Often referred to as the Marble City, Sylacauga sits atop a bed of mostly white Madre Cream marble 32 miles long, a mile and a half wide, and 400 feet deep. In 1905, this marble drew Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti, who created Red Mountain's Vulcan statue, to the area to establish a marble works and a studio. Sylacauga is also notable as the site of the only documented instance
of a meteorite falling and hitting a living person, Ann Hodges of the Oak Grove community, who was struck by a meteorite while napping in
her home on November 30, 1954. The city was also home to a large textile industry owned by the Comer family. Located in the
southeast corner of Talladega County, Sylacauga lies in the Coosa River Valley along the lower reaches of the Appalachian Mountain Range. The city has a mayor/council
form of government.
On December 18, 1832, the Alabama General Assembly created Talladega County from Creek land ceded in March under the Treaty of Cusseta, and settlers streamed in. The city's name, however, can be traced to a group of Shawnee warriors who came south from Ohio in 1748 and established the town of Chalakagay. Over time, the name evolved to Souillacouga and then to Syllacoga by 1838. It became Sylacauga in 1887. The commercial marble quarries that became a signature for Sylacauga began to appear only a few years later.
Physician Edward Gantt, who had purchased quarry land near Sylacauga as early as 1834, moved to the area in 1849 and, with
partners Edward Sims and Henry McKenzie, developed marble quarries north and south of present-day Sylacauga. The Gantt's Quarry
company village associated with the Alabama Marble Company is named for him. The other name most often associated with the
earliest Sylacauga marble quarries is George Herd, a Scottish immigrant who developed related businesses with his four brothers.
The population of the town of Sylacauga remained below 500 as late as 1890, with agriculture being the other important aspect of its economy. By 1910, as the quarry industry expanded, the population increased to 1,456
As in the rest of the South, the Civil War disrupted Sylacauga's commercial development, but after the Eastern Alabama Railway extended its line to Gantt's Junction in 1886, the local economy again began to thrive. The Alabama Marble Company incorporated in 1908. Major John Sewell, along with Henry Mitchell King, Raymond M. Gardner, William P. Harrison, and William H. Runge, invested in the Alabama Marble Company. Sewell was a structural engineer who had documented the effects of the San Francisco earthquake in 1905 for President Theodore Roosevelt. King was a businessman from Georgetown in Washington, D.C., who married Marjorie Van Winkle, a student of sculptor Giuseppe Moretti, and Harrison was a banker from South Carolina. The five men built homes in the company village of Gantt's Quarry and developed a successful business. Sculptor Giuseppe Moretti also helped establish several quarries in the area, including Gibson-Moretti and Moretti-Harrah. He built a home and studio near Sylacauga and lived there on and off between 1905 and 1925.
The textile industry also played an important role in the economy of Sylacauga around the turn of the twentieth century. Braxton Bragg Comer, who served as governor of Alabama from 1907 to 1911, established the Avondale Mills in Sylacauga in 1906 and contributed greatly to the economic development of the area. The mills operated as part of the family-owned company until 2006.
In recent years, the marble industry in Sylacauga has expanded, shifting from structural and dimensional stone to crushed
marble. Today, the two major quarry operators are the French-owned Imerys, which maintains the largest operating calcium carbonate
mine in the world at Sylacauga, and Omya Alabama, Inc, a subsidiary of the Swiss Omya Inc. Recently, the reorganized Alabama
Marble Company has returned to the practice of quarrying block marble for structural use.
Sylacauga’s population at the time of the 2010 Census was 9,830. Of that number, 66.6 percent identified themselves as white, 30.2 percent as African American, 2.3 percent as Hispanic, 1.1 percent as two or more races, 0.5 percent as Asian, and 0.4 percent as Native American. The city's median household income was $34,236, and per capita income was $20,172.
The workforce in present-day Sylacauga is divided among the following occupational categories:
· Educational services, and health care and social assistance (20.7 percent)
· Manufacturing (20.1 percent)
· Retail trade (13.1 percent)
· Arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food services (7.3 percent)
· Finance, insurance, and real estate, rental, and leasing (6.9 percent)
· Construction (6.5 percent)
· Professional, scientific, management, and administrative and waste management services (5.8 percent)
· Transportation and warehousing and utilities (5.7 percent)
· Other services, except public administration (4.0 percent)
· Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and extractive (3.0 percent)
· Public administration (2.3 percent)
· Wholesale trade (2.3 percent)
· Information (2.3 percent)
The Sylacauga City Schools system employs approximately 175 teachers and serves more than 2,250 students with two elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school as well as the Aggie Enrichment Center alternative campus that features a drop-out intervention program and a short-term behavior intervention program for grades 6 through 12. Present-day Sylacauga High School was originally established in 1895 as the Agricultural School and Experimental Station During the 1920s, it served as a high school named the State Secondary Agriculture School, becoming known statewide for its academic and athletic achievements.
Sylacauga lies on County Road 21, which provides connections to U. S. Highways 280 and 231. Three major railroads serve the city—Norfolk Southern, CSX, and the Eastern Alabama Railway—along with eight major motor freight carriers, two of which maintain local terminals. Lee Merkle Field is the local airport.
Events and Places of Interest
The Sylacauga Public Library, founded in 1936, moved into a new Works Progress Administration building in 1939 and was renamed in honor of local factory owner and former Alabama governor B. B. Comer. The present building, erected in 1979, was refurbished and expanded in 2003 to include meeting rooms and a conference center. The B. B. Comer Memorial Library Foundation, formed in 1991, supports education, enrichment, and entertainment for parts of several counties and has won a National Award for Library Service from the Institute of Museum & Library Services. The library's popular Brown Bag lunch series offers a wide range of subjects and often draws crowds in excess of 100 people.
The Isabel Anderson Comer Museum and Arts Center opened in 1985. Housed in the former city library, the museum contains an exhibit of the geological history of Sylacauga marble along with works by Giuseppe Moretti, his assistant Geneva Mercer, and contemporary artists Frank Fleming and Craigger Browne. The museum's Native Sons Gallery honors U.S. congressman William Flynt Nichols, U.S. Army Lieutenant General James W. Crysel, whose 33-year military career included receiving the Distinguished Service Medal, and singer and actor Jim Nabors, a 1947 graduate of Sylacauga High School.
In 2009, Sylacauga held its first marble festival as part of a cultural exchange with Pietrasanta, Italy, in connection with
the Alabama State Council on the Arts. The community plans to make this festival an annual event. Sylacauga offers many other opportunities for outdoor activities,
including Noble Park, with a playground and picnic and grill areas as well as a quarter-mile walking track; the Marble City
BMX Track and skate park; several neighborhood parks; and the Sylaward Trail, a 15-mile hiking and mountain-biking trail that
runs through the Talladega National Forest.
Cook, Ruth Beaumont. A Brief History of Sylacauga Marble. Sylacauga, Ala.: B. B. Comer Memorial Public Library Foundation, 2009.
Dodd, Ed. "A Brief History of the Marble Industry in Sylacauga." Alabama Heritage 20 (Spring 1991): 35-39.
Glover, A. S. Geology of Gantt's Quarry and the Sylacauga Marble. Sylacauga, Ala.: Georgia Marble Company, 1983.
Ruth Beaumont Cook
Published October 5, 2009
Last updated October 27, 2014