Country Life in Photos: Making an Axe Handle

Modern hand tool handles are made on an industrial scale, often in small factories by machines running for hours at a time.  This means they’re relatively inexpensive, readily available, and easily replaceable (because the toolmaking industry has created size standards).

But not long ago, when farm folks in particular had more time during the lay-by than cash, tool and handle-making were at-home crafts that required craft skills and patience.

In 1984, Dothan photographer Doug Snellgrove took five pictures of Howard Smith (Hodgesville, AL) demonstrating the steps of making an axe handle.

First, Smith chain-sawed 40-inch lengths of a hardwood log ca. 12 inches in diameter, then split the log twice.  After quartering the log, he selected the best of these “blanks” to shape into a new handle.

Smith then rough-shaped the blank with a hatchet.




Next, he clamped the roughed-out handle under the hold-fast of a shaving horse. He weights the hold-fast with his foot as he shapes the handle with a drawknife.  Although not shown here, he might have finished the handle with a spokeshave, then sanded and oiled it.  To fit the handle into the axe head, Smith whittled it then bonded the pieces together with glue.



Craft woodworking tools (as opposed to factory machinery for woodworking) have changed little since colonial days.  Drawknives and spokeshaves are all metal with replaceable blades, and axes no longer come from the blacksmith’s forge, but the shaving horse is still homemade and the basic work is still the same. (Eric Sloan, A Museum of American Tools [NY: Ballantine Books, 1964]).


According to Ben Ferguson of Florida, a woodworker who makes beautiful bread bowls among other things, a significant improvement has occurred in sanding technology.  Thankfully, according to Ferguson, sandpaper replaced using a rag and shattered glass that cut the worker’s hands.

For more photos of life and nature in the Wiregrass, visit the Doug Snellgrove Photograph Collection at

Book Review: Alabama: The Making of an American State, by Edwin Bridges

bridges_alabama_coverBridges, Edwin C. Alabama: The Making of an American State. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press in cooperation with the Alabama Bicentennial Commission, 2016.  264 pages. ISBN 978-0-8173-5876-1.  Trade paperback $19.95 (accessed November 21, 2016).,6460.aspx

By Marty Olliff, Director of the Wiregrass Archives

I had never planned to review books in this blog, but I’ve taken that liberty for this new state history written by Director Emeritus of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, Dr. Ed Bridges.  When an archivist/historian writes a book, other archivist/historians have an obligation to speak to it.

bridges_retFull disclosure:  I’ve known Dr. Bridges for a long time and deeply respect his integrity, knowledge, scholarship, and contributions to Alabama.  I consider us professional friends, but my evaluation of his work is not clouded by my admiration of his character and abilities.

Dr. Bridges set himself the task of writing a narrative for the upcoming Alabama Bicentennial (December 14, 2019) of Alabama’s prehistory through 2010 that well-educated avocational historians can access.  This means he has eschewed most  academic trappings (such as words like “eschewed”), footnotes, and a thesis-driven argument supplemented by historiographical explorations.  He synthesizes secondary sources rather than analyzing primary sources. His language is easy to read and he uses what some historians have called “sneaky citations” worked into the text, though generally to the most competent recent sources that are readily available.  He includes a short but thorough “Notes on Sources” in lieu of citations or a bibliography and a well-made index.  In the hands of a lesser author, this approach might yield a shallow overview, but this work is as authoritative as it is easy to read.

This book is physically impressive.  It is lavishly illustrated with 167 color and 122 black-and-white images, and is printed on heavy high-gloss paper.  Even the paperback is stitch-bound as if it was a hard back.

It is also well organized.  Dr. Bridges opens with a chapter on Native Americans, “The First Alabamians,” covering about 10,000 years through the excellent archeological sources produced by Alabama scholars.  After a second chapter covering 1700 to 1814 that examines Native Alabamian political and cultural formation and decline in the wake of European contact, Ed gets to his real scholarly strong suit – nineteenth century political history.  Through three chapters on the first century of Alabama statehood, Ed threads the needle of academic and avocational approaches to history.  He devotes two chapters to the twentieth century and follows with an Afterword that his audience should read before and after the rest of the book.

