(In October 1978, The Evergreen Courant newspaper in Evergreen, Ala. published a lengthy, three-part series of historical articles called the “Early History of the Alabama Baptist Orphanage.” Written by Mary E. Brantley, the first installment of these articles appeared in the Oct. 12, 1978 edition of The Courant. The other two installments appeared in the Oct. 19, 1978 and Oct. 26, 1978 editions of The Courant, respectively. What follows is Part I in its entirety. Enjoy.)
Lest we forget, Evergreen had the honor of having the first Baptist Orphanage located in her vicinity for a period of 30 years.
The idea of establishing a Baptist Orphanage in Alabama was conceived the year 1863. The Civil War brought a destitute condition all over the State and it was not until the 1890 Baptist Convention which met in Fort Deposit, that a committee was appointed to draw up resolutions to be reported back to the Convention.
On hearing the plans for establishing an Orphanage in Alabama, Mrs. Maria (L.B.) Woodson of Selma offered to convey some property valued at $30,000 to the Convention to be held in trust until her death and that she would receive the income from this property during her lifetime. The 1891 Convention accepted this gift with gratitude and at this meeting a Board of Trustees was appointed to advertise for bids from different places desiring the Home and that all pastors appeal for help.
A financial depression during the years 1892 and 1893 did not make this an opportune time for undertaking such a project. There was little interest in this appeal.
From the “Memorial History of the Baptists of Alabama” by B.F. Riley, we read: “Rev. J.W. Stewart agreed without a cent, he would locate a Home temporarily, somewhere, and would get a Godly woman as a matron. Since Rev. Stewart was willing to test this project, he was authorized to do so, and on his return to Evergreen, where he was pastor, he rented a small house, wrote to Mrs. Clara W. Ansley of Butler County to come and take charge of the Orphanage. When three little children appeared, the Baptist Orphans Home of Evergreen opened March 8, 1893.”
In a paper prepared by Dr. L.L. Gwaltney on the life of Rev. John W. Stewart, we find a quotation by Rev. Stewart: “I was pastor of the Evergreen Baptist Church. I furnished a house to shelter the first installment of children. The dilapidated house near the church had been turned over to me as a pastor’s home, but I had just married and I did not want to live in that, so I provided another home for my family and put my new family to be gathered up (the orphans) in the cottage by the church. Birds could easily fly through the roof of the little house. I have often seen the feet of the children plunge through the floor as they were scampering up and down the veranda, but when it is remembered that there was a strong kind woman inside, it was much better than out of doors.” It is thought that this cottage was known as the Weiss house.
Rev. Stewart was made financial secretary and agent for the Home, Mrs. Clara W. Ansley, matron, and Mrs. Jennie Cannon, housekeeper. By November, 21 children had been admitted. A sum of $1,152.43 had been received in cash and other gifts had been sent during this time. The cost per child was about $8 per month. Another cottage had been rented and the trustees were looking for a permanent home for the children.
The name of Louise Short Baptist Widows’ and Orphans’ Home was the name of the charter granted by the Legislature in 1891 because of the gift of Mrs. Woodson, who gave this as a memorial for her mother.
According to the 1894 Convention report given by Dr. A.H. Reid in his book: “Baptists in Alabama” from which most of this article is taken told of the purchase of the Old Rabb Residence with 80 acres of land at $5,000, payable in three annual installments. The first installment would be due on the first day of January, or soon thereafter, when possession was given and the children moved in.
The Rabb residence contained 10 rooms and was a substantial brick structure with some brick outbuildings and was adjacent to the school property known as the Southwestern Alabama Agricultural School on Main Street.
By 1894, 33 children had been admitted to the Home and three had been let out for adoption. It was recommended that every church take an offering for the Home in December to help pay for the buildings and the grounds.
In 1895, the Charter was amended to increase the number of trustees to nine with five of them living in Evergreen. Fourteen children were received this year, eight were sent out for adoption, leaving 35 in the home.
