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Local historians bring to life The Way We Were

FRANKLIN LIVING— When Alabama began its preparations for a three-year celebration of the state’s bicentennial, 2017-2019, Russellville and Franklin County started gearing up for special celebrations of their own. The bicentennial for Franklin County was last year, and Russellville’s is in 2019. Festivities have continued from month to month for more than a year now, and the latest efforts have been The Way We Were Saturdays at the Russellville Canteen.

Bicentennial commemorations have been driven largely by Chris Ozbirn, Franklin County Archives director and chairperson of the Russellville Bicentennial Committee, who cherishes a passion for the county’s history.

“You’ve got to preserve history every way you can, and you’ve got to tell it. That’s why we do what we do,” said Ozbirn – “we,” of course, being her fellow committee members, who share her passion for preserving the past. They conceived The Way We Were, a monthly series of historical demonstrations, exhibits and portrayals designed to inspire people’s interest in the history of Russellville and Franklin County.

The Way We Were kicked off with its first installment in May, and June brought the second in the series. Additional programs are scheduled throughout the summer: July 13, Aug. 10 and Sept. 14.

“Each event is different; we have different people and different time periods,” Ozbirn explained. “We’re working our way up to the big grand finale, Nov. 21. We’re wanting to show how people lived during this time, and not only how they lived – how they worked, entertained, every aspect of history that we can get out there.” Attendees to the first two Saturdays experienced the past through examining collections of quilts and arrowheads, taking a horse-and-buggy ride and “meeting” characters from the past like Washington socialite and Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow and “Aunt Jenny,” Jenny Brooks Johnson, a popular local figure from the Civil War era.

Ozbirn said this monthly series hearkens back to the committee’s Pioneer Day in 2018. “Trying to get that many people together at one time – that’s really a big job. So we decided we could actually show more and celebrate more aspects of it if we had it broken up into a series,” she explained. “Hopefully more people will come and see what we’re offering and learn how this area was way back then.”

Bicentennial Committee member Doris Hutcheson said they received numerous requests from the community to host a similar event to Pioneer Day. Hosting The Way We Were has been the answer.

“It’s a way of telling people about our history and preserving that history. Our younger generation has no clue what went on 200 years ago or even 50 years ago,” she said. “This is our way of trying to inform them about our history.”

“To me, history is something everybody has to know,” Ozbirn added. “You’ve got to know where you came from to get where you’re going … I love Franklin County with all of my heart, and that’s why I work so hard to get (the history) out there.”

Ozbirn said plenty of people share her fervor for sharing history with the community. She and her committee were able to fairly easily line up participants for the summer schedule of events – like Civil War historians Jerry Smith and Tim Kent, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who were among presenters at the June event.

“We are passionate about what we do because we know what we’re talking about,” said Smith. He and Kent do extensive research into Civil War history and focus on sharing the facts – especially the history that might be forgotten, overlooked or ignored. “We want to tell people the real truth.”

Alabama State President of the Order of the Confederate Rose Lisa Green – who is also president of the Jenny Brooks Johnston Chapter No. 18 – was another participant at the June session. Her association with the OCR is what drives her involvement in such events.

The Order of Confederate Rose is an independent Southern heritage organization whose main purpose is to support the Sons of Confederate Veterans in their service to the South,” Green explained. “The OCR promotes the honorable memory of the Confederate soldiers, Southern symbols, true history and true Southern heritage. We study, do programs at schools, museums and festivals. We honor those who served in the war with dedications, memorials, setting flags and even gravestones.”

The July 13 event will feature a number of craftsman who will demonstrate their skills. Glenn Rikard will be demonstrating chair caning, and Frank Richey will be making knives. Barbara Bishop will share her butter-churning skills, and Doris Alewine will be knitting. Additionally, Orland Britnell  and William Bishop  will be displaying old farm artifacts, cooking and household items; Joel Mize is going to do a presentation about Bylar Road; and Frank Stone will once again be giving wagon rides.

“It lets us see where we’ve come from – what our roots are and what we have built on all these years to get to where we are,” Hutcheson said. “We need to get back to appreciating our roots and our heritage, and maybe that way our future will be brighter – more the way it was intended to be.”

Aug. 10 will be a showcase of Native American culture, with guests Bob and Annie Perry, Randy Brown and Tony Turnbow demonstrating the way Native Americans lived and worked, and Stone will again offer wagon rides.

The Way We Were presentations and exhibits will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Russellville Canteen, 217 Washington Ave., with one additional Saturday scheduled for Sept. 14.

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