“I had rather be a vagabond, wandering about in God’s beautiful mountains, or beside his gurgling streams and sweeping oceans, dreaming my dreams, than to be chasing the will-o-the-wisp of fame, power, achievement and money in the great marts of commerce.” – Milford W. Howard
Some folks throughout time have asked how The Vagabond got his name. There was never any particular incident, but it resulted from several things of which will be written about.
What is a vagabond? A vagabond is one who moves from place to place without a fixed home or is known as a wanderer. It could be a person leading an unsettled life as a tramp. However, for this column, we will define the term as “one who wanders from one historical place or adventure to another.”
There were many local historians who impressed The Vagabond. One such person was a local writer who called himself the “Hooter of Owls Hollow” and wrote articles of historical importance. The Vagabond has always enjoyed history and reading up on the past. With that in mind, one just had to visit the locations of these happenings.
Another favorite “Vagabond” from this area was Colonel Milford W. Howard, who was known as the “Vagabond Dreamer” in a book written by Elizabeth S. Howard, a native of Gadsden now living in Fort Payne.
Howard was born Dec. 18, 1862 in northwest Georgia. His family moved to Arkansas, where he worked in a cotton gin. At the age of 13 Howard overheard two lawyers arguing a case, which caused him to decide to become a lawyer.
Howard moved to Fort Payne shortly after the family moved back to Georgia. With less than two years of formal education, he was admitted to the Alabama Bar in 1880. Thereafter, Howard was referred to as “Colonel,” a title applied to lawyers at the time.
Howard is credited with the existence of the Alpine Camp for Boys, the Sally Howard Memorial Chapel and the Scenic Highway (Lookout Mountain Parkway) running the length of Lookout Mountain. His dreams also led to the Comer Scout Reservation, Desoto State Park and Desoto Parkway.
Of political note, Howard served two terms in the U.S. Congress, was nominated for the presidency of the nation, and was seriously considered for governor of Alabama and the U.S. Senate. He wrote several books, one being made into a movie in which Howard played the title role. He was a self-taught lecturer and campaigned for a master school for boys and girls.
For several years, Colonel Howard was a correspondent for The Birmingham News with a Sunday feature, “Vagabond Sketches.” While traveling in Europe, he interviewed the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, which caused him to endorse fascism.
In feeble health and with meager funds, in his last years of life Howard braved freezing weather to oversee and fund construction of the Sally Howard Memorial Chapel in memory of his devoted wife. Located next to Desoto State Park in Dekalb County the chapel is a reproduction of the Annie Laurie Church in Scotland. A giant rock is the solid anchor of this chapel, and Howard’s second wife had his cremated remains entombed in this rock.
Another favorite “Vagabond” was Howard Gardner Nichols, who was born in 1871 in Haverhill, Mass., and died in 1896 in Atlanta, Ga. He was the first superintendent and builder of the Dwight Manufacturing Company and the mill village in Alabama City, where he also served as mayor. Nichols was the eldest child and only son of John Howard and Charlotte Peabody Nichols.
Nichols received the best educational advantages and traveled extensively both in this country and abroad. After graduating cum laude from Harvard University in 1893, the young Nichols joined his father in the cotton manufacturing industry in Massachusetts. Devoting his energy to mastering the technology and the operation of the mills, the young man became renowned for his shrewd business judgment. To his business associates, he was considered to be a prodigy who plunged into his assignments with an intense zeal that resulted in exceptional achievements.
The post-Civil War years saw unparalleled growth of the textile industry in the United States. While still struggling to overcome the ravages of the war and reconstruction, the South in the 1890’s remained a primarily agricultural area, with cotton as the dominant crop. Mills in New England and Europe were the South’s most important cotton markets.
By 1890, many New England cotton mills already had begun considering southern investment opportunities. In December 1894, the Dwight Manufacturing Company announced that the company had selected a mill site in northeast Alabama in Alabama City. The location was at the foot of picturesque Lookout Mountain, which covered a rolling stretch of woods, near the rushing mountain stream of Black Creek.
Howard Gardner Nichols made the final decision for the site of the mill. As a lover of nature and a student of ornithology, the scenic beauty of the area especially appealed to him. Howard scouted the area and established an immediate affinity toward the Black Creek gorge and the Noccalula Falls. He noted the interesting bird life, the enchanting woods and wildflowers, the high ground and the absence of swamps that could threaten the area’s health.
