Tuesday, February 26, 2013

At The Intersection of Middle & Nowhere

I have come to see that Alabama is a much bigger
state than I ever realized. In terms of relative size it's only 30th nationwide, coming in at 52,423 sq. miles. But when you're driving it and go a good long stretch of nothing you soon figure that out. I'm quite happy to have Cato along. Not because he's a good talker. Actually I'm so focused on my task that I'm glad he's good company without actually having to be entertained.

Now many of you from Limestone or western Madison county will recognize the lake to the left. A friend told me about it and it took a little investigative work to locate it but it's still there. I remember Hatfield Lake but never went. Walking around the place made me think of images I've seen of the amusement park at Chernobyl. It's kinda eerie seeing it now and imagining its former life during the lazy summer days of one's youth.

In the course of my travels I will see the occasional thing that suits my fancy. Just a single building at a crossroads. A monument to commerce that once was. Not enough to do a big write up. Just a single structure that tells just a tiny part of our past. Occasionally someone will stop and ask what I'm doing. Now, when I was in TV, and shooting something quite obvious (meaning newsworthy) I would find myself fighting off the urge to be sarcastic. Not because I wanted to be mean. No, sometimes I would scratch my head why people would ask what I perceived to be blatantly obvious. But now I see inquiring minds as potential sources of information. And many will at least have some recollection of the subject at hand. The bad thing is much of what I see is left to my imagination. The sign to the right. Edward's Used cars. I found this in Marion. Marion is the county seat of Perry County. Not to be confused with Marion County who's (or is it whose?) county seat is Hamilton. I drove around Marion a bit and found many abandoned houses. I debated shooting those but didn't find them particularly interesting. But the car lot sign was different. No cars. No building. Nothing but weeds and a sign. It's things like this that define Forgotten Alabama for me.

The old football field was a real prize in my quest. It's the only one I've ever seen. Home of the Purple Devils. How's that for a unique mascot? I spotted this years ago while working and knew one day I would be back. What I found unusual is that nothing has changed. It looks exactly the same as I recall it six or seven years ago. Over the course of my travels a few things I remember seeing are now long gone. I was quite happy to see this place still intact.

 Welcome to Sulphur Springs. Population....actually I don't know. In fact I never even saw a sign. Just this little Mom & Pop grocery store at a crossroads.
I think this is western Calhoun County but it doesn't show on any map I've seen so far.

The sign on the right is from Gasoline Alley in northern Morgan County. It was known at one time to be the place to go to save a few pennies on gas. I suppose because the county tax was cheaper than neighboring Madison County. I remember many a trip my Dad would take here back in the 1960's to save a few cents a gallon for gas. Now that I think about it I seriously wonder the wisdom in that. I'm old enough to remember gas costing 24.9 a gallon. We would drive from Sherwood Park in west Huntsville all the way here and back. So, guessing here of course, I figure that was a 40 mile round trip. And he couldn't have been saving more than 2 or 3 cents a gallon. So if we were bone dry he would have saved at best about 75 cents. Now figure in lost time (at least an hour and a half) plus gas used to get there and back (around three gallons in the old Chevy wagon) I'm thinking this was a losing proposition. But he was an engineer. What did I know? ;-)

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Every Once in a While I Find Gold...Relatively Speaking

I finally made it to one of my crown jewels. A place I've wanted to shoot for years. I had seen it at least a hundred times over the course of my life with Channel 13. You couldn't miss it. This sprawling industrial complex under the overpass as you crossed out of Ensley on your way to Birmingport. It was known as the Tennessee Coal & Iron Company. Being a student of history, TCI's history is actually quite fascinating. According to Wikipedia, it, at one time, was the second largest steel producer in the US employing as many as 45,000 at its peak during WWII. While it originally started in Tennessee it eventually moved its headquarters to Birmingham but kept its original name. TCI started many company towns including Ensley (named after company president Enoch Ensley), Corey (later renamed Fairfield), Docena, and Edgewater. It was merged with US Steel in 1907 through some interesting back room deals involving Teddy Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan and was one of the first 12 companies listed on the inaugural Dow Jones Industrial Average in 1896.
Furnace of the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and
Railroad Company, Ensley, Alabama, 1906.
Furnaces at the Ensley Plant
I "borrowed" the images above from Wikipedia but turns out (I didn't know this) that since they were taken prior to 1923 they're considered public domain.

