Benjamin Russell

Benjamin Russell, 1876-1931, founder of Russell Manufacturing Company, public servant, and civic benefactor, organizer of the first Alabama State Chamber of Commerce.

Benjamin Russell was the origin of all things Russell, in Alabama today.

Born on a small farm in rural Tallapoosa County Alabama, exactly 100 years after 1776, Ben Russell’s genealogy traces back to Richard Russell of Westchester County, England, in the 14th century. Beginning in 1603 the lineage traces on through the church records of Ipswich County and London and finally, around 1750, James Russell crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Charleston, South Carolina. His son John Russell fought in the War of Independence. The family slowly migrated through Georgia and into Alabama.

B.F.C. and Bettie’s son, Benjamin, was “a dedicated and hardworking young man” and eventually worked his way through the University of Virginia, graduating in the spring of 1899 with a law degree.

Following his marriage in November 1899 to Roberta Bacon McDonald, Benjamin Russell practiced law in Birmingham for a few months. When his father, B.F.C., suffered a paralyzing stroke in early 1900, Benjamin returned to Alexander City to manage the family business. In the same year, at the age of 24, he founded the Citizens Bank of Alexander City, which in 1904 became the First National Bank, then Aliant Bank, the predecessor to the present-day Valley Bank System.

In April of 1902, Ben Russell founded Russell Mills in a 50 x 100-foot wooden building with six knitting machines and ten sewing machines. The new company purchased yarn for the knitting machines, which made the cloth for the cut and sew operation. The company’s first garment was a ladies and children’s knitted shirt, produced at the rate of 150 a day. Tragically, on Friday, June 13, 1902, the entire business district of Alexander City, including Citizen’s Bank, burned.

Mr. Ben did not confine his efforts to rebuilding his bank. The pioneering spirit of his lineage allowed him to quickly shake off the effects of “the great fire” and take a bold, new leap.

Young Ben Russell was quite adept at most practical applications of his ingenuity, but in those early days, success in such a fledgling business was difficult. It soon became apparent that each garment cost several cents more than it could be sold for. He met with his employees and in a heart-to-heart talk, the matter of quantity and quality of production was discussed. Following a grim “we succeed, or we fail together” declaration, they came away with an even stronger resolve. Hard work and innovation were Ben Russell’s greatest assets and these as well as a thousand other problems were ultimately solved.

In 1908, the ladies and children’s shirts went out of style and Russell changed its product line to ladies’ step-ins or teddies. Thus, the first change in what would become a constant flow of designs and garments to meet customer demands, from underwear to dress, casual, active, and athletic wear, under the Russell Athletic brand.

In the spring of 1902, “Mr. Ben,” as he was called by all, built a telephone line from Dadeville through Alexander City and on to Sylacauga, establishing the first telephone service in Alexander City. The first exchange placed twenty telephones in service through a switchboard located in the basement of the First National Bank. This business venture later was sold to Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph on February 24, 1904, for $15,250 – a significant sum in its day.

In 1911 the banker and cotton miller needed electrical power for his little mill and he began construction of a dam at Buzzards’ Roost Shoals on the Tallapoosa River, about five miles northeast of downtown Alexander City.

Alabama Power had, however, begun preparation for the massive Martin Dam project farther downstream. This impoundment would flood Mr. Ben’s site.

The old tales paint a picture of a sophisticated gentleman, briefcase in hand, calling on Mr. Ben at the construction site of his dam.

The story goes that Mr. Martin introduced himself as an attorney representing investors who had acquired the riparian rights (only) to the entire river valley.  The obvious message would have been that the small, new facility would soon be below the level of the huge, new Lake Martin, to come.

Knowing the gentlemanly nature of the two – actual facts were most likely replaced at this point by pure humor.  Allegedly, Mr. Ben informed Mr. Martin that he too was an attorney and that it would appear that they were standing on Mr. Ben’s property while discussing Mr. Martin’s visions!

We must hasten, at this point, to say that this version could not have been technically correct, for the two men became lifelong friends and worked tirelessly, together to bring us to the incredibly fortuitous point that we enjoy today.

According to Thomas W. Martin, Chairman of the Board of Alabama Power Company, Mr. Russell was the “moving spirit” behind his new Industries Light Power Company. After much negotiation, Mr. Russell sold this power project to the Interstate Power Company, which became Alabama Power Company in 1920.

