August in Anniston is a cauldron heated by the Southern sun, and this day was no different. The sky broiled those below.
It was a Saturday, the 25th day of the month, well before the coming of 1917's fall, when the train carrying Gen. Charles G. Morton arrived at The Model City's downtown station. Waiting for the general and his staff was a committee of Anniston's leading residents and politicians, men who had spent thousands of dollars and several years convincing the U.S. Army that the military's brief exposure to the Choccolocco Mountains was proof that soldiers should train near them permanently.
Men like Anniston Chamber of Commerce President John B. Carrington and Congressman Fred Blackmon — who had led the campaign to bring the Army to Anniston — knew the tales of the previous two decades. The Spanish-American War soldiers who'd trained at Blue Mountain. The thousands of volunteer infantrymen who'd paraded at Zinn Park underneath the gaze of Anniston Inn visitors. The National Guardsmen who had used the Choccolocco Mountains for artillery practice. History told them the Army and Anniston would be fine partners in marriage.
History told them to act.
Five months before Morton's entourage pulled into Anniston, the city's Chamber of Commerce had bought nearly 19,000 acres of Calhoun County land, some of which were homesteads for early Alabamians. These families, many which had emigrated west from Georgia, were forced to move, taking their belongings but leaving memories and a patchwork of small cemeteries. The cost to the Chamber was $381,187.74. The Army bought the land for $241,475, creating a debt the city wouldn't pay off until 1934.
That was March 17, 1917, the consummation of the Anniston-Army marriage.
War, as it often does, changed the Army's plan. Instead of using its new Alabama acreage as an intended artillery range, it designed a training facility — Camp McClellan — to ready doughboys for America's entrance into the world war. Though delayed by summer rains, construction began in July. Anniston's new military camp would have 750 wooden structures and more than 51,000 feet of water pipe installed when Morton and his staff arrived on post that stifling August Saturday.
While stationed in Hawaii following the war, the general penned his recollections of that day. "I arrived at the little Southern city of Anniston, Alabama, and after a dusty ride over six miles of almost impassable roads, reached the reservation in the foothills which had been selected as a Southern encampment." The general, Army historians wrote, "made a very favorable impression on the citizens (of Anniston) with whom he came in contact."
Camp McClellan was born, as was the cementing of the human interaction between the military and Anniston's residents.
"In my mind, that is the historical beginning of a relationship that has continued," says retired Maj. Gen. Gerald Watson, a former Fort McClellan commander. "That relationship starting out from the very beginning was one that was a shared value system between the military and the (Anniston) community."
That shared value system didn't come without effort. The late 1890s saw Anniston Mayor F.M. Hight travel to Washington to lobby the War Department to train soldiers in the city before sending them to Havana to avenge the sinking of the USS Maine. He was aided by Anniston Attorney John B. Knox, who tried to persuade members of Congress to bring the Army to Calhoun County. Less than two decades later, the Blackmon-led campaign was the defining moment for Anniston's military hopes — an Army post that would invigorate the town's economy and give it an intense source of civic pride.
From the beginning, Anniston's elected leaders and influential residents aggressively and proactively sought the Army's presence. The Army didn't merely pick Anniston. There was no coincidence. Anniston courted the military, asked for its hand in marriage and enjoyed nearly a century of life with its camouflaged partner. To understand Anniston's military history, one must understand the reality of how the city repeatedly and insistently sought the military's presence, and unsuccessfully fought for it to remain.
From Camp Shipp, to Camp McClellan, to Fort McClellan, to Anniston Army Depot, the same story, the same result. City leaders' welcoming of Gen. Morton in August 1917 is but one of countless examples of the handshakes between those civilian and those in uniform.
"Anniston is very, very unique in that it consistently through the years embraced the military, so that leads to a mutual respect that must be maintained," says Joan McKinney, the fort's former community outreach coordinator. "I would dare say that this is one of the few military communities that actually went out and lobbied so strongly to bring the military to town and actually gave them the industrial incentives to come here."
Thus, a question: With Fort McClellan gone nearly a decade, what is the military's legacy in Anniston?
Viewing the legacy
To drive Anniston's streets today is to see a Southern town attempting to reinvent itself in wake of its 1999 divorce from the U.S. Army. The largest, most noticeable debris from that breakup is McClellan, the vast former military landscape north of downtown that's being redeveloped as a community for residents, industry and the arts. Grand plans are possible. Few have been implemented.
Off the former post's main areas, a few examples of the military's hold on Anniston dot the streets. Some remain active, such as the expanding National Guard Training Center at Fort McClellan. The U.S. Army's incinerator is progressing with the destruction of the city's stockpile of Cold War-era chemical weapons. Centennial Memorial Park in downtown Anniston — though not a direct offspring of Fort McClellan's existence — lends credence to the city's military heritage.
