Russell Lands History
A Greatly Expanded Version
The Russell Heritage
History of Ben Russell and Russell Lands
The Early Days of Russell Lands
Battle of Horseshoe Bend
Pine Lumber Company
Church in the Pines
Mr. Ben Article 2
By Jennie Lee Kelley
Tallapoosa County a History, 1976
Young Alexander is a fictitious character of the writer’s imagination, born in America’s year of independence, 1776, and, against the odds of today’s longevity pattern, living now, 1976, in Alexander City. Having observed, over its entire existence as a town, the events and people which have played important roles in the life of Tallapoosa County’s youngest and largest city, he recalls here with vivid and nostalgic remembrances those that have impressed him the most.
.. This account is an imagined conversation between the author and Young Alexander. And while Alexander is not a real person, the events recounted and the facts told are, to the best of the author’s knowledge and research, true and accurate.
..In the interview, JLK is the author Jennie Lee Kelley, and YA is Mr. Young Alexander.
JLK: Mr. Alexander, July 4 of this year marks the 200th anniversary of the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence from England by the United States. There will be many patriotic celebrations over the country. I wonder if you can recall for us how the Fourth of July was celebrated in the early years of Youngsville.
YA: Yes, ma’am. I remember back in the early 1840s, duly celebrated some sixty years, I guess, after the Revolutionary Was, the Fourth of July was duly celebrated every year with a barbecue – beef, pork, mutton, kid, and last, but not least, squirrel. Early in the morning of the Fourth hunters were sent out in every direction, and by ten o’clock they reported to the pit with their game, and it was dressed and barbecued. You can bet your life, they were fine, and I can almost taste them now.
In addition to the sumptuous meal there would be speeches upon the topics of the day, and always the Declaration of Independence was read. I can almost hear that, too, now: “When in the course of human events….” The Fourth was then highly respected for one reason because there were usually some old Revolutionary soldiers present at the gatherings, and while the Declaration of Independence was being read, I have seen tears trickle down the cheeks of the old veterans. The band that played the music at the celebrations usually was made up of the clarinet, flute, fife, two french horns and a bass drum, and when the band struck up the old national songs, you would hear the old soldiers shout “Hurrah for Washington and America.”
In those days peach and apple brandy was plentiful, free of revenue and very cheap, but for all that, it was not allowed to be carried to the Fourth celebrations.
That was a long time aga, nearly 150 years.
JLK: Are there any other special ways in which the town has shown its ties to our nation in the past?
YA: Well, it’s not any great big thing, but one is the streets.
JLK: The streets?
YA: Yes. You can start at the corner by the Alexander City Bank and walk six and a half miles to the city limits on Washington Street, named for George Washington, first president of the United States. Or, you can go in the opposite direction from the same downtown corner and walk about five miles to the city limits on Jefferson Street, named for Thomas Jefferson, the third president. And there are other streets which have the names of presidents and national statesmen and heroes – Monroe, Madison, Marshall, Calhoun, Franklin, Tyler, Wilson, Henry, Roosevelt. One bears the name of America’s good friend of the 1770s to the 1830s – General LaFayette of France. There’s an Adams Street, too, but there have been a lot of Adamses in Alexander City, and some of them lived on that street as far back as 70 years ago, so it may have been named for them rather than John Adams, second president of the United Sates. But I don’t know for sure.
I’m glad that the city has kept Indian names for some of the streets – like Elkahatchee, Hillabee, Coosa, Creek, Seminole, Cherokee, Tallapoosa.
JLK: Speaking of names, tell me, how did the town come to be named Alexander City?
YA: Well, it wasn’t named that to begin with. The first name I ever heard for the place was “Georgia Store.” The Muscogee or Creek Indians who lived here as far back as I can remember – they said their ancestors came here in the 13th century – had villages here and there, mostly on the creeks and the Tallapoosa River, but I don’t recall that there was any village with a name on this exact spot.
About 1830, a trader came here from Georgia – I don’t remember his name – and set up a pine pole lodge for a trading post out near where Russell Corporation’s main office is now – somewhere in that vicinity – for trading with the Indians and the few white people who were nearby, and probably because he was from Georgia, it was called the “Georgia Store” or “Georgia Trading Post.” And that was the name put to the place.
JLK: How long was it known as the Georgia Store?
YA: Not long. Only about six years. Most of the Indians were leaving the area about this time, and more and more white people were rushing in. A lot of good lands were available since the Indians had ceded the Creek territory to the United States under their 1832 Treaty. So they came hurrying: land speculators, homesteaders seeking new farms, some wanting to make a new start in a promising unsettled place, and some, I guess, just to get away from where they came from. Whatever the reason, about six years after the Georgia Store was started, a man by the name of James Young migrated from South Carolina and settled with his family near the Georgia Store. He already had relatives in Tallapoosa County, and others joined him, and before long a farming community had developed, and it seemed almost natural to call it “Youngsville.”
JLK: For James Young?
YA: Well, some people said it was for him. Others said no, it was for his son Reuben Griffin Young who had acquired the Georgia Store and who became the first postmaster for the place in 1837. Still others claimed it was named for Bird Young who was made famous as “Simon Suggs” by the Alabama writer Johnson Jones Hooper. Bird was quite a character and amused a lot of people with his fun antics and anecdotes. He has a plantation of about 600 acres of land in what is now the western part of town. There was another Young – John – who was also here almost from the start.
But the name was Youngsville, not Youngsville, and since there were so many Youngs then, I think the most logical explanation for the name is that is w3as just what it literally means: a village or town of Youngs.
JLK: You say James was the first to settle here?
