WSCC Genealogy program helps writer research local family that influenced Minnie Pearl

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Writer Dr. Rachel Martin researches Sarah Colley Cannon’s visit to Baileyton, Alabama, where she met a local woman who was an inspiration for her legendary Minnie Pearl character, with Wallace State Genealogy staff Tanya Shearer and Iman Humaideh. (Wallace State)

HANCEVILLE, Ala. – The Wallace State Community College Genealogy program recently aided a Nashville, Tennessee, writer researching Grand Ole Opry star Minnie Pearl and the Cullman County family she used as influence for her legendary comedic character. Dr. Rachel Martin is writing about Minnie Pearl for Oxford American magazine.

Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon portrayed Minnie Pearl for more than 50 years and was best known for her enthusiastic “how-dee” and the straw hat she wore with the price tag still attached. Cannon, who passed way in 1996 at the age of 83, received the National Medal of Arts award in 1992, was the first woman to be inducted into the National Comedy Hall of Fame, and is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Martin said she pitched the idea for the article to the magazine. “I had seen the story about Minnie Pearl/Sara Colley coming to Baileyton, Alabama, and I said, ‘Well, this seems fascinating. I wonder what else I can learn,’” she said.

In January 1936, the Wayne P. Sewell Production Company of Atlanta sent Sarah Ophelia Colley to Cullman County to perform in “The Flapper Grandmother,” to raise money for the DAR school in nearby Joppa. Caught in a blizzard, Colley stayed as a guest at the home of Mattie Burden in Baileyton.

In her memoir, Cannon told how Burden influenced the character. The staff of the Genealogy program helped Martin locate the Burden home, newspaper articles and local people with information.

Martin said she first visited the Cullman County Library, where staff referred her to Wallace State.

“They did an amazing job of just helping me get oriented into this project,” she said. “I had a very tight deadline and knew I needed help even figuring out where to enter into the research process. They were amazing in helping me begin to construct a methodology for what I might be able to find and where I might be able to find it.

“They even introduced me to a number of other people in Baileyton and in Cullman County who have been invaluable through this process,” she added. “In fact, I managed to find a couple of her grandchildren who are still living.”

Martin said the Burden family still shares the story of Sarah Colley’s visit and their connection to an iconic character.

“It’s something that I think the family finds very endearing and also very special to know that their grandmother became someone who was immortalized in such a way,” Martin said.

Martin expects the article to be published in the summer issue of Oxford American, which usually publishes around June 15.

Professor Robert Davis, Iman Humaideh and Tanya Shearer of the Genealogy program primarily help Cullman area researchers in finding ancestors and in projects such as helping the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in saving the Joppa School building and persons writing books about Cullman County.

This unique program has also helped popular national genealogy and history television shows; Alabama Heritage Magazine and other publications; The 1619 Project; and much more. It has received national recognition from the American Association of State and Local History and other organizations.

Aside from this great family and local history library, Wallace State also offers continuing education and college courses in genealogy. Interested persons should contact Davis at robert.davis@wallacetate.edu or 256-3473903. The program is adding an archive of historical documents and research in the Cullman County area.

Davis teaches the classes and supervises the collection. He has spoken to hundreds of groups across the country, has over 1,800 publications, and has made national television appearances. Among his current projects, he is researching the ghost town of Baltimore and the African American Marriot Creek Colony, both in Cullman County. Wallace State Community College is celebrating National Women’s History Month, sharing the stories of women this month and inviting Wallace State women to share their stories in a video project.  

The theme for the month by the National Women’s History Alliance is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.”