To say this place was big doesn't do it justice. By the time I had finished two hours later I must have walked close to three miles. That included a great deal of dead kudzu and broken terrain. I couldn't imagine how massive it must have been in its day not to mention how noisy it had to be.

600 Ton Molten Metal Mixer
The molten metal mixer on the right. You'll laugh but I always thought it was kind of creepy. I saw this as some alien with two eyes and ears and a metal face. Kinda cyborg like just staring at you before it decides to vaporize you because...well...it didn't need a reason. Reminds me of my childhood  innocence when I watched horror movies. I can trace my abject fear of scorpions to a Mexican horror movie. Funny the things we retain throughout our lives.

I had mentioned I wanted to shoot this place for some time to a photographer friend I had met online. He had been there before and had some beautiful shots. As I have come to discover, I am just one of many who shoot the things I do. I like to think I have a unique niche but we photog types all like to think we're the first to do whatever it is we do. And we all our fairly protective of our turf. I won't mention his name because I didn't ask but I will say he offered me some good tips about shooting this. What to look for and what to avoid. And to leave Cato home for this trip. Turns out there's some mighty deep manholes and I might lose a cat. It was creepy enough being here in broad daylight wondering what I might run into here as it is. I didn't need to be minding a curious cat who might fall into some hole and hurt himself and me not being able to find him. I have to admit I've grown very attached to him and I would hate for anything to happen to him.

You know, I had not planned on writing a lot for this blog. I wanted to do more pictures because I was excited to be here. If you only knew how many times I passed over this place and wanted to shoot it. Ten years at least. Maybe more. The locomotive was my magnet. As I have stated before I love trains. The old ALCO switcher at left was calling my name. Really! It was begging me to shoot it before it returned to the earth from whence it came. It was really fun climbing up on it and being in it. Seeing the old gauges and controls. Imagining the hard life it must have had. I often wondered how it came to rest where it did. Did it just die right where it sat and the company just abandoned it? In a funny sort of way I felt sorry for it. Old #5 gave its all for the company and now sits as a rusting memorial to the once great Tennessee Coal & iron Company.

My source and keep in mind it's Wikipedia so most likely factual but you never know... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tennessee_Coal,_Iron_and_Railroad_Company

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Little House on a Hill

I remember this day. Not sure why really. A cool, crisp and quite sunny day in late January. Another one of those "Let's burn through a lotta gas and hope we get lucky" days. I found myself in Weogufka, Alabama. I had seen the turnoff from some highway somewhere. I don't know. Maybe Highway 280. There's not a lot there really. Just a crossroads with a single active store called Caperton's Old South General Store and Pawn Shop. It's an interesting little place and surprisingly busy for being...well, not gonna say the middle of nowhere. We'll just say a remote outpost in southern Coosa County. I inquired of the owner if he knew of anything in the area. Things I'm looking for. He made sure I knew they use everything there and why would anyone care about old abandoned things? I thanked him for his time and headed off still with no idea where to go. Heading north on Hwy 29 I saw a sign for Marbletown. Well that's an interesting name. Too bad it doesn't exist. I've seen this several times. The state will leave a sign up for some place that doesn't exist anymore and I can only assume the locals will still know. So you know, I did search Google maps but that was no help. 

 Now you may ask. Why am I saying all this? Good question for which I have no real answer. Well, that's not exactly true. As I said earlier I was on my way to Marbletown when I saw the little house on the hill.

It was...well...is remarkably intact. But this house has something going for it that I suspect few houses anywhere do. Imagine life 70 years ago when there was no Walmart. Or grocery store. Or hardware store. No civilization of any kind really. I'm not saying nothing within 100 miles of course. But when a trip to town was a major event. This was a time when you learned to be self-sufficient. Lived off the land and prepared for anything. And this place had pretty much everything. There was a well so you always had water. And lots of storage. And stored food. I have no idea how long it had been there. Needless to say I was stunned when I saw the canned fruits still intact in their Mason Jars. Preserved for years. They looked as though you could open any one of them and have something to eat. So you know, I didn't touch them. Who knows how long they've been sitting here exposed to many a cold winter followed a scorching Alabama summer.  But it was truly remarkable seeing this preserved moment in time.

There were several out buildings here. Nothing that resembled a barn really. Jut mostly storage buildings. The lock at the right served a purpose at one time keeping out anyone who might help themselves. What you don't see is that the structure is mostly gone. I just liked it because it made a cool picture. The outhouse above is in really good condition. Yes I opened the door and looked inside. Half way expected to see corn cobs or an old Sears catalog. Nope. Just a wooden bench with the appropriate opening.

