Skip to Main Content

The Ballad of Little River

A Tale of Race and Restless Youth in the Rural Sou

About The Book

Except for a massacre of five hundred settlers by renegade Creek Indians in the early 1800s, not much bad had happened during two centuries in Little River, Alabama, an obscure Lost Colony in the swampy woodlands of To Kill a Mockingbird country. "We're stuck down here being poor together" is how one native described the hamlet of about two hundred people, half black and half white. But in 1997, racial violence hit Little River like a thunderclap. A young black man was killed while trying to break into a white family's trailer at night, a beloved white store owner was nearly bludgeoned to death by a black ex-convict, and finally a marauding band of white kids torched a black church and vandalized another during a drunken wilding soon after a Ku Klux Klan rally.

The Ballad of Little River is a narrative of that fateful year, an anatomy of one of the many church arsons across the South in the late 1990s. It is also much more -- a biography of a place that seemed, on the cusp of the millennium, stuck in another time. When veteran journalist Paul Hemphill, the son of an Alabama truck driver who has written extensively on the blue-collar South, moved into Little River, he discovered the flip side of what the natives like to call "God's country": a dot on the map far from the mainstream of American life, a forlorn cluster of poverty and ignorance and dead-end jobs in the dark, snake-infested forests, a world that time forgot.

Living alongside the citizens of Little River, Hemphill discovered a stew of characters right out of fiction -- "Peanut" Ferguson, "Doll" Boone, "Hoss" Mack, Joe Dees, Murray January, a Klansman named "Brother Phil," and his stripper wife known as "Wild Child" -- swirling into a maelstrom of insufferable heat, malicious gossip, ancient grudges, and unresolved racial animosities. His story of how their lives intertwined serves, as well, as a chilling cautionary tale about the price that must be paid for living in virtual isolation during a time of unprecedented growth in America. God's country is in deep trouble.


Chapter One: Lost Colony

From shore to shore, the shortest length between national boundaries in the continental United States is the north-south route, a fairly straight shot of about nine hundred miles on Interstate 65, connecting the icy Great Lakes and the tropical Gulf of Mexico. There are more scenic drives in the country. By the time travelers have reached Montgomery, Alabama's capital city, they have seen about all of the rolling farmland a body can bear on one trip: Indiana's endless cornfields, Kentucky's white-fenced bluegrass country, Middle Tennessee's knobby little hills. The monotony breaks, though, and fairly abruptly, once the road has passed tired old Birmingham's battened steel mills to finally reach Montgomery, the "Cradle of the Confederacy." There are woodlands and pastures and farms there as well, but the change is more in attitude, for Montgomery is the jumping-off point for the vast forested no-man's-land of south Alabama. This is the Black Belt, so named for its rich black loam and the people who once slaved in the cotton fields, a broad band stretching from the coastal plains of the Carolinas to the piney woods of the Big Thicket in east Texas, and the motorists who might forsake the interstate for the sleepy back roads soon find themselves in the very bowels of the Deep South. HEART OF DIXIE, proclaim the state's vehicle license tags, and indeed it is.

This is the land of Bear Bryant and George Wallace, of tar paper shacks in the shadows of white-columned neo-plantations, of roadside fightin'-and-dancin' clubs and whoop-and-holler Pentecostal churches and trim little high school football stadiums, of magnolia and dogwood and mimosa and honeysuckle, of pine forests and farm ponds and pastures, of 4-H and VFW and Rotary clubs, of junkyards and sawmills and decaying barns swallowed up by kudzu. On the square at Enterprise: a statue playfully "honoring" the boll weevil, whose devastations early in the twentieth century forced the South to abandon cotton in favor of other crops. At Georgiana, south of Montgomery on the lonesome road to Mobile: one of the many childhood homes of Hank Williams, a wild urchin who sprang from the sawmills and logging camps to become the quintessential country singer and songwriter. "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," was his most plaintive tune, released soon after his death in the fifties, from whiskey and pills, at the age of twenty-nine, and the song's morbid sentiments perfectly suit the isolated nature of this part of the American outback, where all news is local. There might be an old geezer left in Pine Apple who remembers the terse mention in the Personals column of the weekly newspaper announcing a favorite son's triumphant return, bearing medals, from the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles: "Percy Beard has returned home from California, where he participated in a footrace."

