Burnett family left major mark on community

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 5, 2011

John Stewart Burnett and his wife, Mary Elizabeth “Mamie” (Bellingrath), were introduced in last week’s column, which featured coverage of the Bellingrath family and the Coca-Cola Company they brought to Andalusia. John was born in the Castleberry community of Conecuh County, Alabama, in 1848, and grew up there. When the Bellingrath family arrived to settle there circa 1870, John was immediately attracted to Miss Mamie Bellingrath. There is a record of him having sent her a written invitation requesting that she join him for a buggy ride on July 20, 1881.

The Burnett family was some of the earliest settlers in the area since they arrived in South Alabama circa 1819. Samuel Burnett who was born circa 1777 left Glynn County, Georgia, circa 1818. He had married Martha Harrison, and among their children were two sons, John Harrison, b. 1818, d. 1861, m. Margaret Donald; and James, d. 1861. James, the father of John Stewart Burnett, owned and operated a plantation about three miles from Castleberry. When he died at a fairly young age, John Stewart had to assume a major role in helping his mother manage the farming operations to support the family. He was later able to venture into the lumber and mercantile businesses.

John and Mamie were married in 1882 in the Castleberry community. John continued his business interests there until 1882, the time when he and Mamie along with her parents and brother, William Albert Bellingrath, moved to Anniston, Alabama. Mamie’s father, Leonard Bellingrath, died there that year, and the family continued its mercantile business there until 1902. At that time, John and Mamie returned to Castleberry where they engaged in truck farming and a mercantile business. William Albert became manager of commissaries for the Alabama Woodstock Coal and Iron Company where he discovered the refreshing taste and demand for the new Coca-Cola beverage.

John Burnett’s sister, Kate Burnett, was married to George W. Etheridge, a son in another family residing in Castleberry. George and Kate were the parents of George Malachi Etheridge who moved to Andalusia with his aunt and uncle, the John Burnetts. By 1907, George had developed a serious relationship with Ellie Luverne Sentell, the daughter of Attorney J.O. Sentell who was the founder of Luverne.

George Etheridge and Ellie Sentell were married in 1914 in Andalusia at the new house of her aunt and uncle. Her aunt, Lillie (Sentell) had married J.W. Shreve, a well-established merchant in Andalusia, and they had built the stately colonial-styled mansion on East Three-Notch Street across from Andalusia City Hall, the former East Three-Notch Elementary School building. The house was completed only months before the wedding date for George and Ellie.

On the day of the wedding, Nov. 14, 1914, George’s Aunt Mamie Burnett, who had thought of him as her son, wrote a very thoughtful letter to his bride, Ellie Sentell. “Yes, we think George is one of the most capable, industrious young men we know—thoroughly upright and honorable. His father is one of the most honest men I ever knew as is his uncle. Both have tried to instill into George the real worth of truth and uprightness as you know—he began working for his uncle when he was a mere boy, and Mr. Burnett has taken great pride and pleasure in his development. In his dealings with George he has always made the development of George’s character of first importance. George has had good training—he has tried hard and deserves credit for improving his opportunities. We trust his development will increase with the years until his powers in business and all other lines of life shall attain their full growth, and he shall stand a well rounded Christian gentleman—the highest type of man there is—a credit to himself and family and a blessing to the works…”

The entire Burnett family, including George Etheridge, worked diligently to make the Coca-Cola Company the success it became. The family members became spirited leaders in the business, civic, social and cultural activities of Andalusia. They also helped attract other businesses to the area and helped finance several small businesses such as a grocery store, insurance agency, a textile manufacturer and a furniture manufacturer. They were very active in the Methodist Church with both their time and financial resources.

In 1923, the Burnetts recognized the local citizens’ need for ice for refrigeration and coal for heating, so they along with their nephew, George Etheridge, established the Consumers Ice & Cold Storage Company. Another nephew, Earl Etheridge, worked with the new company as well as with the bottling business. By 1927, the businesses had grown so well that a new building was constructed to house them. This was the one located on Troy Street, behind the movie theatre. The family also acquired a coal yard near by and was able to deliver coal and ice to homes in the area.

Following John Burnett’s death in 1928, George Etheridge assumed the family leadership role as president and manager of the Andalusia Coca-Cola Bottling Company as well as president and manager of Consumers Ice & Cold Storage. It was anticipated that he would be a major heir of the estate and assume ownership of the Coca-Cola franchise, but his failing health changed all that. When William Bellingrath died in 1937, John Burnett’s widow, Mamie (Bellingrath) Burnett, amended the articles of the co-partnership in 1938 that it would be closed following her death. Soon afterwards in 1939, George died at 45 years of age.

Just two years before his death, his daughter, Frances, was married to Thomas Ashford Broughton Jr. in 1937. Her great aunt, Mamie Burnett, gave her a beautiful new house as a wedding gift. The home was designed by architect Richard Adams who designed others, including the former Andalusia Country Club, in the Andalusia area. It is not known when the house was sold by the original owner, but several Andalusia families have enjoyed the luxury of the picturesque residence for a number of years. It has been pointed out that the original design featured the Chippendale widow’s walk above the porch.

When the Burnett estate was settled in 1940, it was among the largest ever settled in Covington County, Alabama. The family had lived conservatively, and they had invested wisely in various businesses. Naturally, the largest investment had been in Coca-Cola stock. Legacies went to friends, relatives and servants with the bulk of the estate going to the Burnett’s loving niece, Frances (Etheridge) Broughton.

It was rumored that Frances was the wealthiest woman between Montgomery and Mobile. She was educated at Ward Belmont Finishing School and Huntingdon College. She was described by a close friend as a “most charming, elegant and polished female.” Yet, she was destined to a life filled with tragedy and unhappiness. Her first marriage to Thomas Ashford Broughton Jr. ended in divorce, and her second marriage to Ryland Carter ended tragically when he was killed in a plane crash after three happy years. She later experienced a stable marriage to Robert Lee Sudduth, but he died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1957.

Frances was left a widow once again at the age of 43 years. She had one daughter, Katherine Etheridge (Broughton) Torrontor by her first husband, Ashford Broughton. Katherine was married to Richard Torrontor, and they had two children, Sharon, who was married to Michael Wales; and a son, Alan Torrontor. Katherine died in 2000 at age 61, and neither of her daughter nor son have had any children. Thus ends this particular lineage of a most reputable family.

The influences of various members of the Bellingrath, Burnett and Etheridge families have been far reaching at the national as well as state levels. Some have served in presidential administrations, authored books and promoted the social well-being of their communities. The family names are well known and respected for the significant religious, civic, educational and philanthropic roles that continue even at the present.

The primary source for this writing was the informative article “Coca-Cola Bottling Comes to Andalusia, Alabama, 1905,” which was featured in the Alabama Genealogical Magazine in its Stories to Remember section, Volume 42, Fall/Winter 2010, written by Dr. Bill Hansford of Birmingham, Alabama. He cites the valuable assistance of Sharon Torrontor Wales, a descendant of these families. Also, appreciation is expressed to Howard and Vela Walden, current residents of the Broughton house, for sharing their information.

Anyone who might have any correction to this writing or additional related information is requested to contact Curtis Thomasson at 20357 Blake Pruitt Road, Andalusia, AL 36420; 334-222-6467; or e-mail: cthomasson@centurytel.net.