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
THE HISTORY OF BENJAMIN RUSSELL AND RUSSELL LANDS, INC.
Benjamin Russell was the origin of all things Russell, in Alabama today. Born on a small farm in rural Tallapoosa County Alabama, exactly 100 years after 1776, Ben Russell's genealogy traces back to Richard Russell of Westchester County, England, in the 14th century. Beginning in 1603 the lineage traces on through the church records of Ipswich County and London and finally, around 1750, James Russell crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Charleston, South Carolina. His son John Russell fought in the War of Independence. The family slowly migrated through Georgia and into Alabama.
In approximately 1845 John’s son, Jesse Russell, moved from Chambers County to Tallapoosa County in East Central Alabama. In April 1846 he purchased 318 acres of property, including a tract of land purchased from the Creek Indians, by way of the U.S. Treaty of 1832. This property encompassed the confluence of the Oakacho (also Oak choy) and Big Kowaliga Creeks. He built a house on this site in 1846 and started farming in this area, which was about a mile west of Bulgers Mill. The entire area is now covered by Lake Martin in an area known as Pitchford Hollow, one-half mile south of Ourtown, Alabama. Several members of the Russell family are buried in a cemetery near the old Liberty Church.
In 1865 Jesse's son, Benjamin Francis Commander (B.F.C.) Russell, returned home to the family farm a decorated Civil War veteran, having fought under General James Longstreet. Sadly, B.F.C.’s two brothers, John James and Jesse Simeon never returned – John James lost his life in either the Battle of the Wilderness or one of the skirmishes during March of 1864; Jesse Simeon’s regiment took part in the defense of Petersburg and in those last few months of the war died.
B.F.C. married Sarah Elisabeth "Bettie" Henderson in December 1867 and began farming with his father. He and Bettie had three children: Sally, born in 1870, Thomas Commander in 1874 and Benjamin in 1876. In the early 1880's B.F.C. moved his family to Alexander City, Alabama, formerly Youngsville, to become a merchant with his nephew, W. Luther Waters.
B.F.C. and Bettie's son, Benjamin, was "a dedicated and hardworking young man" and eventually worked his way through the University of Virginia, graduating in the spring of 1899 with a law degree.
Following his marriage in November 1899 to Roberta Bacon McDonald, Benjamin Russell practiced law in Birmingham for a few months. When his father, B.F.C., suffered a paralyzing stroke in early 1900, Benjamin returned to Alexander City to manage the family business. In the same year, at the age of 24, he founded the Citizens Bank of Alexander City, which in 1904 became the First National Bank, then Aliant Bank, predecessor to the present day Valley Bank System.
In April of 1902, Ben Russell founded Russell Mills in a 50 x 100-foot wooden building with six knitting machines and ten sewing machines. The new company purchased yarn for the knitting machines, which made the cloth for the cut and sew operation. The company's first garment was a ladies and children's knitted shirt, produced at the rate of 150 a day. Tragically, on Friday, June 13, 1902, the entire business district of Alexander City, including Citizen’s Bank, burned.
Mr. Ben did not confine his efforts to rebuilding his bank. The pioneering spirit of his lineage allowed him to quickly shake off the effects of "the great fire" and take a bold, new leap.
Young Ben Russell was quite adept at most practical applications of his ingenuity, but in those early days, success in such a fledgling business was difficult. It soon became apparent that each garment cost several cents more than it could be sold for. He met with his employees and in a heart-to-heart talk the matter of quantity and quality of production was discussed. Following a grim "we succeed, or we fail together" declaration, they came away with an even stronger resolve. Hard work and innovation were Ben Russell's greatest assets and these as well as a thousand other problems were ultimately solved.
In 1908, the ladies and children's shirts went out of style and Russell changed its product line to ladies' step-ins or teddies. Thus, the first change in what would become a constant flow of designs and garments to meet customer demands, from underwear to dress, casual, active, and athletic wear, under the Russell Athletic brand.
In the spring of 1902, "Mr. Ben," as he was called by all, built a telephone line from Dadeville through Alexander City and on to Sylacauga, establishing the first telephone service in Alexander City. The first exchange placed twenty telephones in service through a switchboard located in the basement of the First National Bank. This business venture later was sold to Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph on February 24, 1904, for $15,250 – a significant sum in its day.
In 1911 the banker and cotton miller needed electrical power for his little mill and he began construction of a dam at Buzzards' Roost Shoals on the Tallapoosa River, about five miles northeast of downtown Alexander City.
Alabama Power had, however, begun preparation for the massive Martin Dam project farther downstream. This impoundment would flood Mr. Ben's site.
