The community is several states’ distance from Alabama but a recent visit evoked a comparison to the travails Tallassee and innumerable other American communities in more than one state have experienced. Such personal contemplation seemed to be unavoidable.
As noted in this space a few weeks ago, the industrial base of Tallassee, an erstwhile mill town, has continued to evolve, sometimes relatively quickly. Modern facilities are making modern products, including water meters and aviation parts, as well as automotive parts at tier factories for the nearby Hyundai and Kia factories.
Such an industrial transition wasn’t evident in the small burg I passed through in the other state, however. While it does have its own zip code, it’s a census-designated place (CDP) that is considered to be in the “greater metropolitan area” of a nearby city. Its population is about 1,100.
A gurgling creek runs through the middle of the town. Signs pronounce it to be a river but it’s nowhere near the size of the Tallapoosa. Most visitors would probably consider it to be a large stream at best.
The community’s “downtown” landscape is dominated by what remains of several gigantic factories, all owned by the same company. The facilities are newer than Tallassee’s mill. They were built with bricks, not stone. Most of the buildings are several stories tall. An observer would probably assume in their day the factories housed thousands of laborers and dozens of assembly lines. The company was a national leader in its industry, offering a huge selection of manufactured goods to retailers.
Manufacturers’ representatives successfully peddled the line all over the country for decades. Many of the rep groups encompassed more than one generation.
While the company was public (offering shares of stock), it was family controlled. As it turned out, alleged nepotism and familial machinations figured into the direction the company would ultimately take. The saga of the manufacturer’s power struggle and later decline was part of a best-selling book, as well as articles in The New Yorker and other publications.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the influx of foreign goods, mostly from China, was the primary cause of the plant closures that began around the end of the last century. However, around the same time, the company had also begun opening single-brand stores all over the country. Longtime dealers — mostly independents instead of chain stores — suddenly found themselves cut off from the brand after supporting it for decades.
These days, two of the largest former factories in the village are warehouses reportedly storing imported goods bearing the name of the company that used to manufacture similar items in the same buildings. I was unable to determine which buildings still might have some kind of production going on inside.
Other buildings exhibit roofs that have caved in. In what could be interpreted as a morbid embrace, kudzu vines, brown and gnarly because of winter, appear to be inextricably intertwined with buildings and surrounding fences.
The company’s headquarters are still in the town. The former modern-looking bank in front of the office building is now an independent apostolic church.
Manufacturing facilities in Tallassee and elsewhere in Alabama continue to thrive. On the other hand, decaying hulks of large factories that used make all kinds of products are probably seen in towns of all sizes more often than most folks realize.
As I prepared to drive south, I thought about a sonnet written by Percy Shelley in 1818. Here it is in its entirety:
“I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
“And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The thermometer that was part of the dashboard readout in my rental car indicated that the outside temperature was a tolerable 61 degrees. The day was bright and sunny. Call it “windbreaker weather.”
In spite of the relatively comfortable conditions, I shivered as I turned on the ignition.