Five years ago this week, Tallassee lost perhaps the most important part of its history when the east side Mount Vernon Mills complex burned. This, along with the 2009 fire that destroyed the Hotel Talisi, are two sad but unforgettable events. Here is what I wrote for the following issue of the Tribune.
Last Wednesday night, I heard the screaming sirens of the fire trucks and police cars, but my little East Tallassee Mill Village neighborhood is pretty active. It is a regular occurrence to hear emergency vehicle sirens on Central Boulevard or Lower Tuskegee Road.
This was different: something bad was happening.
I opened my front door, and when I stepped outside I might has well have stuck my head in an oven.
Mount Vernon Mills No. 2 and No. 3 were ablaze. The fire was completely involved by 11:00 p.m. I saw a tornado of fire rising above the building, creating a real-life towering inferno.
Bits of fiery ash sprinkled from the sky. Firefighters spoke instructions on bullhorns and walkie talkies. It looked like every fire department from all surrounding municipalities were here to help us. Help us – what? Say goodbye to the last vestiges of our town’s identity? It was too much to think about.
Yet, as I watched the blaze with my neighbors (my children never even woke up!), I started thinking about my dear departed neighbor Thurman Harris, and how he worked at that place for 53 years in various capacities. How he walked from the house next door, down those mill steps and into his life’s work. He could never admit that the mill was closed; once, when I asked him if he missed it, he just started crying and walked away. I also thought about my grocery store boss Hollis Mann, who was the final Superintendent of Mount Vernon Mills and was the last person out the door when the company left town permanently in 2006. The cotton mill was his life. And now it was really gone – not just closed, but gone. Destroyed.
I watched that fire until almost two o’clock in the morning, unable to take my eyes off the sight. In a way, it was even more terrible as the Hotel Talisi fire. The Hotel was, at the time of its demise, a work in progress and in between owners. And we can see that there are efforts to bring it back to life someday.
All of us saw the east side mill as a lasting remnant of what we once were. Even though it has been closed for a decade now, its memories loom (pardon the pun) large in the hearts and minds of those who worked there and grew up here.
W.C. Bryant, in his excellent book HOT AND HIS BOYS, described Tallassee circa 1939-40 as Coach J.E. O’Brien was beginning his storied career at Tallassee High School. He describes Mount Vernon-Woodbury Mills as presiding over a benevolent dictatorship in Tallassee. They were responsible for the school system itself, as well as the housing developments and many of the businesses. They put together carnivals and circuses, parades and patriotic celebrations. Mount Vernon was the heart of this community.
When I could finally get out of Alber Drive the next morning to drive the BirdKids to school, we peered over the side of the bridge and saw it. A giant barbecue pit, with the sides still up but glowing coals within. I never worked there, but I felt the tears well up for all who devoted themselves to that place.
The smoke began clearing the next day, and gawkers retreated into their regular lives again. The TV news media stopped showing pictures of our former glory and claim to fame, reduced to a smoldering ruin for all the world to see.
That Friday morning, we pulled the van away from the house and looked across the street as we began our school day route. My daughter said, “look, Daddy, you can see the trees on the other side of the river.”
We could never see them before, and now we would not see the mighty walls of Mount Vernon ever again.