Archive | April, 2018

Review of Getting Out of the Mud: The Alabama Good Roads Movement and Highway Administration, 1898-1928, by Martin T. Olliff

24 Apr

Getting Out of the Mud, Dr. Martin T. Olliff’s latest book, reminds us that indeed literally everything has a history, even the process by which we as Americans have converted backwoods trails into a paved highway transportation system. Perhaps more importantly, however, he also reminds us that everything has a context, and to truly understand how milestone events link to gather one must grasp the circumstances of their occurrence. So part and parcel of the story of Alabama’s halting efforts to develop highway infrastructure is a broader tale about Alabama’s people and politics during an important era which “paved” the way for the development of the modern state.


I will admit the nuances of Progressive Era political dynamics are well outside my wheelhouse, and I cannot claim to be well versed enough in the literature on the subject to evaluate adequately for an academic audience the book’s true value to the study of the time period chronicled. But one need not be an expert in early twentieth century America to see that the book features some obvious and noteworthy analyses of an understudied epoch that anyone interested in Alabama’s past can certainly appreciate. While it may not cover a subject that lends itself easily to riveting historical narrative, the volume has been awarded the Anne B. and James B. McMillan Prize award in Southern History (awarded by the University of Alabama Press) for a reason; it tells an important story fundamental to our contemporary reality which few have attempted to explain and frames it in both its cultural and political contexts.

Those who might consider picking up the book should know that author Martin Olliff is a multi-talented and accomplished historian who is anything but the crusty academic. Professor of history and director of the Wiregrass Archives at Troy University, Dothan, he is a popular and engaging speaker on a variety of topics for groups across the state and beyond, editorial board member of both The Alabama Review and Provenance: The Journal of the Society of Georgia Archivists, as well as actively involved in numerous organizations and worthwhile history-focused initiatives too numerous to mention. He has also become one of Alabama’s leading scholars on the WWI era, serving as editor of The Great War in the Heart of Dixie: Alabama in World War I. In other words, Olliff is a man who knows his subject and knows how to sift through mountains of information to communicate the essence of a story in intelligible fashion and does it with enthusiasm.

In Getting Out of the Mud, he communicates a story few know much about and one I would venture to guess many more have scarcely given serious thought. It describes one of the major projects of Progressive-era Alabama (those are not necessarily mutually-exclusive terms!), an eventful but all but forgotten time in the state’s history which did much to shape the trajectory of its modern development. Despite certain contemporary assumptions, Olliff demonstrates there indeed once was a time when sizable numbers of Alabama’s leaders and rank and file citizens actually championed more government involvement in far-reaching programs benefitting its populace. Plus, for the most part, they were willing to pay for it to boot. Inspired by a national movement urging the finding of solutions for a variety of societal ills ranging from worker compensation to corruption,—known as Progressivism—the grass-roots effort to establish a modern and efficient road system in the state featured a particularly effective coalition of average citizens, politicians, businessmen, farmers, and civic boosters. Their goal—good roads—was relatively simple, and to make a long story short they accomplished some specific objectives in remarkable fashion. The Good Roads Movement literally got Alabama “out of the mud” and onto the path of a modern highway infrastructure system within the span of a few critical decades, Olliff demonstrates.

But he also says far more worth pondering for historians and those interested in understanding the connection between modern and past realities. He shows the movement to better Alabama’s roads for the benefit of its citizens and economy to be part of a fascinating wider national effort which would later contribute substantially to the creation of today’s large, complex, bureaucratic government infrastructure. That infrastructure is to a degree both exactly what Alabamians clamored long and hard to create so that they could have a better and more prosperous place to live and precisely what so many in the state now rail against as part of an anachronistic doctrine that is at odds with our own history. In other words, the story of Alabama’s road development is a sort of microcosm for understanding how we moved from homespun proposals based in real needs to modern government responsibilities. We have come a long way from the days of staged-for-publicity “exploratory journeys” attempting to find suitable routes for paved roads connecting major cities to having the state’s Department of Transportation be one of its largest financial obligations. Getting Out of the Mud connects those two drastically different eras, and helps us understand just how far historical developments can reach.


Review of Southside: Eufaula’s Cotton Mill Village and Its People, 1890-1945, by David E. Alsobrook

17 Apr

I grew up in the Columbus, Georgia area—as thoroughly a Southern “mill city” as ever existed. Being able to trace the arrival of some of my own family in the area back to the heyday of the mills and the opportunities they provided for rural Southerners seeking steady employment, I am acutely aware of just how large the textile industry looms in regional history. Mills and the worker villages which accompanied them frequently formed not only the largest economic engines in many Southern cities for generations, but represented virtual cities unto themselves. Their daily rhythms vibrated with the activities of the industrial establishments at their center. As is the case with so much from our shared past, though, what was once commonplace is growing more and more remote and increasingly only dimly understood. While I think even the most casually informed student of Southern history grasps that the era of the big mills is a critical one in much of the region, it is sad to see that so many individuals’ lives are increasingly reduced to caricature in both history books and collective memory; desperate operatives trudging appreciatively in dangerous and labor-intensive jobs in noisy facilities living in, but never quite part of, the larger cities in which they resided.


