Some months ago I had reason to visit a friend of mine's wife who was in Huntsville Hospital battling cancer. I drove up from the gulf coast alone and got into town around 3p. I was supposed to be at the Hospital at 6p so I used the time I had just driving the streets for a while visiting my parents and grandparents in our cemeteries plus wandering through my old neighborhoods.
I even stopped in Mullins, sat at the counter eating a hamburger with pickles and mayo, and listening to the general conversation. I noticed with some pride that a few of my old football pictures were hanging on the wall but I was really, really proud to see my Dad's picture as a Huntsville Police Officer hanging on the left hand side of the door as I was leaving (circa 1957 or 1958). He's the big guy in the middle. The next time you're in there I'd appreciate it if you'd tip your hat to him and the other officers.
I still had a few minutes when I left Mullins so, in the dusk and on a whim I made two more brief stops. First I turned north on Andrew Jackson and pulled into the parking lot of the Jackson Way Styling Salon. I walked in the door and asked if Floyd Hardin was there - the only guy in the room was standing with his back to the door. He immediately turned around, walked straight up me, hugged my neck, and said "Dad gum, Mabel, where you been so long?" He knew exactly who I was even though I now have a beard, a pony tail, 10 extra pounds and bald on top not to mention being 56 years old and that I had not seen him in 34 years. It was a delight to sit and talk with him for a half hour or so. I left a message with him for all my old friends that he still sees. Mike Smith and Walt Thomas know the story of how I came to be called "Mabel" in the neighborhood so we can leave that for another time.
After that I made a quick turn west on Humes Avenue and saw a guy cutting his grass in what used to be Mike Smith’s front yard across from the old Woodmen Of the World Hall. I casually pulled over and hopped out of my car and walked up to the guy. He cut the engine and I asked him “Hey, are you Billy Layne?” His response was typical for Billy; “Depends on who wants to know!” he said. When I told him who I was he grabbed me by the arm and said essentially the same thing Floyd had except with a little more enthusiasm “Boy, where’ve you been all these years?” I had a few minutes before I had to go so we could talk for only just a bit. Mike’s mom was at the grocery so I missed her. I asked Billy to pass on my regards to her and Mike.
I left the hospital that night and drove directly back to south Alabama. What a wonderful feeling to come home again if only for a few minutes.
Although my official address has not been in Madison County since 1978 I still consider Huntsville my home and intend to return there some day. My brothers and I claim to be 7th generation Madison Countians on our maternal side although I now live near Mobile, and one brother is in Daytona Beach with the other in Nashville. Two of our great great great great grandfathers came to Madison County around 1800 settling in the eastern (Hampton Cove/Big Cove) area of the county as a part of the great migration of the early 1800s.
My family and I were “Northeasters” living most of the time from 1951 onward in the Northeast section of Huntsville. Part of that growing up experience involved exploring that great American waterway – the “Big Ditch”. My friends and I thought the Creek (or "The Big Ditch" as we knew it) was grand – the same as we thought of the entire setting of the eastern end of Oakwood Avenue (Darwin Downs). The ridge line that formed the southern side of the valley in the shadow of the mountain was near the East Huntsville Baptist Church on Maysville Road and it gradually just ran out somewhere near George (Lehman) Williams' house on the upper end of McCollugh Avenue. The northern side of the valley was framed by Chapman Mountain until that ridge gradually ran out near Dale and Gale Thompson's house on the east side of Andrew Jackson north of Optimist Park. Of course, the east side was the "Mountain" and the west side beyond Maysville Road opened up to Dallas and the rest of Huntsville.