In the words of Martin, “the broadminded Russell recognized the greater public benefit of the complete development of the power of the stream.  A satisfactory agreement was therefore reached with Russell for purchase of his Industries Light and Power Company and for supplying his enterprises with power through a very favorable power franchise.” Most importantly, however, Mr. Ben promoted a personal friendship and an agreement with Martin that would lead to the purchase of a significant portion of the 880 miles of shoreline property of the new lake.

Ben, like his forefathers, remained “close to the land” and he continued to develop the family farm – the pioneering spirit seems to have continued to evolve. He ultimately combined some of the land acquired from the Alabama Power Company with the family farm – in the 1930s this comprised 30,000 acres of farm and timberland on the shores of Lake Martin.

Following the founding of Russell Mills/Russell Corporation in 1902, Mr. Ben was quick to build a church for the people that were moving into the new Russell mill village. The church was a typical white structure with wood columns, offering Methodist and Baptist services on alternating Sundays – the two preachers and one congregation system seemed to work just fine, over the years.

Mr. Ben realized the need to provide education for his employees and their families and in the fall of 1917, he brought into the organization Professor R.Y. Scott to establish the Russell Mills School and hold classes in the Russell Mills church building. By 1924 the school had outgrown the church facility and a new school building was built. In 1927 the Russell School became a part of the Alexander City School System offering grades kindergarten through ninth.

The mill village grew to 350 or so houses but beginning in the late 1950s residents were encouraged to purchase property in Springhill Subdivision that had been made available and build their own home. By mid-1960 the “old mill village” had been replaced by the ever-expanding “cotton mill.”

In addition to all the mill and bank-related interests, Mr. Ben began buying or creating other businesses. In 1916 he opened the Alex City Wholesale Grocery business in the area of the present-day fire department and the former Outlook newspaper office location. Mr. Ben became owner and operator and Mr. I.C. Kelley was appointed manager. This grew into a very successful operation and by 1941 consisted of two plants with twelve buildings and over one hundred employees.

In 1920 Mr. Ben purchased the Nolen Hotel, formerly the Alabama Hotel, from Leon Nolen and changed the name to the Russco Hotel. The name was later changed to the Russell Hotel. The Hotel was located on prime property across from the railroad station in Alexander City and the dining room became the in-place in Alexander City.

In 1923 Mr. Ben built a hospital for the rapidly growing community. Russell Hospital, which was located on Lee Street, began operation with thirty-five beds and provided equipment for surgery and general inpatient care. Throughout its 41 years at the Lee Street location, many additions were made to the hospital as the town and mills continued to grow. In 1964 the Russell Hospital built a modern facility on Highway 280. Today the continually expanding Russell Medical Center is a progressive medical complex, serving several communities.

In 1923 Ben Russell completed a dam across Elkahatchee Creek, located three and one-half miles south of downtown Alexander City. He built a pumping station, pipeline, filter plant, and waterworks system that would supply the entire town until 1947, and the Russell Mills and Russell mill village until the early 1980s. For many years thereafter stories of the difficulties of digging the three-mile-long pipeline ditch by hand were legendary.

The early 1920s were outstanding years for Florida land and real estate speculation. Mr. Ben, the opportunist, purchased a hotel in Coral Gables, Florida. This would have been a very rewarding venture had it not been for the stock market crash of 1929. Florida’s real estate boom did not begin again until well after World War II.

In 1918, the young Russell purchased the Alexander City Manufacturing Company, a “millwork” or woodworking industry, with a likely predetermined objective. Prior to the completion of the “New Electric Dam,” as it was called locally, much of the 41,150-acre footprint of Lake Martin had to be cleared of “old-growth timber,” huge three to five-hundred-year-old longleaf pines as well as the tremendous hardwoods.

Seeing the potential of this operation, Mr. Russell and J.M. Steverson purchased a standard gauge rail locomotive, laid the railroad lines, and began operating the Pine Lumber Company railroad in 1916. The tracks terminated in Alexander City at the sawmill and lumberyard of Mr. Ben’s newly acquired woodworking industry.