The old tales paint a picture of a sophisticated gentleman, briefcase in hand, calling on Mr. Ben at the construction site of his dam.
The story goes that Mr. Martin introduced himself as an attorney representing investors who had acquired the riparian rights (only) to the entire river valley. The obvious message would have been that the small, new facility would soon be below the level of the huge, new Lake Martin, to come.
Knowing the gentlemanly nature of the two – actual facts were most likely replaced at this point by pure humor. Allegedly, Mr. Ben informed Mr. Martin that he too was an attorney and that it would appear that they were standing on Mr. Ben’s property while discussing Mr. Martin’s visions!
We must hasten, at this point, to say that this version could not have been technically correct, for the two men became lifelong friends and worked tirelessly, together to bring us to the incredibly fortuitous point that we enjoy today.
According to Thomas W. Martin, Chairman of the Board of Alabama Power Company, Mr. Russell was the "moving spirit" behind his new Industries Light Power Company. After much negotiation Mr. Russell sold this power project to the Interstate Power Company, which became Alabama Power Company in 1920.
In the words of Martin, "the broadminded Russell recognized the greater public benefit of the complete development of the power of the stream. A satisfactory agreement was therefore reached with Russell for purchase of his Industries Light and Power Company and for supplying his enterprises with power through a very favorable power franchise.” Most importantly, however, Mr. Ben promoted a personal friendship and an agreement with Martin that would lead to the purchase of a significant portion of the 880 miles of shoreline property of the new lake.
Ben, like his forefathers, remained "close to the land" and he continued to develop the family farm – the pioneering spirit seems to have continued to evolve. He ultimately combined some of the land acquired from the Alabama Power Company with the family farm – in the 1930s this comprised 30,000 acres of farm and timberland on the shores of Lake Martin.
Following the founding of Russell Mills/Russell Corporation in 1902, Mr. Ben was quick to build a church for the people that were moving into the new Russell mill village. The church was a typical white structure with wood columns, offering Methodist and Baptist services on alternating Sundays – the two preachers and one congregation system seemed to work just fine, over the years.
Mr. Ben realized the need to provide education for his employees and their families and in the fall of 1917, he brought into the organization Professor R.Y. Scott to establish the Russell Mills School and hold classes in the Russell Mills church building. By 1924 the school had outgrown the church facility and a new school building was built. In 1927 the Russell School became a part of the Alexander City School System offering grades kindergarten through ninth.
The mill village grew to 350 or so houses but beginning in the late 1950s residents were encouraged to purchase property in Springhill Subdivision that had been made available and build their own home. By mid-1960 the “old mill village” had been replaced by the ever expanding “cotton mill.”
In addition to all the mill and bank related interests, Mr. Ben began buying or creating other businesses. In 1916 he opened the Alex City Wholesale Grocery business in the area of the present-day fire department and the former Outlook newspaper office location. Mr. Ben became owner and operator and Mr. I.C. Kelley was appointed manager. This grew into a very successful operation and by 1941 consisted of two plants with twelve buildings and over one hundred employees.
In 1920 Mr. Ben purchased the Nolen Hotel, formerly the Alabama Hotel, from Leon Nolen and changed the name to the Russco Hotel. The name was later changed to the Russell Hotel. The Hotel was located on prime property across from the railroad station in Alexander City and the dining room became the in-place in Alexander City.
In 1923 Mr. Ben built a hospital for the rapidly growing community. Russell Hospital, which was located on Lee Street, began operation with thirty-five beds and provided equipment for surgery and general inpatient care. Throughout its 41 years at the Lee Street location, many additions were made to the hospital as the town and mills continued to grow. In 1964 the Russell Hospital built a modern facility on Highway 280. Today the continually expanding Russell Medical Center is a progressive medical complex, serving several communities.
In 1923 Ben Russell completed a dam across Elkahatchee Creek, located three and one-half miles south of downtown Alexander City. He built a pumping station, pipeline, filter plant, and waterworks system that would supply the entire town until 1947, and the Russell Mills and Russell mill village until the early 1980s. For many years thereafter stories of the difficulties of digging the three-mile long pipeline ditch by hand were legendary.
The early 1920s were outstanding years for Florida land and real estate speculation. Mr. Ben, the opportunist, purchased a hotel in Coral Gables, Florida. This would have been a very rewarding venture had it not been for the stock market crash of 1929. Florida's real estate boom did not begin again until well after World War II.
In 1918, the young Russell purchased the Alexander City Manufacturing Company, a "millwork" or woodworking industry, with a likely predetermined objective. Prior to the completion of the “New Electric Dam” as it was called locally, much of the 41,150 acre footprint of Lake Martin had to be cleared of “old growth timber,” huge three to five hundred year old long leaf pines as well as the tremendous hardwoods.