YA: Well, under the Treaty of 1832, the Creeks ceded all of their remaining lands east of the Mississippi to the United States. Included in this land was what is now Tallapoosa County. One of the provisions of the Treaty was that one section of the land would be reserved for each of the ninety Creek chiefs who signed it, and one-half section would be reserved for each head of a Creek family, for a five years term, and when the lands were sold, the money from the sale would go to the named Indians. Apparently, James Young traded either with the United Sates government or with the Indian Col-chum-nee Hadgo for the half section. I don’t know what he paid for it, but I do know that in August, 1837, he borrowed about $1000 form the Branch of the Bank of Alabama, at Montgomery, and put up the 320 acres as security, and M. T. Ellis and David Carter, who knew about land values, told the Bank that is was worth about $2000. That same half section of land today includes a large portion of Russell Corporation’s location, part of the Housing Authority project, the hospital, the medical center, Trinity United Methodist Church, Calvary Heights Baptist Church, W. L. Radney School, or part of it, Horseshoe Bend Motel and the businesses at the intersection of Highway 22 and U. S. Highway 280, Russell Pipe and Foundry, Alex City Building Supply, and extends north of the railroad to include about ten acres. Today James Young’s 320 acres are worth millions of dollars.
JLK: Yes, today it is all covered with business and industry, homes, schools, churches and hospitals, but what was it like out there when James Young acquired it in 1837?
YA: It was all forest. The whole twenty square miles that is Alexander City today was then soft rolling hills covered with all kinds of trees: hickory, ash, all species of oak: black, white, red, Spanish, post; and pine, maple, persimmon, poplar, sassafras, dogwood, sourwood, birch, holly, sweet gum, black gum, mulberry, bay, lynn. Beautiful trees, shading and shadowing Indian trails and paths, and crisscrossed with clear branches and streams that fed into the surrounding creeks of Alkohatchi, which is now Elkahatchee, and Ennotachopco which we call today Enitachopco and Sandy Creek, and Hillabee. The woods were alive with all kinds of birds, and there was wild turkey and partridges and deer. There were still some Indians living in thatched houses. Not much agriculture. A few corn crops here and there. It was a wild untamed land James Young found with few white people near. The gold mining had brought some white men into the area northeast from here, and there were some white families in the area of Flint Hill. At that time, Alabama had been a state for seventeen years, and Tallapoosa had been a county for four. Andrew Jackson, who had made a name for himself not far from here at the battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, was President of the United States.
JLK: We were talking before about how the place came to be named Alexander City, and we strayed off the subject before you finished.
YA: Yes. We need to go back a little though. It kept the name of Youngsville until 1873. In fact, it was incorporated as Youngsville on February 5, 1872. W. H. Whatley and H. P. Smith were our representatives to the General Assembly in Montgomery in 1872 and 1873, and no doubt they introduced the legislation to incorporate the town. The corporate limits were set to be one-half mile in every direction from the center of the public square. Let’s see, that would have been east to about where Tallapoosa Street crosses the railroad on Mount Airy, and north to where the city cemetery is, west nearly to the Russell office, and south far enough to include the high school. Griffin Young had acquired the land where the town square is and had laid it off in business lots back before the Civil War. He built himself a two-story house, about where the parking lot by the depot is today; four rooms it was, and he lived downstairs with his family and the upstairs was a boarding house. The town’s first hotel, I guess you’d say. About that time there was a cock fighting pit where the First Baptist now is, and some said it was a place of great sport and others said it was a den of iniquity. Whatever, it was replaced by a mighty fine institution.
JLK: About the name Alexander City?
YA: I’m coming to that. The Savannah and Memphis Railway Company was building a railroad from Columbus, Georgia, to Birmingham, and the route for it came right through Youngsville. In fact, one had been started before the Civil War, but work had had to stop on account of finance problems and the war. The Union soldiers had destroyed that part already built, so that after the war they had to start all over with construction. Well, by 1873, the railroad was almost to Youngsville. Everybody could see how important it was going to be to the town, and credit for its coming was given to the thirty-eight-year-old president of the S & M, General E. P. Alexander. So
the townspeople, in their excitement and appreciation, said, “Let’s name the town for General Alexander, for in bringing the railroad to Youngsville, he has presented us with the key to our future progress.” Our same representatives to the Alabama General Assembly took the message to Montgomery, and on March 19, 1873, the Assembly voted that “the town of Youngsville in Tallapoosa County shall hereafter be called Alexander City.” And from then to now, that has been the name.
At the same time, they changed the town boundaries to be one square mile with definite lines according to government survey.
JLK: I’ve heard that it was joyous day when the first train finally arrived. Were you there that day?
YA: That was on June 24, 1874, a Wednesday as I recall. Yes, I was there along with hundreds of folks from miles around – from Coosa, Clay and Elmore, and, of course, all over Tallapoosa. I guess most of them had never seen a train before. They brought baskets of food for dinner to spend the day. There were speeches and much excitement. The little children were hanging on their mothers’ skirts or held in their fathers’ arms so they could see as everybody gazed down the tracks to see the engine, which was named “Simon Suggs” and engineered by John Frye, come chugging and shrieking as its whistle blew full blast, and stop for the first time ever in Alexander City. I was so fascinated with the engine and the engineer that I did not notice, but I heard others telling later that some of the folks were so frightened by the “big monster” as they called it, that they fled in mortal terror. But there is no doubt that what was uppermost in the town’s thoughts that day was that from that moment on into the future, Alexander City would have transportation east and west, and from there north and south, and that we did not have to depend any longer solely on oxen and mule teams and wagons to haul everything we needed from outside places.