Alabama does not yet need another scholarly overview of the state’s history.  Alabama: The History of a Deep South State by Atkins, Flynt, Rogers, and Ward, now in its second edition, fills that niche at this time.  Instead, Bridges’s book fills a gap in the literature between academic histories directed toward scholars and college students and textbook histories aimed at the 4th grade.  He succeeds admirably in covering with poise and equanimity the state’s successes and its often-self-inflicted problems and failures.

But Alabama: The Making of an American State might disappoint those interested in the post-World War 1 era that was filled with as many significant changes as the nineteenth century.  This is especially true of Chapter 7, “Changing Times,” that covers 1955 through 2010.  Although it opens with a significant overview of the Civil Rights Movement, this chapter is far too hurried, with the sub-section on the economy reading like a litany of changes that beg for more explanation.  Part of the problem here has to do with the available scholarly sources.  There are simply too few that adequately cover Alabama’s history after 1965, a dearth reflected in the two short paragraphs devoted to twentieth-century sources (compared to four long paragraphs devoted to nineteenth-century sources).  It would take a scholar as deeply steeped in contemporary history as Dr. Bridges is in antebellum history to do justice to this era.  This is too much to ask of a single historian.

Even so, the editorial board of the University of Alabama Press rightly presented its McMillan Award for 2016 to Dr. Bridges for this book.  He has produced an exceptional work that belongs on all Alabama bookshelves because it makes an abiding contribution to the historical literature of our state.

The Wiregrass Common Heritage Project

In January 2016, the National Endowment for the Humanities funded the Wiregrass Common Heritage Project (WCHP), a joint venture of the Wiregrass Archives and the Troy University Dothan Campus History Department.

The WCHP hosted two workshops, two community scanning days, and a follow up meeting.

The first workshop, held on May 21 at the Dothan Public Library downtown

Frazine Taylor
branch, was Frazine Taylor’s “African American Genealogical Research in Alabama.” Taylor spent her career as a 1603060448reference archivist at the Alabama Department of Archives and History and is the chair of Alabama’s Black Heritage Council.  Additionally, she authored Researching African American Genealogy in Alabama: A Resource Guide (NewSouth Books, 2008).

The second workshop took place on June 4 at Landmark Park in Dothan.  Dana Chandler, director of the Tuskegee University Archives, presented “Preserving Your Family Treasures.  He

Dana Chandler
explained the physical and environmental threats to papers, photographs, and artifacts, then worked with attendees to properly preserve and record identification information about photographs they provided.

Two Community Scanning Days followed on June 11 and June 25, when community members chose 12 images from their collections to be digitized and added to the collections of the Wiregrass Archives. Participants received a thumbdrive with copies of their scans and archival quality enclosures for their original photographs and documents.  Six donors provided over 130 images, and one donor provided a highschool yearbook and over 200 African American funeral programs.

Scanning Days Scenes:

Scanning Teams, June 11, 2016, Dothan Library

Scanning Team Working with Donor, June 25, 2016, Landmark Park

Scanning Team working with Donors, June 25, 2016, Landmark Park
Finally, on the stormy night of December 5, Project Directors Dr. Marty Olliff and Dr. Robert Saunders met with donors and community members at the Dothan Public Library to summarize the project, point toward future project directions, and share a video made from a number of contributed slides, shown here:

WCHP from Robert Saunders on Vimeo.

Thanks to our funders and partners.

More than Meets the Eye: The Chiriaco Collection, RG 117

Contributed by Anna L. Humphries.

The Wiregrass Archives is home to many mysteries. The Americo C. Chiriaco collection is one, but using rhetorical analysis and literary history to consider the collection offers a new angle for determining a possible explanation.

Amerigo C. Chiriaco compiled a curious collection of lists that now live at The Wiregrass Archives. Chiriaco was born in 1930 and worked for the International Trade Commission. He travelled extensively for work and kept notebook journals of his travels. He eventually retired to Slocomb, AL where he lived until his death in 2003 which led to the procurement of his collection by the Wiregrass Archives in 2004.

Chiriaco notebook cover close-up. Box 1, file 31.

