James Elisha Folsom, the forty-fifth and forty-seventh governor of Alabama, was born October 9, 1908, in Coffee County, one of eight children born to Joshua and Eulala Dunnavant Folsom.
Joshua Folsom pursued an active political career, serving as deputy sheriff, tax collector and as a member of the Coffee County Commission.
Much of Folsom’s populist ideology developed as a result of his father’s political influence, the stories rich in family history and political tradition told by his uncle, John Dunnavant, and Folsom’s own extensive reading about history and historical figures, particularly his hero, Andrew Jackson.
Folsom received his formal education from the public schools in Coffee County, the University of Alabama, Howard College (Samford University) in Birmingham and George Washington University, although he never obtained a college degree.
Prior to serving as Governor, Folsom served in the merchant marine and worked with the Civil Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration. Folsom began working for his brother-in-law’s insurance company, the Emergency Aid Insurance Company, in 1937 and the following year moved to Cullman to serve as the company’s north Alabama representative.
He served briefly during WWII but the illness and subsequent death of his first wife, Sarah Carnley, in 1944 forced him to return to Cullman to care for their two daughters.
Folsom entered the political ring in 1933 running unsuccessfully as a delegate to the state prohibition convention.
In 1936 and again in 1938 he ran for Congress against incumbent Henry B. Steagall and was defeated both times. He next ran for governor in 1942 against Chauncey Sparks and surprised many observers by finishing second in that race.
Folsom, who earned the nickname “Big Jim” during the 1946 campaign, defeated Handy Ellis in the runoff. His election campaign was an event in and of itself. Folsom took his campaign directly to the people and entertained them with a country band, the Strawberry Pickers, while he displayed the mop and suds bucket with which he intended to clean state government.
Incorporating his populist ideas, Folsom’s platform advocated reapportionment, increased and expanded benefits for elderly citizens, increased funding in education, repeal of the poll tax and better roads and highways.
Folsom’s first term in office achieved some of his goals: increased funding to aid education and the elderly as well as road improvements.
Following his first term in office, Folsom returned to his insurance business until he was reelected governor in 1954.
Folsom’s 1954 campaign and platform differed little from his 1946 effort. The major difference was Folsom’s acceptance and support for the role outside industry could play in improving Alabama’s economy and quality of life.
Although, the legislature was initially more cooperative, the civil rights movement destroyed all chance of compromise on certain issues. Big Jim was a moderate on the race issue and refused to exploit race relations to achieve his agenda. During the first year of Folsom’s second administration, most of his programs to expand state services were enacted and he almost succeeded in partly achieving his long-term goal of reapportionment in the legislature.
Perhaps his greatest accomplishment and legacy was the implementation of Alabama’s “Farm to Market” Road program. Folsom rightly understood that if we facilitated getting products to market in a cost effective manner, the entire economy of the state would be stimulated.
Beginning with the vision of paving 100 miles of road in each of the 67 counties in Alabama, Folsom eventually spearheaded the construction of over 18,000 miles of paved roads in the state.
In addition to road construction, Folsom’s infrastructure program constructed 114,388 linear feet (217 miles) of bridges within the 67 counties.
Approximately $650 million of Federal, State and county funds were put into the program. Historians have judged Folsom’s “Farm to Market” program as one of the most efficient and effective uses of combined state and federal funding in our nation’s history.
In 1962 Folsom was defeated in his third bid for governor by George C. Wallace. He was never again elected to public office and continued his insurance business in Cullman.
Along with his first two daughters, Sarah Rachel and Melissa Carnley, Folsom and his second wife, Jamelle Moore, had seven children: James Elisha, Jr., Andrew Jackson, Jamelle Alabama, Thelma Ebelene, Joshua Melvin, Eulala Cornelia and Melody Dunnavant.
He died of heart failure on November 21, 1987 in Cullman.