It wasn’t long before the S & M trains seemed a natural part of the town, and the whistle of the engine was just another part of each day’s routine. Besides its transportation uses, the train furnished entertainment as it became a social thing to do to go “meet the train” when it was due, to see who came in and who went off and who passed through on the S & M. In time it became the Central of Georgia which it is today.
JLK: Tell more about General Alexander.
YA: Well, he was a native of Georgia; born in Washington, Georgia, May 26, 1835. His full name was Edward Porter Alexander. He came from a well-to-do planter class family. He entered West Point Military Academy when he was eighteen years old and graduated third in a class of 38. In fact, his high scholastic standing got him an assignment to the Corps of Engineers as a Brevet Second Lieutenant, and he was detailed to West Point as an instructor in the Department of Practical Military Engineering for two special details, one that took him to Utah to participate in the Norman War and once to participate in some signal experiments.
He was out in Washington Territory when Georgia seceded from the Union, and his plan was to come home to Georgia, resign from the Army and offer his services to Georgia. The Union tried to get him to stay in the West and wait out the war there, pointing out to him that by the end of the war he could be wealthy and in a position to pursue his Army profession successfully, but that if he went home to Georgia it would be at great personal risk and in a cause that was foredoomed to fail. But Alexander said no, that his people were going to war, that they believed it to be for their liberty, and that if he did not come back and bear his part, they would believe him to be a coward. He said, “I shall not know whether I am or not. I have just got to go and stand my chances.” So he resigned from the United States Army, received a commission as a Captain of Engineer in the Confederate Army at Richmond. Then all the way from the very beginning at Manassas to the very end at Appomattox, Edward Porter Alexander distinguished himself as one of the most brilliant artillerist of the Civil War, and rose from captain of engineers to brigadier general of artillery. So excellent was his reputation that practically every commander and high ranking general at some time requested his services, and he played important roles in most of the dramatic scenes of the Civil War. When it was over, he was only twenty-nine years old.
It stood to reason that his versatility and fine mind and great personality that had distinguished him as an outstanding soldier in the Confederacy would also mark him for civilian leadership in the post war South. Indeed they did. He became a professor of mathematics and civil and military engineering at the University of South Carolina. Five years later, in 1871, he became the superintendent of the Charlotte and Augusta Railroad, and then, still in his thirties, he became President of the Savannah and Memphis Railroad and that is when he entered Alexander City’s history.
In after years, President Grover Cleveland appointed him to the United States Commission of Railroads and Canals, and for two years he was a government director of the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1902 he was engineer arbitrator of the boundary dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
When West Point celebrated its centennial June 9, 1902, General Alexander, of Virginia, was the featured speaker. It was the first occasion on which the Confederate Army had been officially recognized in any proceedings of the Military Academy.
He died in Savannah, Georgia, April 28, 1910, nearly fifty years after his spectacular Confederate Army career, and thirty-six years after our city was named for him. He was a great American.
I heard one of his grandsons say that the General was always proud that a town had been named for him.
JLK: Looking back over the entire life of Alexander City – from the time James Young settled here to the present, what events would you say have had the most significant bearing on what the town is today?
YA: I think I would have to say that No. 1 was the coming of the railroad. As I have already told you, that was in 1874, and insured the towns future progress.
Next, I would put what happened in 1900 and 1902 – the coming of the textile industry. The cotton mill started in 1900 is now Avondale Mill’s Bevelle plant, and the knitting mill started in 1902 is the vast Russell Corporation of today.
Then, I think the construction of Martin Dam in the 1920s is significant for not only did it create electric energy, but it created Lake Martin where the city recreates itself all year around.
The 1902 fire that virtually destroyed the town was a disaster of immense proportions, but out of it came demonstration of the town’s giant spirit and ability to rise above calamity.
In more recent years, I think the opening of the Junior College in 1965 was an important event because of its effect on the quality of life for Alexander City.
Oh, and I must not forget the 1872 revival on Herzfeld hill.
Maybe there are other equally important events, but these, in my opinion, are the major ones significant to the town’s history. Perhaps I should have mentioned the gold mining activity around here off and on since 1815. At one time in the 1880s it was so promising that the town began calling itself the “Gold City.” In 1905, there was $45,500 worth of gold mined in Alabama, and most of it came from the Hog Mountain mines about fifteen miles northeast of here. But I’ll let somebody else tell you the gold story. It is very interesting.
JLK: What is this about a revival on Herzfeld hill?
YA: In the summer of 1872, a handful of Methodists and Baptists met under a bush arbor near an oak tree, which I think is still standing, on a hill northeast from the town square in a two weeks union religious revival. We call it Herzfeld hill because in later years one of the town’s leading businessmen, Reuben Herzfeld, built an elegant home on the same spot. That was long after the time of the revival, however. But in 1872, the revivalists sat on crude rough split log benches and clean wheat straw spread on the ground, and sang hymns, prayer prayers, listened to sermons, and determined to organize churches in Youngsville.
At that time there was a log cabin Baptist Church for Negroes about where the Coca Cola plant is today, and there was a primitive Baptist church near the home of the late Elisabeth Russell Alison. There was also a Methodist church at what is now Flint Hill in the city limits, but in 1872 that was far distant from Youngsville.
The two churches started as a result of the revival are now the First United Methodist Church at the corner of Green and Semmes Streets, and the First Baptist Church on Court Square.
The Baptists organized first, on August 3, 1872, two weeks before the Methodists, with elven members, and their first church building was one-room steepled frame structure. Look at that church today: on the same site as the first one, now 901 members and facilities with cushioned pews, stained glass windows, a fine pipe organ, an enormous sanctuary, a chapel, and dozens of other spaces for educational church purposes, all valued at over a million dollars.
