Today I learned that Henry Ford wanted to turn Muscle Shoals, Alabama into the Detroit of the South.
A few months ago I found out that in 1926, E.T. Leech, the editor of the Birmingham Post, wrote a serialized love story of Vulcan and Electra under the pen name Dr. B.U.L. Conner. Vulcan, of course, being Birmingham’s famous iron statue who now stands atop Red Mountain, and Electra being the golden goddess atop the Alabama Power building downtown. I feel as though Electra is less famous than Vulcan, but when she was completed and placed on the building in 1926, E.T. Leech decided that two giant statues in one city made for one compelling romance.
The quick little stories are very tongue-in-cheek, making references to current events (blaming Birmingham’s pothole problem on Vulcan’s sprint from the Fair Grounds to meet Electra after midnight, for example) and operating under a typical “battle of the sexes” structure. But as someone who is very interested in my city’s history, it was a wonderful read (and a little saucy at times!).
A lot of the little references and digs were familiar to me, but a lot of them weren’t; thankfully, BhamWiki transcribed the stories from the microfilm at Birmingham Public Library and added contextual notes. This is where the bit about Henry Ford came from.
Evidently, the Federal government wanted to take over Alabama Power’s Gorgas Steam Plant, a coal-powered power plant still in operation today, then turn it over to Henry Ford. The Gorgas Steam Plant was built to support Wilson Dam, which is why it was of particular interest to Ford.
In 1921 the dam was unfinished, but Ford had a vision of purchasing it and two nitrate plants from the government, doing for north Alabama what he did for Detroit with nitrate fertilizer instead of automobiles. He announced a plan to build a 75-mile city and bring one million jobs to the sleepy, rural area.
This dream never came to fruition, but even just hearing about it, people flocked to the area. They built schools, roads, and sidewalks, placed pipes and streetlamps, created suburbs. People of the valley were preparing to become rich. But some members of Congress, apparently the loudest being Senator George Norris of Nebraska, fought to keep the dam a federal property.
Ford may have won out eventually, but he got tired of the fight. People in the area were furious, blaming Norris for robbing them of their fortunes. Though the dam became operational eventually, the seeds of Ford’s ideas ending up as part of the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, it’s easy to wonder what difference it could have made to turn the dam over to private hands.
Alabama is full of these kinds of stories; investments that could have brought millions of jobs and large revenues wasted, grand buildings destroyed, growth opportunities squashed because of squabbling, private interest, corruption, or whatever else. I don’t know if this is one of those things or not; I don’t know enough about economies, really, or even of north Alabama’s economy, to say. It’s strange to be here and be torn between private and public, big vs. small government. For a place where the people are so averse to anything even whispering of socialism and blame federal oversight on the plight of industry in this state, it still depends on federal help quite heavily, the TVA being just one example.
Nothing will teach you about cognitive dissonance quite like living in a modern city in a Southern state, where you find yourself immediately within the bounds of construction, progress, and bustle but also wholly and irrefutably surrounded by the rural—land and the people who work with it and live in it. You find yourself pressured to take sides between two worlds perpetually at odds, yet contained in one state. Even when we disagree most vehemently, we love the same land.
While frustrating, it makes for great mental exercise. I’d honestly recommend it.