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Shelby County Museum and Archives

Peter R. Thomas, Auburn University
Shelby County Museum and Archives
The Shelby County Museum and Archives is located in the old courthouse of Columbiana, Shelby County. The museum displays local photographs and artifacts from the early settlement period through World War II. The archive contains research material that include books, microfilm, and U.S. Census records. Maintained by the Shelby County Historical Society (SCHS), the museum and archive offers guests and researchers the opportunity to engage with and explore the history of Shelby County in a state, regional, and national context.
The courthouse was built in 1854, and it represents an early example of Jeffersonian architecture. It is a two-story brick structure in the shape of a cross and sits on parcel of land inside a traffic circle at the juncture of several streets in downtown Columbiana. The front section features a gabled roof, and the rear section, at least into the 1970s, had a hipped metal roof covered with tiles; it boasts six chimneys. In 1881, the structure was expanded to its present size, and during this renovation, the entire building was faced with brick. A stairwell was added in 1903. The façade of the building is divided into two sections by a horizontal brick design. The lower section contains the central entrance with eight-foot double doors. The upper section contains a pair of windows. The rear wing contains a side entrance with windows similar to the rest of the building. There is a small porch on the side entrance of the main building that is covered by a shingle roof supported by square columns. The old courthouse served the county until 1906, when a larger structure was built. Until 1955, the old courthouse had been used as a hotel, boarding house, and as apartments. It then was purchased by the city and used as the Columbiana City Hall.
Coal Display
The iconic courthouse is one of the few surviving historic buildings in Columbiana, and the establishment of the Shelby County Museum and Archives was instrumental to the preservation of the old courthouse. In the late 1970s, there was an effort by local officials to demolish the building. However, according to minutes recorded in the SCHS Quarterly, a courthouse preservation campaign was initiated to save it from destruction. Similar to its mission today, the purpose of the SCHS then was to bring together people interested in history, especially in the history of Shelby County. At the time of the preservation campaign, society members, most of whom were involved in the local community, believed that salvaging the courthouse was critical to preserving the county's history. Proponents of the restoration project also suggested that the courthouse would be a perfect location to house a county museum and archives. In 1974, with the assistance of the Alabama Historical Commission, initial fund-raising efforts led to a $20,000 earmark through the U.S. Department of Interior to restore the courthouse. In 1976, architect James Fitts of Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, was contracted to head the restoration efforts. As more money was raised in the late 1970s to support the architectural renovations of the building, the SCHS initiated the 1854 Courthouse and Museum Fund. This fund helped in the acquisition and collection of archival data. Over the next ten years, the federal government, the Alabama Historical Commission, the SCHS, and local donors collaborated to restore the old Columbiana Courthouse and establish the Shelby County Museum and Archives (SCMA). In 1974, during restoration efforts, the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) nominated the building to its registry. The museum and archive officially opened in 1982. The building was listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage in 2011.
Shelby Iron Works
The museum houses a notable collection of local historical relics. Most of the rooms on the first floor contain display cases full of local artifacts, which range from fossils, projectile points, work tools, and pottery beads, and other cases contain courthouse items, movie theater tickets from the nearby Siluria and Joy theaters, baseball cards, high school diplomas, yearbook pictures, coal car tags, and photographs. The Christian-Davis Room, also on the first floor, emphasizes the railroad and coal industries of Shelby County. Along with various mining and railroading supplies, the museum exhibits a coal car discovered in a 1978 excavation of a coal mine used by the Confederacy during the American Civil War. In the main entrance to the building is a large display case of artifacts found from the site where the Shelby Iron Works once operated. Among these items include a Revolutionary War-era sword, cannon shells used by the 29th Alabama Infantry Regiment during the Civil War, household items, knife blades, and tools.
The research room is well-equipped for guests wishing to research the history of Shelby County. Archivists and volunteers also are in the process of digitizing archival material so that people can research county history via the Internet. The museum and archives hosts events ranging from guest speakers, book talks, and symposiums. Additionally, the SCHS is involved with community restoration projects. For instance, it recently purchased the Shelby Iron Works location, which is about five miles south of the courthouse. The museum and archive has been working closely with renovation projects there.
The museum and archives is located at 1854 N. Main St, Columbiana. It is open Tuesday to Friday 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. It is also open the second Saturday of each month between 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. Nearby are the Shelby County Arts Council, the Karl C. Harrison Museum of George Washington, and the historic Shelby Iron Works.
Published:  March 6, 2019   |   Last updated:  March 6, 2019