Marking Leeper’s legacy

Published 3:55 pm Friday, July 24, 2009

On a blistering hot July day, four men met to pay their respects and place a new grave marker on the only probate judge buried in the Columbiana City Cemetery without any physical identification, Judge John Samuel Leeper (b. 1843-d. 1895).

The first man was Shelby County Historical Society President Bobby Joe Seales, who has deep roots in Shelby County. One of his gifts to our county is the treasure of genealogical research and artifacts he has compiled at the Shelby County Museum and Archives.

The second man attending the marking was Scott Martin, president of the Birmingham Genealogical Society. His research made the placing of the grave marker possible, tracing and proving Leeper’s roots. His research included all of the Leeper’s family ties, his civil war records and his professional career.

Shelby County Commissioner Corley Ellis was the third man present. He, too, has deep roots in Shelby County. His ancestor Levin Handy Ellis, was mayor of Columbiana, Lt. Gov. of Alabama and Judge of the Law and Equity Court.

The last man standing at Leeper’s grave was current Probate Judge Jim Fuhrmeister, today’s link from a line of probate judges beginning in 1818. Shelby is one of the original counties formed in the Alabama territory and was organized on February 7, 1818. The first court was held on the fourth Monday in April 1818, at William S. Wallace’s home led by the first Chief Justice George Phillips. From that day, a long line of distinguished judges have served including: Dr. Cage Head (1929-1935); Leon Walker (1935-1959); Conrad Fowler Sr. (1959-1977); Tommy Snowden (1977-1995); and one woman, Patricia Fuhrmeister (1995-2008). Gov. Bob Riley appointed Jim Fuhrmeister as the Shelby County Probate Judge in March 2008 when his wife Patricia passed away from leukemia.

“One hundred years of history goes with the office of Probate Judge,” Fuhrmeister said. “These judges laid the foundation of Shelby County. Up to Judge Snowden, the probate judge was the administrative head of the county commission. It is important to learn from the past and to know that I am just a custodian of this office.”

Several political figures, along with their families, are buried in this old area of the cemetery: three probate judges, James Theophalus Leeper (judge from June 1869-August 1888), his brother John Samuel Leeper (Judge from October 1892-October, 1895), Dugald Richard McMillan (Judge from October 1895-November 1898); and Luther Fowler, editor/publisher of the Shelby County Reporter and father of Probate Judge Conrad Fowler Sr.

Judge John Leeper was laid to rest next to his wife, Fannie, and behind his brother, James. Over time, his marker became lost. Four men came together with a sense of purpose to see Leeper’s resting place be properly marked forever — among the old oak trees, on a hot, humid day in July.