Russell Lands History


A Greatly Expanded Version

4, 2020

John Benson and the Kowaliga School

One of the most interesting personalities in the history of the Kowaliga area is John Benson. John was born a slave on Kowaliga Creek. As a free man, he bought the property he once worked as a slave and over a short period of time became a very influential farmer, builder, banker, and more to the community. Here is his story.

John Benson was born in the eighteen fifties as a slave on the shores of Kowaliga Creek – now covered by Lake Martin.


John was a southern born man, reared in Alabama on the lush green bottomland near Kowaliga Creek.  But, John was born in a different time, a time when man owned man.  Some men were treated poorly by their masters and others were treated as fairly as they could have been during those troubled times.  John was owned by James Benson a Virginian who owned a plantation along Kowaliga Creek. When James Benson died his plantation was divided and sold to neighbors and family. At a very young age, John was part of the property that was sent to an heir in Talladega, Alabama.

John Benson

As the deathly veil of smoke lifted from the Civil War battle fields, John, was free. Given a mule, he took the Benson surname and left his Talladega slave home. John headed for Florida where he spent an entire summer looking for his sister who had been sold. It was a dangerous journey for anyone, much less a black teenager. He begged his way around Florida and found his sister. They traveled back to Alabama together. At this point John went to work for sixty cents per ton in the coal mines of the Cahaba Field in Shelby County.  By 1880, 19-year-old John had accumulated one hundred dollars, an impressive amount for anyone in post Civil War times much less a former slave. This one hundred dollars was enough money for John to move his family from the dusty coal mines to the rich green lands he once loved and worked as a slave. By 1890 he had managed to acquire on credit 160 acres of the former James Benson Plantation. John never wasted a penny nor was he ever idle an hour. He worked moonlit nights and slept on rainy days. Very hard work, careful planning, and good cotton crops allowed John to prosper in the Kowaliga Community.


The rich plantations that were once worked by slave labor were falling into disrepair and being worked by the destitute owners who had watched their fortunes diminish. The fields once kept green by slave labor were now being farmed by the landowners and their sons. At harvest each year John bought more land.  By 1898 John owned over 3000 acres and was using white and black labor to build his new 12 room farmhouse. More than 5 miles of Kowaliga Creek ran through John’s plantation. Using the creek as a source of power, John built a brick yard, a sawmill, a grist mill, and a cotton gin and compressing mill. John furnished the land and halved the harvest with the 40 farming families that lived there. 1500 acres of the richest land were devoted to corn, cotton, and sugar cane.  500 acres were dedicated to pasture land and the remaining 1000 acres furnished an abundant supply of pine, oak, and hickory timber that eventually found its way to the saw and planing mills.

John began lending money to his white neighbors and underwriting mortgages on land in Tallapoosa and Elmore Counties.  John, the former slave, had become a wealthy man.


John and his wife, Julia, were blessed with 3 children, daughters Lula and Mattie and son William.  Will was born in Shelby County, Alabama in 1873.  He and his sisters grew up watching their dad overcome his struggles; first in the coal mines, then on the farm near Kowaliga.  One would think that they were all taught hard work on the farm.  They received their early education from their mother, a former slave, and a government teacher who had learned to read and write from her white mistress.


John was able to send his three children to get a liberal college education. Lula was a student at Fisk University, Oberlin College, and a graduate of Tuskegee Normal Institute.  Mattie graduated from Tuskegee Normal Institute and studied dressmaking and designing at the famous Pratt Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y. Will’s first stop was at Fisk University where he took a preparatory class and later graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1895 from Howard College in Washington D.C.


Will could have stayed in the north, but he chose to return home and help his father with the farm and business affairs. Things were still at unrest in the rural south. The year that Will returned from school at least 8 black men and women were lynched in Alabama. Will could have merely satisfied himself helping his father in the family business. Will felt that he had to do something to raise the standards of intelligence, industrial efficiency and moral character of those living in the community. More than anything Will saw the need to help educate the ignorant and uneducated of the community.


With Fisk University graduate and friend, Clinton Joseph Calloway, at his side Will drew an outline of a two-story building on the same chalk board he drew on as a child and announced plans to build a school.  Many laughed at his “high-falutin” ideas but Will put together a strong group of trustees from the north and south including founder and president of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute for Negroes, Booker T. Washington.

Kowaliga Academic &  Industrial Institute 1910

John agreed to donate 10 acres of land and the lumber for a two-story school building if the community would supply the labor. Will went to work in the community.  He formed a glee club that sang for donations across the county. When the harvest came in that year local farmers began cutting trees and firing bricks for the school’s foundation and chimney.  It took two years and financial contributions from 70 benefactors to complete the first building.

Thus, was founded the Kowaliga School which later became the Kowaliga Academic and Industrial


Institute (1897).  The goals of this school were; to meet the educational needs of the community, train highly educated leaders or skilled workmen, and to prepare the great majority of its students for the life which they were to lead in their home community.  By any measure, the school was an extraordinary operation.