Alexander City today has about twenty-five churches of many denominations: Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Church of Christ, Church of God, Catholic, Episcopal.
JLK: Many Alex Citizans Still talk about “the fire” you mentioned as if it were a recent event, but you say it occurred in 1902, that is nearly seventy-five years ago.
YA: Yes, it happened right after noon on Friday, the thirteenth, 1902, and it absolutely destroyed the entire downtown district. I recall it was a hot windy day. The year had been one of the driest in the town’s history. Crops were failing; some trees had even died from the drouth.
The fire started behind A. R. Robinson’s Machine Shop where cotton gins and all types of machinery were repaired, on the east side of Main Street. Ordinarily, I think they could have put it out because it wasn’t all that big when it was first discovered. But the wind was strong, and fanned the flames beyond control, and they spread from one building to the next until the whole downtown was ablaze. Everything was burning: the depot, the train boxcars, the tracks, the livery stable and the animals in stores, the banks, offices, newspaper, the post office, the wooden sidewalks, the hotels, the Methodist Church and its parsonage, several residences, the courthouse. Everything. Most of the buildings were wooden and flamed quickly. At nearby homes the owners spread wet quilts in feeble efforts to ward off the blazes. The merchants tried to salvage some of their stock by removing it to places of safety beyond the reach of the holocaust. Some of it was carried as far from the flames as where the First united Methodist Church is now. The firefighting equipment was nowhere near adequate for the task; and it was caught between flames and burned along with everything else.
The postmaster was at home eating dinner when the fire started, and he rushed to try to save his office. There was an empty wagon with no team on the town square. He seized it and with the help of several Negroes who were nearby, pulled it to the post office door and leaded it with office records, stamps, mail and government valuables until the heat was too fierce to save any more. Then with the help of the same friends, they pulled the wagon from the flaming district. By the time the fire was over, he had set up his post office in the basement of the safe Presbyterian church, and announced that the post office was ready to do business.
By the middle of the afternoon, the flames had spent themselves. All downtown Alexander City lay in smoldering ruins. Everything was gone.
And what says most for the spirit of the townspeople is that immediately they began to cope with the new problems.
The two banks had salvaged their money, took it to the homes of two of their officers and from there carried on the city’s banking for the time being.
The Outlook, the town’s newspaper, lost its printing equipment, its place of printing, its subscription list, everything, but it never missed publishing an issue. The Opelika Industrial News offered the use of its presses, and The Outlook came out with a one sheet edition the week following the fire.
The railroad agent, with corps of assistants, established prompt telegraph communication with the outside world by “cutting in” a temporary under the shade of a tree, and providing depot and express facilities. More than one hundred yards of Central of Georgia railroad track that had burned was relaid in about three hours.
The morning after the fire, the druggists had set up emergency drug stores “on the street.” The businesses put up booths and temporary shelters so that the city took on the look of a street fair scene. By the next Wednesday, less than a week, about forty of the destroyed businesses were back “in business.”
The records salvaged from the courthouse were carried to the home of the Outlook editor where the clerk’s office was set up. A local dentist went immediately to Atlanta to purchase a new set of instruments. The president of the Methodist Ladies Aid Society made a plea TO ANYONE WHO WILL AID US for help in rebuilding the church and parsonage they had lost at a loss of $7000.
The mayor announced that losses totaled $400,000 and that $130,000 was covered by insurance. By today’s standards, the loss would have been in the millions.
Help came quickly and generously from outside: Opelika, West Point, Wetumpka, LaFayette, Auburn, Birmingham, Selma, Talladega, Camp Hill, Sylacauga, Anniston, Atlanta, Union Springs, and, of course, from many, many individuals.
Eight days after the fire, the Town Council adopted a fire limit ordinance providing that within set limits, which encompassed the main downtown area, only brick and stone buildings could be erected on the front streets, and frame buildings covered with corrugated iron could be built on the back streets a space of 30 feet from any building. No foundries or shops requiring large furnaces and steam power could be built within the fire limits.
Some citizen made the wise suggestion that the city ought to rearrange the business blocks and streets before the rebuilding started so that there would be more symmetry to its shape. The old business district before the fire was shaped more like a Chinese puzzle that anything else. It would have been an ideal time to straighten it all out. But I guess that would have taken a lot of time, and the important thing, the city government said, was to get the town built back as quickly as possible.
So rebuilding started at once. It was as if the whole town was saying in one voice: “We are not stopping to gaze on the hollow walls that remain as monuments to a ruthless fire. Like those who find courage in defeat, we are moving to the front.”
And you know what? Before the end of the year, people were saying that maybe the fire was a blessing in disguise. We had got rid of the wooden buildings and sidewalks and built a whole new town in about four months. All around the state when the fire at Alexander City was mentioned, there was comment on the bravery and progressive spirit of the townspeople. We were mighty proud of that.
JLK: I’m sure you were. Let’s move on to the subject of the textile industry. You said that the years 1900 and 1902 were significant in making Alexander City a “textile” town. Tell us about that.
YA: As long ago as the 1880s, maybe even earlier, the town’s boosters kept saying that we ought to have a cotton mill. The location was ideal, right in the middle of a vast cotton growing district. The town council promoted the enterprise by offering to donate all the land necessary and tenant houses, all the stone needed for building purposes, abundant waterpower if desired, and would exempt any mill from municipal taxes for ten years. They pointed out that good land could be bought for $5 to $10 an acre that would produce a high quality, best grade long staple cotton. Another selling point was that we were situated on the Central of Georgia railroad and able to have competitive rates of freight to and from all points north and east.
