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Falco falls into ruins

COLUMN BY KEVIN MCKINNLEY

On Oct. 3, 1912, perhaps the biggest news in the US was General Smedley Butler and Col. Joseph Pendleton of the USMC had given Nicaraguan rebel General Benjamin Zeledon an ultimatum to surrender his fortress by 8 a.m. or face annihilation by the U.S. Marines, when he refused, the Americans attacked.

Meanwhile, in far-away Alabama, the Florida Alabama Land Company quietly sold 13,000 acres of land to the McGowin and Foshee Lumber Company for $440,000. Although few knew it at the time, it was the beginning of the end for the bustling mill town of Falco.

Just four months earlier on June 25, 1912, 30 residents of the village petitioned the Covington County probate judge to call an election to decide on incorporation. The election was held on July 24, 1912, and the residents decided to incorporate. Elections were held on Sept. 16, 1912. Hillary Thompson was elected mayor, and J.H. Johnson, H.A. Cross, A.H. Leonard, J.M. Falkner and J.A. Hogue were elected councilmen.

Regardless of the elections, people, not politicians and their self-serving chatter, are the backbone of any town, and so it was to be at Falco where the sun rose daily on the shoulders of the hardworking mill workers who made the piney woods feel the noise of their industry.

Julian Hensley was 84 in 1986 when interviewed for the Falco book mentioned in earlier articles. He had the following to say about Falco on Saturday nights:

“Saturday nights were for frolicking and many attended the square dances held around town.”

He also recalled walking past a porch in Falco on a Saturday afternoon and hearing a record playing for the first time in 1914 and how he thought technology was going to change the world.

Hensley would have walked to the downtown of Falco where the stores sold all manner of goods and the bank loaned money, took deposits and showed interest in the citizens of the area.

Yet even with what seemed to be progress, the mill at Falco was struggling. Following the sale of the mill to the McGowin-Foshee interests, the debts accumulated by the mill proved to be too much.

According to the book, History of Forestry in Covington County Alabama, by Wyley D. Ward, McGowin-Foshee had planned to dovetail the Falco operation with their holdings in Escambia County, Ala. They tried to finance their debts with a bond sale at 6 percent interest but this plan failed. The company closed the mill around Jan. 15, 1915, until “the lumber trade improved.’

Eventually the company was sold to the Horseshoe Lumber company. The Falco mill was probably back in operation before 1916 yet a fire destroyed part of the mill in 1917. This fire was rumored to be arson, but the damage was repaired, and the mill was productive again in a short time.

Shortly before the fire, the Falco Bank, which had been such a great hope to the town, and which had been chartered in December 1912, closed its doors on Dec. 7, 1916, leaving depositors such as Julian Hensley lighter in his pocket as his $200 bank account was gone.

Equally detrimental during this time was a flu epidemic, which returned with the soldiers coming from distant battlefields at the end of World War I and a typhoid epidemic in 1919.

The land sale to Horseshoe Lumber helped McGowin-Foshee keep the mill working. Yet on Oct. 20, 1919 McGowin-Foshee sold the rest of their land in the area but reserved the right to continue to cull all merchandisable timber for five years.

Thereafter, McGowin-Foshee kept running the sawmill until the summer of 1924, which was the end of the contract. Coincidentally, the mill burned again around this time. Julian Hensley recalls watching the mill burn so intensely that the millpond was heated to the point that turtles by the dozens left the pond for safer confines.

With the closing of the mill, the town began to fade. McGowin-Foshee sold the rest of their land to the Alabama Farm Land Company, which thereafter sold the land to the U.S. government during the Great Depression during the 1930s to help create the Conecuh National Forest.

Just a few weeks ago, Sondra and I found ourselves at the store in Wing in search of the ghost town Falco. Others had told me there was nothing there, just a ghost town, and like Monte Walsh said to his old ranch boss in the western from 2003, “It’s only the ghosts I’m interested in,” and we proceeded forward.

I had been asking around about Falco for weeks and most thought nothing existed of the old town. In the store, we strangers from Canoe met Mrs. Caroline Smith who was working in the store.

This very nice lady knew Falco and understood my query, “Pardon me, is this the way to Falco?”

To which she replied, “I went to school there,” she said with a smile.

She went on to tell us that her husband, Delmus, as a boy, used to ride his bike to the school early in the mornings to school house fires. Mrs. Smith referred us down the road to Mrs. Mary Hamby Jackson and her husband, John.

Mrs. Jackson mother’s, Mrs. Wilmer McLelland Hamby, lived at Falco.

Her father, E. Hammond Hamby, bought a lot of the land around Falco when the mill pulled out. He left the area and went to Pensacola to work and that’s where she was raised.

Soon we were taking a tour of Old Falco with Mr. John Jackson. He showed us the old bank, which still stands tucked away in a quiet corner of the property.

“The building was constructed of multiple layers of brick, unlike the brick veneer over wood used today,” he said. “The building stays a comfortable temperature year around because of its construction.”

The Jacksons took on the task of preserving the remaining buildings in Falco some 20 plus years ago when they moved to the area. Mr. Jackson also showed us the old McLelland home and the old masonic lodge in the town. In many places the old foundations of businesses hint at their former grandeur as they lay conquered by time, cedar and oak trees which have established their own dominance over the years.

While walking the remnants of the old streets of Falco, imagination took me back to a different time. A time of lives well lived, mill workers who depended on God, family and a strong back and of a place nearly forgotten in our modern age. Yet people in Falco loved their little town, their churches and each other. History may have moved on from Falco, Alabama but it is easy to imagine that during the dead of night the whispers of Old Falco may echo through the tall Southern Pines which now cover the old streets.