West Blocton Bible Methodist

Alabama Bible Methodist Conference


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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- On the hot but breezy morning of July 12, 1927, young Jerry Clements was at work in his mother's small grocery store in downtown West Blocton. He would remember that day all too well. About mid-morning, the town's homemade fire alarm sounded. It was, said Clements, "unmistakably catastrophic." 

By day's end, 40 stores, including the Clements grocery, 20 homes, and several professional offices had gone up in smoke. The out-of-control fire devastated the small central Alabama town, making residents wonder if they could ever recover. 

In the summer issue of Alabama Heritage, author Charles E. Adams, a West Blocton native who has written various articles on West Blocton and is currently working on a history of the town, relates the story of the fire that destroyed most of West Blocton's downtown. 

Voices of warning had been heard before but not heeded. After fires in several nearby communities, the editor of the Blocton Courier urged his fellow citizens to "keep barrels of water and buckets standing conveniently about the premises" in the absence of good firefighting equipment. The town's only hope if fire should break out was two wooden water tanks, reliant on gravity for water delivery, and a modest "fire truck" (actually a Model T) equipped with hoses, ladders, and a few fire extinguishers. 

West Blocton, less than a half-century old at the time of the fire, had grown up next to Blocton, a "company" town founded by Truman H. Aldrich, a New York native who came south after the Civil War. Aldrich established the Cahaba Coal Mining Co., which owned eight mines and employed some 1,000 miners by the 1880s. As a result of the area's rapid growth, much of West Blocton was built in boom-town haste, and its heart-pine buildings, wooden awnings, and plank sidewalks created a kind of wooden canyon on Main Street. 

Not surprisingly, the fire, which started in Pope Brothers Cleaning and Pressing Shop, spread rapidly down the street. An ill-considered attempt to halt the fire's progress by dynamiting the town's three-story "Opera House" went awry: instead of falling back over the fire and helping to extinguish it, a wall of the heart-pine structure fell across the street, spreading the flames even more rapidly. By the time outside help from Bessemer and Birmingham arrived to assist local firefighters, the damage was done. 

The next morning, the people of West Blocton took stock. A score of families were homeless and hundreds of lives were devastated. Few businesses had adequate fire insurance. 

But West Blocton kept going, despite the 1927 fire and some rough years during the Depression. In World War II, mining made a comeback and carried the town into the early 1960s. Now, although the town of 2,000 people is made up mostly of retirees and commuters, West Blocton's civic pride still shows. Each summer the town celebrates its past with a two-day festival called "Wild West Blocton Days," and each spring the Cahaba Lily Festival recognizes the botanical richness of the nearby Cahaba River basin. West Blocton may not be the thriving town of 100 years ago, but it is truly, as one West Blocton son says, "the town that refuses to die." 

Alabama Heritage is a non-profit quarterly magazine published by The University of Alabama and The University of Alabama at Birmingham. To order the magazine, write to Alabama Heritage, Box 870342, Tuscaloosa, Ala., 35487-0342, or call (205) 348-7467.