Will Benson suffered many setbacks along the way.  In a letter to Dr. Booker T. Washington, Benson described how someone set fire to his store on Tuesday morning December 1, 1896 destroying all of his personal possessions “save what was on my back.”  In that letter Will writes that the fire “was the result of envy and jealousy between mean negroes and poor white trash.”


By November of 1898 Dr. Washington had resigned from the Kowaliga School’s board of trustees.  A letter from Washington to another board member Emily Howland, for whom the schools largest building Howland Hall was named, implies that Washington had been mislead by Will Benson. “When I accepted the trusteeship I did it with the understanding that Mr. Clinton J. Calloway was to be the active and real head there.  Mr. Calloway is a man with a good deal of common sense and discretion.  Mr. Benson is almost the opposite in character. He is whimsical, spasmodic, and rather superficial. I find that Mr. Benson practically runs the school and Mr. Calloway has little or nothing, it seems, to do with it…Mr. Benson is inclined to overemphasize the work that is being done at Kowaliga through the medium of pictures.  He spends the greater part of his time traveling.  I cannot believe that it is right for the North to be called upon to pay the salary and traveling expenses of an individual who is collecting just about enough money to pay his own expenses and that of one other person.” Howland in previous correspondence had given Washington her opinion of Benson.  She wrote that Mr. Benson is “young and ardent, his enthusiasm is fine, but he is the child of wealth, for his environment, so we cannot expect practical work-a-day wisdom from him.”  Later she urged Washington to help Benson learn “the secret of leadership, which is self-effacement, as you have done..”

It concerned Will that most farmers sat idle for six months out of the year, so in 1900 he founded and incorporated the Dixie Industrial Company.  With a the purchase of 540 acres at $4.25 per acre, on consideration of $7,500 in stock, from John Benson and the eventual purchase of some 10,000 acres, the Dixie Industrial Company was soon making a profit.  At one point Will beamed that the company’s sawmill was producing 50,000 feet of lumber per day, the company store was grossing $30,000.00 a

Turpentine Distillery circa 1890

year, the turpentine distillery was the largest in this part of the country and its ginning operation was able to clean and compress some 3 bales of cotton per hour. The company also operated a cotton seed and fertilizer mill. 300 tenant farmers both black and white were living on and farming company property.  The Dixie Industrial Company employed both races, including a dozen clerks, bookkeepers and supervisors.  The Company also operated as a local bank making loans to area farmers.

Purcell Sketch for Kowaliga - 1901

During 1898 William Gray, a newspaper owner and writer, traveled through the south where he was appalled by the extreme poverty that he witnessed. In the 1850s Gray had been a part of the underground railroad from his family farm in Ohio. Gray wrote in his newspaper, The Interior, about the terrible economic and social conditions for blacks in the south. The Benson family was one of the few success stories that he found. Will Benson told William Gray that he wanted to use some of his money to build a new community for

poor families. Gray suggested his grandson, William Gray Purcell, who was studying to be an architect, was likely to have some useful ideas. Benson wrote to Purcell and arranged to have him come to Kowaliga.


The first week of his visit, Purcell surveyed the land and discussed the requirement of the project with Will and his employees. Benson’s vision included building a town center that would stretch from the Dixie Industrial Company to near the Kowaliga Academic and Industrial Institute. Sketches for a number of simple wooden frame dwellings were produced along with an arrangement for a small store and other community services. Halfway through his stay the work was interrupted by an incident of racial violence. Many poor white people in the county where Benson lived were jealous of his land and possessions. During one hot summer night a lynching occurred nearby and shortly afterwards the mob appeared at Benson’s door. Benson cautioned Purcell to remain inside out of sight, for the vigilantes milling about might take action against a while man found staying with blacks. Purcell ended up hiding under Benson’s bed.


In 1909 an accidental fire broke out in the school’s laundry. As students and teachers watched strong winds quickly spread the fire.  The flames jumped across campus from one building to the next. In less than half an hour the five buildings, barn, and farm that made up the Kowaliga Academic and Industrial Institute lay in smoldering ruins.


After accessing his loses and with a very small settlement from his insurance company Will started fundraising again.  Word spread to his northern supporters and with some $25,000.00 in hand, mostly donations from those key supporters in the Northeast, Will and the Institute’s trustees began making plans to rebuild the campus on 120 acres of land one mile north of its original campus. The new campus was closer to the population center of Kowaliga, had an ample water supply, and wasn’t landlocked like the previous campus.  This move would allow the estimated 500 area children an opportunity to attend school.


Construction began in August 1910 and in a year’s time 4 larger buildings stood on the Institute’s new campus.  By 1913 the school reported an enrollment of over 320 boys and girls.  In addition to classroom studies and training in industrial and domestic skills students held prayer meetings, played in the concert band and had their own chapters of the YMCA and YWCA on campus.  There was a very modern library that boasted a collection of nearly a thousand volumes.


