- Associated Press - Monday, August 1, 2016

DECATUR, Ala. (AP) - A scrapbook owned by a man who died more than 100 years ago is revealing new facts about Decatur’s history and providing details about the city’s schools, depot and a 1901 visit by President William McKinley.

For reasons his family and historians can’t explain, William Anderson Raney, who died Sept. 17, 1909, took the time to explain the significance of newspaper articles he cut and pasted in what appears to be an old store ledger.

Frank Rowden, 63, who is Raney’s great-great-grandson, found many of the documents in the attic, closets and basement of an old family home he was preparing to sell.

“There are things I didn’t know about Decatur, and I was born and raised here,” he said.

Some of the collection, which Morgan County archivist John Allison calls priceless, is on display at the Morgan County Archives. This includes a Bible that Raney received when he was a prisoner of war in Camp Chase, Ohio, during the Civil War, family photos and copies of the scrapbook.

Allison said it’s not unusual for the archives to receive clipped newspaper articles, but what separates Raney’s is he wrote why he was keeping most of the articles.

In one part of the scrapbook, for example, Raney wrote that the first street cars in Decatur came in December 1887 and were drawn by mules.

“I didn’t realize street cars were here that early,” Allison said.

At some point, Raney made a second entry about the first electric trolley coming to Decatur on Nov. 14, 1903.

On another page in the scrapbook, Raney details the history of depots in Decatur. His writings reveal the current depot - renovations of which were completed in March - is the fourth in the River City and opened July 13, 1907. The previous depots were constructed in 1854, 1855 and 1873.

One of Raney’s most revealing entries, in 1901, is in neat penmanship next to a newspaper article about a speech President McKinley gave in New York. It’s entitled “The Visit of President McKinley.”

According to Raney, the president was traveling by train with his wife and cabinet when they made a 15-minute stop in Decatur on April 30, 1901. He recorded that the school children left classes to wave American flags and “a silver cup was given by the ladies to Mrs. McKinley.”

Decatur’s mayor gave a short welcome speech and “the President responded with a short address,” he wrote.

Allison said small details, such as how long the president was here and what the townspeople’s actions were, are historically significant.

“You can visualize the event,” he said.

Rowden said he’s still sifting through some of the documents he found in the home. He was vaguely familiar with the scrapbook because his father, who died in 2003, had talked about it and shared some of the entries.

But Rowden said he didn’t fully understand Raney’s significance to Decatur’s history. “I guess I was always concerned about the Rowden history,” he said.

Raney, who had several occupations during his lifetime, was born in Lunenburg County, Virginia, on Nov. 12, 1826. He immigrated to north Alabama in 1850 and worked as a bartender before going into business with Decatur hotel owner A.A. McCartney.

Raney remained in contact with best friend Calvin Brown and convinced him to follow him to Decatur in 1853. Brown built a casket factory and established Brown Funeral Home, which is still in Decatur.

Because of illness, Raney left Decatur for his birth state in 1854, but after less than a year, he married the woman he called his “life companion” and moved back to the River City. In 1858, he was appointed Decatur postmaster and served until 1862, when he joined the Confederate Army.

In 1864, federal forces captured Raney during the Battle of Mossy Creek near Atlanta and imprisoned him at Camp Chase. He received a Bible while a POW and inside the cover Raney wrote that he read “every word and every line.”

Raney returned to Decatur after the war, and by 1868, articles he wrote began to appear in newspapers across the nation.

It is not clear when he started to clip his writings and articles about historic events. Allison said some of the clippings are obituaries from newspapers the archives does not have.

“If not for him there are a lot of things we wouldn’t have,” he said. “Morgan County did not start keeping official death records until 1892.”

Raney wrote a lot about the railroad and life in the Bank Street area.

He also was a witness in a case that centered on the wharf on the Tennessee River in Decatur. A property owner took possession of the land and attempted to build a fence to block access, claiming the property was privately owned.

Decatur city officials sued the landowner in 1901, and Raney was called to share his recollection of the area and its public importance.

“He clearly had a lot of historical knowledge about the city that was important in the case,” Allison said.

Rowden learned about the case after sharing his find with the archives. He said he’s still looking through his ancestor’s papers, which “may take some time because you want to know more about the events he writes about.”

Raney wrote April 18, 1904, that the first brick of the Carnegie Library was laid. In August 1904, he recorded that the new Presbyterian Church was completed.

“He’s so specific,” Allison said.

Four days after writing about the church, Raney recorded that “the old frame school building” was razed to build a new brick school on the corner of Canal and Lafayette streets. The school was finished May 1, 1905, and was the third in Decatur, with the first two being constructed in 1856 and 1870.

“Because of the details he gives, you can literally take a map and follow growth and changes in Decatur,” Allison said.


Information from: The Decatur Daily, https://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml

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