The interior was a mixture of very good to very poor condition. There was no kitchen to speak of. It did have electricity at one time but even that was quite a long time ago. There was a double fireplace in the middle of the house. It faced the front room and the bedroom behind it  both sharing a common flue. I'm betting it made the whole house fairly warm. At least i hope so since there was no such thing as insulation in any wall I saw. There was even some old clothing hanging on the wall of the bedroom. I suppose what the Sears catalog had to offer in 1953.

As I walked through this property it seemed a bit surreal. Why was the canned fruit still there? Why didn't the jars freeze and break? Why was that dress still hanging on the wall? The outhouse. It was in remarkably good condition. It was as if much of this was frozen in time. Like the junkyard I mentioned in my first blog. As if it was abandoned in 1965 and time stood still. 

I love what I do. Who knew things like this still existed?

While I was there I heard a rifle go off in the distance. Funny thing is I didn't give it a second thought. It was near the end of deer hunting season and the the numerous trucks I saw parked just off the road told me the woods were alive with hunters. All part of living in Alabama. A gun shot in the woods doesn't even phase me.

My last picture was my adventure of the day. I told Mr Garmin I wanted to go to Clanton and this is the way it sent me. Yep, this is a real road and I will "assume" maintained by Coosa County. 6.2 miles of mud. And yeah, there was some places that called for a running start and don't stop or you're screwed. Happy I own a truck and have a little experience driving in questionable conditions...

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Random Pics, Random Thoughts, Vol II

I've been doing my little project for about five weeks. And, as I have come to discover, there are many things that meet my criteria but don't really rate more than a picture or two. I see many abandoned houses but I can only show so many before I realize I'm showing too much of the same thing. Uniqueness has taken on a new meaning. There's only so many gas stations or abandoned cars I can shoot before I start to think I'm losing my focus. And, on a selfish note, I see a lot of the same thing and feel like I'm not getting a good variety. It's funny in a way. When I'm out shooting I become ravenous in an odd sort of way. And more critical. Dang. Another abandoned farmhouse that looks...well...pretty similar to the one I saw 12 miles ago. So I plod on in search of the unique. In the course of my travels I have taken over a thousand pictures. Don't read too much in that. I'm a lazy perfectionist. Yes I know that sounds like a paradox but indulge me. I'll go to a lot of trouble to get something I see as worth shooting.
And then once I find my quarry I'll take a dozen shots...maybe more. No, I don't like that framing or the light was wrong or the composition looks odd.  I'll nitpick over a shot endlessly till I'm happy with it.
The lazy part kicks in when I think "Is this really worth climbing over that fence and risk getting shot for a stupid picture?" The answer is, at times, yes.
Then I'll be driving and think to myself I'm running out of winter. And that means the trees will start to bud and the grass with become green and taller. The kudzu will make passage much more difficult. Then I start to pass, both literally and figuratively, things that

meet the criteria but yeah, it's just another old house. Or another closed gas station. Or, well, you get the picture. (pardon the pun...it really was unintentional)
The Stuckey's sign to the left. Gosh I must have driven 50 miles of seeing nothing. The setting sun was not being my friend when there it was on Hwy 31 around Warrior. I haven't seen a Stuckey's sign in quite some time. To be fair, I don't know if that Stuckey's still exists or not but I think it's fair to assume they don't have a 99 cent breakfast anymore. I was going through Ashland, AL when I saw the Kelvinator sign. That was a neat find. It was in decent shape for its age. I've come to notice in bigger cities a business will re-purpose an older but now defunct business's building but refurbish the former establishment's sign. I appreciate that they will spend the money to save it and in the big picture (seriously...not making puns on purpose :-) the old neon signs are art and should be saved. But when they appear as new they conflict me. Yes they represent something that no longer exists but they look all shiny and, well...not old. Nor abandoned. Nor suited to my purpose.

I figure by now I have logged close to 2000 miles. Trust me when I say it hurts filling up my old truck. I usually try and make it a day trip so I can save the lodging expense. However I will attest to the fact the backseat in my club cab truck sleeps pretty well. My last picture made me laugh. I was wandering around Walker County as I had done back when I drove the satellite truck. I recalled some interesting things in my previous travels. One, in particular, was an old gas station just east of Eldridge, AL along old Hwy 78 (Now known as AL 118). Yes I know I lament seeing so many and they all start to look similar. But remember I'm also seeking unique. The humorous part was the price that was still posted. 87.9 cents a gallon. Just another reminder that some things you do because they're your passion. It's just my passion costs $3.45 a gallon now...

