Making a Living in Marshall County

A photographer’s account of business life in three rural Alabama counties: Part 2, Marshall County.

Michelle and Bubba Wade

Farmers, Boaz

Michelle: “This is Sand Mountain dirt — it’s the best around. Our produce has a really good taste. That’s probably what our focus is — on the taste. The soil produces a richer flavor. We will pick produce and deliver that same day to the market. Working on the farm is relaxing. It can be a lot of hard work — well, any job can be a lot of hard work. We try our best. I think some people have forgotten what hard work is. They have forgotten that food comes from the farm. It doesn’t come from the factory — you can’t just make it. People have forgotten that. I didn’t realize there were so many people that don’t know what a pinkeye purple hull Southern pea is. We like to educate people. It makes your heart smile when you see kids really appreciate tasting the flavor of a good strawberry or tomato or peach.”

Bubba: “I enjoy working with my mules. I love it, and I love my mules. I think I was born 150 years too late. I like the old ways. It’s relaxing. My great grandfather was a big mule man. I guess that’s where I got it from. Farming gets in your blood, I guess. I can’t imagine doing anything else. We definitely love the farm life. It’s hard, hard work, but you don’t have anyone pounding on your head all day long. You’ve got to treat it just like a normal job. We work hard — a lot of hours. You get out what you put in.”

Michael Banks

Artist, Guntersville

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“Being a self-taught artist, it’s trial and error. You’re experimenting and using things one way and if you find that it doesn’t work, you try something else.

“I stumbled upon some roofing tar one time. I was using it as a medium to draw on. A lot of my paintings at that time they were all over the place, because I was doing so many different things. But you try to experiment to make original art. The roofing tar was like a primer. Once it dries, it’s hard enough to paint on but soft enough to etch on. I don’t do them anymore, but that’s what separated me from other art and artists.

“You know that saying, ‘Wherever you go, you take yourself with you?’ It’s the same with art, but having been in different environments, you can lose some of the strength of your art. When the environment changes, you adapt to it. I love painting here in my home. I don’t have a studio. When I was in bigger cities, you were constantly on the move. You get worn out just by going to the art supply store. In a small town, you get away from the crowds. When I go back home, I go back to the basics. Less is more.

“I don’t ever get tired of making art. Art is a gift. It’s given to you for a purpose. And if you can hold onto that vision — as long as you know there’s a purpose behind what you do, the other stuff doesn’t matter. Just do what you do and be the best you can be and let everything happen. I learned a lot over the years. If you put money first, it can influence the way you make art.

“I used to be cocky. But I got humbled. I had to humble myself. Now, I can be an old man and just paint and not have to worry about all the rigors of everything else. I can enjoy it.”

Laura KapplerRoberts

CEO of Kappler Inc., Guntersville

“We manufacture all our garments out of Kappler proprietary fabrics. I think that sets us apart from most of the industry. There are only half a dozen to a dozen people that do what we do in the world. For us, not only making the protective clothing, but also developing the fabrics, is unique — there’s not many that do that.

“I can’t think of anything better than to serve firefighters, law-enforcement, military personnel. It’s such a fulfilling thing to know that we are protecting them.

“I was two years old when my dad started this company. We were a small, little factory downtown. He would take me into the factory, and I just loved being around. I loved being around the Coke machines, the sewing machines — I loved the old calculators and typewriters. I loved everything about it.

“The culture of the factory is like a family. That’s where I wanted to be. Right out of college, I wanted to work here. My father tried to talk me out of that. He really wanted me to work elsewhere.

“Finally, he gave in and allowed me to come here after college. I spent the first two or three years working in every department for a couple of months. I built relationships with people, and I learned the operations of the company. That was his choice. Looking back, that was one of the greatest things he could’ve done for me and my development. Because, a lot of the people I knew and had relationships with prior to becoming an employee — well, it was very important to me that I was treated no different. I needed to earn their respect. I had a great sense of what my father had built. It was not mine. I had to earn the ability to stay and work here.

“The whole manufacturing process is where my passion is. The sound of the machines running, the operators — I have such fond memories of them taking me under their wing. To maintain manufacturing here in our country and, in particular, in a small town community, is getting harder and harder. But, it is just a passion of mine. I will go to my grave trying to maintain manufacturing.

“I am motivated to continue the manufacturing here in the small town of Guntersville. It’s the people. It goes back to those memories and stories. When I think of the company, I don’t see the financial statements; I don’t see bricks and mortar; I see faces. It’s the people I see at this company. And they have allowed me to transition from a little girl to their leader. That’s what motivates and challenges me.”

Heather Green

Executive Director, Kate Duncan Smith DAR School, Grant

“In 1924, this rural area did not have access to a formal school. The Alabama Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution thought it would be a good thing to do in this part of the state — it’s mountainous and travel was challenging. So, the Alabama Daughters decided building a school would be something they wanted to take on. We are a privately owned public school. The buildings and the land are privately owned, but the principals, teachers and curriculum is all done through the Board of Education. It’s a very unique relationship. It’s one that really benefits the children.

“I was born and raised right on the mountain. My parents are graduates of the school. I was the first one in my family to go to college, due, in large part, to the scholarships I received while here. I went to Auburn University. It was culture shock from going from such a small town with classrooms of 25 to auditoriums of 300, where you’re afraid to ask a question. You’re not in that protective bubble anymore. But I thrived. I loved it. I vowed that I would not come back here, because, as kids, that’s what you said. You want to go to a big city — somewhere different.

“When this job came open, my mom called me and said they were looking for an executive director of the school. And I told her it’d always been men who had moved up through the ranks. She said, ‘No, the ad says marketing, public relations, fundraising.’ And that’s exactly what I’d been doing for 12 years. So I applied, and it led me back here.