For its contribution to our understanding of Southern mill workers as real people alone, then, David E. Alsobrook’s Southside: Eufaula’s Cotton Mill Village and Its People, 1890-1945 is a much welcome contribution to both Alabama and Southern historiography in general. But it is much more, as it provides a virtual case study of the rise and decline of the cotton mill as an economic and social force in a Southern city. The book is an intensely personal and compassionate chronicle of life in the mill village of the southeastern Alabama town of Eufaula which details the hopes, dreams, trials, and misfortunes of the laborers which operated the spindles and looms in the venerable city’s largest industrial establishment for over half a century. It also painfully illuminates the biases and prejudices of small town life which effectively rendered mill operatives as “other” for most of that time and offers up an unflinchingly authentic account of Deep South society at both its best and worst. Lay readers and serious academics alike will enjoy the book, as it paints an engrossing picture of what life was like for people during a transitional period in regional history and at the same time illuminates issues such as the philosophy of paternalism by mill management that is part and parcel of understanding how these entities functioned as equal parts business and community.

Alsobrook, one of Alabama’s most respected leaders in the cultural heritage field, is an esteemed scholar and the former director of not one but two presidential libraries. He knows his subject well and brings his personal familiarity to the task with professional grace. Born in Eufaula and raised in Mobile, he has a deep connection to the riverside city and took to heart the stories of triumph and tragedy he heard from family members as a young man. His fluid prose naturally mixes in bits of this intimate story of kith and kin but rests on a bedrock of informed and meticulously-researched narrative of Eufaula mill history. Thankfully, the book goes well beyond a narrow focus on the mills themselves, and presents the story of them and those that worked in them in the context of the larger continuum of the city’s history. This is particularly essential in the book’s success, in no small part due to the fact that Eufaula’s celebrated heritage usually leans extraordinarily heavily towards its antebellum grandeur. The small city along the Chattahoochee River is home to the second-largest historic district in the state and is famous for its annual pilgrimage tour of homes and its pre-Civil War structures and stories. It is to his credit and the reader’s benefit that Alsobrook lays out that chapter of the city’s colorful past with aplomb in an opening chapter, for the story he has to tell of a bygone and largely forgotten chapter in the city’s history can only truly be understood in light of Eufaula’s zenith as one of the wealthiest towns in the state.

A primary theme in Alsobrook’s work is the figurative and quite literal divide between “Old Eufaula” and the “Southside” mill village community which sprang up around the town’s mills in the latter years of the nineteenth century. The social barrier between these two communities was a pronounced one indeed and understanding its manifestations—Southsiders were not welcome in Old Eufaula houses of worship and other community organizations for a very long time—illuminates much about life in the era. But just as Alsobrook’s overview of pre-1890 city history sets the stage for his narrative, his tracking of the impersonal forces which ultimately brought down the artificial wall between the two communities puts into perspective why and how the mill era ended. The economic leveling of the Great Depression, the enormity of the shared goal of winning World War II, and international financial realities in the post-war era all conspired to end both the segregation of life in Eufaula and to varying degrees the mills themselves.

Southside is a touching, thorough, and multi-faceted portrait of mill life in Eufaula which helps us better understand that community individually, and by extension, so many others similar to it elsewhere in the South. The book is one of the very few of its type in Alabama’s historical literature and a major contribution to a relatively narrow slice of the literature on Southern history in general. As a consequence, it should find a rather wide audience both within the state and far beyond. Indeed, the Alabama Historical Association recently recognized both its worth and potential recently by naming it the winner of the Clinton Jackson Coley Award as the best recent book on local history concerns in the state. A hearty thanks from all readers of Alabama and Southern history goes to Alsobrook for bringing Southside’s story to light.


Review of Saban: The Making of a Coach, by Monte Burke

10 Apr

You do not have to be a football fan to know who Nick Saban is, and you do not have to study game strategy to know that “The Process” is his mantra and modus operandi. Saban is ridiculously successful, famously leveraging his grinding work ethic and relentless pursuit of perfection in every aspect of football into an unprecedented collection of championships and accolades and an enormous salary. The man has truly become a legend in his own time for his remarkable success, and he is one of the most famous figures in all of American sports. His public profile in Alabama, a hero-worshipping state if ever there was one, is rapidly approaching that of the near-mythical Paul “Bear” Bryant in his heyday. They say Bryant could have been governor of Alabama had he desired; Saban’s populist appeal is less certain, but he did poll a distant third in the state’s recent senatorial campaign! Saban is famously reclusive, though. A man who seemingly spends every waking moment of every day devoted to his profession can hardly help being perceived as a little distant and brooding, after all. The first major biography of Saban, then, clearly promises to enjoy a broad audience and shed light on one of the most recognized but little-known public figures in sports.