Chiriaco’s journals are interesting because of their seemingly bizarre contents. One might expect to find travel memorabilia and journal entries on personal experiences. Instead, he filled his spiral bound notebooks with meticulous hand-written rows and columns of plants, animals, restaurants, historical sites, sites of interests, and indigenous people along the routes he travelled.  Chiriaco organized the notebooks by region or country, and constructed his lists in alphabetical order. Along with the notebooks on locations of interest, there are reference notes on correlations with highway maps and tourist guides, some of which were also donated with the collection, others of which have been lost.

What was Chiriaco’s motive for compiling all of this information? These are not To Do lists or historical records. There is no obvious purpose for them, yet he spent years creating them. Although these lists seem to be an unsolvable mystery, the answer may lie in the history of literature.

Close-up of first page of Chiriaco notebook. Box 1, file 31.

Strange lists have been found dating back to the third century B.C. and form an ancient genre of literature called “paradoxography.” It has been found in Aristotle’s History of Animals, Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, The Geography of Strabo, Herodotus’s Histories, and catalogues composed by Hesiod. Scholars consider paradoxography in ancient writing to be a preface to science as we know it. The lists of unbelievable animals and people found in new lands and of strange and inexpiable occurrences were modeled after an Aristotelian style of the study of biology. James S. Romm offers explains the purpose of list-making in his The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought. Romm writes:

The rhetorical strategy behind such catalogues can be analyzed at a number of levels. First the matter-of-fact tone of the catalogue helps balance the exoticism of the wonders themselves: The insistence on spare linguistic structures such as the simple assertion of existence, “there is,” creates a veneer of clinical, dispassionate inquiry. Furthermore, the frequent citation of sources which typifies this kind of writing also helps bolster authority- or at least it relieves the author himself, and thereby his audience, of responsibility for assessing the truth…The cataloguer of wonders typically crowds his data into linguistic aggregates rather than distinct units: prolix, hyperextended sentences, or rapid-fire series of clauses. The proliferation of data dislocates its readers and overwhelms their ability to separate true from false, in effect forcing them to “swallow” whole that which would seem incredible if presented piece meal (92-93).

While Chiriaco’s reasoning for compiling his journals is unknown, he shares much with ancient paradoxographers. His writing is related to his travels. He creates a sense of authority by listing detailed esoteric information from economic production to fungi taxonomy. His journals were mostly composed before the internet was widely accessible. Was he striving to create all-inclusive encyclopedias of the world, or was he an aspiring travel book author?  His collection requires more examination, and paradoxography might offer one key to unlocking its mystery.

Discover the Chiriaco Collection online finding aid at

The author, Anna L. Humphries, is a Troy University Dothan Campus graduate who is hard at work on her Master’s degree in English at University of Tennessee — Chattanooga.

“Charles Brooks: Four Decades of Political Cartooning” on Display


As we approach Election Day 2016 and the atmosphere is fraught with charges, counter-charges, debates, and Twitter, The Wiregrass Archives hosts a display of works by Alabama’s master editorial cartoonist Charles Brooks that cover presidential elections from 1960 through 1984.

Brooks became the Birmingham News’s first editorial cartoonist in 1948 after attending Birmingham-Southern College and the Chicagojfk-nixon-al-visit-1960-charles-brooks Academy of Fine Arts, serving in World War II, and drawing gag cartoons for a Chicago ad agency.  He retired from the News in 1985, and in 1998 donated four thousand original drawings to the Birmingham Public Library.

The BPL Department of Archives and Manuscripts chose 42 images for a free traveling display, thanks to the generosity of Tom Sketritt and The Birmingham News.  This sample image shows JFK nervous over Richard Nixon’s visit to Alabama in search of votes in the neck-and-neck 1960 campaign.  Nixon lost, but ran again in 1968 and 1972, when he broke “The Solid South” by winning more than 72 percent of Alabama’s votes.

The cartoons and their explanatory panels will remain on display until November 11, 2016, in the Gallery of Everett Hall on the Troy Dothan Campus.  The exhibition is FREE and OPEN to the public.   Thanks to Jim Baggett and the staff of the Department of Archives and Manuscripts at the Birmingham Public Archives for making this available, and to Dean Christopher Shaffer of the Troy University Libraries for facilitating its transport to Dothan.

Selection of Brooks cartoons for the 1980 and 1984 elections.


Tom Solomon Photographs, RG 146

This post continues our concentration on railroads and the collections concerning them at the Wiregrass Archives.  The Tom Solomon Photograph Collection, RG 146, is one of our favorites.

