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George Hartsell gives city its name

Namesake’s descendants still live in area today 

By Bruce McLellan  

For the Enquirer  

Bettye English remembers the springhouse where William Chunn Hartsell’s descendants kept dairy products cool without electricity. 

Diana Sparkman recalls the grand house built by Jacob Hartsell that stood for nearly a century. 

Those memories are part of the legacy left by Jacob and William’s father, George Hartsell, who left North Carolina almost 200 years ago and eventually settled in western Morgan County. An estimated three dozen of George Hartsell’s descendants still reside in the county, and the city of Hartselle carries the family name, albeit with an “e” added to the end. 

“They were the first real settlers in here of the property that wound up being incorporated in the city limits,” local historian David Burleson said of George Hartsell and his wife, Delany. “When he died, he had about 600 acres of land – pretty much everything in the north part of Hartselle where the city cemetery is.” 

In his booklet, “Hartsell before the ‘E,’” Burleson writes that George Hartsell was born May 7, 1802, in North Carolina and married Delany Morgan between 18221824. They arrived in Morgan County probably in the early spring of 1834 – 187 years ago. 

George and Delany had five children before moving to Alabama and would add seven more, with one unnamed as an infant. After starting with 40 acres, they eventually owned as much as 800 acres before deeding almost 200 acres to two sons.  

Their property, at its largest size, stretched from what is now northern Sparkman Street to east of southern Indian Hills Road. 

William Chunn Hartsell was deeded property where Roberts Catfish Lodge would later be built, east of Indian Hills Road. His family had a springhouse slightly west of the future catfish restaurant, and English, now 85, remembers being fascinated by it as a child in the late 1930s. 

“I loved to go back there where the springhouse was,” she said. “The water was piped from the spring up in that bluff into the springhouse … That was where they kept their butter and their milk products. 

“It was a building at the back of the house. It was logs and screens,” she said. There was a vat where the water ran into it. They could stick the things down in that water. It was always cold enough that it kept their food cold.” 

A TOWN’S NAME 

George Hartsell’s property became one of the places in the county “where people came together,” Burleson writes, and by 1853 George Hartsell’s home was used as a voting place. The general area eventually was referred to as Hartsell’s — even though Scott L. Rountree and John Brown Stuart had more to do with developing what became the downtown business center of the future Hartselle, Burleson explained. 

“George didn’t really found the town; he was just the namesake,” Burleson said. 

In his pamphlet, Burleson writes that the city was founded in 1870 and was officially incorporated by the state as Hartsell in 1875, but the town’s spelling remained unsettled into the early 1900s. 

The area that became Hartselle was commonly referred to as Hartsells and Hartsell’s in the 1800s. Late in that century, the federal government dropped the use of apostrophes in place names, according to Burleson, and that made Hartsells often show up on official documents, even though residents had started replacing the s on the end with an e. 

Maps from as late as 1918 still show Hartsells as the city spelling, and Burleson has postcards from the early 1900s with “HARTSELLS” as the official postmark. But by 1920, the spelling Hartselle had become accepted for the city – although many in the family stuck with Hartsell. 

MAIN STREET HOME 

In addition to William Chunn Hartsell, another son of George and Delany Hartsell who still has descendants in Hartselle was Jacob. 

Sparkman, Jacob’s great-granddaughter, said he “built a gorgeous house on Main Street” in Hartselle in 1887. Jacob’s daughter Ellen, who became Sparkman’s grandmother, and her husband, Charlie “C.C.” Doss, were married in the house. Jacob “sold them and deeded them this big house in 1894,” Sparkman said. 

“Charlie and Ellen had 10 children and raised them in that house. It was beautiful,” she added. “During urban renewal, a group of people in town worked with my one aunt that still lived in the house to save Main Street and keep all of the trees from being torn down. Our house was put on the historical register. A lot of the stuff in it was very old and very beautiful.” 

Sparkman and her sister, Jean Kerr, planned to restore the house, but before they could, a fire destroyed it in the early 1980s. 

But not all the memories were destroyed. 

“I have the original brick from that house,” she said, “and I built a home 35 years ago, and all the brick in that house is from there. It’s beautiful brick.” 

Sparkman, who was born in the aftermath of World War II as part of the Baby Boomer generation, said she didn’t fully realize and appreciate her family’s role in the city’s history while growing up because her father – attorney Merrill Doss, the baby of Charlie and Ellen Doss’ children – didn’t want to boast about his background. 

After the Main Street house burned, Sparkman helped her father clean up. 