Seeing the potential of this operation, Mr. Russell and J.M. Steverson purchased a standard gauge rail locomotive, laid the railroad lines and began operating the Pine Lumber Company railroad in 1916. The tracks terminated in Alexander City at the sawmill and lumberyard of Mr. Ben’s newly acquired woodworking industry.
Mr. Russell’s farming interest came from his family background, but the extreme degree of this interest has never been explained and was one of the few areas of his business ventures that could have been deemed to be not entirely logical. Land and timber alone were not challenge enough for Ben Russell, so in 1926 he formally created Dixie Farms. This was during the time Martin Dam was being constructed. This family farming business was actually managed by Mr. Ben and his brother, Thomas C. Russell, from their offices in the First National Bank in Alexander City. Thomas C. became Mayor of Alexander City in 1907 and served until 1947.
Ben Russell, always the entrepreneur, was intent on promoting farming and other productive lifestyles for the people of this most rural area of East Central Alabama. He called on his bank to cooperate in setting up a number of innovative, financial vehicles to help the cash poor farming families set up their own ventures. Land was made available, mules were purchased, seed and fertilizer provided and supervision offered, along with cooperative purchasing and marketing arrangements.
There were many categories of this cooperative type venture – "one-horse (or one-mule) farms" and "two-horse farms." Usually one family of 3-4 would be allocated one "horse." Cotton was the primary crop, early on. A bale of cotton would then sell for $25 and a one-horse farm could produce 4-5 bales a season.
Mr. Ben's new farming venture, like the bank and the textile mill, was quite successful in those years and for an extended period approximately 100 families made their livelihood on the Russell farmlands surrounding the small settlement of Dixie. The primary crops were cotton, corn and peanuts. Later, cattle were also raised on this land. This "close to the land" thinking surely saved many a family from destitution during the harsh years of the Great Depression in the Deep South.
With the help of George Washington Carver, better farming techniques and the use of advanced, hybrid seed stock were promoted on Dixie Farms. In 1928 a successful experiment was undertaken. Ben Russell set aside 3,000 acres to provide for the production of long staple cotton in east Alabama. These endeavors required much vision and commitment. A cotton gin, for example, had to be built at Dixie Farms.
The first farm superintendent, or overseer, of Dixie Farms was Mr. Arthur Worthy for whom the farm church, Worthy's Chapel, and the school were named. The church is now the Russell Farm Baptist Church. Dr. McElroy Dean, a local veterinarian, became farm superintendent of "Dixie" and remained until 1937 when Mr. Russell Ballard was appointed. Mr. Ballard, who had served as assistant superintendent when he joined Dixie Farms on November 20, 1933, became superintendent in 1937 and served in that capacity until his retirement from Russell Lands in December 1974. Mr. Ballard’s assistant, Rudolph Evans, served as head forester for Russell Lands until 1982.
"Dixie" was the central location of the old Dixie Farms, which later became the Russell Farms operation. Previously the site was home to the old Benson Dixie Industrial Company. Dixie, now Russell Crossroads, was located on the present Highway 63 just north of Windermere Road. The fields, barns and farmhouses are gone now, along with the sawmill, turpentine mill, cotton gin, charcoal plant, blacksmith's shop, log pond, railroad, dairy, and superintendent's house.
During the early days of Dixie Farms, Lake Martin began to fill and Mr. Russell spent time and resources on controlling the erosion problem. It was then predicted that within 50 years the entire lake would fill with the silt washing in from the surrounding farm fields.
During these years, most small rural farms in the southeast were being abandoned to erosion and the general population shift. Even Dixie suffered the same fate as time and morays took their toll. Today it is hard to imagine that farmers, then, had no clue that their life-giving topsoil would soon be totally depleted. Mr. Ben's solution was the promotion of an all-out war on erosion. His efforts were immense; the resulting terrace and drainage patterns covered virtually every acre of land and are still quite visible in the dense forest of today. The scope of this undertaking is evident now, however, only with the realization that the individual farmer completed these features by his own hand, with the aid of the loyal old horses and mules. Sad to relate, most of the effort was just in time for the latter days of the small farms of the South.
A sadder note yet--these new terraces would tend to focus the flow of rainwater to any weak point in the system, which, without constant attention, would ultimately fail. This eventuality would release the accumulation of an acre or so of runoff at one point, promoting a yet unknown form of erosion with the inevitable super ditches, gullies or washes.