In 1896, the report showed 47 children during the year with 12 adopted. In 1897, the report showed that all school age children attended the Evergreen schools. However, as soon as a school building could be erected on the grounds, all elementary children were taught at the Home but all high school students attended the school next door.
During the first six years, the trustees reported a total of 101 children had been served. In 1899, the garden and field crop was badly damaged by a drought and by hail and food became scarce.
In 1900, the trustees reported there were 66 children in the Home and that $5,820.72 in cash and gifts of clothing and other supplies had been donated. Up until this time, the boys and girls were housed in the same building but a dormitory for girls was urgent and $7,000 was needed to build one and this became a reality in 1902. Seventh-eight children were served that year.
An item appeared in The Evergreen Courant of 1900: “The first death to occur in the Orphanage was a boy, Charles Prather, about 15 years old, in February 1900. As of July 18, 1900, two boys and two girls at the Baptist Orphanage in Evergreen had died. One hundred and thirty-five children had been taken in from 30 counties.” There is a plot in the Old Evergreen Cemetery where a number of the children are buried. Some of the graves have sunken in and no names are on these but there are markers for many of them.
Dr. Reid tells us that the training within the Home was intended to be that of a well-regulated Christian family, the children were required to perform duties, according to their ability, to go to school and attend Sunday School and church.
The boys worked in the fields, which were supervised by Mr. W.A. Davis. His home was down the lane which separated the school property from the Home property. One of the old McCreary homes was also located at the end of this lane. There were horses and mules to be cared for and cows to be milked. In fact, there was much work to be done.
Miss Annie Pearl Cunningham was employed as the seamstress and sewing teacher. When sewing machines became available to the Home, the older girls made all their clothes.
A Board of Visitors was composed of the Ladies of the Evergreen Baptist Church. They visited the Home once weekly to inspect the management and make suggestions for improvements. These ladies raised $75 with which to purchase a much needed cooking range. The citizens of Evergreen also raised $15 and purchased a much needed milk cow.
In 1908, some differences arose between Superintendent Stewart and some of the trustees and Stewart resigned and became financial agent of the Home for one year, after which he and his family moved to Birmingham.
Let’s digress a moment and think of the life of Rev. John W. Stewart as told by Dr. L.L. Gwaltney: “Rev. Stewart was born in Randolph County, Ala., Feb. 20, 1854. His father was Milton Alexander Stewart and his mother was Jane Homes (Stewart). He was of sturdy, Scotch-Irish stock, his paternal grandmother having been born in Dublin, Ireland. He was married on Oct. 1, 1891 to Mary Leigh Cook.”
Mary Leigh Cook was the daughter of John W. Cook (1847-1901) and Elizabeth Henderson Cook (1850-1919). They are buried in the Old Evergreen Cemetery. Mary Leigh Cook had two brothers: J. Henderson and Lewis Cook. She was organist for the Baptist Church at Evergreen when Rev. Stewart became pastor, even though she had not joined the Church at that time. Later, Rev. Stewart baptized her and still later they were married. She was always a faithful helpmate and companion and entered into all his sorrows and joys.
Rev. Stewart’s early education was greatly neglected. According to Dr. Gwaltney’s article: “He had passed his ninth birthday before he entered school out in the country in Fayette County where his parents had moved from Randolph County. Through the help of friends he graduated from Howard College and also Southern Baptist Seminary.”
“After graduation, he became pastor of the Norwood Baptist Church in Birmingham, then later served the Church at Orrville and then Evergreen. It was here that he conceived the idea of founding a Home for orphan children.”
From notes on Dr. Reid’s “Baptists in Alabama,” we know that five men served as Superintendents of the Home from 1909 to 1916: J.A. Brooks, J.W. Dunaway, M.C. Reynolds, C.C. Smith and A.G. Spinks. Some of these men only served a few months and others a few years. In 1913, the home began to receive more children and by 1917 the number had increased to 160. Mr. G.R. Farnham was President of the Board of Managers.
