A little off center in the Heart of Dixie
Nestled in the foothills of southern Appalachia, on the Cumberland Plateau, in the north-central portion of Alabama, lies the little town that I was born in over half a century ago. Jasper has never been much in the way of a center of commerce or urban development, but for me and my fellow Jasperians, it is the place that we come home to; the place where we belong.
Jasper has been around for a long, long, time. The first settlers to locate in the area came here almost 200 years ago, in the first decades of the 19th century, when Walker County was formed from portions of Marion and Tuscaloosa Counties. Dr. Edward Musgrove, who was one of the earliest settlers in the area that would become Jasper, donated the land adjacent to the current town square as a site on which the first county courthouse was built in 1824.
This webpage is a collection of images and anecdotes about the area that I grew up in, that little corner of Walker County, Alabama, that has seen both good times and bad, stood the test of time and endured to tell about it.
I was born in Jasper, Alabama, in the spring of 1966, in the old People's Hospital that stood on the corner of 19th Street and Birmingham Avenue. Peoples Hospital was built as part of a WPA project in 1936 and operated up until the early 1980s. It replaced the old Walker County Hospital built in 1923, which still stands between 11th and 12th Streets along 7th Avenue.
Among my earliest childhood memories are going downtown on Saturdays and shopping at V.J. Elmore's variety store and the old F.W. Woolworth's five and dime that stood along 19th street. I remember the quiet swish of the old ceiling fans that hung over the cash register as you entered the store, and the smell of fresh popcorn and hamburgers from the lunch counter located along one side of the store. At the checkout counter there was a small display selling Mexican jumping-beans. The narrow aisles were crowded with merchandise: artificial flowers, cooking utensils, calico dress fabric, knitting yarn, blue jeans and flannel shirts, and toy cap-guns for would-be cowboys.
In its heyday, downtown Jasper was well-supplied with its share of businesses, most of which have been replaced as office space for local attorneys and city departments, but I can still remember when its sidewalks were crowded with people walking up and down 19th street. In those days, the upper floors above many of the stores were occupied by lawyer's offices and pool-halls.
On the corner of 3rd Avenue and 19th Street stood the old Peoples Drugstore, with its orange and navy blue Rexall sign. Inside you could pick up your prescription, get your film developed, buy a greeting card, magazine, or have a soft drink from the soda fountain. The building that the drugstore was located in was originally built in the late 1800s and at one time housed a saloon upstairs. Sadly, this cornerstone of downtown Jasper burned to the ground in the 1990s and is now a parking lot.
Jasper managed to survive a number of disasters over the years. It was burned down by a troop of Yankee soldiers led by Gen. J.H. Wilson on March 27, 1865, as he led a raid of Union cavalry across the state during the last days of the Civil War. Another fire on December 1, 1920 destroyed many of the town's businesses, and the magnificent old domed courthouse that was built in 1907 burned to the ground on January 12, 1932. It was replaced by the current Walker County courthouse, which itself was damaged along with much of the rest of the town by a tornado that struck on April 3, 1974.
Like many small towns across the country, Jasper is populated mostly by people who have always had to toil, struggle, and work hard for a living in order to survive. Many of its residents are descendants of the old pioneer families that first settled here beginning in the 1820s, who were mostly of Scots-Irish descent. Many of Jasper's stores however were owned and run by Jews such as the Engel, Green, May, Newburger, Newmark, Shapiro, and Weinstein families, who enjoyed a higher standard of living and a more leisurely lifestyle that was afforded to them by the lucrative enterprise of selling cheap goods made by honest working folks, which Jewish merchants acquired at wholesale cost and sold at retail for markup prices (with high rates of interest where credit was extended), exploiting the meager wants and desperate needs of the gentile farmers, coal miners, loggers, and tradesmen who shopped in their stores.
While the Jews who lived in Jasper and ran most of the towns retail businesses were never more than a small minority of the population who kept mostly to themselves outside of dealing with the public in matters of commerce, they had their own little synagogue, Temple Emanuel, built in 1923 on the corner of 5th Avenue and 15th Street, largely through the help of generous donations solicited from the Christian residents of Jasper's predominately gentile community.
Although Jasper's Jew-owned stores were among the few businesses that didn't go bankrupt during the Great Depression, competition from the indoor shopping mall built in 1980 along the U.S. 78 highway that bypassed downtown Jasper, and from new arrivals like Walmart, drew customers away from the older stores who couldn't compete, resulting in most of them going out of business as their owners died off, went into retirement, or moved away. Jasper's Jewish population, which peaked at 140 individuals in 1937, had dwindled to such a small number that the few remaining Jewish families decided to close the synagogue and put the building up for sale in 2005.
Even though most of the old stores that once operated in downtown Jasper have long since closed their doors, a few still remain in business today. Notable among these is the old general store, Andrew Posey & Son, located on the corner of 20th Street and U.S. highway 269, where it has stood since 1924:
Inside Posey's are aisles crowded with old fashioned household goods ranging from pots and pans to dishes, whatnots and novelty items, rub-boards and washing tubs, kerosene lamps, stove-pipes, plumbing parts, and supplies for making homebrew and moonshine. Stop in and pull an ice-cold Coca-Cola out of the cooler and enjoy it with a pack of Tom's peanuts or a Moon Pie.
Despite being a small town tucked away in a quiet corner of Alabama, Jasper has been the hometown of a number of citizens who left a small but indelible mark on theworld, including a handful of minor celebrities such as the Golden Age Hollywood vamp, Tallulah Bankhead, television actor George Lindsey, and actress Polly Holliday.
Kentucky Fried Chicken's own Col. Harland Sanders moved to Jasper in the year 1907. Here he worked for the Southern Railroad and later for the Norfolk and Western Railway, fueling steam locomotives as a fireman shoveling coal. In 1909, Sanders met his first wife, Josephine King, a native of Jasper, by whom he had three children. Many years later Col. Sanders would return to Jasper in the late 1960s for the grand opening of the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant located across from the G.C. Murphy variety store in Parkland shopping center along U.S. highway 78.
One of the many local businesses in town was the Deep South dairy that operated on the corner of 23rd Street and Euclid Avenue. Signs advertising their milk, which was sold in cardboard cartons featuring an antebellum southern mansion with a Spanish moss covered tree, were a familiar sight to anyone who grew up living in the area back in the 1960s and 70s..