Fortunately, Mr. Ben’s obsession with the land provided a young forest that would in time cover the land and promote the slow process of healing the scars of “progress.” His tree planting enterprise was, however, considered to be "fool-hearted,” in those days as, “The Alabama Power Company had just cleared and sold, burned, tied down or given away timber covering much of the 44,000 acres of land covered by Lake Martin.” Fortunately, Mr. Ben had a broader goal in mind and the old rock strewn, red clay moonscapes of that abandoned way of life have generally recovered.
Farming was a great love of Mr. Ben but today few people realize that he was looking “a mile down the road” by acquiring all of his land, based on its relationship to Lake Martin. Company property maps and records clearly show that lake frontage, not farmland, was his ultimate goal while others complained about Lake Martin and worried about malaria. Mr. Ben could scarcely believe his good fortune – “to have a gigantic lake dropped on top of us."
Mr. Ben believed that recreation was the wave of the future and that Lake Martin was our key to this future. He had been a charter member and officer of the Alexander City Development and Industrial Club upon its organization on April 29, 1901. He was instrumental in organizing the Commercial Club of Alexander City in 1910, which in 1920 was reorganized as the Chamber of Commerce of Alexander City, where he served as the local organization's president from 1910 to 1937. He was the driving in establishing the Alabama State Chamber of Commerce, and became its first president, serving for three years – from June 11, 1937, until summer of the year before his death.
Mr. Ben was one of the pioneers of good roads in Alabama. He organized and was elected President of the Florida Short Route in 1920. This group was devoted entirely to the promotion of tourist travel. He was responsible for bringing the "Florida Short Route" through Alexander City and served as president of the organization until his death. He also opened the first subdivision on Lake Martin, the Lake Hills Subdivision, on March 27, 1928. The Boulder Club, also built in 1928, had a “proper” dining facility and a huge ballroom. The Boulder Club was considered the place for social activity in Alexander City.
In 1940, Mr. Ben was among several industrial leaders, principally his friend Tom Martin, who organized the Alabama Research Institute for the purpose of promoting scientific research in the use of local raw materials in the manufacture of finished products. Later the name was changed to Southern Research Institute when the organization's geographic area of interest broadened, and it began attracting people from throughout the South. It grew to have research facilities in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina and Frederick, Maryland. In 1999 Southern Research Institute merged into a University of Alabama at Birmingham research program.
Mr. Ben had been ahead of his own time and with the coming of the second half of the century, long after his death, the greatest asset of Mr. Ben's "closeness to the land" began to come to fruition – the appeal of the shoreline property to a slightly more affluent population. This "affluence" might have only been the ability of a textile worker to spend two or three hundred dollars to tear down an old mill village or tenant farmhouse and rebuild it in the form of a fishing cottage on lakefront property provided by the company. This affluence was also exemplified in the form of a banker from Birmingham paying $25/mo. for a "cabin" reconstructed by the farm crews. Thus, went the old tenant farmhouses and many of the 350 or so Russell mill village houses that were torn down during the late 1950s. Of far greater importance, however, this phenomenon signaled an era of solid proof that "The Old Man" could, in fact, "talk to you while looking over your shoulder, 100 years into the future."
A typical example of Mr. Ben's enthusiastic management style was told by Carl A. Swanson, who was traveling by train from Chicago to Florida, when he happened to sit by Mr. Ben Russell somewhere north of Alexander City. By the time Mr. Ben reached home, he had persuaded Mr. Swanson, a highly educated and skilled electrical engineer, to spend the night and tour his mills the next day. Missing his train to Florida the next day, Mr. Swanson called his employer and turned down his promotion and new position in Florida.
This and innumerous other examples of the man's dynamic style prove that, in part, his success was due to the realization that even he could not make all of the decisions. He knew that he needed help in managing his varied enterprises.
During his lifetime Mr. Russell, the young man from a farm in one of the poorest and most rural areas of the South, had created a bank, a textile mill, a development potential of hundreds of miles of prime shoreline, an entire farming community, a mill village, church, school, hospital, a phone company, a municipal water supply, a foundry, a wood working industry, a hotel, a dairy, a bakery, a soft drink bottling company, a laundry, a wholesale grocery and founded the State Chamber of Commerce.
The passing of "Mr. Ben" on December 16, 1941, brought great uncertainty to the rural community and many pondered the future of his vast and varied enterprises. Changing times and lifestyles soon caught up with the farming venture but the land remained. The farming interest had given purpose to the land for years, but its real value soon emerged.
Upon Mr. Ben's death, the Benjamin and Roberta Russell Educational and Charitable Foundation was created from his estate to continue his philanthropic works. Each year millions of dollars are given in his memory through scholarships, endowments and grants to various educational and charitable causes.
He was further memorialized by the dedication and naming of the Benjamin Russell High School on September 4, 1950. His son Robert enabled the city to enjoy tremendous savings by personally supervising the building of the new high school.
