Hartselle: The first 150 years
City of Southern Hospitality celebrates its sesquicentennial
By Jennifer L. Williams
As Hartselle commemorates its 150th year in 2020, the city is celebrating the past, the present and the future.
Many Hartselle residents, past and present, likely know about Hartselle’s intertwined history with the railroad and the 50-year battle to settle on the spelling of the town’s name, but they might not know about the community’s economic evolution, beginning with the very early town square that once boasted beautiful buildings fronting tree-lined streets.
It is perhaps not surprising that most of the hustle and bustle of Hartselle’s early days was centered around the town’s railroad stop, but the first main road in town was not Main Street but Front Street, now called Railroad Street. The old town square continued on the east side of the tracks to what was Railroad Avenue, and many wood-frame businesses lined the square until two major fires in the early 1900s forever altered the town’s layout.
Today there’s not much left of the old Railroad Avenue – just a grassy knoll on the east side of the tracks – and only a few photos remain of those early Hartselle businesses, but their legacy lives on in the spirit of today’s independent business owners.
The initial focus of the town was the railroad. Hartselle grew out of a small railroad stop on the L&N line that eventually ran from Louisville, Kentucky, to Montgomery and then on down to the Gulf of Mexico. At one time – and for a long time – the railroad was this area’s lifeblood, and businesses supporting and benefitting from that connection flourished.
According to the Alabama Enquirer, which later became the Hartselle Enquirer, in 1895, with an area population of about 1,200, Hartselle had two hotels, one college, six physicians, three blacksmiths, three jewelers, nine general merchandise stores, three family grocery stores, seven preachers, “many fine residences” and “scores of pretty young ladies.”
Hartselle had fully evolved into a cotton-centered town by the early 1900s, when seven cotton gins operated within the town, and farmers and buyers would meet to buy and sell the popular Southern commodity. Once Hartselle’s cotton industry waned, it gave rise to other business ventures and opportunities, and companies and industries based in Hartselle today are local, national and international in scope.
At the time of Hartselle’s centennial in 1970, U.S. Highway 31 had been rerouted from Sparkman Street to its current location to the west, and Interstate 65 was just being built to the east. Growth continued in all directions, but today, the center of town remains around the depot area.
Spirit of Hartselle
The people of Hartselle have always had an independent spirit, and most would agree that education and religion have been driving forces in the town since its beginnings.
The Hartselle Male and Female College was chartered in 1883 and was considered to be one of the best in north Alabama. It later was sold to the Town of Hartselle and became an elementary school when the Morgan County High School was built in 1909. That elementary school evolved into F.E. Burleson Elementary and still stands today as the historic Burleson Center, just next to the Hartselle City Schools offices on College Street.
The old Morgan County High School, which resembled the Burleson Center in style, was torn down in the 1980s after what is now Hartselle Junior High School was built on the same property. Hartselle voted in the 1970s to split from the Morgan County School system, and Hartselle High School came to be in 1980.
The school system today, with its three elementary schools, intermediate school, junior high school and high school, continues to draw students and teachers from all over, who come for an award-winning educational experience.
Hartselle has always had a religious center, with church groups meeting in the area well before the town was established. With the coming of the railroad, saloons also popped up in town – six by the year 1878. Four churches – the M.E. Church South (1874), Presbyterian Church (1876), Christian Church (1882) and Baptist Church (1883) – had officially organized by 1885, with many more to come. Today, it is said there’s a church on every corner in Hartselle, and while it’s said in fun, it is not too far from the truth. There are many denominations and styles to suit the city’s growing and diverse population.
Sports have become another great Hartselle tradition, from baseball to football and more. There used to be a swimming pool located behind where the Junior High sits today. The ball fields have changed locations – teams used to play on Picken Fields, across from the Hartselle City Cemetery on Railroad Street Northwest – but the commitment to our local sports teams has remained strong.
A new jumbotron scoreboard was recently installed at J.P. Cain Stadium, a lighted stadium that opened in 1964 after being built mostly with money raised from reserved seat sales and volunteer labor. It is not uncommon to see people attend home football games who have not had a child in school for a long time; those Friday Night Lights are just a part of the community.
Hartselle was once home to the annual Morgan County Fair, where there were horse races, entertainment and prizes for the “best” of everything, from cakes and quilts to the best-decorated buggy. The fair was originally held on the high school grounds, but it later moved just north of the city with a new grandstand for the racetrack. Those fairs faded during the Great Depression in the 1930s.
When one door closes, however, another one opens, and downtown Hartselle has seen drive-in theaters, hospitals and large box stores and shopping mall trends, only to reemerge with varied merchants and services as the vibrant center of the community.
Recent projects have improved the city’s walkability and aesthetics, and plans are in place to continue this trend of civic improvement, including relocating City Hall to a former bank building.
In 2020, even with an unexpected and overwhelming global health pandemic gripping the country and the world, Hartselle home sales are booming, schools are continuing to grow in student population, and more people continue to discover what a wonderful place Hartselle is – a reality that bodes well for the next 150 years and beyond.