Have a piece of history?

Professor Saunders is hoping for assistance from area individuals in terms of providing him letters, family records, photos and other historical artifacts for his upcoming work. To reach him, email him at rsaunders@troy.edu.

A professor of history at Troy University told members of the Apalachicola Area Historical Society Saturday morning that he plans to write a social history of Apalachicola, focused on the theme of the community’s ability to rebound despite adverse and changing conditions.

“There are thousands of Southern towns, suffering the vagaries of economic ups and downs. They’re gone away, they’re dead towns,” said Robert Saunders, chairman of the history department at the Alabama university. “Apalachicola easily could have succumbed to yellow fever, to floods, to the fire of 1900. I want to find out what has historically driven the town to keep on,” he said, “Apalachicolans have been knocked down many times, but they’ve always come back.”

Saunders was guest speaker at the society’s general meeting, held at the Raney House carriage house and attended by about 30 members of the society.

Saunders said he expected to work on the book for about two years, and plans to begin after he completes the story of Wilber Wightman Gramling, a Leon County man who served in the Fifth Florida Infantry Regiment during the Civil War, saw action at Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, was sent to the prisoner-of-war camp at Elmira, New York, and left behind one of the few surviving diaries written by a Florida soldier during the war, particularly rare in that it documents the experiences of a serviceman incarcerated in a Union prisoner-of-war camp.

Saunders is also doing work on the letters exchanged between Mary Todd Lincoln’s half-sister, Elodie Todd, and her fiancé Nathaniel Henry Rhodes Dawson, a Selma, Ala., lawyer and politician, Confederate officer, and United States commissioner of education.

The professor, a Baltimore Maryland native who moved to Selma as a boy when his father, an FBI agent, was reassigned there, has taught college for 26 years, and is currently an interim associate dean at Troy. He earned his bachelor and master’s degrees from Salisbury State University, and a doctorate from Auburn University in 1994.

In his recounting of Apalachicola’s economic history, Saunders described how the port city has been both geographically and socially isolated, but cosmopolitan in its sensibilities and diverse in its ethnic makeup.

He said that a visit to Chestnut Cemetery quickly reveals that “this is a town of immigrants, a town of Northerners. The first thing that strikes you is they (the deceased) are from somewhere else.”

Saunders said he plans to explore the history of Apalachicola’s ethnic enclaves, and its spirit of survival, by drawing on the history of families from all walks on life, as opposed to focusing exclusively on high-profile families, such as the Ormans and the Raneys, or famous individuals, such as Alvan Chapman or William Popham.

“One person doesn’t make a town,” he said. “I want to provide as much details as I possibly can, or provide a whole picture, a complete picture.

“We need records, the history of your families. I can tell a pretty good story, but I need the record.” Saunders said. “Look through your closets and your attics. Nothing is inconsequential; nothing is trivial. It adds color.”

The professor said he envisions his work to be in the vein of two earlier works, one by Harry P. Owens, a professor emeritus from the University of Mississippi who wrote his 1966 doctoral dissertation at Florida State University on "Apalachicola before 1861" and the other by William Warren Rogers, a professor emeritus at FSU, whose 1986 work “Outposts on the Gulf” on the history of Franklin is considered the most complete history of the area.

He said he admired Rogers’ work but found it incomplete, in that it devoted lots of focus on individuals, such as real estate and confidence man William Popham, to the exclusion of a broad look at social and religious trends.

Saunders said he believes Rogers would welcome a successor to his work, especially from World War II to the present, but that he plans to conclude his narrative before the 1980s to ensure against bias.

“When I get close to the present, I start getting nervous,” he said. “We know more about Charlemagne than we know of John Kennedy.”

He also noted that while the rest of the county has a fascinating history, “I intend to focus on Apalachicola, because that’s the area’s anchor.”

Following Saunders presentation, the Society held their annual general meeting and voted on a series of updates to their bylaws. In addition, they re-elected the current board, which includes President Tom Daly, Vice President David Adlerstein, Secretary Shirley Taylor and Treasurer Fran Edwards. In addition they reelected Gene Smith to another term on the board of directors.