Mrs. Mary Louise Woodson, who made the first donation in 1891, died at the Home on May 26, 1911, at the age of 84. She lived at the Home for the last two years of her life. After her death, her property was sold for $10,000 and invested as an endowment for the Orphanage.
In 1917, the school building that was erected in 1907 was totally lost by fire. Building of any sort was restricted by World War I.
Quoting from Dr. Reid: “It was at this time that the Orphanage found many problems and John W. Stewart, the first superintendent, was asked to return and take over this responsibility again. He found many serious problems including the fire which destroyed a much needed building. He had faced more difficult days in the beginning, so he assumed the leadership with the same faith when there was nothing but a will to succeed.”
Dr. J.G. Dickinson served as pastor of the Evergreen Baptist Church for many years. From “The Sesqui Sentinel Magazine,” pastor Dickinson says that one of the attractions of the Evergreen pastorate is the Baptist Orphanage. He also says: “They sit at the right hand of the pastor, and I call them ‘my right-hand folks.’ The children work in the Home, as children ought to everywhere, but they have time for study and recreation.”
It was in 1917 that the Board of Trustees was increased from nine to 15 members who were W.B. Ivey, R.B. Taylor, E.C. Page, A. Cunningham, J.W. Byrd, J.A. Thomas, R.A. Porter, W.H. Hudson, T.S. Hagood, Mrs. R.M. Hunter, Mrs. Law Lamar, Mrs. M.C. Scott, Mrs. G.G. Newton, Mrs. C.P. Deming and W.M. Murray.
In 1918, the buildings of the Orphanage were: a girls’ cottage, boys’ home, baby house, infirmary, chapel, cow barn and a mule barn. This same year, the Chapel was destroyed by fire.
In 1919, the Legislature established a Child Welfare Department. Supt. Stewart expressed resentment of State interference with a private institution. The loss of the buildings by fire and lack of support had caused some criticism. An investigating committee was appointed by the Baptist Convention. When the 1919 Convention met in Birmingham, a recommendation was made for plans to begin in moving the Orphanage to Troy, Ala. because of the superior educational advantages, and a generous offer of land and money made by the citizens of Troy.
By 1920-21, another building at Evergreen had burned and it became urgent that the building program at Troy be completed as soon as possible. The committee had to borrow $119,000.
Three cottages were completed in Troy by 1923 and the first group of 60 children along with their supervisors were moved to the new home. On June 14, 1923, the remainder of the children were moved with almost all of the staff going along too.
Rev. J.W. Stewart did not want to leave Evergreen to go to Troy but he was retained as financial representative of the Home until 1928. Rev. J.O. Colley became the new Superintendent at the Alabama Baptist Children’s Home in Troy.
In a short while, Dr. Stewart and his family moved back to Birmingham. He and his wife were the parents of six children: Two boys died in infancy, John W. Stewart Jr., Grace, Mary and Crook.
In February 1925, Rev. Stewart had a stroke of paralysis. He recovered from this slightly and was able to walk around on crutches and later by using a walking stick. According to the article written by Dr. Gwaltney, previously quoted, we read: “As time went on he failed to show further improvement and was in a year or two confined to his bed. This proved to be his last illness. However, the cause of his death was not due directly to the paralytic stroke. Ere long he went into double pneumonia and died on Oct. 13, 1928.
“His funeral service was conducted in the Woodlawn Church, Birmingham, by his pastor, Dr. Frank McDonald. He was laid to rest in the Woodlawn Cemetery.”
Dr. W.B. Crumpton in his “Book of Memories” says of the Baptist Children’s Home: “Eternity only will disclose how it has blessed the world and one thing can be said by all: ‘John Stewart, its father, has been faithful. Many a man and woman even now rise up to call him blessed… with a great loving heart he dedicated all his life and powers to the work of his Master. ‘Well done,’ the Lord will say to John at the last.” [Continued next week]