Most tourists not bound for the port city of Mobile, or on beyond to New Orleans, exit south on Alabama Highway 59 and make a beeline for the oceanside resort of Gulf Shores, the westernmost point of what Alabamians insist on calling the Redneck Riviera: a marvelous strand of sugar-white beaches, among the most beautiful in the world, sort of a good old boy's sandbox of cut-rate motels and bars and seafood diners, with miniature-golf courses and makeshift amusement parks for the kids. The Redneck Riviera lies eastward for more than a hundred miles along the coast of the Florida Panhandle -- "L.A.," they call it, for Lower Alabama -- and although the 1990s saw the coming of expensive condos and gated vacation communities (on the Alabama portion of the Riviera, a stretch of less than thirty miles, about eighty high-rise condominiums require more elevators than does all of Birmingham, the state's largest city), it remains a workingman's playground; a place where three generations of Bubbas have gone for their initiations into manhood: to get drunk, sunburned, laid, and thrown in jail.

"My sheriff is Jimmy Johnson, built like a football player, wears a cowboy hat and boots, fancies himself as John Wayne." David Whetstone, Baldwin County's longtime district attorney, was holding forth one day at his office on the square in Bay Minette, the tidy little county seat, gussied up with park benches and oleanders and whitewashed storefronts. "He and his wife went off to France for a vacation one year and everybody was dying to know what he thought about the Riviera on the Mediterranean. 'Well,' he said, 'the nekkid ladies was all right, but the beaches ain't near as good as the real Riviera.'"

Whetstone -- fifty-five, balding, pugnacious -- marvels at the diversity of the southern portion of Baldwin, the largest county in area east of the Mississippi River, bigger than the state of Rhode Island and nearly the size of Delaware. "Because of the port at Mobile, we've got all of these ethnic towns. Daphne is full of Italians, Malbis is Greek, Elberta German, Silverhill Scandinavian, and a lot of 'em speak the languages from the old countries and have festivals every year. It seems like there's a new culture every ten miles. Northern Baldwin, now, that's another matter. There's these two towns on either side of the same exit off the interstate, Rabun and Perdido, settled by mountain folks, and they carry on feuds like the Hatfields and the McCoys. We've prosecuted ten homicides up there in the past twenty-five years. The patriarch of one clan always shows up in court wearing a black felt hillbilly hat, and one side always leaves a silver-handled knife as a calling card even if it was a shooting. Northern Baldwin keeps me in business."

By all means. Were the traveler to turn north instead of south off of I-65, he would be entering another world. Once past Stockton, a neat little village quickly gentrifying these days into an upscale Republican enclave for comfortable whites who commute to their jobs in downtown Mobile, a half-hour drive on the freeway, Highway 59 begins its run into the heart of a distant forest. Along the forty miles of road between Stockton and Uriah (pronounced YOU-rye), the first town of any size in southern Monroe County, there are no speed-limit signs and only a single blinking caution light to slow the traffic. Of Baldwin County's total population of about one hundred thousand in the late nineties, fewer than three thousand people were living in the piney expanses of the upper one-fourth. Between Stockton and the bridge over the Little River, marking the Monroe County line, there are but four hamlets denoted by green highway markers -- Latham, Tensaw, Blacksher, Little River -- with most of the people living on bulldozed or asphalted dead-end roads far from Highway 59, known locally as "the road," in house trailers or plain brick homes or tin-roofed shacks or prefabricated Craftsman and Jim Walter homes that have survived since the forties and fifties. The racial makeup in that part of the county is roughly fifty-fifty, black and white, with a lot of high cheekbones indicating Creek and Choctaw Indian blood on both sides, and the demographic profile is one of a society barely hanging on. A startling percentage of the people are old, sick, disabled, or simply idle (the unemployment rate is 20 percent, four times higher than the rest of the county, and the per capita income is less than $11,000 a year before taxes); and the younger ones who have chosen to stay -- but not to risk their lives and health, as did their fathers and grandfathers, by logging in the forests that dominate the landscape -- must drive for nearly an hour each way to reach menial jobs in textile mills, warehouses, factories, or shopping malls.

