By Jim Hannaford
Photos by Stephen Anderson
Ask Greg McRae a question about Daphne’s historic past, and there’s a good chance he knows the answer. If not, he’ll surely be interested in finding out.
McRae has called Daphne home for more than 60 years, but it was fairly recently that he decided to help preserve the town’s history for future generations. A clinical pharmacist by trade, McRae has become an amateur historian of sorts. After seeking permission from the board of directors of the Daphne History Museum, he launched a Facebook group called “Scenes From Old Daphne” in April of 2017. It quickly became a big success, far greater than he imagined, and he’s learned even more about the hometown he treasures.
“This is my way of giving back,” he says. ““It’s a very interesting community with a lot of history, and I’ve watched it grow from a town with a single traffic light into the largest city in Baldwin County.”
That first traffic signal was very familiar to him because it was just outside his father’s drug store, where he worked for years starting at an early age. Originally from Mobile, Greg was just two years old when his family came across the bay. His dad, the late William A. McRae, owned and operated McRae Drug Store from 1958 until he retired in 1986. It was the last of three different drug stores to be located in the corner building at the intersection of Main Street and Daphne Avenue, where Dragonfly Tavern operates today.
He also remembers a tiny town with a population of around 1,500, which is laughably smaller than today’s sprawled-out city of more than 27,000 residents. Of course, there are some old-timers in town whose recollections go back a lot farther, and McRae loves hearing their stories. If there’s a great photograph to go along with it, that’s even better. As he explains, it’s those images, mostly in black and white, that prompted him to start the Facebook group. He wanted to make sure they were preserved digitally before they deteriorated or disappeared.
“It’s the photographs that drive the stories, and I try to do some research that brings them to life,” he says. At first, his online emphasis was on old street scenes – which have always fascinated him – as well as images of the steamboats and long wooden wharves that brought early visitors to Daphne’s shores. He has since widened his focus to include some of the people that helped to define Daphne over the years.
“My thoughts were that I would probably run out of material within a year or so,” says McRae. “And now, a little over four years later, we have over 3,000 followers, and that has far exceeded my expectations.”
INSIDE THE MUSEUM
McRae’s labor of love has also helped to support the history museum’s mission. Appropriately, the museum is housed inside one of the oldest buildings in town. The historic Daphne Methodist Church on Dryer Avenue dates to 1858. It’s in the heart of old Daphne, just a few blocks off of Main Street next to the old cemetery, but it can easily be overlooked, especially by visitors to Daphne or newer residents. The online activity has definitely called more attention to it, says Rachel Burt, the city employee who oversees the museum.
“It’s brought a lot of community awareness to the museum and helped to get the word out to community newcomers,” she says. It has also helped to uncover even more history. “For the people who see the posts, it brings back memories and inspires conversation, and that leads to more information.”
The museum has had to limit its operating hours recently because of a shortage of volunteers. Many of them are seniors, Burt explains, who have preferred to stay home during the pandemic. She took advantage of the down time to reorganize the museum’s holdings with a neat, orderly presentation.
The remarkable 1,500-square-foot pine church building served as a place of worship for several generations up until 1976. Rows of simple wooden pews remain in place amidst relics and curiosities from Daphne’s past, from festive May Day celebrations to plentiful jubilees to sturdy stoneware from the town’s old potteries. Gesturing toward what looks like a tree stump that’s around two feet in diameter, Burt points out a segment of what The Standard newspaper proclaimed “the world’s largest grapevine” in 1904.
The compact building holds lots of history. A loft area above was built as a gallery for slaves attending services. In a memorable episode from March of 1865, Union soldiers bunked here on their march toward the Battle of Fort Blakeley.
FROM THE BEGINNING
McRae’s first post was a photo of the Howard Hotel. The stately two-story structure was built in 1933 to grandly accommodate visitors arriving by boat. It survives today as the administration building of Bayside Academy. The hotel was also where boats brought the mail, so it was convenient for its proprietor, William L. Howard, to serve as the town’s first postmaster, starting in 1874. There were a few separate small communities in the area, with different names, but a single, unifying identify was needed on the post office application. The story goes that Howard’s wife, Elizabeth, chose “Daphne” because it’s another name for the laurel trees that grew so abundantly in the area.
