In 1916, William Brockman Bankhead bought an orchard for $2500. Unfortunately, he wasn’t interested in growing apples.
Bankhead, who within a year would be elected as an Alabama congressman and would eventually serve as Speaker of the House of Representatives, built a Colonial Revival style house on the property from 1924-25.
The home was featured in the Dec. 28th, 1936 issue of Life Magazine, and in 1937 became the wedding venue of actor John Emery and Bankhead’s younger daughter, actress Tallulah Bankhead.
In 1940, Bankhead’s funeral was held at the First United Methodist Church, filling the streets of Jasper with an estimated 30,000 people, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
After passing through several owners over the years, the house’s condition declined. “After [Speaker Bankhead’s] death it changed ownership, and finally had gotten in really bad repair,” says John Oliver, whose wife Barbara was Bankhead’s great niece. “When you came in the house, you had to step over stuff.”
In recent years, the Walker Area Community Foundation saw a need to preserve it. “Paul Kennedy thought about the possibility that the Foundation could purchase this house, and he went to John Oliver, who was the head of Board of Directors,” says Carol Savage, the Foundation’s first executive director.
One of the first people Oliver called was local historian and collector Pat Morrison. “John Oliver wanted to know if I would head it up,” Mr. Morrison recalls. “He said, ‘The thing I would like for you to do is gather people together who are interested in the history and developing of the house.’”
Despite its condition, Morrison saw possibilities. “It was a mess,” he remembers. “There were places rotted in the floor, there were holes in the roof, junk piled up everywhere. It was in really bad shape. Paul and I went in there and saw the potential in the place immediately.”
With help from local philanthropists, the Foundation soon acquired the house. “There were three or four families who were really generous and gave the money to purchase the house and for the renovation,” Mrs. Savage explains. “No money came from the principal of the Foundation. It was all paid for by the generosity of these few families.”
The house officially opened in 2010 and began featuring exhibits in 2011. “They [consultants] said we would not be a house museum because we did not have furniture original to the house, so we decided on the Bankhead House and Heritage Center,” Ms. Savage explains. “We have a few pieces here that were part of the Bankhead family. We have Speaker Bankhead’s desk when he served in the Alabama Senate. There is a table in the dining room that was used at Sunset [his father John Hollis Bankhead’s home].
The Exhibit Committee includes Helen Morrison, Pat Morrison, Carol Savage, and Chairman Brenda Beard. “I came to be with my mother, and when she passed away in 2010, Carol said, ‘You need to do this,’” Ms. Beard recalls, stifling a grin. “She lassoed me in! The first thing I did was get on the computer and start looking up Gee’s Bend Quilts. I emailed probably ten places but never heard from a one.”
That story has a happy ending, though. “The Gee’s Bend fifth generation came and spoke at the opening reception for our A Stitch In Time quilting exhibit,” says Director Mimi Hudson. “We had Gee’s Bend quilts upstairs for that exhibit, so her work paid off two years later.”
At first, convincing people to loan items for exhibits wasn’t easy. “I think when people realized their things were going to be on display, it really brought community support,” Savage says. “In the beginning, we had a hard time getting people to say, ‘Oh yes, we’ll let you borrow something,’ because they didn’t know what it was going to be.”
Mimi Hudson says establishing trust was the key. “There was a trust factor that had to be built within the community–that it was legitimate, that their items would be honored and taken care of. And we still do that to this day.”
Morrison loans many items from his personal collection. “The role that I play is, every exhibit that we have, I try and supplement it with the things I’ve collected over the years,” he explains. “Without Brenda, Carol, and Helen, we couldn’t do the exhibits. I think it’s a good team.”
“Without Pat, we could not do half of what we do,” Mrs. Beard says. “He’s a historian, a writer, and most importantly, he’s a collector. I just think, what in the world if we didn’t have Pat?”
Visitors expecting a stuffy, reserved atmosphere will be surprised. “It’s not one of those cold, museum-type places where you don’t touch, don’t sit on the furniture,” says BHHC Coordinator Barbara Brown Medders. “We are very open, very warm. We have people who come and sit down and tell us stories about Walker County. The kids come in with school groups, they sit down on the floor, and we just have a great time. We have our free concerts outside. The first one, Jazz in the Park, starts Memorial Day weekend and it’s wonderful! People bring their lawn chairs and have a picnic, and they get up and dance.”
The house has become a tourist attraction, welcoming visitors from across the Southeast, as well as Australia, United Kingdom, Japan, Switzerland, and Saudi Arabia. No one is more pleased than John Oliver. “The people of the town embraced it. I live down the street and I come by on the weekend. There’s nearly always somebody out there photographing bridal couples or family groups. It’s turned out to be a point of pride for the community. It really has thrilled me that the community bought into the idea so well.”
Brenda Beard agrees. “That’s the greatest thing about this house, which I think is the greatest thing in my lifetime that’s come to Jasper,” she says. “We involve our communities. People are able to exhibit their talents.”
Although the house is owned by the Foundation, Mimi emphasizes it is a gift to the community. “Without the community, we wouldn’t be here,” she says. “It’s their items, it’s their house, it’s for everyone. It’s always been community driven.”
“We call this ‘The People’s Home,’” Barbara adds. “We want people to be at home here.”
You won’t find trees growing on this orchard now, but one thing has not changed.
It is still bearing fruit. 78