Henry Grady claimed he could see the future. Two decades after the end of the Civil War, the Atlanta Constitution editor predicted the impending arrival of a “New South,” one no longer solely dependent upon agriculture. Grady’s vision of the New South boasted “diversified industry that meets the complex needs of this complex age.” In his newspaper and in speeches across the nation, Grady often described the work of Samuel Noble’s Woodstock Iron Co. of Alabama as a model of the new era.
The son of a steel manufacturer, Samuel Noble came to the Yellowhammer State in 1871. He purchased large tracts of timberland in Calhoun County and set about establishing a furnace to create charcoal-fired pig iron. His partner was Daniel Tyler, a Connecticut native renowned for developing southern iron and railroad investments. Established in April 1872, the Woodstock Iron Co. had an initial capital investment of $75,000. By the following summer, Woodstock’s new furnace produced 150 tons of pig iron each week.
To bolster the reputation of the company, Noble financed a display at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The result was a remarkable success, earning Woodstock iron the highest possible quality rating. The designation fueled a high demand and necessary expansions. In August 1879, a second furnace increased Woodstock’s annual output to 15,000 tons.
Henry Grady and Noble first met in Georgia in 1873. The journalist admired Noble not merely for his business acumen but for the way he developed his worker resources. Many industrialists of the age constructed villages as a means of keeping laborers, and their money, close at hand. But few approached the task with more zeal than did Noble. Woodstock’s fastidious leader laid out his company town with checkerboard precision. The private “model city” featured broad, tree-lined avenues built in a grid pattern. Noble referred to the four-room cottages he designed as “homes and not hives” and placed each on a quarter-acre lot with room for vegetable gardens and flowerbeds. Greenspaces featuring rolling bluegrass, roses and evergreens completed the design.
Since there was already an Alabama town called Woodstock, Noble named his village Anniston, in honor of Daniel Tyler’s daughter-in-law, Annie.
By 1880, Anniston had nearly 1,000 residents. All of them were connected to the Woodstock Iron Co., working in the furnaces, cutting timber or mining ore in nearby hills. Most of the workers were southerners, although some skilled Europeans were also recruited. African Americans comprised nearly one-third of the workforce and were afforded equal accommodations. A more stringent enforcing of the color line did not arrive until the 1890s.
The fortunes of the company and the town were one and the same. In 1882, Woodstock instituted in Anniston the first practical use of electricity anywhere in Alabama, generating power to illuminate its furnaces and residential streets. Two years later, the company installed more than a dozen 40-foot light poles at key intersections throughout the town.
Subsidiary businesses grew around the iron company, including a cotton mill, short-line rail and a farm, all bearing the Woodstock brand. The company’s well-timed commercial success coincided with the expansion of the Georgia Pacific Railroad, which eyed a route through Anniston and onward to Birmingham. In exchange for a right-of-way through Woodstock land, the railroad agreed to construct a system of connecting tracks to the furnaces and surrounding warehouses.
With the arrival of the railroad, Noble opened Anniston to the public and invited external investments. Thus, the Woodstock Iron Co. also became a real estate venture overnight. Vacant lots sold quickly. Adjective-happy newspaper editors expended barrels of ink touting the opportunities of the town and the genius of its founders. In June 1883, Henry Grady published a full-page article praising Noble for his “sleepless energy and constant attention.” He described Anniston as happy, healthy and prosperous, a “model city of the New South.” The next month, Noble feted Grady with a “key to the city,” in gratitude for his boosterism. Between 1880 and 1890, Anniston’s population grew tenfold. The company’s monthly payroll by the mid-1880s was $50,000.
But nearly 15 years of breakneck production took a toll on the surrounding countryside. Each year, the furnaces of Woodstock consumed more than 30,000 tons of ore and timber. Over time, the vast land holdings of the company became prized more for its value as commercial property than for its waning iron-producing resources. Only the sale of land kept the company profitable in leaner years. In 1887, Noble announced a company reorganization plan dividing the foundries and related interests from the real estate properties and cottages. Along with the plan, additional shares were sold to investors. The tight local control of the company began to falter. Slowly, the controlling interest in the Woodstock Iron Co. began a northward trek to financiers in New York, Boston and Chicago.
“The future of Anniston has been secured,” Noble reassured fretting locals amidst uncertainty. “Nothing has been unthought of or left undone. Its great industries located; its means of transportation provided.” In May 1887, the confident industrialist announced the construction of two new furnaces. But Noble did not live to see their completion. He died the following year at the age of 53.
A speculative era for the company ensued. Executives purchased faraway coalfields, entered into new railroad ventures and sought out mergers. None of the endeavors stemmed the financial drain. Debts mounted, reaching more than a million dollars. On a hot July 1893 day, the Woodstock Iron Co. was sold at public auction along Noble Street in Anniston. The sole bidder was a local attorney, who purchased the company and its 50,000 acres of land for the tidy sum of $400,000 on behalf of Woodstock’s northern investors. Subsequent efforts to return the company to profitability foundered.
Samuel Noble’s death had spared him the ignominy of seeing the breakup of the business. Still, even as the Woodstock Iron Co. faded away, his prescient words from 1887 rang true. Anniston’s growth continued apace, a model community of the New South era.
Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.