To call Tom Solomon a “well-known artist and train enthusiast” as his 1988 obituary did is an understatement.  Twenty-eight years after his passing, those who knew him and his work in the Wiregrass still talk about him, and there is an ongoing discussion about this missing paintings.


Solomon was a draftsman by trade, working for the Atlantic Coast Line and the Florida East Coast Railway.  But he was a painter and photographer whose collection at the Wiregrass Archives (all photos, even of his paintings) was the basis for Railroading in and Around Dothan and the Wiregrass Region (Arcadia Press, 2004).

Solomon’s photographs record depots up and down the ACL  line.  They capture vignettes of economic and social life of the Wiregrass, like this 1963 image of the  massive stack of agricultural freight awaiting transshipment from Iron City, GA.

Freight depot at Iron City, GA.
And this March 15, 1942, photo of Grimes, AL, residents posing before their tiny depot.  Ms. Julia Smith, Library Director at Troy State University Dothan until she retired in 2005, identified these folks as Chelle Vann Horne, Presley Dasinger, and Kathleen Brookins Smith (her mother).  It’s unclear whether all of the Solomon photos are original (some go back to the early 20th century) of if there are many copy negatives.  But no matter.

Whistlestop station at Grimes, AL, just north of Dothan
This black-and-white photo of his painting of the “Jody” taking on water at Capps Station is certainly original.

Freight depot at Iron City, GA.
He even captured the slow fade of the railroad system as in this 1960s shot of a four-car train on a milk run.  The conductor captures the mail hoop from the stationmaster.  In earlier days, trains passed stations with enough speed that hand-to-hand transfers were dangerous.  Station workers hung the mail ring from a steel pivot arm turned toward the track so the passing train’s own ring-catching arm could grab it.

ACL Conductor McIntosh catching order hoop from Agent H.H. McAilily
In all, the Solomon collection contains 257 scanned images of all things train-related:  depots, people, engines, more engines, wrecks, bridges, and general scenes, all black-and-white (with one exception).  These are available for viewing and use by anyone by visiting the archives of following this link to our online finding aid:

“J. Marion Sims: Carolina Lineage, Alabama Fame”

Dr. Horton

On September 13, 2016, Dr. Tom Horton of Charleston, South Carolina will make a presentation on the role J. Marion Sims and other Carolinians in the settlement of Alabama.


Date:  Tuesday, September 13, 2016
Time:  7 – 8 pm CDT
Place:  Harrison Room, Malone Hall, Troy University Dothan Campus


Dr. Horton says this about Dr. Sims

J. Marion Sims

Long before the state of Alabama was famous for its two-legged exports such as Percy Sledge, Mia Hamm, and Kenny, the Snake, Stabler,  a 35 year-old fellow, slight of build and strikingly handsome, traveled from antebellum Montgomery to New York, and from there to Paris. When he returned briefly 20 years later to visit his many friends, this amazing man was one of the most renown doctors in the world.

James Marion Sims, originally from Heath Springs, South Carolina, grew up in a log cabin with his Scots-Irish parents and grandparents. His birthplace was an easy morning’s horseback ride to the Old Waxhaws region where Andrew Jackson had been born just a half century earlier.

Sims completed his surgical training at Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia and practiced briefly in Lancaster, S.C. His first two patients died and the distraught young practitioner uprooted and moved west where so many of his kin had already gone due to family squabbles and depleted soil. Settling in Mount Meigs, Sims quickly established himself as somewhat of a miracle worker with the life-saving surgeries that he performed.

Sims pioneered numerous operating techniques, instruments, and medical protocols. He devised successful ways to treat cleft palate, ruptures in males, and vaginal fistulas that sometimes accompany difficult, prolonged labor in pregnancy. Hundreds of scientific articles, countless demonstrations and speeches, and at least one textbook made Sims a name known across the Western World.

J. Marion Sims, M.D., as he was professionally known, has been labeled as “the father of Gynecology,” and his creation, The Woman’s Hospital of New York has been copied around the globe. As surgeon to Queen Victoria and Czar Nicholas’s consort, Alexandra, Sims’ place in history is firmly established.

Alabama gave him is professional start.