Merchant Prince of Cahawba returns home

Published 11:58 am Thursday, October 12, 2023

By  Christine Weerts

Special to the Selma Times-Journal

The Great Edward resided on the fireplace mantels of five generations of his family, from New York to California for 189 years. This week he finally came home.

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On Monday, the portrait of Edward Martineau Perine, known as the “Merchant Prince of Cahawba,” was unveiled at Old Cahawba Archaeological Park. Perine now greets visitors from his prime post — on the fireplace mantel – at the park’s visitor center. 

The portrait, painted in New York in 1834, portrays Perine as a young man of 25, about the time he left New York to travel to Cahaba. During that time, he became known for his many successful business ventures, his 26-room mansion, the largest in the state, and his artesian well, the most productive well in the world. 

Perine’s portrait most recently resided on the fireplace mantel of his fourth great-granddaughter, Michelle Lauer in Ouray, Colorado, who called it “The Great Edward.” Lauer and her friend Susie Mayfield drove the oil painting 1,500 miles to the park this past weekend.

“Everyone has been so hospitable and welcoming. I know it was the right thing to do,” she said.

Park Director Linda Derry calls it nothing short of a miracle that brought one of Cahawba’s most famous residents home. 

“For me, this was a culmination of a 30-year search for the descendants of Edward Perine,” Derry said. “It’s nothing less than a miracle that they had his portrait, that they had restored it, that they were willing to donate it to Cahawba, and were even able to drive it to us from Colorado. The added bonus is, they were really nice people and are now part of the Cahawba family.”

During the ceremony, Lauer said her sons, Mitchell and Brendon Olin, who also traveled to Cahawba, urged her to find a permanent home for their ancestor, which sat on so many fireplace mantels that he was covered in smoky soot. She had his portrait professionally cleaned and restored and began looking for a place for The Great Edward to reside. Her research landed her at a park in the middle of Alabama’s Black Belt. When she reached out to Derry, the response was quick and enthusiastic, “Where have you been all these years?” Derry joyfully asked. 

The young Edward Perine came to Cahawba in the 1830s, leaving his home in Staten Island, New York to work with his relative Richard C. Crocheron, who had a store in Cahawba. Over time, Perine prospered and became known as the “Merchant Prince” of Cahawba, so-called by Anna M. Gayle Fry in her book “Memories of Old Cahaba,” who describes him as “a Northern gentleman of the old school who was universally beloved by all who knew him.”

In addition to his many enterprises, Derry said Perine built Union Church for people of all faiths to worship and was instrumental in funding the construction of St. Luke’s Church in 1854. Two years later, in 1856, he purchased an old brick factory building on Vine Street in Cahaba and hired architect John G. Snediker to prepare plans to convert it into a two-story mansion with twenty-six rooms, thought to be the largest in the state. 

On the grounds of the estate was an artesian well, about 900 feet deep. At the time, it was thought to be the largest in the world. due to its flow, now estimated at 1,250 gallons per minute.  

Monday at Old Cahawba was a day to celebrate all things Perine. Cahaba Foundation Board member Florence Young shared the donation of a dinner plate from the 500-piece place setting at the Perine mansion that had been gifted to the park. Lauer also brought a beautiful inlaid desk and two chairs, all from the Perine mansion.

The Cahaba Foundation unveiled the restored Perine well – with a cast iron pump over 10 feet in height – that had been vandalized and broken over the years. The pump was restored through the efforts of the Cahaba Foundation and an iron restoration company in Birmingham. It is presently standing near the visitor center until it can be fitted into the well, Derry said. 

Perine’s life in Cahawba was not an easy one. His first wife, Mary Eliza Snow Perine, died at the age of 20 after giving birth to a daughter and namesake, Mary Eliza. He later remarried but lost his fortune when the town of Cahawba was abandoned after the Civil War. 

For Lauer, walking on the land where her ancestor lived and worked, was a moving and deeply satisfying experience. Her most reflective moment, though, came at the graveside of Mary Eliza, her great-great-great-great-grandmother. It was Mary Eliza’s daughter – Perine’s oldest — who passed the portrait through the family until it ended up with Lauer. 

“When I put my hand on her marble headstone, I felt myself bonding with the entire history of my family,” Lauer said.

People can see the Edward Perine portrait, furniture and a plate from his mansion, the grave of his first wife, and the artesian well when you visit Old Cahawba, open 9 am to 5 pm daily. The park lies at the confluence of the Alabama and Cahaba Rivers, and from 1819 to 1826 it served as Alabama’s first capital. Old Cahawba is a historic property of the Alabama Historical Commission. To learn more, call 334-872-8058 or visit www.ahc.alabama.gov.