A legacy of Civil War history – remembering Fred Wise

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(Photo courtesy of Tonya Smart Volk)

CULLMAN, Ala. – “He was a people person. He loved the public and he got excited when people came and talked and shared history,” Volk said of her father Fred Wise, owner of Crooked Creek Civil War Museum. “He wanted to share his love and his knowledge to make others passionate about what he was passionate about.” 

Wise passed away on the morning of July 17 at the age of 79. His passion and knowledge of the Civil War made the museum he created at Crooked Creek a special experience for all who visited. His passing has left many questioning the future of the museum, but his daughter, Tonya Smart Volk, hopes the museum will remain open, explaining, “the property is not for sale.”  

Wise, who often bragged to visitors about his daughter, affectionately referred to her as Sally. With the maiden name of Smart, Wise loved saying of his daughter, “She went from smart to wise. This is my extra smart girl because she is smart and wise!” Anyone who met Wise knew instantly that he was not only knowledgeable, but one-of-a-kind.  

Wise joined the United States Marine Corp after graduating high school and spent four years in Morocco. He had always been passionate about Civil War history, Native American artifacts and an avid animal lover. Throughout his life he began collecting artifacts, was committed to reading about history and took care of the countless strays left on his property. 

Although he grew up in Cullman County and after he retired, he moved to Lakeland, Florida. Years later, the family found their way back to Cullman. Volk explained, “He bought the land because it was shaped like Florida. It was cheap land that they could afford. We had to clear the land because it never had a home site on it. It was shaped like Florida, and he thought it was funny.”  

He already had his own Civil War and Indian artifact collection and as fate would have it, he unknowingly purchased land that happened to be the site of a Civil War battle and numerous Indian relics. “He didn’t believe it at first, but we had a historian come out with maps and he said, ‘do you know that you have this?’ Some of the historians were from area universities and they would just pull up in the driveway.”  

“He was in disbelief for a while. He wanted to prove them wrong, but he started researching and talking to more people. Then we started digging,” Volk added. They found gun pits and what they believed to be gravesites. “According to the journals of the Confederacy, there are trenches at the top of the hill by the cabin where over 70 Confederate soldiers are buried.”  

One professor from Florida, Robert Willett, wrote a book- “The Lightning Mule Brigade: Abel Streight’s 1863 Raid into Alabama.” Chapter 10 of the book details the events that took place on the Crooked Creek property. He and Wise developed a special friendship and Wise proudly sold autographed copies of the book in his museum’s gift shop.  

On three separate occasions, Willett had plane tickets to visit Wise and tour the museum, but health and other issues prevented the face-to-face meeting from happening. Volk shared, “Mr. Willett, who is 94 now, and dad would talk for hours on the phone about this battle and that battle. Mr. Willett had called and he was finally coming to visit. His daughter was driving him from Florida. She was driving him because it was on his bucket list to meet dad, see the museum and the collection.”  

She continued, “That Thursday, dad was so excited that Mr. Willett was coming on Saturday, he worked too hard and his heart just couldn’t take it.” Wise was diabetic and had suffered from congestive heart failure for the past three years. Volk, who monitored her father from Virginia via a camera system, became concerned that her father was not doing well. She urged him to visit the doctor, but she said, “He insisted that he felt fine, but I could see he was making poor choices and forgetting things. I called the paramedics that night but in true Marine spirit, he wouldn’t go.”  

She smiled, “He had actually aged out of hospice on May 1 and he thought that was hilarious. He would say, ‘Very few people graduate from hospice!!’” A nurse would come by to check on him and she came to sit with Mr. Wise. Finally, on that Friday, Wise agreed to go to the hospital. He would pass away soon after at 4:39 a.m. on Saturday morning. Mr. Willett arrived at 4:30 that afternoon. 

Volk said, “It was sad, but it was also beautiful. That afternoon, Mr. Willett got here to the museum and I was here. I toured him around. He came from Florida; my dad was from Florida and he bought the land because it was shaped like Florida. Then, lo and behold, while I was giving Mr. Willett a tour, a group of eight people from Florida pulled up. While we were talking and sharing stories, the family asked Mr. Willett to autograph his book for their dad who was an avid Civil War collector who was 95. While we were talking, a redbird literally flew and sat at the front door of the cabin. It was kind of a perfect moment.”  

As for the future of her dad’s labor of love, “I want to keep it open to the public in some aspect. Whether it’s a Civil War Park, trails or something–that’s what we are working toward. We aren’t closing entirely, we just need time to process and think,” Volk said.  A family member of Wise, who also owns an extensive Civil War collection, could potentially open the museum up to visitors by the summer of 2022.  

In the meantime, Wise’s collection has been moved to keep it secure. Some of the pieces of the collection are for sale to museums or collectors, but the artifacts found on the Crooked Creek property will remain. Volk added, “We will still open for ghost tours and the cabin is also available to be rented. A family member will be on the property.”  

Those interested in purchasing pieces in the collection can contact 1st Alabama Cavalry.  

 “I can feel the weight of the community on my shoulders. I really am trying to do what is right for the community, my dad and our family,” Volk said, “The whole community is mourning this loss because Crooked Creek Civil War Museum will never be the same and it’s difficult, but he would just want others to be happy. That’s what made him so passionate about this and sharing it with people, because he saw their joy. We don’t want to make promises we can’t keep but our vision is to try to preserve history if at all possible.”  

(Photo courtesy of Tonya Smart Volk) 

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Christy Perry

christy@cullmantribune.com