History of governors continuedPublished 9:42am Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Continuing from last week on our study of Alabama’s former governors and their official home county determination, what we have determined is that it is that it is difficult at best to tell what constitutes their home county. We will continue with Barbour County governors since they lay claim to the most. Last week we studied three of their six. John Gill Shorter and William Jelks were born elsewhere but lived most of their adult lives in Barbour. Braxton Bragg Comer was born in Barbour but spent most of his adult life in Anniston, Sylacauga and Birmingham. Their fourth governor was Barbour County through and through. Chauncey Sparks was born in Barbour County, practiced law in Barbour County, served as governor during World War II and died in Barbour County.
Sparks’ term ended an era from 1900-1947 when all of Alabama’s governors were wealthy Black Belters or Birmingham Big Mules. It was a 50 year span where most of the governors, such as Comer and Charles Henderson, not only served a term as governor but were also the richest men in the state. The industrial interests of Birmingham would team up with the large agricultural interests of the Black Belt and select a governor in a boardroom.
It was like a civic commitment for four years for a wealthy businessman to take the job. However, they would make sure that the interests of the Big Mules and Big Planters were protected. In some cases they would protect their own interests. Comer stood in the way of moves to prohibit child labor. He used children in his textile mills. It was not uncommon for children ages 12 to 14 to work alongside their parents in the mills for 60 to 70 hours a week. Some people referred to this era as the Bourbon Era. Whatever you call it there were no paupers serving as governor from 1900-1947.
Big Jim Folsom broke the stranglehold on Bourbon Era governors as World War II ended. Thus the modern era of Alabama governors began.
Barbour County native George Wallace became their fifth governor in 1962. He served four terms. His wife Lurleen was elected governor in 1966. She is Barbour County’s sixth governor. Tuscaloosa County could certainly argue that Lurleen was one of its own. She was born and raised in Northport.
This column is not intended to call into question Barbour County’s claim as the Home of Governors. Instead, the point to be made is that it is hard to decide what determines a governor’s home county. Even going back to our first governor, William Wyatt Bibb, it is hard to decide if he was a resident of Madison or Limestone County.
Even our more recent governors are confusing. Fob James was born and raised in Chambers County, built his business and got elected governor from Lee and now calls Baldwin County home. Gov. Big Jim Folsom was born and raised in Elba in Coffee County, lived his early adult life there, then moved to Cullman County and was elected governor twice from Cullman. Little Jim Folsom, Jr. was born in the governor’s mansion in Montgomery while his daddy was governor, but calls Cullman home.
Speaking of Cullman, in the modern post World War II era they have had three governors, Big Jim Folsom, Sr., Jim Folsom, Jr. and Guy Hunt. The toughest one of all would be Don Siegelman. He was born and raised in Mobile, went to school in Tuscaloosa, settled in Birmingham, was quickly elected Secretary of State and moved to Montgomery and lived there for over 20 years while he held public office. He now calls Birmingham home. Let us call him from Mobile so they will at least have one governor.
After Barbour County’s six, there is a tie for second place between Montgomery and Lauderdale having four each. All Lauderdale’s four were in the early years including one Reconstruction governor. Montgomery’s four are all very legitimate. The four they claim were all born and lived and died in Montgomery. Montgomery is truly second in number to Barbour and under stricter rules may be first. Monroe County has had three governors and now with the modern era Cullman has also had three. Tuscaloosa now joins Monroe and Cullman counties with three with the addition of Dr. Robert Bentley. Although Shelby County might want to claim Bentley since he was born and raised in Columbiana.
Madison and Jefferson have had two governors and because of Reconstruction the State of New York has also had two.