Nichols possessed a paternalistic attitude toward his employees. His proudest achievements were the planning and construction of a mill village to provide comfortable, attractive homes and garden spaces. The streets of the village extended from the north side of the mill, as the spokes of a wagon wheel, into the wooded rolling foothills of nearby Lookout Mountain. Each Victorian cottage was built in a different style, and each was painted a different color. Employees rented these houses for one dollar per room a month.
Nichols proudly declared that the mill village would be a model one, with no concealed weapons or saloons, ample public schools, a public library, a handsome Union Church, a bowling alley, a recreational park and bandstand, a baseball field, lakes and bathhouses and an emergency first-aid station staffed by a nurse and two doctors who would also make house calls in the village.
Before the village was completed, many people who had been recruited for employment at the mill moved to Alabama City in covered wagons and resided at the Camp House until the mill houses were completed. These families brought sickness and epidemics with them.
Since a resident physician had not yet been acquired, Howard Gardner Nichols worked night and day as physician, nurse and undertaker. His interest in their welfare quickly endeared Nichols to the village residents.
Nichols was a devout Christian concerned about the spiritual welfare of his employees. Church and Sunday School were held in the Cloth Room of the mill. Nichols usually attended these services following his attendance at the Holy Comforter Protestant Episcopal Church in nearby Gadsden, where he served as vestryman. He often sang in a quartet or played his violin at the Episcopal Church.
After Sunday School services, Howard Gardner Nichols’ love of nature usually beckoned him to his favorite realm, Lookout Mountain. Nichols would dine at the famous Bellevue Hotel and then stroll through the area enjoying the forests, wildflowers and scores of assorted birds, writing of them in the diary that he kept. Nichols’ favorite meditation spot was on the eastern brow of the mountain that overlooked the country for miles around.
In writing a letter to a friend, he emphasized the beauties of Gadsden. Nichols glowingly wrote of the awesomeness of nature while sitting on a ledge overhanging a precipice several hundred feet above Owl’s Valley. In his letter, Nichols described watching an approaching storm from the north, sunshine in the west and a beautiful rainbow before him arching across the sky.
“What a difference it would make in our lives if we could always live on the top of hills!” Nichols wrote. “Our ills would seem less wearisome and we should always be hopeful, no matter what business worries hung over us in the office. Whenever I am tired out, an hour spent on Lookout Mountain makes me feel like another fellow. Well, the nighthawks are flying about, and whippoorwills are calling from the valley:
Now the day is over, night is drawing nigh Shadows of the evening, Steal across the sky.
If I don’t take advantage of what light is left, I shall have a difficult ride home.”
In May of 1896 a crew at the mill was installing a new electric generator and young Nichols joined them. While making the final move to put the machinery in place, the scaffolding timbers broke, and both the machine and Nichols fell, pinning him beneath it. Nichols suffered severe internal injuries and remained unconscious during the morning as local physicians attended him. A surgeon was called from Chattanooga that operated on him in his cottage. The doctors were not hopeful for his survival but he rallied and a doctor was summoned from Atlanta to assist in his treatment.
A special train moved Nichols to a sanatorium in Atlanta, where he arrived in good spirits and sent greetings to friends in Gadsden and instructions for continuing the work at the mill. Despite the best medical care of the time, Nichols died in June of 1896. Nichols death devastated Alabama City. The Gadsden City Council appointed Mayor R.A. Mitchell and T.S. Kyle to accompany the body to Newton, Mass. After the funeral in Newton, Nichols was buried in Mount Auburn.
Subsequently, the Dwight Manufacturing Company in Alabama City observed a memorial to Nichols each Wednesday at noon when the bell in the tower tolled. In 1897, the Howard Gardner Nichols Scholarship was established at Harvard University, a scholarship that gave preference to boys from north Alabama.
In 1900, two final structures of Howard Gardner Nichols planned model village were completed and dedicated as memorials to him.
One was the distinctive white-columned Howard Gardner Nichols Memorial Library, which became the first public library building erected in Alabama. The other was the lovely Union Church, which featured unique Alpine architecture. Nichols’ sister placed a stained-glass window in the church as a memorial gift. When the Union Church was dismantled years later, the window was moved to a special place of honor at Nichols’ beloved Gadsden’s Holy Comforter Protestant Episcopal Church.