First Ladies of Gadsden- Part 2


  Recently, the Vagabond went through materials in the Etowah Historical Society archive and found some important history papers never before published. As we mentioned last week, Mary Harrison Lister who founded of the 1954 historical society, 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. Her story continues:

Mrs. Barrett was the daughter of that James Abner Keeling, whose grave, with that of his wife, was removed from the site of the new Civic Center, (present City Hall). Laura Keeling met Captain John Thomas Barret during Civil War days. He was a Confederate officer who passed this way; upon what mission we do not know, but he fell in love with Laura Keeling, and they were shortly married. 

After the war they continued to live in the spacious house on the river bluff known as the Keeling Inn, and in later years simply as the Barrett Place. Mrs. Barrett was a tiny figure with lovely brown eyes and hair, white by the time this writer knew her – but age did not lesson her sparkle, her laughter nor her charm. A lovely lady and loved by all who knew her, she and her husband contributed much to the progress and culture of the growing city, as have their five daughters. Miss Emma Barrett died some years ago, as did Mrs. Leila Holcomb and Mrs. Ella Denman. Mrs. S.S. Caldwell and Mrs. George Faucett (wife of Dr. George Faucett) live in Gadsden. A son, Hickory Barrett died some years ago, and very recently the eldest son, named James Abner for his grandfather Keeling, died at the age of 93.

It would be of great interest if we could learn how many, if any social and civic clubs were in Gadsden, prior to 1900. From various sources it is found that the Womens Christian Union was quite active…and from Mr. Will Martin’s column we find that in May of 1884, some of the leading men and women of Gadsden met and decided to organize the Loan Library Association, and a committee (all men) was appointed to secure a charter. The Trustees were all men. Ladies were appointed to solicit members, and we find that Mrs. A.L. Woodliff was one of three ladies who were to have the honor of naming the new organization. So, from this we learn that the Library movement was among the early ones.

We still hear about some of the social affairs of pre-Civil War days, and since. Of this newly settled section we many not expect to hear of such splendid balls and dinners as were customary in older sections of this state, and of other sections from which many of our people came. But, “spend the day” parties, all-day singing, picnics, and such simple pleasures were frequent, and certainly were the means of making and cementing friendships that have endured among the old families to this day. Needless to say that among the young people romances flourished, and the way of life was, for the most part serene and happy. That someone was awaking to a possibility that something could and should be done about the liquor situation is evident about the same time as the library organization took place, likely a little earlier, for at this time we find that Mrs. A.L. Woodliff was already President of the Alabama Womens Christian Union, the first President of the organization in the state, and that the group in Gadsden was the second to be organized in the State. 

We find that Etowah was one of the first counties in America to attempt the prohibition of the sale and manufacture of intoxicating beverages by law. This was by special act of the legislature, and was inspired by the first prohibition law in the world for a small section of Cherokee County, but Gadsden soon found out that a law not backed by public sentiment meant but little. It was at this time that the Womens Christian Temperance Union took root in the city, led by such women as Mrs. Woodliff, Mrs. Barrett and Mrs. Stevenson, who never knew defeat, and never gave up the fight, even when it seemed that the cause was lost.

Mrs. Woodliff had known Carrie Nation as well as Dr. Anna Shaw, and though she found them inspiring, her own belief and her work were founded upon what she personally believed to be right, and this was true of Mrs. Barrett and Mrs. Stevenson, although Mrs. Stevenson was not an advocate of “votes for women”. 

She was just as firm against woman suffrage as she was against liquor, and simply could not see that by giving women the vote would change anything. This difference in opinion never effected her friendship for the other two ladies of our story, who went on talking to their friends on the subject of suffrage even as they worked for prohibition. 

The arguments were the same in the early 80’s as they are today so far as prohibition is concerned, and many years were to pass before the women of the temperance forces were to endorse suffrage. This happened in Gadsden at the time of a state convention of the W.C.T.U. when the convention passed a resolution endorsing woman suffrage. Only the year before, in Mobile, the convention failed to approve the movement, so, the Gadsden endorsement was considered the first victory for the suffrage cause in the state. At this time Gadsden had been under prohibition for several years, and this comment from a 1914 editorial from a local publication was made:

“Too much credit cannot be given the members of the Gadsden W.C.T.U. for the efficient work they have accomplished in making of Gadsden one of the cleanest and most moral cities in the State. Gadsden and Etowah County are held up as examples throughout the state…We are glad that the visiting members can see for themselves that this claim is not unfounded.” In another article in the same paper we read: “The members of the local organization today pointed Gadsden out as a model prohibition city and they were given a practical illustration of what can be accomplished where men of honor are put into office to enforce the laws.” 

Whatever may be the opinion of the general public as regards prohibition as of today, we can sincerely honor these women who for years kept alive here the cause which resulted in the passing of the 18th amendment – and in this the three ladies of our story had a big part. In the suffrage cause southern women as a rule were not as out-spoken as their Northern and Western sisters, but those who did take a lead in this work met with many discouragements, with ridicule, and sometimes a measure of disrespect. 

Again it was the stout of heart who stood the storm, and whether for the better or worse, saw the 19th amendment become law, and women become legally people. 

Those whose dreams of women’s vote bringing about better government, who saw evil vanishing like the mist before the sun, who felt so sure that men of honor would be elected to banish graft, corruption and vice, have had more than a few bitterdisappointments.

Women have not stood solidly for those better things for which such women as Laura Barrett, Chester Woodliff and Florence Stevenson worked and prayed – but let us thank God for the work and the prayers, and the dreams…Without them we should have lost the hope for better things, which still is ours, and the means to bring these things about which is in our hands, if we will only use it.

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