But it wasn’t until 1900 that anything concrete happened. The credit goes to J.C. Maxwell who was the cashier at the Alexander City Bank at that time. He happened to see a small news item that aroused him to action and resulted in a 10,000-spindle cotton mill for Alexander City. Negotiations were already under way to build the mill near Talladega. Maxwell, with the urging and support of Reuben Herzfeld, president of the bank, rushed off to Talladega and an appointment with the prospective builders of the cotton mill, and convinced them that Alexander City would be a better place for it. Before the end of the year, the venture was organized into the Alexander City Cotton Mills; contracts were awarded for construction of the main building and cottages to house the workers. It was music to the ears of the town for the long dream of the city fathers was coming true.
It was a $200,000 enterprise, and that was a lot of money in those days. It was not in continuous operation, however, until 1919 when Avondale Mills bought the plant, and it has been producing Avondale textile products ever since.
Avondale Mills had been in the textile business in Alabama since 1897, so when it acquired the Alexander City Cotton Mills, it was just adding to an already large operation. Today, it employs around 700 people with an annual payroll of about $5 million, just in Alexander City. And it has a good reputation for employee relationships and benefits.
JLK: What about 1902?
YA: That was the year that Russell Manufacturing Company was started. Ben Russell had learned that a small knitting mill was for sale in Washington, Georgia, southeast of Atlanta, and he just wouldn’t stop until he had bought it and started operating in Alexander City. They made women and children’s underwear drawers they call them.
Russell started the little company in a 50 x 100 foot frame building on the site of the present Russell Mills, employing a few hands, and within three years, by 1905, his production had tripled and had over 50 employees, with new machinery and modern brick building, and another new building under construction. From then to now, it has continued to grow and expand. Today that Company’s products are shipped worldwide, and it has plants in four other counties, employees nearly 5500 people and has an annual payroll of $33.5 million.
So you can see why I would think that the coming of the textile industry to Alexander City would be one of the highlights in its history. These two mills have been the economic mainstay of the town for about seventy-five years.
JLK: Yes, I understand. There have been other industries too?
YA: Oh yes, some have come and operated a while and then for one reason or another ended. Some have come and stayed and played important roles in the economic status of the town. Today there are two foundries, a brick factory, two mobile home manufacturers. The town fathers say they are always on the lookout for new industry.
JLK: Another of the significant events you mentioned was the construction of Martin Dam on the Tallapoosa River. This is some twenty miles from Alexander City. What is its significance for the town?
YA: Well, I’ll tell you. As far back as 1879 we were being told that this river was potentially important in the development of the natural resources and the commercial interest of the area. It was claimed that the waterpower developed by the improvement of the river would run “all the machinery in the world.” It took about fifty more years for anything to develop, but by the latter 1920s Alabama Power Company had constructed a dam – later they named it for Thomas E. Martin, the president of the Company, - and created the electric power – not enough to run all the machinery of the world, but plenty – and in addition created with the backed up water what was then advertised as the “world’s largest artificial lake.” I don’t know if it was that or not, but it has some 760 miles of shoreline that reaches to within three miles of Alexander City. It has put water recreation within the reach of practically every Alex Citian.
You can boat down the lake on any summer, spring and autumn, even winter, day, and you’ll see Alex City families at their lake homes – cabins to modern cottages to palatial residences; they’ll be fishing, boating, water skiing, picnicking, camping, sunning, swimming. Far different, I guess, from 150 years ago when the Indian canoes slipped through the Tallapoosa waters from village to village. It was beautiful then. And it is beautiful now. In the spring the banks are lined with blossoming dogwood, wild honeysuckle and mountain laurel; in the fall brilliant autumn leaves are reflected in the blue waters. I tell you, it soothes the spirit. And the best part about it all is that it is available to all Alex Citians.
JLK: You seemed to be impressed with the Junior College. When did it come on the Alexander City scene?
YA: It’s so recent that most of the Alex Citians will remember that for themselves. It opened in 1965 in the old hospital quarters on Lee Street with 442 students. A new country club had been built at Willow Point, and the old club site, valued at $750,000 was donated for the junior college campus. It was about ninety acres. The first building was completed in time for the 1966 September opening.
Today the college, which is supported by the State of Alabama, has nearly 1,500 students, and the facilities are valued at $4,250,600. There is an administration building, a science and business education building, a three-story library, and a multipurpose health, education and arts building and art studio. There’s a 3-acre lake and the grounds are beautifully landscaped. They have worked hard, and successfully, to get the college accredited. Also on the campus is a trade school facility.
The great thing about having the Junior College here is that students can get their first two years of college there at a nominal cost, and then go on to Auburn or Alabama or wherever they want to go. Another good benefit is that a lot of Alex Citians go there and get some college education who probably would not have any otherwise. You’d be surprised how many – textile workers, secretaries, policemen, engineers, full time jobholders – add to their qualifications by courses at the junior college. And many folks enroll in courses for self-improvement and enjoyment – art, home decorating, and such. Right now they are offering one for people who want to quit smoking.
It is my opinion that the quality of the tow is measured by the quality of its people. This junior college as much as any influence I know of in the town affects the quality of life here. Have you ever been on the campus?
JLK: Yes. I have taken some art courses there for several years, not for credit but to improve my painting.
YA: You see, that is what I am talking about. Multiply yourself by the thousands of students since the college started, and you can make some judgment of what the place means to Alexander City.
JLK: Alexander City has shown special interest in its schools throughout the years, hasn’t it?
YA: Yes. There is nothing new about that interest. In the beginning, there were only private schools. About the time the town was incorporated in 1873, there were three private schools in the area of the public square.