Most of the history of northern Baldwin County is measured by small mileposts noted only by the locals: first school, first church, first doctor, first steamboat, first paved road; the coming of electricity, county water, plumbing, telephones; sawmills, cotton gins, slaves, Ku Klux Klan, boll weevil; radio, newspapers, television. The land belonged to the Creeks and Choctaws until the late 1700s, following the Revolutionary War, when white settlers began drifting in from Virginia and the Carolinas on the westward movement to stake out homesteads in what was then known as the Mississippi Territory. It was wild, forbidding swamp country -- teeming with poisonous snakes, alligators, bears, deer, wild boars, mosquitoes, scorpions, chiggers, beavers, raccoons, 'possums, rabbits, squirrels -- and black slaves, human cargo from the Gold Coast of Africa, were bought at auction on the docks at Mobile in the late eighteenth century to help with the carving out of a civilization in the wilderness.

The British naturalist William Bartram first drew attention to the land when he sent home specimens of exotic subtropical flora he had found around the time of the Revolution, and Aaron Burr was finally tracked down in those parts and arrested for treason in 1807 after his duel with Alexander Hamilton. But the only newsworthy event in the entire early history of northern Baldwin County was the Creek massacre at Fort Mims in 1813. Trouble had been brewing for years between the resident Native Americans and the settlers, prompting a prosperous farmer named Samuel Mims to build a stockade surrounding his land near what is now Tensaw as a line of defense against an unyielding branch of the generally benign Creeks, the "Red Sticks," who were rumored to be stockpiling weapons and laying plans to rout these interlopers. The Red Sticks were led by a thirty-three-year-old mixed-blood named William Weatherford but known as Red Eagle, a product of his Scottish father's marriage to a Creek princess named Sehoy. On the last weekend of August in 1813, feeling an attack was imminent, Mims summoned to his "fort" about 550 settlers, slaves, "half-breeds," and militia from a nearby military post. Some of the soldiers were still drunk from an all-night party when Red Eagle and about a thousand of his Red Sticks rushed the fort at noon that Monday. When the sun fell, the fort now a pile of smouldering ashes, some five hundred had died and no more than fifty had escaped from what is still recorded as the bloodiest such massacre in the history of the United States. It brought immediate outrage across the nation and led to the beginning of Andrew Jackson's "Trail of Tears," the deportation of all Native Americans to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. One hundred and eighty-four years would pass before the outside world would hear again of northern Baldwin County, Alabama.

As soon as the land was cleared of Indians, the settlers dug in and began to whack out a crude society in the woods. Alabama gained statehood in 1819, not long after the Fort Mims Massacre, and life there was much the same as in the other frontier states joining the Union as it expanded beyond the Mississippi River. Huge tracts of virgin hardwood were cleared, the timber used for log cabins and outbuildings, the land plowed and planted in corn and cotton. It was backbreaking work, requiring large families (the more strapping sons, the better), but with the abundance of game and the rich soil, nobody starved who was willing to work. They were self-sufficient out of necessity, and proud of it, and except for the staples they had to barter for, all they needed could be taken from the land: food, housing, furniture, the clothes on their backs.