Many of Mr. Ben's ventures such as the foundry, bakery, creamery, wholesale grocery, laundry and Florida venture simply could not survive without his incredible organizational and management skills. During the decade following his death, many of these businesses were sold or closed. The bakery was closed within a few years. The creamery was sold, and the Russell Pipe and Foundry was sold. The Alex City Wholesale Grocery was later sold to another wholesale grocery company. The commercial laundry survived until the mid-1970s.
Mr. Ben had also accumulated more land in adjoining Coosa County than he had in his home Tallapoosa County. All of this property was disposed of after his death.
There were obvious exceptions to these examples, Russell Mills, which continued to prosper over the years and in the eighties, under the direction of E.C. Gwaltney, began its meteoric rise to a Fortune 500 company, with sales and assets of $1,250,000,000 and 18,000 employees worldwide. The name of the continually successful company was changed in 1962 to Russell Mills, Inc. and again in 1973 to Russell Corporation.
Under the guidance of Sally Russell's grandson, John Russell Thomas, Mr. Ben’s bank served Alexander City, Birmingham, Elmore County and Montgomery for over one hundred years.
Mr. Ben's old Dixie Farms was renamed Russell Farms in 1950, but production of cotton and corn had greatly diminished by the end of World War II. Many of the farm families went to work in the rapidly expanding Russell textile plants during the Second World War. Some of the remaining farm families found work in the company sawmills – others moved to town to work in the carpentry or woodworking plant, building supply business (later, Russell Do-It Centers) and Alexander City Sash and Door Company, which Mr. Russell had built to further promote the meager assets of this rural East Alabama community. The old farm operation was ultimately managed from the main office of Russell Mills and its operation could only receive "hand me down" support from Mr. Ben's family and his loyal, old-time employees such as Obie Thomas, Millard Yates, Roy M. Latimer, Kyle Neighbors, and Harold Scott. These and all other managers were desperately needed to run the expanding, textile operations. Only Russell Ballard had a full-time position as superintendent.
Mr. Ben was survived by his wife, Roberta Bacon McDonald, three sons and one daughter: Benjamin Commander (Bennie), Thomas D., Robert A. and Elisabeth Russell. Bennie, the eldest, took over the reins of the "mill" upon his father's death and served until his untimely demise in January 1945. Thomas D. Russell, the next eldest son, assumed the presidency and Robert, the youngest son, became vice president. Elisabeth was much loved for her benevolent works, such as the establishment and management of a day care-kindergarten for black children. She was best known and loved by all for her very active participation in the management of Russell Hospital.
The family and all available management were increasingly occupied with the problems of the rapidly expanding textile plants, bank and other remaining businesses. The old farming enterprise had to be left to its own, with Kyle Neighbors, an employee of Russell Mills, as a part time manager and the ever-loyal Russell Ballard as superintendent. Mr. Ballard meanwhile was training Rudolph Evans to continue his work.
After returning from the war in Europe in 1945, Robert Russell became interested in the old gold fields of Tallapoosa County. He later acquired the old Dutchman’s Mine called Dutch Bend. Eventually he opened the mining operation again as somewhat of a hobby. This and several other sites were mined for a number of years but like all those before him, Robert Russell never made a significant profit and turned to a more “normal hobby” – cattle farming. Robert’s “love for the land,” however, encouraged him to personally acquire 1,677 acres of wonderful, wild country on the beautiful Hillabee Creek – actually a river. This fascinating block of property is now a part of the Russell Lands holdings and used as a game reserve and corporate retreat.
During the late 1940s and 1950s a portion of Mr. Ben's far-sighted management style was sorely missed, as much of his hard-won and highly prized lakefront property was disposed of. The east and west extremities of his holdings on the south side of Lake Martin were of some of his most prized possessions but Russell Corporation was the driving force by this time.
The Russell family allowed the state to build a park on company property on Lake Martin next to the Highway 63 bridge at Kowaliga in 1948-49. In 1960, Robert Russell began construction of Wind Creek Park as a replacement for the tiny, overcrowded and outdated facility at Kowaliga. The park opened in 1961 and the family donated the use of this facility to the public. Robert continued to improve Wind Creek Park with the help of his friend, Omar McGhee, as manager.
In 1953 Julia Russell started Church in the Pines, a small inter-denominational church on company property near Kowaliga, on the shore of Lake Martin. The church grew over the years to become a major part of the Lake Martin community, and at this time, Russell Lands took over all of the responsibility for the facility. Later the management of the program and facility was passed on to the company and Luanne Russell directed the program.
