This speech was presented to the Golden Circle Club of Jackson Way Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama by Claudie Annetta Barnes Martinson On Thursday, January 11, 2001, at 10:00 a.m.
(published July, 2003 Old Huntsville Magazine)
The way it was, and I was there- almost.
In 1890 in the aftermath of the Civil War the Yankees returned to Madison County, not with bullets and bayonets, but with dollars. They built cotton mills. The first was Dallas Mill incorporated Feburary 26, 1891. The year my father, Claude E. Barnes, was born in Smithville, Tennessee. I will talk about this later.
The mill was named for T.B. Dallas general manager from Nashville. But half million dollars was from the Milliken family of New York City.
The red brick building stood 5 stories high and floor space estimated at 300,000 sq. ft. employing 500 people. By 1900, the capacity had already doubled. The mill used about 20,000 bales of cotton annually. Cotton farmers prospered.
The Barnes family moved to Huntsville in 1900 and lived on the Harrison Farm on Blue Springs Road. My grandfather, Larkin Hartwell Barnes, worked for Harrison Brothers Hardware that is still operating on the square. My grandfather had 8 daughters and one son, my father. He was the 7th child and a sister was born later in 1894. Two daughters died in 1904. The older one was married and had children. The other one was not married and is buried in Maple Hill Cemetery. The oldest daughter was Ida BarnesWilliams Hoard and her daughter, Bessie Williams Casteele was born in 1895.
Sometime after moving to Madison County my grandfather was recruited to bring families from Tennessee to come work at Dallas Mill. My grandfather was paid for each member that was able to work. The larger the family the more money he received. Some people started working as early as 12 years old. After working at this my grandfather bought some land on Halsey Avenue and built a two story house. He raised a huge garden, had cows, pigs, and chickens. My cousin’s son, Larry Pridmore, lives in the house now, but he has changed it so it does not look the same. How many memories are connected to that house. My grandparents lived there until November of 1941 when grandfather died and grandmother, Harriett Luna Barnes, died in January of 1942.
In 1914, my parents had built a house on Stevens Avenue. There was one house between the house on Stevens and the house on Halsey. A family named McKenzie lived there. Before the due date for my arrival, my grandfather drove a horse and buggy to Stevens Avenue and said “Mama says you will have your baby at our house as all our daughters do”. My mother, Myrtle Fears Barnes, had wanted to stay at home. But this was a command. So I was born at the house on Halsey. My mother was accepted into the Barnes family as a loving daughter. It was a wonderful relationship. I really loved my grandparents and was influenced by them. After I married and had a child the day was not complete until I had visited them.
Back to the Mill. By 1916, there were 120 houses. Eventually the village consisted of 380 houses. Then Rison School was built in 1921.
Drop back to 1918, the end of World War I. My father was a barber. He had a shop on the Fifth Street which is now Andrew Jackson Way. He had an accident and hurt his leg before leaving Tennessee. He used crutches until he was 20 or 21. The doctor wanted to take his leg off. But my grandfather said “the Lord gave me one son and he may take him, but he will have both legs”. Eisenhower had a similar experience, I read later. My grandfather began to use old remedies and slowly he healed. But had terrible scars. He did not go to war. During the flu epidemic with entire households sick and dying. Some groups get together and prepared gallons and gallons of soup. Maybe at the YMCA. I don’t remember. But men with cars delivered soup to houses where there was sickness. Knocking on doors and leaving soup. Everyone was afraid of getting the flu. My mother said Daddy would come home after work and delivering soup saying he was coming down with the flu. He would eat something and drink hot tea or coffee with honey or something. He would get up next morning feeling better and do the some routine over again. Lots of people died. The families then would burn the mattress and bed linens. It was a scary time.
March 1918, my sister was born and a little later my father bought a small store at the corner of Fifth Street and Halsey Avenue. It had living quarters connected to it facing Fifth Street. We moved there. It was a fun time for us because Grandpa and Grandma lived at the end of the block.
As I said before, grandfather raised hogs. Every November 14th, he killed hogs. It might be warm, but he looked to old signs and as soon as the meat, sausage and hams were ready to store there would be a freeze and he said he never lost any meat. The day of the “hog killing” big pots of boiling water was used. The local people would come to help. My grandfather made sure the helper and neighbor got their share and the rest was put in a smoke house.
