The Vagabond: Dwight Mill Village, part 6


Ed (W.A.) Lewis of the Etowah Historical Society brought a booklet to the Vagabond about someone from the Dwight Cotton Mill Village. Called, “A USA Mill Town Saga of the 1900’s,”  the book was written by Eugene Livingston, who wrote what he remembered about the times, hardships, laughter and love shared between two families, Jim and Ester Livingston and Roy and Betty Emery as they lived in the early 1900’s. Mr. Livingston’s recollection of the times and events that happened in the mill villages of Alabama City and Lupton City, Tenn., as well as the other places mentioned, will captivate your imagination, make you laugh and cry. It will also take you back in history to the good times and the hard times and perhaps stir the memories you may have of your own families of years gone by.

The continuation of Mr. Livingston’s story:

“After Grandma and Grandpa went home, Uncle Roy came to see Jim one day. He said they had received a letter from Grandma and that she said they were moving to New Mercie. That was a small town about three miles from where they lived and Grandpa was working at the water pumping station. This was a steam water pumping station that pumped water out of the Cahaba River 10 miles to the top of Red Mountain to East Lake. This was where Birmingham got their water. She said Grandpa wanted Roy, Jim and Lonnie, Roy’s brother, to come down there. They could make more money than working in the cotton mill. Jim said he would have to think about it awhile, so Roy and Aunt Betty and kids all moved to New Mercie. A few weeks later, Jim and Lonnie got together and decided to move to New Mercie also.

Lonnie and Zettie had two children, a boy, Cecil and a girl whose name I can’t recall. So, we all moved to New Mercie and were all together again.

Maggie and I went to school at New Mercie that year. The pumping station ran all the time, twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year. They never stopped because Birmingham needed the water,

One day, the boss told Roy and him he wanted them to work on the second shift, Jim said to Roy, ‘there is a path over this hill, it goes straight to New Mercie, we can go over this hill every night and it is only a half mile borne whereas the other way around, it is one and a half miles,’   Roy said, ‘Yes, I know about that path, but we can’t go that way, Jim.’

Jim said, ‘why not?’

Roy said, ‘because there is a graveyard on top of that hill,’

Jim said, ‘what difference does that make? All the people are dead, they can’t hurt you.’

Uncle Roy said in a high pitched voice (for he was very upset), ‘the h*** they can’t; h***, no, I am not going through any graveyard at midnight. I don’t even like to go to a graveyard in the middle of the day with the sun shining bright and with 50 other people with me, and you want me to go with you at midnight?’

He said, ‘I will do like any sane white man will do if he has sense enough to come in out of the rain, I will walk around the road.’

Uncle Roy never went through the graveyard. He went the long way around that road and Jim went the short way and was home and asleep before Uncle Roy ever arrived home.

I stayed at Aunt Betty’s about half the time. One day, we were in the house playing when I got an idea. I lay down flat on my back on the floor, pulled my knees up under my chin, then told Alta to sit on my feet and I would give a good push and she would be propelled all the away across the room. She sat down. I gave a strong push, but something went terribly wrong, Alta did not go across the room. She went straight up stretched out horizontally, her face first contacted the ceiling. I think her nose was broken; blood started spurting out everywhere. She came straight down and was very lucky. She fell on the bed! The breath was knocked out of her for about a minute. Had she hit the floor, she probably would have broken her back. By the time Aunt Berry got her calmed down, her nose had stopped bleeding. Then Aunt Betty turned her attention to me, but I was just a little bit too quick for her. I was already gone. Everyone was mad at me, especially Alta, I had to stay away a few days until things calmed down a bit.

We had lived there about a year when Grandpa, Uncle Roy, Lonnie and Jim were, again, talking about Alabama City. All of a sudden, they became homesick for this place again and within a few weeks had all quit their good jobs and we all moved back to Alabama City.

We moved into a house at 91 Kyle Avenue at Canterbury Station. Uncle Roy and Aunt Betty, along with Grandma and Grandpa, moved into a house in the northern part of town. I don’t remember where Lonnie moved. We were all still together, but spread out a bit more.

After we moved back from New Mercie, very often we would go up to see Grandpa and Grandma Livingston. They now lived on Sand Mountain. We would go up on Saturday afternoon. Jim would get someone to drive us up in a ‘T’ Model Ford car. We would get there about 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

We would eat supper and after supper, we would eat watermelons and cantaloupes, etc., then we would sit out in the yard in the cool of the afternoon. Grandpa, Grandma, Aunt Minnie and Jim would talk about the good old days. Grandpa told all about when his family was young and they lived on a farm up around Ball Play. That was before Alabama City was built.

