By John L. Hunt and Hoyt B. Ming
May 27, 1999
PEOPLE MOVE OUT; NATURE TAKES OVER
Remote and unheralded, an Alabama town, and part of American, dies.
"It was a great place to grow up. Hunting and fishing were accessible just a few steps outside your door" __Joe Langston, retired, long-time news director and anchor of WBRC-TV.
Ghost towns are rare east of the Mississippi River. Brownville, Ala., about 20 miles from Northport, has become a ghost town. It has happened in a way quite different from the more famous ghost towns of the old west.
For this town, there was no creeping slum, as usually the case when a towns population dwindles. In Brownville it happened suddenly. Now only three of more than 40 modest wood frame dwellings that provided homes for some 250 people are inhabited. Nature has all but reclaimed Brownville.
Credit this to unusual circumstances. Each family rented its home from the same landlord. Every house was built during a three-year period. For six decades Brownville throbbed with community life, but almost overnight the entire population moved away.
Recently nature got some help from bulldozers, which took down many of the derelict houses. But for the remainder, except for the three houses still occupied, nature is choreographing the demolition and using her own crew.
In western states, when towns are abandoned they become bleached skeletons. Cimmerron, Nevada and Silver City, Idaho, each had a bustling population, but the mines ran out and they were abandoned.
Paradise, Arizona, which boasted thirteen saloons, met a similar fate.
They dried out and weathered. The buildings yielded all of their paint and something of their posture to the wind. They were blasted by sun and wind-scrubbed by sand.
Still, there is a charm to the way nature dealt with them.
Equally important is the fact that they remain visible. Not so in the damp, verdant and remote location where the late J. Graham Brown elected to build his lumber treatment plant in 1923.
Also, unlike its western counterparts, there will be no scenic skeletal remains to attract tourists. Brownville is simply disappearing into greenery as natures crew does its work.
Almost as quickly as the people moved out, loblolly pines, sweetgum trees, japanese honeysuckle, tropic creepers and a small army of weeds and grasses promptly moved in. They have claimed all the remaining deserted houses.
These gentle, persistent agents creep through windows and cracks in floors, lean heavily on roofs and gnaw away at wooden underpinning, walls and porches. A 53-inch annual rainfall, average for the area, aids their work.
When the task is finished, nothing will remain of a once-thriving town except for the three occupied houses. There is, of course, the busy lumber treatment plant off to the side, an unconcerned witness, going about its business under new ownership.
However, no motels will spring up inviting tourists to view the towns remains.
While Brownville lived, its community life reflected the fortunes of the Brown Wood Preserving Plant. Its pressure treated poles and lumber are used throughout the country for utility lines, barn construction and fence posts.
Today the plant employs only a fraction of the labor force it once required. All but four of the employees commute. Even so, production is actually up, officials say, due to new methods.
These new methods, however, triggered the death of the town.
In 1923 J. Graham Brown, a Louisville, Ketucky, entrepreneur and his brother bought several thousand acres of timberland and built a preserving plant on the site.
The remote location meant that housing had to be provided to accommodate employees and their families. More than forty modest frame residences were constructed along dirt roads laid out in the wooded area near the Browns plant. For the use of these homes, families paid $1 per room each month.
Built in the mid to late 20s, the homes were without indoor plumbing. But they housed a largely contented and productive population.
The Browns, who owned extensive timber interests in several southern states, established a railroad, which they playfully named, using the initials of the brothers first names, the M and G line. It served a steam skidder and log train connecting Brownville and Buhl, Ala., some twelve miles away.
George Thrasher, currently a yard foreman at the plant, was born in Brownville in 1937 and lived there 52 years. Nine years ago he moved to Northport, 20 miles away.
He was among the last residents to move away.
Throughout his working life Thrasher has been employed by the Brown Wood Preserving Plant. He has been on the company payroll longer than any employee. During these 40 years he worked at every job on the yard before attaining his current level of foreman.
He witnessed the changes in technology at the plant in the early 1970s, changes which resulted in the elimination, almost overnight, of most of the company jobs.
And just as quickly the town emptied. As families were forced to find employment elsewhere, the post office, barber shop and store, with no reason for continuing, closed. The Brownville School closed in 1952 as pupils were bused to larger schools in the area.
Brownville, the town, is no more. Yet, in a truly ghostly way, the town will be around for at least another generation. Not because a skeleton remains to charm tourists, but because former resident refuse to relinquish cherished memories.
In a ghostly way, the town will be around for at least another generation. Not because a skeleton remains to charm tourists, but because former residents refuse to relinquish cherished memories.
E. G. (Gene) Thrasher was born and raised in Brownville. He is one of many who treasure such memories. He recently retired as President and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama.
"In many ways Brownville was idyllic," Thrasher said. "The town was isolated and lacking in most of what are considered essentials today. Like most families, ours was large__eight children__and by todays standards, all of us were deprived. But we didnt feel it. We really felt rich. Im sure thats because the community actually was rich in the core values that are important."
Joe Langston, another Brownville native with fond memories, is a news director and news anchor in Birmingham WBRC-TV. His father was general manager of Brown Wood Treatment Plant. Langston was born in Brownville and stayed until going away to college.
