William A. Handley
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William A. Handley. The men of to-day in the States of the South are, perhaps lending less energy to the study of the abstract theories of political government than the devotion to this theme which so distinguished their ancestry of a single generation in the past ; but in all measures of material development, upon whose foundations the superstructure of national prosperity and glory is erected, they tower like giants in the federation of States. Not despising the fortuitous circumstances of honorable birth and illustrious lineage, they simply resort to more enlarged and more practical methods of advance in noble enterprise and the acquisition of fortune.
Distinguished among those who are notable types of the changes which in recent years have been wrought in this section of the Union, the subject of this biographical monogram, the Hon. William A. Handley, occupies a most conspicuous and enviable position.
Descended from a long line of remarkable ancestry, Mr. Handley has wrought out for himself a career, in his chosen calling, which none of his illustrious prototypes have eclipsed. The original name of the family from which he has sprung was Ainlighe, which, upon the emigration of his remote progenitors from Spain to Ireland, was translated into O’Handley, and subsequently there and in America to the patronymic known to this age and generation. The Spaniard Ainlighes located in that part of the Emerald Isle which was anciently known as Kind Dofa, or O’Handley County. There, as O’Handleys, they became wealthy and politically powerful, and in the fourth century one of its scions ascended the throne of Ireland. (See Annals of Ireland, vol. 3, p. 171.) In A. D. 1396 the family sustained disastrous reverses in battle, the sons of Lord John Handley having been slain on the field, yet the proud race lost none of its prestige until the conquest of Ireland by the English. That they were powerful, valiant, and illustrious military leaders is abundantly attested by their magnificent and costly tombs. (See Annals of Ireland, vol. 4, p. 1174.)
Three sons, John, James, and William, descended from this lordly line, emigrated to America during our colonial period. Of these, two settled in Virginia and the other in Pennsylvania. One of those who had made a new home in the Old Dominion soon returned to Ireland, and located in the city of Dublin. From this ancestor descended the Hon. John Handley, now a most distinguished jurist of Pennsylvania, resident of Scranton, in that State. The Handley who originally located in Pennsylvania subsequently removed to Virginia, and made a home near Fairfax Court House, a descendant of whom, Colonel William Handley, served most gallantly on the staff of General John C. Breckinridge during the late war between the States.
One of the Handley brothers who came originally to Virginia located near Norfolk, and from him was descended the distinguished gentleman whose career is the theme of this sketch. William A. Handley was born in Heard County, Georgia, December 15, 1834, and is a son of John Randolph and Nancy T. Handley. John Randolph Handley is a native of Burke County, Ga., and was named after the great statesman of Roanoke at his suggestion, that gentleman being an intimate friend of his father, who was a Virginian. Mrs. Handley, the mother of our subject, was a native of Georgia. Her maiden name was Nancy T. Formby, and she was married in January, 1834, to John Randolph Handley, who had previously moved to Georgia from his native State, Virginia. Some time after this marriage they removed to Randolph County, Ala., where they still reside near the banks of the beautiful Tallapoosa.
William A. Handley, though born in Heard County, Georgia, from childhood was reared and educated in Randolph County, Ala., and it may be added with great propriety that Randolph County never had a better friend or a more enterprising citizen.
Young Handley, though deprived of early educational advantages, was ambitious, and determined to give his aspirations a high aim, and to see that they should be gratified, despite every early obstacle that impeded his advancement. Possessing rare native talent, and unusual energy and industry, he has most successfully triumphed over poverty and those other depressing difficulties which environed his youth.
Early in boyhood he became engaged in mercantile pursuits, having commenced his career while scarcely more than eight years of age, and in early manhood became the owner of the establishment in which he had been originally employed. This business he continued to assiduously pursue until the tocsin of war sounded throughout the land in 1861. Animated by the lofty spirit of pure patriotism, and a martial ardor inherited from his gallant sires of former centuries, he organized the "John T. Heflin Highlanders," and gallantly led this intrepid command to the service of his native land. After two years of active, perilous and efficient duty in camp and field, he was called into the civil service of the Confederacy, for which he was peculiarly fitted by his previous training. In this position he displayed superior qualifications, and gave abundant evidence of his ability, zeal, and usefulness.
After the war cloud had rolled away, Mr. Handley found himself possessed of nothing but an old and dusty stock of goods, and some ,000 or ,000 of accounts and promissory notes and securities, rendered well nigh valueless by the disaster of the war. He was largely indebted at this time to ante-bellum creditors at the North. To his honor, be it said, he never pressed the collection of a dollar from one of his stricken and
ruined neighbors and debtors. In this situation he attempted farming, but made a failure in that vocation. After two years he closed out his property at public sale, and with the proceeds he went to New York and succeeded in settling with his creditors. They were generous, and assured him of credit should he again embark in the business of merchandise. At this time he was about tliirty years of age and without a dollar. He borrowed ,000, however, and opened a small general merchandise business at Roanoke, Alabama.
