HISTORY OF BENJAMIN RUSSELL
RUSSELL LANDS, INC.
Ben Russell 07 2009
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 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.
In approximately 1845 John’s son, Jesse Russell, moved from Chambers County to Tallapoosa County in East Central Alabama. In April 1846 he purchased 318 acres of property, including a tract of land purchased from the Creek Indians, by way of the U.S. Treaty of 1832. This property encompassed the confluence of the Oakachoy (also Oakchoy) and Big Kowaliga Creeks. He built a house on this site in 1846 and started farming in this area, which was about a mile west of Bulgers Mill. This area is now covered by Lake Martin in an area known as Pitchford Hollow, one-half mile south of Ourtown, Alabama. Several members of the Russell family are buried in the nearby cemetery at the old Liberty Church.
1865 Jesse's son, Benjamin Francis Commander (B.F.C.) Russell, returned
home to the family farm a decorated Civil War veteran, having fought under
General James Longstreet. Sadly,
B.F.C.’s two brothers, John James and Jesse Simeon never returned –
John James lost his life in either the Battle of the Wilderness or one of
the skirmishes during March of 1864; Jesse Simeon’s regiment took part
in the defense of Petersburg and in those last few months of the war died.
B.F.C. married Sarah Elisabeth "Bettie" Henderson in
December 1867 and began farming with his father.
He and Bettie had three children:
Sally, born in 1870, Thomas Commander in 1874 and Benjamin in 1876.
In the early 1880's B.F.C. moved his family to Alexander City,
Alabama, formerly Youngsville, to become a merchant with his nephew, W.
B.F.C. and Bettie's son, Benjamin, was "a dedicated and hard working 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, predecessor to the present Aliant Bank System.
On Friday, June 13, 1902, the entire business district of Alexander City burned, but Ben Russell 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. By April that same year, he had founded Russell Manufacturing Company 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
the words of Martin, "the broadminded Russell recognized the greater
public benefit from the complete development of the power of the stream;
thereupon a satisfactory agreement was 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 750 miles of shoreline property of the new
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.
the founding of Russell Mills 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
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 230 or so houses but beginning in the late 1950s
residents were encouraged to purchase property 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.”
addition to all the mill and bank related interests, Mr. Ben began buying
or creating other businesses. In
approximately 1916 he opened the Alex City Wholesale Grocery business in
the area of the present day fire department and the old Outlook
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.
1920 Mr. Ben purchased the Nolen Hotel, formerly the Alabama Hotel, from
Leon Nolen and changed the name to the Russco Hotel.
The name later changed to the Russell Hotel.
The Russell 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 Park 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 abounded of the difficulties of digging the three-mile long pipeline ditch by hand.
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.
most interesting aspect of the pre-Ben Russell history is that of Will
Benson, who owned much of the land in the Kowaliga Creek area of the
present Lake Martin. Mr.
William (Will) E. Benson, a local black graduate of Howard University in
Washington, DC (Harvard University ?), founded the Kowaliga School in 1895
to improve the lives of the local black population.
In 1897 the name was changed to The Kowaliga Academic and
Industrial Institute. Unfortunately,
however, WW I curtailed the overseas sale of one of the principal products
of the Benson timberland, turpentine.
In the mid-1920s the Institute's landholdings were separated by the
rising waters behind the newly completed Martin Dam.
Cotton prices also dropped to 5 cents per pound about that time. These and other unfortunate situations eventually forced the
Benson enterprises and the school to close.
It was absorbed, to a degree, by nearby Tuskegee Institute.
Many people moved from the area of Lake Martin in those days,
fearing malaria and other diseases, which had been publicized during the
earlier building of the
Ben later purchased the Benson Sawmill, the Kowaliga School and some of
its property. The school's
farmland was then included in the farming activities of Dixie Farms.
He employed many of its personnel in an attempt to convert the
school’s central facility into a large hotel.
He also included many of the school's black families in his
innovative family-farming program on the Russell lands.
This was another first step on the road to real independence for
some of these families.
1897 the legendary Booker T. Washington founded Tuskegee Institute in the
heart of the rural farming belt, stretching over the agricultural South.
