Could it have been that much fun, riding a dusty, hot, bumpy bus? Well that was the way to get to West Blocton, out in the country outside Birmingham when gas was rationed and Greyhound buses were not air-conditioned. I was happy and excited, despite the hot ride, and enjoying myself. The bus stopped often, as there was no express from Birmingham to my grandparent’s home down in Bibb County.
It was fun when the bus driver stopped, opened the door with an automatic handle and called out the name of the stop: Belle Ellen, Mount Carmel, Hill Number 7, Green Pond. To a city girl like me all the names made me chuckle.
Someone always got off or on, changing the chemistry of the collective busriders inside. Most of the riders were miners going to work with their helmets and lunchboxes. There were fat ladies in flour sack dresses. They would cut smaller matching dresses out of the flour sacks for their daughters. Often they would carry sacks with fresh vegetables, or iris or peonies they were trading with someone they were going to visit. This was long before Mayor Larry Langford wore sackcloth and ashes.
Arrangements for a visit to my grandparents were made by mail. Mail wasn’t delivered to your door in the country. Momma and Poppa Perry had a post office box in downtown West Blocton. Poppa Perry had long ago closed his dry goods store, but he would walk down the steep hill where the Perry house was perched above the town to pick up the mail every day.
It was so exciting to be going to visit by myself. I knew the game well. My grandfather, a tall handsome man with bright blue eyes and a head full of white hair would be waiting for me at the main intersection where the bus stopped. The bus would go down the street to the Baptist church to turn around to head out of town. One of the stained glass windows there is in memory of my great grandfather Rev. Francis Marion Woods.
My grandfather would give me a nod with his handsome smile, grab up my suitcase the busdriver had removed from under the bus and stride up the hill. I would run after him calling “Poppa Poppa you’re going too fast.” That was his game. He would stride even faster, as his smile got wider. He loved showing he could beat his grandchildren up the hill without so much as losing his breath.
My grandmother, petite Momma Perry would be waiting at the side gate, so glad to see me. She wasn’t even five feet tall. The lowest one down in the family, she used to say. She wore her dresses to her ankles all her life, winter and summer.
When Poppa Perry married my grandmother in 1890 he had a house built for them on the crescent of the highest hill, near the city water tank. On the other side, going down the hill were the coke ovens. They weren’t used any more, but you could still see the domes full of holes like a beehive where they burned the coal to leave the coke behind. Down at the bottom of the hill was the Cahaba River where the Cahaba lilies grew. The rapids had to be just right to keep the lilies from washing away.
To me it was a wonderful place. Always new river pebbles under the garden gate to prevent puddles. Growing on the fence was both a yellow talisman and a pink sweetheart rose bush. Momma Perry had rooted both of her daughters’ wedding bouquets that now trailed along the fence. A big holly tree shaded the sleeping porch and several big pecan trees shaded the back yard. There was no grass there, only sand, which they swept. It was a perfect place to play, especially to dance the Virginia Reel. My grandfather could do the Big Apple, a popular dance step, the full length of the porch.
Every part of the yard had its own fence.
You had to be careful to keep the front gate closed. Momma Perry would be most upset if the chickens got in her flower beds in the front. The chickens would scratch in the dirt for bugs and dig up her hydrangeas, verbena, larkspur, hollyhocks, morning glories, forgetme-nots, and four o’clocks—so named because they bloomed every day at four o’clock in the afternoon.
I was so shocked to see my grandmother who was so petite and ladylike grab up two chickens at a time and swirl them around till their necks broke. Then she would scald them in hot water to remove the feathers and then gut them and clean them to get them ready to cook right away. In the city, we picked the live chickens out of coop in front of Burretts store and Mr. Burrett, would “dress” the chickens out of our sight of the unpleasantness, for us to take the chicken home ready to cook wrapped in butcher paper.
In town or in the country, the chicken had to be cooked right away because we did not have freezers. One inconvenience of the country was that we had to walk down the hill to Tuggle’s Drug Store to get ice cream. In Birmingham they would deliver a pint to our house. The bicycle delivery boys could get it to our house in dry ice before it melted, but then we had to eat it fast.
Momma Perry kept her big ferns in a storm pit during the winter. One of my jobs while visiting was to mulch the potted plants on the side screen porch. Tea was made from real tea leaves which my grandmother would save. I would carefully pack them around her potted plants. It was an honor to be responsible enough to do this job without making a mess my grandmother would not abide. I loved how neatly she kept row upon row of brightly colored vegetables in her garden. There were big crepe myrtles on the walk that led up the front door off the dirt road that wound up the hill. Today the paved road that cuts in front of the house is called Crepe Myrtle Street. My grandfather’s Packard had not been driven in years, but it sat in a garage he had specially made by the side of the coal house— built to be big enough to hold that giant automobile. In Birmingham, my uncle Walter’s Packard was too big to fit in the garage. We could pull it in but then we couldn’t close the garage doors.
In West Blocton, we could leave the doors to the house open because the air was fresh and cool and clean compared to the hot dirty air of Birmingham in the days when the eleven miles of steel mills made it one of the most polluted cities anywhere.
When I was younger, West Blocton was the commercial center for all the small mining towns around like Belle Ellen, but that stopped when all the men went off to war and they started mining out of the top of the ground, making pits that left swimming holes.
My mother left West Blocton to come teach at Minor School though she was hardly older than her students at the age of 17. I have no idea why my grandparents stayed there in West Blocton after the dry goods store closed—except that it was their home. And it was fun, and worth the bus ride.
We used to go into downtown West Blocton on Saturday afternoons to go to the movie theatre, the hardware, and the drug store . Everyone in town would be there. Those places are shut down and boarded up now. The Cahaba lily center is where Israel’s department store used to be.
Now it is just a short ride of half an hour down I-59 and Highway 5. But the West Blocton I rode the bus for three hours to reach is farther away than ever.
Ann Rose writes about our city’s history for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com