Cashing in on history: Moundville brings money to west Alabama, but price is too high for Oxford
by Patrick McCreless
Staff Writer
Jan 23, 2010 | 7667 views |  9 comments | 76 76 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Indian mound seen with the Exchange in the foreground in this shot taken from Highway 78. Photo: Anniston Star file
The Indian mound seen with the Exchange in the foreground in this shot taken from Highway 78. Photo: Anniston Star file
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Centuries ago, American Indians settled in an area near Tuscaloosa, where they built towering mounds and a thriving cultural center. Today the area is known as the Moundville Archaeological Park and it too is thriving — drawing thousands of visitors and generating millions for the economy of west Alabama each year.

The city of Oxford was once home to a similar Indian culture long ago and though it is not as elaborate, the city today contains many archaeological sites. In addition, near some of the Indian sites is a 19th century home with plenty of history of its own.

In recent years, some have suggested that like Moundville, Oxford could have its own historic attraction. However, creating such a facility may not be easy, especially since some of the sites may have recently been destroyed.

For years Harry Holstein, professor of archaeology and anthropology at Jacksonville State University, has researched the Davis Farm property — much of which is being used as the construction site for Oxford's multi-million-dollar sports complex — and uncovered large amounts of ancient artifacts and the remnants of a temple mound and village.

University of Alabama archaeologists on Jan. 8 reported discovering ancient American Indian remains at the site. On Monday, Holstein claimed the mound had disappeared. City officials maintain nothing has been done to the site.

Last year, a contractor hired by the city's Commercial Development Authority attempted to demolish the hill underneath an American Indian mound behind the Oxford Exchange to use as fill dirt for a Sam's Club under construction. After protests from local residents and activists, the destruction stopped and a private landowner said the city started purchasing fill dirt from his property.

Several years ago, Holstein proposed the city of Oxford turn the Davis Farm mound site, as well as the nearby Civil War-era home, into a cultural center.

"It would have been very feasible," said Holstein. "It could have been a park and information center and also a museum. Basically, it needs to be protected."

He said he visited the historic home earlier this week and discovered it had been vandalized.

To Holstein, a historic center could eventually pay for itself as an economic engine, since it is located near Interstate 20 and across from the Oxford Exchange.

"It would draw people off the interstate and then people could shop across the street at the Exchange," Holstein said.

Bill Bomar, director of the Moundville Archeological Park, said being located near Interstate 20 has had a significant impact on the success of the site.

"We get a lot of cross-country travelers," Bomar said. "Out-of-state travelers make up 20 to 25 percent of our visitors."

Bomar said typically, the park draws in around 40,000 visitors per year, one fourth of which comes from school groups. The site generates about $194,715 in revenue each year through its gift shop, admissions and festivals held there each year.

Bomar said the park generates much more revenue for the local economy, which will soon increase through its museum, currently under major renovation.

A study conducted by the University Center of Economic Development at the University of Alabama said the renovated museum will have an estimated $2.1 million economic impact on west Alabama each year.

Oxford City Councilwoman June Land Reaves said the previous City Council did discuss creating a visitor's center out of the Davis Farm property, but discovered the cost would have been too high. She said the city currently does not own the land that holds the old home.

"The price was pretty prohibitive … I believe the cost for that property was $21 million," Reaves said.

The city paid about $5 million for the 360 acres for the sports complex just to the south, which includes many of the American Indian sites.

The home and the property around it are owned by Ruth Q. Davis Properties, LLC. Members of the corporation include attorney William Henry Agee of Tennessee and Sam Woody of Piedmont and until December, Regions Bank.

"As far as I know, we're not part of that organization," said Mel Campbell, a spokesman for the Birmingham-based Regions Bank.

Campbell had no information on Regions' previous plans for the property or why it withdrew from the corporation.

Attempts to reach Woody and Agee for comment Friday were unsuccessful.

Despite the cost, Reaves would have liked to create the history center.

"I would really like us to have control of the house and the adjacent property," Reaves said. "It is quite historic … there are family graves, Indian graves and slave graves on the property."

City Councilman Phil Gardner, however, said he was not interested in creating a history center and did not think most of his fellow council members would be either.

"But I'm only speaking for myself … that's just my opinion," Gardner said.

Mayor Leon Smith agreed with Gardener, noting the land was too costly.

"They wanted too much money for it," Smith said.

Attempts to reach other City Council members were unsuccessful Friday.
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