I remember in 1909 when President William Howard Taft’s train stopped in Alexander City at the depot, and he came out on the platform and made a little speech and asked some questions of the crowd gathered there. One of the questions he asked was, what kind of schools did we have? They were able to tell him that the town was in the process of building a brand new two-story high brick school, with large basement, classrooms, principal’s office, cloakrooms, and spacious corridors and upstairs a large auditorium for ample seating capacity for any public gatherings. The unique thing about the whole undertaking was that it was being built entirely by contributions made by the townspeople. All the businessmen were cooperative and the city council made the first contribution of $2000.
That wasn’t the first school the people built. Back in 1879, Albert G. Holloway – he was a teacher of music and singing – organized the young people of the community into a concert group and they gave a concert to raise money to build the first public school. The concert proceeds started the fund, and local citizens added to it, and the town’s first public school was completed on the hill where the present Alexander City Junior High School is now, built entirely by Alex Citians.
Again in 1950, the same accomplishment was repeated on a larger scale when the present Benjamin Russell High School was built; and still again two years later when a new Laurel High School was completed.
The town didn’t stop with schools. The present beautiful public library was built by contributions by the citizens.
The same kind of thing had happened in 1889 when B. L. Dean was mayor. The county seat, then, as well as now, was at Dadeville, and all the court for the county was held down there, which was a fifteen-mile trip. Mayor Dean called a meeting in the Council chambers to discuss the propriety of building a courthouse in Alexander City. Before the meeting was over, the citizens had voted to build a courthouse in Alexander City if the State Legislature would approve the holding of court here one week for the Circuit court, civil and criminal for all cases except first degree murder, and in those cases the defendant could choose Alexander City or Dadeville. The courthouse was to be paid for entirely by subscriptions from the people and would not involve any new taxes or contribution by the County.
JLK: Why did Alexander City need a courthouse when there was already one in Dadeville?
YA: It enabled folks on this side, the west side, of the Tallapoosa River to avoid having to go to court in Dadeville and wait around all day and have to go back four or five times before the case was tried. It was a great convenience for Alexander City.
Well, the Legislature did approve the court for Alexander City, and the townspeople contributed the money to build the courthouse with, and it was ready for the 1890 term of spring court. This was such an unusual undertaking on the part of a town’s citizenry that the Opelika Daily News ran an article about it saying that Alexander City was the only place in the United States that “boats a house of justice – courthouse – complete in every department, as neat and handsome as any in the state, that was built entirely by private subscriptions.”
Still, today, Tallapoosa County, is one of the few counties in the state with two courthouses. The river is the dividing line and determines where a case is tried, in Dadeville or Alexander City.
When they built that first courthouse they put some newspapers and a bottle of rum in the cornerstone. They found these when the courthouse burned in the 1902 fire, but they put them back in the new courthouse cornerstone.
JLK: What do you think was the value to the town of the citizens building schools and courthouses and libraries with their own funds?
YA: Well, my own personal opinion is, in the first place it reflects the spirit of the people – willing to pay for what they need for the betterment of the town. In the second place, the governments did not always have the money, and it made the difference in having or not having the facilities. And third, when the town had furnished these facilities with their own money, they felt that they had the right to make all decisions about administration and operation without interference from anyone else. Of course, times are different now, and we look to the governments, city, state and federal, to furnish us such things from tax monies.
JLK: Mr. Alexander, I know this is a difficult question, but if you had to choose one person from Alexander City’s history who has had the most influence on what the town is today, who would that person be?
YA: It would have to be Ben Russell. You are right, it is difficult to accurately assess a person’s full usefulness by what you observe; it is not always obvious from what you see. But considering everything, it would have to be old man Ben. He is the one most often associated with what the town is.
JLK: Did you know him well?
YA: All his life. He was born about fifteen or twenty miles south of town. His father, B.F. C. Russell, was a farmer down there, and about ten years after the city was incorporated and the railroad came through, he decided to leave farming and enter the mercantile business in Alexander City. So he moved his family here in 1884. His wife was Sarah Elisabeth, and there were three children, Sallie, Tom and Ben. Ben was the youngest, just eight years old when the family moved to town. It wasn’t long until the boy had a job sweeping a furniture s5tore at 4:30 in the morning so that the store could open at 6:00. In the afternoons after school, he would come back and work as a clerk in the store, and then later as a salesman. They said he was a good student in school too. When he was twelve he had a job in the post office. I guess that is where he got interested in collecting rare stamps. That was a hobby he cultivated for many years, even organizing a Philatelic society and publishing a magazine for stamp collectors that had a circulation of over a thousand. I understand that while he was in college he sold his publication at quite a profit.
He graduated from the University of Virginia and married Roberta McDonald in 1899, and started practicing law in Birmingham. But he didn’t stay there long; he came back to Alexander City to help his father, whose health was beginning to fail, in his business. I think Ben was glad to come home because the law practice was not too profitable so far, and he was impatient to be doing things. Anyway, he came back.
JLK: And got into the textile manufacturing business in 1902?
YA: Yes, he was 26 years old at that time, and he heard about that knitting mill for sale in Georgia because the owner had had a nervous breakdown. He went over to investigate and he really wanted that plant for Alexander City. He had heard the town fathers say over and over practically all his life that the town needed a knitting mill or a cotton mill; here was the chance. But Ben Russell had not accumulated enough money at 26 to buy the industry. But, so the story goes, Miss Rob – that is what everybody called his wife – had a small inheritance, and she had great faith in her husband’s business judgment and was willing to risk her money to finance the purchase.
