Carl Elliott came into the world on Dec. 20, 1913, in a log cabin in Franklin County.
His parents, Will and Nora Elliott, were tenant farmers on Gober Ridge, a hard, hilly land named after Will Elliott’s maternal ancestors.
“Everybody in his family had always been farmers. When his parents had him, I’m sure they thought that they had produced another farmer,” said Lenora Cannon, one of Elliott’s daughter.
However, Elliott began dreaming of a political career at an early age. U.S. Rep. William Bankhead encouraged his aspirations during a campaign stop in Vina when Elliott was 8 years old.
While Bankhead, who hailed from one of the state’s most powerful political families, was to the manner born, Elliott had little reason to believe that he belonged in Washington, D.C.
Still, he held onto his dream for 26 years and in 1948 was elected to represent Alabama’s 7th district in the U.S. House of Representatives. The slogan for his first campaign was “From Farm Boy to Congress.”
Although a Congressional career took Elliott far from the land of his birth, his roots sustained him throughout his life.
“When he came home from Washington, he would often say that he had to go to Franklin County. He just wanted to go back there even though he couldn’t stay very long. I think he drew strength from that,” said Mary Jolley, Elliott’s longtime friend and assistant.
The road that led Elliott away from Gober Ridge was paved with books.
His grandmother taught Elliott to read when he was 4 years old using the Bible.
Although reading materials were in short supply in Franklin County, a Baptist preacher named Robert Rea made his personal library available to Elliott. The boy was allowed to take home two books a week and had worked his way through the entire collection — 100 books in all — within a year.
In an April 1960 library bulletin, Elliott reported that he had continued to read two books a week since 1928. Not even the Army or World War II could deter him from maintaining his average.
“I enjoyed reading a lot more than blackjack and incidentally found reading much more economical,” he said.
As a Congressman, Elliott opened up access to books for a new generation of rural children with the passage of the Library Services Act.
Elliott’s years on Gober Ridge also taught him the importance of an education. He saw hardworking men like his father dedicate every ounce of sweat they had to their farms and still lose them to foreclosure.
Elliott graduated from Vina High School when he was 16. He was the first in his family to complete his education.
In September 1930, with the dark clouds of the Great Depression hovering over the country, Elliott set out on foot for the University of Alabama carrying everything he owned in a cardboard box and $2.38 in his pocket.
“He went through very difficult conditions to get his college degree, things like living in a building without electricity for a year. Who would do that today?” Cannon said.
Elliott could legitimately say that he worked his way through college. Shortly after setting foot on campus, he had secured three jobs.
“He used to say that he had the ability to work hard. He would say, ‘What am I going to do if I go home? I might as well stay here and try to get through,’” Jolley said.
Elliott would later claim that getting a college education was his biggest personal achievement.
Professionally, it was the National Defense Education Act, which provided low-interest college loans and had opened the doors of higher education to more than 20 million students by the time of his death in 1999.
Because of Elliott’s example, his eight brothers and sisters also went on to become college graduates.
Although the Elliott family was large by today’s standards, they were a tight-knit group.
When they were scattered during World War II, he helped everyone keep in touch by writing and circulating family newsletters.
When his duties in Congress kept him away for long periods of time from his wife and children, he facilitated bonding through family council meetings, which included the taking of minutes and votes.
“We would talk about all sorts of things, from what kind of car we were going to get next to so-and-so said they needed an increase in their allowance,” Cannon said.
At Christmas, the extended Elliott family gathered at the Franklin County homeplace, a tradition that continues to this day.
Elliott’s nieces and nephews could always expect to receive a silver dollar from him for getting all A’s at school.
That reward was coupled with the requirement to sit through a family history lesson before any presents could be opened.
“Because of the importance to him of his family and roots, he was always interviewing people about their families. Anybody he met, he would say, ‘Who were your folks?’ and he could almost always make a connection,” Cannon said.
In addition to his autobiography, “The Cost of Courage,” Elliott also authored the multi-volume “Annals of Northwest Alabama” as well as histories of Red Bay and coal mining.
The sharp mind that allowed Elliott to retrieve names and dates he had heard years before would be useful to him in areas other than genealogy.
“One thing I’ve been blessed with in my life is a pretty good memory,” Elliott wrote in his memoirs. “It helped me when it came to counting votes in Congress. And it’s helped me understand how I grew up, what parts of myself came from the people who raised me.”