The Creek or Big Ditch is formally named “Dallas Branch” on a US Geological Survey topographic map dated July 1st, 1991. The main trunk of Dallas Branch actually begins (one of the headwaters of Pinhook Creek) in Buzzard’s Roost about halfway up the side of Monte Sano at the end of Oakwood Avenue. Mapquest refers to it as “East Branch Creek” but I prefer to stick with the USGS designation of Dallas Branch. Dallas Branch has an unnamed tributary creek (perhaps it should be Lee High Branch) that begins northeast of Lee High School in Mike Chisum’s old neighborhood. It runs through the drainage culverts that run under the school, down through Dallas and joins up with Dallas Branch just east of Aunt Eunice’s old restaurant near the corner of Rison and Andrew Jackson. The Branch then continues on to flow into Pinhook Creek in Lincoln a 100 yards or so north of University/Pratt and just a bit west of Washington Street. The true headwaters of Pinhook Creek (would ya’ just listen to us talk about Pinhook Creek like it was the mighty Mississippi) appears to arise in the far reaches of northern Madison County in Jude Hollow of Wade Mountain around Smithers Springs and in several small streams around J.O. Johnson High School then comes south into Meadow Hills and runs just west of Lakewood School.
The valley (Darwin Downs) was truly marvelous and a real step-up for my family when we moved there in, I think, 1958. A relative of ours (the father of a high school classmate of mine, Ted Penhall) was the developer and I am sure he cut the family a deal on our house. My Mom and Dad bought one of those pre-fab houses that went up along the north side of Oakwood between Cabaniss Road and Titus Street immediately on the east side of the Big Ditch (Creek). My brothers and I really loved living there. It was our family home until our Mom passed away in 1983. As a brief piece of trivia, consider this - the Big Ditch did not always run behind the houses on Oakwood then turn abruptly going between houses and under the road as it does now. At one time, before the houses were built, the ditch ran parallel with Oakwood and crossed the road generally where it currently does. In order to maximize the value of his development, Mr. Penhall simply moved the ditch by filling in the natural stream and constructing a new artificial one to run behind the lots. To do such a thing now would be unheard of; environmental impact statements, public hearings, wetlands debates, etc. During the first several years we lived there, my parents had a lot of trouble with rain waters in the Big Ditch washing away the bank in places to the point where they were concerned for the safety of our house. Finally the City constructed stone walls to control the erosion; they are probably still there today. It seems the Big Ditch there near Oakwood is 30’ or so wide and 10’ – 12’ deep and the water could go from 6 inches to 12 feet deep in short order depending on the rain. I can recall seeing the water there so high that, after filling the banks of the ditch, it rushed across Oakwood Avenue in a torrent and flooded out the road.
My brothers Don, Tony and I played all over the valley; from barefooted football in the yard of the Baptist Church near Prince’s Grocery on Maysville Road up to Buzzard's Roost and over to the north side of the valley and Chapman's Dairy Farm. At the time we moved there most of the houses in what could be truly called Darwin Downs (the area south of Oakwood and east of Giles Drive) were already there but that was all. The rest was just wooded land waiting to be explored (and developed). We found several natural springs up on the side of the hills that I’m sure are in somebody's backyard now. I surely hope they weren't concreted over - cool, crystal clear water bubbling up out of the ground forming natural pools surrounded by moss covered rocks.
The area behind our house (that is, north of Oakwood) was empty except for pastures and woods. The Dairy Farm was located across the pastures from us up the incline of Chapman's Mountain, say, a mile or so north of our house. The lay of the land in that area has always reminded me of southern Tennessee in the Ardmore area (the classic Rocky Top) because of the cedar trees, intermittent streams, large moss covered rocks randomly poking up out of the ground and the general upslope of the land there. We spent many days there playing in and around the barn and pastures. I recall it as an idyllic and bucolic setting – a very serene and interesting place. I think by that time the Dairy was past its heyday and was in stasis waiting for the development that was coming in a few years. There was another old farmstead in a hollow ¾ mile or so north of the point where Oakwood Avenue dead ended into the mountain. It appears from the maps and overhead imagery that both these farms have been taken over by development.
I have not been able to determine who had the idea for and developed Darwin Downs. For those who might want to take a closer look at all this can check out www.terraserver-usa.com and follow the simple instructions – you can toggle between topographic maps and aerial photography. It is one way to spend an interesting rainy afternoon.
(Originally the Dallas Y.M.C.A. building; renamed Annex when purchased by Jackson Way Baptist Church)
by Collins (CE) Wynn
I recently saw a photograph of the old VFW building in Dallas, or the ‘Annex’ as I knew it, and it was wonderful. Like many I have fond memories of the place.
