By Lisa Rogers
— HOKES BLUFF, Ala. (AP) — Learning about history includes a lot of memorizing dates, times and places. It's often about events that happened a long time ago and far away. But it's been much more for students in the U.S. history class at Hokes Bluff High School. Students have learned about their city and their ancestors, as well as something of equal importance — that the only way to document the history for future generations is to document the present.
History teacher Jill Boatwright in 1999 wrote a book about the history of Hokes Bluff, and it sold out quickly. She had the help of students and the community. There are no more copies other than the ones that originally were purchased.
Many people urged Boatwright to write another book, so she turned the idea into a class project and again got students and the community involved.
She explained the project to her students at the beginning of the school year and they began to interview family, friends, neighbors, people from church and anyone who knew a little something about Hokes Bluff.
"This gave my students a concept of another time," Boatwright said.
They learned how Hokes Bluff got its name, about its original Native American inhabitants and about the settlers who bought the land from the government after it was taken from those inhabitants.
"There's no other Hokes Bluff in the whole world," Boatwright said.
The city was named after Daniel Hoke, a Jacksonville man who had a trading post on the bluff overlooking the Coosa River. It's where all the locals would go to buy and trade their goods. They called the place Hoke's bluff, Boatwright said, thus the name. There originally was an apostrophe in the first word, but it was dropped about 1900.
All Boatwright's students participated, but seniors Courtney Entrekin, Amy King and Keaton Langdale really got involved and went above and beyond to help with the research, she said.
"Hokes Bluff is pretty unique because of lot of families still live here," she said. "Students researched their own family trees."
Boatwright got help from the school to pay for an Ancestry.com account, which was used to trace the history of many residents.
"It's amazing some of the stories we heard," she said.
One resident, Lillian Ward, is "like a librarian for Alford's Bend," Boatwright said, with all kinds of historical items at her home.
Alford's Bend is a little community around Hokes Bluff that is included in the book. Boatwright also included histories of communities such as Ball Play, Nooginville, Mayes Crossroads and Ford's Valley.
Boatwright said she and Entrekin, King and Langdale did a lot of interviews at residents' homes. The students helped her scan photos and sort through documents to get a clearer picture of the city's history.
The students also interviewed many residents at the school.
"This is such a great way to teach history," Boatwright said. "History is hard to teach. It allowed us to take a field trip back in time."
Perhaps the most important lesson was the information some of the students found out about their ancestors, Boatwright said.
Langdale found out his family dates back to Hokes Bluff's beginnings and that the Morris family — relatives on his mother's side — were among Hokes Bluff's first settlers in the 1800s.
Through Ancestry.com, he found Langdale history dating back to the 1500s, to Marmaduke Langdale in England.
Some students found relatives dating back to the Civil War. "They were able to look up their service records and learn about life at that time," Boatwright said. "It made it all come to life."
King has lived in Hokes Bluff all her life, but her family is not originally from there.
"I've lived here the whole time and I didn't know any of this," she said.
Entrekin grew up in Hokes Bluff but didn't know anything about the history of the city except what her mother had told her.
Talking with all the older residents was a great lesson for the students.
"I was amazed at everything they could remember," Langdale said. "We heard how they lived and what they had to go through. I would never know a lot this about my ancestors if it hadn't been for this class."
Some of the residents who were interviewed died before the book was published. That was sobering for the students.
King said teenagers tend to live in the moment and don't think about the past and what it took to get to the present.
"It's a way to connect," she said.
Langdale said they have learned that it's up to their generation to document what is going on now for future generations.
"Nobody's going to tell our history unless we do it," he said. "If we don't start writing down the present, we won't have a past to remember."
The 500-page book is rich with stories and photos that date back to the first settlers and to Hokes Bluff's incorporation as a city in 1946, when city fathers knew it would be difficult to install a water system otherwise.
The book also features a section about veterans from the area, from the Revolutionary War up through the current war on terror in Afghanistan.
Boatwright said she knew when she was 12 years old that she wanted to be a history teacher. She was inspired by her grandmother, Chlone Bishop Harwood, who died in 1984. Boatwright said passing along her love for history to her students is a way to pay tribute to her grandmother.
"She would show me pictures and talk about our ancestors, and I wanted so bad to know who they were," Boatwright said. "I wanted to be able to do that with my students. I want them to know more than what happened in 1860.
"That's what the word history is. It is his story or her story," she said. "It's personal."
Boatwright summed up why the book is so important to her. "In these modern times most people forget about traditions and southern values but in Hokes Bluff, Alabama, you can step back in time and re-live some of these things," she said. "From country roads to small shops to family get-togethers, it is all here, and the people of Hokes Bluff are all proud of it."
Hokes Bluff graduate Alan Daves lives in Virginia and owns Alan Daves Publishing. He is publishing the book at a reduced cost.
"He's also interested in telling the story of Hokes Bluff's history," Boatwright said.
The book is $20 in softbound and $45 in hardbound. However, Boatwright said it's not intended to make a lot of money.
"It's a labor of love," she said. "It's not about making any profit."
Any money made from the project will go back to Boatwright's classroom, hopefully to pay for another year's subscription to Ancestry.com.