Founder shares Thorsby’s story
By M.Z. Thorson | Special to the Advertiser
(Editor’s Note: Oct.17 the town of Thorsby will continue its celebration of its history during its annual Swedish Festival at Richard Wood Park. Many events are scheduled for its 21st celebration of its Swedish heritage. When the festival began in 1988, a son of one of Thorsby’s founders, T.L. Thorson, wrote and shared a history of his father with readers here. What follows is part of the history of the Thorson family written by the late M.Z. Thorson.)
While this is a story about my father and his dream, it is necessary to go back a little farther—my father’s father was an adventurer born in 1823. He immigrated to Charleston, S.C. in1847 then went to New Orleans in 1848, made enough money to secure passage to Central America, walked across the Chagres to Panama. He sailed to San Francisco in 1948 (and) returned with enough savings in gold mines at Sutter’s Creek to return to Sweden. He then married his early sweetheart and settled in Nicollet County Minnesota in 1955 where he built the log cabin in which Theodore (T.L. Thorson) was born in 1856.
My father, “T.T.”, as he was called, was possessed with the same pioneering spirit of my grandfather, and when he married my mother, he moved to a remote part of Nebraska. There he constructed a sod house and using straw for fuel, started their life together. As a farmer and sheep raiser he was quite successful. Somehow his dreams were set in motion, possibly from the stories of Alabama that his father had told him, evidently bringing to life an innate desire to go south and build an empire of his own in a more favorable climate.
He first looked at a city called Ironton, today known as Birmingham, but moved on as he thought the soil in the area was too poor to enhance his dream.
In Chilton County he found his “Utopia.” The climate, soil, communication with the outside world and, most important, the L & N Railroad ran through the middle of it. This line was built in 1873 from Decatur to Montgomery. It was here (Thorsby) that he brought his family in 1895.
Arriving in Jemison, our family was met by a Mr. Hand who had negotiated the sale of 2,200 acres of land three miles south of Jemison. The boxcar containing our household belonging which included a horse and a two-seater surrey with the proverbial “fringe on top” was placed on the siding at Jemison. At this time there were two housed on the property and one of these was to, no doubt, house our family which consisted if three sons and a daughter at that time.
The land was partially cutover and this was very desirable to clear for the various agricultural purposes he had in mind. Also, there were great quantities of lumber for use in future building. Oxen then were the prime mode of transportation for movement of logs and lumber. Railroad ties were selling at 40-cents.
Ours was the second family in this new place. We were in the woods in the south of Chilton County which is about in the center of Alabama. Chilton County has one thing that was not common to other Alabama counties—-it was mostly Republican. Lumber was so low priced that many houses were built and several kinfolks moved to Thorsby, including the John F. Peterson’s from Sioux City. Also Pastor John E. Hedberg and family (she was the sister of my father).
My father, along with Hedberg, Peterson and K.G Fagre, formed the Concordia Land and Improvement Association. Fagre was a former Norwegian minister from Flandreau, S.D. My father’s brother, Sam, was to be a land agent traveling in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota to get prospective buyers to take a trip to Thorsby. My father had some money so he financed most of the beginnings and should take full credit for starting Thorsby; Land was sold in 10-acre plots for $400.
It was during this period that the governor signed a special order permitting the production of wine, and an outlet for wine was opened in Mobile. The claim by the American Wine Institute that only the Napoleon family has a winery south of the Mason Dixon Line before the turn of the century can easily be refuted. This enterprise was known as the Thorsby Wine Company.
The organization (Concordia Land and Improvement Association) donated land for two churches, one Swedish Lutheran and the other for the Norwegians. German Danes and Austrians also emigrated to this beautiful part of the country, greatly increasing the population. The necessity for schools soon became apparent and they were built by the Concordia, also a hotel which was quite an asset to the community.
An experimental garden was instituted to determine the soil and climate adaptability to all kinds of fruits, nuts and trees. Our house was situation on this five acre plot in the heart of time. It was soon evident that peaches, grapes and strawberries would flourish in the sunshine and sandy soil of this part of the world. The opportunities seemed unlimited.
The L&N Railroad’s president Milton Hannibal Smith became interested in my father and his assiduous enthusiasm; who spoke in a strange tongue about diversification of crops, enrichment of soil through legumes, establishment of markets for agricultural crops, fruits and beef and hogs.
Milton Smith was a household (Name) in Thorsby and a bond of friendship was generated between him and my father. He later sent Mr. Jones to Thorsby to assist in working our plans for the excursions to bring prospective settlers.
There was a fine quality of native folk in the region and it seems nothing could stop Thorsby from becoming a thriving metropolis. My father put it on the line by planting 10,000 peach trees and built a winery to take care of the planted vineyards.
(Later) the personal finances of my father took a turn from which he could not recover. It became evident that disease among the peach trees could not be controlled and the 10,000 peach trees were cut down. The winery failed and he (T.L. Thorson) left Thorsby in 1910.
Undaunted, he left Thorsby for a new adventure. I remember seeing a check for $1,300 for the five acre experimental garden and our home, which was all that was left of his Thorsby vision.
(Mr. Theodore Thorson died at the age of 75 as the result of injuries he received from a fall in front of his home in Madison.)