Wiregrass Region

Landmark Park Buildings The Wiregrass Region is named for the long-stemmed grass, Aristida stricta, that is native to the area's long-leaf pine ecosystem. It stretches along the coastal plain from southern Georgia and northern Florida into nine counties of southeastern Alabama: Barbour, Coffee, Covington, Crenshaw, Dale, Geneva, Henry, Houston, and Pike. Four rivers flow through the region: the Conecuh, Pea, Choctawhatchee, and Chattahoochee. The major cities in the Alabama Wiregrass are: Abbeville, Dothan, Ozark, Enterprise, Opp, and Luverne.

Native American Inhabitants

William McIntosh The first humans in the Wiregrass were the ancestors of the Creek Nation that came to control the region during the Colonial Period in U.S. history. Prior to the sixteenth century, mound-builders of the Woodland Period hunted and grew crops of corn, squash, and beans. They also traded along the rivers and the trails that crisscrossed unsettled lands. After settlement by Europeans, the deerskin trade became particularly important for the Creeks in the late eighteenth century.

The Creek Nation controlled the Wiregrass until forced to cede most of the region to the United States in the 1814 Treaty of Fort Jackson. White immigrants did not pass through or settle the Wiregrass immediately, because the territory was still heavily wooded and unsafe for travelers until it was pacified through forced removal of the Creeks later. The first whites in the region were cattle drovers who fed their semi-wild herds on the wiregrass that sprouted before any other fodder. Trade followed these settlers, especially after Creek removal in the 1830s and 1840s.

White Settlement and Economic Growth to World War II

White settlers in the Wiregrass were subsistence farmers, small-scale herders, and hunters who were self-supporting and grew only a small amount of cotton to sell. Transportation improved after the Civil War through the expansion of steamboats and railroads. Farmers added to their meager cash incomes by manufacturing turpentine and pine pitch and by harvesting timber for the booming lumber market. They timbered the rich bottom lands first, floating logs down the creeks and rivers.

Steamboats provided Wiregrass residents with their first means of transporting goods to market and expanded their access to goods from other regions. Steamboats brought cotton from the Black Belt ports north of the Wiregrass to ports along the Gulf Coast such as Apalachicola, Florida, pulled river-borne timber to those same ports and returned with goods from distant areas. Railroads arrived in the mid-1880s, about the same time that the river bottom lands became deforested, giving residents access to the interior of the great forests and opening Panama City, Florida, to the Wiregrass trade. Railroads also opened the timbered areas to commercial farming, and cotton quickly became the region's first real cash crop. Rail access and increased trade led to the growth of existing towns and establishment of new towns across the region.

Farmers Planting Peanuts Cotton was the most significant money producing crop across the South after the Civil War. Farmers in the Wiregrass joined in its cultivation. Farming in the infertile soil of the Wiregrass depended heavily on fertilizer that became available in large quantities in the 1880s, was transported by the newly built railroads, and drove the total crop for the region from 22 million pounds in 1860 to 109 million pounds in 1910. Cotton production declined after the boll weevil spread across the region by 1919, falling to 95 million pounds in 1925. Farmers were forced to diversify their crops, and the willingness of bankers to loan them money to do so encouraged most Wiregrass residents to remain, unlike many farm families in other weevil-stricken areas. Farming of vegetables like tomatoes, called "truck farming," replaced some cotton acreage, cattle and hog herding became important again, and Wiregrass farmers began cultivating peanuts. Peanut harvests soared, from 41 million pounds in 1910 to 155 million in 1935. In these early years of peanut cultivation, farmers used peanuts as hog feed, but pork raised entirely on peanuts did not sell well, so they finished their hogs with corn. Other important markets for peanuts opened after Tuskegee Institute scientist and educator George Washington Carver developed uses for peanut meal and oil. To commemorate the boll weevil's role in the region's successful crop diversification, the town of Enterprise, Coffee County, dedicated a monument to the insect in 1919, and Dothan hosted Carver as the keynote speaker at its inaugural Peanut Festival in 1938. With mechanization after World War II, peanut harvests skyrocketed, reaching 563 million pounds in 1992. Peanuts continue to be a mainstay of the economy.

The Post-War Wiregrass

Camp Rucker, ca. 1940s Military installations drove growth in the region during World War II. The U.S. Army established the Napier Field pilot school near Dothan and built Camp Rucker between Ozark, Dale County, and Enterprise to train infantry. Camp Rucker also served as the center for a prisoner-of-war complex in the Wiregrass. The camp expanded and was renamed Fort Rucker in 1955 and Fort Novosel in 2023 and is now headquarters of the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence.