“Pine logs were used in the construction of this gymnasium. This is where they played basketball, from the 1930s to the 1960s. We’ve had a couple renovation projects the past few years. We had a structural engineer come in and check everything out, and he was beyond impressed with the architecture and how they fitted it altogether. Central air and heating was put in in 2005. There was no heating or cooling prior to that. There were wood-burning stoves at one point.

“Alabama history is taught in the fourth grade and ninth grade as part of the state curriculum. But the history of the school and the town is one of the things we want to incorporate. I think it’s important. You need to know where your state came from and what those events were. For a lot of kids, this mountain is their history. These are the things that helped make them and their families who they are today.”

Randall Blackwood

Naturalist, Cathedral Caverns State Park, Woodville

“I taught science in school — middle school, high school and college.  When I retired from teaching, I switched from a 50 x 50 classroom to a 500-acre classroom — a 2-mile cave. This is an interesting cave. All of this is limestone rock formed at the bottom of the ocean millions of years ago. There was a big collision between the American continent and the African continent that shot this area above the ocean and created the Appalachian Mountains.

“When the limestone shot straight up in this area, rain water got into the limestone. Rainwater becomes a very, very weak acid. So the raindrops get together and form rain puddles. The rain puddles form cracks and crevices, and, before long, you have a big underground river that carved out this cave. The river is still here. We call it Mystery River.

“I love to see the reaction of people. We go for the ‘Wow’ factor. They don’t know what to expect. We go around the corner and we hit formation walls that are breathtaking. It’s the sense of curiosity — a sense of exploring. I’m still looking for things beyond the next corner. You never know. You never can tell.

“We’ve gone up in visitors every year since it reopened. We’re having about 60,000 visitors a year. It’s that sense of discovery. It’s just that experience. You go out and grab your friends and bring them in. And then, they go and bring their friends. That’s why our business grows every year. And we don’t have an advertising budget. You can see what’s drawing them here.

“Even though I’m a park naturalist, I’m also the tour guide — the guy who cleans toilets, setting up the campground. Everyone does a little of everything.”

Rick Lovelady

Fiddle Maker, Fiddle Player, New Hope area

“The fiddles started with me, probably as a youngster. I was born on Sand Mountain. Daddy bought us a TV in 1953 or ’54, somewhere around there — a black and white Zenith. They put it in the living room, but they wouldn’t turn it on until Saturday night. So, Saturday night, the four of us — me, my sister and mom and dad, we’d watch The Grand Ol’ Opry. Wonderful.

“I can still see us sitting there in front of that TV and watching that Grand Ol’ Opry. I thought, ‘My gracious, this is wonderful.’

“Mama was always busy ironing clothes, snapping beans, folding clothes, and Daddy was over there smoking his cigar and reading the newspaper. So we would talk about the music. And I said, ‘Boy, I sure do like that fiddle.’ My daddy said, ‘You know, son, that’s a hard thing to learn to play.’ But, I liked it. It just drew me in.

“So, I guess I took an interest in it at that time. I always had an interest in nature — I love the birds, the animals, wildlife — I’m a naturalist at some degree. And I love wood and trees. I thought, ‘I’m going to be foolish enough to try to make one.’ I never had a lot of woodworking experience. I think my daddy had a hammer, screwdriver and a handsaw, and that was it. I’ve never made a bad fiddle, but I’ve made some better than others. My whole objective is to make an instrument for me, but I’ve sold a few. I’ve got people all over here that’s got some of my fiddles. One guy has three of them. I’m not a musician; I’m a backwoods fiddle player. There’s something about that fiddle that just grabs you. I’ve got fiddles made of hickory, cherry, mulberry, oak, birch, walnut — all types of maple.”

Donald Edmund

Chicken Grower, Horton

“I was born on this farm. I was raised in the house just over the holler. I’ve never lived apart from the land I’ve owned, and I’m never going to move anywhere else.

“I started catching chickens when I was 11 years old, for a fellow just north of here. And I will be 60 years old in March, so I’ve been doing this 50 years. Chickens didn’t weigh but a pound and a half. When you’re 11 years old you can handle that. But, what we raise now are 5 ½, 6, 7 pounds.

“My mom had chicken houses for a long time. She built two chicken houses just for some supplemental income. We’ve progressed from there. When she got too old to actually work them, I had to do a lot more work around here. I built four more houses, then four more, and then four more. We enjoy it. We eventually bought her out. That was 17 or 18 years ago.

“The chicken industry has progressed so much in the last 15 years, it’s unbelievable. When we started growing, it took us 63 days to grow a 7-pound chicken. Now, we can grow that same 7-pound chicken in 49 days. There are less chicken growers here than there used to be. Typical chicken houses held about 22,000 or 23,000 chickens. The new chicken houses are more computerized. The computer runs everything. Now a chicken house holds 50,000 chickens, so it takes a lot less houses to produce the same amount of chickens. For a long time, I was one of the youngest chicken growers around. But now that they’ve built these mega houses, you’re seeing a lot more young people get in it.

“At this moment, we have somewhere around 1 million chickens. We just progressed and progressed and kept working. It’s been good to us.

“Farming is a great life if it’s for you. But if farming isn’t in you, it’s a miserable life. We like it.”

Eric Dusenbery is a documentary photographer who lives in DeLand, Florida. He is currently at work on a book project called Sidetracked: Travels Across the Undiscovered South. Emphasizing the traditions of documentary photography, the project fieldwork is accomplished through the lens of large-format, black-and-white film photography. Dusenbery’s work in this issue of  Business Alabama is the second part of a three-part series. The first appeared in the November, 2018 issue and focused on Crenshaw County.

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