Doyle Johns Interview

Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library
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DOYLE JOHNS: Uh, the families migrated then. My grandmother and two uncles and one aunt, they migrated to Alabama City. Of course a year or so later then our family, my mother and Daddy and my two brothers and my sister, now we migrated to Alabama City in 1920. Well, my daddy never went to work in the mill even though my grandmother and two uncles and aunts was working in Dwight Manufacturing Company, but he was always in the general merchandise business, so being in general merchandise, I start out at a very young age just following my uncles and aunts around that worked for my daddy. He hired his kin folks to take orders -- back then you took your orders in the morning, delivered them in the afternoon, so I would go with them to take the orders then I'd go back with them to deliver the orders and I'd been out as late as midnight delivering feed to make sure that the customers got their feed for their cow -- 00:01:00cattle and everything related and I -- it just always been in the merchandise. I grew up working in the store, too. It was a general merchandise store. Daddy handled groceries and vegetables and a meat market and clothing. He sold shoes and dresses and overalls and one of his leading things on a Saturday to get them to come in was he would get bananas and he would hang stocks of bananas all over the store and sell 'em ten cents a dozen and that was my job to sell bananas while the rest of 'em came into the store to trade. And he had a tremendous trade. He just kept at one time or he had the grocery store in front of the (inaudible) mill and he had what we called the blue front grocery store for the old rolling mill and he bought the livery stable across the street and he converted that into a 24-hour garage. So he was just a general business man of Alabama City.


GEORGE STONEY: Well, straighten us out on something then because some people have talked about a company store here.

JOHNS: Well, the company store -- I always thought of it being a company store. Frank and [Haggertons?], uh, was an independent store but still you could trade there and they would deduct it -- take it out of your paycheck on Saturday. But when I was a child before I went to work in the mill, they worked 12 hours a day and they worked until 12:00 on Saturday and they got paid in cash. Well, when I went to work at Dwight Mills I had to send off and get my birth certificate at 16. Well, the NRA had gone into effect and I was making, uh, well, I was learning to doff at that time and I was making $8 a week and we got paid on Saturday in cash, but we didn't work but 40 hours a week.

STONEY: Now, where did you go to school?

JOHNS: The first school I went to was the Dwight Grammar School and I'll show 00:03:00you my picture when I was in the third grade. This was me in the third grade in 1925 and this teacher was Miss Law and she later married Mr. Kemp that was manager of the [A&PT?] company next door to the Ritz Theater and I can name all of my grammar school teachers. My first grade teacher was Pauline Henderson. My second grade teacher was Annie Ruth Kirk, and incidentally, in the second grade is when vaccinations first came out for the public schools and I got my first vaccination in the second grade and there was one little girl in there, her name was little Irving girl and she had had the smallpox so she didn't have to take the vaccination, so we all envied her. The rest of us arms had big ol' egg [knobs?] on it. So, that was there.

STONEY: Well, now we're interested in the big strike they had in 1934. You were 16 at that time. Could you -- you were observing it. Could you tell us 00:04:00what you saw?

JOHNS: I was in high school at the time and my mother kept --

STONEY: I'm sorry, I was at the high school at the time of that '34 strike. OK?

JOHNS: I was in high school at the time of the 1934 strike and at the time my mother and daddy had separated and my mother was working for [B. Browns?] on Wall Street and she was keeping borders. Most of the baseball players from Dwight Manufacturing Company, and when they came out on the strike, well, uh, we, uh -- at that time it just been a youth, well, I didn't -- didn't bother me too much. I played [rook?] and played checkers on the line with all of 'em that worked in the mill and all the ball players that I knew, and in fact, that was just a good time for me. I didn't -- I wasn't involved in the mill strike and everything and I didn't think they had too much trouble.

STONEY: How did it affect your daddy's business?

JOHNS: It affected his business a great deal.

STONEY: Just say, it affected my father's grocery business.


JOHNS: It affected my father's grocery business, so -- so much, but not all that much. They weren't out all that long. They had to eat so they still got their groceries on credit and so they -- Daddy let 'em have it on a bill and of course he never got all of the bills paid. He died with some of the bills still owing to him.

STONEY: You say it wasn't out for long, but they were out for 13 weeks and when you're really poor, that must have really been a strain on your daddy to carry all those people.

JOHNS: I'm sure it was, but being youth I didn't realize it. We had a big garden and a calf and most of 'em they cut down on their grocery bill. In other words, they all had calves and they all had gardens and it didn't take much for us in those days. We managed.

