Copyright ©1982, The Anniston Star. Used on this web site by permission.
Bluffton: Cherokee County's boom town gives up ghost
The Anniston (Alabama) Star, Thursday, Nov. 11, 1982
By DAVID STACKS, Star Staff Writer
BLUFFTON--There are no schools, storefronts or passenger-train depots in Bluffton anymore, and only a few scattered Victorian homes remain.
Barely a century after Yankee investors made this hilly southeastern Cherokee County community an iron-ore boom town, only spreading oak and sweet-gum trees remain from the years of once-busy streets and Sunday afternoon family outings.
"It's hard to look at these hills now and tell there was ever anything here," said J. Clyde Davis, 48, a Pleasant Gap cattle farmer who grew up in Bluffton and neighboring Tecumseh in the waning years of prosperity.
"Some of my earliest memories are of a whole row of stores along here," Davis said recently of what now is Cherokee County Road 45, stretching from near Rock Run and Pleasant Gap northeast of Piedmont to the Polk County, Ga., community of Etna.
Little remains today from the glory years of Bluffton. After several years of prosperity in the iron ore-mining industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Bluffton residents dismantled their homes and moved to other communities in Northeast Alabama.
ONLY ORDERLY ROWS of water oak and other hardwood trees have survived the decades. Almost no one calls home the region where geologists from Woodard Iron Co. of Birmingham and Tecumseh Iron Co. -- following Reconstruction -- discovered rich, iron, zinc and other mineral deposits.
The coming. of the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railroad in the 1870's and 1880's signaled to Northern industrialists that mining in the Southern Appalachian Mountains could be profitable, according to letters from Yankee collections.
"Bluffton is the only real boom town of Cherokee County," genealogist Mrs. Frank Ross Stewart Sr. of Goshen wrote in her seven-volume history of Cherokee County, part of it published in 1981.
"It is noted for its mountains, its mineral springs and its Signal Hotel, which was a favorite summer resort during the years of the boom," Mrs. Stewart wrote in Volume 4 of her series, "Cherokee County History." A handful of settlers after the Civil War built houses and a general store. Prosperity came with construction of iron blast furnaces in the 1880s and 1890s, Mrs. Stewart wrote.
NATURAL LITHIUM SPRINGS feeding Hurricane Creek attracted thousands to the Signal Hotel and other resorts during the late 19th century, said Sylvie Prince Davis, 78, who was born in a house between Tecumseh Furnace and Bluffton. "I went all the way through the old hotel when I was a little girl," Mrs. Davis said recently. "The fifth floor was just a place with windows all the way around. You could look out and see mountains for miles." Water from the spring was believed to have healthful effects. "The spring was just past the hotel bluff," Mrs. Davis said.
Ballroom dancing at the hotel was popular, she said. Baptist and United Methodist church groups organized square dances and congregations became the focus of social activities, Mrs. Davis said.
Salem Baptist Church, organized in 1854 across the road from where the Signal Hotel was built, today is one of the few reminders of the boom years. Arrington Chapel Congregational Methodist Church, south of Bluffton near what now is U.S. 278 near Cleburne County, also attracted many members, Mrs. Davis said.
"BACK THEN WE just had preaching once a month at each church," Mrs. Davis said. "When you went to Salem Church or Arrington Chapel, the meeting room would be filled."
Mrs. Davis said she and her girlhood friends -- some still living near Piedmont, Cedartown, Ga., and other cities -- would make day-long treks to take in morning and evening workshop services as well as visit with neighbors and relatives. "Or we would have a party," she said. "Everyone would come. We would walk from Arrington Chapel to my brother's house in Tecumseh, then to Etna and back again in time to seethe train. There were always passengers getting on or off at the depot."
The East Tennessee railroad, making four runs daily from Rome, Ga. to Selma in South Alabama, also stopped at depots at Rock Run and Spring Garden in southern Cherokee as well as Etna, Mrs. Davis said.