The small rural town of
Ben was a great supporter of Tuskegee Institute and served on the school's
board of trustees. Due to his
intense desire to preserve the agricultural productivity of this rural
area he and Dr. George Washington Carver, the legendary agronomist, became
friends over the years. Some
of the Russell family members can still recall the excitement caused by
the arrival of the famous figure for his visits with Mr. Ben and
"Miss Rob" in the Russell home.
Mr. Ben and Dr. Carver would often converse for hours on the large
front porch – no doubt discussing their mutual interest in preserving
the, by then, fading way of life – the family farm.
Their efforts to save the eroding landscape with thousands of miles
of soil conserving terraces will long remain a mute testimony to man’s
efforts to control his destiny.
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 44,000 acre footprint of Lake Martin had to be cleared of “old growth timber,” huge three to five hundred year old long leaf 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.
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 challenge 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.
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.
Land was made available, mules were purchased, seed and fertilizer
provided and supervision offered, along with cooperative purchasing and
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.
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.
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.
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 Sawmill.
Dixie was located on the present Highway 63 just north of
Windermere Road. All that
remains today are the red roof buildings.
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.
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.
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
ultimate 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.
sadder note yet--these new terraces would tend to focus the flow of
rainwater to any weak point in the system, which, without constant
attention, would ultimately fail. This
eventuality would release the accumulation of an acre or so of runoff at
one point, promoting a yet unknown form of erosion with the inevitable
super ditches, gullies or washes.
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 one of the driving forces in establishing the Alabama State Chamber of Commerce, and became its first president, serving for three years – from June 11, 1937, until 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.
In 1940, Mr. Ben was among several industrial 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 230 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 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 wood working industry, a hotel, a dairy, a bakery, a soft drink bottling company, a laundry, a wholesale grocery and founded the State Chamber of Commerce. Sadly, however, he was not afforded the time to assemble sufficient managers to take on the awesome burden that he soon had to lay down.
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
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 and the addition to the grammar school.
of Mr. Ben's ventures such as the foundry, bakery, creamery, wholesale
grocery, laundry and Florida venture simply could not survive without his
incredible organizational and management skills.
During the decade following his death, many of these businesses
were sold or closed. The
bakery was closed within a few years.
The creamery was sold, and the Russell Pipe and Foundry was sold.
The Alex City Wholesale Grocery was later sold to another wholesale
grocery company. The
commercial laundry survived until the mid-1970s.
Mr. Ben had also accumulated more land in adjoining Coosa County than he had in his home Tallapoosa County. All of this property was disposed of after his death.
were obvious exceptions to these examples, Russell Mills, which continued
to prosper over the years and in the eighties, under the direction of E.C.
Gwaltney, began its meteoric rise to a Fortune 500 company, with sales and
assets of $1,250,000,000 and 18,000 employees worldwide in the mid-1990s. The name of the continually successful company was changed in
1962 to Russell Mills, Inc. and again in 1973 to Russell Corporation.
Under the guidance of Sally Russell's grandson, John Russell Thomas, Mr. Ben’s bank, now Aliant Bank System, has grown to serve Alexander City, Birmingham, Elmore County and Montgomery – totaling 13 banks and branches.
Mr. Ben's old Dixie Farms was renamed Russell Farms in 1950, but
production of cotton and corn had greatly diminished by the end of World
War II. Many of the farm
families went to work in the rapidly expanding Russell textile plants
during the Second World War. Some
of the remaining farm families found work in the company sawmills –
others moved to town to work in the carpentry or woodworking plant,
building supply business (later, Russell Do-It Centers) and Alexander City
Sash and Door Company, which Mr. Russell had built to further promote the
meager assets of this rural East Alabama community.
The old farm operation was ultimately managed from the main office
of Russell Mills and its operation could only receive "hand me
down" support from Mr. Ben's family and his loyal, old-time employees
such as Obie Thomas, Millard Yates, Roy M. Latimer, Kyle Neighbors, and
Harold Scott. These and all
other managers were desperately needed to run the expanding, textile
operations. Only Russell
Ballard had a full time position as superintendent.
