Written by: Peter J. Gossett, originally appearing in the Northwest Alabamian, July 25, 2018
HELICON - (HELICAN to some) - Nestled in east central Winston County, about one-and-a-half miles from the Cullman County line, is the community of Helicon.
A look at some local maps offer the spelling as Helican. Some say it is a play on words dating back to the beginning of the community.
However, whether it was a local who came up with the name or the United States Post Office Department, it is most definitely spelled Helicon, with an "O." The person who came up with the name may never be known.
A document was completed on January 28, 1895, for the purpose of establishing a post office to be named Helicon with Mary Amazon Freeman being the first postmaster. The document was reviewed by George Lester, postmaster at Nesmith, before being submitted. Information gleaned from a later post office department document shows the "village" was named Freeman’s Crossroads before the name Helicon was chosen. In fact, the 1900 census listed the area as Crossroads, and Helicon first appeared on an atlas map in 1901.
The Helicon Post Office was established March 4, 1895, with Freeman serving nearly eight years in her position. It closed and consolidated with Addison on June 30, 1915. Other postmasters were Elijah C. Vinson, Oliver M. Nesmith, Louis R. Clark and Vardy D. Seymore.
Before Winston County had a school system, there was a country school located at Helicon named Poplar Springs. The establishment date of the last school at Helicon has not been obtainable. However, it is known to be in session by 1915.
With the exception of Pebble and Delmar schools, Helicon has been one of the last schools closed in Winston County. The date of the closing was July 30, 1968. The reason for the closure stated was "due to the enrollment falling below that necessary for the state to furnish teachers." It was also known as Freeman School at one point, just like the town.
According to a newspaper article in 1907, a new schoolhouse was in the works, which had been "needed for a long time." Citizens met and made up $200 to go toward the school building. It is not known whether a building was built at this time or not.
While many in Winston County know the small community, many may not know the word Helicon itself has several definitions. Whomever the person may be who named the town, it was most likely given the name from the area in Boeotia, Greece, known as Mount Helicon. Other known uses and definitions of Helicon are:
* a large spiral brass tuba played encircling the player’s head and resting on the shoulder;
* a former river in the Macedonian city of Dion from Greek mythology;
* a low frequency electromagnetic wave that can exist in plasmas in the presence of a magnetic field.
There is another town or community in Alabama called Helicon, too. It is located in Crenshaw County.
As with other communities of the time, there were several businesses at Helicon, including a blacksmith, grist mill, gin, saw mill, general stores and others.
Perhaps one of the most widely known facts about Helicon is the destruction the area sustained during a tornado on April 20, 1920. In later years, it was categorized as an F-4. There were 50 injuries in the Falls City and Helicon areas with one death for Winston County.
The following extract is from the Mountain Eagle, April 28, 1920:
"Many houses and barns were blown completely away, and people left without food or shelter. The small town of Helicon in Winston County was completely demolished; not a building was left standing, and neighboring orchards and farms were ruined..."
According to Winston County newspaper reports, over the next month, many people across Winston County, along with the Red Cross, helped by volunteering time and labor to Helicon and the surrounding area. A group of men from Winston County, while temporarily residing in Washington, D.C., raised $62 "to be used in relieving distress among the unfortunate." This amount is the equivalent of $780 today.
The Winston Herald reported the following excerpt on April 23, 1920:
"Twenty houses were completely demolished and more than twenty-five others badly wrecked. Tents have been wired for in which to house the people. No one was killed in Helicon, but Mrs. John Godbee, Mrs. S.A. Ray and Mrs. Mell McCoy were all seriously injured..."
The one death occurring from the tornado was Orville Barron, six-year-old son of Garrett Barron and Molly Hamner. According to a newspaper report, he was crushed under a chimney. His parents were in Double Springs at the time taking a teacher examination.
The school was also destroyed during the tornado. At the time, it was a plank building with one large room and two teachers. When it was rebuilt, it contained three large rooms and went to the ninth grade.