"It was a great place for a boy to grow up." he said. "Hunting and fishing were just steps away out the back door. We had the Sipsey River as a private swimming pool."
But with the sudden changes in Brownvilles economic picture, a number of families moved to Northport, and others moved to Tuscaloosa or Fayette.
About 40 of these ex-Brownville residents gather once a week solely because they like to recall the part of their life spent in Brownville. Their loose-knit group has been an entity for 15 years. No rules, programs, dues or officers are required. There is instead, that remarkably profound bond which "feels like family." said the groups regulars.
They call themselves simply "The Brownville Connection" and meet for breakfast in a Tuscaloosa or Northport restaurant each Wednesday. On these occasions they enjoy just being together and sharing current news and old memories.
They celebrated when Adolph South, a Brownville native, appeared in a news photo shaking hands with President Clinton. Careers of different members are carefully followed and faithfully reported. They take pride in the outstanding contributions of Thrasher, Langston and others. They are saddened by the deaths reported from time to time.
"Its like the ties that hold big families together," Thrasher said. "Brownville was such a great place that way. Everyone was family."
Their nostalgic and idealized view of Brownville of their past is, in their opinion, a valid perception. The community, set apart geographically and socially, was a vignette of a simpler, more caring community.
They wistfully recall warm summer evenings. The narrow dirt streets were thronged with children playing. No one stayed inside on warm evenings. There was no air conditioning.
They remember the noisy marble games in progress, the girls shrieking with their hop-scotch competition.
Parents joined children in ball games or sat fanning themselves "out front." Each home had a stoop, and most stoops had a conversation group.
"When we played with toys, they were always toys we had made," recalls George Thrasher, a cousin of E.G. Thrasher. "Until the 1950s there probably werent two cars in the whole town, so the dirt streets made a great place to play."
Another member of "The Brownville Connection," Lushen Kendrick, recalls Fourth of July Picnics at the commissary. These usually lasted all night and featured barbecue cooked in a long pit.
Each house had its own well and outhouse. Indoor plumbing was added in the 1940s to perhaps a half dozen houses. Surprisingly, when the town was built in the mid-to late-1920s, all the houses were furnished with electricity. This inconfruity was due to the fact that the plant operated a generator large enough to supply the homes.
A bus came from Fayette 20 miles away each Saturday morning and picked up anyone who could afford it and wanted to go into Tuscaloosa. Those making the trip stayed all day, because the bus didnt return until late.
Although the logging train was not supposed to carry passengers, some townspeople would, on occasion, be permitted to put chairs on a flatcar for a ride to Newtonville. There they would play a baseball game or shop for groceries. Or they might be "freighted" into Gordo to take in a movie.
Proud of their radios, townspeople waited each week to hear their favorites: The Grand Ol Opry, The Lone Ranger, Jack Armstrong or the Guiding Light.
Family values were shared throughout the community.
Tragedies and successes likewise were mourned or celebrated community-wide.
Memories of this happy community forged the remarkably strong bond that joins these people as they mourn Brownvilles passing.
Bill Ellis, like many of "The Brownville Connection,"was born there in 1928. He is another who witnessed the towns undulating economy and now watches its physical dissolution.
Its economy suffered during the Depression and rebounded during World War II.
Ellis moved with his family to Tuscaloosa in 1947, but he has vivid memories of a childhood spent in Brownville.
During his early years he attended school in the three-room school building at the edge of town. The school was established by the Tuscaloosa County School Board to serve the lively new town.
Ellis father ran the commissary in those days. It was the only store in Brownville. His mother, Madie Weathers Ellis, was one of the first school teachers in the community. She later became Postmistress and was one of a very few women who worked outside the home.
He remembers the old frame schoolhouse where eight grades were divided among three rooms. These rooms were warmed by a wood-fueled Warm Morning heater in the winter and cooled on hot days by any stray breeze that made its welcome way through an open window. At recess and lunchtime pupils drank outside from a long galvanized pipe where holes, punched along its top, spouted water when a tap was turned on.
A large, two-story frame building at the edge of town served as a center for community functions. It doubled as a meeting place for the lively congregations of both the Methodist and the Baptist churches.
Also central in the communitys life was the commissary. It was a "swap area" for community news; a place where friends met.
As was common for company stores, the commissary provided all the commodities necessary for life in a small town. Everything from clothing to groceries to hardware lined the shelves. Since all Brownvilles residents were company employees, they were allowed to charge a certain percentage of their salary at this company store, the amount to be deducted from their next pay check.
A medical doctor, Dr. J. C. Guin, for many years, made his home and practice there. Not only did he make house calls, he occasionally took patients into his home in the absence of a hospital, Ellis recalled.
Like so much of our nations past, Brownville is irretrievable. It is part of Americana that evokes nostalgia and a longing for a less complicated life style. And for the several hundred people whose lives were, to varying degrees, shaped by the experience, the saying rings sadly true: you cant go home again.
There is no more post office named Brownville, no commissary, no barber shop, no school. Physically, the town has all but disappeared.
Nature is determined. Soon nothing will remain except the three houses occupied.