Private Investment Is the Answer to Declining Postindustrial Towns
My town, Tallassee, Alabama, is an old mill town. It straddles the Tallapoosa River, which is dammed at that point by the Thurlow Dam to generate electricity. On both sides of the river are the ruins of a massive complex of textile mills which employed a significant portion of the town’s population until 2005. In fact, the current mayor, Johnny Hammock, worked in the mills as a young man, and his father and grandfather also worked there. Today, the town is somewhat stagnant: some of the mills, which were burned in a massive fire in 2016, are in shambles; the bridge connecting the two sides of the town is rusty and the paint flakes off in the wind; and there are many empty storefronts and houses. Many people think that the way to restore the town is for the government to take an aggressive role, and one of the mayor’s main strategies has been to apply for grants to undertake the projects that he thinks would benefit the town most. In light of this approach, it is important to take a look at how Tallassee developed into the bustling little city it once was. Private industry had a strong hand in the town’s development.
Tallassee is one of many examples of towns that were developed by private industry. Although large landholders and small-scale businesses contributed to the town’s development, arguably the most significant changes were spurred by the cotton mills. The Tallassee Manufacturing Company built the first mill on the west side of the river in 1844.1 It constructed a larger, four-story mill nearby in 1852. In this early period, the company also built “grist and flour mills, a gin, a sawmill, a foundry, and a blacksmith shop” to serve its employees (many part-time farmers) and local people.2 These mills were powered by electricity generated by a dam that the company had built partway across the river.3
In the earliest years of the mills’ existence, before 1850, Tallassee was a hamlet with a few stores and plain, unpainted log houses.4 As the operation grew, however, the mills undertook the development of a local infrastructure. A third mill was built on the east side of the river in 1897. In the 1890s, the company created a new division and built a railroad to connect the town to the Western Railway of Alabama, which made the town less isolated than before. To power its growing operation, it also built a larger dam, this time spanning the whole river, and a new power plant, which also lit other businesses, the streets, and a few select residences.5 Unfortunately, in 1916, the Alabama Power Company, a state utility, took the mills to the Supreme Court for its rights to the land and water, seeking to build its own dam at the location, and the court ruled hydroelectric power manufacture a public use of property, opening the structure to eminent domain. Alabama Power only took over the dam in 1924, however, it and the mills having finally agreed to share the electricity generated at the Tallassee Falls the year before.6
The company also built a bridge across the river in 1896 to connect the west mills to the new mill it was going to build on the east bank of the river. Although a covered bridge had existed a mile downriver, built privately in 1845 by John H. McKenzie (in fact, he bequeathed the bridge and all toll proceeds from it to his daughter as part of her dowry), this bridge had collapsed of old age in 1863 and had not been replaced.7 For decades, the only way to cross the river to the other side of town was by a ferry that was pulled across the river by a cable. The ferry was maintained by the mills but operated by “Old George.”8 When the mills undertook to build the bridge, the State of Alabama “relieved and released [the company] from all penalties now provided by law for failing hereafter to maintain and operate said ferry.”9
The bridge, of course, was built to make it easier for the company to receive materials and transport goods, but it was also a boon to the community. The company allowed people associated with the company to cross for free, as well as people transporting cotton, the company’s key raw material. Everyone else paid a toll, and the company used the proceeds to maintain the bridge. Unfortunately, the state quickly encroached on private infrastructure. After protests that the tolls were too high, the judge probate of Tallapoosa County (where the east side of town is) claimed the power to control toll rates, and the state legislature backed him on it. Market pricing was snuffed out after an appeal before the Supreme Court of Alabama failed in 1909.10 Although the company had tried to sell off the bridge in 1908—who wouldn’t?—the county commissioners, so helpfully forcing nonsensically low toll rates on the true owners of the bridge, could not afford to purchase it outright. The tolls remained. After 1925, the company continued to maintain the bridge, but the people indirectly paid the company a rental fee to use the bridge through their counties instead.11
In the 1920s, the mills, by this time incorporated as Mount Vernon-Woodberry Mills, embarked on a new spate of updates to the mills and “the villages” (the developments on either side of the river, which were each complete with a company store, housing, and increasing amenities over time12). In 1923, a new bridge replaced the temporary 1920 bridge, which had been built after a flood damaged the old bridge in 1919.13 The mills also built “the Mt. Vernon Theater, the school buildings, the Community Hospital, and the . . . Guest House.”14 At least as late as the 1940s, the mills maintained the town’s water su
Article from Mises Wire