Ben was survived by his wife, Roberta Bacon McDonald, three sons and one
daughter: Benjamin Commander
(Bennie), Thomas D., Robert A. and Elisabeth Russell.
Bennie, the eldest, took over the reins of the "mill"
upon his father's death and served until his untimely demise in January
1945. Thomas D. Russell, the
next eldest son, assumed the presidency and Robert, the youngest son,
became vice president. Elisabeth
was much loved for her benevolent works, such as the establishment and
management of a day care-kindergarten for black children.
She was best known and loved by all for her very active
participation in the management of Russell Hospital.
The family and all available management were increasingly occupied with the problems of the rapidly expanding textile plants, bank and other remaining businesses. The old farming enterprise had to be left to its own, with Kyle Neighbors, an employee of Russell Mills, as a part time manager and the ever-loyal Russell Ballard as superintendent. Mr. Ballard meanwhile was training Rudolph Evans to continue his work.
returning from the war in Europe in 1945, Robert Russell became interested
in the old gold fields of Tallapoosa County.
He later acquired the old Dutchman’s Mine called Dutch Bend. Eventually he opened the mining operation again as somewhat
of a hobby. This and several
other sites were mined for a number of years but like all those before
him, Robert Russell never made a significant profit and turned to a more
“normal hobby” – cattle farming.
Likely, however, the monetary trend continued.
Robert’s “love for the land,” however, encouraged him to
personally acquire 1,677 acres of wonderful, wild country on the beautiful
Hillabee Creek – actually a river.
This fascinating block of property is now a part of the Russell
Lands holdings and used as a game reserve and corporate retreat.
the late 1940s and 1950s a very significant portion of Mr. Ben's hard-won
and highly prized lakefront property was disposed of – the east and west
extremities of his holdings on the south side of Lake Martin.
Russell family allowed the state to build a park on company property on
Lake Martin next to the Highway 63 bridge at Kowaliga in 1948-49.
In 1960, Robert Russell began construction of Wind Creek Park as a
replacement for the tiny, overcrowded and outdated facility at Kowaliga.
The park opened in 1961 and the family donated the use of this
facility to the public. Robert
continued to improve Wind Creek Park with the help of his friend, Omar
McGhee, as manager.
1953 Julia Russell started Church in the Pines, a small
inter-denominational church on company property near Kowaliga, on the
shore of Lake Martin. The
church grew over the years to become a major part of the Lake Martin
community, and at this time, Russell Lands took over all of the
responsibility for the facility. Later
the management of the program and facility was passed on to the company
and Luanne Russell directed the program.
1960 the old Russell Farms officially became Russell Lands, Inc.
Also in 1960 Mr. Ben's grandson, Benjamin or Ben Russell (neither
Mr. Ben nor "Little Ben" had a middle name) began full time
employment with Russell Manufacturing Company.
1963, when Russell Mills, Inc. became a public corporation, the old
Russell Farms property was spun off to remain as Russell Lands, Inc. – a
private company, owned by all of Mr. Ben's heirs and some of his close
associates – these were the original stockholders of "the
1970 Russell Mills was in a cash bind and its management, which was then
the dominant portion of the Russell Lands management, decided to sell the
wildly popular Wind Creek Park to the State of Alabama.
This was a great disappointment to some family members.
Governor George Wallace had, however, promised to spend vast sums
to create a first rate state park. His
campaign for the U.S. Presidency and the 1972 assassination attempt left
him paralyzed and diverted his attention.
The park that Robert Russell had created as a labor of love
languished in mediocrity for years but is now greatly expanded and a
wonderful asset to Alabama.
due to an inherent, family "closeness to the land," Mr. Ben's
grandson, Ben, began to spend more and more time on Russell Lands'
matters. As an example, the
year of 1971 was spent, for the most part, creating and promoting the Lake
Martin Recreation Association – now the Lake Martin Resource
1970 Ben was elected President of Russell Lands, Inc. and officially left
the employ of Russell Mills. His goals were to enhance the value of the "lands
company" by discreetly developing the lake property and creating new
and diversified assets.