In his house he had a pump to a well and that is where they got their water. We had outhouses as toilets. At one time all mill houses did not have water or sewers. I don’t know when lines were run but private homes did not get water or sewers.
There was a black man with some kind of tank on a wagon pulled by a mule who went down the alleys and took the buckets from the outhouses and emptied into that tank. A long while later he was still driving what we called “The Ice Cream Wagon”. Maybe that’s why I don’t like ice cream. Along sometime in the early 30’s a man from Lincoln Mill Village was driving a car along Fifth Street in front of Mullins Cafe. The man had a little too much to drink and hit that wagon, spilling contents every where, killed the mules. It took days to clean up. It was a stinking mess. Maybe I should not have told this.
In 1922, we moved from near the store to McCullough Avenue, but we had indoor plumbing with septic tanks. We felt very well off.
Rison School was built in 1921. Some say it only went to 10th or 11th grade. I don’t know. Churches, YMCA’s and Schools were the center of entertainment. The YMCA had basketball courts, bowling alleys and billiard tables. A section for the ladies groups for community clubs. They had demonstrations of crafts, sewing and cooking. Girls and boys bible classes, music groups, basketball boys and girls. Each Saturday the YMCA had movies. Admission was 10¢. They had serials and regular shows. We could not wait on the next Saturday for another installment. No one was afraid for children to walk to and from the YMCA. Oh yes, they had showers or bath houses for the men.
I was about 6 years old and a lady lived at the last block near the Mill. Her husband was director of the YMCA. They were not regular customers of my fathers but one day she called my father’s store and asked if he could send her a loaf of bread. The bakery had just delivered. It was before days of sliced bread. Daddy asked me if I could walk down and deliver it, I was happy to do so. My weakness was and is yeast bread. I guess it was summer. But after a few steps I began to smell that bread. I was tempted, but walked on. Before I got to the end of the first block, I had pulled the wrapper just a tiny bit, pulled a bit of bread, and ate it. It was so good. Then I pulled another piece, as I said, it was not sliced. I don’t know how much I ate, but I left it with the lady and went back to the store. Before I got back to the store, the lady had called and said “rats had been into that bread”. I think I must have pulled over half of it out. The crust was still whole. I never was asked to take bread any where else. Some of her children are still around and we have had a good laugh.
Some time after the school was built some group got together to present “The Little Red School House.” Grown-ups dressed as students, bare feet, pig tails and such. Some one had written the script. I remember my music teacher at the Y was young and attractive, there was a physical director at the Y named Carl S. Fudge. Then even if people were attracted to each other they were not supposed to date. Remember! My father had Mama make a batch of fudge, wrapped it up all nice, as a present, and the night of the play, he had it at his desk. This was not written into the play. But Daddy liked to play jokes on people. Some times they back fired. But at some point he went over to the lady Miss Viola Miller, and gave her the package and said “I know you are fond of fudge so I have brought you some”. Miss Miller got red and I don’t think she ever forgave my Dad. But she did become Mrs. Fudge and a few years ago was back in Huntsville.
The village had a kindergarten, Miss Lillian Wheelis was principal and had an assistant. There was a building with the first floor for classes and play and the second floor for fraternal Hall meetings. There was a clinic, nurses home, several nurses were from Canada. The kindergarten teachers went back. Four nurses stayed. Miss Maume Burt stayed here, married a Mr. Wise. She helped deliver my youngest sister, Miriam Barnes Brennan Halsey, in 1922, even though we did not qualify as members of Dallas Mill. Later Miss Burt helped save my sister’s life.
The work day was long. The mill’s whistle sounded early. Had to be at work at 5:45 a.m. to 6:15 p.m.. Total of 12 ½ hours. The workers went home for lunch. The take home pay was $14.00 per week. The rent was one dollar for each room. Most houses had one or two bedrooms. After the strike they had 3 shifts, 8 hours each. First there were outhouses. Later water and sewer lines were put in the alleys. Toilet paper sheets were delivered to the outhouses. One side was for coal and the other side was the toilet. There was a hydrant at each block.
