Exploring Alabama - Behind the Scenes at Archives & History

In this week's Exploring Alabama we go behind the scenes at one of Montgomery's most interesting locations the Department of Archives and History.

Our tour guide is archives director, Dr. Ed bridges...a wonderfully enthusiastic Alabama historian. He starts our mini-adventure literally below ground in the newspaper stacks. He calls it, the treasure trove of Alabama newspapers. The oldest paper is the Mobile Sentinel from 1807…considered to be the first newspaper published in Alabama. Despite the low humidity and constant temperature, time takes its toll on old newsprint. Bridges says, "Opening these books, they will fall apart in your hand. If we hadn't microfilmed these earlier we would be...we are losing these papers all the time." And the microfilming still goes on.

Employees copy every page of every paper in the state. With hundreds of thousands of documents dating back to the early 1800's, the state is still discovering what it has. Volunteers from the local Mormon church sort through page after page, carefully indexing each one, pressing them flat for easy storage, and then boxing them for preservation.

Our tour now takes a military turn. Weapons: long rifles, powder horns, swords and a rare find, the flagstaff that held the Alabama flag surrendered at Appomattox at the end of the Civil War. When you look closely, you can see the notches in the five-foot long stick where the flag was tied. A visiting curator actually made the discovery. The staff was part of a large shipment the War Department had sent back to Alabama in 1905. No one knew its significance until a few years back.

Alabama operated three hospitals during the civil war. When their account books were returned from the War Department, one contained four small packets... Dr. Bridges says "Apparently, when a soldier died, the attendants would clip a packet of hair, wrap it in paper and send it on to the next of kin. For some reason, these four packets of hair were still in there."

There are rooms filled with furniture...period pieces from every period of Alabama history. And, in a glass case in a hallway, there's Hank Williams - at least one of his outfits. He's playing a guitar he bought with money he won on a WSFA radio talent contest.

Bridges sums it up this way, "I say this as somebody that came in from the outside, I came here from Georgia 22 years ago...and I'm just amazed at how rich and wonderful the collections are." All what we've talked about is a tiny fraction of the Archives' collections. The Archives Department is in the midst of a substantial expansion which should be complete by spring. If you haven't visited the department...check it out. If you're even slightly curious about your home state...it's well worth a trip downtown. For more information, call them at 242-4435.

And they have a great website, too.