In the year 1870 the Democratic party nominated and elected him to the Federal House of Representatives, where he served throughout the Forty-second Congress. To perform this service he sold out his mercantile interests. As to his career in Congress it may be truly said, that it was as successful as his most sanguine friends could have desired or anticipated, and the congressional district which he represented was never more ably or satisfactorily served.
Retiring from congressional life, Mr. Handley repurchased his old business at Roanoke, and began work with renewed energy and added zeal. The firm of Moore, Manley & Handley was at once organized, continuing business at Roanoke for eight years, doing the largest and most successful business ever conducted in the county. In the year 1881 J. D. and B. F. Moore came to Birmingham to establish a branch house, dealing in hardware and machinery, which, since then, these gentlemen have conducted with such skill as to make it one of the leading features of Birmingham’s commercial prosperity. The Roanoke firm of Moore, Manley & Handley, after several years, was dissolved, and the new firm of Manley, Handley & Hornsby was organized. Their business continues to be large and prosperous.
Mr. Handley commenced his transactions in real estate in Birmingham, for Moore, Moore & Handley in February, 1882, buying lots 1, 2, 3 and 4 on the corner of First Avenue and Twentieth Street. This property is now one of the most valuable pieces in the city, the whole of which is regarded as worth one-fourth of a million of dollars. A part of it has been sold, and on that part now held by them are the magnificent Moore, Moore & Handley buildings. Mr. Handley is not only a large dealer in real estate for his firm, but also on his own individual account. Outside of his Birmingham interests he has ample capital, and holds immense real estate interests in East Alabama.
Although Mr. Handley but lately connected himself with the interests of the Magic City, he ranks among its foremost men — distinguished by broad-minded, sagacious, and successful enterprise. A handsome property which he holds is at least a half mile of front feet on Powell Avenue, which, at a minimum valuation, is worth 0,000.
No man in Birmingham has more unlimited faith in the greatness of its destiny.
In evidence of this, he said to a purchaser of a lot a few months ago — the same being 182½ feet front, and offered at about ,000 — "Go to San Francisco, remain there two years, return and give me the amount of purchase money and interest, and I will pay your expenses and assure you an additional profit of as much silver as two mules can conveniently haul!" Has his faith been justified? It has — for that identical property to-day is worth 0 per front foot, and the profit in silver would amount to as much as four mules could " conveniently haul." This astonishing increase has been effected in eight months! In two years what will not be the wonderful increase?
Mr. Handley was married November 8, 1859, to Miss Adelia A. Mitchell, daughter of Mr. Peter Mitchell, of Randolph County. The family of Mitchell is among the most respectable and powerful in Georgia. As a maiden Mrs. Handley was winsome and fair to look upon, and even now retains a matronly reminder of the loveliness of her youth. She is a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. From this union have sprung two children, a son and a daughter. The latter, Miss Lola, who was educated at Roanoke Institute, and at Augusta College, Staunton, Va., was married on June 23, 1882, to Mr. J. E. Mann, of Georgia, a gentleman of a highly polished and greatly respected family of that State. This daughter is a lovely type of her sex, and "the hand that hath made her beautiful hath also made her good," for she is a consistent member of the Baptist Church at Roanoke. The son, Guy H. Handley, is an elegant young gentleman, just crossed the threshhold of manhood, and thoroughly educated at Roanoke Institute and the University of Alabama.
While Mr. Handley is not a member of any church, he is a gentleman of high moral character, of great benevolence, a firm believer in Christianity, and one who has established a deserved fame for charity and generosity toward all good works. The Roanoke Institute is a monument to his interest in the cause of education, while the beautiful churches and parsonages of Roanoke attest his active zeal in the promotion of religion. Indeed, it may be said that to his exertions the town of Roanoke owes its present prestige as the thriving and growing center of a rapidly developing business.
Happily for Alabama, Mr. Handley is yet in the vigorous prime of a useful and promising manhood. May it be many years before the marble is torn from the rugged mountain-side upon which the chisel of well-merited eulogy shall inscribe the epitaph that will commemorate his splendid services in the development of his adopted State! Already, however, he and his colleagues in the noble achievements so phenomenally accomplished may exultantly exclaim, in the proud words of Horace, <i?Exegi monuvientum are perennis! For so long as the mountains at Birmingham shall be encircled with the horseshoe of everlasting luck, the valley that is lit up with the fires of countless industries, and that echoes the hum of machinery, and the rumbling of hundreds of daily trains, transporting its products to the far-away marts of the world ; so long as iron ore, coal, lime-rock and sand lie contiguously in exhaustless quantities, as they do not elsewhere on the face of the habitable globe, so long will be remembered the names of those intrepid and untiring business intellects which have here given to the world the blessing of a matchless prosperity, and an unexampled growth in material development and wealth.