In steady increments, decade by decade, a semblance of order and civilization was wrought. Horse paths were widened to become turnpikes for stagecoaches; canoes and rafts and then rough keelboats and finally steamers turned the Alabama and Tombigbee and Little Rivers into highways for moving cotton and timber down to the docks at Mobile; taverns and inns and boat landings appeared; and schools and churches and barns and trading posts. Here and there one might see a gaudy mansion on the hill, built by men who had cleared massive fields for cotton and bought slaves at the auction in Mobile. One of those planters was David Tate, Red Eagle's stepbrother, whose "last will and inventory" upon his death in 1829 listed 150 slaves whose values ranged from twenty-five cents to $600. But most of the people were simple dirt farmers trying to survive the natural scourges around them -- violent weather, diseases, wild animals, sheer loneliness -- as best they could. They hunted and fished and plowed for sustenance, made their own whiskey for comfort, settled disputes with guns and knives and fists in the absence of organized law, found solace in a God who accepted no excuses, got so accustomed to being alone that the only people they trusted were kinfolks. Except for the handful of cotton planters, moguls with a vested interest in retaining slavery, the Civil War meant little to the simple men in the woods; Admiral David Farragut might have been steaming into Mobile Bay in August of 1864 in the largest naval engagement of the war ("Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!"), but northern Baldwin County's only involvement was the non-skirmish involving James Witherington's grandfather, Ausphera Bryant Myles, that same year on some meandering little stream known as Shomo Creek.

The Emancipation Proclamation meant that slavery was abolished as a formal way of life, but most of the African-Americans whose ancestors had been bought at the slave auction in Mobile chose either to hire out as sharecroppers to their former masters or to accept the government's offer of forty acres and a mule and to homestead nearby in the woods and swamps on inferior land not already claimed by the pioneer white settlers; to build a society of their own that would be separate but by no means equal; and to become a dark, brooding presence that soon would attract the attention of the new Ku Klux Klan, the white South's response to Reconstruction. Whippings and house-burnings and lynchings by night-riding packs of hooded Klansmen were not uncommon sights in a harsh land where brute strength and intimidation and the power in numbers took precedence over fairness and intellect and formal rules of law. Then, as now, life in that part of the country boiled down to survival of the fittest, and everybody tried to take it in stride. Upon the news that the Gulf Florida & Alabama railroad was laying lines through there, it was said that GF&A stood for "Gophers, Frogs & Alligators."

When the boll weevil infested the cotton fields all over the South, in the early 1900s, practically finishing off what was left of the antebellum plantation society, the people in upper Baldwin County had to look no farther than the surrounding woodlands to find an alternative means of making a living. Huge forests of virgin hardwood were everywhere, and so that was where the men would go, both black and white, to spend all their waking hours in the deep woods and marshes, fighting off mosquitoes and alligators and timber rattlers as they drew turpentine from the pines and brought down the towering oaks and cypress that would be floated down the series of waterways to brokers in Mobile Bay, who would buy these "forest products" to make everything from houses to telephone poles to newsprint. For the next half-century, through the First World War and the Great Depression and the Second World War, right up until the development of the Redneck Riviera as a tourist destination in the late sixties, the rich forests of northern Baldwin accounted for the bulk of the entire county's income, and thus its tax base. Many men of both races would go off to serve in the Second World War, where they would develop skills in carpentry and welding and construction, but most of them would return home to take jobs with the big timber companies that had begun buying up great chunks of woodlands, doing the same backbreaking work as before, but this time with a salary and benefits. For the women, in this booming postwar world, there were dull jobs in windowless mills or as clerks and waitresses in the towns of Monroeville and Atmore and Bay Minette.

Forget amenities. Lacking any sort of political clout due to its sparse population, the northern end of Baldwin County was the last to get such necessities as paved roads, electricity, telephones, even county water. Most of that came in the early forties -- especially the paving of Highway 59, needed as a pipeline to haul turpentine and lumber to Mobile in the war effort -- but then all of that stopped, once the war had ended, and the communities of Tensaw and Blacksher and Little River were abandoned during a period of unprecedented growth through the rest of the nation. The interstate connecting Montgomery and Mobile was laid out some thirty miles away. Oil was discovered near Atmore and Monroeville -- oil in the cotton fields! -- but not in Baldwin County. That neck of the woods had received none of the basic services that most American taxpayers had come to expect during this, the American Century: schools, libraries, town halls, playgrounds, small factories, white-collar jobs of any kind. The young left as soon as they could get a driver's license and wheels, leaving behind their parents and grandparents to scrape along on whatever savings they might have or on government checks of all sorts. About the only outsiders who knew much about that part of Baldwin County were the lawmen who responded to outbreaks of random violence, the loggers who came to haul the lumber away, the paramedics who carried off the sick and the dead, and the sportsmen who came in from the towns and cities to hunt or fish or simply escape civilization by holing up in their getaway cabins or trailers on streams and ponds in the deep woods, where bullfrogs and cicadas and foraging wild animals ruled the night.