Services provided by the students were also offered and sold in the surrounding communities.  Using only a hammer, saw, plane, and square; high quality desks, benches and tables were produced. Annually the agriculture department produced and sold several thousand heads of cabbage.  The blacksmith department solicited business and provided service to the community giving students practical experience.  Sewing, embroidering and basket weaving were all taught.  Will Benson, in the Domestic Science Department, even taught students over 10 ways to cook potatoes when they were aware of only one.

A huge challenge and expense for the Dixie Industrial Company was moving its lumber, naval stores, and staples over rough, narrow, and often muddy roads the 15 miles to the nearest rail spur in Alexander City.  Will knew that it was far more expensive to move the materials by wagon than by rail.  The company was losing about $5,000.00 per year to freight costs. Figures from the “teaming” accounts showed that it was costing $8.00 per thousand feet of lumber to haul it by wagon.  By rail he could ship it for $2.00 per thousand feet.  Not only would he be able to save money on lumber shipments, but he could save on shipping all of the products produced by the Company.

Rosin Ready for Shipment from Dixie

The Dixie Line ran from Alex City to Benson

Will convinced both English and Canadian firms to help finance the railroad connecting Benson to Alexander City.  Thirty or more white landowners gave rights of way for the railroad and a group of eight prominent Alexander City businessmen accompanied Will to Savannah, Georgia to help secure the lease of rails and the equitable terminal agreements. By the summer of 1914, the railroad had been completed and the Dixie Industrial Company was marketing its products not only across the south, but overseas. Germany had become a major customer of the Company.  As soon as the railroad began to prove itself a success, World War I sealed off shipping in the Atlantic and closed the vital

European market.  Poor economic conditions caused the Dixie Industrial Company to shut down the railroad, the sawmill, and the turpentine distillery for ninety days and was eventually driven into receivership.


Apparently during 1915 Will Benson lost control of the Kowaliga Academic and Industrial Institute and the Dixie Industrial Company to the board of trustees in a dispute over finances.  A quote from the newspaper the Colored Alabamian probably sums it up best by saying, “his opponents succeeded in deposing him.” Will through the Dixie Industrial Company had once been a large landowner, but as financial conditions worsened, he lost a good portion of the company’s property. What has been described as a lingering illness caused his death in October of 1915.  Records show he was to  be taken to a Montgomery hospital for a possible lifesaving operation but he died in one of that city’s infirmaries. Although Will had married, he and his wife Olive never had any children. Will was laid to rest on the campus of his beloved school near the school’s bell tower. Because of Will’s dedication, untiring work, and influence hundreds of children had been educated through the Institute, dozens had gone on to college, and hundreds of jobs had been created for the local community through the Dixie Industrial Company. John Benson lived and prospered more than ten years after his son’s death.

Despite Will Benson’s death the Kowaliga Academic and Industrial Institute and the Dixie Industrial Company endured for another decade run primarily by its trustees.  Economic times were harsh, cotton prices had fallen from a high of 15 cents per pound to 3 or 4 cents per pound.  The rising waters of the lake would soon cut off the children from the Elmore County side of the lake until the bridge at Kowaliga could be built.  So, in 1926 the year that Alabama Power Company completed the dam at Cherokee Bluffs the Kowaliga Industrial and Academic Institute closed its doors. To some extent the school was absorbed into Tuskegee University.  The railroad that Will Benson worked so diligently to build continued to function until the rails were pulled up per an agreement with Alabama Power sometime in 1921 or 1922.

Rosenwald School Today

The educational needs of the Kowaliga community that worried Will Benson in 1895 continued to be met when a Rosenwald School was built near the Dixie Industrial Company site.  This school was completed in 1927 soon after the Kowaliga Academic and Industrial Institute closed its doors. A large portion of the Institute and Company properties were acquired by Benjamin Russell.  Russell had acquired from Alabama Power Company thousands of acres of land and miles of shoreline around the great lake. He incorporated the

Benson properties with the Alabama Power property and his old family farm to form what was then called Dixie Farms, later Russell Farms and is today’s Russell Lands.


The largest building on the school campus Patron’s Hall was transformed into Hotel Camp Dixie where travelers could find fishing, boating, swimming, comfortable rooms, excellent meals, and modern conveniences all at reasonable rates on Lake Martin. Employees of the school, hotel, the Industrial Company and the sharecroppers who wanted to remain were offered employment at the hotel and on the farms at Dixie.


Will Benson’s dream to provide educational opportunities and jobs for hundreds of the poor and uneducated people in his community did pay off as the community continued to grow under the leadership of Benjamin Russell.

Russell Lands History


A Greatly Expanded Version

4, 2020

Russell Lands History


A Greatly Expanded Version

4, 2020

Russell Lands History


A Greatly Expanded Version

4, 2020