January 1973 Ben Russell persuaded Gene Davenport to resign a position
with Rust Engineering in Birmingham and move his family to Lake Martin to
become the ninth employee of Russell Lands.
Gene moved into the same tiny office with Ben in the Knit Goods
Sales office at Russell Mills, Inc., where Ben had previously been
employed and still maintained an office.
In late 1974 they moved a floor down to a larger facility in the
recently vacated personnel office. The
"Lands" company was also given use of the old mill store as a
shop and "shade tree" garage.
In 1977 Russell Lands, Inc. moved out of the mill office into the
new Russell Lands office building at Willow Point Subdivision.
In 1985 Ben Russell was able to acquire the stock of 31 of the 35 individual stockholders. In that same year he became the Chairman and CEO of Russell Lands, Inc., which is now a closely held private company – the principals being the families of three of Mr. Ben's direct descendants.
Russell Lands now has several major operating divisions. One of the original divisions is the management of Mr. Ben's remaining 25,000 acres of timberland. Russell Lands' forest products division manages the company's forestland in the Lake Martin area. The primary thrust of the timberland management program is toward the improvement of its prime property assets, while continually improving its potential timber assets.
Today the company manages several hundred miles of its shoreline property on Lake Martin. This beautiful, freshwater lake consists of "44,000 acres of drinking water" with some 750 miles of mostly wooded shoreline. Lake Martin is a deep, blue-water lake – one of the most beautiful and unspoiled lakes in the Continental USA.
The rental properties division of Russell Lands manages more than 350 lakeshore, rental homes that began with the relocation of mill village and farmhouses, and continues today with the building of large, custom rental homes.
In 1964 the last of the Russell Farms cattle farms, locally known as "the Wedges Farms," (having once been a farm where workers were hired for "wages") was chosen as the location of the Willow Point Golf and Country Club. Mr. Ballard had saved this area from the random development of rental lake homes, as he – being related to Mr. Ben – was a farmer at heart and always seemed to find a "better" location for the new doctor or professor who he was to help find a suitable location on Lake Martin for his "cabin."
This beautiful championship 18-hole golf course meanders about on a peninsula totally surrounded by Lake Martin. The par 72-course was constructed as a private club to replace the original course, which was given by the family to the State of Alabama for the site of the Alexander City Junior College (now Central Alabama Community College). Eugene C. Gwaltney, who took over the management of Russell Mills from his father-in-law, Tom Russell, was instrumental in building the golf course. The senior management of Russell Mills wanted a golf club for the benefit of the "Mill" and Russell Lands was called upon to donate the land and some of the resources. Russell Mills furnished much of the labor and machinery.
On September 17, 1964, the property and improvements were incorporated as a private club. The membership could not cover the cost of operation and the club was soon deep in debt. In 1972 Russell Lands was asked to assume the debt and take over the property, as well as the operation of the club. Incredible as it might seem, this was viewed by many as quite a bold move for Russell Lands. Little hope was held for making this project a financial success.
The young management of Russell Lands, however, could easily see the value of this property as the centerpiece for their planned Willow Point Subdivision and for future lake – oriented development. Much concern was felt, however, regarding the ability to control the escalating cost of a division of the company, which was valued by senior members of the board only for its intrinsic value as a golf club. Regardless of their concerns, Russell Lands management assumed the debt, $55,000, with the return of the deed to the 167-acre golf course. The arrangement seems to have worked rather well for all.
Russell Lands' first residential development, Willow Point Estates, was begun in 1972. Lakefront and interior properties are primarily single-family homes, but several condominiums are also included. The Russell Lands, Inc. Corporate Office and the 4,500-foot Willow Point Airport are also located in Willow Point. This exclusive residential subdivision on Lake Martin is adjacent to Willow Point Golf and Country Club and is one of the company's finest developments. In 2004 construction began on Glynmere, the latest phase of Willow Point.
the company has developed more than 1,000 lots in ten subdivisions.
Hundreds of private homes are now completed on these deeded lots.
These developments have been done in a very tasteful fashion and
occupy only a small percentage of the company's shoreline holdings.