McRae’s Facebook group is not the kind that inundates you with information. Since that first post on spotlighting the Howard Hotel, there have been 148 others at the time of this writing. About 30 posts in, he decided to create an index, which remains anchored at the top of the page. The photos are numbered, so they can easily be cross-referenced, and you can search for individual posts by number or a key word or phrase. “I’m an organizer by natural tendency,” he explains, and he also works hard to separate facts from folklore. “I’m driven to be as accurate as possible.” His wife, Pam, who has a background in history and genealogy, has helped, too, especially when clarifying historical dates.
THE MAIN STREET TREE
It was a particular photograph that caused McRae to realize that these relatively scarce images from days gone by needed to be preserved on the internet. The photo showed the massive oak tree that stood for years in the middle of Main Street near the intersection with Dryer Avenue. For years, motorists had to veer to their right to avoid the tree as they made their way up or down the north-south route. The tree’s ultimate demise makes for one of the more colorful tales from Daphne’s history.
As McRae wrote on his site, “Twice in Daphne’s history this tree was threatened to be cut down in the name of progress. The first time was during the 1910s when a dirt road was cut through the center of town. A nearby property owner, Susan Edmonson, did not want to have this large oak tree cut down … she wanted to preserve the magnificent oak with its large canopy in front of her home. A woman of conviction, she took her stand beside the tree and defied the state workers to cut it.”
Later, in 1935, Elodia Van Iderstine wasn’t as successful, despite her tenacity. “The version most often told was that Elodia used a pitchfork to keep the bulldozer operator at bay,” McRae wrote. “This time, sadly, the State won out and the tree was removed… Main St was later paved.”
MORE TALES FROM DAPHNE
A sadder story (post #143) involves William Howard “Billy” Dryer Jr., a Navy sailor who was taken prisoner by the Germans in World War II and killed when the vessel he was on was sunk by U.S. forces. He was just 25, and his body was never found. A building at the Daphne Baptist Church, where his family was active, was built and named in his honor.
Getting the most attention on “Scenes From Old Daphne” so far was an item from a more recent timeframe. On Jan. 28, 2019, McRae posted his hundredth photo, and it was of Sgt. Melvin Johnson, who became the first African-American on the Daphne police force when he was hired in 1969. He’s retired now, but remains well-loved. “It was the most popular post by far,” says McRae. Quickly consulting the screen of his smart phone, he adds: “It’s had 505 likes and 214 shares.”
McRae describes creating a new post as being akin to adding a new chapter to the written history. As the comments and other reactions start coming in, “it’s like having a real-time conversation.”
Of course, it being Facebook, not all of the dialog has been preserved for posterity. “It is something that you have to police, but it’s been mostly civil,” he says. “I try to set the tone, to keep it positive. I’ve only had to step in (and delete a comment) a few times.”
He feels good that his online efforts have preserved some of Daphne’s past and have helped to draw out additional details and perspectives. He realizes, though, that social media, which is such a big part of many lives today, could itself quickly become a thing of the past. For this reason, he plans to print the contents of the online group. That’s right, for history’s sake, he plans to go from the digital format back to an old-school paper copy so that “Scenes From Old Daphne” will have its own rightful place in the history museum. This may seem like a step backward technologically, but he has his reasons. First, he says, no one knows if Facebook will still be around – or accessible – in a few years. And secondly, not everyone has, or wants, access to it. “I’m not exactly sure what form the hardcopy version will take,” he says, “but I expect it will include some of the notable comments.”
So be careful what you say online – it could become part of Daphne’s permanent written record.
McRae says he will continue doing what he’s doing as long as there are high-quality historical photographs that need to be shared. His goal is to capture the images and the stories behind them before they fade away.
“I don’t know if I will reach a point that I say, ‘This is the end,’ but it’s getting increasingly difficult to find older photos,” he says. “We’ve covered a lot of the lower-hanging limbs, so to speak, but I’ll keep it open-ended in case something comes up and I find another photo that will help me to develop a storyline.”