This post was a century in the making

Water is the predominant geographical feature of the area where all of my family live. I didn’t grow up there, but I understand the story of the Tennessee River. It dips down into the northern part of Alabama, creating a topography that has defined generations and generations of people that lived there. The Tennessee River forms near Knoxville, Tennessee and flows to the southwest, into Alabama, before looping back up, helping form the Alabama-Mississippi-Tennessee borders and then heading on up to Kentucky.

The Yuchi tribe, the Alibamu and the Coushatta, and maybe some other members of the Muscogee Creek Confederacy lived their lives on it. They called it the Singing River. White people moved in and, a little over two hundred years ago, Alabama became a territory, in 1817, and then a state in 1819. Some of my ancestors were among the first white people into the area, some even before the Native Americans were forcibly displaced. They became hardscrabble dirt farmers, for the most part. Agriculture and water transit came to define this era, but even then the shipping was difficult. The Muscle Shoals were the problem. It was shallow and swift and turbulent. It typified the area for generations. Predominant geographical features figure into everything.

Then the Great War came.

There was a worry that the Imperial German Navy would cut off shipments of nitrates from South America. Nitrates make explosives. Things that go boom are important for the military. So the National Defense Act of 1916 called for nitrate plants. Hydroelectric power would run them and the U.S. could produce its own nitrates. Muscle Shoals was understood to have the greatest hydroelectric potential east of the Rockies.

So in 1918 they started building a dam.

We’ve driven over it, jogged over it, fished underneath it, taken photographs of it, watched the ships pass through the locks and dined above it. During the build it became it’s own city, employing thousands, and had a school, barbershops, a hospital and more than a hundred miles of sewage lines. But the war ended before the construction did. And the soon-to-be named Wilson Dam didn’t contribute to the war effort.

It wasn’t finished until 1924 and began generating power in 1925. The promise of that hydroelectric power is what we’re looking at today, and, indeed, in 1921, it was full of potential. So we go to a now century old edition of The Florence Herald.

The Herald began publishing in the 1880s and ran at least until the mid-1960s. In fact that Spillway graphic above is from a 1950s edition of the paper. It was a regular feature of the weekly paper, because predominant geographical features figure into everything. And people from far away take notice, as we shall see.

Henry Ford, yep, that one, wanted to buy in. He was interested in hydroelectric power, too, and dreamed of buying up the area and building factories for his own empire. It was the big news in mid-July, 1921.

But Ford wasn’t the only suitor.

“The publication this morning of the effort of Mr. Ford to acquire Muscle Shoals, followed by the development that several other individuals or corporations would likewise acquire the property, is taken to mean by Alabamians in Congress that Muscle Shoals, instead of being a corpse, is indeed a very live proposition.”

Because the news was coming in so fast the local weekly was having difficulty agreeing with itself, but inside there’s a several-days-old story that gives us more context, and a none-too-subtle bit of cheerleading. Excuse the hasty redesign I’ve made here. Long newspaper columns aren’t always conducive to the web.

There are little unsigned blurbs and letters like this all over this edition of the paper.

And that was the prevailing opinion of the day. That’s the story I always heard. The area was going to be a little Detroit. Roads were laid out and named to mimic the Motor City. Even the advertisements were cheering for Henry Ford.

But a U.S. senator from Nebraska, George Norris, had other plans. He thought the half-finished dam should stay under public management. The debate ran as the river flowed, for about a decade. The dam was completed and Henry Ford bowed out in 1924. The debate continued until the Depression, FDR, and until the TVA was born and took over. Predominant political structures figure into a great deal, too.

Even today you can drive through areas where there are rough old roads named after streets in Detroit, laid out in anticipation of the failed Ford deal. Nothing has ever been built on them.

Speaking of advertisements, here are a few more from that issue of The Herald. “We can’t be particular and so the little girl was smart to shop here, where we can’t be particular about our candy.”

Benjamin Luna was a longtime merchant in the area. He died at his home in 1956.

His wife, Adele Luna, shows up in the paper well into the 1960s. Quite the social figure, her name often appears under that Spillway graphic. She passed away in 1982. They had two daughters and a son. One of the daughters died just last year having lived just shy of 101 years. It was a full life, some 80-years of it right there in the Shoals.

I wonder what she thought about the lamb.

Hard to imagine ads explaining how your phone works, isn’t it?

But easy to imagine the phone companies would like you to spend some long-distance money with them. At least we have this advertisement here to explain long distance rates to younger readers.

This is the last advertisement in the June 15, 1921 Florence Herald. W.I. Swain started his business over in Mississippi in 1910. He was still touring at least through 1931.

Stand where he set up his tents for this show, you could see the river. Predominant geographical features figure into everything.

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