Last week in this space, I wrote about how the community of Sunny South got its name, and that column resulted in a surprising amount of response from readers of The Progressive Era. Not long after last week’s edition hit the streets, I began to receive e-mails from readers with more information about Sunny South and how it received its name.
For those of you who missed last week’s paper, I wrote that, according to a book called “Place Names in Alabama” by Virginia O. Foscue, the Sunny South community was “named for the Sunny South, a steamboat destroyed by fire in 1867 at Portland, a dead town once located on the banks of the Alabama River in Dallas County.” I went on to theorize that the name Sunny South was probably applied to the community when the post office first opened there in 1888, an event that likely came about when the railroad was set down through the middle of town.
As it turns out, readers supplied me with information that showed that this was only about half-true, and, as always, that there was more to the story. Pine Hill native Kelly Sheffield Tolbert provided the most illuminating piece of information when she made available online a one-page document titled “History of Sunny South School,” which was written by George M. Carmichael, a descendant of one of Sunny South’s early settlers.
According to Carmichael, the Sunny South steamboat actually exploded and burned near the Lower Peach Tree landing on the Alabama River, and that a member of the boat’s crew, “being a scholarly man,” came to the community and organized a school in a one-room log cabin. This school was said to have been located on the then Clifton-Choctaw Corner Road across from the Old Adley Morgan Homeplace and served students in this area for a number of years, according to Carmichael.
The school master, who wasn’t named in Carmichael’s article, named the school the “Sunny South School” in memory of the well-known steamboat that he once worked on. Later, as more students began to attend the school, a larger one-room building was built across the road to serve as the community school house, Carmichael said.
Around 1888, the Mobile & Birmingham Railroad reached the community, and Miss C.O. Carmichael donated the land for a train depot. Since she donated the land, railroad officials allowed her to select a name for the train stop, and she called it “Sunny South” to perpetuate the name of the community’s first school.
If you read George M. Carmichael’s account closely, you’ll note that he said that the Sunny South steamboat actually burned and sank at the Lower Peach Tree landing, not at Portland in Dallas County. In a reply to a Facebook post last Thursday, Earl Hepstall of Thomasville said that the Sunny South went down in the first curve south of the site of the present-day Lower Peach Tree landing. Years ago, you could see parts of the boat’s smoke stack when the river was low, he said.
Also, before I wrap this thing up, I want to mention that this discussion about Sunny South began a few weeks ago after I encountered Sunny South native Jamestican Parham outside a hardware store in Evergreen. Parham noted that he’d heard in the past that the Sunny South community was once known as Bethel before people began calling it Sunny South. I believe there is a nugget of truth to this because when I checked the Historical Atlas of Alabama, it indicated that the old, historic Bethel community was just east of Sunny South, on the east side of Beaver Creek.
In the end, I’d like to hear from any readers who know more about the Sunny South’s sinking and the early history of the community that now bears its name. When the did sinking take place? What caused the fire? Was anyone killed? Was there valuable cargo aboard? Who was the first school master of the Sunny South School? If you know, please contact me and let me know, so I can pass it along to the good readers of The Progressive Era.