WHAT’S IN A NAME? City of Valley

Published 2:50 pm Saturday, February 25, 2023

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VALLEY— The communities of Shawmut, Langdale, Fairfax and River View had been long established when they joined together to form the new city of Valley, Alabama in 1980. There are an estimated 890 valleys in the state of Alabama but only one incorporated city named Valley. The name was chosen by a vote of the people in 1980. Many people in the two-state region surrounding the city had for many years referred to the area as “the Valley.” It referred to the Alabama side of the Chattahoochee River’s fall line, a place where a number of dams had been constructed and textile mills were running.

Of Valley’s four communities, the oldest one is River View. People of European ancestry have lived here since the early 1800s. A ferry crossed the river near here. It was an early gateway to the settlement of what would become the state of Alabama. It cost five cents per person, three cents per cow or horse and two cents per chicken to cross this section of river by ferry.

Built by George Houston, the ferry was called the Cave Springs Crossing. In 1832, a school known as the Cave Springs Academy opened for the purpose of educating the children of families that were settling on the Alabama side of the river.

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In the ensuing years, two grist mills were built along this section of river. The one to the south, in present-day River View, was called the Campbell Mill and one to the north Trammell Mill. Small villages grew up around these two mills, the one to the south was called Lower Town and the one to the north Upper Town.

The South’s defeat in the Civil War brought with it much change to the entire region. A well-to-do planter in the southeast corner of Chambers County named George Huguley believed that the South had to transition from only growing cotton to growing and manufacturing it into useful products. He acquired the Campbell Mill and converted it into producing textiles. The same was done with the three-story Trammell Mill at the Upper Town site where Moore’s Creek flows into the Chattahoochee.

On Aug. 2, 1866, Alabama Gov. Robert Patton and Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice William Chilton came to the area to take part in the laying of cornerstones at these two mills.

Lower Town and Upper Town struggled to survive for the next 15 years or so. The villages grew as there was a demand for textile workers, but neither mill could make much of a profit. Both were producing a cheap cloth known as osnaburg. Both mills were hit hard by the Panic of 1873.

In 1880, the two mills were acquired by brothers Lafayette and Ward Crockett Laner, and the West Point Manufacturing Company was born. The Laniers went from producing osnaburg to making duck, an item in much greater demand. They brought in new machinery and hired a father and son from Oldham, England to run the two mills. Willam Lang ran the mill at River View and his dad, Tom Lang, ran the one in Upper Town. The Langs did such good work in running the two mills, that Upper Town changed its name to Langdale. Another member of the family, Tom’s son and William’s brother Ed Lang, would be the first superintendent of Lanett Mill when it opened in 1894.

Langdale survived a major crisis in 1886 when the mill burned to the ground. The column of black smoke that rose from the fire could be seen from as far away as Columbus, some 40 miles to the south. Many people moved away during the period the damage was cleaned up and a new brick building constructed. New families moved in when the mill went back into production.

Riverdale Mill experienced some financial problems and in the early 1890s because involved in a lawsuit over the ownership of the mill. The case went to the Supreme Court before being settled in favor the Laniers and WPMC.

The mill company built churches, schools and community stores. Tenant farm families in the two-state area saw an opportunity to have a better quality of life by moving to the Valley and getting jobs in the mills. River View and Langdale had some really good sports teams over the years. Baseball was king in River View. The team was nicknamed the Rabbits for the speed of their players. At one time, every starting player came from one family. They were called the Milner Nine.

One of the community’s nicknames – Rabbittown – comes from the baseball team. Another nickname is Riv Vu — a quick way to say the name of the town.

In the 1920s, the Langdale High football team was known as the Thundering Herd. In 1925, they set a record that is still recognized by the Alabama High School Athletic Association. They beat Milltown 125-0. It’s still the most lopsided football game in state history.

The stream that flows through the heart of the Langdale community is known as Moore’s Creek. It’s named for William Moore, a pioneer settler of Chambers County who ran a grist mill, trading post and grog shop on its banks. When Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins traveled through the area in 1798, he referred to the creek as O-Soon-A-Wa-Hatchee. In his journal, he also wrote of a larger stream to the south named O-suh-nip-pau.

The small stream that runs alongside Fob James Drive before flowing into Moore’s Creek is often called the Guiney Branch. There was once two baseball teams in Langdale, one named for the town and the other called the Guiney Branch team.

The original course of Moore’s Creek flowed under the mill to the river. In the early 1900s, a canal was dug to direct the water away from the mill. It today runs a course parallel to Highway 29 and under the Iron Bridge to the river. In periods of heavy rain, some water flows through the original channel. 

One of the true treasures in the local area is Langdale Theater. It opened in 1937 on the same day The Hindenburg airship crashed and burned in New Jersey. At one time, every mill village in the Valley had a theater. Langdale Theater is the only one left. People from all over rave about the building’s acoustics and its art deco interior appearance.

The nearby school, theater and memorial park are named in memory of Lafayette Lanier II, who was the superintendent of Langdale Mill before dying at a young age in 1930. Lanier Memorial Hospital (now EAMC-Lanier) opened in 1950 as the first hospital in the U.S. funded by the Hill-Burton Act. It was named for Lafayette Lanier II’s older brother, George H. Lanier.  The gym in Langdale, Sears Hall, is named for Horace Sears, a treasurer for Wellington Sears. He did much to get schools started in the Valley, making sure the schoolhouses were adequately supplied with desks, books, writing supplies and the like.

