Students at Fairhope Intermediate School are getting a unique chance to learn about local history each year through exploring the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation Cemetery. Also known as the Colony Cemetery, the 2019 tours (April 30-May 8) are led by Darby Wiik, Interim Director at the Fairhope Museum of History.
Bob Glennon, editor of the Friends of the Fairhope Museum of History newsletter, attended one of the tours along with over 70 students and chaperones one morning: “The students were really engaged; it was clear they were learning and excited about it,” Glennon said.
Wiik started the tour by demonstrating how to respectfully walk around the headstones then asked the students a series of questions to get them thinking about how Fairhope came to be. With the goal of utopia in mind, Fairhope was founded by 28 people including nine children on Nov. 15, 1894. They were led by Iowa native and the first Fairhope Courier writer and editor, Ernest Berry “E.B.” Gaston.
The first graves visited were that of E.B. and his wife, Clara Mershon Gaston. The group discussed communication methods and ideas popular in the late 1800s. They moved on to the grave of James Bellangee, Gaston’s mentor, who is credited with helping select the location for Fairhope from other possible sites in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and north Mobile County.
With the help of colorful garden markers, students located graves, studied names and considered birth and death dates to draw conclusions about family relationships and timelines. The group learned about John Hunnell, the first death in the new colony (1895) as well as Marie Howland who is credited with founding the first library building in the state of Alabama in her home in the new community of Fairhope.
They discovered the grave of a child lost by Marietta Johnson (founder of the famed Organic School of Education) and her husband, John Franklin Johnson (Fairhope’s second mayor), a tragic accident when he was only two years old. Other Fairhope “firsts” were discussed while visiting the final resting places of members of the Mershon family including the community’s first postmaster, first school teacher, first doctor and more.
Within 45 minutes or so, about a dozen stories of early Fairhope were covered. After “meeting” Lydia Comings, Harris Greeno, William Eernisse and more, the tour came full circle by ending with two more generations of Gastons: Arthur Fairhope Gaston, E.B. and Clara’s fifth child, known as the first baby boy born to the new colony (1896), and his son, Ernest “Barney” Gaston, a WWII fighter pilot killed in the line of duty (1944). The town of Sivry, France, credits Gaston for saving their community.
The cemetery is private and is owned by Fairhope Single Tax Corporation.
For more information, contact Darby Wiik, Fairhope Museum of History, 24 N. Section St. Fairhope, Alabama 36532 or call 251-929-1474. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, admission is free.
Photo by Bob Glennon.
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