PROFILE: Petrey family settles in namesake town
Published 4:07 pm Monday, April 4, 2016
The following article was part of the Profile 2016 special section of The Luverne Journal. The section in its entirety can be found in the March 31 edition of The Luverne Journal.
Kicking off yet another quaint town in Crenshaw County is Petrey. The name Petrey not only represents a thriving little town, but is also the namesake of the founding family. Today, many members of the Petrey family still reside in the town and continue to grow and celebrate its heritage.
It is historically stated that Petrey is potentially the smallest incorporated town in Crenshaw County. It has had a mayor and a city council since Feb. 1, 1915.
Laura Petrey Elliott, director of the Lurleen B. Wallace Luverne Center, currently serves as the mayor pro-tem for the Town of Petrey, and is proud of the family lineage she comes from. She recalls hearing stories from her mother regarding the history of the family and town, and now works to educate her grandchildren on the importance of knowing their heritage.
“When you’re younger, most people don’t want to listen to all of that stuff; you’re just not interested,” Elliott said. “I wish I had asked more questions. I’m trying to teach my four grandchildren about our history. They’re interested in learning about it.”
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Over 100 years ago, George Petrey and his wife Martha Ann Blackwelder moved from the Carolinas to the area known today as Lapine around 1845. Five years later they made their way to the present location of Petrey.
At that time, Petrey was located on the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad branch, which had stations every few miles from Sellers Station, Lapine, Bradleyton, Petrey, Patsburg and Luverne. George Petrey was a descendant of Johann Georg Petrey, Sr., who arrived in the United States from Rotterdam on August 27, 1733.
The original name of the town was Forkland, but was later changed to Petrey due to the large amount of Petrey family members in the area. Just like the towns of Dozier and Brantley, Petrey joined the ranks of family-named towns.
When railroad officials came to name a new station, they would consult with citizens who lived nearby. Because the town was situated near the confluence of two creeks, the name Forkland was first chosen.
George Petrey was the father to 24 children. After the death of his wife Martha in 1865, he remarried Cinderella Huss; each wife bore him 12 children. Elliott stated that her family branch of Petreys stemmed from Jesse Petrey, a child of Martha.
According to Elliott’s research, two men named Ivey and Wilkes owned the first two businesses in Petrey. In 1909, Wilkes sold his business and it became Walter L. Petrey and Company. Walter was the son of Luke Petrey, a child of Martha.
Since then, the company grew to be the largest business in town and continued to grow into other towns. By the turn of the century, Petrey had grown into a nice sized farming community.
Petrey United Methodist Church was formally organized in the latter part of the 19th century; the original structure was destroyed by a storm in 1917, and the present building was erected soon after.
“We’ve got just one church in Petrey, and that’s the Petrey United Methodist Church. That’s where I go to church,” Elliott said.
Like multiple other small communities built around agricultural economy, Petrey reached its peak in size in the 1920s. The depression drove many people from the surrounding farms and the call of the cities and improved farming methods took their toll.
Elliott still recalls stories passed down to her from family members, and recalls her own experiences as a child growing up in Petrey.
“I’ve always heard that we live in tornado alley, well they had a bad tornado that came through in about 1948 or so. It killed a person or two and really destroyed some houses and did a lot of damage,” Elliott said. “Since then, almost all of the old houses had a storm pit. They are in the ground and you can go down in them and be safe during the weather.”
Elliott can recall having to evacuate to the storm pits as a little girl when tornadic weather would make its way through the town. While her family did not have their own storm pit, they would go to a family house for shelter. There are still houses in the area that have these pits, as well as decorative goldfish ponds in the front yards.
During the early years of Petrey, the town had a school with around 250 student enrolled and eight teachers. There were also several stores, a cotton gin, blacksmith shop, grist mill and a hotel.
Elliott’s parents, Felix Ronald Petrey and Jean Trotter Petrey, served as active members of the community and instilled a sense of town pride in their children from the beginning. Felix Petrey passed away in 1981. Many in the town of Petrey, as well as in the City of Luverne, remember Jean Petrey fondly and are still affected by the legacy she left behind. Jean Petrey passed away in 2003 after a tragic car accident near Troy.
Jean Petrey moved to the Town of Petrey in 1947 when she married Felix Petrey. She graduated from Troy State University with a master’s degree in English education. In 1960, she began her career as the senior English teacher for Luverne High School, where many knew her as “Queen Jean.” After the death of her husband, Jean Petrey retried from teaching and joined with her son Ronald Petrey in taking over the Petrey Farms family business.
Jean Petrey was not only known for her teaching reputation, but also for the vast amount of civic service she dedicated to the Town of Petrey, as well as the City of Luverne.
“My mother was really civic-minded. She did a lot of things for Petrey,” Elliott said.
Elliott has enjoyed the opportunities she has had over the years to further explore her roots and lineage, and she looks forward to finding more information as the years go on.