May, 2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of Semmes Heritage Park to preserve the Semmes One room School. The park is the center of the Historical Preservation of Semmes.
Semmes was once known as a community in the Albritton Precinct.
The Albritton Precinct came about when the Alabama General assembly divided Mobile County into three revenue and road districts in 1888. The districts were then divided into precincts for voting, mail delivery, the collecting of revenue and building roads. Prior to this time most of the roads that existed were Indian Trails.
Early small settlements of Alabama were often close together as transportation was limited to walking, by horse, by wagon and boat down creeks and rivers. Families often migrated together purchasing and homesteaded land close to one another. These settlements were often named after the founding pioneers.
Land was plentiful, but communication was limited. Sometimes early immigrants just picked out a piece of land, cleared the land and built a log cabin house, not having legal claim to the land they were known as squatters and had to move when the legal owner was known. This happened to one of the first churches in Semmes known as Mt. Pleasant Church which was later renamed Semmes First Baptist Church. Each small settlement had its own school, church, blacksmith shop, cemetery and general store and all were located within a ten mile or less range of one another.
The uniting factors of these small surrounding settlements into Semmes were transportation and education. A railroad station was established in Semmes allowing the shipping of goods to the port of Mobile and included passenger service.
The beginning of the town of Semmes
Word had traveled up north that Alabama was the land of opportunity with rich soil, mild winters, great forests and plenty of wild game for food. The 1900’s saw an increase of migrations of people to Alabama.
In 1900 August Pickus and eight men from Illinois purchased a section of land fifteen miles west of Mobile near the railroad station and began laying out a new town. They gave the town the name Semmes after Admiral Raphael Semmes. The Pickus group stayed at the McCrary’s home while laying out the town. The McCrary’s had homesteaded in Albritton Precinct in the 1800’s. The town of Semmes became the City of Semmes May 2, 2011.
The beginning of Semmes Public schools
The enabling act that was passed in order for the Alabama Territory to become a state required that each township set aside the sixteenth section of land for public educational purposes. State Route 42 (A Post road) running through the sixteenth section of land of township 3 is now known as US 98. The first school in Semmes was a log cabin on the townships sixteenth section. Mt. Pleasant church began in the school house and is known today as Semmes First Baptist Church.
Shifts in the population, and new transportation in the 1900’s brought about the need for a new school building. Thomas Jefferson Howell, a concerned citizen, saw the need to have a new school closer to the new center of town, near the railroad. He gave land to build a school and a church. In his deed to the Mobile County Public School Board, he specified that a school must remain on the land or the land would revert back to the Howell Family.
By this time logging, saw milling, and turpentine stills were the main industries of Semmes. This made it possible to transition from log buildings to buildings made of lumber. The new school and church along with new homes were built of sawed lumber and were unpainted. Mobile County Public School records indicate that the new school was not painted until 1911. I remember seeing older homes as late as 1950 there were not painted.
Early Settlement Community Schools
In 1917 the Semmes School stucco building was built on Wulff Rd across from the 1902 Semmes School. Semmes 1902 School, the Allentown School and the old post office were moved to sit besides the new stucco school building. This began the consolidating of smaller public community schools into Semmes School thereby uniting the communities together.
Semmes A Great Place to Live!
Beginning as a small rural community with families homesteading as early as 1839, Semmes continues to grow. The City of Semmes was established May 2, 2011 and is a unique and wonderful family orientated friendly place to live with a variety of amenities, services and great schools. It is has become a bed and breakfast city and still maintains its small town rural flavor even though it is taking on a more metropolitan atmosphere.
Semmes unique location makes it the Regional Center of Western Mobile County which is growing at a fast pace. The Semmes Mobile County Regional Public Library in 2016 recorded 73,299 patron visits. ALDOT recorded in 2016 and indicated that 31,798 vehicles crossed Schillinger at Moffett Road every day,(four lanes are being completed which connect to I-10 and new US98) and according to a survey in 2017 by Alabama Power there are 48,006 people living within a five mile radius of the intersection of Moffett Road and Schillinger Road near the heart of Semmes.
MAY 2019 IS THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY OF ALUMNI & FRIENDS OF SEMMES SCHOOL, INC., AKA SEMMES HERITAGE PARK.
Looking back lest we forget the beginnings!
May 1994 A group of volunteers, citizens, students and former students rallied together with the goal of preserving Semmes 1902 one room school.
July 18, 1994 The group was incorporated as Alumni & Friends of Semmes School, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
August 25, 1994 The one room Semmes school was declared an Alabama Historical Landmark.
1998 The school was returned to its original site.
1999-Restoration Completed – A replica of Mt. Pleasant Church was built on its original site beside the school.
May 5, 2001- Dedication of the Park - May Day Celebration.
EVENTS AND ACTIVITIES
2003 President Calvin Tanner appointed Jeanette Byrd Events Chair.
May 2003 First Annual Heritage Day-: open house, old fashioned children’s games, and square dance demonstration by special group called Square Deal Square Dancers and Music - the Deep South Dulcimers. Food-Served Wash Pot Soup and Fried Corn Bread.
September 2004 –Student Field Trips began. First student field trips were second grade classes from E. R Dickerson Elementary School and the University of Mobile History of Education class.
