In 1887, when the leaders of the Decatur Land Improvement and Furnace Company sought to create what was to be the “Chicago of the South”, they hired successful landscape architect Nathan Franklin Barrett (1845-1919) to design it. Barrett had begun his career laying out station yards for the New Jersey Central Railroad, and the opportunity to create a model landscape for George Pullman in the late 1870’s had propelled him into the national spotlight. Barrett is perhaps most noted for this role in developing the landscape design and building site plan for Pullman, Illinois (a National Historic Landmark) which was our country’s first planned industrial town. After this national recognition, Barrett received urban design commissions from as far away as California, Maine, Texas, Florida, Maryland, and Alabama.
Barrett, sweet-natured, slow-talking, pipe-smoking, was at the height of his career in 1887, having just completed the landscape design of Naumkeag for Joseph Choate, U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. His list of other famous clients included H.O. Havemeyer, P.A.P. Widener, Stanley Mortimer, and H.D. Auchincloss. As one of the earliest proponents of the formal garden (in the 1870’s), his designs combined the open English style of Olmsted with the formal, geometric element. In New Decatur, Barrett laid out the streets on a Jeffersonian formal grid and juxtaposed them with the curvilinear serpentine shape of the central green space of Delano Park. He designed a formal garden on the site of the present day Rose Garden because he believed that formal areas should not be at the center of the design. Always down to earth with a celebratory and witty nature, Nathan Barrett created New Decatur with space for numerous schools, gardens, churches, and glorious architecture. His vision launched the dream of the new “Chicago” and in one year 41 new industries and 500 new homes were built and the population more than tripled.
Nathan Franklin Barrett’s romantic vision of nature’s beauty was developed as a young man working in his brothers’s nursery as an apprentice to an Irish gardener named Regan who had worked on some of the great estates of Europe. In 1866, Barrett took up the serious study of landscape architecture which he chose as a life profession, reading the existing literature on the subject and visiting all constructed works which were practical. Barrett was passionate about inspiring youth to pursue a career in his beloved profession of landscape architecture. He was one of the 11 charter members of the American Society of Landscape Architects and one of the prime movers toward its formation, serving as its third president in 1903. At the time of his death in 1919, Barrett was the oldest living landscape architect and had practiced his profession for 50 years.
One of the three major leaders in the renaissance of Decatur, Alabama was Major Eugene C. Gordon, a well-known railroad builder from Athens, Georgia who had also promoted the town of Sheffield, Alabama. He was elected president of the Decatur Land Improvement and Furnace Company. The most prominent drive in the new planned community, Gordon Drive, was named for him, as was Gordon School. However, after yellow fever ravaged the town in 1888, he fled New Decatur along with the mayor of the town, never to return.
William Whitson Littlejohn (1845-1907) was a man of broad business ideas and superior character who provided leadership for the Decatur Land and Furnace Company. Littlejohn was a Civil War veteran who served under Lee in Virginia. In 1880, he was one of the incorporators of the Bank of Decatur (later First National Bank) and served as the cashier until his death. Unlike E. C. Gordon, Mr. Littlejohn remained in Decatur through the dreadful scourge of yellow fever in 1888 and gave noble aid to the victims of disease during that awful period.
Colonel Christopher Columbus Harris (1842-1936) was a true visionary in the history of Decatur, Alabama and one of the leaders of the Decatur Land Improvement and Furnace Company. Colonel Harris was a veteran of the Civil War where he was wounded in several battles and later imprisoned at Camp Chase. Primarily remembered as an attorney and promoter of Decatur, Harris founded and was president of First National Bank and served as attorney for the Decatur Land Improvement and Furnace Company. From 1913-1915, Colonel Harris served in the United States Congress. When the Honorary Chairman of Friends of Delano Park, John Caddell, was asked about his memories of Colonel C. C. Harris, he shared his belief that Harris was one of the three most important leaders in Decatur’s history.Along with the early founder Jesse Winston Garth (1788-1867) and civic leader Barrett Shelton, Sr. (1902-1984) Caddell included Harris as a prime mover in the story of Decatur.
The late Carolyn Cortner Smith was no shrinking violet. At nineteen, she became one of Alabama’s earliest female architects. She was a determined woman of vision who was undaunted by the many projects which live on as her legacy. Not only was she responsible for designing the stone structures in Delano Park, she left a legacy in the form of more than 700 homes across the country as well as several churches that she designed mostly in the Old English style.
