By Steve Flowers
The Story of Charles Henderson, Alabama’s 35th Governor and One of the State’s Greatest Philanthropists
Since I hail from Troy, Alabama, allow me to share with you the story of our only governor. Charles Henderson was not only the 35th Governor of Alabama, but he may also be one of the most profound philanthropists in Alabama history. He is unquestionably the greatest philanthropist to grace Pike County.
Soon after Alabama’s 1901 Constitution was enacted, a pattern of electing well-heeled governors began. From 1910-1946 Alabama elected what we referred to as bourbon governors. They were usually successful businessmen who looked at the job as a civic role for four years. The big mules of Birmingham and the big planters of the Black Belt would meet in a board room and anoint their candidate, who they would privately back financially. There would be no other business candidate. These big mules would team up with the probate judges who were the power brokers and usually could dictate who carried each county.
Henderson epitomized the governors of this bourbon era. He was governor from 1915-1919. Henderson is generally regarded as Alabama’s wealthiest governor. In fact, it was said that while he was governor, he was also the richest man in Alabama.
At age 44 he founded and owned the Troy Bank and Trust Company in Troy. Additionally, he owned a myriad of banks all over Alabama including the largest bank in Huntsville. He also owned or co-owned every major business in Troy.
Henderson was born in 1860 in Pike County. His father owned a mercantile business and died when Charles was 16. By 17, Henderson was running his father’s business and by 20 had turned it into the largest wholesale grocery company in southeast Alabama. By the age of 27, he had formed his own railroad company, established the Troy Normal School which later became Troy State University and now Troy University and started the Standard Chemical Company. By the way, he was elected the Mayor of Troy at age 26.
He resigned as Mayor of Troy in 1906 after being appointed President of the Alabama Railroad Commission, which not only regulated railroads but utilities also. It is now known as the Public Service Commission. During this era, he brought telephone and electricity to Troy. He owned both entities. He also owned the Pea River Utility Company.
At 54, Henderson was elected Alabama’s 35th Governor. He is known in history as Alabama’s Business Governor. When he took office, the state was broke. When he left in 1919, the state coffers were flush, which was apropos for the state’s “Business Governor.”
Henderson’s greatest legacy is not as governor, but as the most altruistic philanthropist in Pike County’s history. Henderson left a will that set up trusts before they were common. He set up a trust foundation with his vast wealth that is simply remarkable. He and his wife, Laura, were childless. He took care of her financially. However, he also took care of the children of Pike County.
He understood the power of compound interest. He left a corpus of money in trust with the directions that it should be left alone to compound for 20 years. At that time, the money was to be used to build schools for Pike County. The interest off of his trust built every school in Pike County. The high school I graduated from was appropriately named Charles Henderson High School.
His will called for the interest of his trust to go to medical care for Pike County children after it had built all the schools. In 1979 the Charles Henderson Child Health Center was built in Troy. It is a state-of-the-art health clinic that allures the best pediatricians and pediatric dentists from throughout the country. Every child in Pike County can receive medical and dental care equal to that seen by children in Manhattan, free of charge, thanks to Henderson.
Henderson died on Jan. 7, 1937, at age 77 from a stroke caused by influenza. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Troy. An eternal flame illuminates his grave 24 hours a day. Appropriately, it is furnished by the city of Troy utilities which he founded.
Charles Henderson was indeed a remarkable man.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.