December- 2012-Old Fashioned Christmas Began- Carolyn Owens has served as chair since 2014.
October 2012-Selection of Camellia Maids ( Before we had the Camellia Maids, The Oakley Bells from Mobile and MGM Azalea Trail Maids assisted on Heritage Day.)
January 2013- Restoration of Camellia Festival held at Semmes Public Library. (Alice Baker has served as chair since 2016.)
May 2013- Purchase of the Log cabin for teaching purposes and historical displays.
2017 Heritage Day- Students from MGM Robotics Team and Electric Car teams were added as exhibitors. One of our goals is to not only remember the past, but look to the future.
An interview with Sarah Phelps Wilson, 2018
Sarah is a descendent of the pioneer families of Semmes. According to the BLM land Records, Willis Waltman was issued a homestead patent for 80.24 acres 7/2/1904. Sarah Whiting and James H. Allen were issued a homestead patent for 161.19 acres in 1879.
Her great, great Grandparents- were Damon Blanche Waltman and Elizabeth Francis Henderson, and her Great Grandparents-Willis Master Waltman- and Melinda Tempy Whiting and grandparents Eddie Baker Waltman and Ella Mabel Lewis
Sarah’s mother and father were Alice Imogene Waltman Phelps and Alfred Henry Phelps.
Sarah’s father was a Merchant Marine and later he became a farmer. Even when he was in the Merchant Marines he had an interest in growing things. In his travel, he collected different varieties of pecan trees which he brought home to Semmes. The Pecan is native to south-central North America with different varieties growing in different regions. Calvin Tanner was living on the Phelps property while Alfred was in the Merchant Marines, and would plant the trees for Alfred.
Later on after leaving the Merchant Marines and marrying Imogene he began farming. Crops included vegetables, chickens, geese, peaches, pecans, chestnuts. A cow furnished milk for the family. The milk was rich and delicious with crème coming to the top that was used to make butter. Sarah said, “I loved to drink the milk after the crème had been skimmed off. Milk without crème was called blue john.”
The main crop that he grew was chickens for their egg production. He became the supplier of fresh eggs for ships docked in Mobile. He had two chicken houses that were lined with shelves of nests for the chickens to lay their eggs. He would gather the eggs and candle them before taking them to the market. Candling is a process where a candle was placed behind the egg to be able to see in the shell to see if the egg was fertile and should be kept for hatching baby chicks. Fertile eggs were not sold but saved to produce more chickens. Eggs were placed in card board boxes for delivery to the state docks.
Sarah said, “It was interesting to take the eggs down to the docks. The docks and buildings were open and you could drive right into the building on the docks to unload the eggs going on the ships.”
People in Mobile would come out to purchase eggs and other fresh farm products.
Semmes Old Fashioned Christmas Celebration is a free community event that reflects the simpler times of community life when the school and the church were the heart of the community. The whole community, from the youngest to the oldest, would gather together to celebrate Christmas. Our Celebration brings back those nostalgic memories with the reading of the Christmas story, and a Children's program.
A tour of the 1902 one room school house that is decked out in greenery and lit by oil lamps is the next stop. Upon entering the school, you are greeted by a cozy warm fire in the wood stove and the aroma of hot apple cider. You may enjoy the simple pleasure of sipping hot apple cider and nibbling on a cookie; then you will begin to hear the voice of Christmas carolers in the park.
Next on the tour is the log cabin with a glimpse of life in the olden days. There is a 1900's pump organ, rope bed and much more. A cedar Christmas tree decorated with wooden ornaments, icicles, and a handmade foil silver star. Under the tree are a display of gifts and toys from yesteryear. A tiny surprise gift awaits children who visit.
Braxton Lyles Jeanette,Velma, Chester Lyles
World War II brought a growth spurt. People from Clarke, Marengo and other counties flocked to Mobile to work in 1940’s at the shipyard and related industries. Mobile continued to be a boom town after the war.
My parents Braxton and Velma Lyles were part of this migratory group that came from Clarke County, first living in Prichard and moving to Semmes in 1945, when I was 2 years old. Semmes was a rural area. We had an outhouse, a hand pump, no electricity, no telephones Clothes were washed in a big iron wash pot that a fire had to be built under to heat the water, and a scrub board was used. We grew most of our food. Dad plowed with a mule. We had chickens, a milk cow and pigs. When we grew more food than we needed, we took it to the farmers market on Halls Mill Rd. to sell. My dad was a carpenter by trade and built a huge water tank on top of a high tower. Rain water was collected and a gasoline engine was used to pump water to the tank. The water tank made it possible to have running water in the house, gravity fed. Mom cooked on a coal oil (kerosene) stove. We had a rolling store that came once a week, and a ice man that delivered ice and coal from Mobile. The closest large grocery store was in Mobile. Our home was 3 miles from highway 98 off Wulff Rd, Lyles Rd.
I remember the joy of arriving home from school to discover electricity had been installed. Later in time, came an eight party telephone line. Eight different households were on the same line. You could pick up the phone and hear the conversations of whoever was talking on the phone.
The paving of Wulff Rd, was another memorial event. This ended the chance of missing school because the school bus had slid into the ditch.
Life was and is good! One of my mother’s favorite sayings was “Life is what you make it.” And when anything did not go as planned, my Dad would Say, “Well, we will just have to find another way.” and we did!