STONEY: OK. Let's see -- now, another thing that we should talk about in the schools -- I noticed in your autobiography, we want to try and get something of 00:06:00the kind of moral climate of the village which I gather was fairly strict. You mentioned in your autobiography that there was a fence between the girls' and the boys' thing. Could you talk about that?

JOHNS: Yeah, the three-storied white school building I went to -- well the -- at the end of the big three-storied building was the bathroom, so to speak and on the right side was the -- the girls went in there, on the left side the boys and the fence went right on down to the ditch. So the girls played on the right side, the boys played on the left side, and we had plenty of swings and bars and everything to play on but our main games that we played was capturing the flag and run sheep run and cowboys and Indians and I always liked to be on the toughest guy in the school's side -- to be on the cowboy's side and, too, in 00:07:00those days if I had a fight on the school ground and I got whipped, well, the teacher's gonna whip us, too, and then when I got home I would get three whippings. But fortunately I didn't lose too many fights on the school ground so I didn't get but two whippings when I got into a fight.

STONEY: Now you have a pamphlet there. Tell us about it.

JOHNS: This pamphlet, I'm not sure just exactly when Dwight Manufacturing Company put this pamphlet out but I think it was around 1912 and I think they were still -- it's a public relationship pamphlet that they carried out and passed around to people on Sand Mountain and Lookout Mountain and other cities nearby that would help their public relations to get them to come work at Dwight. But they did have a lot to offer in this pamphlet. They had good housing and good sanitary conditions and good climate and good working conditions and they did -- Dwight, to my opinion, was good to their employees 00:08:00that they did, uh, furnish their church and their preachers and furnished their schools and everything and, uh --

JUDITH HELFAND: Do you think you could read some of it to us, huh?

STONEY: Yeah, you might just flip through it and read some it -- headings.

JOHNS: Let me show you this picture? This village boarding house is -- was a well-known place in the '30s. It -- that's where boarders that worked in Dwight Manufacturing Company lived. That's also where Ben Stuart lived before he married -- that was a police traffic that road the motorcycle. But this building burned in 1927. Well, my grandfather just had built a new grocery store on Canterbury for my father and he led me by the hand -- I was about nine years old around -- and I held his hand while we watched this boardin house burn to the ground and I understand that there was Mr. and Mrs. Adams that took 00:09:00care of this boardinghouse until those days and it burned to the ground. They never rebuilt it. In this same spot later on well there would be skating rinks come in. They built a caf there and a skating rink would come down, maybe stay three or four months and then move to another place. And maybe a little carnival -- a merry-go-round and swing and a Ferris wheel they put down there and then they'd move on somewhere else. That is on the corner of Wall Street and [Kyle?] Avenue in those days.

STONEY: Now you -- because your father was a merchant and -- but you had worked in the mill a bit yourself and your parents -- your grandparents had worked in the mill, you are in a position to tell us kind of in a way in a kind of neutral way, attitudes here. What was the general attitude towards labor organization in the town in the early '30s?

JOHNS: In the early '30s to me I was busy in school and playing ball and 00:10:00everything and I didn't get too much attitude toward any union. It just never entered my mind. Nobody never spoke about it.

STONEY: Looking back on it now could you draw any conclusions about it?

JOHNS: Well, I've heard talk, but I couldn't draw any conclusions. I've heard talk and I think the most talk really came after Dwight sold the mill to Cone. I think there problem was with Cone and not with Dwight Manufacturing Company as far as I can tell.

STONEY: Uh, there was a sheriff here -- OK. There was a -- but no, but you told me that I was wrong about that sheriff I believe. Let's see. Judy, do you have something that's on your list there?


JOHNS: George Harris was the Chief of Police during that time and of course my daddy had been an alderman of the police department. Well, everything seemed to be fine as far as I could tell.

STONEY: So, because we get contrary reports. For example, a little while ago Mr. Ware said that there was no violence during the strike. Some other people have told us about turning over cars. Could you remember any of that?

JOHNS: No, I couldn't. I mean, this wasn't my cup of tea in those days. I did play rook and I played checkers at what we called the back gate. In fact, it was just a [grove?] between where I lived and the back gate and it's when I went in the back gate when I worked there, but I didn't see anything like that going on, but I'm not surprised that it didn't up at the front gate and the coal gate.

STONEY: Did you hear anything about guns? Did you see any guns down there?

JOHNS: I probably did see a gun or two carried around, but I never seen any of 00:12:00them used. I mean, I think some of them just carried them for protection.