Mr. Russell’s farming interest came from his family background, but the extreme degree of this interest has never been explained and was one of the few areas of his business ventures that could have been deemed to be not entirely logical. Land and timber alone were not challenging enough for Ben Russell, so in 1926 he formally created Dixie Farms. This was during the time Martin Dam was being constructed. This family farming business was actually managed by Mr. Ben and his brother, Thomas C. Russell, from their offices in the First National Bank in Alexander City. Thomas C. became Mayor of Alexander City in 1907 and served until 1947.

Ben Russell, always the entrepreneur, was intent on promoting farming and other productive lifestyles for the people of this most rural area of East Central Alabama. He called on his bank to cooperate in setting up a number of innovative, financial vehicles to help the cash-poor farming families set up their own ventures. The land was made available, mules were purchased, seed and fertilizer provided, and supervision offered, along with cooperative purchasing and marketing arrangements.

There were many categories of this cooperative-type venture – “one-horse (or one-mule) farms” and “two-horse farms.” Usually, one family of 3-4 would be allocated one “horse.” Cotton was the primary crop, early on. A bale of cotton would then sell for $25 and a one-horse farm could produce 4-5 bales a season.

Mr. Ben’s new farming venture, like the bank and the textile mill, was quite successful in those years and for an extended period, approximately 100 families made their livelihood on the Russell farmlands surrounding the small settlement of Dixie. The primary crops were cotton, corn, and peanuts. Later, cattle were also raised on this land. This “close to the land” thinking surely saved many a family from destitution during the harsh years of the Great Depression in the Deep South.

With the help of George Washington Carver, better farming techniques and the use of advanced, hybrid seed stock were promoted on Dixie Farms. In 1928 a successful experiment was undertaken. Ben Russell set aside 3,000 acres to provide for the production of long-staple cotton in east Alabama. These endeavors required much vision and commitment. A cotton gin, for example, had to be built at Dixie Farms.

The first farm superintendent, or overseer, of Dixie Farms, was Mr. Arthur Worthy for whom the farm church, Worthy’s Chapel, and the school were named. The church is now the Russell Farm Baptist Church. Dr. McElroy Dean, a local veterinarian, became farm superintendent of “Dixie” and remained until 1937 when Mr. Russell Ballard was appointed. Mr. Ballard, who had served as assistant superintendent when he joined Dixie Farms on November 20, 1933, became superintendent in 1937 and served in that capacity until his retirement from Russell Lands in December 1974. Mr. Ballard’s assistant, Rudolph Evans, served as head forester for Russell Lands until 1982.

“Dixie” was the central location of the old Dixie Farms, which later became the Russell Farms operation. Previously the site was home to the old Benson Dixie Industrial Company. Dixie, now Russell Crossroads, was located on the present Highway 63 just north of Windermere Road. The fields, barns, and farmhouses are gone now, along with the sawmill, turpentine mill, cotton gin, charcoal plant, blacksmith’s shop, log pond, railroad, dairy, and superintendent’s house.

During the early days of Dixie Farms, Lake Martin began to fill and Mr. Russell spent time and resources on controlling the erosion problem. It was then predicted that within 50 years the entire lake would fill with the silt washing in from the surrounding farm fields.

During these years, most small rural farms in the southeast were being abandoned to erosion and the general population shift. Even Dixie suffered the same fate as time and morays took their toll. Today it is hard to imagine that farmers, then, had no clue that their life-giving topsoil would soon be totally depleted. Mr. Ben’s solution was the promotion of an all-out war on erosion. His efforts were immense; the resulting terrace and drainage patterns covered virtually every acre of land and are still quite visible in the dense forest of today. The scope of this undertaking is evident now, however, only with the realization that the individual farmer completed these features by his own hand, with the aid of the loyal old horses and mules. Sad to relate, most of the effort was just in time for the latter days of the small farms of the South.

Fortunately, Mr. Ben’s obsession with the land provided a young forest that would in time cover the land and promote the slow process of healing the scars of “progress.” His tree planting enterprise was, however, considered to be “fool-hearted,” in those days as, “The Alabama Power Company had just cleared and sold, burned, tied down or given away timber covering much of the 44,000 acres of land covered by Lake Martin.” Fortunately, Mr. Ben had a broader goal in mind and the old rock-strewn, red clay moonscapes of that abandoned way of life have generally recovered.