Once highway 59 has cleared the blinking caution light at Tensaw, the turnoff for the sad remains of the pinepole fort where the Creek Massacre occurred nearly two centuries ago, it begins an undulating roll northward toward the bridge over the Little River that marks the Baldwin and Monroe County line thirteen miles away. There is little to distract the motorist except road signs riddled by gunshot and fervent evangelical warnings hand-lettered on scraps of tin or lumber nailed to pine trees (HE THAT BELIEVETH NOT IS CONDEMNED ALREADY AND REPENT OR BURN IN HELL), but it is, nonetheless, a perilous road as it twists and rises into woods thick with orderly rows of pine planted for harvest. Deer are everywhere, likely to bolt across the road at any moment; and vultures, picking over flattened armadillos and rabbits and squirrels and other hapless roadkill; and, out of nowhere, somebody riding a horse along the shoulder of the road. Most treacherous of all, though, are the ferocious logging trucks, Peterbilts and Freightliners and Macks, big mothers, belching smoke and changing gears, careening wildly, their ragged loads swaying behind, stirring the dust and fluttering the leaves as they hurtle on a pell-mell rush to the nearest lumberyard.

Finally, three miles south of the river bridge, the last stop in Baldwin County, there is the community of Little River. As they say of the thousands of little black-dot hamlets spread across the vast American outback, nobody goes there without a purpose; and on the cusp of a new century, in the summer of 1997, Little River had taken on the feel and look of a Lost Colony. The nearest Baldwin County schools were thirty-seven miles away, by yellow school bus, in Bay Minette (although high schoolers had the option of attending J. U. Blacksher High in Uriah, seventeen miles up Highway 59 in Monroe County); the nearest doctors and dentists and full-service grocery stores nearly an hour's drive; the one remaining movie house twenty-two miles off in Atmore; the only public diners between Stockton and Uriah a pair of catfish-and-hamburger eateries open mainly on weekends, when the hunters and fishermen came around. The only jobs in the immediate area involved logging or clerking at the convenience and package liquor stores out on the road. The only time the residents of the community ever came together as a body, it seemed, was in the early afternoon of the first and third days of each month, when the government checks arrived, bringing swarms of old or disabled people to the gravel parking lot of the post office, a whitewashed fifteen-by-thirty-foot cinder-block affair squatting beside the road under a scraggly grove of trees. It sat next to the only place that could be called a community center in all of Little River, except perhaps for the boat launch at Dixie Landing on the Alabama River: Ferguson's Grocery, a combination country store and gas station where one might cash a check or buy limited groceries or make a call from a pay phone or simply catch up on the gossip.

Little River was on the earliest maps of the area, due to its post office and its proximity to the boat landing, but its stuttering growth has been haphazard at best. Now there are only two paved roads spinning off of Highway 59 -- the four-mile Dixie Landing Road, leading to the boat launch, and a stretch named Gantt Road that turns to dirt and winds into the woods after about a mile or so -- and all of the other thoroughfares, if they can be called such, are widened old logging trails or newly bulldozed roads named after current or past families of some note: Couglan, Phillips, Boone, Cumbie, Earle, Gantt, Haywood, Benjamin. The lines separating the communities of Tensaw, Blacksher, Little River, and Chrysler are blurred, but the population of what is known as Little River is generally agreed to be about two hundred, spread over an area of some fifty square miles of swamps and bogs and hummocks and tangled woods and wandering streams.

