History may be set in stone, but local historian Peggy Jackson Walls' latest book "Lost Towns of Central Alabama" is fresh material.
"Everything an author writes is original, or they need not write it," said Walls, who grew up in Tallapoosa County. "What is original in 'Lost Towns'? All of it, by virtue of my knowledge of this information and growing up and living there. I knew the people to talk to and I always get out and interview. I do as much primary research as I can. I listen.
"All of that comes together for an original overview."
For Walls, a retired Benjamin Russell High School, Central Alabama Community College and Auburn University English teacher as well as historian published in Alabama Heritage and Alabama Review, "Lost Towns" is her third book relating to central Alabama history. She writes about the communities that are no more, from the fortified town of Mabila razed by Hernando De Soto to the crossroads that sprang up in the Gold Rush to the mill villages, ready-made for workers and their families, that disappeared with the textile industry.
In a chapter titled "Drowned Towns," Barbara Cole, interviewed by Walls, recalls growing up in Cherokee Bluffs, the village — complete with stores, churches, a school and a hospital — built by Alabama Power for its workers during the construction of Martin Dam. Everything constructed was temporary, with the understanding it would be torn down and flooded with the damming of the Tallapoosa River.
While Walls cross-references with public records and the work of other historians, locals like Cole are always her first port of call.
"People are a good place to start," she said. "People are smart. They do not go out — most of them — into the world and get distracted by other people's stories. They stay pretty local and they remember well everything in their life. They remember their neighbors; they remember the stories."
In her research for "Drowned Towns" and other historical writing, Walls said she's spent hours with some interview subjects, just by letting them do the talking. Her advice is to listen.
"Do not interrupt the person you are interviewing, because they get to the really interesting, good things when they talk," Walls said. "And you may think they're rambling, but they're leading you to something very interesting."
With so many historical writings and records now digitized and research becoming a one-stop shop with Google, it's easy for stories to get overlooked. This is where local knowledge — thereby knowing who to interview — comes in handy.
"Most of them will tell you almost anything once you get started," Walls said. "But this is their one chance to tell their story, you're doing something important."
"Lost Towns of Central Alabama" is available online and in most major bookstores.