The Vagabond: An early local journalist

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By Danny Crownover

Alfred Gregory Lee helped established one of the first newspapers in Etowah County. He was a printer, a newspaper editor, a Washington, D.C. news correspondent, a reporter and one of the most prolific writers of letters and postal cards in the United States.

A member of an old pioneer family of Etowah County, Lee’s first employment at a newspaper was on The Republican Union, which was first published in Cherokee County by P.J. Smith, who later became proprietor of the Kittrell Hotel in Gadsden.

When The Republican Union moved to this area, Lee came with it and stuck to his typesetting. He was self-educated and an omnivorous reader. His first job as a reporter was with The Pick and Shovel, a breezy weekly newspaper published in Attalla by Frank L. Moragne.

From a young age he dreamed of being a famous writer, and at the age of 26, he already had the confident that he indeed was one. However, the October 1887 edition of the Tuscaloosa Gazette thought otherwise:

‘Alabama’s famous journalist A.G. Lee will attend the Piedmont Exposition in Atlanta. He will write a full account of it for The New Age.’

“The above [passsage] was written by Mr. Alfred G. Lee, ‘Alabama’s famous journalist,’ and mailed to us from Attalla. This gentleman may be famous, but we confess that we never heard of him before. If he was not ‘famous’ before, he is famous now for the vast amount of cheek he possesses. If Mr. Lee had sent a request to us to publish a piece about his article on the Piedmont Exposition, it would have been all okay. But he takes occasion to bring Alfred forward as a famous man. We must confess to a vast amount of ignorance in saying that we never heard of Alfred or The New Age before. We will mail Mr. Lee a copy of this paper containing this notice and hope he will favor us with a copy of The New Age containing his write-up of the Piedmont Exposition.”

In 1900, Lee moved to Denton, Texas, where he purchased one acre of ground and attracted much attention by proposing to erect a monument to John D. Rockefeller, the richest man in the nation. He wrote letters to thousands of people, and soon his project was receiving much publicity.

Lee soon organized the National Mining, Manufacturing and Colonization Association. He then proposed to organize a university to be located within the exact geographical center of the United States. Lee got a lot of fun out of his projects, as he was smart enough to write entertainingly about them.

Lee corresponded with every sort of person in every imaginable corner of the country, always with the view of amusing and entertaining himself. When he was approaching the allotted three score and ten, he came home and established a store behind the steel mills in Gadsden. He bought the highest plot of ground he could find and called it the area “Lee’s Peak.”

In thousands of letters, he wrote to people all over the world. He described his “Peak” and what he wanted to do with it in such an entertaining fashion that columnists everywhere began to write about it.

Lee wrote to crowned heads, dictators, politicians, senators, congressmen, governors, capitalists, state legislators and the rich and poor who might be currently in the limelight, just to get their reaction to his dreams. Lee phrased his letters in such a way as to almost guarantee an answer every time. His imagination knew no bounds, which would have made him a great writer of fiction, but so far as anybody knew, he never entered that field.

Lee’s friends, which included local writer Will I. Martin, claimed that he probably got a good laugh out of the world, if nothing else.

Lee was born on May 11, 1861 at Greasy Cove in Etowah County and died at the home of his brother, Ingram Lee, near Attalla on June 4, 1932. He is buried at Conn Cemetery in Gallant.

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