The accounts of the “Great Western Land Pirate”, John A. Murrell are enough to fill many, many pages. A story built out of legend and exaggeration from fact, here is the condensed story.
Murrell planned his own outlaw empire with New Orleans as his capital and himself as king. With a gang of followers labeled the Mystic Clan, Murrel and his gang were robbers, counterfeiters, horse-thieves, and slave stealers. When stealing slaves, Murrell would present them with a proposal: he would steal them from their current masters, sell them three or four times, and give them freedom in the North. But, once the scam became too well known, Murrell would instead murder them. The process Murrell and his clan used when disposing of evidence was gruesome. They ripped open their victim’s belly and took out the entrails, replacing them with rocks and sunk them in rivers & creeks.
Captured by a slave in Florence near Cypress Creek (and memorialized by a local historical marker), Murrell was sentenced to jail. Murrell died nine months after leaving prison, and parts of his body were said to have been dug up and stolen. His skull is still missing, but one of his thumbs is in the possession of the Tennessee State Museum.
This editorial cartoon was featured in the April 13, 1933 issue of the New York World-Telegram newspaper. It shows a well-dressed fat man (labeled “Power Trust”) weeping into his handkerchief, a rolled-up piece of paper labeled “Plans” at his side. Behind him looms a huge dam bearing an American flag and a sign reading “Government Operation of Wilson Dam, Muscle Shoals.” In April 1933, President Roosevelt reversed the policy of his Republican predecessors and asked Congress to approve, not only the government operation of the Muscle Shoals Dam (built by the government during World War I), but also the establishment of a Tennessee Valley Authority. Private power interests, who had hoped to acquire the dam for a nominal sum, were outraged.
In the 1800s, before cars had been invented, one way people got around was in wagons. Florence had several wagon and buggy manufacturing companies throughout the 19th century (most pre-1870). But the biggest and most famous of them was the Florence Wagon Co.
The Florence Wagon Factory came to East Florence, Alabama, from Atlanta, Georgia at the height of Florence’s industrial boom in 1889. At the time it was one of about sixty plants and businesses located in the booming city.
Founded by Dr. Alfred David Bellamy (1847-1913), a native New Yorker from Georgia, its first president, the plant quickly grew to be the second largest wagon manufactory in North America, second only to the Studebaker Company.
Bellamy graduated from medical school in Chicago, but had to quit his practice in Atlanta after his hearing went bad. He then founded a wagon factory in Atlanta. The Doctor relocated it to Florence in 1889 because of the nearby timber forests, the Tennessee River and the railroad. It was cheaper to ship from Florence than Atlanta.
Besides building a wide range of “Light Running Florence” wagons, including its famous Farmer’s Handy Wagon, it also manufactured and sold buggies through its subsidiary the Florence Vehicle Company, and, in its later years as demands for wagons decreased, began producing lawn furniture; the company also did job machine work, as well as planing, matching and dressing lumber, and according to the Florence Herald by June of 1889 employed 200 wheelwrights, blacksmiths, painters and mechanics. By February of 1890 the factory work force had decreased to only 75 hands. Only nine moths later, in October of 1890, the company roster had increased to 125 hands. By January of 1897 a force of 160 hands was at work; by February of 1907 the Florence Times reported a force of 250 hands. However by September of 1933, at height of the Great Depression, the number of hands had decreased to just 30.
The Herald reported in January of 1890 that the Factory’s second shipment of 75 wagons had just left for Atlanta, to be followed every few days by further shipments. In February of 1892 the factory received 150 orders for wagons, fifty of which were destined for Florida. In September of 1894 the factory shipped 528 wagons. By 1897, its annual productivity was 6,000 wagons-this would later increase to 15,000. By about 1900 it was turning out 20-25 wagons a day.
Supposedly the second-largest wagon manufactory in North America (second only to Studebaker) and located on the Tennessee River, the plant had its own steamboat landing and railroad spur, dry house and lumber yard. The Wagon Factory also issued its own scrip (company money). Also the company had its own brass band, a company baseball team called the Wood Sawyers, an employee newspaper called The Florence Wagging Tongue, a Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), a library for the employees founded and stocked by Dr. Bellamy, as well as a commissary (restaurant), a Sunday school, “the Club House Sunday School,” founded by Mrs. Hamaker, wife of Supt. Hamaker, separate housing for black and white employees, a water tower (moved from Handy’s Hill in West Florence, in 1893), and its own fire department. In 1893 an Employees Improvement Association (E. I. A.) was founded which held dances, contests and other fundraisers, including raising money to take care of sick employees.
