Life immersed in history

Since retiring from his 33-year career with American Cast Iron Pipe this past January, Ken Penhale has found more time to pursue his interest in Helena’s historical past.

Ken amassed an impressive collection of photographs and memorabilia while co-authoring Images of America, a series publication for Helena and An Early History of Helena, AL, published for the centennial celebration in 1977.

“I have been lucky enough to know many people willing to share their local family history and photographs with me,” Ken said.

In his study hangs a pre-Civil War charcoal portrait of his great-grandparents and housed in glass-fronted display cabinets are turn-of-the-century artifacts from Helena’s coal-mining heyday.

Ken’s great-grandparents moved from Alabaster to Rome, Ga. when they married in 1860. Ken’s grandmother, Ruth, was one of their eight daughters who eventually returned to Shelby County. Ruth attended college, as did all her sisters, an uncommon choice for women in the 1890s. One sister, Bertha, was the first female graduate from the two-year College of Pharmacy program at what is now Auburn; the others attended the then all-girls University of Montevallo. At one time Ruth became the largest landowner in Helena and today, her descendents continue to live on Penhale Lane.

On Ken’s study wall hangs the 1902 framed charter of the Odd Fellows, Lodge 228 of Helena with John Penhale, Ken’s grandfather listed. Ken acts as caretaker, as well, of his great-grandfather’s Masonic Lodge sword with scrimshaw etched on the ivory handle and William H. Penhale engraved on the blade. He also displays in his home an elegant walking stick carved and embellished with Masonic emblems and the date, 1923.

Stored within an aged and peeling trunk are custom oval boxes containing leather wrist cuffs and the Grand Mason’s headdress, which once would have been topped with a black plume. Masons wore this ensemble, along with the ornate leather and silver belt, over a black uniform. A Shriner’s felted red fez with the bronzed lettering ‘Zamora’ from his great-grandfather is also preserved within the trunk.

Ken is a past president of the Shelby County Historical Commission and currently serves as a member of the Cahaba Trace Commission, an organization that promotes conservation and tourism in the Cahaba River basin. Images of America, Helena Alabama has been recently reissued and is available at: the Helena Water Department, Walgreen’s and You Won’t Believe It in Old Town.