Fort Payne


Located in the mountainous northeastern corner of Alabama between Sand Mountain and Lookout Mountain, Fort Payne is the county seat of DeKalb County. A center of the hosiery industry, the town bills itself as "The Sock Capital of the World." Fort Payne has, since its founding as a military stockade, grown to be the largest town in DeKalb County and has become an important contributor to the area's history, economy, and culture. Fort Payne has a mayor-council form of government, with the mayor and council members serving four-year terms.

History 

Before settlement, the region that includes Fort Payne was Cherokee territory. Some time in the mid-seventeenth century, Cherokee leader William "Big Will" Weber and his followers migrated to the area and established settlements in the valley between Sand Mountain and Lookout Mountain. The area became known as Big Will's Valley, with the largest settlement being Willstown. For a time, Willstown was home to Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee syllabary. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 set the stage for settlement by white migrants from the Carolinas.

Fort Payne is named after U.S. Army Captain John Payne, who in 1838 oversaw the construction of a stockade in Big Will's Valley near Willstown. The stockade, which came to be called Fort Payne by the soldiers, was built to intern the Cherokee before their forced removal along the Trail of Tears to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).

Townspeople at a produce stand in Fort Payne, Fort Payne Produce Stand ca. 1880sDuring the Civil War, the area's isolation and sparse population kept it largely out of the conflict. Fort Payne began to grow after the Civil War with the construction of a railroad between Birmingham and Chattanooga. This rail line through Big Wills Valley attracted the attention of new settlers and investors from the north, spurring population growth and opportunities. Fort Payne was selected by voters on May 5, 1878, to be the seat of county government and remains so today. Not until February 28, 1889, however, was Fort Payne officially incorporated as a town.

Demographics 

Fort Payne’s population at the time of the 2010 Census was 14,012. Of that number, 77.6 percent identified themselves as white, 20.9 percent as Hispanic, 4.2 percent as African American, 2.5 percent as two or more races, 0.9 percent as Native American, 0.8 percent as Asian, and 0.2 percent as Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. The city's median household income was $38,536, and per capita income was $20,507.

Economic Development and Employment 

Built in 1889 during Fort Payne's economic boom, Fort Payne Opera HouseThe discovery of nearby coal and iron ore initiated Fort Payne's industrialization in the 1880s. The "boom" times of Fort Payne began with the founding of the Fort Payne Coal and Iron Company by wealthy New England speculators in 1889. This investment in Fort Payne helped attract additional investors and settlers to the area, sparking a period of phenomenal growth. Wealthy transplanted New Englanders financed the construction of rolling mills, foundries, steel plants, and other industries. During this time, town leaders brought electricity to much of the town, the Fort Payne Opera House was built, and the opulent 125-room DeKalb Hotel served visitors from around the world. When the coal and iron deposits around Fort Payne became unprofitable and wealthy investors withdrew their support, Fort Payne's economy quickly collapsed. Although the boom lasted only four years, many notable and historic buildings remain from this period.

In October of 1907, the establishment of the Florence Knitting Company hosiery mill gave the economy of Fort Payne a more enduring industrial foundation. During the twentieth century, Fort Payne grew to become the world leader in sock production. By the 1990s, the hosiery industry in the Fort Payne area produced more than 3 million dozen pairs of socks per week and employed some 5,000 people. Although a number of hosiery manufacturers have since Fort Payne, the DeKalb County seat, is the Sock Factory in Fort Paynerelocated overseas, the hosiery industry remains an important employer in the area.

The workforce in present-day Fort Payne is divided among the following occupational categories:

· Manufacturing (34.8 percent)
· Educational services, and health care and social assistance (13.2   percent)
· Retail trade (11.9 percent)
· Arts, entertainment, recreation, and accommodation and food services   (7.7 percent)
· Professional, scientific, management, and administrative and waste   management services (6.0 percent)
· Construction (5.6 percent)
· Other services, except public administration (4.2 percent)
· Transportation and warehousing and utilities (4.1 percent)
· Finance, insurance, and real estate, rental, and leasing (3.9 percent)
· Wholesale trade (3.6 percent)
· Public administration (3.4 percent)
· Information (1.2 percent)
· Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and extractive (0.4 percent)

Major employers include Cooper Hosiery Mills, Sara Lee Bakery Group, and V. I. Prewett and Sons Inc.

Education 

The Fort Payne City School System, consisting of two elementary schools, one middle school and one high school, ranks 55th out of 128 public school systems in Alabama. With approximately 2,900 students and 176 teachers, Fort Payne's $7,172 per-pupil expenditure is below the state average.

Transportation 

Fort Payne is served by a network of federal and state highways. Interstate 59 runs north-south through Big Wills Valley and connects Fort Payne to Birmingham, Gadsden, and Chattanooga. US Highway 11 parallels Interstate 85 through Fort Payne and Big Wills Valley. State Highway 35 runs east-west through Fort Payne and provides four-lane access across Sand Mountain and Lookout Mountain. Railroad transportation through Fort Payne is provided by the Alabama Great Southern Railroad. Isbell Field is a city owned public-use airport with a 5,000-foot runway.

Events and Places of Interest 

DeSoto Falls is located in DeSoto State Park, DeSoto FallsFort Payne and the surrounding area offer many opportunities for outdoor recreation and cultural enjoyment. The historic Fort Payne Opera House is still in use and hosts live theatrical events throughout the year. Another building from the boom times, the 1891 pink sandstone Fort Payne Depot, is now operated as a local history museum. The town is a short drive away from both DeSoto State Park and the Little River Canyon National Preserve. These parks protect the nation's longest mountaintop river, which flows for almost its entire length down the middle of Lookout Mountain.

The town is the home of the Grammy Award-winning country music band Alabama. Alabama was the most commercially successful country act in the 1980s and remains one of the bestselling American musical acts of all time. The Alabama Fan Club & Museum in Fort Payne houses memorabilia of the group's many awards and achievements.

Fort Payne is a stop on the World's Longest Yard Sale and also hosts the annual DeKalb County Fiddlers Convention during the first weekend of August and the Boom Days Heritage Celebration and DeKalb County VFW Agricultural Fair annually in September. The town also holds an annual holiday celebration, Christmas in the Park, which features caroling, a light show, and a parade.

Additi onal Resources   

The Heritage of DeKalb County Alabama, Volume 1. Clanton, Ala.: Heritage Publishing Consultants, 1998.

The Heritage of DeKalb County Alabama, Volume 2. Clanton, Ala.: Heritage Publishing Consultants, 2008.

Greg Schmidt
Auburn University


Published July 27, 2009
Last updated November 14, 2012