The plant had the most up-to-date equipment available, including a large Hamilton Corliss engine and an indoor sprinkler system added in 1901. In October of 1894 electric lights were installed; by February of 1896 five telephones had been installed in the various different departments and in May of 1900 a “rapid roller copying machine” for copying letters on a long roll of paper was added, along with an “addressograph for addressing company letters.
In 1905 the company founded a subsidiary company, the Florence Vehicle Company, whose offices and show room were on the ground floor of the old Florence Hotel building, built ca. 1884, which building still exists and is now 111 South Court Street. The Vehicle Company served as a retail outlet for the company’s wagons and buggies.
By 1906, 2 1-8 red hickory wagon with seat and no brake cost $26. A delivery wagon on a 1 1-4 solid steel axle with any firm name lettered on the side at no extra cost was $65. A 2 3-4 wagon complete with spring seat and gear brake was $57.50 and a 2 1-8 Florence with spring seat, no brake cost $30.50. A 3 1-4 log wagon with 3 inch tires cost $90.
During WWI the company built wagons for the US Army Expedition to France. Prior to this, it had shipped orders of wagons to several oversees locations and foreign countries, including Hawaii, Puerto Rico, India, South Africa, Russia, and Mexico.
After the invention of cars as demand for wagons decreased in the 1920s and 30s, the factory wasn’t able to diversify and eventually relocated to North Carolina in the 1940s. The Florence Wagon Club exists to honor the memory of this Florence industry. Each May the club holds a Wagon Works Festival at McFarland Park at which restored Florence Wagons are displayed and tribute is paid to the men and women of the Florence Wagon Company who, during its over fifty years of loyal service, made “Light Running Florence” a household word.
The Florence plant was bought in April of 1941 by the firm of Trenholm & Starr, Inc., of Chattanooga, Tennessee, which operated cotton warehouses. The new owners planned to use the plant for some type of national defense purposes during WWII, which they never actually did. The last remnants of the company were purchased and relocated to Hickory, North Carolina, along with some of the employees.
In the late Spring of 1926, a new creamery called the Florence Milk Company was established. Organized out of five separate dairies which were: Clear Creek Dairy Farms, Springdale Dairy, Sweetwater Dairy, Meadow Brook Dairy, and Young Bros. Dairy.
Before this merger, each individual dairy delivered milk to local people’s doorsteps independently. They each had their own clientele. The organization into the Florence Milk Company was a way to expand the local milk deliver business for each of this farms without having to expand their farms bigger than they could manage. The customers would get a higher quality product, and better customer service this way. Each individual dairy would still maintain their regular herd of cattle and continue to furnish a strict, quality product of Grade A raw milk. Instead of delivering their milk to homes, however, they began to sell their entire output of milk to the Florence Milk Company.
The Florence Milk Company’s creamery business was equipped with the most modern machinery that money could buy. They claimed themselves as the most modern creamery anywhere in the country. The plant, at the time, was the only one in the country that handled only Grade A Pasteurized raw milk and was under constant supervision of the United States Government.The Florence Milk Company’s plant averaged over 350 gallons of milk every day, but held a maximum capacity of 1,500 gallons daily. The Florence Milk Company also made and sold over a thousand pounds of butter per week.
Billed as the biggest opportunity North Alabama ever saw, Allentown was to become a new industrial development powered completely by hydro-electric power from two dams built on Cypress Creek. The “City Without A Chimney”, read a tagline used in all advertisements. The basis of Allentown was to be cheap electric power, water transportation, entrancing landscape scenery, and unrivaled sites for manufacturing industries.
