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Quest to preserve Elba’s history reveals need for local museum

In May 2011, a group of historians and teachers came together to begin the process of telling Elba’s history through a book. Just two years later, the group published “Elba: Then and Now, 1853-2013.”

Copies of “Elba: Then and Now, 1853-2013” are now on display at the Elba Public Library.
Photo by Elisha Oyola: Copies of “Elba: Then and Now, 1853-2013” are now on display at the Elba Public Library.

Gilmer said the personal anecdotes from those who grew up in or near Elba were important to capture. Her memories of coming to the downtown theater on Saturdays, as well as others’ recollections, were important to save for future generations, she added.

The pictorial history book was even more significant in Elba as devastating floods in the town over time had destroyed important personal photographs and documents. The Alabama Historical Commission honored the Elba History Committee with a Distinguished Service Award for their research and publication in 2014.

Gilmer said, “We have sold at least 2,000 copies. We sold it for what it cost us.”  Almost everyone in Elba now has a copy, she said, but copies are now given out to anyone curious about what Elba was like long ago. 

Despite the success of “Elba: Then and Now”, Gilmer said the group discovered another issue in the process of compiling the book, the difficulty of finding historical resources and artifacts, some of which had been destroyed by floods.

The Elba History Committee, which originally included Nell Gilmer, chairman, Jean Helms, Collis Parrish, Perry Stinson, John Frank Hudson, Lillie Ward, Eleanor Green, Fred Smith, Jr., and Anna Head Spence, continued to meet.  The old Elba jail, a historic site in downtown area, became the next objective, with the group hoping to renovate the space and turn it into a museum. 

Jean Helms, president of the Elba Historical Preservation Alliance, said they were able to get the jail reroofed and install window protection and doors. However, their efforts were hindered by continued vandalism. Helms said broken windows, smashed locks and littering in the jail was a “heartbreak.”

They next moved their focus to trying to find a space for a museum outside of the jail. The group focused on obtaining 501 (c)(3) nonprofit status, which would allow them to apply for grants to fund a museum. 

Elba’s historic abandoned jail stands near the downtown square.
Photo by Elisha Oyola: Elba’s historic abandoned jail stands near the downtown square.

Now they are waiting on their nonprofit status as well as a price on a building they want to buy in downtown Elba to house the museum.

Helms said the museum will preserve artifacts such as tools, book, maps and Native American items. Many of the items that need a museum home were passed down by families and range from common household items to paintings by local artists.

However, without a museum, Gilmer said, they have nowhere to store these artifacts and have had to turn down offers of items. 

The museum’s focus will be on “education and preservation”, Gilmer said.

In terms of education, the museum could offer visitors and students opportunities to learn how to do things from the past such as churning butter and shucking corn.

As plans are made, the group of citizens working to create the museum realize the need for patience.  “We have struggled and continue to struggle, but we still think it’s worth the effort,” Helms said. 

Peggy Stroud, member of the Elba Historical Preservation Alliance, said getting younger people to join the mostly retirees working on the project would be helpful.

Helms said, “You get to a certain age in life where you learn to be patient. You don’t get discouraged when things don’t happen quickly. We have taken our time with this, and I believe that’s going to pay off.”

She said the group will continue to work to preserve history and share it with future generations whether by writing books, protecting historic buildings or establishing a museum because they are “simply doing what we can do for our hometown to make it a better place.”


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