Gadsden’s ‘A Walk Through Time’ brings history to life with key figures from this Alabama town

Gadsden’s ‘A Walk Through Time’ brings history to life with key figures from this Alabama town
Steve Hildebrant prepares for a second stint portraying Alabama Power founder William Patrick Lay at Gadsden’s Walk Through Time on Sunday, Oct. 21. (contributed)

As Steve Hildebrant prepares for a second stint portraying Alabama Power founder William Patrick Lay at Gadsden’s “A Walk Through Time” on Sunday, Oct. 21, he recalls his introduction last year to the historic narrative.

Hildebrant, Eastern Division area manager with Alabama Power, was dressed in early 1900s clothing, poised at the grave of Lay at Gadsden’s Forrest Cemetery. Before the event started, a couple walked up, and a gentleman with papers in his hand began the conversation with an unfriendly: “Ok, let’s hear it.”

“This man had an agenda,” Hildebrant recalled.

“A Walk Through Time” takes place in Gadsden’s Forrest Cemetery Oct. 21 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. (contributed)

He immediately began to interrogate Hildebrant about the accuracy of a state historical sign on U.S. Highway 431 in Attalla marking the site of Big Wills Creek Dam, the first hydroelectric dam built by Lay in 1902.

“The couple stood there about a half an hour, challenging my knowledge of Captain Lay,” Hildebrant said. “I never did my portrayal for them. That was my introduction to Walk Through Time.”

Hildebrant is prepared for most anything after that experience. He will join some 70 others portraying political, civic, business and education leaders of Gadsden buried at Forrest Cemetery downtown from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
The event, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, is free. Information on parking and other details is at forrestcemetery.com or the cemetery’s Facebook page.

Volunteer “actors” stand at the grave of the person portrayed – in most cases people to whom they are related – dressed in clothes of the time period. They recite a brief narrative as if they are the person, providing insight into who they were and how they influenced Gadsden.

RELATED: ‘A Walk Through Time’ takes visitors through Gadsden’s history

“You can hear about someone who was buried three times and learn about the opening of the Goodyear tire plant,” Hildebrant said. “It covers a lot of Gadsden’s history and is a lot of fun.”

It’s also a lot of work.

William Patrick Lay, late 1920s. (Alabama Power Company Archives)

“Dealing with the heat and saving your voice are two tough things,” he said. “I’m in a three-piece suit with very little shade and a hat. Couple that with a steady stream of people and you are tired when the day is over.”

What he enjoys most is the research. This year, Hildebrant will learn even more about Lay at the Nichols Memorial Library in nearby Alabama City, home to the NorthEast Alabama Genealogical Society, with more than 5,000 family files, including one on Lay.

“We know Captain Lay as the founder of Alabama Power. But he had influence and business interests beyond Alabama Power,” Hildebrant said.

During the Civil War, Lay would cross the Coosa River and track Union troop movements. He was later commander of the Gadsden Fire Department.

“He was almost 50 years old with a wife and five boys at home when he started construction on the dam at Big Wills Creek,” Hildebrant said. “He was a very interesting man.”

Although Hildebrant’s presentation focuses on Lay starting Alabama Power in 1906, his other endeavors give it flavor.

“It’s the details of his life and the chronology that make him interesting and hopefully brings him to life.”

His favorite quote in his presentation comes from a resolution the Alabama Power board of directors approved when Lay died in 1940: “With the death of William Patrick Lay, this state has lost one of its noblest sons. His accomplishments have profoundly affected the social and economic welfare of this state. His life will long be an inspiration to those who live worthily and serve faithfully.”

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