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Overton Farm designated as Place in Peril

When the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation and the Alabama Historical Commission consider the historic structures across the state that deserve to be rescued and preserved, they consider historical significance as well as threat level.

They found both at Overton Farm in Franklin County and included the historic site on the 2017 list of Place in Peril.

Overton Farm, despite being closed to the public for the past several years, is a familiar spot in the memories of many who grew up in Franklin County. According to the history detailed by the Alabama Historical Commission, based on information provided by BCDA Chairperson and Overton descendant Patricia Montgomery, Abner Overton, a tobacco peddler from North Carolina, and his wife, Judy Mae, purchased 160 acres of farm land on Bear Creek in present-day Franklin County in 1817, when the land was part of the Mississippi Territory. In 1819, the year Alabama became a state, the Overton family built a one-room log cabin. Over the course of their lives they added to the cabin and built two barns, corn cribs and other agricultural structures, many of which still stand. The farm remained in the family for a century and a half, until the Tennessee Valley Authority purchased it in 1969 as a part of the Bear Creek Water Control Project.

TVA converted Overton Farm into the Bear Creek Education Center, an educational program focused on showing local schoolchildren what life was like in territorial Alabama while encouraging an appreciation for ecology, but because of a lack of funding, the program ended.

Collier Neeley, National Register Coordinator for the Alabama Historical Commission, visited Overton Farm himself in April 2016 as Montgomery, Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, Town of Hodges representatives and others began to consider the future of Overton Farm/Bear Creek Education Center.

“You could see the environment was taking its toll,” Neeley said. “That environment is not particularly kind to old wood buildings. Over time the humidity and moisture in the air and rain can really threaten a building that isn’t taken care of properly.”

Neeley said in addition to being an “indelible place in everybody’s memory,” Overton Farm was determined to occupy special significance in light of the state’s upcoming bicentennial, as one of the few remaining territorial homesteads in the state.

For Montgomery, the goal to see children return to Overton Farm to learn and appreciate their heritage has become a consuming passion.

“There is an urgency to save this facility. There’s an urgency to save our heritage,” she said. “This farm is a history of every pioneer family that homesteaded in the Southeast. That’s what it represents. If I was just doing this for me, I would have quit a long time ago. This is a piece of history that needs to be restored and returned to everybody.”

Montgomery said although she is grateful Overton Farm was selected to be part of this year’s list because of the added notoriety and potential help the designation will bring, she was also naturally saddened.

“It doesn’t get on that list unless it is in peril – unless the ravages of time and the lack of care are taking their toll,” Montgomery said. “They believe it is a place that needs to be saved,” – a belief, of course, that she shares. “When you lose track of your heritage, you lose track of where you’ve been, where you need to go and how far you’ve come.”

Those who are working to save Overton Farm have started the Bear Creek Education at Overton Farm Trust to accept donations, which Montgomery said can be used only for the restoration and preservation of the site. Montgomery and other interested parties are now beginning to look into grants, fundraisers and other funding sources.

“They have been working hard for the last year or so to bring that place back to the prominence it was at in early times. It was an extremely important educational venue,” Neeley said. Theoretically, the Place in Peril designation will bring more attention to the site and be a motivator for others who want to help see it restored and preserved. “We hope the listing will bring some much-needed attention to that little corner.”

The group is and has been working to renovate the classrooms, cafeteria and bunkhouses associated with TVA’s learning center, but the most urgent concern is the historic cabin, which “has suffered from the humid climate of northwest Alabama and improper attempts to restore the building,” AHC’s description reads. “The group needs help establishing a preservation plan and performing preservation work at the farm. Overton retains a substantial amount of integrity and represents life on a homestead in early Alabama.”

Neeley called Overton Farm a “hidden gem.”

“It gets passed over when we talk about significant historic sites in the state. Hopefully this will bring it to the attention of people all over the state, to folks everywhere.
“Who knows what kind of doors that could open up?”

Montgomery said in addition to monetary support, the project is in need of experts in preservation of structures from the time period as well as 1800s-era materials to properly restore the structures.

Overton Farm was one of five places to be named to the 2017 Places in Peril list, which also included Chilton County Training School in Clanton, Fort Davis Railroad Depot in Fort Davis, Finley Roundhouse in Birmingham and Henderson Park Recreation Center in Tuskegee.

For more information on Overton Farm and to help with its preservation, contact Montgomery at ticiam@scosche.com or at the BCDA, 256-332-4392. For more information on the 2017 Places in Peril, contact alabamatrust@athp.org or call 205-652-3497.