A Look Back at George Hartsell
The histories of the South and North Alabama Railroad and that of Hartselle are inextricably linked. If there had been no “South and North,” there would have been no Hartselle – not, at least, as we know it today.
Teachers frequently warn their students against excessive reliance on Wikipedia as they do research on papers they might be assigned to write in school. This would be especially true if they were writing about their hometown. The author of the Wikipedia page on Hartselle writes that our city “takes its name from George Hartsell, one of the railroad’s [the South and North Alabama Railroad] owners.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Neither Mr. Hartsell, nor any of his fellow Hartsellians, had any connection with the railroad; however, in order to boost prospects for the development of the new municipality, Mr. Hartsell, Dr. S. L. Rountree and other early leaders were very willing to go along with the railroad’s wishes, even with regard to the location of the town.
When families first began to congregate in an area of north Alabama that, before then, had been sparsely settled, the men who were into retailing built their general merchandise stores, blacksmith shops, livery stables and more approximately a half-mile north of the current site of downtown Hartselle.
The South and North management advised local businessmen the slopes that were prominent features of the original location rendered it unfeasible as a site where trains could load more coal for their engines or where passengers could load and unload.
It was June 18, 1870, that the first train run was made through Hartselle. Next year will mark the sesquicentennial of this historic event.
George Hartsell was a successful retailer, and when he passed away not too long after the town named for him got started – Oct. 7, 1872 – a lengthy period of time was required to settle up his business and personal affairs. A newspaper report published in 1874, obviously not the first, said another statement related to his estate had been filed in the Morgan County probate court. The statement indicated Hartsell had monetary assets of about $2,300 when he died.
These assets would amount to about $50,000 today.
In those deflated times, most people – who were small farmers – had very little cash money. They would grow most of the things they needed and might or might not have some money in their pockets when they sold their crops and paid what they owed for the cottonseed and fertilizer they had purchased in the spring.
In the early 1880s, Hartsell’s estate still had a lengthy list of beneficiaries as named in the will that was filed in the Morgan County probate court when he died.
One of George Hartsell’s sons did something substantial with the money he got from his father’s estate. He built a fine home for his family on East Main Street. Jake Hartselle, his wife Judy and their family lived in this residence for a long time.
When her parents passed away, Ellen, the daughter of Jake and Judy Hartselle, purchased the home.
They definitely put everything they had into making this a Hartselle showpiece. In time it came to be known as the Doss House, as Ellen Hartselle had married Charles Doss. This home survived until December 1984, when it was virtually destroyed by fire. Its remnants were moved in early June 1985.
Hartsell was a community-minded man, and the town’s first school, a one-room learning site, was located on his property.
Oct. 6, 1872, the Bethel Baptist Church was established. Its founders were Hartsell and the Rev. J. D. McClanahan.
McClanahan would outlive Hartsell by many years. The number of people who attended Bethel’s first service was an even dozen.