Born on May 13, 1894 in Normandy, Tennessee to Robert G. Cortner and Clara Sanders, Carolyn Cortner was raised in the Courtland area of Lawrence County, Alabama. She attended Ward-Belmont College in Tennessee and married Wilburn Smith in 1912. Seeking to become an architect, Mrs. Smith applied to schools of architecture at Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and Auburn but was rejected because she was a woman. Undaunted, she obtained study outlines and design text books from the three schools. Her builder’s bible was Yale’s “Timesaver Standards” architectural text. By 1913 she designed and built a country home for her parents six miles south of Decatur and launched her career as the first licensed female architect in Alabama. She then acquired three lumber mills and ran them as the Carolyn Lumber Mills. A turning point in her career occurred in the 1920’s when the Mars family put her in charge of constructing their Milky Way Farms in Pulaski, Tennessee.
During the Depression-era 1930’s, her visionary genius was called upon to design and create the iconic stone structures in Delano Park. With her typical courage and pioneering spirit she led teams of men in the Civil Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration in building Delano Park’s beautiful Rose Garden, the Bathhouse and Wading Pool, the Bandstand, Dance Pavilion (now the Girl Scout Little House), and the National Guard Armory (Fort Decatur today). In addition, Mrs. Smith directed the WPA restoration of the Old State Bank. A world traveler, Carolyn Cortner Smith died in 1987 at 93 leaving a legacy in the history of design and historic preservation in Alabama.
When people tell the history of Delano Park, invariably one hears the story of a small boy who grazed his cow in the park and sold the milk throughout New Decatur for ten cents a quart. In addition, the stories of this same boy, the young Lawson Davidson, and his friend Johnny Caddell caddying for twenty-five cents on the nine hole golf course in Delano Park are legendary. Born on Gordon Drive in 1906, Davidson had Delano Park as his vast front yard. Perhaps this childhood familiarity helped develop his love of Decatur’s parks and his dedication to their maintenance and preservation.
As chairman and member of Decatur Parks and Recreation Board for ten years, Lawson Davidson was a man with a vision of protecting and beautifying the public green spaces that are so dear to the hearts of our community. He embodied a spirit that everyone can make a difference in the quality of life of Decatur. In his honest, straightforward manner, he quietly set about to preserve our parks as places of recreation and beauty open to everyone. His passion for preservation extended to his stewardship of the Decatur City Cemetery. In his nineties, Davidson planted rows of zinnias at the cemetery which he would cut and share with area nursing homes. In speaking of his beloved parks, he said that it is important to have something pretty to look at.
In July of 2000, Lawson was part of the original group of concerned citizens who met in the Rose Garden with Harvey Cotten of the Huntsville-Madison County Botanical Garden to envision a rebirth of the old garden. He remembered that during the glory days of the Rose Garden the city had several greenhouses and grew roses and other flowers for the garden. He fondly recalled many weddings and picnics held in the once lovely space. As friends of Delano Park and all our city parks, we remember with pride Lawson Davidson, a visionary who spent a life time of dedicated service to his native city.
On January 21, 2001, a small group of people who love Delano Park and want to bring it back to the vibrant place we all remember from our childhoods, met as Friends of Delano Park to begin the odyssey of the park’s renewal. It was obvious to everyone that we needed a spiritual and intellectual leader, an Honorary Chairman, who could direct us, encourage us, and advise us. John Caddell was the perfect person. As he recounted stories about the park from his childhood and young adulthood, his positive outlook and genuine love for Decatur provided the encouragement needed to begin the journey.
John Caddell was dedicated to keeping Decatur strong and keeping its history vividly alive. For five years as Honorary Chairman of Friends of Delano Park, he advised us not to dwell on the negative but to direct our energies toward what was good and beautiful and full of integrity. Johnny never said no when asked to serve and he was always there to give us courage to follow the vision. As Delano Park gradually takes on new life and as more and more people from every part of Alabama enjoy its beauty and recreational opportunities, we will always remember John Caddell, a true giant among men who was instrumental in renewing and maintaining a treasure for his beloved Decatur, Alabama.
In telling the story of special education in Alabama, the vision and leadership of one woman cannot be underestimated. Margaret Palmer Vann led Huntsville City Schools and all of Morgan County, including Decatur and Hartselle, in providing services to children with disabilities. She pioneered this effort in these school systems from 1968 until her retirement in 1982. Because of her leadership throughout the state during that time of change in the field of special education, the Alabama Federation Council for Exceptional Children established the Margaret Vann Award for Outstanding Special Education Coordinator in Alabama. She became Alabama’s standard of excellence for teachers in the profession. The Heron Great Tree Gateway by Bruce Larsen was given as a tribute to Margaret Vann’s dedication to children with special needs by her fellow teachers, friends, and family.