Jeff and the Kellys, A Vintage Vignette

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Jeff and the Kellys
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
September 3, 2009

Two villages have clustered around the spring that forms the headwaters of Indian Creek. The spring is still visible along Kelly Spring Road at its junction with Jeff Road. According to a story written in years past by Virgil Carrington (“Pat”) Jones, there was a small fort at the spring to protect early settlers from possible Indian attacks. Parcels of land in that area were patented from 1809 to 1837 by a number of pioneers. Among them were William Routt, Gabriel Moore, Robert Lewis, William and Charles Price, Samuel Jones, Jenkin Whiteside, Edmond Strange, and John Reasonhover. Benjamin Wilburn bought the land around the spring about 1828 and held it until his death. Pat Jones’ story mentions that a malaria outbreak probably led to the abandonment of the first village. Perhaps even Wilburn’s death was due to malaria, but that is not known today. The hypothesis is reasonable, as the area is low and swampy, possibly a malaria-carrying mosquito breeding ground.

In 1853 Joshua Oscar Kelly got the land from Wilburn’s estate. He added to it until he owned the entire section of 640 acres around the spring. It lies south of Burwell Road, east of Jeff Road, north of Kelly Spring Road, and west of David Douglass Road. William J. Kelly purchased parcels of nearby land at the southeastern side of Capshaw Mountain in 1853 and 1854. Deeds recorded in 1900 and 1914 show additional land was purchased near Harvest by members of the Kelly family. This land lay primarily between Old Railroad Bed Road and the Ardmore Highway, south of McLemore Road and north of Harvest Road. It was purchased by D. E., J. O., and Thomas B. Kelly to cover all of another complete section of 640 acres excepting 40acres purchased by William F. Garner. The Garner parcel is now the Harvest Hills Golf Course.

In the 1900s the Kelly family owned 2500 acres of land in the county. They initially grew cotton. When slave labor was eliminated after the Civil War, the Kelly emphasis shifted to grow apple and pear orchards and to raise cattle. Pat Jones stated in his story that at the end of the Civil War, J. O. Kelly gave his former slaves money and food to get them established in their new lives. Several of them remained with him and no doubt assisted in converting to fruit and livestock, entailing less labor than cotton. The Kellys took pride in the fact that through the years, their land was never mortgaged, and they were known to be a major fruit supplier in the region. They established a second village around the old homesite, setting up a post office, telephone switchboard, blacksmith shop, nursery, cotton gin, and a general merchandise shop. The post office led to the “Jeff” name of the community. The family had called it “Jefferson Davis”, in honor of the President of the Confederacy. According to Pat Jones, postal regulations required a shorter name for the post office, so it was shortened to simply “Jeff”. It perhaps could just as well have been called “Kelly”.

The Kelly family came to Madison County from Virginia. David Emmitt Kelly (1793-1857) and his wife Nancy Rebecca Wesson settled along what today is Pulaski Pike. It was there that the Kelly family cemetery was established, when their infant daughter Susan Jane died in 1832. Dorothy Scott Johnson recorded 48 names at graves in the cemetery in her book “Cemeteries of Madison County, Alabama, Volume 1”. Joshua Oscar Kelly (1826-1897) was a son of David and Nancy. He married Sarah Belinda Strong (1835-1915), and from 1852 to 1874 they had ten children: William Oscar, Charles Joshua, Martha Susan, David Edward, Joshua Oscar (Jr.), George Lawson, Sallie Lena, Lula Alice, Nannie Lee, and Laura May Kelly. The Kellys intermarried with many of the prominent pioneer families of this area, and they have numerous famous relatives. Among those are U. S. President Zachary Taylor and Martin Van Buren’s wife Angelica, Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens), Eli Whitney, Elvis Presley, and several more famous authors, as well as more U. S. Presidents of later generations.

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