It is April 24, about noon on a sunny Friday, and I am standing on Alabama land my great-great grandfather, James, acquired from the federal government 180 years ago. In that year, 1835, he was 33 years of age, a restless native of South Carolina with a young family and looking to grow cotton and raise cattle 30 miles southeast of Montgomery. His 40-acre tract rests near a community called Pine Level.
Until the night before, on the 23rd, I did not know where the land was. And I had only a vague idea about Pine Level, just that it was off U.S. 231 to Troy. It’s on the map. Actually, there are three Pine Levels in Alabama. One in Autauga County, another in Coffee County and this one, in Montgomery County.
The BLM website map showed the exact section of land, No. 26, but I had to figure the “aliquots.” They are the divisions of the section. James’s was on the northwest 1/4 of the southeast 1/4. It appeared the land was east of Pine Level a few miles. Peake Road nipped a corner of the property, just past Radio Tower Rd.
Driving south from Montgomery on 231 we encountered upscale homes on large subdivisions. Farther on, we ran into heavy forest again. And finally Pine Level, which, best I could tell, is basically a blue water-tower and unique store called Sikes and Kohn’s Country Mall, on the west side of the road.
Barely a hop away to the south was the turn-off to Peake Road.
With Nebra driving, we turned east on Peake, passed a pond with an attractive sign that said “Royer Hills” amid a forest of long-leaf pine and deciduous trees. At Radio Tower Road I grew excited. A half mile beyond, the forest opened up into a large clearing with homes on the north and south. This had to be James’s land on both sides of the road. It was fairly flat and had a sandy feel to it.
We lingered for a while. I shot a few photos. Almost everyone out here had bird houses. I guessed they were for purple martins. Down the road a piece, I had Nebra stop the car, and I got out and walked up to the front porch of a house where an elderly black man stood. He had lived on the property for 19 years, he said, but could not tell me if his house stood on Section 26.
I was reasonably sure James was buried out here somewhere. Neither did the old man know of any old graves in the area. State Archives held many Montgomery County cemetery records but none was comprehensive. I pored over a few and found nothing of my family.
On our way back, we detoured onto Radio Tower Road. It was a short drive. Nebra got nervous when a troupe of excited dogs emerged from a house, barking and growling at the front tires. And, of course, at the deadend was a high tower for a Troy radio station. It was along this road too that little Olustee Creek emerged from the forest and passed under a culvert. I believe it crossed James’s land above and was a probable enticement for him to settle there.
It was getting late and we had a long drive ahead to Monroeville, the home of Harper Lee, the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” We pushed on.
At least I had set foot on the land of my great-great grandfather and had a sense what a prodigious task it must have been to clear the forest and ready the soil for planting. And I wonder what his thoughts were the first time he made his way through the wilds only a few short years after Alabama became a state.
I will have to make yet another trip to Pine Level when I have more time.