Looney Family, A Vintage Vignette
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
August 18, 2008
In the northwestern corner of the old section of the Madison City Cemetery south of Mill Road there is a double stone to mark the burials of William Henry Looney and his wife Ora Lelia Abernathy. Looney is an unusual family name, but I also encountered it while researching the pioneer families of Redstone Arsenal lands. Some of that land was owned by John Warren Looney and his brother Absalom. Absolem was the third generation with that name. His father Absolem “Jr.” is buried on his land at the old airport site in Huntsville. Absolem Jr. was a Revolutionary War veteran who brought his wife Margaret Warren and their children to Madison County in 1811 by flatboat from Tennessee. He had obtained land here in 1809. The first Absolem (“Sr.”) was born in 1729 and lived in Virginia. He had a brother who married a Rhea (like the county in Tenneessee) and became a great grandfather of William Bauck Looney, owner of Looney’s Tavern in Winston County from Civil War era fame. Absolem Sr. had another brother who married a Lauderdale (like the county in Alabama). Their father was Robert Looney, who came to Virginia before 1735, having been born in 1692 on the Isle of Mann in the British Isles.
The youngest Absolem Looney’s brother, John Warren Looney, was a great grandfather of Madison’s William Henry Looney. John owned land with a mill and riverboat landing on the west side of Indian Creek’s confluence with Huntsville’s Spring Branch Creek. He sold it to Thomas and George Fearn in 1834 for their project to transport cotton to the Tennessee River from Huntsville via the Indian Creek Navigation Company’s canal from Big Spring. John began a move to Goliad, Texas, in 1848, but he died near Nagadoches, leaving his wife and children to continue the journey. One of John’s sons, Tuberville, in 1841 had married Martha Bailey, a daughter of Madison pioneers James and Sarah Bailey. They had sons William, John, James Bailey, and Henry. Martha died soon after Henry’s birth, which is possibly a reason that Tuberville left in 1850 for Texas to be with his widowed mother. When he left, Tuberville took his son William, but he left John, James Bailey, and Henry to be raised by their grandmother Sarah Bailey. When she died, they were kept by an aunt, Sarah Bailey Blackburn (wife of David) on Rainbow Mountain.
James Bailey Looney was age 5 in the 1850 census, living between Meriwether Lewis and John Grantland in the Triana area before his father Tuberville left for Texas later in the year. As an adult, James had eleven children while living on Washington Street in Athens. William Henry Looney (1867 – 1937), who is in the Madison Cemetery, was James’ firstborn. William’s wife Ora was a daughter of Jesse and Annie Cartwright Abernathy. The 1900 census shows William and Ora living in Madison. The 1910 census shows William and Ora with sons Frank and Aubrey (later an Athens storekeeper) in their household. With them were Ora’s parents and William’s brother Kyle, in the Shoalford precinct of Limestone County. The 1930 census shows the family living on Mooresville Road in that county. Kyle was a schoolteacher and postman. Frank Looney became a chief of test stand design at NASA on Redstone Arsenal, working with the Von Braun team. Kyle and his nephew Frank maintained the old Bailey Cemetery on Mill Road throughout their lives. Another uncle of Frank’s, Thomas Lovell Looney, had a wife, Jennette Southard, who died at age 20 and is buried in the Madison Cemetery near William.
While the local Looney family history has many great stories, it should be noted that they are connected with a large number of notables. Per Ancestry.com, the area Looneys are related to U.S. presidents Benjamin Harrison, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. They are also connected to the wives of Presidents Thomas Jefferson, William Henry Harrison, and Grover Cleveland. The Looney family is related to rocket pioneer Robert Goddard and to Elvis Presley, Norman Rockwell, Louisa May Alcott, Stephen Crane, and the notorious Frank James. They tie also to Hollywood notables Clark Gable, James Dean, Mae West, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Marlon Brando, Fay Wray, and Raymond Massey – a truly impressive bunch.