In addition to Willow Point Estates, other major subdivisions
include the following:
is a multi-phase development in the Kowaliga area of Lake Martin.
An elegant gatehouse guards the entry to the large, wooded
lakefront home sites and luxury homes featured in this impressive
development. Here, some of
the very finest properties on Lake Martin are only a half hour from
is a scenic, quiet, mid-lake,
multi-phase development that appeals to homeowners of all ages.
Beautiful, landscaped entrances lead to pristine, wooded, lakefront
sites and homes with gorgeous shorelines and beaches.
West is another lakefront residential development. It has breathtaking lake views, an abundance of wildlife, and
all the best of lake living. Located
less than one hour from Montgomery, one and a half hours from Birmingham
this development has boating, owner's association, gatehouse, extensive
landscaping, special lighting, underground utilities and city water.
is adjacent to Windermere and affords similar amenities with a slightly
smaller minimum square footage requirement.
offers the freedom of the great outdoors along with the convenience of
city services. Homes blend
with the natural beauty of the wooded, waterfront setting.
Raintree is one of the few lakefront developments inside the city
Oaks includes multiple,
carefully designed lakefront neighborhoods within the city limits.
Neighborhoods include: Mountain
Laurel, Columbine, River Oaks and Baywood.
This development is on the north part of the lake near the
municipal golf course and convenient to shopping, schools, and medical
and Lake Hill Estates are
located near the east end of the Highway 280 Bridge over the north end of
Lake Martin. The rolling
topography in these early subdivisions enables magnificent views of the
lake and surrounding shoreline. Large,
wooded homesites offer the best of country, waterfront living with close
proximity to all of Alexander City's amenities.
Ridge is Russell Lands' newest
lakefront residential development. This
community is located in the heart of Lake Martin and is the largest
development to date. The initial offering of nearly 200 waterfront lots definitely
sets the tone for The Ridge to become one of Lake Martin's premiere
developments. The Ridge
offers a beautifully appointed, gated entrance with cascading waterfall
and ponds, street lights, sidewalks, underground utilities. The newest phase of The Ridge is The Ledges, consisting of
waterfront condominiums. The
Ridge Marina is a full-service marina and at the appropriate time, a
restaurant and several retail shops could follow.
The Ridge has the potential to become a community within itself.
It is located in close proximity to such well-known local points of
interest as Chimney Rock, Children's Harbor, Dixie Sailing Club and
Marina was built in 1972. Subsequently,
Real Island Marina was purchased in March 1997, and two super marinas, The
Ridge Marina and River North Marina, were completed in the spring of 2001. Sales, service and indoor stack storage for over 1,400 boats
and outside storage and wet-slips for over 200 boats now combine to make
the four marinas year-round operations.
Russell Lands has the distinction of building the first covered
wet-slips and first pump-out station on Lake Martin.
All marinas offer complete dry stack storage, sales, service and
1973, Russell Lands became involved in the energy field.
Having grown up in the forestry and textile industries, company
management, being "close to the land," was able to recognize the
value of forest residues as an industrial fuel.
the early 1970s Ben Russell was invited by a forest products industry to
tour numerous forest harvesting operations and sawmills in Scandinavia.
The frugality of the Swedes, Finns, Norwegians and Danes was
readily evident, especially in their use of all forest residues as fuel.
U.S. forest products industries were then analyzed and a proposal was made to guarantee Russell Corporation a 4-year supply of wood fuel at the equivalent, fixed price of $0.14 per gallon of oil. This resulted in the construction, during 1975, of the first non-forest products industry wood-fired boiler plant in the United States in modern times.
The Russell Corporation boilers began operation in January 1976. The boiler plant, which supplies processed steam for use in the manufacture of textile goods, burns 125,000 tons of sawmill residues per year, resulting in annual savings of more than 6,000,000 gallons of fuel oil. Russell Lands has supplied this fuel under contract since January 1976.
1975 the price of oil quickly soared to $0.70 per gallon and the project
was an immediate success. The
newly formed ECON Company's promotional efforts were rewarded with the
building of two more boiler plants in other states.