Incorporated on September 23, 1914 with a capital stock of $200,000 (nearly $4.7 million in today’s dollars), Allentown Power Company’s plan was to develop the water power on Cypress Creek, subdivide the land and to build two hydro-electric power plants. Col. N.F. Thompson of Birmingham was president, and T.W. Pratt of Huntsville was vice president. The company operated out of the ground floor of the Jefferson Hotel in downtown Florence. The next month, however, would see the resignation of both gentlemen (a likely sign of Allentown’s future failure) with Mr. Sloan Jacobs of Birmingham being elected as president and Mr. Alan L. Jemison, also of Birmingham, elected as vice president.
Surveyed by the Kelley Company out of Birmingham, the proposed tract of land measured in a straight line from north to south, two miles, and from east to west over two and a half miles. Allentown encompassed more than 1,000 acres over a total of five square miles which were subdivided into 6,500 lots. The unusual winding of Cypress Creek provided Allentown with a water line that was just over seven miles long. That not only meant that prospective Allentown citizens would have a choice of the most wonderfully beautiful waterfront property, but also a sizable amount of water for the hydro-electric plant. A dam that was 410 feet long and 42 feet high was to convert Cypress Creek above the dam into a beautiful, wide lake over 1,000 feet wide and over 4 miles long and a slightly narrower width for three more miles.
The Cypress Creek lake in Allentown was to be marketed as a must-see destination for boaters, canoeing, fishing, hunting and recreation of all sorts. They hoped to attract tourists from all across the country to camp, picnic, and relax in this lush new paradise. Wildwood Park at the time would have been expanded with a new harbor to dock the boats and other watercraft.
Not long after the announcement of such a wondrous new town, the “City without a chimney” already had over 50 local Florence residents who announced their intentions to move into Allentown. Such good news led those involved to say that they wouldn’t have to send invitations for residents, but would rather be able to eliminate from the inundation of requests and pick out only the best citizens for Allentown.
In mid-December of 1915, the Allentown Land Company held a two-day auction event to sell lots from the central section of Allentown. In the days leading up to this spectacle, the grounds were meticulously cleaned. Trees were whitewashed and trimmed, the streets were laid off with several of the more important streets having been graded too. The lots were all marked out, and each lot would be sold from a big wagon driven upon the lot itself. The famous Irish “Twin Auctioneers” called the Gaffney Brothers were brought in to wow the crowd with synchronized auction calling. A brass band playing only the best music paraded the streets of Sheffield and Tuscumbia leading a large crowd back to Allentown on street cars. After several speeches (including some from the current Governor as well as ex-governor O’Neal), the bidding started and didn’t let up until late in the afternoon. Almost immediately, 40 lots were bought up by excited new residents. The first lot was sold to Mr. M.P. Johnson of Iuka, Mississippi. A free lot was given as a prize and won by Mr. L. Rickard of Florence. Every 30 minutes more prizes were given out to the crowd of people.
Although day two of the auction had to be postponed for 3 days due to a wet and dreary day, the construction crew still got out there early in the morning for the installation of their turbine and generator. They had the lights on in Allentown at exactly 11:44 a.m. The small crowd of around 100 people who braved the rain gave a loud cheer as Allentown was lit for the first time by their own hydro-electric power from Cypress Creek.
Despite the large spectacle, a handful of pre-sold lots, and plenty of national marketing Allentown never came to full fruition. The result of corporate mergers, litigations, and lawsuits, Allentown was never meant to be. The main lawsuit made it all the way to the Alabama Supreme Court on November 28, 1918. Allentown Power Company had consolidated with the Lauderdale Power Company and its proprietors were sued for failing to begin work on the development of the water power necessary to power Allentown.
The original contract was signed on July 3, 1914. The power company called for a time extension for the completion of work and the contract was modified to show that extension 4 separate times into November of that same year. Lots of back and forth between parties finally resulted in an agreement to separate the water power from the other interests in the lands. It was also agreed that if the power company failed to make payment for their option to develop water power on the property within 50 days, that the contract would be void. That payment was never made. The landowner did what he reasonably could to enable Lauderdale Power Company and their associates to make the purchase; and then, when his patience was apparently exhausted, and after the expiration of all extended time limits, he gave the option to a different party.
It is true that a crude, temporary small electric power plant was constructed by the power company, but the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that this did not constitute ‘for continuous development of the water power.’ Without hydro-electric power, the “City without a chimney” could never come to fruition.