STONEY: What about clubs?

JOHNS: And clubs. On any strike picket line, well, you'll find clubs and guns I'm sure. You may not be able to see them, but I'm sure they're there.


(break in video)

STONEY: Sir, you, as I say, represent a lot of southern people who are making big local collections. Tell us about it and why you do it and what you've got here.

JOHNS: Well, you might say I started out for my own descendants to know what happened in the past as well as anybody. Really my wife talks about this often. We talk about it. We don't do it now and leave it. We'll be able to give copies of anything we've got to anybody where it will be handed down and everybody will really understand our past. I'd like to call one attention to 00:13:00this third grade picture of me. What did I do with it? This is me in the third grade and the reason I want to call your attention to that, well, when I was in the third grade, well every Mother's Day -- we call it May Day where we had a big outing -- athletic outing, a big meeting. It what -- it was just not too far from the Dwight school and the third grade always did the May Pole Dance and the teacher paired us off with a girl whether you liked the girl or not. So that was big event in grammar school is when you reached the third grade and got to do the May Pole Dance and that was always done on May the 12th and May the 12th was Mother's Day and in the beginning, well, what a lot of people don't 00:14:00know that every governor in the United States designated May the 12th, 1912 is Mother's Day. That's when Mother's Day started and you just had the one red carnation. You didn't have a red and white flower. That is the beginning of Mother's Day and that's why Dwight School picked that up to be our May Day and they had all kinds of athletic events on that day. They had pole vaulting, a sack race, and a potato race and egg racing and what have you and that was a big day in grammar school. And another big event in grammar school was the 4th of July. It's the same principle. We lined up, teachers paired us off with a girl for a partner, we all had our American flags and we left the Dwight School and went down to the mill village. We went down Peach Street, we went down (inaudible), we went down Lake Front, we went down Fourth Street to Forrest Avenue back to Wall Street and back to Dwight Avenue back to the school 00:15:00waving our American flags and singing patriotic songs and it was very patriotic. I mean, the people in the South were very patriotic when I was in grammar school.

STONEY: What pamphlets do you have there?

JOHNS: Uh, this pamphlet here was put out by the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Gadsden and it's, uh, really a big event that happened in 1940 and right here is a map of Greater Gadsden and this is to invest in public with the Gadsden Development Company, WC Ford is President, (inaudible) Vice President and General Manager and A. M. Treadwill, Secretary and Treasurer and this was put out for the Chamber of Commerce to really attract industry to come to Gadsden and at that time they were attracting industry. I mean, they had brick yards and lumber companies and stove foundries and pipe shops and steel plants and 00:16:00cotton mills and what have you. It was really -- had the possibilities to grow. I guess we lost out on the politics. Maybe we didn't have the politicians in that we should have. At one time we were much larger than Huntsville.

STONEY: What's that?

JOHNS: This is the first book that Goodyear put out. This Working in (inaudible) for the [Industry?] of the South, by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio. And they announced to come here in 1928. In 1929, Thursday, July 11, 1929, they had the formal opening at the southern Goodyear plant. They also had nearby in Searstown a cotton mill that made fiber to go into the tires and at one time it was the largest rubber plant in the world and they have sent up trained men all over the world to run other rubber plants. And this is one that was put out in 1938 by the garden clubs. It was written 00:17:00and published by the Department of Archives and History of the Women's Club of Gadsden and it covers the music clubs, the garden clubs, and it's got a lot of interesting things about our schools, our libraries, our hospitals, our hotels, our newspapers, our theaters, our radios and recreation and sport -- it's just a very interesting book to read and they put them out so often. I have several of them, I don't know just where.

STONEY: Well, you've read a lot of those. What was their chief -- what was the chief attraction of coming to Gadsden Alabama City?

JOHNS: The chief attraction to me was the lower tax rate. The low tax rate and the climate and the location.

STONEY: Was there -- what about the wage rates?


JOHNS: The wage rate, well, the wages was like all other mills in those days, but still Dwight offered them a good house rent and good -- all kind of good things. In other words, they paid their preachers and they kept their church and they paid for all the schools, everything except the teachers. In other words, they paid for building the schools, they paid for upkeep of the schools and of course they did have a Board of Education which took care of paying the teachers. Outside that, Dwight would take care of the school system and the churches. So you can't beat that. This book here is on (iaudible) Steel. And they first -- I say (inaudible) Steel, they were first the Southern Iron and Steel Company and (inaudible) bought them out and then later Republic Steel. It was Republic Steel that I worked for for 35 and a half years and then they sold 00:19:00to LPV and then later LPV sold it to [Brennan?] Corporation, and they're still having a little problem about the [smush?] and stuff coming from the plants. It was not in contract that they (inaudible) which maybe I better not say it, but I think Brennan got a pretty good price in buying that plant because the plant was really -- really worth something.


