Guest Post by Natalie Falkenberry
Bloucher Ford Nature Preserve is a Land Trust conservation property rich with North Alabama history. The property spans 28 acres and is situated in Northeast Madison County at the intersection of Flint River and Mountain Fork.
Recently Ben Hoksbergen, local archeologist, UAH lecturer, and cultural resource manager at Redstone Arsenal, completed a survey of the land and created a report of his findings, including an extensive history of the property spanning from the early 1800s to the 1960s.
Bloucher Ford was originally part of the Chickasaw Nation before the land was acquired with the Treaty of 1805. The U.S. government planned on completing an official survey of this new land in late 1809, but many Euro-American settlers began occupying the area earlier than that. These early settlers include Isaac Criner, his uncle Joseph Criner, and his cousin Stephen McBroom. The Criners and McBroom are considered to be the first white settlers of Madison County, and established roots west of Mountain Fork.
Many settlers followed in their footsteps and the rush to stake a claim on the new land was known as “Alabama Fever”. The land of Madison County was considered a great investment, and sections of properties were bought and sold rapidly between 1805 and 1817. One prominent landowner in Bloucher Ford was Hezekiah Ford, who purchased two sections of land in 1809 and 1813. Ford moved from his home-state of Virginia to Madison County in 1815, joined by his sister and her husband. He planned on opening an apothecary in Huntsville but there were already multiple practicing doctors in town. Instead, he invested his efforts in the agriculture industry and built water-powered grist and saw mills along Mountain Fork. These were the very first water-powered mills built on Mountain Fork, and some of the earliest in Madison County’s history.
Ford sold his estate and mills to Joseph Rice for $7000 in 1837. Two years later, Ford died at the age of 63. Rice and his wife, Johannah Bayless, quickly established themselves in the community by developing industry in Bloucher Ford. Unlike Hezekiah Ford, Rice ran the mills by employing 17 wage laborers rather than relying on slave labor. Although, records indicate that Rice owned 3 slaves. Some sawmills were owned and operated by Johannah Bayless’ first cousin, John Bayless, and his family.
After the deaths of the Bayless family, the mills and land of Bloucher Ford quickly exchanged owners until sticking with Thomas McFarland around the 1860s. McFarland is best known for his efforts to increase production in the spinning factories and mills. During the Civil War, Bloucher Ford did not host fighting or camping for either army despite being located near convenient river transportation. McFarland did have to deal with soldiers from both sides stealing materials, like flour and metal, from his mills. Ultimately, production in Bloucher Ford couldn’t compete with larger scale operations in Huntsville.
McFarland died in 1883, and the land of Bloucher Ford primarily served as a community gathering location until ownership was passed on to William Miller in 1899. By 1907 William Miller was in a business partnership with his brother Frank Miller. The brothers were able to revive some industry in Bloucher Ford and had a rolling mill, grist mill, saw mill, country store, and cotton gin by 1910. Their success allowed the Millers to establish themselves in Huntsville, which would eventually outshine the work of the Bloucher Ford mills. In 1920, the Millers sold their property in Bloucher Ford to S. L. Cobb, who died 3 years after his purchase.
The mills and land were sold to John Patterson, Judson Patterson, and Henry Hudson at a public auction in 1925. They made use of the country store, corn mill, and cotton gin in addition to building a blacksmith store, automotive garage, and a new saw mill. The Pattersons and Hudson posted advertisements for their corn mill, which produced 150 bushels per day, but it never attracted much new business. The competition from the industry in Huntsville proved to be too much of a challenge for commercial success in Bloucher Ford. However, the Pattersons and Hudson were able to provide a local hub of activity for the surrounding community. Bloucher Ford was a popular location for barbeques, fish fries, and swimming.
John Patterson maintained ownership of the property until 1958 when he listed a “complete town for sale” in The Huntsville Times. James Ashburn and Emmett Gray purchased the Bloucher Ford land for $34,000. Their motivations for this purchase are unknown, and some speculate it was to provide materials for their construction company, Ashburn and Gray, Inc. The entire area was completely abandoned by 1962.
Today, the acres that once served as a tight-knit rural hub for community and water-powered mills are protected and monitored by the Land Trust. While this property is not open to the public, the Land Trust does periodically host members-only opportunities to visit. Through a partnership with Brown Bear Canoe & Kayak, it is also possible to use this location as a starting point for a float along the Flint River. You can contact them to schedule a float.
In addition to this cultural resource study, the Land Trust and its partners are currently completing a series of studies to learn more about the property. This includes a natural resource survey conducted by Alabama A&M students under the direction of professor Troy Bowman, and a flora, fauna and soils assessment by botanist Lynne Weninegar. The Society of American Foresters Alabama Division has inventoried tree species and Nicholas Sharp, North Alabama non-game wildlife biologist, along with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s Fish Index of Biotic Integrity Crew, documented fish species last fall along this portion of the river. Biologist Andrew Cantrell is currently compiling a herp and amphibian assessment and an avian study. Research data like this allows us to make better informed property management plans and better appreciate the unique spaces protected thanks to support from our members and donors.
The Name “Bloucher Ford”
After publishing this blog post, there were questions about the name and where it comes from so we’ve added this section to provide some insight. The origins of the name “Bloucher Ford” are unclear although it most likely comes from the early settlement period. Below is information compiled from Hoksbergen’s report explaining possible provenience of the name.
From Bloucher Ford: The Rise and Fall of a Rural Hub in Madison County, Alabama by Ben Hoksbergen:
“One possibility is that “Bloucher” is a corruption of the name “Bledsoe”. Nineteenth century documents refer to a “Bledsoe’s Ford” along this section of the Barren Fork. An 1870 notice for a land sale near New Market listed “the East quarter of the South East quarter of Section 11, Township 2, Range 1, East, containing 80 acres, and known as Bledsoe’s Ford” suggesting that Bledsoe’s Ford specifically referred to the ford across the Barren Fork, probably over the gravel bars below the current landing off Oscar Patterson Road. In this case, “Bledsoe” may refer to Wilie Bledsoe whose 1816 estate settlement lists several landowners in the area among the purchasers of his estate including Hezekiah Ford. There is no record of Bledsoe ever owning land in Madison County, but he may have squatted along the Barren Fork after the 1809 list was compiled and was permitted to remain there after the original land sales.
The first record found that referred to “Bletcher’s Ford” instead of “Bledsoe’s Ford” was the 1875 deposition of George Miller, formerly enslaved by Meredith Miller, about the Union loyalties of Thomas McFarland in his Southern Claims Commission file. By 1904, the name had been corrupted to “Blutchers Ford” as it appeared in an editorial in the Huntsville African American newspaper, The Journal. In fact, the name shift seems to have largely been driven by the local African American population in that area and is most likely a dialectic interpretation of the name “Bledsoe”. The modern name, therefore, is a legacy of the strong African American presence in this part of Madison County in the late 19th and early 20th century. In the 1870 Federal Census, for T2-R1E, an area stretching from Meridianville to Bloucher Ford in the north and Moore’s Mill to Bell Factory in the south, almost 60% of the households were African American, most of which were engaged in agriculture.”