The old two-lane bowling alley was really something. Unlike the glittering bowling palaces of today, the Annex lanes were purely for bowling and had no amenities. I don’t know when the building was originally constructed but by the late ‘50s it had been there long enough for foot traffic to have worn grooves in the wooden floors. The manually operated pin setting machine was a marvelous clanking and clinking contraption. It was pure pleasure for a kid to be chosen to operate the thing. One had to get down into it not unlike hopping into a pit and pick up all the pins that had just been knocked over. Then the pins were placed in a rack and lowered into position on the lane floor by the kid putting full body weight on a cross bar forcing the pin setter down to floor level. Once there, the contraption released the pins then reset itself upward as the kid’s body weight was removed. It reset to a height that was just out of the way enough to allow the ball and pins to move without obstruction. Once the pins had been set and the ball placed in the return chute, the kid operator had to quickly jump up onto the side wall and lift up both feet. Otherwise he ran the risk of getting smartly whacked by either the incoming ball or the bounding pins, or both.
Like the bowling alley, the basketball court was a marvel. It was a full size court laid out in a fairly small space. I think both end and side court walls were no more than 3 feet from the court boundary, if that. Of course that led to players banging themselves against the walls on a regular basis especially under the baskets. To me, the gem of the basketball court was the spectators’ balcony. I remember it encircling the entire court with about 3 stair-stepped seating rows but I never saw it in use. In my mind’s eye, I can imagine teams from Dallas Mill across the way playing games in front of capacity crowds. My own memories are just of a bunch of 12-13 year old knuckle-headed boys playing pick-up games courtesy of the Baptist Church.
I know the exact dates of my some of my fondest memories of the “Annex”. They all involved boxing and one of them was September 25th 1962, the day of the first Patterson - Liston heavyweight championship fight. All the boys I knew had no money to speak of so we often had to devise ways of entertaining ourselves. One of those ways was following professional boxing. To me it seems the late ‘50s and early ‘60s were the heydays of the sport. We all considered the championship boxers to be true heroes. Names like Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston as well as Archie Moore, Peter Rodemacher, Ingemar Johansson, Eddie Machen and Cassius Clay. Even network TV broadcast the ‘fights’ on a weekly basis (I think sponsored sometimes by Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer). Anyway, on the early fall evening of the fight 6 or 8 of us gathered on the “Annex” porch near the twilight starting time with a small transistor radio. We were having trouble trying to figure out a way we could all hear the little radio when someone had a good idea. We moved out into the yard in the grass, put the radio on its back and all laid face down in a circle with our heads toward the radio which was in the middle. It worked like a charm. We lay there laughing and joking surrounded by the warmth of friendship and listened as Floyd Patterson was knocked out by Sonny Liston and lost his heavyweight title (he made history by regaining the title in a fight against Liston a little less than a year later). I’m unsure of exactly who was there but I’ll list some probabilities – Walt Thomas, Mike Smith, Mike Chisum, Sonny Turner, Terry Preston, Jimmy and Bobby Durham and possibly others. I found this quote about Floyd Patterson in a boxing website - “To this day, he is admired for his idyllic sportsmanship, and is considered an exemplary role model”. How different from boxers today, huh?
The Queens of Rison and More
by Collins (CE) Wynn
I attended Rison Elementary School in Dallas most of the time off and on from the 1st through the 6th grade (that’d be 1952-1957) and my remembrances of the times are all good. I spent some time at West Huntsville Elementary during those years but not a great deal. Because we lived so close to Rison School from the 4th grade on (Lee High Drive), my friends and I played at the school year round. My great friend Walt Thomas lived directly across from us in an older apartment building that was the original Rison School (I think). Our access to the school grounds was through a hole in the fence near what would have been the northwest corner of the property - our walk to school via the hole was fairly short – less than 5 minutes. I recall things like my 2nd grade class and the annual fall carnival with the "cake walk" and "apple bobbing" as well as the school store, etc.