In concluding this sketch, may we not indulge in a pardonable pride in the land of our home and hopes, and say that we believe that despite the wonderful natural ability, the persistence, the sagacity, and the invariable success which he has commanded elsewhere, Mr. Handley, even, could nowhere, except in a region so blessed as is Birmingham and its environments, have accomplished so stupendous a lifework, so distinguished a position among men, and so immense a fortune. The sun that kisses the brow of our mountains, blazes in our valleys throughout the day, and sinks to rest, leaving us lighted by the artificial fires that glow from our furnaces throughout the night, nowhere on all the earth sheds its rays upon a clime more blessed with every conceivable human advantage. Through the agency of Mr. Handley and his co-workers these facts have been made manifest to the millions in America and Europe ; and population and money are pouring in, as the mountain’s torrent pours its volume of rushing waters into the lowlands sleeping at the base. They "come not as single spies, but in battalions;" they come to stay, and to add their energy and their treasure in the great work of business revolution at the South ; they are already receiving reward for their faith and toil ; but the future has prizes in store for them that eclipse those fabled gifts of the genii, recounted in the Arabian Nights tales. So, at last, truth shall become far stranger than fiction.
The prophecies of Mr. Handley, which have been so often fulfilled in respect to the growth of this city, may be entitled to more than ordinary consideration. In a recent interview he enthusiastically declared his renewed confidence in the future of the city. " Why," said he, " who can calculate the outcome of a very few years? Those people who are coming here are all more than gratified with the results of their speculations, and each one of them is an instrumentality through which many others will be attracted. Endowed by nature with resources that are unparalleled on the globe; with railroad means of communication, completed and projected, that give them unsurpassed interstate communication and cheap transit to the best markets of the world — there will be twenty new railroads impinging here in the next five years — and with the most enterprising population that ever pioneered a great movement for material development; with iron, coal, and limestone at our doors ; with marble and other minerals in easy reach; with welcome to people from all parts of the world, and especially from the United States, we may justly look forward to the accomplishment, at no distant date, of most wonderful results. Indeed," he proceeded, " it is not only possible, but it is more than highly probable, that in five years from to-day the mineral belt of Alabama will contain one million people, and a people of more wealth per capita than any on the face of the earth. As for Birmingham and Jefferson County, the beginning of the twentieth century will witness its stalwart growth into a robust, but ever-growing manhood. Jeflerson County will be the site of the metal works of the continent, and will, as a center of iron and steel manufacture, have no parallel either in America or Europe. It is my firm belief that the valleys, mountains, hillsides, and plains of Jeflerson County will be literally covered with manufacturing establishments, warehouses, stores, and the habitations of its million of inhabitants — the most prosperous and happiest on earth — in the year 1900. The effect of this development in the mineral districts of Alabama will be such as to greatly enhance the value of the fertile and productive agricultural lands of the other sections of the State. The tide of emigration and capital, now pouring into Alabama, will not be so blind as to fail to perceive the great opportunities of the farming regions, in supplying the mining and manufacturing centers, and will pour into the prairies, and the river bottoms, and the piney woods, and the sea-coast country, to engage in enterprises that will find their best support and market in this mineral belt. It is certain that large plantations will be sub-divided into small farms, and more people will till the soil upon more intelligent systems, and more profitably, than has of late been the rule. Aye, in less than two decades, from the Gulf to the Tennessee Valley, rousing from her sleep like some mighty giant, peerless Alabama, shaking off the dew-drops that have glittered on her garments, will rise to the full statue of her matchless grandeur, and march with proud mien and invincible step to her only proper place — the very van and lead of American commonwealths. Her millions of citizens, with their billions of capital, will be the greatest industrial power of all ages and all climes."
Such is the prediction of one of Alabama’s sons, whose name will be handed down to future generations, by the traditions of our people, as a brave pioneer in the great rehabilitation and development of the brightest jewel that shines in the flashing diadem of gems that crown the brow of the lovely and spirited New South.
– from Jefferson County and Birmingham Alabama: History and Biographical, edited by John Witherspoon Dubose and published in 1887 by Teeple & Smith / Caldwell Printing Works, Birmingham, Alabama