After he would get his crop ‘laid by,’ he would have several weeks with nothing to do. To ‘lay by’ a crop was to finish planting and fertilizing it, then just wait for it to grow. After the crop was laid by, he would cross the river on a ferry boat, walk to Lookout Mountain – to the top, down the other side to a small settlement called Crudrup. This little settlement came into being because of the coal mines in Lookout Mountain. Grandpa would find a place to board with some people and live in Crudrup. He would work in the mines all week, then with the money he made in the mines, he would buy a sack of flour, a side of white meat or sow belly as some called it. This sow belly was sliced into this strips and called bacon. He would then walk back over the mountain carrying the food to his family. I am not sure how far it was. but I think about 15 or 20 miles. Grandpa did this several summers. The coal was eventually worked out and everyone left Crudrup and it became a ghost town. I saw it many times when I was growing up in Alabama City.

Grandpa also told how they were blown away by a tornado. Sand Mountain is known for it tornadoes. In about 1910, Grandpa lived on the outskirts of a little town called Albertville. He said one day they heard a tornado coming and they just barely had time to get into the storm pit. It did not last very long, just a few minutes. It made so much noise, they could not hear one another talk. When they came up from the storm pit, everything was gone. It blew the whole town away; not anything was left above ground. Houses, barns, cattle, horses, pigs, chickens, everything was gone. It even sucked the fence post out of the ground. The United States is the only place in the world where tornadoes occur. It is caused by the warm moist air over the Gulf of Mexico mixing with the cool air from Canada being funneled down the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains. Tornadoes always come from the southwest to the northeast, never from any other direction. So, every farm on Sand Mountain had a storm pit.

Now, Grandpa lived about five miles from Boaz, one mile from the top of Sand Mountain, where the road starts down to Attalla. From our house to Grandpa’s house was about 15 miles.

We would get to Grandpa’s about 3 o’clock, eat supper then sit outside in the yard and talk until about midnight because it was too hot to go into the house to sleep. Sometimes, when we all got sleepy, he would say, ‘all of you go on to bed; I think I will stay up a while for I can see a bit of lightening to the South. If a storm comes up, I will call you and we will go into the storm pit.’

Sometimes it would be a really bad thunderstorm and we would all go into the storm pit until the storm was over.

When we were ready to go home, the man would come back to get us after lunch and we would go back to Alabama City. Grandpa did not have an outhouse. Everyone just went out back of the barn. I don’t know why he never built one.

Screen doors and windows had not been invented at that time so flies would come into the house by the thousands. Grandma had a big cast iron, woodburning stove. On one side, it had a tank that held about three gallons of water and this water would get hot when they cooked. This was for washing dishes.

On top and two feet above the cooking area, was a warming box built into the stove. The box was about eight inches wide and eight inches high and as long as the stove was wide, about three feet. It had a lock on it and Grandma kept the key in her pocket. When they were ready to eat, Lottie and Willie set the table. Lee stood by with her fly swatter with Grandpa standing in the doorway looking around. If everything suited her, she would hand the key to Aunt Minnie. Aunt Minnie would then unlock the warming door and remove the food and then set it on the table. Then everyone would sit down. Grandpa would ask the blessing and everyone would begin eating. Lee would wave her fly swatter back and forth to keep the flies away. After everyone else ate, then Lee would eat.

Uncle Claude and family and Uncle Fred and family went to Grandma’s very often also. We all liked to go to Grandma’s. The best watermelons in the world were grown on Sand Mountain and Grandpa had some of the finest. Farmers would take a wagon load of these big 50 pound watermelons to town and go up and down the streets selling them for 50 cents each.

Down at the drug store at Canterbury, they would get in a new batch of magazines. My favorite was ‘Popular Mechanics.’ It would tell and show pictures of how to build things. One day while I was looking through one of my books, I ran across an interesting article on how to build a crystal radio. The article said that the first thing to do was to put an aerial. In those days, an antenna was called an aerial. You had to have it as high as possible and 100 feet long. Maggie saw me climbing the trees and told Mama, Mama asked me what I was climbing the trees for. Jim had told me not to climb trees, I told her that I was putting up a radio aerial. She asked me why I was putting up a radio aerial, when we didn’t even have a radio.

