Boarding house has a long, colorful history

Published 1:45 am Saturday, February 9, 2019

The practice of operating boarding houses to accommodate temporary or extended residential service seems to have been discontinued presently for the most part. However, in the past, such housing arrangements benefited patrons as well as owners.  This writer recalls living in an historic two-story home in Tuscaloosa for four years while he was a student at the University of Alabama during the late 1950s and early 1960s. At the time, the house of choice as well as many were more like a dorm without the serving of meals which was customary in a boarding house. A good percentage of male students in those years sought such housing by renting rooms in homes or locating small apartments.

Just last week, there was a story in the Friday, February 1, issue of the Andalusia Star-News describing the local South Cotton Boarding House located near downtown Andalusia on South Cotton Street. There was an announcement that the facility is most likely to be closed around April 1 as it seems too costly to maintain it to meet required safety standards.

A review of the boarding house history is begun with its construction in 1926 by John Herbert Thomasson and his wife, Annie Deborah (Hilton). Since before 1924, they had been operating a boarding facility in a home at #7 Dunson Street with their brother and sister, George Clauson and Marjorie Ellen (Hilton) Thomasson. The two brothers and their sister wives had left the farm in the Conecuh River community to move into Andalusia for increasing their income.

The Thomasson brothers were reared in the Fairfield community located southwest of Andalusia. They were the sons of Cornelius Starr Thomasson and Susannah “Susan” Henley. They grew up working on their father’s farm and may have helped in their father’s general store in that community. The two brothers were close and remained in their parents’ home longer than the other children, which enabled them to help look after their aging parents for several years. Each of them married at the age of 26 years, which was about three years apart.

When the two brothers went out on their own, their father deeded them a tract of land he had purchased from a neighbor, Bob Miller, located in the Fairfield community. Their father had helped each of his children get a good start as they left home by giving them some land or money. These brothers farmed the land for a number of years before selling it and purchasing some farmland located across the river in the Conecuh River community.

George Thomasson and Marjorie Hilton were married in 1904 and moved into a farmhouse on the new farm which the brothers had remodeled. George had met Marjorie when she was teaching school at Hart’s Bridge. George’s brother, John, moved in with them, and they worked the farm together. Their father later sold his holdings in the Fairfield community and moved next door to his sons. The three farmed together and developed extensive farming operations. In 1907, John was married to Deborah Hilton, daughter of Jason Houston Helton (Hilton) and Cynthia Ann Pitts and younger sister to George’s wife, Marjorie. 

Both of the Thomasson wives were hard workers and good cooks, so their small boarding house was always filled with patrons. With a booming construction business occurring in Hollywood, Fla., the two brothers went there to work as carpenters for a time and left the wives to operate the business. When George’s wife, Margie, died in January 1926, he moved back to the farm. He left his two younger children, Irvin Clauson and Durlie Gladys Thomasson with their uncle and aunt so they could finish school in Andalusia. The older son, Marvin Clinton Thomasson, was already away attending college at the University of Florida. John and Deb Thomasson had only one son, Dalton Thomasson.

John and Deborah Thomasson built the large, two-story structure at 405 South Cotton Street in 1926. It featured 11 bedrooms, living room, long dining room, kitchen and two bathrooms, one on each side. Each bedroom had a coal-burning fireplace which was cleaned and re-supplied each morning. On Mondays, the beds were changed with the linens boiled and washed in a wash pot in the back yard. Then ironing was done on Tuesdays. So, housekeeping was done on a regular schedule.

In the backyard there was a carport for four vehicles and a shop for John’s tools and gardening equipment at one end. The rear of the lot was fenced, and John maintained a truck garden to furnish some of the food. He also kept a few hogs and chickens for food sources. There were three black people who helped them operate the boarding house: Bessie did the cleaning; Gatsy had kitchen duties; and Jack worked in the yard and ran errands.

A typical day at the house began with early rising and serving a generous breakfast. Afterwards a peddler would arrive making available various vegetables. Mrs. Thomasson would usually buy a bushel of corn, a bushel of peas, a bushel of butterbeans, and a bushel of green beans. She and the helpers would immediately begin preparing the purchases for dinner. To these, fried chicken and other meats along with cornbread and tea would be added. Afterwards the kitchen was cleaned, and preparations would soon begin for the evening meal.

The living room was heated by a pot-bellied stove, and in the evenings after supper, the boarders would gather in that room to play games such as cards and dominos. It was a well-operated and respectable establishment for the Town of Andalusia.

When World War II commenced, John Thomasson left his wife to run the boarding house, and he went to Florida to work in the shipyards. Soon, in 1942, the couple decided to sell the house, and they used the funds and their savings to purchase a farm in the Spring Hill community on the outskirts of Mobile. They began a more leisurely life which continued until John died in 1963 after an extended illness. Deborah died the next year, 1964, from a heart attack. They were both brought home to Covington County and buried in the Thomasson Cemetery, located across Brooklyn Road from Hopewell Baptist Church.

In a story written some years earlier by Eugene Smith, a staff writer for the Andalusia Star-News, a Ms. T.D. Geiger became the next owner of the boarding house. During the early 1940s, she operated a different boarding house for about three years, which burned in 1943. It was located across from Babcock’s Furniture Store. A year later, 1944, she purchased the former Thomasson Boarding House and renamed it Geiger Rooming House. From 1944 to 1955, she operated the house by renting rooms and offering a public dining room. The 50 cents meals were served with bowls of foods set on the tables in a “family style.” There were numerous patrons including railroad workers and visitors.

In 1955, Mrs. Geiger’s daughter, Edna and husband, Malcolm Hartz, of Red Level, assumed the day-to-day operations of the house. They set about modernizing the house and continued a successful operation. In 1981, their daughter, Mrs. Rosa (Hartz) Faust, assumed management of the house and became the third generation of that family to own and manage it. She had the house remodeled and added exterior siding, but many of the original features and style, such as the old-fashioned windows, were retained. Mrs. Faust passed away recently while living in the local nursing home, so the title to the property will revert to the State of Alabama. Appreciation is expressed to Renee (Faust) Smith, daughter of Mrs. Faust, for sharing related information.

In a recent news story in the Friday, February 3 issue of the Andalusia Star-News, Christopher Smith reported that the South Cotton Boarding house has been owned by Rosa Faust, and the current manager, Mary Ann Thomas, was once a resident herself. He further indicated that Thomas recently described the facility as being almost 100 years old, and she felt it should be designated as an historic landmark. It functions with the 19 fully furnished, available rooms serving as each tenant’s small home. The manager reported the arrangement has worked quite well, and the residents have appreciated the convenient living arrangement.

Currently, residing in the house costs $80 per week, and that includes everything: power, water, heat, cable and a working kitchen. The rooms are comfortably furnished and with clean linens. Also, a washer and dryer are available for the tenants use. The manager even shops at thrift stores to help her patrons have needed personal items. Those currently making the house their home are really fearful of how they will be able to find adequate, affordable housing.

It appears the South Cotton Boarding House will close around April 1, which will end a business that has operated and served residents of Andalusia for almost 100 years. No one seems to have knowledge of what the future holds for the building.

Sources for today’s story include the two articles printed in the Andalusia Star-News, Thomasson Traces Volume II—Narrative, and interview with Renee Faust Smith.

Anyone who might have corrections or questions regarding this writing is requested to contact Curtis Thomasson at 20357 Blake Pruitt Road, Andalusia, AL 36420; 334-804-1442; or Email: