Elba Through Her Eyes
Nell Wilson Gilmer, town historian and member of the John Coffee chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, is rich with stories about the history of Elba.
Gilmer grew up in Curtis in Coffee County and graduated from Elba High School 1952. After living in Germany, Kansas, Georgia, and North Carolina, she and her husband Jim moved to Elba in 2003.
Once she came home to Elba, she quickly became involved in civic projects, including several historical preservation projects. “I’ve always liked history, and I would always learn as much as I could about wherever we were living,“ she said.
Gilmer is convinced that preserving historic landmarks makes the country a better place. Her first historical project in Elba was preserving the birthplace of Jim Folsom, a former Alabama governor. He was born “out in the country” in Coffee County and grew up in Elba, Gilmer stated.
Folsom served two consecutive terms beginning in 1947 and ran on a moderate platform, backing several progressive reforms. With the help of her cousin and former Coffee County Commissioner, Linda Westbrook, Gilmer worked to move the home to Putnam Street on the Elba square in 2002.
“She and I started researching the Folsom family and got a grant and located it on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage,” she said. The marker notes the home is a “good example of a late 19th century farmhouse.”
In addition to the Folsom home, Gilmer worked to restore a summer house in Elba’s Evergreen Cemetery. The white gazebo stands near the corner of the cemetery with a historic marker out front.
Evergreen Cemetery was placed on the Alabama Historic Cemetery Register, and a historic marker was placed there in 2018. The marker notes that the summer house was built in 1907 “by the ladies of the town of Elba to have a place of shelter when visiting the cemetery.”
Gilmer recalled, “I remember going with my grandmother to the cemetery when I was a little girl to a little summer house. I would bring my dolls, and I would play in there while she pulled up weeds around the graves that are there.”
A fond childhood memory turned into a preservation project. “It looked like it was going to blow away. It was falling in, and there were bats in the roof,” she said.
“We thought it would cost $300 to $400, but we spent over $10,000. However, with the help of several grants, she and the Elba Alabama Bicentennial Committee restored the gazebo.
Her most ambitious project was compiling the history of Elba into a book. With the help of the Elba History Committee and cherished memories from the people of Elba, she wrote “Elba – Then and Now”. It details the history of Elba from 1853 to 2013.
Gilmer was inspired by committee member Collis Parrish’s book of old photos. Her book contains information ranging from city origins, government bodies, prominent people, clubs/organizations, and more.
The book features the historic Martin Stinson home, the former Elba Chamber of Commerce headquarters, and several other family homes and captures the grade school memories of citizens.
Gilmer’s ardent care for the Elba community radiates through her civic actions and thoughtful words. In October 2007 she received the Spirit of Elba Award. “I was honored for doing things I enjoy doing and trying to improve our community. It was truly a memorable experience,” she said.