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Pioneer Museum a History Lesson 
on Alabama in the 1800s

By Alvin Benn

After spending his teaching career in structured classroom settings, Jerry Peak has found a new way to help people better understand life during the state’s formative period.

It’s at the Pioneer Museum of Alabama where he is the new director.

Jerry Peak inspects a model of a 19th century village on display at the Pioneer Museum of Alabama in Troy.

"I visited the Museum with my students many times while I was teaching and was fascinated by the number of items inside," said Peak. "It’s amazing to see the size and scope of a facility we have here."

Thousands of visitors arrive each year to inspect items ranging from farm implements to quilts, from wood burning stoves to an authentic dugout canoe. It is, in effect, an indoor history lesson about the great outdoors of Alabama back in the 1800s.

Above, a colorful mural depicting agriculture in the state during the 1800s covers an entire wall of the Pioneer Museum of Alabama in Troy.

"Kids today have no idea of how people lived at that time," said Peak, who taught Alabama History in Butler, Lowndes and Pike counties for nearly 30 years before retiring. "That’s why I enjoy what I’m doing so much."

Supervising the Museum is more than just a job for Peak. One of the items on display is a quilt made in the 1870s by one of his ancestors.

The Museum, located just off U.S. 231 a few miles north of Troy University, was built by local farmers and other citizens looking for a way to keep history alive without storing items in barns or warehouses.

It relies on the generosity of others through grants and donations and does not receive tax money. The annual budget is about $123,000.

"Two trust funds have been set up to help us and they account for about 40 percent of our budget," said Peak. "Most of our visitors are school children."

What makes the Museum so popular is its vast collection of artifacts from farm life when Alabama was growing from a frontier state into a bustling agricultural force in the United States.

Cotton was king back in the 1800s and much of what’s on display at the museum reflects its importance. Items include a big green wagon filled to overflowing with cotton and a colorful mural covering an entire wall.

Daily farm life during that period in Alabama centered on what many today consider primitive tools. Back then, farm equipment was what could be afforded, if not built from scratch by those who tilled the soil.

As the men worked in the fields, the women spent their days preparing meals, making quilts and taking care of their children.

A wood-burning stove circa mid-1800s is in one area of the Museum, not far from an ice box that helped to preserve meat, milk and other perishable food items.

Hay cutters, collectors, rakes and other devices used to prepare food for cattle also are on display. The cutters were pulled by mules and guided by rugged men who worked from sunup to sundown.

"What we have here shows just how tough the men were back then and how physical the work was," said Peak. "They plowed through hard ground with the help of horses and mules."

Those who refer to the "Good Old Days" might have a different opinion once they finish their tour of the Pioneer Museum of Alabama.

Doctors made house calls during that period and they had to be as rugged as the people they helped.

"Some of the buggies we have here are what doctors used to get over rough roads to see their patients," he said. "The buggies needed special wheels to negotiate those roads and we have them here to show people what they looked like."

Farmers in the 19th century didn’t have what their descendants possess today, so they improvised by using what they did have.

A replica of a country store is a popular feature.

Alabama’s horse and buggy era is represented at the museum.

This hog oiler gets plenty of attention at the Pioneer Museum of Alabama in Troy.

That included hog oilers—metal encasements that included insecticides. Hogs would rub up against the rough exterior and covered themselves with oil that helped to ward off insects.

Centuries from now, museum visitors might wonder how people managed to live in the "Old Days" of Alabama in 2008. That is one reason the facility in Pike County exists today—to display a way of life long gone in Alabama

The Museum even has its own boll weevil on display. It’s in a jar and hasn’t moved for a long time. It’s an example, Peak says, of the destructive force of an insect that virtually wiped out Alabama’s cotton crop.

"We wanted to show our visitors what this little thing actually looks like," he said. "It’s the only insect in America that is ‘honored’ by a monument."

He referred to the weevil statue in downtown Enterprise. It’s there to remind people how some Alabama communities shifted from cotton to other crops or industries as a result of the economic havoc created by the pesky insect.

The Museum contains more than 18,000 items, including arrowheads and other small objects. Peak is amazed each time he walks through it.

"I find something new every day," he said. "If I don’t know what it is, I’ll look it up on the Internet to acquaint myself on what it did."

On a wall of the museum is a sign saying: "So That Others May Learn From The Past." It’s a motto near and dear to the retired history teacher who has taken upon himself the task of continuing in his chosen profession—with a somewhat different backdrop.

"It’s important because we are teaching children who have never seen anything like what we have at our museum," said Peak. "When they leave here, they have a better understanding of what Alabama was like back in the 1800s."

Students who visit the museum get a chance to explore a way of life before electricity replaced lanterns, before automobiles replaced buggies and long before television moved families off the front porch where tall tales were told and into living rooms to watch flickering images on a big box.

They learn about cooking meals on a wood stove or in a fireplace, churning butter, sweeping floors with booms made out of straw, walking long distances to get water, feeding chickens and gathering eggs.

Clothing did not come from discount stores or shopping malls. They were made on looms or by needle and thread—sometimes creating dresses out of burlap sacks that once held potatoes.

There’s even a replica of a moonshine still. The operative word is "replica." Visitors who have never seen a still up close have a chance to examine a device that was no stranger to rural America.

Those who study Alabama’s political history are also in for a treat. A section of the museum is devoted to the life and career of Charles Henderson who was one of the state’s most popular governors.

Henderson, born a year before the start of the Civil War, served from 1915 to 1919 and helped push through numerous progressive pieces of legislation, including tax equalization.

His contributions to his city, county and state have not been forgotten. Troy’s high school is named for him, as are other structures in the community.

The desk used by Henderson is in the section honoring him. So are other items used by him during his successful gubernatorial term.

"The people who come here seem to love what they’ve learned," said Peak, who applied for the director’s job when he learned of the opening. "We get about 10,000 visitors every year."

What he’d like are lots more so that he can show them around. Peak’s teaching background makes him ideal to serve as a tour guide and that’s one reason he was hired.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.



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Date Last Updated January, 2006