ECON acquired long-term contracts for supplying wood residue fuel
to these facilities. In the
year 2006, we are continuing our uninterrupted supply of fuel to Russell
Corporation and one of the other two original plants.
The Russell Lands / ECON supplied plants have consumed over 5 million tons of wood, which was accomplished without the cutting of one additional tree, by using a commodity that previously had a negative economic and ecological value – sawmill and forest residue. The use of this waste wood has saved the equivalent of 250 million gallons of oil.
The principal aim of ECON has been the promotion of wood and wood residue as an alternative fuel for industry. ECON has become a leader in the wood energy field. The main thrust of the company is, however, toward long-term fuel supply contracts with industry.
Lands entered the building supply business in 1984 with the purchase of
the then Alexander City Building Supply, from Mr. Ben's estate.
This business had been part of Mr. Ben's old Alexander City Sash
and Door Company. This was
later combined with the newly purchased Horton Supply, Inc.
Since that time, the division has grown to include seven locations,
employing over 130 people in central Alabama.
In 1992 Russell Building Supply, affiliated with Do-It-Best Corp., a 4,400 member cooperative of building material and hardware dealers, began conversion of its retail and contractor business to Russell Do-It Center stores, offering a full line of building materials, home improvement items and tool and rental centers for both professionals and homeowners. Currently there are seven Russell Do-It Centers located in Alexander City, Clanton, Eclectic, Millbrook, Prattville, Roanoke and Wetumpka.
In 1989 Russell Lands donated 50 acres, comprising one mile of the most beautiful shoreline Lake Martin property, to a charitable organization called Children's Harbor. Russell Lands was a major player in helping to plan and build this beautiful facility. Today Children's Harbor is the principal charity of Russell Lands. The company management devotes countless hours to help manage the organization and promote the numerous fundraisers necessary to support it. In 2005 the “Lands Company” donated an additional 17-acre parcel of shoreline property to the continually expanding Children's Harbor.
In 1998 Russell Lands made over 100 acres of shoreline property available for and constructed the Lake Martin Amphitheater (LMAT). The use of the LMAT is devoted to the Lake Martin community for the enhancement of the cultural and performing arts. Russell Lands also took over the financial burden of the famous July 4th fireworks show, which is now a local legend.
On June 18, 1999, landmark Kowaliga Restaurant burned and was rebuilt and opened in August 2000. Kowaliga Restaurant was built for lease in 1952 and opened in April 1953. Toppy and Charlotte Hodnett leased and operated the facility. Fifteen rental cabins (Toppy and Charlotte lived in one of the cottages) called Kowaliga Cottages had been constructed on the point on the southwest side of the Kowaliga Highway 63 Bridge, west of the restaurant. Later ten more cabins were built across the lake. In 1959 a Sports Shop "marina" was built on the site of the old Lee Parks store near the restaurant. The removal of these cabins and then the destruction of the Kowaliga Restaurant by fire made the fabulous sight available for the new restaurant.
The Lake Hill Restaurant was built on Russell Lands’ property in the late 1950s, on an awesome promontory overlooking Lake Martin at Highway 280. This facility continues to operate as a leased facility today.
Area Concrete Inc. was a wholly owned and quite successful subsidiary of Russell Lands for many years, having been sold in 2000.
In 2001 Russell Lands began construction of a bark processing plant to produce and market a supply of landscaping materials. A synergy exists between this business and the sawmill residue system, which furnish 120,000 tons a year of wood fuel to Russell Corporation.
In 2004 Russell Lands purchased a tract of land south of Lake Martin and began Russell Materials, a sand clay gravel operation. The company has for a number of years been operating a granite quarry on company land for internal use.
Ben Russell purchased 1,327 acres of Mr. Ben’s property, surrounding
Elkahatchee Pond, from Russell Corporation in 2002 and began rebuilding an
old water powered gristmill located on the property.
By the year 2006 Russell Lands employed a total staff of 342 people.
Russell Lands continues to grow and prosper in the 21st
century. The company has many
creative projects on the drawing board and the future is eagerly