Gainesville is located in northeast Sumter County in the west-central part of the state. It has a mayor/city council form of government. Pro Football Hall of Fame member Buck Buchanan was born in the town. Maria Fearing, an educator and later missionary to the Belgian Congo, was born near Gainesville and is buried there, as is Alabama’s first native-born governor, John A. Winston.
Howard-Goodloe-Bolton House Gainesville was founded around 1835 by New Englander Col. Moses Lewis, who bought 640 acres on the Tombigbee River and laid out lots to sell to new settlers. He named the town in honor of George Strother Gaines, federal agent to the Choctaws, to whom the land first belonged. The town was incorporated in 1835, and settlers soon moved to the area. Many of them came from northern states, and so many of them built homes on Main Street that it became known as “Yankee Street.” The Gainesville Bank was also built in 1835 and became so influential that it was able to print its own currency. In 1837, noted author Joseph Glover Baldwin opened a law office in the town, practicing there for more than a decade. By 1840, Gainesville was the third most populous town in Alabama. The first school opened in 1843 on what is now known as Virginia Hill. Future Alabama senator Edmund Pettus opened a law office in Gainesville in 1842 and practiced there until 1851.
During the mid-nineteenth century, Gainesville was one of the primary ports on the Tombigbee; indeed during some of those years it was the largest cotton shipping port in the world. In 1855, however, much of the downtown area burned in an accidental fire that destroyed 30 of the town’s original buildings, including the mayor’s office and the post office. On May 9, 1865, Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest surrendered to federal forces in Gainesville.
The aftereffects of the fire and the Civil War, combined with the demise of the riverboat as a major economic force in the state, led to Gainesville’s gradual decline. As late as 1887, however, the town still supported 15 businesses and had a population of 1,000. The town today is sustained primarily by tourism centered on the historic district.
According to 2016 Census estimates, Gainesville recorded a population of 274. Of that number, 59.1 percent of respondents identified themselves as African American, 14.6 percent as white, 21.5 percent as Asian, and 4.7 percent as two or more races. The town’s median household income was $22,500, and the per capita income was $15,701.
According to 2016 Census estimates, the workforce in Gainesville was divided among the following industrial categories:
- Educational services and health care and social assistance (28.4 percent)
- Transportation and warehousing, and utilities (25.0 percent)
- Other services, except public administration (10.2 percent)
- Manufacturing (8.0 percent)
- Construction (6.8 percent)
- Public administration (6.8 percent)
- Wholesale trade (5.7 percent)
- Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and extraction (4.5 percent)
- Professional, scientific, and management, and administrative and waste management services (2.3 percent)
- Retail trade (2.3 percent)
Students in Gainesville attend Sumter County schools; no public schools are located within the town limits.
State Highway 39 bisects Gainesville going north-south, and State Highway 116 comes into Gainesville from the southwest and merges with State Highway 39 in town.
Events and Places of Interest
Coffin Shop The Gainesville Historic District has been listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage. The historic bandstand and park stand are located in the historic town center, which is notable for being a triangle rather than a square. An obelisk marks the spot where Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest surrendered to U.S. Army general Edward S. Canby.
The Gainesville Historic District, the Coffin Shop, Colgin Hill, the Gibbs House, the Main-Yankee Street Historic District, the Col. Green G. Mobley House, the Gainesville Park and Bandstand, and the Laura Watson House all are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Each year during the second weekend in March, Gainesville is host to a large Civil War re-enactment. The town’s Confederate Cemetery is the final resting place of some 250 soldiers who were brought to the hospital at the town’s women’s school for treatment after the Battle of Shiloh and did not survive. The cannon located in the cemetery was cast at the Selma Ordnance and Foundry and was recovered from the river in the early twentieth century after being thrown in to keep it out of Union hands.