The populace is a Faulknerian huddle of fairly exotic proportions. There is a thick, horny good old boy who would do anything for his wife, a temptress who knows it and drives him wild with jealousy; an ageless cantankerous black couple who embark from their trailer back in the swamp each afternoon for a trip to "the store," for supplies and companionship, driving twenty miles an hour on the dirt road and on Highway 59 alike in their duct-taped vintage car; at least one drunk and one well-to-do cotton baron and one strapping patriarch who has been drawing disability checks for most of his life; a chatty postmistress, a bully, a hermit, a kid who has spent half his life in jail, moonshiners and pot growers, married cousins who have produced damaged children, a shadowy Klansman who lives alone behind locked gates guarded by German shepherds, and on and on and on. The community's leading citizen goes by the name of Peanut. There is a hell-raising dandy named Doll, a black named Bubba, a sheriff's deputy lyrically named Murray January, and another called Hoss because he looks like the character from the old Bonanza television series, an L.B. and an H.L. and a John Wayne Boone (to distinguish from his cousin John John Boone) and an aging spinster named Bobbie Lee Gantt. Their lives are as thick and intertwined as a flavorful gumbo.

Whites live mostly on the paved roads, blacks in ragged areas back toward the woods in places known as Sawmill Road and Couglan Swamp, but they share a landscape dotted with modest fields of cotton and corn and kitchen gardens known as "pea-patches." In the yards beside most residences, whether brick homes or patched-up board shacks or trailers, there are television satellite dishes and pickup trucks and flat-bottom fishing boats and stanchions holding clusters of gourds that house flocks of voracious insect-gobbling martins. There are nearly a dozen churches in "metropolitan Little River," as some drolly refer to the place, most of them with congregations numbering little more than twenty, one of them (the black All-Seeing Eyes Holiness) with a hand-painted directional sign out on Highway 59 of a pair of stark, watchful eyes, raised eyebrows and all, remindful of the ominous optometrist's billboard in The Great Gatsby.

Over the years it has been a dangerous, violent place, where if the backbreaking labor or an errant piece of machinery doesn't maim or kill you, a neighbor might. It seems, at times, as if there is a shotgun under every bed. The family histories, and the files down at the county courthouse in Bay Minette, are brimming with tales of man's impatience with his fellow man in Little River: out-and-out killings in shoot-outs, tire-iron beatings just for the hell of it, bloody fistfights, drug-turf wars, burglaries and robberies, and such simple acts of meanness as letting the air out of a man's tires just because he's pissed somebody off. Marijuana and cheap forms of cocaine, in addition to the old standbys beer and whiskey, had entered the mix during the seventies and become the curse of the latest generation.

And Alabama, like the hardscrabble countryside of Ireland and Scotland whence came most of its white citizens' ancestors, has been roundly denigrated by most of the larger world that it refuses to join. There is an apocryphal story about the airline pilot who came in over the intercom system, on a flight from Atlanta to Montgomery, to remind his passengers of the change from Eastern to Central Standard Time: "So don't forget to set your watches back...twenty years." And there is the line that Alabamians like to use before some Yankee beats them to it, "Thank God for Mississippi," for Alabama would be dead last among the fifty United States in a long list of important rankings, from education to per capita income, if not for its even poorer next-door neighbor. Everybody needs someone to look down upon, and in the era of genteel political correctness at the end of the twentieth century, the only group of Americans not immune from ridicule were the rural poor white Southerners, the Bubbas, the Good Old Boys. They were roundly dismissed as "white trash," the lowest of the low, at the bottom of the social ladder, and their prickly awareness of what others said of them conspired to keep them there. Their favored novelty vehicle license plate showed a caricature of a curmudgeonly graybeard in a Confederate Army uniform, snarling, "Forget, hell!"

Copyright © 2000 by Paul Hemphill

About The Author

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (May 11, 2010)
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439138267

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

Melissa Fay Greene author of Praying for Sheetrock and The Temple Bombing The Ballad of Little River is a tale of the Southern backwoods, filled with old-fashioned sense of place, of kin, of midsummer heat and copperheads and welfare checks and cinder-block churches and -- because this is Alabama, both changing and unchanging -- of a sense of the other, of racial distance. At its core one finds both kindness and cruelty, told in the desultory voice of a longtime storyteller and seer into the human heart.

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images