But perhaps no other sign of the military's legacy in Anniston is as illuminant as Anniston Army Depot, the city's largest employer that continues to perform a critical role in the military's ongoing assignments in the Middle East. In 1952, more than a decade after the depot's birth, The Star's editorial page described the depot as a "war-baby addition to the district's industrial scene." Little could those editorial writers have foreseen the depot still kicking at its current pace so many decades later.
Those, along with the trademark military-town remnants of pawn shops and used-car dealerships and dry-cleaners on McClellan Boulevard, are the touchable landmarks, the concrete and steel and stone. They are easy to discuss, as is the undeniable blow that Fort McClellan's closing had on Anniston's economy. Thousands of soldiers left. Many civilians who worked on post were jobless. Civilian jobs off post that depended on the military were lost, too. And an unfortunate military remnant is the city's reputation — damaged by the widespread belief that Anniston is a declining city struggling to keep its head afloat amid a swirl of declining population, lost jobs, decreased military-based income and the lengthy and frustrating redevelopment process and ordnance cleanup at McClellan.
Unfortunately, that is part of the military's heritage in Anniston.
But all legacies have a human element, the hearts and souls that helped create them. And in Anniston, nearly a century of military presence created a human element that's exemplified by the thousands of military retirees who chose to spend their golden years in Calhoun County. Find a military retiree in Anniston and you'll likely find a former serviceman or servicewoman who laments the fort's closing and fondly recalls the years spent training near the base of those familiar Choccolocco Mountains. Though the commissary and PX on the former main post — quintessential drawing cards for military retirees — are gone, retirees nonetheless remain a vital part of this area's backdrop.
"I think the Army really screwed this community when it picked up stakes and left," says retired Command Sgt. Maj. Grady Coats, one of the many former Fort McClellan personnel who flavor Calhoun County with a military spice. Jovial and affable, the Philadelphia, Miss., native spent two assignments at Fort McClellan before retiring in June 1986. His story, though unspectacular, is like so many others of those once in uniform. The Army, he explains, "could have shipped me anywhere I wanted to go." But Coats and his wife, Karoline, had simple plans. "I was already settled, I owned a house, the cost of living was about as good as I'd ever seen it. We had some roots here." Not wanting to again uproot their son, the Coatses stayed. They still live in the same Saks home they bought when their first Fort McClellan assignment began in 1975.
As deputy vice-chairman of the state Board of Veterans Affairs, Ken Rollins of Oxford is an outspoken proponent of all things military in Calhoun County. And he is adamant that the human element of Anniston's military legacy — and the county as a whole, too — is sometimes forgotten amid the constant bureaucratic, yet nonetheless important, issues that revolve around the physical remnants of Anniston's former military post. It's impossible to talk about Anniston and the military and not discuss the impact of the retirees who call this area home.
"There are a lot of people who were introduced to this part of the country through Fort McClellan, and when they retired, they wanted to retire here," said Rollins, a Vietnam War veteran. "Something happened to them in this town, people being nice to them, the so-called Southern hospitality. Something brought them back … The important thing (about Fort McClellan) isn't just what the (Joint Powers Authority) is doing. It's the people who stayed after the base left. They could have already left and gone to other locations."
Or, as McKinney explained, "Many people think the commissary and the PX and the medical facilities are what keeps us someplace; not so. We look for a good quality of life." And McKinney, the fort's former community outreach coordinator, is an unabashed fan of Anniston. "This is the finest place I've ever lived." She says she believes a portion of Anniston's military legacy is cast from the ease with which former military melded into the community. They bought homes. They found jobs. They were welcomed into the area's psyche. "I have been in other military towns where being in the military was negative," she said. "Here, it was embraced."
Which is how Anniston's early leaders would have wanted it: a city not only welcoming the military but espousing of its myriad civic virtues.
Anniston's military love affair
The military's relationship with Anniston, though consistent until Fort McClellan's 1999 closure, often resembled fashions of the day: What was in vogue one generation didn't apply to the next. The silver hair and decades of cherished memories of resident Betty Carr, Anniston High class of 1943, belie the time when Fort McClellan soldiers, young recruits training for war, were as prevalent on Noble Street as springtime blooms in Quintard Avenue's median. That's not as it was in the final two decades of the fort's existence.
A half-hour spent in conversation with Carr is a snapshot of a bygone era, a priceless gift. To live in Anniston during Carr's teenage years was to live in a time when the city was in full embrace with its Army friends. Soldiers filled Noble Street, packed its four movie theaters, and often attended one of the city's many church services on Sunday mornings.
