Morrison pursues Walker County history puzzle piece by piece
by Margaret Dabbs
Oct 06, 2010 | 3941 views | 0 0 comments | 37 37 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Retired teacher and coach Pat Morrison
Retired teacher and coach Pat Morrison
Summer nights in the '60s were spent outside playing hide-and-seek with all the other kids in the neighborhood. The best games started just after dark and reluctantly ended when the first parent stood at the door and called the first kid home.

As the only girl in a family of four children, my brothers did not dare take steps to single me out and scare me on these steamy, mosquito swarmed nights. But their friends were happy to step in and do my brothers' dirty work so Daddy did not have to get involved and make good on his threat to punish them if they tormented me.

With age I began to wise up to these pranks and never stepped a foot out of the house after dark without my flashlight. This "weapon" inspired confidence and allowed my participation in the night games to continue. But it also attached a new nickname, "Flashlight." Almost 50 years later, I always keep a flashlight accessible in the car, in the purse, and in a drawer in the nightstand.

I recently met a new friend while taking an informal tour of the Burton Building and discovered we have the flashlight carrying habit in common. While I have always carried mine as a protection from the dark, Pat Morrison keeps his handy for exploring old buildings and diligently digging up and collecting bits and pieces of Walker County history.

Born at home on shotgun row in Jasper, Tenn., Pat played football for and graduated from Middle Tennessee State University. He was an assistant football coach at Columbia High School for a year before coming to then-named Walker County High School in 1968. He and his wife Helen planned to stay here for two years and then return to Tennessee so he could take a high school head football coaching job. But when the time came to make the move back home, the Morrisons looked around, saw that life was good here, and never left.

Pat's tenure at Walker High School lasted 34 years and he wore many hats as he developed an almost reverential reputation at the school. He was an assistant football coach most of those years, coached B-team basketball for 12 years, baseball for five years, cross country and track for 20 years, and served as athletics director for five years.

Growing up in a family of collectors, Pat collected Army insignias as a boy, then moved on to antique tools and stained glass. But he always kept an eye out for old penny postcards that his brother might add to his extensive collection, which at its maximum grew to number about a million. Over the years as he helped his brother collect, Pat would casually toss the occasional Walker County postcard he came across into a desk drawer at school and immediately forget about it.

As he cleaned out this drawer when he retired in 2000, Pat found the cache and a new plan was hatched. He realized his life as a collector would shift to focus on these small postcards that open big doors as they offer so many details and tell so many stories about the past. Further fuel was added to this newborn pursuit when a former student gave him 20 of these postcards that were purchased from a local estate. Pat smilingly admits he was "hooked on local postcards" from that point on. He looks past the technical term for collecting postcards and describes it in his down-to-earth manner as "an addiction to the collecting and saving of local history."

In the early years of producing postcards, individuals did not have their own cameras. A professional photographer would take photos of homes, families, and businesses. Printing 100 for one dollar, they became known as penny postcards and were multi-purposed. They might have a business purpose as an advertisement or simply be a way to share how successful you were or to display your handsome family.

In pursuit of these compact history savers, Pat has traveled to about 50 postcard shows all over the country and only found about three Walker County postcards. For example, a postcard show in Ashville, N.C., would include 25 to 30 dealers and five to six million postcards and it would be rare to find one Walker County postcard. While Pat's total collection of postcards numbers about 30,000 to 40,000, only 500 of these are Walker County postcards.

Pat discovered the best place to find Walker County postcards is right here at home. Some were saved by the recipients and others by those who ordered them. Pat has success at estate sales and former students come across them or offer ideas when they hear of a potential find.

With his sincere charm and ease of conversation, Pat has been given access to trunks in dusty attics and musty cardboard boxes in crumbling storage buildings. He has been invited to search where others were sometimes politely, and sometimes not so politely, turned away.

One of the postcard keepers who allowed Pat, but not others to hunt, is the niece of a traveling photographer who was particularly adept at carefully capturing the details of everyday life for these postcards- churning butter, feeding chickens, making roof shingles. For some, these cards were the equivalent to modern day junk mail and were immediately tossed out.

Fortunately, others tucked them back, hanging on to these little windows into a world that will quickly disappear without collectors like Pat who recognize their value.

The lure of the postcards opened the door for Pat into a never-ending study of Walker County history. His study and generous enthusiasm for sharing what he learns mushroomed into other projects including authoring a book in the Postcard History Series titled Walker County, Alabama. This concise treasure utilizes postcards and photographs from his collection to describe the people and history of Walker County in a personal yet informative way.

With the soul of a collector, Pat also has accumulated a large odds and ends collection of Walker County memorabilia including an embossed whiskey jug from S.J. Childers Palace Saloon, glasses from Long's Drugstore, a 1913 calendar plate from Patton, a tobacco cutter, and a trade token clacker collection including pieces from Prospect and Horse Creek. His letterhead and stationery collection includes stationery from Cranford's Mercantile which boasts, "Sell everything for the living or dead except whiskey... and keep open every day in the year except Sunday."

Collectors are actually explorers at heart and Pat is always ready to take an interested party on a tour of downtown Jasper to share the sights from the turn of the last century. To get oriented, you stand on the courthouse square and face 19th Street. As he re-creates the town during that time utilizing his expansive knowledge, with little effort you can hear the clip-clop of hooves down the dirt street, smell the mules drawing the lumber wagons, and see passengers unload at the depot.

If you are lucky enough to accompany Pat into several of the surviving 19th Street buildings from that era, you must wear sturdy shoes, be prepared to get dirty, carry a high beam flashlight, and not be intimidated by sounds emanating from invisible corners. One of these buildings is being restored for a law office and offers a second floor where former hotel rooms are still recognizable. Scavenging on the second floor in the former Bank of Walker County building revealed the bank doors complete with banking hours. George's Studio was in the front on that floor and provided a clear view of the courthouse square. Hines Beauty Shoppe was at home in the back.

Train passengers seeking a room within a very short walk from the depot would head for the McGlaun Hotel which is now under renovation as office space. With various businesses located downstairs over the years, the second floor hotel had rooms on both sides and closed in the late 60's.

The fire and storm damaged history of the Walker County Courthouse holds a special place in Pat's heart. Originally built in 1823 with land donated from Dr. Edward Gordon Musgrove, the courthouse's first burn was at the hands of the federal cavalry led by General J.H. Wilson in 1865. Rebuilt only to burn three more times in the 1870's and 1880's, perhaps the most beautiful of all the courthouses was the 1907 Georgia marble structure. This columned and domed building inspired the addition of a gazebo covering an artesian well and the Confederate Monument placed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1908.

With the incredible building and those additions, Walker County finally had a courthouse square, in Pat's words, "second to none in the South."

In 1932 at the height of the Great Depression, certainly adding insult to so many other injuries, fire once again destroyed the courthouse. Pat noted that witnesses recall seeing the flames as far away as Cordova. The new building, described as "an awkward lumpish square of limestone," bore no resemblance to its predecessor, and ended a 25 year reign of beauty and uniqueness. Today's courthouse evolved from the rebuilding after the devastating 1974 tornado and claims the Confederate Monument as the only survivor from the glory days of the 1907 structure.

Pat Morrison was born a collector and grew up to become a wonderful teacher and coach. Through his attention to detail and his unselfish, unrelenting pursuit of the history of Walker County, he carefully uncovers the tiny pieces of a huge puzzle. With his patient help in putting this puzzle together, we learn so much more about who we are, where we have been, and where we might go.

Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890.