Along Eastern Valley Road between Bessemer and McCalla, nestled among other houses and businesses, are three unassuming, authentic pioneer homes. Last Sunday, I drove out to see them during the Christmas Heritage Tour of Pioneer Homes, hosted annually by the West Jefferson County Historical Society.
Author note: special thanks to the West Jefferson County Historical Society for inviting me on the tour, and for its efforts to preserve history and share it with others.
The McAdory, Owen and Sadler families settled this land following the Indian Wars of the early 1800s. The houses are a few miles apart, but in pioneer times, they were close neighbors, friends and family, with farm acreage in between. Each started as a modest two-room home, and expanded as children were born.
The self-sufficient farmsteads grew the food they needed, as well as cotton. As many as eight slaves worked the land of each thousand-acre farm.
Many descendants of these pioneer families appear in Alabama and Birmingham history books. Rose Owen, one of the founders of Birmingham-Southern College, grew up in one of the homes.
The houses are furnished and decorated with period-appropriate items for the annual Christmas Heritage Tour. Some items belonged to the original families, and I’ve noted those in the captions.
The McAdory House was built from hand-hewn wood, finished with an adz. The hand-cut chimney stones include sandstone, limestone and iron ore. The kitchen was detached to protect the main house in case of fire. Boys slept in a one-room, freestanding cabin, while girls slept in the main house with the parents. (A room of one’s own did not exist.)
- Thomas McAdory, who came to the area with his father and family in 1818, set up home here by 1840.
- Isaac Wellington McAdory, Thomas’ third son, the only to survive the Civil War, established two schools and became Jefferson County Superintendent of Education.
- Robert McAdory, born here, became the first mayor of Bessemer.
- Thomas McAdory Owen, also born here, founded the Alabama State Department of Archives and History. (As you might guess from his name, the three families married among each other.)
The West Jefferson County Historical Society dedicated one room of the McAdory House on the tour to original family items (see photo at the top of this post.) Those artifacts included intricate quilts and tatted bed linens. Tatting is a durable lace made with knots and loops. Then there’s…
Chamber pots and outhouses—facts of pioneer life.
Next up, the Owen House. At age 19, Thomas Hennington Owen built the original two-room structure for his 17-year-old bride, Malissa Rose Sadler, in 1833. He hand-planed the wainscoting and floorboards with impressive precision, and even forged his own nails from iron ore found on the land.
By 1838, Owen had greatly expanded the two-room home.
Thomas Owen had eight children from his marriage to Malissa and a second marriage, after her death, to Mary Elizabeth Tarrant. The Civil War, illness and infant mortality claimed the lives of all but two children. The war was hard on family finances, too. By the end, they were down to a $3 gold coin.
- Thomas Owen himself was an early industrialist. During the Civil War, he operated a foundry near Tannehill Furnace, along with Thomas Lightfoot Williams, to supply the Confederacy.
- Rose Owen, son of Thomas and Malissa, became a successful merchant. He helped found Birmingham-Southern College and donated the first tract of land for the campus. The Owen Quandrangle is named after him.
- Mary Eugenia, daughter of Thomas and Mary Elizabeth, married Dr. John Sharp Gillesby in her family home. She became active in Birmingham civic and church affairs.
The Owen House was the gathering house among the three pioneer homes, hosting both weddings and funerals in the parlor. In keeping with that tradition, the West Jefferson County Historical Society puts on quite an affair in the Owen Home during the Christmas Heritage Tour, including a dulcimer player.
After touring the first floor, I headed up the stairs to the girls’ room, decked in furniture and accessories of the times. (Author selfie in mirror.)
Now, moving on to the boys’ rooms. The rooms connect today, but the boys’ and girls’ rooms were originally accessible only by separate staircases. This was a protective measure, as travelers often stayed in the boys’ rooms.
Before leaving, I chatted with Connie Grund, a descendant of the Owen family. Her chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution decorated the home for the Christmas Heritage Tour. (If you go next year, ask her about the pinecones.)
Finally, as evening approached, I headed to my last stop on the Christmas Heritage Tour, the Sadler House. There I learned a valuable lesson. The 4 p.m. closing time is, more than anything practical, when a house doesn’t have electricity. The kind tour hosts let me in, but it was too dark for pictures.
So I will return to the Christmas Heritage Tour next year and start with the Sadler House. Will you join me?
To learn more, visit the West Jefferson County Historical Society on Facebook or call 205-426-1633.