Just memories remain
Brownville has faded, but former residents
keep the town's past alive
By Robert DeWitt
Staff Writer
Tuscaloosa News
July 11, 2001

BROWNVILLE---If a community is mainly judged by its streets, houses and public buildings, then Brownville is indeed dead.

But if a community is the bond between the people who inhabited it, then Brownville is very much alive.

Today, like every Wednesday, the people of Brownville will gather at Leonard's Restaurant in Northport -- about 12 to 15 men and women in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Their town is largely abandoned, but Brownville's hold over its former residents is strong.

"We didn't know any other lifestyle," said former Brownville resident Lushen Kendrick. "We didn't know any other livelihood."

Twenty miles northwest of Tuscaloosa, up Alabama Highway 171, the road to Brownville turns off to the west and descends down into the Sipsey River valley.

Tucked away in the northwest corner of Tuscaloosa County on the edge of a hardwood swamp, Brownville was born in the 1920s to serve the Brown Wood Preserving Co. plant, which manufactured creosote utility poles.

At its height, 75 to 100 families lived a self-contained, self-sufficient life in the woodland outpost. Their lifestyle forged a bond that still leaves former residents a close-knit group.

"When you see somebody you haven't seen in years, it's like running into a family member," said Brownville native Sue Miller.

Ideally located, W.P. Brown and Sons Lumber Co. built a sawmill in Fayette before World War I and owned thousands of acres of timberland. The company pegged an area once known as Hogseye and later as Red Valley as the ideal location for one of its creosote pole plants.

It was ideally located for raw materials, said Ray Bobo, who ran the plant for many years. A rail line already existed there. The company completed work on the plant in 1924.

The Sipsey is not a navigable stream. Roads were bad, and the kind of trucks needed for logging didn't exist yet. The timber industry depended on rail to bring logs to the plant and ship finished products to market.

Poor transportation also meant workers couldn't easily commute from towns like Fayette, Gordo or Northport. The company needed a town at the plant and, it built one.

"Everybody who lived there at that time worked for Brown Wood Preserving Co.," said Brownville native Buford Miller, Sue Miller's husband.

At its height, perhaps 300 to 400 people lived in Brownville.

"The town had everything they needed," said Kendrick, son of the engineer on the company-owned railroad. "You had the store, the theater, the church, the school, the ballfield. They had a job. If you didn't have any money, you had credit at the commissary. There's a lot of comfort in that when you don't have to worry about what you're going to eat tomorrow."

The company provided everything, including the houses where workers spent their lives away from work. All of the company buildings, including the houses, were treated with the creosote preservative used on the poles, giving them a dark brown hue.

Like the rest of the South, the company separated housing by race. Whites lived in four-room houses mostly to the east of the plant. Blacks lived in smaller, shotgun shacks on the west side of the pole yard.

Today, the crumbling company houses look little better than rudimentary hunting camp houses. But their original residents came from 19th-century dirt-floor log cabins and dogtrot houses with cracks in the floor so big that occupants could feed the chickens below.

A company carpenter kept screens on the porch, panes in the windows and a roof overhead. But most lacked indoor plumbing, and they were heated by wood and coal fires. "It'd get so cold in some of those old houses that the water would freeze," Buford Miller said. "I got up many a night to get a drink of water and the dipper would be frozen in the bucket."

While the management's houses had more amenities, like indoor plumbing, most were exactly alike. And that served as a leveler.

"The house I grew up in didn't have running water," said former Brownville native Charles Otts. "But we didn't know we weren't well off. We had plenty to eat, we had plenty to play with and we had clothes on our backs."

For country kids who loved the outdoors, the Sipsey swamp was a fun environment.

"The river there was full of fish," Kendrick said. "The woods were full of squirrels and rabbits. The sage fields were full of quail."

Hunting and fishing were recreation, but the food these pastimes generated was not incidental. Company houses had enough land for large gardens. Employees also had cows for milk, chickens for eggs and hogs to slaughter on frosty November mornings.

"I could have gone in anybody's house and gotten whatever I needed," Otts said. "If they had it, you were welcome to it."

Doors were never locked.

"If you needed a cup of sugar and your neighbor wasn't at home, you just went over to his house and borrowed it," Buford Miller said.

But perhaps it was the things they did together that cemented the community. On the Fourth of July, Houston McDaniel, the community constable, barber and butcher, became chief barbecuer. He dug a pit, covered it with a metal grill and built a fire.

As the fire burned down, he shoveled the coals into the pit as meat roasted on top. Full of barbecue, beans, potato salad and cake, the community turned out to watch the town team play baseball against another community like Jena or maybe even Northport with it’s the standout Lary brothers.

It didn't take a holiday to bring the community together. Woodmen of the World, a fraternal organization, had fish fries and invited the community. Baseball went on all summer long. And folks would gather just to jaw. But it was the children who kept the busiest social calendar.

Sue Miller remembers candy-making parties, "tacky" parties (where kids wore their worst clothes), weenie roasts, cake walks and games of spin the bottle.

Courting couples could go to the movies on Saturday night in the community building. Afterwards, they walked the quiet streets.

Not everybody had a radio. Those who did shared with their neighbors. As daylight faded on Saturdays, people gathered on their porches and radios tuned to the Grand Ole Opry.

Miller still remembers Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941. People scurried to neighbors with radios as the news spread that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor.

Later, TVs replaced radios. Sue Miller's family was among the first to have a television. Miller remembers going to her house and finding eight to 10 children seated cross-legged, with chins in their palms, on the floor in front of it.