JOHNS: This is the record of my payroll. I don't know if I was fortunate enough to run across this when I worked at Dwight Manufacturing Company for three months this gives the amount I made in three months and of course at that time they had what they call a spare hand that they would just work when somebody would take off, so you could tell I didn't make very much and according to my name here and rate is $134.06 for three months work.

STONEY: What year was that?

JOHNS: That was in 1937. That was the year after I finished high school.


STONEY: Now, do you remember when Roosevelt came in?

JOHNS: I remember when just before (inaudible) come up. I mean, the main political [set?] on the corners of Alabama City was, Stand him on his head and stand him on his feet, Hoover, Hoover can't be beat. So we all went through the Hoover administration, but Roosevelt was pretty well popular in the South. I mean, he went in with a landslide, you know and Bring Back Prosperity they'd sing and Hello Dolly and Bring Back and they inserted the NRA which helped -- which helped the wage earners. It helped me. That was about the time I went to work and it helped me. I made $15 a week and a penny out of that dollar went to the doctor. We had good doctors. For 15 cents a week I had good doctor care and nurse care that Dwight furnished. So I think Dwight was real good to the employees myself.

STONEY: Do you remember the first time you heard Franklin D. Roosevelt?


JOHNS: Yeah, I remember him coming on the radio and saying, My wife, Eleanor, she don't want no war and I don't want no war, and at that time I was in the National Guard. I knew I was headed for war and I spent five years in the service during World War II from 1940 to 1945 and three major campaigns in the South Pacific.

STONEY: But back to the -- Roosevelt had something he called Fireside Chats. Do you remember listening to him when you were a kid on the radio?

JOHNS: I sure did. Everybody had a radio and everybody tuned in on his Fire -- his chats, they sure did. As well as listening to Amos and Andy and (inaudible) and Abner and Will Rogers and others. That was the thing in those days.



HELFAND: Could I sit there? But for us to note that (break in video) for you to remind us that I lived in the middle of mill village. And we try anything that's going to be useful. Absolutely.

JOHNS: Go ahead and start? Now this picture is very important to me because of in the mill village -- in Burns Cox's home he had a nephew, a brother, and two nieces and they were all my close friends and in their yard we had a trolley with an automobile tire and we would get up in a high tree and get in that tire and ride it down to the bottom and that was -- it was the girls and the boys. It was Inez, Kitty, and Percy, and RT, and myself. We -- I would spend all day 00:23:00playing in their yard and then just one lot down, well, they had a (inaudible) that had some girls, Bobby Lee, Carry, and her sisters and brothers and we would play in their yard. There was only room to play One-Eyed Cat. We'd have one -- we'd play string ball, we'd hit the ball and we would run to one base and then run back to the other. And then on that same street, they were the Johnsons, and the Buchanans, and the [Cartees?]. Well, you had to go through the Cartees' yard going -- walking to Dwight School and that was our marble yard and we would shoot marbles in that yard all day long when we weren't in school of course. We'd spend our Saturdays shooting marbles in their yard. And incidentally, in those days, well there was no such thing as asking for a cookie or a Coca-Cola or a cup of coffee or something like that. The mother might -- you could go around in back and get you a drink of water, but we never thought of eating any refreshments at a friend's house. I mean, we had water 00:24:00and that was it. Nobody ever come to our house wanting a -- some refreshments or something. It just wasn't the thing in those days.

HELFAND: Let's start again. OK.

JOHNS: My daddy was always in the general merchandise business as well as having an all 24-hour garage. In other words, my brother operated the gas tanks and I'd stay up there with him at night just -- I'd sleep on the cushion just to be with him and he had a bunch of mechanics working for him as well as having three grocery stores at one time. So I had been in every mill village in Dwight Mill Village at one time or the other because just about all of them traded with my daddy.

HELFAND: You know what? Excuse me. Now listen -- you know what? Are we running? You look all closed up like you're mad at me. Are you mad at me?

JOHNS: No, I'm not mad.

HELFAND: All right, well loosen up.


HELFAND: Now you're talking about your father.

