By Morgan Bryce
Located just a few miles outside the Opelika city limits is the Summers-Cooper House, one of 26 buildings or homes in Lee County listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Dating back to 1837, the old structure serves as a gateway to Alabama’s pioneer past and agricultural heritage.
Prior to its construction, the land belonged to the Creek Indians, who occupied the land until the signing of the Treaty of Cusseta in 1832. In the treaty, they ceded the land to the U.S. government, and the land would be surveyed and divided between the indian chieftains and household heads. Chieftains received 640-acre tracts and household heads 320 acres.
The land on which the Summers-Cooper house occupies, 320 acres, was deeded to a Creek Indian named Sphiyide. In December 1832, the Alabama Legislature convened and organized these tracts into nine different counties. The land was located in Russell County, only a half-mile from the Chambers County line. (Lee County was not established until 1866.)
Two years later, Sphiyide sold the land to a land speculator named Nat Macon Thornton for $110. In 1836, conflicts across the Southeast caused the forced removal of Indian nations including the Creek Indians, to Oklahoma, commonly known in history as the “Trail of Tears.”
In 1837, Thornton sold the property to William Long, a farmer who relocated his family and personal slaves there from South Carolina. It was then that he also constructed the original portions of the home, consisting of a house with two large rooms (which are still in existence and a part of the current house,) and a log kitchen separate from the main house.
Living there for nearly 32 years, Long lost his wife and several of his children during that time, all of whom are buried in unmarked graves in a grove close to the house. In 1869, he sold the house and property to John Summers for $8,000.
Summers, a Civil War veteran and cotton farmer, expanded the land’s utility, adding a cotton gin, blacksmith shop, general store and syrup mill. The next year, he married Rebecca McClendon in West Point, Ga., with whom he would raise eight children.
Various additions to the house were made by Summers, although the exact dates of those are unknown. Additions included a large central hallway with double doors at each end which helped ventilate the house, as well as a separate room off the front porch that was called the Parson’s Room, reserved for any preacher who happened to be traveling in the area.
John Summers passed away in 1896, leaving Rebecca in charge of the farm. She operated it until her death in 1926. John and Rebecca’s daughter Berta purchased the house and most of the surrounding property, living there with her sister Elizabeth.
In 1954, Berta sold the property to Arthur W. Cooper and his wife Dorothy Summers Cooper, John Summers’ granddaughter.
During the next 30 years, the house fell into disrepair, and in 1988, the Cooper family began the restoration process on the house, a process that took nearly five years to complete. Family historian Carl Summers, John’s grandson and Dorothy’s brother, pushed for the house to be protected and recognized for its historical significance. In 1991, because of Carl’s efforts, the house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Local historians believe that the Summers-Cooper House is the oldest plantation house in Lee County that sits on its original foundation.
The house is primarily used now for weddings and a biennial Thanksgiving celebration of the Summers and Cooper families. The land, which now comprises 1,400 acres, is leased to a hunting club.
Much has changed in its 179-year-old history, but according to the surviving family members who grew up in the house, it still serves as a time capsule of memories of times long gone by.