First Ladies of Gadsden, Part 1


The Vagabond recently went through materials in the Etowah Historical Society archive and found some important history papers never before published. Mary Harrison Lister, who founded the historical society in 1954, wrote before her death about some of the first ladies of Gadsden, noting that all the “firsts” were men. Mary herself was a “first” in many ways and should never be forgotten in history. The Vagabond will write about her in the near future. In her story she writes:

“In this assignment for our society I find many difficulties. Gadsden is full of “firsts” when we go back into her history – but, these “firsts” are oftentimes lacking in detail, and while a great deal has been recorded about the men who founded and developed the early village and finally the city, one finds little mention of the ladies.“We know that Mrs. Moragne, a widow, was perhaps the first white lady to live in this section. She lived with her son John S. Moragne, one of the founders, on land that bordered the Coosa River, south of the present Broad Street.“Then came the Hughes family, in 1840, after the arrival of the Moragnes. We learn that these families inter-married and that gradually others came to take part in the life of the village. We can be sure that their ladies looked carefully after their homes, and extended the hospitality to both neighbors and strangers that have become traditional.

“So, as we think of the little village on the west bank of the Coosa in those long gone years, there comes to our minds the names of Turrentine, Wisdom, Rhea, Lafferty, and many others who watched the changes as the years slipped away, and we know that they must have had a great experience. All that I can learn now about Mrs. Lafferty is that her name was Helen. I feel sure that the Turrentine who organized the first Sunday school must have had a lot of help from his wife, Caroline Lucy, who though she remained unsung, surely knew ‘what every woman knows.

To have known how these pioneer ladies endured the hardships, how by their unfailing loyalty to family, and growing town and county, they played their parts from year to year, and how, when war clouds finally spread across the South, they assumed responsibilities and burdens unknown to us, would make a wonderful story of our own section.

“For the purpose of this story we must pass over the war years, and the days of re-construction, and record here the story, briefly, of three ladies who well-represent their day and time, though they could not be called “pioneers,” but they did lead a cause that has since been called by a President of the United States, “A Noble Experiment,” and two of them espoused a cause which was anything but popular in its beginning.

These ladies were Mrs. A.L. Woodliff, Mrs. Julia Florence Stevenson and Mrs. Laura Keeling Barrett. When this writer first came to Gadsden very young in years, but already an active worker in both the prohibition and the suffrage cause, it was her privilege to meet and know the ladies of whom she writes.

In appearance Mrs. Woodliff was by this time rather stout, with graying hair, and given to wearing pretty little bonnet-like hats, with dresses that were lovely and becoming. She had what might be termed strong features, rather than pretty, character was written in her face, but she laughed easily, and her eyes were ever direct and smiling. One would say that this was a woman of energy and determination, generous and capable, and truly one of the happiest of people.

“Mrs. Woodliff was before her marriage to Augustin L. Woodliff, Miss Chester LaVinia Law, of Hall County, Georgia. They came to Gadsden in about 1857 and made their home on their farm, which extended from the present 11th Street section to take in the land that is now Forrest Cemetery. Mr. Woodliff enlisted in the Confederate Army and attained the rank of Captain. To the Woodliffs were born 14 children. In this family there is an amazing story that Mrs. Woodliff “never cooked a meal in her life!” This fact, with the 14 children, seems to me to set some sort of record!

The first Woodliff in America, according to the family history, was Captain John Woodliff, master of a ship that brought settlers to Virginia, and made landing on the James River at Berkley. They took part in that Thanksgiving celebration held by many historians as being the first real Thanksgiving, a year or more before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Of special interest to this writer is the fact that Berkley, still standing is one of three Harrison ancestral homes on the James River, and at the time of this “First Thanksgiving,” a Mary Harrison was living there.

“Mrs. Stevenson, of medium stature, brown-eyed, smiling, deeply religious, a “lady of the old school” we would say in this day, but one who had on her heart the needs of her city. She was a gifted musician, and possessed of many social graces.

“Mrs. Stevenson was a daughter of Judge Lemuel S. Standifer, one of the early settlers, a sister of Mrs. J.H. Bisque, Mrs. Harelson of Fort Payne, and Mrs. Daughdrill. Wm. Standifer, a lawyer, was a brother, as was Walter S. an engineer. There were two daughters and three sons in the Stevenson family. Ariel married Col. Douglas McMillan, and lives in Chattanooga, Tenn. Rose Mary Califf lives on Lookout [Mountain], near Fort Payne. Gary edits a paper in Vista, California, Paul, a well-known newspaperman of Atlanta, and Clyde, once Mayor of Gadsden, who died some years ago.

Next week: Part 2 – Be sure to see! 

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