Fresh off my Museum Mondays visit to the Stafford Museum of History, I take Route 63 to Alabama and meet up with historian Joe Cassidy, my tour guide in the Alabama Historical Society Museum.
As I walk to the back of the Town Hall and into the museum, it’s more what I expected to see for a small-town historical society. Visitors are immediately surrounded – right, left, above and below – by bits of the past. Smaller artifacts are kept behind glass; larger ones are set on top of the display cases, or are hung from the ceiling.
With no particular order in mind, Joe and I begin our tour.
“We’ll start with this old voting machine,” Joe says, pointing to a familiar-looking device. “It looks somewhat similar to the lever machines we have been using, up until today. But this is about a 1920 model. And it was the first lever machine the town had purchased.”
Joe explains that at that time, a Native American from the Western United States was running for vice president (Charles Curtis of Kansas – he would succeed and become the first Native American vice president in 1929, under Herbert Hoover). “So the Indians on the local reservation wanted to vote for him,” says Joe. “The town clerk took the machine out and showed the residents of the reservation how to use it."
Moving left to a display case, Joe notes a bugle, hat, and bass drum from the Alabama Junior Drum Corps, active during the 1950’s and 60’s.
“Dr. Grant Neil’s business card is there,” says Joe, pointing down inside the case. “Dr. Neil was an early doctor in our town from about 1900 until the late 1930’s when he passed away.” Across the room is a horse-drawn buggy that also belonged to the doctor. “It’s got a lot of miles on it, going to deliver babies,” Joe says with a chuckle.
Above the business card is a yellowed picture of a building I’ve eaten at; you probably have, too. “The Alabama Hotel (back then) looked similar to what it does today,” says Joe. “It was built about 1840 and it’s been in business ever since. It has been quite a famous landmark in the area.”
A lesser-known attraction that has long since closed is the Basom Hotel. Joe shows me a picture from about the turn of the century. “On Route 77 – dirt road. The railroad tracks ran through there. The people on the train would get off, have lunch, get back on the train and carry on their way.”
On top of the next display case is a sulky: a two-wheeled horse-drawn cart, much like the ones used in harness racing at Batavia Downs. This one wasn’t built for speed, though. “It was used by Reverend Robinson, the pastor of Alabama Methodist Church just after the turn of the century. Quite nice…it’s all in one piece.”
Turning the corner of the building, Joe stops next to a wood-and-string musical instrument. “This is called a Hammer-Dulcimer,” he explains. “This was made in the town by a man named Perry White. He made several of these…mostly for family members. He just kind of made them as a hobby,” and as such, they’re extremely hard to acquire. “(It) is one of our most-valued artifacts here.”
Another group of rare collector items sits in the next case: glass bottles from the Sour Springs Hotel. It was a resort of sorts; Joe says people came from all over the stay at the hotel and bathe in the water. “The hotel, at one time, would bottle the water and ship it all over the East Coast for medicinal purposes. So we’re glad to have those.” Those healing springs don’t exist anymore, though. “They’re dried up; the hotel burned in 1920.”
You can’t miss the next corner you come to – it’s literally a step into the past. “Here’s part of the old Post Office in Basom,” Joe says in an understatement. It’s about an 8-foot tall wooden structure, built into the corner. It includes all of the original lockboxes, the postmaster’s window with iron bars, and slots for local and out-of-town mail. “It took a few people to get it in here,” says Joe, with a knowing grin – I presume that’s another understatement.
The next case is an ode to one-room schoolhouses. There were as many as 14 one-room schoolhouses in Alabama at one time. This display includes an original picture of the one we stand in now. Joe tells me that, structurally, the bell housing pictured on the roof is the same one that sits on the Town Hall now. “They went through when they built the front of this building and re-did the exterior of (the bell housing),” he says. Other small items pepper the display case – attendance registers, teacher’s certificates, school lunchpails, and so forth.
Inside a case dedicated to Alabama’s servicemen sit a few officers’ caps, some old shell casings – and a white lump of what looks like some sort of peanut brittle. “A piece of sour hardtack from the Civil War,” says Joe. The hunk doesn’t have a hint of mold on it. “No preservatives,” I note. “Nope,” says Joe, “and still as hard as it ever was!” We share a laugh…at the expense of those soldiers who actually had to eat the stuff.
“Of course, we had our gypsum mines,” says Joe, turning behind us. “The town of Alabama was quite known for gypsum in the late 1800’s and up through the 1950’s.” These pictures are of miners; over in another case are a hard-hat equipped with lamp on the brim and an older hand-held lantern, also from the mines.
We’ve come full circle, but before we finish I notice a large fixture hanging just above the door. “There was a Halfway House on the Lewiston Road – between Batavia and Lockport, people would come on their travels and stop at the Halfway House and stay the night. That lantern there hung in front of that Halfway House.”
The tour ends – with an apology from Joe that he “can’t describe every little thing.” Of course, this is not because he doesn’t know about every little thing – it’s just that neither of us is interested in being there for 8 hours to go through it all.
“The museum was started in 1976, which coincided with the town’s one-hundredth birthday,” Joe recalls. “And we had people start collecting artifacts at that time, and it’s progressed through the years, and we’re still collecting today…and we have a lot of things that aren’t here: we rotate artifacts. So when people come back, they see something different.”
This museum is another case of low local attendance – odd, because it’s free of charge. “But I have had people from Michigan visit,” Joe notes, “and I have people from Connecticut coming in a couple weeks. Certainly a lot of people are looking for ancestors.”
Without a real vested interest from the surrounding community, though, the museum has become a real labor of love for Joe Cassidy – which suits him just fine. “Once I started this job, I really found it to be unbelievably interesting,” Joe says with a laugh. “Really, for a little town like this, it’s amazing some of the things that came out of here…there are really some pretty good stories.”
Visits to the Alabama Historical Society Museum are (for now) by appointment only. Appointments can be made by calling Town Historian Joe Cassidy at 948-9287. The museum is located on Route 63, in the back room of the Town Hall.