Monday, February 11, 2013

Last Train to Wadley

In my travels sometimes I need to do research. It's fun to drive around the countryside...till you realize you've gone 60 miles and shot nothing. One thing I've always noticed when I'm researching anything is one link will lead to another then another and so on. Which leads me to how I found the depot in Wadley Alabama. It gets better...well no...it gets worse when you realize I drove literally to within one block of pure gold and didn't see it. Hence why I made a second trip to Wadley. I came in from the north side past the high school. Made it nearly to the main highway when out of the corner of my eye...it was, paraphrasing Darrel Sheets from Storage Wars, the "WOW" factor. I laughed at myself at how I could have missed it. I would blame that on age but no...not seeing the obvious on occasion has plagued me most of my life.

According to the local paper, The Randolph Leader, the Spanish Mission style structure was built in 1907 by the Atlanta, Birmingham and Atlantic Railroad and was added to the National register of Historic Places in 2011. It last operated in 1964. Ironically, it had a twin in nearby Roanoke that burned to the ground in 2006. All the more reason to find these places while they still exist.

It has obviously seen better days but I was amazed at how good the condition was considering it hasn't been active for 49 years. The interior is mostly tongue and groove construction and apparently there was no such thing as insulation. Most of the interior details were long gone but the wood was remarkably well preserved when not directly exposed to the elements. There was broken glass and rotted floors in places. The city apparently uses it for storage judging by the plethora of Christmas light displays strewn through it. That and some miscellaneous utility equipment and two quite odd playground rides sitting outside.

As I walked through it I could almost feel the activity that once must have filled these walls. At the back of the building was the ramp that they carried freight up to to fit into boxcars. Inside on the freight counter there were still shipping documents from REA (Railroad Express Agency) scattered on the counter. It was a little surreal seeing them still there all these many years later. The only thing they could ship now was half a century of dust.

I love trains. Ever since I got my first electric train set when I was 6 years old. I still remember it was the New York Central and had three cars and a caboose. So, as you can imagine I was quiet happy to be here. To take in history. To wonder who was taking the train to where. Back when a four lane highway was an oddity and everyone rode the train to see their friends or family. The steam engine spinning its wheels trying to get traction as it pulled away slowly...smoke billowing everywhere.

I took Cato with me this trip. He's a bit of a handful but not in a bad way. He's a cat and curiosity is his guide. He did get to explore the depot once I was done with what I wanted to do and could keep an eye on him. I'm pretty sure he didn't appreciate this old place like I did but he seemed to enjoy seeing what there was to see. Funny but I could see a cat like him who loved to hang out at the depot. After all they shipped grain among other things. And grain attracts rats and well, rats attract...cats.

As always thank you for giving me a few moments of your time. And for sharing my passion. Comments? Please, if you can spare a minute more, let me know what you think. Good or bad. And if you know of something that you think is worth shooting let me know. My only criteria is abandoned and not being used. Hence the term "Forgotten Alabama".

Source: http://www.therandolphleader.com/news/article_254a6522-b85f-11e0-ae67-001cc4c03286.html

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Wylam? Wy Not?

I did not set out to do Wylam. Not because I didn't want to but because I was after something else. But in order to facilitate that I had to go to Wylam. My trip proved fruitless because I was talking to the wrong person and he advised me the right one would probably not be amenable to my request. So now what? Well turns out Wylam offered its own treasures so it turned into a good day after all. Wylam is another former suburb of Birmingham that got annexed into Birmingham proper. The first thing I found was a series of old power line supports. These had to be 60 or 70 years old. They still do the same thing but even public utilities make things look more modern. I suppose these still stand because they're structurally intact and it probably costs more to take them down than it's worth to leave them be.

The downtown is like so many I have seen before. As I plied the streets of Wylam I was starting to see a recurring theme. The interstate is way over there (points to the south) and with it therein lies commerce. What's left is brick monuments to a bygone era. Oh, some enterprising soul will endeavor a junk store or a barber shop but mostly they stand as vacant reminders of what had to be a vibrant community. The Mom & Pops who made the community hum.
There was the abandoned Alabama National Guard armory. I have seen them like this in the country but rarely do i encounter one in an urban area. What happened to them? Did they disband? Get rolled into other units?

