out how far. The pioneers hunted a lot in those days - wild game was here, and good for food, when on a hunt, ten or fifteen miles from home, they came upon another settler, they met, got acquainted, became warm friends, and were neighbors forever after. They agreed, planned, and proceeded to cut and mark a path, or trail; and then a settlement road, the most direct they could find, connecting the two log-cabin, pioneer homes. What one had the other had - all of the members of each family soon got acquainted with all of the members of the family of the other. Migration and love for each other developed as the weeks, months, and years passed. The days were never too hot, nor the nights too dark or cold to keep one from the other, when sickness came.

The log cabin was erected by two or more persons. The small logs, after the bark was taken off, were put up, notched at the corners. A small family would build a cabin, ten by fourteen, or twelve by sixteen feet. The larger families still a little larger. After a few years, those with large families, when they were able to do so, would cut and split a log, hew the outsides, and make two house logs out of one cut. The split sides were placed on the inside of the walls. When the cabin walls were finished, the cabin roof frame consisted of end poles, beveled or sloped on top at the ends according to the pitch desired. On either side, and just above the uniform bevel of the two end poles, which were resting on and notched to the top logs of the aide walls, the two rib poles were placed and pined or notched. The rib poles were usually about four feet longer than the length of the cabin, projecting about one foot to the rear, and about three feet over the front end logs. This was continued until the last two end poles were beveled, placed, notched, or pegged. It was then ready for the top or cap rib-pole, which was placed over the center of the two end poles, and the center of the cabin. With the walls notched and properly put together, and the end and rib-poles all placed, completing the roof-frame, they proceeded to cover it in the old way. They used boards, three or four feet long, to cover the cabin. The boards were six to eight inches wide, were doubled, and were held in place by "weight poles." Long boards were sometimes used to line the cracks on the inside of the cabin; some would leave the space between the logs for light and ventilation. Some few, after stripping the inside with boards, would put split strips of wood in the cracks between the logs, and then use wet clay or mud to fill the space between the logs, making the cabin snug as well as crude. Most of the early cabins had but one door.

The door shutter was made of board slabs, put together with wood pegs, and swung on wooden hinges, creaking loud and lonesome, as it closed and opened. One window in the back was usually made, about 12 inches square, and with shutter like the one for the door. At one end of the cabin was a fire place, about six or seven feet wide, and about two feet back. The fire place was the important part of the chimney, made or built out of stone, as there were plenty of "chuck rock" in all Winston County. Very few "stick and dirt" chimneys were ever built here. A lot of good hickory wood kept the cabin warm in cold weather. The cabin had a rail fence around it.

At first, it was dirt floors. Later, puncheons were used. Split logs, hewed smooth, three to four inches thick, eighteen to twenty inches wide, and placed on log sleepers, about three feet apart, jammed close, made a good "puncheon floor." I saw one in 1900, and it had been built in 1850. There were no door locks in those days, and none were needed. A door latch, with a string on the outside, made it as easily to open from the outside as from the inside.

The cabin furniture, like the cabin, was hand-made. Usually by the cabin owner, It was crude, made of wood, and substantial. "Not what we need, but what we have to have" was the slogan of those earlier settlers. They made the bedsteads, the tables, sawed legs about 18 inches in diameter, in lengths of 16 to 18 inches for stools, made benches, and a little later, chairs. No sawmills or machinery were available during the pioneer days. They owed no money for anything. They made the babyís cradle out of a hollow log, about three feet long. The log was about 18 or 20 inches in diameter. The three feet half was mounted on short clap-boards, pegged at either end, with corners trimmed in rocker shape; or, sometimes, short pieces of poles which had grown in rocker shape were used for rockers. The baby's bed in the cradle was, at first, pine straw, covered with a quilt, or sheep-skin - if they had it. Later they bought sheep, and brought them here, as well as cattle. Thus the young, while they had no toys or the conveniences of the present, they were kept warm and had plenty to eat, and grew to be strong and healthy men and women.

They possessed that degree of honesty, integrity, and genuine love of hospitality that made that little log cabin home a halo of welcome to the travelling stranger, who was in need of a place to spend the night. He was generously received as a friend into that humble home, for words of welcome, "Come in," responded to his lonely "Hello," as though he had been a brother. Yes, words of welcome and deeds of kindness to that stranger by the inmates of that home, dispelled the darkness and the gloom, and filled his heart with cheer and comfort, joy, and gladness; and made that pilgrim, on lifeís way, a better man. He ate the best food in that home, and slept on the best bed, as if he had been a king; and, an offer to pay would have been courteously rejected and firmly resented. The food, palatable and nutritious, was plentiful and relished by those early pioneers. The corn or corn meal was first brought on pack horses. Hand mills were in use early. Hominy was used quite a bit.

The first grist mill was built in 1824 a few miles northwest of Double Springs by Jacob Sutton. Before that time, corn and wheat were carried to mills in Morgan, Lawrence, Franklin, or Marion Counties. Meat was plentiful. Wild meat, deer, turkey, some bear, and plenty of squirrels. After a few years, there were plenty of hogs, wild as well as tame and all kept fat on the range. Acorns, chestnuts, hickory nuts, and plenty of fruit were kept and used. There were plenty of potatoes, Irish and sweet, with no "bug pests" or disease germ to infect and infest. Plenty of pumpkins and "pumpkin pies" in every home in the fall.

Kitchen utensils were crude and scarce. Knives, forks, bowls, and plates were made of pewter or of some other soft metal, as were spoons. The water bucket was either a gourd, as was the dipper, or made of wood, and called a "piggin." Gourds were used extensively as receptacles in the kitchen in the early days. Lard, meal, sugar, coffee, and home made soap were placed in large gourds. After cattle were brought, gourds were used as a milk vessel for a few years.

The wearing apparel of the first pioneers was scarce. Furs and skins of wild animals were used until sheep and cattle were brought. The fathers tanned animal hides, domestic and wild, made shoes on home made lasts, of the leathers they had tanned, for every member of the family. The mothers knew, or soon learned, how to make the clothes for all of the family, and made them for all seasons of the year. All went without shoes in the spring, summer, and autumn. They enjoyed it. The father and sons cleared the land, cut and split large logs into rails and fenced the land they were to cultivate. This was done in the fall and winter, They plowed the ground with a wood plow-stock, home made, and pulled by an ox or oxen. The oxen made their living on the range as did the milk cows, the year around. Not much cotton was made in the early days; a little, about 200 pounds for bedding, quilting, and spinning, They built a crib, garden, and a smokehouse, behind which they built an ashhopper, where mother made the lye she used in making the soap for all purposes: toilet, scrubbing, and mopping the "puncheon floors," washing the dishes and the clothes for the entire family, the year round.