Moore’s Creek runs through the middle of Langdale. Two four-lane highways, Fob James Drive and Highway 29, cross the creek in Langdale. Two iconic foot bridges. cross the creek in Langdale as well. One of them dates to the 1890s and is believed to have been built by African-American stone masons. It’s now called the Kissin’ (or Sugar) Bridge. Local folk history says it’s called this because of a graduation tradition at Langdale High School. The senior girls would line the bridge and kiss each senior boy on the cheek as they passed by in one-on-one fashion on graduation day.

The Iron Bridge is the last remaining span of the bridge that once crossed the Chattahoochee River in the early 1900s in West Point. Most of the bridge was washed away in the 1919 flood. The one surviving span was later moved to Langdale to cross Moore’s Creek.

When the West Point Manufacturing Company was created in 1880, its main office was in downtown West Point in the three-story Lanier Building. Its two mills were located in River View and Langdale. Both dated to 1866 and had been upgraded to produce cotton duck. The growing company’s first new mill was built in Lanett between 1892 and 1894. It was a brick building consisting of four floors. A second four-floor structure went into production in 1900. They were called Unit One and Unit Two, and each had a mill tower facing newly built Gilmer Avenue.

The company’s next mill went up in 1907-09. It was constructed approximately halfway between the company’s mills at Langdale and Lanett. The mill and its surrounding mill village were first called Midway, but by the time the mill went into production in the fall of 1908, it was called Shawmut. This is a Massachusetts Indian word meaning “living spring.” It was the original name for Boston, Massachusetts. Shawmut, Alabama honors WPMC’s association with its Boston-based sales agency, Wellington Sears.

Shawmut Mill was the company’s first textile mill that was run by electricity from the power grid. The other mills began production either by water power or electricity manufactured by a steam plant in West Point. The surrounding mill village was laid out in a manner similar to Washington, with streets radiating from a central hub known as Shawmut Circle. Located on the center circle were a two-story general store, Baptist and Methodist churches, a theatre, kindergarten and high school.

Like residents throughout the Valley, those who lived in Shawmut were proud of their mill league baseball team, the Shawmut Indians. Their purple and gold colors were carried on for years by Shawmut High and Shawmut Junior High.

The first house that was built in what’s now the Shawmut community went up in 1840. It faced the current location of Highway 29 across from Captain D’s and next to Jack’s. The house had two upstairs rooms, two downstairs rooms and was flanked by two chimneys. Dunlap died in 1852 and was buried near the house. The grave remained there until recent times, when his remains were removed to Bethlehem Cemetery on River Road in Valley.

Shawmut has two major parts of town. The historic mill village area is on the west side of Highway 29, and Todd Addition is on the east side. The mill village dates to 1908, and Todd Addition to the 1930s. The Aug. 1, 1939, edition of The Chattahoochee Valley Times has an article about fast growing Todd Addition. According to the article, this part of Shawmut is named for a family that had lived and farmed this area that’s not far from the river. 

The fourth and final mill village to develop in the Valley is Fairfax. The oldest son of WPMC founder Lafayette Lanier, George H. Lanier began his career in mill management with the Pepperton Mills in Georgia. In 1906, he returned to the Valley to help his ailing father (who died in 1910) run the company. “Mr. George,” as he was affectionately known, had started towel production with Pepperton and wanted to do that with West Point Manufacturing. He had settled on the idea by 1913 and was planning on having a new mill to produce towels and to have a surrounding mill village. Those plans were put on hold with World War I, when the production of duck kept the local mills busy. Construction of a new mill and village took place in 1915 and 1916. The company purchased land between Langdale and River View, and Fairfax rose from what had been a cotton field.

In the 1920s, Fairfax Mill shifted toward towel production. It did that in a big way in 1928 by purchasing the rights to produce Martex towels from brothers A.H. and A.F. Margerison of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Margerisons retired from the business, sold their plant and the manufacture of Martex towels, already a well-known brand, moved South. Fairfax soon became known as Towel City U.S.A.

Along with Fairfax Mill came the development of the Utilization plant. It was here that cotton waste was converted into use in furniture, bedding, automobile seats and many other uses. Something distinctive about Fairfax is a broad avenue known as Boulevard. It was given a special look from the start with lots of trees, shrubs and green grass planted on each side of the road. A church building, kindergarten, three-story general store, theater and elementary school were built on the side opposite the mill.

In the 1930s, Fairfax was chosen as the site for a new consolidated high school. The textile villages of River View, Langdale, Shawmut and Fairfax would send their children to this new school for their high school education. This new school opened in 1939 under the name of Valley Vocational High School. Its nickname was “the Tradesmen.” The school name was shortened to Valley High in the early 1950s and the nickname became Rams.

Lots of changes have been seen in the local area since Valley was incorporated in 1980. Community services that had been provided for years by the mill company are now carried on by the city and the East Alabama Water, Sewer and Fire Protection District. The city provides police protection, has a recreation program and takes care of parks and city streets. Valley is the only city in Chambers County that has ever had more than 10,000 people. It has a mayor-council form of government. Leonard Riley is the mayor, and the council members are Jim Clark, Jim Jones, Randall Maddux, Marquetta Madden, Kendall Andrews, Henry Cooper and Jimmy Gilson.