In 1960 the old Russell Farms officially became Russell Lands, Inc. Also, in 1960 Mr. Ben's grandson, Benjamin or Ben Russell (neither Mr. Ben nor "Little Ben" had a middle name) began full time employment with Russell Manufacturing Company.
In 1963, when Russell Mills, Inc. became a public corporation, the old Russell Farms property was spun off to remain as Russell Lands, Inc. – a private company, owned by all of Mr. Ben's heirs and some of his close associates – these were the original stockholders of "the Mills."
In 1970 Russell Mills was in a cash bind and its management, which was then the dominant portion of the Russell Lands management, decided to sell the wildly popular Wind Creek Park to the State of Alabama. This was a great disappointment to some family members. Governor George Wallace had, however, promised to spend vast sums to create a first rate state park. His campaign for the U.S. Presidency and the 1972 assassination attempt left him paralyzed and diverted his attention. The park that Robert Russell had created as a labor of love languished in mediocrity for years but is now greatly expanded and a wonderful asset to Alabama.
Apparently, due to an inherent, family "closeness to the land," Mr. Ben's grandson, Ben, began to spend more and more time on Russell Lands' matters. As an example, the year of 1971 was spent, for the most part, creating and promoting the Lake Martin Recreation Association – now the Lake Martin Resource Association. The Lake Martin Resource Association (LMRA) is an active member-supported, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting, preserving and protecting Lake Martin and the adjacent areas. LMRA has been working to better the lake community since its organization.
In 1970 Ben was elected President of Russell Lands, Inc. and officially left the employ of Russell Mills. His goals were to enhance the value of the "lands company" by discreetly developing the lake property and creating new and diversified assets.
In January 1973 Ben Russell persuaded Gene Davenport to resign a position with Rust Engineering in Birmingham and move his family to Lake Martin to become the ninth employee of Russell Lands. Gene moved into the same tiny office with Ben in the Knit Goods Sales office at Russell Mills, Inc., where Ben had previously been employed and still maintained an office. In late 1974 they moved a floor down to a larger facility in the recently vacated personnel office. The "Lands" company was also given use of the old mill store as a shop and "shade tree" garage. In 1977 Russell Lands, Inc. moved out of the mill office into the new Russell Lands office building at Willow Point.
In 1985 Ben Russell was able to acquire the stock of 31 of the 35 individual stockholders. In that same year he became the Chairman and CEO of Russell Lands, Inc., which is now a closely held private company – the principals being the families of three of Mr. Ben's direct descendants.
Russell Lands now has several major operating divisions. One of the original divisions is the management of Mr. Ben's remaining 25,000 acres of timberland. Russell Lands' forest products division manages the company's forestland in the Lake Martin area. The primary thrust of the timberland management program is toward the improvement of its prime property assets, while continually improving its potential timber assets.
Today the company manages 350 miles of its shoreline property on Lake Martin. This beautiful, freshwater lake consists of “over 41,000 acres of drinking water" with some 880 miles of mostly wooded shoreline. Lake Martin is a deep, blue-water lake – one of the most beautiful and unspoiled lakes in the Continental USA.
The rental properties division of Russell Lands manages more than 350 lakeshore, rental homes that began with the relocation of mill village and farmhouses, and continues today in the form of large, custom rental homes.
In 1964 the last of the Russell Farms cattle farms, locally known as "the Wedges Farms," (having once been a farm where workers were hired for "wages") was chosen as the location of the Willow Point Golf and Country Club.
Mr. Ballard had saved this area from the random development of rental lake homes, as he – being related to Mr. Ben – was a farmer at heart and always seemed to find a "better" location for the new doctor or professor who he was to help find a suitable location on Lake Martin for his "cabin."
The senior management of Russell Mills wanted a golf club for the benefit of the “Mill” and Russell Lands was called upon to donate the land and some of the resources.
Russell Mills furnished much of the labor and machinery. This beautiful championship 18-hole golf course meanders about on a peninsula totally surrounded by Lake Martin.
The par 72-course was constructed as a private club to replace the original Alex City Course, which was donated by the family to the State of Alabama for the site of the Alexander City Junior College (now Central Alabama Community College).
On September 17, 1964, the property and improvements were incorporated as a private club. As time progressed, the membership could not cover the cost of operation and the private club was soon in debt.
In 1972 Russell Lands was asked to assume the debt and take over the property; and the operation of the club. Incredible as it might seem, this was viewed by many as quite a bold move for Russell Lands, as little hope was held for “forestry-outfit” making this a financial success.
The young management of Russell Lands, however, could easily see the value of this property as the centerpiece for their planned Willow Point Subdivision and for future lake – oriented development.