“Doing that in the early ’80s, I saw the whole history of the house,” she said. “When I found all the deeds and the stuff (for the Main Street house) and realized the connections of my grandmother — my grandmother that I knew, who never told me any of this — it was really fascinating. 

“I have cousins that live all over the Southeast, and they always told their families and their friends that we were the founders of Hartselle, and I always just laughed because I really didn’t know much about it.” 

Sparkman also has connections to another well-known figure in Hartselle’s past. She is married to Michael E. Sparkman, and his father, Coy Sparkman, was a second cousin of longtime U.S. Sen. John Sparkman. She said she is humble about the heritage. 

“I just enjoy living in a small town and enjoy the beauty of a small town. My grandfather was a merchant, and then my dad was a small-town lawyer who helped everything and everybody. 

“We used to get paid out the back door with a pecan pie, or a painter would come and paint our house because my daddy did something for him. It was like that in small-town Alabama when I was growing up. I see a lot of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ actually.” 

BACK TO ROOTS 

Lee Hartsell seems like a natural to be a lifelong resident of Hartselle. He’s a descendant of the city’s namesake, and his last name retains the original family spelling. 

But Hartsell, 77, has actually lived in the city less than half of his life and might never have moved to the city if it hadn’t been for a friend, Lynn Layton, in Decatur.  

The two men had been friends in Tarrant before Layton moved to Decatur to run an auto dealership he had purchased. 

Hartsell was superintendent and a former principal in the Tarrant school system in 1984 when Hartselle needed a superintendent. That’s when Layton became involved. 

“He heard about the opening,” Hartsell said. “He called the board president, and then he called me.” 

Hartsell applied for the job and got it. 

“If it hadn’t been for Lynn, I’d have probably never even known about it,” said Hartsell, who served 21 years as superintendent before retiring in 2005. 

Hartsell’s father, Charles Herschel Hartsell, was born in Austinville, but Lee Hartsell’s grandfather, Charles Hicks Hartsell, worked for the L&N Railroad shop when it closed in Decatur and transferred to Birmingham, taking his family with him. Charles Herschel Hartsell became a firefighter in Birmingham before turning a part-time job at a plant nursery into ownership of the business and later overseeing grounds at UAB. 

Lee Hartsell said growing up he was more familiar with the Meadows family of his grandmother Jimmie Ruth Meadows Hartsell than with his Hartsell kin. He attended Meadows family reunions regularly at Delano Park. 

“The only time I ever came to Hartselle, it was in ’81 or ’82,” he said. “We played Hartselle in the semifinals in baseball and beat them two straight here and won the state championship the next week.” 

Since moving to Hartselle in 1984, Hartsell and his wife June have lived in the same house and brought some of the namesake family back to its roots. His daughter Julie Hartsell Rhodes is the librarian at Hartselle Intermediate School. His son James lives in Hartselle and is the father of Jonathan Joel-Lee Hartsell and grandfather of Samuel James Otis Hartselle, part of the newest generation of the historic family. 

11 HARTSELL DESCENDANTS 

Carolyn Johnson, 78, is descended from George Hartsell’s son William Chunn. Her father was Hilton Hartsell. 

She, her children and her grandchildren account for 11 descendants of the city’s namesake living in Hartselle. She and her husband of 59 years, Kenneth Johnson, have three children and seven grandchildren living in the city. 

She said she’s never thought about living anywhere else. 

“I never have thought about leaving. I guess I’m here for the duration,” she said. I like just the closeness, the kindness of the people, caring people. It’s a small enough town that you have people who really care about you. You get to know people.” 

She said when she was growing up in Hartselle, people would do a double-take at her last name. 

“Everybody just kind of looked at you. They’re interested. They think it’s really interesting and want to know a little bit about it,” she said. “I’m very proud of my ancestors. I’m very proud of the town, and I’ve always loved all the people and the schools.” 

MORE MEMORIES 

Bettye Sanders English is also descended from George Hartsell’s son William Chunn Hartsell. One of William Chunn’s daughters was Fannie Hartsell Stephenson, and Fannie’s daughter Purnie Stephenson Sanders is English’s mother. 

One of the brothers of English’s grandmother was James A. “Jim” Hartsell, who lived on Main Street with his wife, Ruby, when English was a student at F.E. Burleson School. 

“When they would have fried chicken and chocolate pie for lunch, Aunt Ruby would call my mother and say, ‘Tell Bettye to come over for lunch today.’ I would walk just two blocks from school and have lunch with them when they would have fried chicken and chocolate pie,” English said. 

Jim worked for the post office delivering mail on foot in Hartselle. “He was known to deliver the mail twice a day because I guess there were so few citizens in Hartselle at that time,” English said. 

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