THE GREATEST GREAT GRANDFATHER I NEVER MET
I remember as a young girl hearing my father talk about family outings to the Calcis lodge. For reasons unknown to me now I thought the lodge, rather than the town in Shelby County, was called Calcis. Throughout my life I envisioned a beautiful retreat where Dad and his family and friends vacationed in the summer.
Today as I stand near the peak of Double Oak Mountain, just up the road from Calcis, all the puzzle pieces fall into place. This bend in a path, once known as the Winding Stair Trail, became Highway 25, and officially opened to a new kind of horsepower in 1921 thanks in part to my great grandfather, Sidney Word Lee.
Back in the early 1970’s, my father asked me to accompany him and his Aunt Emma Gibson to take photographs of something special on Highway 25 in Shelby County. I loaded my gear and Dad drove us to the top of Double Oak Mountain. Dad pointed to a sign in a small clearing beside the road. His face was full of pride as we approached the simple marker with the heading “Sidney Word Lee”. While preparing my camera equipment I listened to Dad and Aunt Emma talking about Sid Lee, the Calcis lodge, Montpelier, Kelley’s Creek and on and on. I was young, and the history lesson I was receiving never completely sunk in. That is, until 2011 when Buffalo Rock Company received a letter from Mr. Jim Lewis, a member of the Shelby County Historical Society, informing us that the sign honoring Sidney Word Lee on Highway 25 had been badly damaged. Luckily, Mr. Lewis’ letter landed on the desk of Cynthia Poole, General Manager of Advertising, who immediately contacted my brother, Jimmy Lee, III. Jimmy suggested sending someone to retrieve the sign to see if it could be repaired. This set into motion a cascade of events that led to completely replacing the sign with a new one, following all the necessary steps to have the sign designated an Alabama historical marker.
In the months that followed, we received invaluable guidance from Bobby Joe Seales, President of the Shelby County Historical Society and Norwood Kerr with the Alabama Historical Association. There would be much more space available on the new sign to tell the story of how Sidney Word Lee’s influence led to the building of Highway 25 connecting the rapidly growing Cahaba Valley to Coosa Valley. Indeed, Highway 25 was the very first road over Double Oak Mountain. Until 1921 the only options available for travelling over the mountain were horse-drawn wagons or by train—a very long and uncomfortable ride under the best of circumstances, particularly for children and pregnant women. Today, in the comfort of automobiles, it is possible to make the trip to Sidney Word Lee’s historic marker in less than an hour.
Sidney Word Lee passed away in 1944, eight years before I was born. On this winter afternoon the setting sun illuminates my great grandfather’s memory, and the historic marker that bears his name casts a long, powerful shadow across Highway 25.
The family outings Peyton Lee heard tell of from her father related to the country retreat of the grandfather she never met, Buffalo Rock founder Sidney Word Lee who loved the hills of Shelby County and the old mill site on the banks of Kelly Creek. The road that was commemorated last week crossed Double Oak Mountain to make a more direct route to Birmingham from the Birmingham Outing Club that turned into the Montpelier Club, nestled in the hills reminiscent of the Blue Ridge Mountains or the Smokies. Though the clubhouse no longer exists, the family visited the site last Friday on the day of the unveiling of the new historical marker in honor of Sidney Word Lee. Lee founded the Buffalo Rock Co. in 1901. The company went on to become one of the leading independent Pepsi Bottling companies in the country, but its real roots lie in our favorite product, the Buffalo Rock Ginger Ale. Most others are pale imitations of this sinus-burning ginger concoction that dates from a medicinal tonic used during the Civil War. Fittingly, the formula that made the family dynasty came to Sidney Word Lee through another family connection, when he married Minnie Coleman, daughter of Ashby Coleman, a Selma pharmacist who developed the ginger tonic to treat Confederate soldiers wounded in Wilson’s Raid. That was not the end to the apparent happenstance—for example, the name of the signature drink came to Sidney Word Lee when he went on a trip out West, and saw a buffalo standing on a—you guessed it—and saw in that image a symbol of strength. Shades of Carlos Castaneda. There is a lot more Birmingham and Alabama history there, and we will look forward to more lore in the days of yore from Buffalo Rock and the Lee family.