Once filled with family, house now lonely and alone

Published 3:41 pm Monday, January 17, 2011

The Peterson House, now owned by the University of Montevallo, stands alone. (Contributed/Catherine Legg)

By Catherine Legg / Community Columnist

The historic Peterson House stands tall, proud and lonely on Middle Street in Montevallo today. Its rooms are silent and empty, but filled with wonderful memories.

Lucy Cary built the house just at the turn of the century, and it was purchased in 1908 by Dr. Francis Peterson, who was the second president of the Alabama Girls’ Industrial School (University of Montevallo). The Peterson family owned and occupied the home for more than 60 years. Tony and Mary Hall bought it in 1972 and lived there until it was purchased by UM in 1996.

On the ground floor of the house there was originally a parlor, a library, living room, kitchen, bathroom and a butler’s pantry. Three bedrooms and a bath were upstairs.

When the Halls bought the property, Mary had an inspector check its condition. He came back puzzled that there was a big cedar tree in the basement. On investigation, it was found that Frank Peterson had placed it there to thwart the wood-eating bugs. “It must have worked,” said Mary, “because the basement timbers were solid as could be.”

If the old house could talk, it would probably tell the tale that is related in Eloise Meroney’s book, “Montevallo, The First One Hundred Years.” In this southern town in 1916, the citizens were extremely interested in the presidential election and overwhelmingly supported the democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. Their only news came from the daily Birmingham Age- Herald. Frank Peterson, a young teacher in the local high school and son of Dr. Francis Peterson, had developed interest and skill in wireless telegraphy. In an abandoned chicken house in the yard of the Peterson home, he set up the first wireless station in the area. Frank, and his Boy Scout troop, using their self-fashioned equipment, experimented with receiving and transmitting messages by radio. Thus it was that they enjoyed the distinction of being the first to issue the news that Wilson had won the election.

Many older Montevallo people remember when Charlotte Peterson, daughter-in-law of the original owner, and long-time principal of the elementary school, lived there with her mother-in-law “Granny” Peterson; sister-in-law Mary Peterson, and her two sons, Francis and Winston. The house was filled with activity and the noise of family life; music, conversation, and laughter. Neighborhood children often gathered around as Charlotte told them exciting tales of “Uncle Remus” and “Tom Sawyer.”

The Peterson House is presently owned by UM, and plans are to renovate it when funds are available. Perhaps the old house will someday again be filled with those delightful sounds of music and laughter.

Catherine Legg can be reached by email at clegg2@bellsouth.net.