Hanging up his hat: Seales to retire as longtime director of Shelby County Museum and Archives

Published 10:20 am Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Bobby Joe Seales, known for his black top hat and knowledge of Shelby County history, will retire as president of the Shelby County Historical Society and as director of the Shelby County Museum and Archives on Nov. 1. (File)

Bobby Joe Seales, known for his black top hat and his knowledge of Shelby County history, will retire as president of the Shelby County Historical Society and as director of the Shelby County Museum and Archives on Nov. 1. (File)


The old Shelby County Courthouse, situated in the center of the roundabout on North Main Street in downtown Columbiana, is home to an extensive collection of archived materials and artifacts compiled and curated by the Shelby County Historical Society.

Over the past 16 years, the old courthouse also has served as a home away from home for Alabaster resident Bobby Joe Seales, the historical society’s longtime leader who has spent countless hours in the building organizing files, maintaining the museum and helping visitors with their inquiries.

Seales, 70, will retire as president of the Shelby County Historical Society and as director of the Shelby County Museum and Archives on Sunday, Nov. 1.

“I’m going to miss this,” Seales said of the work that has kept him immersed daily in his native county’s history. “I do this because I love Shelby County.”

Although Seales is hanging up his president and director hats, he will continue to don his black top hat, a trademark accessory that coordinates with his nickname “Mr. Shelby County.”

Seales dedicated himself to researching and collecting local historical information many years ago, and he has no plans to stop now.

How it all started

Seales began studying his family lineage nearly 50 years ago.

When he and his wife, Diane Seales, were dating, they went to the Birmingham Public Library and area cemeteries together as part of his research for a book.

The couple married in December 1969. Bobby Joe’s book about his mother’s family, “Stamps-Massey Ancestors,” was printed the next year.

“My ancestors were here before Shelby County was Shelby County,” he said. “I have an interest in Shelby County because of that. Our documents date back to before Alabama was a state.”

Bobby Joe’s parents lived in Siluria. Diane’s family lived at Thompson Plantation, a part of which Bobby Joe and Diane inhabit, in Alabaster.

During his research, Bobby Joe traveled to Columbiana multiple times to leaf through his family’s records and met the late Madine and Earl Evans, who set the “preliminary foundation of the museum and archives.”

The couple loaded and transported county record books from the new courthouse to the old courthouse, sorted and indexed them by hand.

“God bless them, they worked so hard,” Bobby Joe said. “They were the backbones of this organization.”

Bobby Joe offered to look after the building and archives while the couple went on vacation, but his help gradually became more permanent.

In the mid-to-late 1990s, Madine was hospitalized for an illness shortly after the couple’s trip and reduced her work with the museum and archives.

“She wasn’t able to put as much into it,” Bobby Joe said.

He said Miriam Fowler was instrumental in setting up the museum, and Ken Penhale served as the first president of the Shelby County Historical Society.

Bobby Joe became the president of the group in November 1999.

“I just happened to come in at the right time and pick it up and move it (forward),” Bobby Joe said. “I couldn’t have done it without the officers, board of directors and personnel.”

Preserving history

When Bobby Joe started his term as the historical society’s president, the group had fewer than 200 members.

Membership has now climbed to more than 900 people.

“We’re noted as being the largest, most active historical society in the state,” Bobby Joe said. “We have a good reputation, and I know it’s going to continue.”

Bobby Joe’s contributions to the Shelby County Museum and Archives extend beyond the reference books on the shelves, court records, bound volumes and microfilm of the Shelby County Reporter newspapers and artifacts carefully arranged in the museum.

He has also written grants to secure funding for cabinets, computers, protective window film and other supplies necessary for the preservation and upkeep of the museum and building itself.

“He has done a lot of work to get it to the shape it’s in now,” Diane said of Bobby Joe.

The building, constructed in 1854, is deemed a historic landmark by the National Register of Historic Places and is listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage.

A turning point for the historical society came in 2004, when Bobby Joe was granted permission from the city to hold an engraved brick sale to raise money for the group, outside of member dues, to allow for more hours of operation in the museum and archives.

Nearly 700 bricks to be engraved and placed in front of the old courthouse were sold for $100 each.

“That was our big moneymaker,” Bobby Joe said. “I’ve never had to hold another fundraiser since then.”

Diane noted Bobby Joe’s work as the county’s representative for the Alabama Cemetery Preservation Alliance.

“He’s been really active in getting historic markers up,” Diane said. “He has worked primarily in Shelby County, but it’s a statewide initiative.”

Bobby Joe is a graduate of Leadership Shelby County Class of 2004 and serves on the alumni board.

He is also president of the Shelby County Tourism and Hospitality Association, is on the Alabama Bicentennial Commission Local Activities Committee, was elected to the Friends of the Alabama Archive Board, is a member of the National Society Sons of the American Revolution, was the president of the Alabama State Society and was the first president of the Cahaba-Coosa Chapter.

Bobby Joe was recognized by the Alabama Society DAR for “Excellence in Community Service” and by the Alabama Society Sons of the American Revolution for distinguished services to community, county and state.

Bobby Joe oversaw the collection of oral histories of county residents as part of the Alabama Historical Commission Oral History Project.

In 2011, the Alabama Historical Records Advisory Board provided a grant which, paired with matching public contributions, enabled the oral histories to be digitalized and made available to the public.

Under Bobby Joe’s leadership, the Shelby County Historical Society received the Alabama Historical Association’s James Ray Kuykendall Historical Society Award in 2012.

New chapter, new challenges

A retirement celebration for Bobby Joe will be held Nov. 1 at the Shelby County Museum and Archives in the 1854 Old Courthouse in Columbiana at 2 p.m.

After dedicating years to organizing the Shelby County Historical Society’s collection of records, documents, oral histories and research aids––and digitalizing many of them––Bobby Joe is ready to embrace a new chapter of life.

He said he will assist Jennifer Maier, who will succeed him as director of the Shelby County Museum and Archives, and Fred Olive, who will become the new Shelby County Historical Society president, during the transition after Bobby Joe retires.

“It’s been a roller coaster all these years,” Bobby Joe said, adding he has confidence in Maier and Olive to take his place.

Bobby Joe and Diane have two grown children and five grandchildren.

He said he plans to become more involved with organizations at the state level and to continue his genealogical research.

Don’t expect Bobby Joe and his black top hat to disappear, though. He will stay involved in the community through speaking engagements and events.

“Shelby County is very special to me,” Bobby Joe said. “I appreciate the people, I appreciate the love people have shown me. It’s overwhelming.”