Postwar prosperity led to the expansion of many Wiregrass cities. From 1940 to 1960, the populations of Abbeville, Headland, Hartford, and Geneva grew by 21 to 37 per cent, Dothan grew by 82 percent, and Ozark and Enterprise each grew by more than 160 per cent because they were the closest cities to Fort Rucker. Textile mills, lumber mills, and small manufacturing concerns expanded first, then several corporations built plants in Dothan, including Hedstrom Company (plastics), Ansell, Inc. (medical supplies), and Sony (home entertainment). The service economy grew, as well. Regional medical facilities expanded as retirees moved to the area from other states, and Wiregrass cities became retail and service hubs.

Education also expanded. The number of small community schools grew in the twentieth century until changes in Alabama's education laws led to consolidation. Racial desegregation in the wake of the 1967 Lee vs. Macon County decision reduced the number of African American neighborhood schools, and many whites responded by establishing secular and church-affiliated private schools. Homeschooling grew in popularity after 2000 but accounts for only a small percentage of students. The Wiregrass also has a robust public college system that includes four community colleges (Wallace Community College in Dothan and Eufaula, Barbour County; Enterprise State Community College, Alabama Aviation College in Ozark, and Lurleen B. Wallace Community College in Andalusia and Opp) as well as Troy University with campuses in Troy, Pike County, and Dothan.

Society, Religion, and Politics

Social life in the Wiregrass has been centered on family, neighbors, and churches since its earliest settlement. There is a significant presence of Protestant denominations in the region, with Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians predominating. Since the early twentieth century, Dothan has had both a Roman Catholic and a Jewish congregation, and Pentecostal congregations have long dotted the region. Economic opportunities have brought immigrants of many faiths, increasing the number of Catholics and other denominations as well as bringing Muslims in large enough numbers to establish small mosques.

Henry Japeth Jackson A longstanding tradition among Wiregrass churches and communities is Sacred Harp singing. First developing in New England, Sacred Harp moved south in the nineteenth century and is now practiced principally on Sand Mountain and in the Wiregrass. Single-day and multiple-day gatherings at rural churches, known as Singing Schools, are the most common performance arenas. The Wiregrass is home to the Jackson family, leaders in African American Sacred Harp singing since 1934, when Judge Jackson published his anthology of spirituals, The Colored Sacred Harp.

Politics in the Wiregrass are primarily local and regional and frequently based on race and class. Once Creek removal was complete, the Wiregrass was overwhelmingly white and poor. Subsistence farmers disliked concentrations of wealth and tended to support populist causes.

The antebellum Wiregrass had few plantations and few enslaved people. Nevertheless, all Wiregrass delegates to the 1861 Alabama Secession Convention voted to secede, and the region supported the Confederacy. Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, small farmers struggled against merchants and bankers for economic and political control over towns and counties. One such struggle sparked the so-called Dothan Riot of 1889. Conservative populism continued as an undercurrent in Wiregrass politics throughout the twentieth century, erupting in enthusiastic support for James E. "Big Jim" Folsom for governor in the 1940s and 1950s and for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. The Wiregrass, all of which lies in Alabama's Second Congressional District, also followed the statewide trend of switching support from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. Since 1972, only three counties returned pluralities for Democratic presidential nominees, and the change in party affiliation was complete with the election of 2004.

Wiregrass Museum of Art The Wiregrass continues to grow in population. Consequently, cities and towns provide many leisure activities and services from public libraries, to historical societies, to community theaters, to art associations. Dothan hosts the Wiregrass Museum of Art, the G. W. Carver Interpretive Museum, Landmark Park, as well as numerous murals, many large public parks, public and private golf courses, and the championship-class Wiregrass Tennis Center. Every town has festivals and fairs. Enterprise has the Boll Weevil Festival and Piney Woods Art Fair, Ozark has its Crawdad and Music Festival, and Dothan is home to the Southeast Highland Games and the National Peanut Festival.

The Wiregrass of southeast Alabama has evolved from a subsistence farming and hunting community to a cotton agricultural region that transformed to a manufacturing, service, and military base-driven economy combined with large scale agriculture. Towns and cities provide services and activities that were not available to previous generations of residents.

Further Reading

  • Braund, Kathryn Holland. "'Hog Wild' and 'Nuts: Billy Boll Weevil Comes to the Alabama Wiregrass." Agricultural History 63 (Summer 1989): 15-39.
  • Byrd, William N. "Wiregrass: The Transformation of Southeast Alabama, 1880-1930." Ph.D. diss., Auburn University, 2009.
  • McGregory, Jerrilyn. Wiregrass Country. Folklife in the South Series. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997.
  • Watson, Fred S. Hub of the Wiregrass; a History of Houston County, Alabama, 1903-1972. Anniston, Ala.: Higginbotham, 1972.

External Links

Share this Article