JOHNS: Well, my father then in the general merchandise business I could say that I have been in every house in the Dwight Mill Village at one time or the other. 00:25:00And we would go every morning with one of them that was his duty to take orders and take their order and then we would go back to the store and then we would fill those orders and then deliver them in the afternoon and they would do that every day. In other words, the lady that was left in the house, such as Mama (inaudible) Cox, would give an order every morning for her family 'cause she did have a large family living there and we would deliver it that afternoon and then a lot of them wouldn't have to buy their cotton seed hulls and meal for their calves except for once a week and they would generally order that on Friday and we would deliver it on Saturday. So I would go back and deliver their calf feed on Saturday real late. And it's just I remember building some new houses and that was when I was in World War II and there may be one or two that I hadn't been in, but there's not many houses in that mill village that 00:26:00I hadn't been in and I knew all the families, too, because I went to school with all of them. I went to school with all of them. I knew all of them by name. Back then you knew everybody. I could stay in front of the post office on Wall Street and I could name you everybody come down Wall Street. Or in high school when they built them (inaudible) in high school it was built for 400 people and I can name you everybody in that school. Of course I don't think I could do that now.

HELFAND: Can you name a bunch of families on one street?


HELFAND: OK. Which street are we going to do? Let's do where Burns Cox's family lived. Where did [T Mama?] live?

JOHNS: That was on [Hinsdale?] Street.

HELFAND: OK. Start with -- now T Ma, Burns Cox's mother, she lived on blahdy-blah and then you tell me all the families that --

STONEY: (inaudible) on how you play that.

JOHNS: Gosh, that's really asking me a hard one.

HELFAND: Well, you could miss a couple.

JOHNS: I can remember on this street Grady Kilgo lived on that street. And I can remember another one on that street -- (inaudible) [Kason?] lived on that 00:27:00street. And I remember Arnold Bolden lived on that street.

HELFAND: We don't know what street you're talking about.

JOHNS: I'm talking about Hinsdale Street.

HELFAND: OK. So you start, now on Hindsdale Street --

JOHNS: And the Shrums lived on that street and Shrum was the superintendent of the spinning room and he lived on that street. Well, that's quite a bit on that, but on the next street over was [Comnot?] Street and I remember on Comnot Street well the Buchanans live on the corner, next door was the Hollands, next door was the Cartees. Across the street from that was the Barfields and then across from them was the Jacobs and next door to them was the Johnsons. I can remember that in many home -- Comnot Street.

HELFAND: OK. I need for you to look at me. I know when you remember

(break in video)

JOHNS: Albert Street was what we called Bosses Street and in the very first 00:28:00house was SL Long and his son was Ed Long and LJ Long and then they had some sisters that I can't recall their name right now, but then they had Perkins. He was the boss of the cloth room, and then they had Ben Turner. He was the boss of the card room, and then Corsa Cross, just one big grove (inaudible) over there, that was the agent's house. And the only agents that I remember in my life time was Alan Little and Thomas Cousins and Charles Moody. That's the only three agents that I remember. There may have been more, but I just don't remember.

HELFAND: Could you tell us what the agents did and if you could

(break in video)

JOHNS: (inaudible) I was thinking was [watching?] and get his apples and peaches.

STONEY: Wait, wait. We want you to say, I didn't know -- I knew all the --

HELFAND: Bosses.

STONEY: -- I knew most of the supervisors but I didn't know --

JOHNS: Actually, I didn't know any of the agents personally but I knew of them and I knew where they lived because I had been around their place many times. 00:29:00In other words, the scout troop was right down below where the agents lived and there was a tool room Boy Scout and I was a mascot. I didn't get to join the Boy Scouts until I was 12 years old but I have been in the agents' orchards -- I had been in his -- when I was a kid I had been in his peaches and his apples and everything, but I didn't actually know him personally, but I did know the supervisors and their families and everything pretty well. And I think the reason they put out this book was that they maybe just hitched up a horse to a buggy and gave some of the men these old books to go out and in fact go right up this [Tabor?] Road about five to ten miles and you'd be surprised at the number of people that live ten miles up this Tabor Road that went and worked at Dwight Manufacturing Company through reading this book. And one other thing that did happen to me about when I was going in all the houses in the mill village, well, my brother and I we were on the back of a '34 pickup truck and 00:30:00he had a BB gun and he shot one of the -- one of the Dwight workers on the leg about three blocks from the store. Of course they knew who he was in town. We got back to the store. Well, they knew Daddy already knew that it was my brother that did it and he carried him into the feed store and whipped him real good and I don't remember him ever shooting anybody else with a BB gun while out delivering groceries.