Much concern was felt, however, regarding the ability to control the escalating cost of a division of the company, which was valued by senior members of the board only for its intrinsic value as a golf club. Regardless of their concerns, Russell Lands management assumed the debt, $155,000, with the return of the deed to the 167-acre golf course. The arrangement seems to have worked rather well for all.
Russell Lands' first residential development, Willow Point Estates, was begun in 1972. Lakefront and interior properties are primarily single-family homes, but several condominiums are also included. The Russell Lands, Inc. Corporate Office and the 4,500-foot Willow Point Airport are also located in Willow Point. This exclusive residential subdivision on Lake Martin is adjacent to Willow Point Golf and Country Club and is one of the company's finest developments.
Today the company has developed more than 1,000 lots in over a dozen neighborhoods. Hundreds of private homes and upscale rental properties are now completed on these deeded lots. These neighborhoods have been done in a very tasteful fashion and occupy only a small percentage of the company's shoreline holdings. In addition to Willow Point Estates, other major subdivisions include the following:
Trillium is a multi-phase development in the Kowaliga area of Lake Martin. An elegant gatehouse guards the entry to the large, wooded lakefront home sites and luxury homes featured in this impressive development. Here, some of the very finest properties on Lake Martin are only a half hour from Montgomery.
Windermere is a scenic, quiet, mid-lake, multi-phase development that appeals to homeowners of all ages. Beautiful, landscaped entrances lead to pristine, wooded, lakefront sites and homes with gorgeous shorelines and beaches.
Windermere West is another lakefront residential development. It has breathtaking lake views, an abundance of wildlife, and all the best of lake living. Located less than one hour from Montgomery, one and a half hours from Birmingham this development has boating, owner's association, gatehouse, extensive landscaping, special lighting, underground utilities and city water.
Windover is adjacent to Windermere and affords similar amenities with a slightly smaller minimum square footage requirement.
The Ridge is located in the heart of Lake Martin. The Ridge offers a beautifully appointed, gated entrance with cascading waterfall and ponds, streetlights, sidewalks, underground utilities. The newest phase of The Ridge is The Ledges, consisting of waterfront condominiums. The Ridge Marina is a full-service marina and at the appropriate time, a restaurant and several retail shops could follow. The Ridge has the potential to become a community within itself. It is located in close proximity to such well-known local points of interest as Chimney Rock, Children's Harbor, Dixie Sailing Club and Kowaliga Bay.
The Willows of Willow Point is truly a new haven on Lake Martin. With large, wooded and secluded lots featuring ample shoreline and open water views, it is located near the crown jewel of Lake Martin: Willow Point Golf & Country Club.
This craftsman-inspired neighborhood features a grand entry via a gatehouse, homes designed by some of the Southeast’s premier lake home designers, and level lots.
The earlier developments of Riverbend and Lake Hill Estates are located near the east end of the Highway 280 Bridge over the north end of Lake Martin. The rolling topography in these early subdivisions enables magnificent views of the lake and surrounding shoreline. Large, wooded homesites offer the best of country, waterfront living with close proximity to all of Alexander City's amenities.
Kowaliga Marina was built in 1972. Subsequently, Real Island Martin was purchased in March 1997, and two super marinas, The Ridge Marina and River North Marina, were completed in the spring of 2001. Sales, service and indoor stack storage for over 1,400 boats and outside storage and wet-slips for over 200 boats now combine to make the four marinas year-round operations. Russell Lands has the distinction of building the first covered wet-slips and first pump-out station on Lake Martin. All marinas offer complete dry stack storage, sales, service and storage.
In 1973, Russell Lands became involved in the energy field. Having grown up in the forestry and textile industries, company management, being "close to the land," was able to recognize the value of forest residues as an industrial fuel.
In the early 1970s Ben Russell was invited by a forest products industry to tour numerous forest harvesting operations and sawmills in Scandinavia. The frugality of the Swedes, Finns, Norwegians and Danes was readily evident, especially in their use of all forest residues as fuel.
U.S. forest products industries were then analyzed and a proposal was made by Russell Lands to guarantee Russell Corporation a 4-year supply of wood fuel at the equivalent, fixed price of $0.14 per gallon of oil. This resulted in the construction, during 1975, of the first non-forest products industry wood-fired boiler plant, replacing oil, in the United States in modern times.
The Russell Corporation boilers began operation in January 1976. The boiler plant, which supplies processed steam for use in the manufacture of textile goods, burns 125,000 tons of sawmill residues per year, resulting in annual savings of more than 6,000,000 gallons of fuel oil. Russell Lands supplied this fuel under contract for a number of years.