So the knitting mill was purchased, and operation started in 1902, and for the next nearly forty years, in the operation of this mill and what it grew into, and the other business after business that he became interested in – bakery, newspaper publishing, banking, laundry, real estate, and on and on -, and his community projects – the Alexander City Chamber of Commerce, the State Chamber of Commerce, 25 years as chairman of the Board of Education for the city, the East Alabama Fair Association, and on and on – he dominated the Alexander City scene. He saw the city grow from a population of 750 in 1888 to 10,000 in 1941. He died a few days after Pearl Harbor in 1941, on December 16, of a heart attack. He was only 65 years of age.
He was not without his critics in his lifetime. There were those who said he was a tyrant, that for economic or prestige reasons, no one would dare oppose him, that what “Mr. Ben” said was the way it was or the way it had to be. Over the state Alexander City was referred to as Benjamin Russell’s town.
But when he died, the town said it had lost its best friend; that his plans, his work, his ideas made the city what it was; that he was the community’s advisor and counselor. Various towns people recalled how he had befriended them. I remember hearing Dave Cohen tell that he had come to this city from Lithuania in 1906, a young man in a strange country, Jewish, and speaking very broken English, and that what he had become he owed to the friendship and generosity of Ben Russell.
All I can say it that out there in the west part of this city where Ben Russell put his 1902 knitting mill, sprawled over 320 acres of land is a textile complex consisting of dozens of mills, warehouses, laboratories, designing facilities, where together with its other plants at Montgomery and Dadeville and in Coosa and Clay Counties, some 5,500 people are paid some $33 ½ million a year to manufacture textile products for distribution over much of the world. It would not be here if Ben Russell had not pursued his dreams.
JLK: I certainly agree with that.
JLK: It takes a lot of people to make the whole town. I’d like to call to you the names of some of the other people who have played important roles on the Alexander City scene, and ask you to give me a one or two sentence comment on each of them.
YA: I’ll be glad to do that.
JLK: I’m not going to include any person who is living today, just a few from our past history.
JLK: Ross Barton.
YA: Ross Barton, Sr., was the first mayor of Alexander City. He was only 25 years old when he took office in 1874 or 1875. He was a merchant, and his son, Ross Barton, Jr. operated a store and saloon on the corner where Carlisle Drug Company is for many years.
JLK: J. C. Maxwell.
YA: Everybody called him “Mr. Jake”. He came here from Coosa County in the early 1890s. He was cashier at the Alexander City Bank, and in time became its president. I have already told about his part in getting the first cotton mill for Alexander City. He and George Sorrell, one of the town’s lawyers, were our delegates to the Constitutional convention of 1900-1901.
JLK: Samuel P. Adams, Sr.
YA: Mr. Adams came here in 1859 and conducted a mercantile business when the place was just a crossroads before the Civil War. Later in 1887 to 1894, he was the town’s mayor. He has many descendants still living in Alexander City.
JLK: James M. Pearson.
YA: “Fessor” Jim! He spent over sixty years in education in the town, beginning in 1887 when he and J. D. Dickson taught between 75 and 80 children. He was a much loved and appreciated educator and one of today’s schools is named for him: Jim Pearson School on Scott Road.
JLK: F. O. Hooton.
YA: He was one-time editor of the Outlook, the town’s newspaper. He was a man of vision. As early as 1899 he was proposing that Horseshoe Bend be made a national park. It didn’t happen until 1956. Long before it was a popular stand to take, he spoke out against ill treatment of the Indians. And long before the fire of 1902, he repeatedly advocated adequate water and fire systems for the town.
JLK: Seaborn J. Thomas.
YA: Mr. Thomas was a wealthy Georgian who settled in Youngsville some years before the Civil War, and died about 1874. He owned a lot of land and had so many slaves when he first came here that he did not know all their names. Many of his descendants have been some of the finest citizens Alexander City has had.
JLK: Albert G. Holloway.
YA: He served this town in many ways. He is the one who organized the concert that started the building fund for the first public school. He had come here in January of 1850 as a professional teacher of music classes, and after the Civil War started, he went around the village of Youngsville, accompanied by two young men beating a kettle drum and playing a fife, to organize a company to join the Southern confederacy.
JLK: W. T. Patillo.
YA: Reverend W. T. Patillo. He was the Methodist preacher who held the revival in 1872 that resulted in the organization of the first Methodist Church here, and he was the first pastor of the new flock.
JLK: Harvey Thomas.
YA: Harvey Thomas was the town’s first blacksmith. He was a black man, highly respected. He and his wife grew flowers. She was Zylphia, and I guess you could say she was the town’s first florist.
JLK: A. P. Fuquay.
YA: Mr. Fuquay came here from North Carolina. He was in the insurance business and was the town’s mayor in 1903 to 1905, was elected the year after the fire. I think the fact that he advocated the establishment of a water system that would cost about $12,000 and be adequate fire protection helped elect him.
JLK: W. D. Graves.
YA: Mr. Graves came here from Waverly in 1903, and lived here until he died in 1968 at the age of 94 years. He was a member of the Alabama Legislature under four governors; he was chairman of the board of trustees of Montevallo College for twenty-five years, and 59 years a member of the Board of Stewards of the First Methodist Church. He spent a lifetime devoted to many Alexander City interests: farming, politics, business, education and church. Everybody called him “Deacon Graves” and I think he enjoyed that name.
JLK: Reuben Herzfeld.
YA: Mr. Herzfeld had come to America from Germany, and came to Alexander City about 1875. In no time at all he was operating one of the leading general merchandise stores, and a few years later, in 1888, he and his brother organized the town’s first successful bank, the Alexander City Bank. I guess this is the oldest business in Alexander City. He was the father of Harry Herzfeld who later became the bank’s president and was a leading citizen until his death a few years ago.