An article in The Winston Herald in 1922 states the following about the school before and after the tornado:
"The people at Helicon deserve credit...two-and-a-half years ago, a cyclone swept away everything they had including a good school building in which had just been installed patent desks and other equipment, and to which a room had been added and the building painted. But the people did not give up. They went to thinking and planning and working, and now the new building is a finer and better one in every way than the old one could have been."
Minutes from the Winston County Board of Education approved the process on September 26, 1930, to have the upper classes transferred to Meek. It reads:
"The matter of transferring the upper grades from Helican School was re-opened and it was the will of the Board to transport all pupils from the seventh grade and above to Meek School."
Settlers of Helicon included the surnames of Ward, Parris, Uptain, Thomas, Burns and possibly the most widely-known name of all: Denson. Denson brothers Seaborn and Thomas are known for their forming the Sacred Harp Publishing Company and teaching singing schools over much of the South. A monument was placed at the Winston County Courthouse in 1944, recognizing the Denson brothers and their devotion to Sacred Harp music. From gleanings of earlier newspapers at the turn of the 20th century, the Denson family was well-known, not only for the Sacred Harp music, but for other things. For example, in 1901, L.G. Denson was a dentist located in Helicon and was "a worthy young man." At the time, he was the only dentist in Winston County. Members of the Denson family also formed a brass band in the early 20th century and would travel about.
Among the former churches in Helicon were a Methodist Episcopal and Church of God, though these two no longer exist. The only one currently is the Liberty Baptist Church.
Liberty was founded in 1884 and joined the Baptist Association in 1889. There have been four buildings for the church. The third building was built in 1914, and the current church was built in 1944 and paid for by freewill offerings, a loan of $8,000 and cotton patches.
According to the December, 1949 issue of The Progressive Farmer in an article by John Shirey, the church was built out of sandstone quarried in the community.
More information on the school was obtained in a quote in the same article by Mrs. Roy Lyle, a teacher in Helicon:
"I can see a big difference in this community now and the time I went to grammar school here as a child...We have had our school lunchroom for three years. There were 105 children in school last year. All but one ate in the lunchroom last winter. That child was timid and did not want to eat there. His family had enough money to buy his lunch. We got the lunchroom through government aid. Men in the community dismantled a surplus army building. Our community won a $100 award in 1947 in a one-variety cotton contest. This money was put into material for finishing the lunchroom. In 1948 the community won a $500 award in the same contest. That money was used to buy a large refrigerator for the lunchroom."
"When I went to school out here at Helicon, we played springboard," Helicon resident Collene Brown said. Brown went on to explain a rock would be placed on the ground with a long plank placed on top. One child would stand on the end of the plank that was down, while another would jump up on the one in the air, similar to a see-saw.
"I went to Helicon to the sixth grade. Our two oldest children went to school there," Brown said.
Early on, there was only one building for Helicon School, but there were two outhouses, one for boys and one for girls.
"Back when I was going to school, we’d get out to pick cotton for maybe a month. We have stayed out as long as two months to pick cotton. People had to keep their kids out and get that cotton. It would ruin if you didn’t."
"Mr. Richard Lem Meherg was the principal during my time. Molly Barron taught first and second grade, and Celia Stephenson was the third and fourth grade teacher. Miss Molly taught there after I left. She would stay with George Parris during the school term, and she would go and spend maybe a night with each of the kids that were in her room. She was a wonderful person. She had one boy that will killed in the tornado (in 1920) and one daughter."
Other teachers throughout the 1920s and 1930s included Lillian Baldwin, Myrtle Hyatt, J.P. Wooten, Ozella Gladney, J.A. Denson, Tommie Lee Gilmer, Snowbelle Gilmer, Emma Shumaker, Ellie Tarrance, Lillie Cornelius, Flavin Creel, W.H. Swearingen, Josephine Woods, Madge Howell, H.R. Hunter and Mr. and Mrs. Homer Cagle. A long-time bus driver was F.M. Cleghorn.
