- Associated Press - Monday, June 6, 2016

FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) - The fire that destroyed the historic Forks of Cypress mansion was so intense it melted the lights and peeled the paint on fire trucks.

Harry Wallace, whose family owned the antebellum plantation house, said a lightning strike on the house blasted a hole through the roof and started a fire that consumed the structure in half an hour.

It was 50 years ago today that the Forks of Cypress, built in 1821, burned to the ground, leaving only the now-iconic brick columns.

“There was a thunderstorm, and there was a direct hit of lightning,” Wallace said.

He had just graduated from high school and was living with his parents near the Forks of Cypress. He said his great-uncle owned the property at the time, and his mother was the curator.

“My dad and I were the first ones there,” he said. “There was a hole in the roof where the lightning hit. We could see flames in all the rooms. In 30 minutes, it was gone.”

Wallace and his father managed to get some furnishings off the porch, but the fire was too intense to attempt to go inside, he said.

The Forks of Cypress was built by James Jackson, one of the founders of Florence. He was a noted horse breeder.

Lee Freeman, head of the Genealogy and Local History Department at the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library, said virtually all of today’s race horses have lineage that link back to Jackson’s horses.

“He was what’s known as a turf man,” Freeman said.

Wallace, a retired teacher who hosts occasional guided tours of the Forks of Cypress cemetery, said there were no original furnishings in the house at that time. “The family divided the furnishings when Mrs. Jackson died. There are a few pieces of furniture at Pope’s Tavern museum.”

The interior of the house was “grand,” he said.

“For a house built that early, it had very large rooms with 12-foot ceilings and a fireplace in every room,” he said. “It had four rooms downstairs with a massive hall in the center. It was like a big dog trot for a breeze.

“There were four bedrooms upstairs with a massive sleeping area in the center,” he said. “They had 10 surviving children.”

In later years, the Forks of Cypress became popular as a place for dances, receptions and social gatherings, Freeman said.

“I’ve heard people of my parents’ generation and older remembering going to socials and picnics out there,” he said. “It must have been special to go out there.”

The exterior of the house was copied by a bank on Seminary Street downtown. Wallace said the Forks of Cypress was the first plantation house in Alabama to have a wrap-around porch supported by columns.

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Information from: TimesDaily, https://www.timesdaily.com/


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