Montgomery historian Mary Ann Neeley is the first person profiled in my new Sunday night segment, Exploring Alabama with Bob Howell. Although retired from her long-time position leading the Landmarks Foundation's historic preservation efforts, Mrs. Neeley has never slowed down. She is a spry, wisp of a woman with a contagious laugh and a twinkle in her eye that makes you enjoy every story she tells – because she never tires of telling them.
When I dropped by her office in Old Alabama Town recently, we spent a fascinating two hours talking about Montgomery's past, present and future. But when you're talking with her, you have to listen closely.
When she recalls "the late 80's' she could be talking about the 17, 18 or 1980's. As a toddler, Mrs. Neeley says her first history lessons didn't come from a book. They came from relatives living in a wonderful Victorian house she remembers as home.
"I heard it," said Mrs. Neeley, "I just grew up on family stories. My grandfather's father had been at Gettysburg"
One relative walked her into the past. She recalls in detail a great uncle who took her on little walking excursions around Prattville. "He pointed out things to me - this building and that building," Mrs. Neeley told me. "He wasn't giving me an architectural tour by any means...just telling me so-and-so was here...and so-and-so was there. Those things influenced me."
Mrs. Neeley's face lights up when she talks about how her love of history was linked to her strong dislike of milk. "The way they used to get me to drink milk," she recounts with a broad smile, " was to say, 'well, you drink your milk and we'll tell you a story about the Civil War or reconstruction.'" She says, as a result, she has a wonderful grasp of that period of time "and my own teeth."
Mrs. Neeley believes Montgomery is more than the civil war and civil rights. " I love the Civil War part of our story...I love the civil rights part of our story...both of those are components of the story...important components of the story," she said. "But how did they happen here? You can't isolate...the Civil War started here or civil rights started here. You've got to take it as a continuum. To have any understanding at all of what it was all about...why it happened here."
To Mrs. Neeley's way of thinking, a 118-year-old woman symbolizes Montgomery's economic development. Her name is Hebe and she stands atop the historic court square fountain. Mrs. Neeley says Hebe is the cup bearer of the ancient gods. She adorns the fountain that was built in 1885 as a part of Montgomery's city fathers efforts to beautify the downtown area.
"And it's always interesting that she's facing Commerce Street," said Mrs. Neeley, "looking at the source of our economic well-being...the river and the railroad."
When it comes to Montgomery's historic preservation report card, Mrs. Neeley gives the city above average marks. She said, "Most days I'd give us about a B+. There have been some days I thought we deserved a C. But, I think, maybe all in all, a B+."
She believes lower Commerce Street restorations and Old Alabama town are the two best examples of what can be done to preserve key elements of our city's rich heritage.
As for Montgomery's present and future Mrs. Neeley, like Hebe, looks to the river. "We have a lot of things down on the riverfront now that we did not have a few years ago and that's certainly bringing people in. And I hope that they will also travel around town and enjoy downtown Montgomery and visit Old Alabama Town when they come to the baseball games."
So, if you find what you've learned about Mary Ann Neeley's passion for history interesting – or even intriguing –start your own historical quest with a visit to Old Alabama Town's eclectic collection of wonderful buildings and furnishings. They're located on North Hull Street, a couple of blocks north of the capitol complex.