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One of Jacksonville's Oldest

The house was moved three times, escaped a wrecking crew twice, got blown away by a tornado, hit by a hurricane, and rebuilt out of almost nothing.

The house, much admired for its Palladian architecture, featured a prominent portico-style porch, brackets, and glass in the entryway. It is shown facing east at its former Gayle Avenue SW address. Photo from the First National Bank of Jacksonville and the collection of Mr. Homer Barnwell.


By Al Harris

Not even the most tenacious local historian has been able to solve the mysteries surrounding one of Jacksonville's oldest homes. Called at various times the Driskell Home and the Sinclair House, the dwelling

Scroll to bottom for
present-day view of
this home.

formerly on Gayle Avenue SW (behind McDonald's), near the First United Methodist Church, was reputedly built as far back as the 1830s. But the most determined investigators were unable to authenticate the date the home was completed, and that detail is one of several mysteries still surrounding this interesting home.

Historic Jacksonville, published by the General John H. Forney Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in 1952, simply described the house as " of Jacksonville's oldest..." while The Jacksonville Story, an undated publication of the former First National Bank of Jacksonville, lists it among local homes "...presumed to have been built prior to 1850."

Several history buffs who have researched the home say they think it is much older than 1850 and is possibly even one of the first dwellings in Jacksonville, which would put its construction date somewhere around the late 1833 period (which is within the realm of possibility, as the town's first well-built homes -- as opposed to cabins -- went up at that time, according to the master's thesis of the late Mr. Jack D. Boozer). Whatever the case, almost no one disputes the theory that this house is one of Jacksonville's first. But there are other fascinating mysteries that deserve to be looked into, according to the current owner, who is a JSU faculty member and prefers not to be identified. Where was this home's original site? Why was the house first moved? And what about the uncanny series of tragic events that happened each time the home was moved?

The current owner said he found proof that the house was built on another site and later moved to the lot at the corner of Gayle Avenue SW and Francis Street. One older resident who owns an historic home said it was uncommon and difficult to move homes until well after the turn of the century. However, the late Mr. Boozer had once told the current owner that homes were moved with mule teams in the early days of Jacksonville. The current owner said he examined the house at its Gayle Avenue address and discovered strong substantiation for his theory that it had been moved to that lot. He said a back room, which may have been a bedroom or dining room at one time, had been cut from the main structure and reattached, as would have happened during a relocation. The house was also positioned above a primitive, earthen basement, and its beams rested on rocks rather than on a proper permanent foundation.

During a recent interview, the current owner had this to add: "To further substantiate my theory of the original move, the earliest home builders knew or reasoned that a home had to be at least 18 inches above the soil to reduce termite damage. Such a refined home, at an early period, would have been at least that high or higher. As a reference, look at other surviving historic homes of Jacksonville. One corner of this house was virtually resting on the ground. From the original photograph, it is very apparent that the house did not have the required height and, consequently, suffered damage."

According to The Jacksonville Story, the structure was once "framed by stately elms and dark cedars" and occupied by the Driskells for more than 50 years before becoming the home of Professor E. J. Landers, who served as principal of the elementary school. The residence was later occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Dave Walker, who celebrated a golden wedding anniversary there, and then by Mrs. John Howell, possibly the widow of John Wesley Howell, who was said to have been a circuit judge and legislator. The house then became the estate of Ruth Sinclair, whose daughter, a Mrs. Woodward, lived there for a few years.

The house remained at the Francis Street address for much of its existence until the adjacent First United Methodist Church planned an expansion, including a parking lot. Mr. Buddy Tredaway remembers that Mrs. Margaret Weinland, the wife of a local retired colonel, bought the property and donated it to the church, which enabled the methodists to sell the house and thereby save it from destruction by having it moved. By that time, the house had been empty for several years and was in poor condition, according to those who first-hand knowledge. The current owner recalls that it would have been torn down, certainly, had it not been bought and moved. Several people interested in historic homes came forward to consider acquiring the structure, but Jimmy and Mary Moore, now deceased, became the new owners. They moved the house from Gayle Avenue to Greenleaf Street and set it up on a lot at the rear of the present-day Winn-Dixie store. The Moores remodeled the house and used it for their antique shop, The Heritage House.

A few years later, the Moores found that another move -- this would be the house's third -- was necessary. Space was needed for a new Winn-Dixie store. Once again, the building had to be moved or demolished. A JSU faculty member bought the house in the early 1990s and moved it out of town. He said he found that during the War Between the States many of the original deeds were sent by train car to Talledega to avoid the burning of records by the Union Forces. Unfortunately, Union troops burned the car, destroying their contents. He said the late Mr. Boozer shared this information with him.

The faculty member restored the home, and he and his family moved in and weathered the Blizzard of 1993. The house finally seemed to be in a place where it would not possibly stand in the way of anything else, especially a wrecking crew.

Soon, it would lie in the direct path of a tornado.

At approximately 11:40 a.m. on March 27, 1994 (Palm Sunday), the home was completely destroyed by the Goshen tornado, ranked F4 on the Fujita Scale. That day marked one of the most deadly tornado outbreaks in modern Alabama history. Storms swept across northeast Alabama and northwest Georgia during the late morning and early afternoon hours, killing 24 and injuring dozens.

The owner and his family were playing a board game called Life. He said a gust of wind swept play money from the board onto the floor and he bent down to pick it up. At that moment, the house expoded from the force of the tornado. The owner said he was lifted completely off his feet and dropped among a pile of beams. One of the chimneys collapsed at the owner's feet and went through the floor. The heavy timbers somehow missed his wife and son. One beam glanced past his wife's shoulder, missing her by a fraction of an inch. The family survived with minor injuries.

The owner vividly remembers his experience inside the eye of the tornado. Oddly enough, the same man had survived riding out the fury and then the eye of a hurricane while serving aboard a ship in the 1980s, giving him the grim distinction of surviving the eyes of two storms in one lifetime.

Seconds after the tornado struck, only portions of a few walls remained. Later, construction experts would say it would be impossible to restore the home. But the owner wouldn't take no for an answer.

The faculty member managed to salvage approximately 40 percent of the original timber, including an exterior wall that's now used as an interior structure (it's made of plaster and horse hair, which are still discernible today). The owner drew plans for the reconstruction project on his home computer. He was driven by this question: "how would this house look if the original owner tried to build it back?"

The current owner's solution was to preserve the general look, to apply simple reconstruction techniques, and to use cosmetic embellishments only where they seemed practical and affordable.

The pile of rubble yielded enough material to get started. The contractor was a man who had never attempted anything more complicated than installing a tin roof on a barn. The house began to take shape. Portions of the front "funeral parlor doors" were repaired and used to flank an exit to the side porch (formerly a bedroom). Enough of the uprights from the original bannisters were salvaged to return the porch to its original look. On it went. It seemed the house was slowly returning to normal.

But, once again, it stood in the way. In 1995 it was struck by Hurricane Opal, a category one storm when it hit this area. The house sustained damage to its roof. By now the home seemed to have the incredible luck of a person struck not once or twice by lightning but three or four times in a row. And, once again, the house was restored.

Do you know more about this home's early history? Or have photographs? If so, the faculty member would like to hear from you at

The reconstructed home as it appeared during the fall of 1994. (Photo by owner)

The home as it appears today, occupied by a JSU faculty member. (Al Harris photos)

One of the chimneys destroyed by the Goshen tornado serves as a planter today.


All photos copyrighted by the photographer. Please contact Al Harris for permission for commercial use.

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