Perspectives

It Came from the Archives: The Life and Times of Dr. Espy

April 30, 2019

Life in early-twentieth-century rural communities was very different – and far more informally personal – than life today. We can see this when we compare our business activities with those of Dr. Curtis Espy of Midland City, Alabama.

Dr. Espy was a well-known physician and business owner. He was born in Abbeville in 1876, graduated from Southern College of Medicine and Surgery of Atlanta in 1904, and received his license to practice medicine from the Henry County Medical Association that same year. In 1905, he moved to Midland City in Dale County, where he practiced medicine alongside four other licensed (and, at one time, two unlicensed) doctors.

Portrait of Dr. Curtis Espy

From Annette Shirah, “Midland City, The First Century, 1890-1990”

Although the area had been settled in the late 1840s, it was only after the Alabama Midland Railway laid track and planned a town around its station-stop in 1889 that Midland City grew large enough to incorporate (1890). The U.S. Census reports a population of 304 in 1900 and 539 a decade later, so Dr. Espy arrived as the town began to boom.

He was an active member of the Dale County Medical Association from 1905 until 1915, serving as a delegate to the meeting from Dale County in 1913. He let his membership lapse in 1916, then resumed it in 1919. Doctoring was not as financially lucrative as Espy wanted it to be, so as an ambitious young man in a booming railroad town he sought opportunities in business.

photo of Dr. Curtis Espy's livery stable, with a horse and several workers outside the building.

From Annette Shirah, “Midland City, The First Century, 1890-1990”

Espy opened a livery stable in 1906, added Espy Mercantile by 1908, and with two partners organized the People’s Fertilizer Works of Midland City in 1909 with $5000 in capital stock (equivalent to $142,000 in 2018). The books of Espy Mercantile at the Wiregrass Archives show how local people traded in a rural town without the kinds of stores and financial institutions we take for granted. Stores like Espy’s not only furnished personal goods and food but also farm necessities like seed and fertilizer.

photo of Espy Mercantile circa 1908. A worker and a customer stand surrounded by goods and items.

From Annette Shirah, “Midland City, The First Century, 1890-1990”

Because merchants usually had ready cash, they operated as bill payers and small-loan makers. Mrs. Holmes, for example, asked to be sent $5. Mr. Cunningham asked that Dr. Espy pay Mr. Owens for cotton picking. Mr. Williams requested 50 cents.  All of these were sent to Dr. Espy on small scraps of paper, and he charged the payments to the credit of the customer.

A note reading "please let me have 50 cents"
A note reading: "Dr Espy please pay Mr Owens for cotton picking it is $3.30. Curtis Cunningham"
A note reading: "send me $5.00 by K.J. Walker. Thanks, Mrs. Ida Holmes"

Dr. Espy also began a family soon after he arrived in town by marrying Flowers Kelley, a member of one of Midland City’s founding families, by 1907.  The 1910 census does not list Dr. Espy’s occupation, though it does record that a local school teacher boarded at their house.  The 1930 census lists the Espy residence as worth $5000 and Dr. Espy as a plantation owner.  A decade later, the census reported him as a farm manager, which is also the occupation his obituary listed.

Portrait of Flowers Kelly Espy

Caption: From Annette Shirah, “Midland City, The First Century, 1890-1990”

The Espys had three children – Virginia, Nell, and Jim. Jim served on the city commission 1936-1940, signed the state charter for the Future Farmers of America, and took over the family businesses in the late 1940s. In 1968, Governor Lurleen Wallace appointed him to the Dale County Jury Commission. Nell became a social worker and public health advocate. The health sciences building at Wallace Community College was named for her.  Virginia supplied much of the family history for Midland City’s centennial book in 1990.

For more on the Espy family and its businesses, visit the Espy Family Business Records, RG 051, at https://resources.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives/inventories/051.html, and the Annette Shirah Collection, RG 041, at https://resources.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives/inventories/041.html.

It Came from the Archives is an ongoing series spotlighting the fascinating collections at the Wiregrass Archives. To find out more, visit online at https://www.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives or in person in Everett Hall on the Dothan Campus.