I found some other cool things worth seeing. Well, worth seeing to me and perhaps you if you're still reading this. Wall art. I love wall art. Oh not all of it is as sexy as an old Coca-Cola sign of course. But it is still a written...well painted...reminder of some business's attempt to lure in customers and certainly brightens up an otherwise boring brick wall. The Sistine Chapel it's not. Or even "See Seven States" on a barn. But it's still a document of the past and worth preserving.

One thing I did find quite amusing. Well amusing in that I tripped over it. A street sign a mere 4 inches above the ground. If I had to guess this was all there was many years ago to denote which street is which. So, and of course I'm assuming here, these were designed for people on foot. When getting around in a small community meant walking to the general store or your church was on this or that street. But the good news I suppose is that even dogs and cats don't have to look up. So next time you are in Wylam (btw, you have to make the effort as Wylam is actually a little arduous to get to) make sure and look down so you don't trip over Indiana Street.

Learned an important lesson today. Google Chrome is no panacea. I wrote this entire blog two days ago and  was saving it to post later. Well turns out that's like setting hamburger out to thaw. It's fine for a while but if it sits for too long it goes bad. I tried several times to post but to no avail. So save your blogs on note cards elsewhere or be prepared to reconstruct them from memory. Technology is great...to a point.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Cato Hits the Road

I mentioned in my first blog that I would take Cato along with me. Cato is a cat. But not just any cat you see. I'm his human. Anyone who knows anything about cats will know what I mean. For those of you that don't you don't pick a cat. The cat picks you. I remember our first meeting fondly. I have had cats most of my life...ooops...cats have had me most of my life. Glad he's not looking over my shoulder. I came to meet Cato at the Shelby County Humane Society's shelter last August. I was looking for a furry companion and had my mind set on what I was looking for. And Cato was not that. When I finally told the lady I wanted to see some cats she took Cato out of his cage. He's a tabby. Just an ordinary cat. Or so I thought. We went to the room where pets are matched with potential families. She handed me the little ball of fur and the first thing he did was get up in my face and start licking me, his purr so loud he was almost vibrating. Well, ten seconds of that was all I needed. It was if he was telling me alright daddy...it's time to go home. As the late great Paul Harvey would have said...and now you know the rest of the story.

As winter approached I knew I was itching to get on the road and shoot my pictures. But I wasn't sure how it was going to work with Cato along. Turns out he makes an interesting companion. Oh he sleeps a lot. But then he explores a lot too. My first day out with him was an experience for sure. I had a harness for him and a short leash. Yes I know a leash is a stupid idea but it was my intent to tie him to something and let him explore the world within reach of his leash. Turns out that idea lacked merit. The leash was much too short and it was hard finding something to tie him to so he could move about. It only went downhill from there. Seems his harness was fine in the truck but once he was restrained it became a burden. So much so that when I turned around to see what he was doing I thought he was having a seizure. Nope. That harness had to go. Took him about 15 seconds to wiggle out of it. Completely. So much for that great idea. So things changed a bit. You see, when I stop to shoot something I usually just take a few minutes. So not much time for him to roam and now that I have discovered the harness was a complete failure I wasn't sure what to do.

I did come up with a compromise of sorts. I leave him in the truck and get what I need. Then I take him out and let him play and explore. He's a good boy and doesn't wander too far. But he, like all cats, suffers terribly from what I like to call "Shiny Object" syndrome. Be it a bug or a bird it requires investigation and no, it can't wait. I stay close by so he doesn't get too distracted or at least so I can catch him if his curiosity gets the best of him. I will say he takes time to amuse me...being the benevolent soul he is. When we were coming home last Saturday it started to sprinkle. There is a depressed place on my dashboard just above the glove box (sans gloves if you were curious) where he likes to recline. It's his favorite place to sleep or just hang out. He can watch the world go by at 50 mph and wave at the passing motorists. But on this day I needed to turn on the windshield wipers so I could see. The first time they streaked across the glass I thought he was going to jump out of his fur. It was quite amusing watching him scope out that wiper thingy but at a safe distance. He never would get back on the dashboard. He eventually settled in on the console next to me so he could watch safely and be close to me if I had to protect him.

It's fun to have him along. He can be a bit rambunctious and then he will hide under the seat and I can't find him. It's always an adventure when he's along but to his credit he's a good riding kitty. Wish he could keep good notes though. Well, passable notes. Wish he had opposable (sorry about the spelling and Google was no help) thumbs. Be that as it may he's a good boy and a sweet cat. Every once in a while you find that animal that touches your heart. Cato does that and more. I like being his human...