JLK: Milton Nunn
YA: He was the leader of the Negro community in Alexander City from the time he came here from Opelika during World War II until he died in 1962 – about 45 years. In 1960 he celebrated 43 years as pastor of the Great Bethel Goodwill Baptist Church, having seen the church grow from 175 members to nearly 2000. He was involved in many different business interests and had good relationships with the leadership of the town. When he died, he left all his worldly possessions to his church for “the promotion of religious activities for old and young alike at the Great Bethel Baptist Church.”
JLK: L. B. Coley
YA: Mr. Coley had a drugstore on Main Street for many years. He was there when the fire of 1902 occurred. He organized the first Boy Scouts in Alexander City.
JLK: Dr. J. A. Goggans.
YA: One of the best doctors the town had. He studied in Berlin and Vienna in 1891 and wrote real interesting letters back about his experiences there. In 1899, he received notoriety at the Southern Surgical and Gynecological Association at Nashville, Tennessee for a paper on empyema which was later published in the medical journals.
JLK: A. L. Harlan.
YA: He was a doctor, too. Highly respected, from an old, old family in this County and Alexander City. An interesting item about Dr. Harlan is that he was related to two United States Supreme Court justices – John Marshall Harlan who served from 1877 -1911, and his grandson, also John Marshall Harlan who was appointed to the Court in 1955. I think he was also kin to Hugo Black who was from the adjoining Clay County and served on the Supreme Court from 1937 until his death a few years ago. That would make him related to three Supreme Court justices! He practiced medicine here about forty years.
JLK: Ike Frohsin.
YA: Mr. Frohsin was another who came from Germany to the United States and ended up in Alexander City. He was a brother of Reuben Herzfeld’s wife. When he came here in 1891, he and Marcus Herzfeld formed partnership in business and their store is today’s Frohsin’s Department Store, the oldest business in town except for the Alexander City Bank.
JLK: Alice Sealy.
YA: Mrs. Sealy was a businesswoman. She ran a millinery shop for years. Her husband had a dry goods store. She was a great Methodist, president of the Missionary Society for about fifteen years. Her father was T. S. Christian, Sr., who was one of the charter members of the First Baptist Church.
JLK: A. J. Coley.
YA: There was a Jr. and a Sr. A. J. Sr. was a landowner and one of the first directors of the Alexander City Bank. A. J. Coley, Jr., was a doctor and also was the mayor of the town for one years around 1903. After the 1902 fire, he was the chairman of the Industrial Fire Relief Committee and received the contributions of and aid sent into the stricken town. When the courthouse was built in 1889, he was one of those appointed to receive subscriptions for it.
JLK: Elisabeth Russell Alison.
YA: She was the only daughter of Ben Russell and Miss Rob. For her work in establishing the first nursery for black children in Alexander City, she was chosen the city’s first Woman of the Year. She was identified with Russell Hospital for many years.
JLK: Milton Riley.
YA: Milton Riley was a first-class carpenter and builder, and the first black man made a member of the city Board of Education. He died about three years ago.
JLK: T. C. Russell.
YA: Forty years the mayor of Alexander City – 1907 to 1947. He was also president of the First National Bank for a long time. I guess you know that he was Ben Russell’s brother. By the time he became mayor, the town had already enacted most of the ordinances dealing with behavior, so Mr. Russell’s biggest job was obtaining the utilities, paving streets, and that type of improvements.
JLK: Mr. Alexander, we have talked about a lot of people. We could go on and on for there are many we have not mentioned, but I guess we had better bring this conversation to an end.
YA: Yes, I could tell you interesting stories about Alex Citians by the name of Jackson, Duncan, Walker, Nolen, Barnes, Douglas, Thornton, Welch, Street, Bailey, Garrett, Wilbanks, Ford, Hodo, Christian, Waters, Orphan, Lamberth, Towns, Robinson, Carlisle, Corprew. . .
JLK: I wish we had time. I want to ask you: What would be your answer if someone asked you what, in your view, is the best thing about the town, and the worst?
YA: I would say that the best is the people. Today there are about 15,000 of them, and the things that are right and good about the town are the result of what the people do and are. They come to each other’s aid when there is need, and they have that continuing reputation of rising above difficulties. And they are loyal to the town.
JLK: And the worst?
YA: Well I’m loyal too, and I don’t like to be negative. I don’t know what would be the worst, but one of the complaints I have heard most often is that the streets are dirty. This is an old complaint. Off and on since 1873 it has been voiced. I remember reading in the Outlook in 1900, “Alexander City is in need of a street cleaning.” And just a few months ago, I read a letter in the Outlook from one of the town’s concerned citizens saying that Alexander City’s streets need cleaning.
JLK: I agree. Of course, it takes everybody to accomplish that.
YA: Yes, I recall back in 1909, the city got involved in a cleanup campaign, and Mayor Russell said to the town: “Don’t wait for the city to come and clean the walk in front of your gate; you can do it better and more satisfactorily.” He personally put up prizes for the best kept premises.
Also I hear folks wishing that the town had more cultural events. That is up to the people too.
JLK: One last question: Looking from the 1970s toward the 21st century, what do you think is in store for Alexander City?
YA: If the people want it enough, the town will keep making progress. It has men and women with vision and ability. It can have new industry and new advantages. It can solve its problems. They can make it better than it is. But every generation has to lay the foundation for the next one. Somebody asked Robert Frost, the American poet, once why, in his old age, he was planting new maple trees on his farm when he would not live long enough to enjoy them. He answered, “Life goes on.” It does, and it will, in Alexander City, and the quality of tomorrow can be enriched by the quality of today. It has always been that way.
Russell Lands History
A Greatly Expanded Version
Russell Lands History
A Greatly Expanded Version
Russell Lands History
A Greatly Expanded Version