We all have favorite summer memories, but what was summer like for children growing up at Lay Dam?
This spring, 20 people who grew up in the Lay Dam Village between the 1930s and the early 1970s returned to the plant site on the Coosa River near Clanton for the second reunion of villagers.
Thanks to the hard work of former residents Jim Murphy, Jack Avant, Barbara Petty and others, quite a few villagers were found and came to a centennial celebration in 2014. Villagers from as far away as Washington state, Texas, North Carolina and Florida attended. Every villager had one thing in common: They loved growing up at Lay Dam. They enjoyed themselves so much that at the centennial they made plans to meet again in 2017.
“You don’t know how much this place means to all of us,” Murphy said in May. “We were so lucky to grow up here. It played such an important part of our lives. It made us who we are today. All of these people here today, some of whom we haven’t seen in over 50 years, all still feel like family to us.”
Lay Village was built in 1912 because the dam site was about 13 miles from the nearest town.
Before construction could begin on the dam, a village to house the workers had to be built.
Workers and their families needed houses, an infirmary, school, churches, and dining and recreational facilities. After the dam was finished in late 1913, most of the workers moved on to other projects. The housing and facilities that remained were either dismantled or converted to support the needs of the permanent employees at the plant.
Looking out from the porch of the restored superintendent’s house, Petty said, “Besides seeing this place as it is today, we also see it as it was when we were kids. We see the houses, the school, the community center, the swimming pool. Back then, we just took all of it for granted.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were really blessed to grow up in a place like this.”
Many of the villagers recorded their accounts of growing up in Lay Village in the book “Lay Dam: Remembering Our Childhood.” Here is a window into what summer looked like decades ago, growing up in the Lay Dam Village:
For us, it was a wonderful environment in which to spend our early childhood. We were free!
We hunted squirrels and rabbits. We fished whenever we wanted to. We had secret hiding places in the woods. We played cowboys and Indians to our heart’s content and we did all those other things that young boys love to do. It was fabulous and my memories always take me back to those happy days at Lay Dam.
The power company provided and operated a swimming pool for us, tennis courts, a community clubhouse where we had Halloween parties, dances for the grown-ups and the highlight event of the year – a 4th of July barbecue. … I feel very fortunate to be at a loss for words to describe my happiness at Lay Dam.
We used to shell purple hull peas in the screened porch on the left front of the house and during the heat of summer, I would lay down on the cool, smooth concrete floor of the porch to rest.
During the summertime, the gate was the focal point of activity for us kids when we were not swimming in the pool or the river. I can remember it as if it were yesterday … shimmying up the iron I-beam on the left side of the gate and just lying there with my face on the cool metal to get relief from the heat.
From the ages of about 5 to 12, myself, my brother Lawrence, along with friends Frank, Toby and Ben, would arrive at the gate at 5:30 in the morning so we could open and close it for fishermen coming from Clanton. We would take turns opening and closing the gate and would stand there with our little hands held out hoping for a tip. Most would tip us a nickel or a dime and sometimes we would go home with a couple of dollars at the end of the day.
There are hundreds of memory vignettes that I could describe about Lay Dam Village life during my childhood – all of them wonderful. Like the time my cousin, George, and I built a Huck Finn type raft out of small trees at the gate. We lugged that raft a half-mile to Bates’ slough and launched it into the water down the hill from Downie’s house. We had planned to paddle out to the island on it but since we had green trees, it went straight to the bottom, never to be seen again. We just stood there like little idiots trying to figure out what had gone wrong.
So thank you, Alabama Power Company, for providing me with a childhood environment unmatched in happiness and wonder.
Check back for more summer accounts from other Lay Villagers as the series continues this month.