In a company town, there's only one way
By Robert DeWitt
Staff Writer
Tuscaloosa News
July 11, 2001

BROWNVILLE -- Today, the old company town is like a shhipwreck, beached and rusting. The shape and form are there, but the life that was once within it is gone.

Brownville is too quiet. Machinery should clang and rumble. Sounds of life should echo in the streets. But that's all missing now.

"I go out there once or twice a month and drive around," said Brownville native Bill Ellis. "I see it the way it was."

The industrial revolution gave birth to company towns, which were the industrial equals of plantations. Poor transportation and firms that needed to be near their raw materials required a new solution.

Brownville and towns like it were that solution. Companies built them in isolated areas, providing workers with the amenities they needed.

While Brown Wood Preserving Co., which manufactures utility poles, is still a going concern, the community it created has faded. "We almost cry whenever we go to Brownville," said Ray Bobo, who for many years ran the plant.

"I told Ray, 'Don't even take me down there'," said his wife, Lois, who did the payroll. "I want to remember it the way it was."

Brownville once offered it all.

The company built a hotel and boarding house for visitors and single men. The company commissary offered wares from sugar and flour to shotguns and plows. Across the road were the doctor's office and the post office.

A large building with stained glass served as a community center and church where Baptist and Methodist pastors preached on alternating Sundays. A little further down was a three-room school -- teachers taught two and sometimes three grades at a time. The company generated its own electricity and provided it to workers' houses at no charge. It built a water system complete with a 100-foot-tall tank.

"We were the most modern town around," Bobo said.

At the center sat the plant with its boiler-like cylinders for treating timber and its immense pole yard where the inventory and raw materials were stacked. Black, sooty steam locomotives pushed rail cars loaded with logs and poles back and forth through the yard. The company owned the rolling stock and the railroad.

Workers came from the small farms in Pickens, Lamar, Fayette, Bibb and Tuscaloosa counties. "Back then, that was a good job," said Buford Miller, whose father earned 50 cents a day. "It was better than walking behind a mule."

The work was backbreaking labor. The creosote used on the poles irritated the skin and permeated the air with a pungent smell. Logs, poles and powerful machinery posed their own hazards.

But jobs, no matter how hard and dirty, were appreciated. "We had come through the Depression," said Lushen Kendrick, whose father was railroad engineer. "Everybody was so proud just to have a job."

The company offered pay in unique currency -- "joogaloo." It was good only at the company store run by Ellis' father. But workers could buy commissary items at a 10-percent discount with it.

"Any kind of merchandise you wanted, Mr. Bill could get it for you," said Sue Miller, Buford Miller's wife.

The government later banned company script or currency as a form of exploitation. Ellis called the company a "benevolent dictatorship." While owner James G. Brown was too wealthy to identify with workers, he did care about them, Ellis said.Ellis does remember a darker time between labor and management. During the late 1930s, a union tried to organize and the company resisted. Older workers resisted the union while younger employees pushed to organize.

One particular incident stands out in his mind. An older worker crossed a picket line (Ellis wonders if he knew what he was doing). A younger worker jumped on him and started to beat him up. The younger worker had to leave because of the attack.

The attempt to organize failed, and eventually the tension eased. Life returned to normal.

Sent in by Herman Hallman