My second and third grade teacher, Mrs. Ruby Taylor, organized day bus trips to the Lake Winnepesauka(?) amusement park near Chattanooga. After an early morning start from the school the first stop was always at the "Incline(d) Railway" for a ride to the top of Lookout Mountain followed by a short ride on out to the park for a day of laughing and screaming in the bright sunshine. This annual trip was a really big deal for the neighborhood kids because it was to the only amusement park for hundreds of miles in any direction and most of the parents of the kids I knew could not afford a real "vacation". But the big attraction for me (and a few others - Mike Smith was particularly accomplished at this) was the ride home later that night when it got really quiet and dark on the bus and those so inclined could sit in the back and smooch (and otherwise educate themselves) all the way home. What red blooded American boy would not go for that? Hey, I made the trip at least a half dozen times. Most of the boys spent the day at the park trying to figure out who was going to sit with who on the way home – I suspect the girls did so as well but I have no direct knowledge of their planning activities. Sometimes we’d change up seats and companions in the middle of the ride home (I suppose changing up was a primal urge akin to the “smoke from a distant fire” scenario).
As far as the school itself was concerned - it was big and old and musty (like some of us now). I liked it very much. Our classrooms even had cloakrooms where all manner of mischief could be accomplished without undue notice. I, along with some of my "traveling companions and colleagues" (Walt Thomas, Mike Smith, Mike Chisum, Sonny Turner, Terry Preston, and others), served as "Patrol Boys" complete with belts and diagonal sashes. (One of my best friends, Goose Shelton -nowadays known by the socially acceptable and equally non-descriptive name of "Jim"- lived in Lincoln at the time so we had not yet met). I do recall some scuffling around (ie, fighting) though, which in hindsight was great fun. Although the best of friends, Walt Thomas and I fought from time to time usually due to the meddling and agitation of Mike Smith. Mike never got directly involved in anything - he was the quintessential "athletic supporter", some might say "perennial agitator" - but he sure got others involved. I never did get a chance to fight with Mike though-----------------he ran too fast.
For me, Sally Black and Gale Thompson were the Queens of Rison Elementary from the day I got there until the day I left some 5 or 6 years later. My admiration for them, though distant, was large and unwavering. Oh, what I would have given for just one kiss! and then another and another into infinity (from a guy’s viewpoint, if one of anything is good, then two are great and three are even better yet). They were both out of reach though - Sally always had a long line of boyfriends and Gale belonged exclusively to Mike Smith.
My friends and I spent a good deal of time just wandering around the neighborhood day and night doing everything in general and nothing in particular. Playing a little backyard football; selling coke bottles, jumping off roofs, throwing water balloons, etc. There were a lot of kids who lived within a mile or so of the school and so we all grew up together crossing paths from time to time. There was a little store built on to the front of someone's house on, I think, McKinley Avenue that sold cigarettes 2 for a nickel. It was 30 years and tens of thousands of dollars later that I finally kicked the cigarette habit I picked up as a 14 year old boy there and at other places in the neighborhood; it was sure tough getting the nicotine monkey off my back.
My brother Don and I have talked many times over the years about how completely unrestricted our childhood's were. Neither of us
ever felt that we could not go pretty much anywhere in Huntsville we were willing to walk to and from - consequently we covered a lot of ground from say 8 to 15 years old and the same holds true I believe for all the boys that I knew. What is more amazing to us is that we never felt any particular sense of danger or hazard while exploring whatever was interesting within a 5 mile radius of Rison School (including walking to the top of Monte Sano). Our parents, along with most everyone else's, were completely comfortable with our roaming hobbies - it was evidently not a dangerous time or place. Our wanderings were completely natural and unscripted events but we were never late for dinner ("supper" at our house).
All of which brings me to a few thoughts. It seems that most of the bad news I have ever heard started with Charles Manson, Richard Speck, Ted Bundy and the idiot in the tower down in Texas all of which surfaced in and near my high school days. To the best of my knowledge there were no really serious discipline problems at any time during my grade school education experience in Huntsville (the kind we hear of and some of our children and grandchildren see today). I don’t recall any special education programs although I suppose it is possible they were there and I just did not know it. I thought then and still do now that everyone of my colleagues were pretty sharp intellectually and generally well behaved according to the standards of the times (excepting, of course, my friend Harold Tuck who was a just a bit mischievous). Could it be that there were child kidnappings, assaults, and Amber Alerts on the level we have today but we just didn't hear about them? I think not – those were different times in different places………….and good for us all.