"There were a lot of people who rode the trains back then," said Mrs. Davis, who lives near Pleasant Gap with her husband, Paul Davis, 79. "It was great entertainment. There weren't many cars."
ONE OF THE FIRST automobiles in Bluffton was owned by a blast-furnace overseer. "He used to ride everybody all over the place," Mrs. Davis said. "He wanted to do something for us poor folks who had never been in a car before."
Paul Davis said most of Bluffton's about 2,000 residents helped each other in time of need."When a barn burned or somebody needed help they could count on it." the elder Davis said. Helping a sick neighbor with his crop harvest or house-building project was not unusual, he said.
Neighbors also helped the economy to grow as Bluffton's economy boomed, the elder Davis said.
General stores, blacksmith shops, a gun shop and other businesses sprang up around the ore pits and smelting furnaces, Davis said. Sawmills, gristmills and other lumber operations also took root and businessmen traded with distant points by railroad.
But prosperity also brought unwanted elements to the community. Residents felt the need to take law enforcement into their own hands, Clyde Davis said.
"IT TOOK DAYS to get the sheriff from Centre," he said. People had to count on themselves for protection."
Davis said one land-owning cotton farmer and businessman, William A. Smith, was a friend to many in need but he also killed at least eight trespassers intruding on his property near what is known as Smith Hollow.
"If anybody was neighborly to him, he returned the favor," the younger Davis said. "He gave chickens to people who were hungry and money to those down on their luck. You don't forget a man like him."
Smith Hollow is a steep-cliffed valley running through the mountains northeast from Bluffton. It extends into Polk County, Ga., and was the home place for the family of Melton Smith, William Smith's father.
William Smith and several others distributed the fruits of their vineyard and liquor businesses from a hollow tree with a hand bell inside, according to the Sept. 14, 1917, issue of the Centre-based newspaper, The Coosa River News.
Those seeking locally distilled moonshine are reported to have approached the tree, rang the bell and deposited cash in the "Bell Tree" in exchange for moonshine, Clyde Davis said.
IT WAS A DISTRIBUTION system largely based on honor, although there were problem customers, the younger Davis said.
Melton Smith, 67 at his death, was killed in a gun battle in 1892. William Smith, at age 39, died in a fist fight with a business associate in Borden Springs in 1908.
William Smith's son, Robert Smith, was convicted in Georgia and Alabama following two murders, including one in 1917 in which the victim was decapitated with an ax and the remains mutilated, according to The Coosa River News.
Melton Smith and William Smith are buried beneath a 7-foot granite monument in the Salem Baptist Church cemetery along with other family members.
Relatives living in southeastern Cherokee County and near Piedmont visit the graveyard occasionally and leave potted flowers. "A light from our households is gone," says the inscription on William Smith's tombstone. "He was a kind and loving son and affectionate brother."
Historians say Bluffton's decline came quickly at the end of the 19th century. But some residents remained until the Great Depression of the 1930's forced many rural Americans to the cities, Paul Davis said.
"THE PEOPLE WHO invested in the ore furnaces put out too much at too big an expense," Mrs. Davis said. "They just moved too fast."
A tornado touched down in the early 1900's and destroyed a general store, forest property and killed many people, Clyde Davis said. Several years of heavy spring rains brought flooding. Many property owners dismantled their homes and store buildings and moved them to Rock Run, Spring Garden and other communities.
Mining companies returned in the 1950's and 1960's. But geologists decided mineral deposits were not rich enough to begin digging again. In recent years, search teams have passed through Bluffton looking for oil and natural gas pockets.
Today, water-filled ore pits from the 19th and early 20th centuries dot the countryside along Cherokee County Road 45. Varmints of one kind or another live in abandoned wells and old mountainside mining tunnels. Old and dilapidated railroad trestles lie hidden in thick underbrush.
"There still is a lot of iron ore back in these mountains," Clyde Davis said. "But it is a poor grade. I wonder if anybody will ever do anything to get it out."