|City/Town: • Union Springs
|Location Class: • Residential
|Built: • 1904 | Abandoned: • 2015
|Status: • Abandoned
|Photojournalist: • David Bulit
Table of Contents
Capt. Joel Herron Rainer, patriarch of the Rainer family
Joel Herron Rainer was born on January 17, 1829, and came to Alabama from Sampson County, North Carolina. He represented Pike County in the Legislature in 1860; enlisted as a private in the 17th Alabama Infantry Regiment, C. S. A. on September 15, 1801; attained the rank of First Lieutenant after the battle of Shiloh and made Captain soon afterward under the command of General George D. Johnson, a position he held until he surrendered at Greensboro, North Carolina on April 26, 1865.
After the war, he farmed until 1869 when he moved to Union Springs to enter the mercantile business under the firm name Miles & Rainer, later under that of Rainer, Jelks & Eley, and eventually under J. H. Rainer & Sons. He became president of the Merchant & Farmers’ Bank and sold his interests in his firm in 1890 to his sons, which was succeeded by the firm Rainer Sons composed of his sons William Walton and Sterling Price Rainer. In his life, Joel was a planter, a director in the Union Springs cotton mills, a director and stockholder in The Bank of Montgomery, a stockholder in the Commercial Insurance company of Montgomery, and president of the Home Enterprise Company. Joel Herron Rainer died on December 28, 1908, at the age of 79.
William Walton Rainer
William Walton Rainer was born on February 12, 1853, to Joah Herron’s first wife Susan Christian who died in 1854 at the young age of 21. In 1874, he built a home on South Prarie Street for his new bride, Celia Baldwin. William graduated from a business school in Baltimore Maryland and joined his father in the mercantile business. After his father’s death in 1909, he took his position as president of the Merchant & Farmers’ Bank. He also served as a member of the State Democratic Executive Committee and School Board. At the time of his death, he was considered the largest planter in the county; the oldest businessman in Union Springs; the oldest member of the St. John’s Lodge No. 62; and one of the oldest members of the First Baptist Church of Union Springs. He died on October 21, 1929.
Sterling Price Rainer
Joel Herron remarried Roxana Ellis, although she also died at an early age in January 1863 while Joel was in the army. She left behind two children, one of whom was Sterling Price Rainer. Sterling received his early education in the common schools of Bullock County and earned a degree at the Eastman Business College in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1878, soon joining and father and brother in the mercantile business. He remained in the business until 1902 when he sold his interests and engaged in farming and buying cotton, eventually taking an interest in politics.
In 1907, he became a member of the house of representatives of Bullock County; in 1909 was a member of the city council; served as mayor of Union Springs; served as vice-president of the Merchants & Farmers Bank; operator of Dixie Warehouse, one of the oldest businesses in the county; and in 1918 he was appointed probate judge by Governor Charles Henderson after the death of Judge James T. Norman. He had one daughter and four sons, one of whom was Sterling Price Rainer Jr. Sterling Price Rainer Sr. died on August 13, 1933.
Sterling Rainer Jr. was born on January 4, 1885, and graduated from the University of Alabama in 1908. Although he ran for Probate Judge to succeed his father, Sterling Jr. lost the May 1928 Democratic primary to Thomas R. Martin. Sterling Jr. married Jean Lacoste Evans in 1909, and they welcomed their first child, Sterling Price Rainer III, in 1911. The couple would go on to have three children by 1918. He operated Dixie Warehouse after the passing of his father; was a member of the First Presbyterian Church and served as President of the Board of Deacons for 47 years; and between 1843 and 1954, he served on the Board of Education. He died on May 29, 1967. All the Rainers are buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Union Springs.
Construction of this Neo-Classical Revival style home began in 1902 and was completed in 1904. It features an ample portico with four large Corinthian columns, a romantic second-floor balcony, and a stained glass window on the interior stairway. While the commonly spread notion is that it was built by Sterling Price Rainer Jr., it is quite unlikely as he was only 17-years-old at the time. The lot that this house was built on was the site of Dr. K. W. Jones’ residence which was sold to William W. Rainer in 1889.
On January 20, 1903, it was reported that “Mr. W. W. Rainer will occupy the Ellis residence on Conecuh Street while he is having his new home built.” It’s unknown when or if Sterling Jr. ever acquired the home as it was reported by the Union Springs Herald that he and his wife moved into his parents’ home on Chunnenuggee Avenue in 1934. That same year, Robert E. Lee Cope Jr. and his wife Kathleen Hollingsworth Cope moved into the former “Sterling Rainer residence” located on South Prairie Street. This would also indicate that Rainer Jr. never occupied what is known as the Rainer-Lewis House.
John Wiley Springer
The home was later occupied by John Wiley Springer who was born in Tuscaloosa County on February 24, 1894. During World War I, he served as an Ensign in the United States Navy and moved to Union Springs at the height of the Great Depression where he became a partner in the Springer Lumber Company, later establishing the Building Supply Company. He later entered the real estate business and for many years was the only licensed realtor in Bullock County. In the late-1940s, he was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives and served one term. He was a Master Mason and former Worshipful Master as well as a Shriner. He also served as a Deacon in the First Baptist Church of Union Springs.
Restoration & Abandonment
In the 1980s, the home was occupied by Mr. and Mrs. D. F. Masters, followed by Mr. and Mrs. J. F. Mertz. In 2012, the Rainer-Lewis House was sold to Dr. Marcy Hikes McDonald, who discovered the home for sale through the internet. She purchased the home and moved to Union Springs to retire after having worked for the Veterans Administration for many years. Her brother, Robert Hikes, retired from Honeywell Corporation in Massachusetts and moved to his hometown in Florida before moving in with his sister due to his failing health. In 2015, they moved to Alma, Georgia where he passed away on December 9, 2021, at the age of 77. In the short span of time since their absence, the home has fallen into ruin and requires extensive remediation work due to water damage.
Author’s Note: While I disagree with the name given to the home, that being the Rainer-Lewis House, I felt it was appropriate to title this article as such for its the name commonly associated with this home. I’d like to also touch upon in the article where I give a reason as to why I believe Sterling Rainer Jr. never built nor occupied the home. This was included to clear some misconceptions associated with the history of the home. In my research as well, I could not find who or why the name Lewis was attached to the home.
Owen, Marie; Owen, Thomas McAdory. (1921). History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography v.4
Brant & Fuller. (1893). Memorial Record of Alabama
Alabama Department of Archives and History. (1907). Alabama Official and Statistical Register