At Swayback Bridge across Rock Creek, an old rock pit was located under a portion of the bridge. If anyone got in jail, they had to work in this pit or work on the roads.
"It was April Fool’s Day. We were going to school, and the road was so crooked you couldn’t make much time. We were going up the other side of the hill (at Swayback Bridge), and some of the kids opened the back door and jumped out. By the time we got to the top of the hill, we didn’t have many kids left on the bus. Those of us sitting at the front didn’t know it until we got to the top of the hill. We had a lot of fun."
One time, someone had a truck loaded with cotton as they crossed the bridge, causing it to collapse, though the fallen portion was not over the water.
"When we went to school, our bus would take us down to the bridge, and we’d have to get off. There were some old planks made into steps, and we’d have to go through the rock pit (to the other side). They’d send a bus from Meek to get us. It was so cold. We’d have to get out and walk to the other bus until they got the bridge built back," Brown said.
The school burned on March 20, 1968, between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. Children arriving on the bus for the start of school found it in flames, with it starting in the roof onlookers reported. The lunchroom was saved, and the classes were held there for the rest of the term. At this point, the decision had already been made to consolidate the school, sending approximately 30 children to attend either Addison or Meek schools. At this point in time, Hazel Denson was the principal with the other teacher being Virgie Hiller.
"I was six years old," said Rena Parris McCombs, referring to when the school burned. "All I can remember is standing at the back door with my mother. We were watching the school burn. So much smoke and large, red flames. Of course I was crying and asking mother where I will go to school. So sad. It was a very special place for our community."
On May 27, 1968, the board of education appointed Voyt Cleghorn, Fred Harden and R.C. Denson trustees of the lunchroom building when the school closed.
When asked about the spelling of Helicon, Brown stated she spelled it with an "O" and told the rumored tale of the other spelling.
"I’ll tell you the little tale where it got its name. Of course it wasn’t right, but they told the old tale. They said they met and didn’t know what to name (the town). Some old guy who was drunk said he could name it: Hell I can."
"That’s just a tale. You know how things like that get started. As far as where it came from, I don’t know."
When Brown was growing up, they would have Sacred Harp and New Book singings. Revivals were held for about two weeks, and afterwards, the groups would go down to what was called the "old baptizing hole" on Rock Creek. One year, Brown remembers around 20 being baptized one year.
"After the baptizing, we would come back to the church and elect a pastor. They’d get maybe three or four men who weren’t members to sit up front. You’d go around and whisper to them who you wanted for a pastor. That’s how we elected pastors back then," Brown mentioned.
The third Sunday in May is decoration at Liberty. In the evenings, the church would have Sacred Harp singings, while the New Book singings took place on the first Sunday in June. Lastly, an all-day singing of Sacred Harp was on the Fourth of July.
"They’d have stands, these little buildings, and they’d sell candy and ice cream and Cracker Jacks," Brown recalled for the Fourth of July. She also stated the song about having a silver dollar and spending it on the Fourth of July was written by a Mr. Fell and about the Liberty Baptist celebration on the Fourth.
Terry Fell, born in Dora in 1921 and who lived in Crane Hill, was well-known for writing the song "Truck Driving Man" in 1954 and was covered by several artists later. In 1955, he released a 45 RPM single on the X label called "I’m Hot to Trot." The flip-side of this 45 was the song about the Fourth of July celebrations at Liberty, called "Fa-So-La." For researchers, the catalog number of the 45 is 4X-0149. It was additionally released as a 78 RPM record. When traveling in buggies on cold days, Brown explained one way she kept warm.
"They would put a rock in the fireplace, then put it in the buggy for me to have on my feet. I’d be wrapped in quilts," Brown mentioned of hard times past.
The heart of Helicon can be considered to be at the intersection of County Roads 40 and 77 southeast of Addison. There are no population records for Helicon from the U.S. Census.
The area has always been a small, sleepy farming community. Those who live there enjoy the quiet and small country community charm.
"I’ve lived here most of my life and I think it’s a great place to live," said Helicon Fire Chief Carson Gladney.