Carr, then just 17, worked as a soda jerk at the USO club on the corner of 12th Street and Wilmer Avenue, where she made Coke floats and milk shakes for the soldiers who'd come to play ping-pong and pool. She wondered about what these young men, some mere boys, would face when they left the safety of Anniston. "It was World War II, things were different with the attitudes toward the soldiers," Carr says. "Hitler was evil; he was about to take over. Nazism was about to take over, communism was about to take over. We were glad (the soldiers) were here."
That is the golden age of Anniston's military legacy, an age when people such as Carr's parents would bring soldiers — strangers — to their homes after Sunday services, when segregated USO events for black and white soldiers often held sold-out affairs. City leaders even allowed Noble Street's movie theaters to open on the Sabbath so soldiers would have something constructive — and relatively tame — to do with their weekend pass.
"We were appreciative of what they were doing," Carr says. "We were grateful."
That part of Anniston's military legacy is a romantic slice of the city's history. But as Fort McClellan's mission changed — the arrival of the Women's Army Corp and the military police school, for example — so, too, did the relationship between residents and the military. Fewer raw recruits spent time at Fort McClellan. More military families lived on post. And nowhere was that change more evident than in the area's high schools, a few of which enjoyed strong relationships with the thousands of military children who passed through not only Anniston's schools but those throughout Calhoun County.
Weaver High Principal Frances Shipp estimates that military students, whose families could chose which high schools their children attended, once made up as much as one-quarter of that school's student population. "I always called us a transient school because there was always so much in-and-out because of Fort McClellan," she says. Nonetheless, Shipp, a teacher at Weaver during the fort's final decade, is quick to explain how the presence of military students at Weaver enhanced the learning experience at a small Alabama school that would not have had that opportunity without its proximity to the fort.
"We had students who had more or less been world travelers," Shipp says. "They could speak to some of the things we were talking about through first-hand experience. Those kids had been in other countries, in other states. Some of them brought a lot of knowledge to the classroom."
Mitchell McKay, the principal at Jacksonville High from 1974 to 2000, recalls when the Army ran four or five buses each day between the school and the fort. When the Army stopped providing transportation in the 1970s, the school sent its buses to the fort, he said.
There's another notch in the military's legacy here — how local communities embraced not only the soldiers, but also the influence of the soldiers' children. "For Jacksonville, a relatively small high school, to have that diversity was absolutely wonderful," McKay said.
And there are those who feel those same traits — diversity, variety, a mixture of cultures and viewpoints — were just as good for the area, as well.
"This community had this influx of people in and out of the installation who were from all over the world and had lived from all over the world," said Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce President Sherri Sumners. "It was a very warm and very accepting community that was more sophisticated than other towns of similar size. And that has continued."
A complex reality
If anything, McKinney believes the mutual respect that existed between the Army and Anniston is at the heart of the city's military legacy. She's also keen on the phrase "social civility" — that the Southern hospitality that Northern troops absorbed in northeast Alabama brought out the best in the soldiers and fomented positive memories about the city, the county and the post itself. "I feel that strongly," she says.
The result — if you agree — is a civilian populace whose residents may think highly of the Army's time in Anniston, and an impressive roster of military retirees who cherish the area enough to remain. It's an argument that may carry weight.
Whether Anniston remains a military town is a topic of debate. Some say no; Fort McClellan's gone. Others say yes, thanks to the depot and the National Guard. Soldiers still drive Humvees on our streets. The depot, with an estimated $1 billion annual economic impact, is still repairing worn-out and damaged equipment and arms. And the retirees? Their community influence is widespread.
But perhaps debate over Anniston's military-town status is more subtle than training centers and camouflaged troops. It's Anniston's mindset. Does Anniston still think like a military town? Does it still have the same admiration for the military, for what the Army did for this town and county? "I think it does still continue to feel that way," says Watson, the retired major general. Nevertheless, has some of the despair and anger over the post's closure withered away?
Anniston's military legacy dates to President William McKinley's decision to battle the Spaniards over Cuba and its other holdings. It is a complex legacy that includes two world wars, the controversial storage and destruction of chemical weapons, and the abandonment of a massive Army base. It includes stone and steel, structures and infrastructure, those who've worn the uniform, others who've only supported it, and the children who lived among it.
That complexity may not have been on the mind of Mayor Hight when he went to Washington in 1898 or Gen. Morton when he arrived that hot Saturday in August 1917. If anything, the general had more pressing issues: setting up Camp McClellan, readying troops for war. But Anniston's military legacy is nonetheless wrapped in those intricate features that are impossible to separate. It's a testament to how intertwined the military has been with Anniston, from the beginning of its marriage to the Fort McClellan-less reality of today.
Perhaps Annistonians would have it no other way.
"I think," says McKinney, the longtime McClellan employee, "the citizens are proud to have had the military here. I think that's probably the deepest emotion. I think Anniston is extremely proud of doing its part."