Well, I told her that I knew that, and she knew that, but the people passing by on the sidewalk did not know that. We didn’t have anything – we didn’t have electric lights, radio or anything else. Mama said, ‘we don’t have any money either.’

Next, I went over to Cleves house. He gave me a piece of crystal and an old head phone. Another thing I needed was an oatmeal box to wind some wire around it. We didn’t even have an oatmeal box, so I went around to all the neighbors and finally found one. I did everything exactly like the book said to do.

Then I built a box cabinet around it and put a dial and some old switches and a light on the front of it. These switches and things did not do anything, but it looked very impressive. I had a can of varnish, but did not have a brush. Now what was 1 to do?

Then I had an idea – Jim’s shaving brush! I would varnish my radio cabinet with it and then wash it out and he would never know the difference. I varnished my radio and it looked great with all the dials and switches and things. I ran into the kitchen to get some kerosene to wash out the brush and the can was empty.

What in the world would I do? The varnish was drying in the brush and I had nothing to wash it in. So I went out in the back alley and threw it over the mill fence. That night when Jim started to shave, he could not find his shaving brash.

He said, ‘Eugene, have you seen my shaving brush?’ I said, ‘No, what would I do with a shaving brush? I don’t shave.’ I guess that sounded logical to him. He then asked Maggie if she had seen his shaving brush and she told him that she had not seen it.

Jim said, ‘I know I put it right here the last time I shaved, it can’t just get up and walk away.’ He had to go down to the drug store to buy a new one before he could shave. I suppose it never occurred to him that it might make a good paint brush, The next day, the varnish was completely dry and I connected the aerial of my radio and tuned the dial and moved the cat whisker back and forth over the crystal, but it never made a sound, I tried it several times that day and again that night, but nothing happened. It would not work, so I threw it over the fence,

One day Cleve came over to our house (he just lived across the street). He said, ‘Jim, next week is the Fourth of July, the mill will be shut down for a week. If you will buy the material, you and I will wire your house for lights.’ Jim told him that was a good idea. So, they went to Gadsden that afternoon and bought all the materials. The next Monday morning, we all three went into the attic. I was right in between them, advising them whenever I thought it necessary.

In two days, the job was completed, Jim went to the power company in Gadsden and told them that he wanted them to connect his house to the power lines. At that time, you didn’t have to have an inspection. The next day, the men from the power company came out and ran a wire from the pole on the street over to our house and we had electric lights!

We could hardly wait for dark to come so we could turn on our lights. After waiting, for what seemed to be a week, it got dark. Mama could not sit still, she just walked from room to room remarking how beautiful it was. She could now see how to sweep the house at night She could see everywhere.

One day, several weeks later, Cleve came over to our house. He and Jim were discussing something when Jim suddenly said to Cleve, ‘every night before I go to bed, I turn off the porch light and every morning when I start to work, it is on so I turn it off again. Do you think some way that light could turn itself on and off?’

Cleve laughed and said, ‘Jim, you know good and well that light cannot turn itself on. I guess Eugene turns it on after you go to bed.’ That is what happened every time something was broken or lost, someone would blame it on me. Jim said, ‘No, he goes to bed before I do and when he sleeps, no one can wake him up. If the house were to catch on fire and burn down, you would have to carry him out and tell him about the fire the next morning. Anyway, if he turned on the switch, I would hear it.’

I thought for sure that Cleve would catch on, but he did not know. When the street car came by, it made the house shake and the windows and doors rattle. So when I would hear the street car coming, I would run and turn on the porch light. I wanted everyone to know that we had electricity in our house,

One morning. Mama and Maggie were sitting on the front porch when Mama, looking up the street, saw Jim coming toward the house, She told Maggie that she bet he was sick. When Jim started up the steps, Mama jumped up and said, ‘what is the matter, Jim, are you sick?’

Jim said, ‘NO, I am not sick.’ We followed him into the house. He started pulling money out of his pocket. The bed was covered with one dollar bills. Mama asked Jim if he had robbed a bank. Jim replied that he had not robbed a bank but had borrowed $100 from the bank with which he was going to buy a car.

He told Mama that Cleve knew a man who had a ‘T’ Model Ford for sale for $100 and that he was going to buy it. They went walking down the street They came back about an hour later with Jim driving the car. Cleve was sitting beside him telling him what to do. That was the only driving instruction Jim ever had.

Now we have electric lights and a car. We are getting up in the world!”

Check next week as we continue the story of Eugene Livingston and Mill Village.


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