Saban: The Making of a Coach, by Monte Burke, appeared in 2015. Burke is a contributing editor of Forbes Magazine and a writer for several other publications including Garden and Gun magazine as well as the author of other acclaimed sports-focused books. In The Making of a Coach, Burke brings to bear his writing talent and background in journalism to produce an entertaining and enlightening biography of his secretive subject. The accomplishment is significant in part due to the fact that Saban was not one of the more than 250 people interviewed for the book. Although Saban refused to participate in the project, dozens of people he grew up with, worked for and with, or coached weigh in and contribute to an authentic portrayal.

Burke naturally spends a good amount of time evaluating the football seasons which have defined Saban’s coaching career, tracking his professional development and revealing alternately his unique genius and appalling abrasiveness in turns along the way, There is perhaps a bit more football x’s and o’s in the text than the casual reader may find appealing, but to Burke’s credit this is not a sports book but a true biography. He deals relentlessly with Saban the man, tracing his humble origins in the coal mining communities of rural West Virginia through several stops along his coaching career at various Midwestern and Southern universities and his stints in the NFL in an effort to discover what really makes him tick. He examines his notorious wanderlust and surprisingly clumsy handling of his transitions from one job to another, as well as exploring Saban’s roles as a husband, father, friend, mentor and civic man.

Burke concludes that Saban’s obsessive focus and other-worldly work ethic derive from his upbringing by an overbearing father. Further, he illustrates both are at the foundation of the “Process” of development with which he is so closely identified—a mindset and a mantra that overshadows any other aspect of his personality to the point that indeed it seems to actually be his personality to outside observers. Simply put, he seems to not enjoy winning as much as preparing to win. Explaining how he got that way is Burke’s quest. It is certain that the portrait he paints will serve as the definitive biography of Saban for only a short time, for as his list of accomplishments continues to grow as he coaches what are more than likely the last few seasons of his career, it seems certain that much more will be written about him—perhaps with his involvement and sanction. For the moment, though, Burke’s books is the definitive study of this enigmatic coach’s life.


Review of Bernardo de Galvez in Louisiana, 1776-1783, by John Walton Caughey

3 Apr

It is an accepted fact that the U.S. colonies would have not achieved independence from Great Britain without European aid. This aid was mostly provided by France and men like Rochambeau, de Grasse and of course Lafayette. However, Spain also fought against Great Britain during the Revolutionary War. While not technically an ally of the United States, Spanish colonial authorities did render the country valuable aid by conducting one of the most efficient and conclusive campaigns of the war in the form of Bernardo de Galvez’s assault on British West Florida. The campaign tied up valuable British troops, supplies, and attention, and resulted in the loss of a large swath of strategic territory along the Gulf Coast. In Bernardo de Galvez in Louisiana, 1776-1783, author John Walton Caughey describes this little-understood conflict, focusing on the charismatic leader whose energy and determination yielded the expansion of the Spanish empire.


Caughey begins his book by providing a superb background on how Spain gained ownership of Louisiana prior to the war and the major issues associated with the establishment of colonial government. He explains how Spain acquired Louisiana after the French and Indian War and then goes into detail regarding the administrations of the three governors prior to Galvez’ elevation to the post (Ulloa, O’Reilly, and Unzaga) in 1777. As one might expect, the vast majority of the book is devoted to explaining Galvez’s leadership of the colony during the years of the American Revolution.

Spain initially declared itself neutral during the war, but as time went on, Galvez began to see it to his country’s advantage to covertly provide aid to the Americans. He coveted British West Florida and worked to undermine British authority over the province. Wealthy businessman and American sympathizer Oliver Pollack of New Orleans worked on behalf of the American cause with the full knowledge of Spanish authorities, as he funneled material and financial aid to the United States. An entire chapter of the book is devoted to the famous raid conducted by James Willing on British settlements along the Mississippi River in 1778 and Spain’s complicit support of his activities.

After convincing his superiors of the benefits on conducting military actions against the British, Galvez took the offensive quickly and decisively. He began by capturing British posts along the east bank of the Mississippi River (Manchac, Baton Rouge, and Natchez), thereby securing the river under Spanish control. But this was only the beginning, as he then led bold campaigns to capture Mobile (1780) and Pensacola (1781), the British provincial capital. These victories effectively brought West Florida under Spanish control which was affirmed by treaties ending the war. Following his stunning series of victories, the Spanish king authorized Galvez to add his now-famous motto, “Yo Solo” (“I Alone”) to his family crest in commemoration of his brave entrance into Pensacola Harbor. One the heels of his successes, Galvez was named Viceroy of New Spain and probably could have achieved even greater fame had he not died suddenly of fever in 1786 at the young age of thirty-eight.

Although originally published in 1934, the book remains as the best source of information on Galvez and one of the best on his remarkable victorious campaign against the British. Few military leaders can claim as much success in as short a time as he did. Yet, he remains largely unknown to the general populace while other names from the Revolutionary era continue to be better recognized. This is a shame, as Galvez’s campaign not only aided the American cause—even if indirectly—and altered the political landscape of the Gulf South for a generation. To our surprise this book is well-written and reads as relevant even though it is nearly 100 years old. Anyone with an interest in Spanish colonialism, the American Revolution, the history of the Gulf South, or simply in successful military leaders should add this to their library.