Farming was a great love of Mr. Ben but today few people realize that he was looking “a mile down the road” by acquiring all of his land, based on its relationship to Lake Martin. Company property maps and records clearly show that lake frontage, not farmland, was his ultimate goal while others complained about Lake Martin and worried about malaria. Mr. Ben could scarcely believe his good fortune – “to have a gigantic lake dropped on top of us.”

Mr. Ben believed that recreation was the wave of the future and that Lake Martin was our key to this future. He had been a charter member and officer of the Alexander City Development and Industrial Club upon its organization on April 29, 1901. He was instrumental in organizing the Commercial Club of Alexander City in 1910, which in 1920 was reorganized as the Chamber of Commerce of Alexander City, where he served as the local organization’s president from 1910 to 1937. He was the driving in establishing the Alabama State Chamber of Commerce, and became its first president, serving for three years – from June 11, 1937, until the summer of the year before his death.

Mr. Ben was one of the pioneers of good roads in Alabama. He organized and was elected President of the Florida Short Route in 1920. This group was devoted entirely to the promotion of tourist travel. He was responsible for bringing the “Florida Short Route” through Alexander City and served as president of the organization until his death. He also opened the first subdivision on Lake Martin, the Lake Hills Subdivision, on March 27, 1928. The Boulder Club, also built in 1928, had a “proper” dining facility and a huge ballroom. The Boulder Club was considered the place for social activity in Alexander City.

In 1940, Mr. Ben was among several industry leaders, principally his friend Tom Martin, who organized the Alabama Research Institute for the purpose of promoting scientific research in the use of local raw materials in the manufacture of finished products. Later the name was changed to Southern Research Institute when the organization’s geographic area of interest broadened, and it began attracting people from throughout the South. It grew to have research facilities in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, and Frederick, Maryland. In 1999 Southern Research Institute merged into a University of Alabama at Birmingham research program.

Mr. Ben had been ahead of his own time and with the coming of the second half of the century, long after his death, the greatest asset of Mr. Ben’s “closeness to the land” began to come to fruition – the appeal of the shoreline property to a slightly more affluent population. This “affluence” might have only been the ability of a textile worker to spend two or three hundred dollars to tear down an old mill village or tenant farmhouse and rebuild it in the form of a fishing cottage on lakefront property provided by the company. This affluence was also exemplified in the form of a banker from Birmingham paying $25/mo. for a “cabin” reconstructed by the farm crews. Thus, went the old tenant farmhouses and many of the 350 or so Russell mill village houses that were torn down during the late 1950s. Of far greater importance, however, this phenomenon signaled an era of solid proof that “The Old Man” could, in fact, “talk to you while looking over your shoulder, 100 years into the future.”

A typical example of Mr. Ben’s enthusiastic management style was told by Carl A. Swanson, who was traveling by train from Chicago to Florida when he happened to sit by Mr. Ben Russell somewhere north of Alexander City. By the time Mr. Ben reached home, he had persuaded Mr. Swanson, a highly educated and skilled electrical engineer, to spend the night and tour his mills the next day. Missing his train to Florida the next day, Mr. Swanson called his employer and turned down his promotion and a new position in Florida.

This and innumerous other examples of the man’s dynamic style prove that, in part, his success was due to the realization that even he could not make all of the decisions. He knew that he needed help in managing his varied enterprises.

During his lifetime Mr. Russell, the young man from a farm in one of the poorest and most rural areas of the South, had created a bank, a textile mill, a development potential of hundreds of miles of prime shoreline, an entire farming community, a mill village, church, school, hospital, a phone company, a municipal water supply, a foundry, a woodworking industry, a hotel, a dairy, a bakery, a soft drink bottling company, a laundry, a wholesale grocery and founded the State Chamber of Commerce.

The passing of “Mr. Ben” on December 16, 1941, brought great uncertainty to the rural community and many pondered the future of his vast and varied enterprises. Changing times and lifestyles soon caught up with the farming venture but the land remained. The farming interest had given purpose to the land for years, but its real value soon emerged.

Upon Mr. Ben’s death, the Benjamin and Roberta Russell Educational and Charitable Foundation was created from his estate to continue his philanthropic works. Each year millions of dollars are given in his memory through scholarships, endowments, and grants to various educational and charitable causes.

He was further memorialized by the dedication and naming of the Benjamin Russell High School on September 4, 1950. His son Robert enabled the city to enjoy tremendous savings by personally supervising the building of the new high school.

Biographical information provided by Russell Lands History.