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Early family memories of Hartselle

By David Burleson 

For most of the past 150 years my family has claimed Hartselle as our “hometown,” even though we all grew up on the family farm in the Rural Grove community about four miles north of town. I am no exception, having always considered Hartselle my hometown even though not living within the corporate limits.  

That is not to say the Burleson family never took up residence in town. My great-grandparents moved to Hartselle in 1880 and by 1884 built a home on Milner Street and lived there the rest of their lives. My grandfather built a home on Bethel Road not long after the County High School located in Hartselle in 1909. He resided there part time for several years so his children could attend the County High School. When my father, F.E. Burleson, became principal of the Hartselle Elementary School in 1931, he had to board in town during the winter months, as the roads from Rural Grove to Hartselle were impassable in bad weather. Three years after my father died in 1971, my mother bought a house on East Main Street and moved to town and lived there for the last 32 years of her life.  

The history of the Burleson family and the town of Hartselle have been intertwined for several generations now. 

My earliest memories of Hartselle also include my father because generally the only times I went to town were with him. He did all the family grocery shopping and transacted all the farm business, plus he taught school and a men’s Sunday School class at the Methodist Church. He was on the road to Hartselle quite a bit.  

The trip to town could be quite an adventure in the early 1950s. Indian Hills Road was gravel, and portions of the road were composed of large chunks of rock, similar in size to cobblestones. It was a slow trip, sometimes taking more than 20 minutes just to drive one way. Once, coming from town and going up the hill where the entrance to Bluff Park is today, my father’s old Chevrolet truck started bouncing so bad it turned itself at an angle in the road and almost ran into the ditch. This prompted my father to exclaim: “This road is going to take 10 years off my life!” 

Our family doctor was Dr. William Block, and his office was located where Bill Puckett’s accounting office is today. Visits to Dr. Block were always entertaining. My father was half deaf, and Dr. Block spoke so low, he was hard to hear and understand. Frequently his nurse had to interpret what he said to my father. Seeing these two “old” men trying to communicate with each other left a lasting impression on me. 

In the early 1950s, the county agricultural offices were located in the old National Guard Armory on Railroad Avenue, just east of the railroad tracks. I remember going there in the summer with my father. The front doors were propped open, and ceiling fans kept the air stirring in the offices. The old wooden floors creaked as the farmers came and went. I would sit quietly in a straight-backed chair while my father and the county agent talked about cotton allotments, cotton and corn prices and the drought. 

Going to town on Saturday was always exciting. All the parking spaces along Main Street were occupied, and people filled the sidewalks and stores. Wagons pulled by teams of mules were not an uncommon sight in the early 1950s.  Where Home Gin Company had been located on Chestnut Street in the early 1900s, there remained a two-story brick building that had housed the cotton press. A concrete loading platform extended out from the north end of the building. Someone had converted the old building into a mill to grind corn. I remember seeing wagons line up alongside the platform, unloading bushels of corn, and other wagons loading sacks of ground corn meal.  

On the same block was the old National Guard Cavalry barn, on the corner of Hammett and Chestnut streets. It had been abandoned years before I came along and was not in good condition; however, the stall doors, divided into lower and upper halves, were still intact, and you could still imagine what it looked like in its heyday. My father was captain of the local cavalry unit in the 1920s and early 1930s, and he told me stories about the barn, the horses, the National Guard Unit and the basketball court that had been located on the upper floor of the building. I could not believe basketball games were ever played in a barn. Of course, I later found out my father was telling the truth. Now, what I wouldn’t give just to have a photograph of that old barn and to be able to remember all the stories my father told me! 

When my hair became long and shaggy – that meant about a half inch long, in those days – my father would send me to Tanner’s Barber Shop and give me a dollar bill to get my hair cut. The trim was 75 cents, and I could keep the quarter and go spend it on anything I wanted. Sometimes I would go Penn’s Hamburgers for a burger and cold drink, and at other times I would go to Strickland Drugs or Fowler Drugs for a vanilla ice cream cone or a Coke float.  

One time, when I was about 7 years old – on a particularly hot day – coming out of Strickland Drugs with my vanilla ice cream, I dropped the precious cone, and it splattered on the sidewalk. My father had parked on Railroad Street, and I was to meet him there. All the way from the drugstore to the truck, I was crying, having lost the one thing I had looked forward to all day long. When my father saw me crying, he asked what was wrong, and I told him. He told me to wait in the truck, that he had some more errands to run and would be back in a little while. When he returned several minutes later, to my surprise, in his hand was another vanilla ice cream cone for me. That memory has stuck with me all these years. 

My father had several acres planted in peach and apple trees. They were mature and at peak production in the 1950s. By the time I would get out of bed in the mornings, he would already have 15-20 bushels of apples picked and loaded on his truck and ready to go to town. We took them to James Grocery, located on the corner of Railroad Street and Main Street. I remember the name painted on the side of the brick building, along with a “Red Hat Feeds” advertisement. We would unload the bushels of fruit and line them up just inside the front door, which was on the corner of the building. He would tell Mr. James to sell them for what he could but keep the bushel baskets, and he would be back in a few days to pick them up. We would make several trips to James Grocery each summer. 

Doss Hardware, located about a half block west of the railroad tracks on West Main Street, and Stewart & Bennett General Merchandise, located about two blocks further west on Main Street, were both fascinating places to visit for any child under 10 years of age. Doss Hardware had a large cash register with the outside covered in fancy scroll work, and to the best of my memory, it was trimmed in brass. It was a beautiful contraption and made almost a musical sound when an order was being “rung up” and the cash drawer would spring open. In Stewart & Bennett, the walls were covered with all types of harness, tools and other farm-related items. The walls of the store always kept my attention as my father and Mr. Fred Bennett Sr. talked and transacted business.  

The Stewart Gin complex was located across the street from Stewart & Bennett. The old Stewart Scales building was located on the corner of Main Street and Sycamore Street.  Along the front of the building was a long wooden bench where the “old-timers” would sit and whittle, swapping knives and tall tales. Before it was torn down in the mid-1960s, Stewart Scales was probably the most photographed building in Hartselle. 

On that corner in 1967, James “Franklin” Stewart III constructed a new Western Auto store, and because of Fred Bennett Sr., my family played a part in the grand opening. The story is as follows:  

S.E. Stewart, an ancestor of Franklin Stewart, constructed a general merchandise store on the southwest corner of Main Street and Bowery Street (now Sparkman Street) in 1892. Making the first purchase was my grandfather, Jonathan Orr Burleson, who bought a pair of pants. Mr. Bennett had been a young clerk in the store in the early 1900s and had gotten the story from S.E. Stewart. Based on that recollection, Franklin Stewart asked my father if our family could make the first purchase in his new store. Early in the morning Nov. 16, 1967, my father came to the high school and checked my brother and me out of school and took us downtown, where we became the first customers at the new Western Auto Associate Store. We purchased some nuts and bolts for a repair project my father had undertaken at home. 

I feel fortunate to have Hartselle as my “hometown”. My early memories are pleasant ones, as I hope they would be for the thousands of people who have grown up in our town over the past 150 years. Those early experiences, along with my family and all the people with whom I came into contact, had a profound effect on my formative years. Hopefully, I am a better person because of it.