Long before Hillary Clinton popularized the phrase "it takes a village ...," the village of Brownville practiced community child rearing.

"People looked after children no matter whose they were," Sue Miller said. Brownville native Bill Ellis said it was common for an adult to discipline, even spank, someone else's child caught in a misdeed.

While the town's former residents remember an almost idyllic existence, Ellis recalls a seedier side to social life. He remembers going to the back of the commissary and seeing a man passed out on a hay bale. Hard drinking was not uncommon. For some, moonshine was their only escape.

Despite Brownville's self-sufficiency, sometimes there was no substitute for a trip to town. Those without cars took the "Blue Goose," a privately owned bus with routes to Northport and Fayette.

The company-owned M&G railroad also carried passengers to Fayette where they could pick up the main line to points farther away. It made seven stops along the way.

But times changed. Most of the Brownville gang at Leonard's today are of a generation who either chose not to work at Brown Wood Preserving Co. or could not get a job there.

Sailors, soldiers and airmen came back from World War II with new aspirations that didn't fit in Brownville's boundaries. B.F. Goodrich and Hunt Refining had new factories in Tuscaloosa and offered new opportunities.

"These guys had seen another side in the military," Ellis said. "There were better jobs out there. Everyone wants to do better."

The plant that churned out wooden utility poles and built Brownville once employed 250 people. It now has about 25 to 30.

"When they came along with forklifts and power saws and labor saving devices, they probably can do with 12 or 15 people what it took 150 to do back in the '50s," Otts said. "They didn't need as many people. As the older ones retired, they didn't replace them."

For years, Old No. 97, the last steam engine in the United States working in a commercial enterprise, served the company faithfully. In 1970, the company bought a diesel locomotive and retired No. 97 Now, the railroad itself is gone.

The little brown company houses, rented at $1 per room per month, that were a step up from sharecropper shacks, began to look dated. Veterans' benefits were fueling a fever for home ownership.

"As the houses got older, people wanted to buy their own land," said Bobo, who eventually rose to company vice president. "Sawmill towns were being phased out."

Buford and Sue Miller married as soon as he returned from the Navy and left Brownville for Tuscaloosa.

"We moved to West End and rented an apartment," Buford Miller recalled. "We didn't know our next-door neighbor. In Brownville, we knew everybody."

"It was a happy community," said Sue Miller. "Everybody took care of everybody else. It was like a family."

That word - family - comes up repeatedly when Brownville residents reminisce. The group at Leonard's numbered 30-35 people a week when they first started meeting at Wright's Bakery in Northport. And as their numbers dwindle, the memories become all the more precious.

"Even though we didn't have anything, our lives were so much better than kids' lives today. We had security that kids don't have today, "said Sue Miller, who lives not far from her birthplace on Highway 171.

Ellis remembers his dismay when he found out that his parents were leaving Brownville. "Leaving Brownville was a traumatic thing for me," Ellis said. "They wanted their own house. I just couldn't understand that."

Otts' family moved to Northport. But he didn't make friends quickly and continued to return to Brownville to hunt, fish and date girls.

With better transportation available, workers no longer needed to be within walking distance of their work. Companies like Brown Wood no longer found it desirable to maintain worker housing. Brownville was becoming a dinosaur.

The community's social fabric was unraveling, too. People stopped relying on each other.

At her house, Sue Miller disappears into her bedroom and returns with a frame holding a pane of stained glass. It was the last unbroken pane from Brownville's community building and church.

"In all the years we lived there, nobody ever broke out windows," she said. "Now they can't keep windows in it". Buford Miller nods at his wife. He said the vandalism started when people quit making efforts to entertain the community's children.

The decline has been gradual.

The company closed its hotel in the 1930s, and it quit keeping a doctor in the late 1940s. The commissary burned in the 1950s, and it was replaced with a smaller one. But even with all the changes, the commissary and post office were still operating and all of the company houses were full in 1985 when Bobo left.

When James Graham Brown, the company's owner, died in 1969, he left his vast fortune to the James Graham Brown Foundation. The foundation held its various operating companies, which included saw mills, hotels, railroads and creosote plants, for 20 years after his death.

In 1989, the foundation sold Brown Wood Preserving to Lowell Stanley, a wealthy Louisville, Ky., lumberman. In 1991, Kendrick took his son on a tour of the community, which his son videotaped. He clicks the remote to his VCR at his house off Highway 171, and it shows many of the old buildings still in place. Since then, the company has demolished most of the buildings, and all but three or four of the houses are gone.

'I just live here' Samuel Gant, who works at the plant, sat on the cluttered porch of one of the few remaining company houses last week. Furnishings inside are stark.

"I just live here, they don't charge me nothing," he said as he packed his pipe.

Gant's father worked at the plant. "I remember it when it was booming," he said. "It's changed a lot since then. They've torn down the water tank. They've torn down the old commissary. I wish they'd have left it. It would have been a landmark."

Some trailers have replaced company houses. But the old school is abandoned and dilapidated. The windows are broken out of the community building.

The pole yard has shrunk over the years, but with its tiny crew, the plant's capacity is probably at its peak, said Plant Manager Pete Wicker. Even the creosote, the brown juice that fueled the plant, is gone. Workers don't like getting the sticky burning chemical on their skin and clothes. New treatment processes create light green and light brown poles instead of the old, sticky black ones.

In many ways, Brownville is a memory that lives only on Wednesday mornings over coffee at a Northport restaurant.

Sent in by Herman Hallman