There’s a place here in Marion County called Pearce’s Mill that time has not forgotten. The mill community, named for the family that ran it, is being rendered back to nature by time and decay.
Vines, weeds and trees now surround the 19th-century buildings, hiding the former majesty of the once-thriving community. Pearce’s Mill in central Marion County is not even a ghost of its former self.
The history of Pearce’s Mill is a microcosm of early Alabama history and the history of America itself.
The Pearces are a family of French descent that settled in Virginia and moved south, then west, in the early 19th Century. In 1846, John M.W. Pearce moved from Paulding County, Ga., into Marion County.
John Pearce was a part of that great mass of humanity who caught “Alabama Fever” after the local Native American populations were removed to Indian Territory in the 1830s. John Pearce, with his sons and slaves, would build an empire known as Pearce’s Mill.
He built a dam and water-powered mill on Brush Creek that empties into the Buttahatchee River. Later, he built a larger dam and mill nearby on the river. His mills became the hub of commerce for the local population and soon, like spokes on a wagon wheel, all roads led to Pearce’s Mills.
As John Pearce grew older, his sons, including James Pizaro “Jim” Pearce, born in 1843, began to take over operations of the mills. But theirs would not be an easy road. After Alabama seceded from the Union in January 1861, Jim Pearce joined the Confederate army in July. Jim Pearce enlisted in Company G of the 16th Alabama Infantry at age 18. The 16th Alabama was in the thick of the fighting at the Hornets’ Nest during the Battle of Shiloh on April 6-7, 1862. One hundred sixty-two men of the 16th were cut down at the battle that became known as “Bloody Shiloh.”
Later, Jim Pearce was appointed second lieutenant of the 5th Alabama Cavalry that was under Gen. Phillip Dale Roddy’s command. Roddy, incidentally, is one of five Civil War generals buried in Tuscaloosa. His grave is in Greenwood Cemetery.
During the brief, but violent, interlude of the Civil War, the Southern economy was devastated and Pearce’s Mill was plundered by Yankee armies. Jim Pearce’s brothers, searching for new post-war opportunities, continued the western migration and moved to Mississippi and from there, on to Texas.
After the war, Jim Pearce returned to Marion County minus one eye and began to rebuild and resurrect the Pearce’s Mill economy. Local legend has it that Jim Pearce’s first act upon returning from the Civil War was to paint all the buildings at Pearce’s Mill red and gray to show his continuing loyalty to the Confederacy.
Jim Pearce increased his holdings to include 68,000 acres that consisted of a flour mill, gristmill, cotton gin, sawmill, planer mill, a huge general store and blacksmith shop. The homes of numerous sharecroppers dotted the area and created a thriving community.
The hub of activity at the Pearce’s Mill Community was the huge two-story general store that served numerous sharecroppers in the area. In “Heritage of Marion County,” Allen Dwight Cochrane, son of Pearce’s Mill overseer Ellison G. Cochrane, described the inside of the store as he saw it when he was a boy.
All items needed to survive were sold in the store, including salted meat, gallons of castor oil, sacks of salt and barrels of flour. A drugstore sold everything from calomel tablets to cough syrup, mentholatum, syrup of figs, quinine and asalatum with rhubarb for colds. All items needed for farm animals were available, including harnesses, collars, bridles, singletrees, doubletrees, bits, trace chains, bridle reins and driving reins.
Cochrane describes a huge mirrored ball that hung from the ceiling so anyone upstairs could be easily seen. He also describes baseball games that took place in a nearby field.
“During the summer months men at Pearce’s Mill and adjoining farms played baseball in the pastures. Women fixed a picnic lunch. Negro sharecroppers talked to each other in whoops and hollers, which made it simple to communicate over long distances. Negro and white children quickly learned this language.“
Marion County continued to grow, and the seat of government at Pikeville was too small and remote to handle the county’s growth. Because of its central location in Marion County, Pearce’s Mill was briefly considered for the county seat.
But the new seat of government was moved to a small tollgate north of Pikeville that became known as Hamilton, which was named after Confederate Capt. A.J. Hamilton.
For a while, Pearce’s Mill continued to thrive, and Jim Pearce married Elizabeth “Betty” Clark and raised a family. His first son, Clovis, was kicked in the head by a mule at age 10 and died in 1878. Jim Pearce’s second son, Augustus, went to the University of Alabama where he played baseball in the 1880s.
Gus Pearce died at age 39 in 1911 of acute alcoholism at an alcohol center in Memphis. One of his sons fell from the mill dam and died.
Jim Pearce’s third son, Marvin Pearce, played football at the University of Alabama in 1895. Alabama went 0-4 that year and Pearce transferred to the agriculturally inclined Alabama Polytechnic Institute at Auburn. Marvin Pearce played football there, where he lettered in 1896 and 1897.
After college, Marvin Pearce returned to Marion County and was the first man to own a gasoline-powered vehicle there.
Meanwhile, his aging father hosted Confederate veteran reunions in Hamilton. At one of the last reunions on Aug. 6, 1904, he made a speech that was “full of logic, good sense and good advice,” stated the Marion County News.
At that meeting, Pearce introduced future Alabama governor W.W. Brandon of Tuscaloosa. Brandon spoke for two hours and “held his audience spellbound by his words of matchless oratory,” the paper stated.
The two-story warehouse has collapsed, and the 14-room house that Jim Pearce built has been engulfed by undergrowth.
The owner of the property, Bill Strickland, said that not only time, but also vandals have taken their toll on the site. For that reason Strickland placed a gate blocking access to the historical site.
Strickland said that he and Donald Crow mow and cleanup the Pearce’s Mill Cemetary each year for decoration, “But no ever comes anymore,’ Strickland said. “They used to, but there hasn’t been anyone down there in a couple years. Everybody that’s got any kinfolks buried down there have just about all died out.”
Strickland said he is proud to own such a historical spot in Marion County.
“It’s amazing to me all that happened here and all that went on back in those days.”