As the price of oil quickly soared to $0.70 per gallon in 1976 the project was an immediate success. The newly formed ECON Company's promotional efforts were rewarded with the building of two more boiler plants in other states. ECON acquired long-term contracts for supplying wood residue fuel to these facilities.
The Russell Lands / ECON supplied plants have consumed over 5 million tons of wood, which was accomplished without the cutting of one additional tree, by using a commodity that previously had a negative economic and ecological value – sawmill and forest residue. The use of this waste wood has saved the equivalent of 250 million gallons of oil.
The principal aim of ECON has been the promotion of wood and wood residue as an alternative fuel for industry. ECON has become a leader in the wood energy field.
In order to continue the theme of green, renewable energy, Ben Russell revived an older gasification process. With the use of high temperature fiberglass filter material, the partial combustion of small wood blocks became more practical for vehicle power.
ECAR, a conventional gasoline pickup truck, was converted to burn the filtered, cooled, gases (smoke) from a smoker-like burner or gasifier.
Far from a luxurious application, wood gasification was doable. One trip was made from Jacksonville, Florida to Los Angeles and another from Key West to Campobello Canada with absolutely no gasoline.
The only achievement was the proof that if fossil fuel were ever rationed to the point that no recreational travel was possible, an alternative solution is available.
Russell Lands entered the building supply business in 1984 with the purchase of the then Alexander City Building Supply, from Mr. Ben's estate. This business had been part of Mr. Ben's old wood working industry. This was later combined with the newly purchased Horton Supply, Inc. Since that time, the division has grown to include seven locations, employing over 130 people in central Alabama.
In 1992 Russell Building Supply, affiliated with Do-It-Best Corp., a 4,400 member cooperative of building material and hardware dealers, began conversion of its retail and contractor business to Russell Do-It Center stores, offering a full line of building materials, home improvement items and tool and rental centers for both professionals and homeowners. Currently there are seven Russell Do-It Centers located in Alexander City, Clanton, Eclectic, Millbrook, Prattville, Roanoke and Wetumpka.
In 1989 Russell Lands donated 50 acres, comprising one mile of the most beautiful Lake Martin shoreline property, to a charitable organization, founded by Luanne and Ben Russell, called Children's Harbor. Russell Lands was a major player in helping to plan and build this beautiful facility. Today Children's Harbor is the principal charity of Russell Lands. The company management devotes countless hours to help manage the organization and promote the numerous fundraisers necessary to support it. In 2005 the “Lands Company” donated an additional 17-acre parcel of shoreline property to the continually expanding Children's Harbor.
In 1998 Russell Lands made over 100 acres of shoreline property available for and constructed the Lake Martin Amphitheater (LMAT). The use of the LMAT is devoted to the Lake Martin community for the enhancement of the cultural and performing arts. Russell Lands also took over the financial burden of the famous July 4th fireworks show, which is now a local legend.
On June 18, 1999, landmark Kowaliga Restaurant burned, after rebuilding, it opened in August 2000. Kowaliga Restaurant was built for lease in 1952 and opened in April 1953. Toppy and Charlotte Hodnett leased and operated the facility. Fifteen rental cabins (Toppy and Charlotte lived in one of the cottages) called Kowaliga Cottages had been constructed on the point on the southwest side of the Kowaliga Highway 63 Bridge, west of the restaurant. Later ten more rental cabins were built across the lake. In 1959 a Sports Shop "marina" was built on the site of the old Lee Parks store near the restaurant. The removal of these cabins and then the destruction of the Kowaliga Restaurant by fire made the fabulous sight available for the new restaurant.
The Lake Hill Restaurant was built on Russell Lands’ property in the late 1950s, on an awesome promontory overlooking Lake Martin at Highway 280.
Area Concrete Inc. was a wholly owned and quite successful subsidiary of Russell Lands for many years, was sold in 2000.
In 2001 Russell Lands began construction of a bark processing plant to produce and market a supply of landscaping materials. A synergy exists between this business and the sawmill residue system, which had furnished 120,000 tons a year of wood fuel to Russell Corporation.
In 2004 Russell Lands purchased a tract of land south of Lake Martin and began Russell Materials, a sand clay gravel operation. The company has for a number of years also been operating a granite quarry on company land for internal use.
Ben Russell purchased 1,327 acres of Mr. Ben’s property, surrounding Elkahatchee Pond, from Russell Corporation in 2002 and rebuilt an old water powered gristmill located on the property.
At the end of 2019, Russell Lands employed a total staff of 671 people.
Russell Lands continues to grow and prosper in the 21st century. The company has many creative projects on the drawing board and the future is eagerly anticipated.
Russell Lands History
A Greatly Expanded Version
Russell Lands History
A Greatly Expanded Version
Russell Lands History
A Greatly Expanded Version