In 1904 we had 11 separate cotton mills. In 1910 police protection was extended to the village. Dallas Village had a constable and a justice of peace. Some cases were tried one time, I was a witness and the court was held at a barber shop. Reminds you of Mayberry.
The Great Depression of 1929 took its toll. The Wall Market Crash. One by one the mills closed. By the end of the World War II (1945) only 3 remained; Dallas, Lincoln and Merrimac. The mill strike, mid July 1934, was a dangerous time. Brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor. Some people moved off to other places, A comprise was reached in 1934. The Union took over and conditions were better, except I think it was really because of closing them. Rents were higher, utility bills had to be paid. Repairs had to be made. Before all repairs painting and garbage was taken care of by the mill.
In 1920 and 30’s the postman for the village was Mr. Will Darwin, he lived on Holmes Avenue. He drove a buggy pulled by a horse. Morning and afternoon deliveries were made. None on Saturdays. Mr. Will knew all the families and all the children. Doctors made house calls then and would leave prescriptions. The family would give the prescription to postman. He would take to drug store down town and bring back on his next round.
All births were at homes. Neighbors and family looked after each other. I remember a lady in labor across from my grandparents giving birth. I think I was about 10 years old. She was at her mother’s house. She screamed so loud and for so long I was scared to death. It made me so very afraid of labor pains. Her mother made lye soap from bacon grease saved by other people. That soap was really strong, but it got clothes clean.
In 1950, the government had started transferring German rocket scientists to Redstone Arsenal. A few companies started opening offices in Huntsville to take advantage of government contracts that were being awarded for research and development. While this created new jobs, the majority went to people who had been transferred here.
A few natives were lucky enough to secure “good paying” jobs on the Arsenal.
Huntsville continued its slow growth up until the late fifties, when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space. World attention was focused on Huntsville, as the rest of the world held their breath to see what we would do. The sleepy cotton town would never be the same.
On the night of January 31, 1959, a Jupiter 6 Rocket was launched at Cape Canaveral carrying an 18 pound satellite. The people of Huntsville and Madison County anxiously stood by their radios as word was relayed from Mission Control. Finally late at night, the word was received. “The satellite is up”. Instant bedlam broke out down town. Folks from all over rushed into town around the courthouse. Car horns blowing and fire crackers set off.
The news went over seas and the next day the London News carried a picture of Mayor Spec Searcy setting off fireworks.
The Huntsville Times staff was called back and the publisher J.M. Langhorne ordered an “Extra”. Everyone filled in and helped out. Barely two hours after the news, the first “extra” rolled off the presses.
Within days, Huntsville became the focal point for the US Space Program. High-tech business began pouring into town. Men, who had made a living picking cotton the year before, suddenly found themselves helping build rocket components. Subdivisions sprung up like weeds. Every available building was filling up. For good or bad the explosion was on its way.
On August 6, 1961 at exactly 1:20 p.m. a radio station disc jockey, in Birmingham, interrupted his programming to broadcast news of an earthquake. The amount of damages was not known yet, but there were reports of windows rattling and dishes being knocked off the shelves all across North Alabama. Within minutes other stations took up the news and civil defense sirens began blaring across North Alabama.
A newspaper reporter was on his way to Birmingham when he heard the news. He stopped at the next phone and called the radio station that first broadcast the news. The announcer repeated the information. Playing a hunch the reporter called Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. “Yes”, said the space flight official, “There was a test firing of the Saturn rocket today. It took place at 1:00 p.m. There had never been an earthquake in North Alabama. It had taken 20 minutes for the sound and vibrations to reach Birmingham.
The moldings at my house were pulling away from ceilings by some of the shakings and the sounds were deafing.
We have come a long way, covered wagons, air travel, man on moon. Where do we go from here?
Thomas Day Wolfe wrote, “You can never go back home”, but I disagree, I always feel like I have gone back home when I am in North East Huntsville. Especially Jackson Way Baptist Church.
(Note: Some dates and references were gleaned from Old Huntsville Magazine with permission of Tom Carney, editor.)