Experience the wizardry of Ozark in Alabama’s Wiregrass

Experience the wizardry of Ozark in Alabama’s Wiregrass
Thousands of beachgoers pass through Ozark on the way to the beach, but unless they stray from the beaten path they miss the city's charming downtown and its abundant attractions. (Jay Parker/Powergrams)

Fans in the bleachers of Eagle Stadium stand at attention, hats off and hands over hearts, singing along to the national anthem before breaking into applause as it ends and “Centerfield” plays to open an all-star baseball tournament.

Despite heat hovering in the mid-90s, it’s breezy under the awning of the stadium built in 1946 on the field where a decade earlier Dizzy Dean and the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals played an exhibition game. In 1962, Ozark briefly had a minor league affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers, but in the years since, Eagle Stadium has been home to younger players.

“No pets, profanity, slurs, artificial noise makers allowed inside … thank you,” reads a sign above the stadium entrance.

Smaller signs throughout this town of 14,000 people note that “Ozark is a litter-free city.” Along Broad Street and other primary avenues, many houses have American flags hanging on porches and some have Old Glory flying from tall flagpoles. A recent survey said Ozark is Alabama’s most patriotic city.

Incorporated on Oct. 27, 1870, Ozark was settled mostly by farmers who bought former American Indian land from the federal government. Fifteen years earlier, the postmaster named the town for Native Americans from Arkansas and Missouri. After the Dale County Courthouse in Newton burned in 1869, voters chose Ozark as the new county seat and many Newton businesses moved about 10 miles north to Ozark. Buildings sprang up around the new courthouse, many of them still standing today in a 10-block area of restored storefronts under metal canopies that extend around the entire square, offering shade and benches for shoppers visiting the more than 40 local businesses. Three barber shops still have old-fashioned red, white and blue poles outside their entrances. Barefield’s has been providing men’s clothing on the square since 1985. There’s The Flower Shoppe, several hair salons and restaurants like Blue Agave, Fannie’s and Hoppergrass. On one corner is the Dowling Museum & Ann Rudd Art Center.

On another corner is LilliMaggs Butts & Beverages, which encompasses three 1900-era buildings. White-clothed tables await diners in the central section amid exposed red brick walls and black iron columns. The adjoining section has a winding wooden bar and tables alongside framed photos of previous businesses at the location. Flags representing each military service hang on one wall.

Army veteran Jason Thomas works on Apache helicopters at Fort Rucker during the day, then tackles his side job with wife, Stephanie, each evening Wednesday through Sunday. In March, they opened LilliMaggs, named after their daughters, hoping to provide something different for people in their hometown and from the nearby Army post.

“There’s not any place in Ozark that serves seafood, oysters, barbecue, steaks and the variety of fresh, homemade food we do,” he says. “We wanted a place you could bring your kids, listen to music, have a great meal and fun. We don’t put up with rowdy folks.”

On yet another corner of the square, Mark Blankenship and several volunteers are painting, sawing, lifting and nailing lumber to form the stage of a community amphitheater. The land was donated by families who owned three two-story buildings destroyed by an F2 tornado in 1984. Blankenship worked at Farley Nuclear Plant for 20 years before starting a construction business and being elected seven years ago to the Dale County Commission, which he now chairs. He is the epitome of a working politician, also directing the amphitheater project for the Performing Arts Council (PAC).

Using a $25,000 grant from the Wiregrass Resource Conservation and Development Council, volunteers like Carroll High School masonry teacher Greg Cobb and his students have built the amphitheater stage and storage area from the ground up. “The PAC director is busy lining up future events,” Blankenship says. “It’s going to be a fixture of our downtown.”

Above The Herbal Toad are wrought iron balconies extending from lofts, which are also on the second floors of other downtown businesses. Patrons of Milky Moo’s enjoy sandwiches and homemade ice cream in the corner shop beneath the Lofts on Main Street.

On the edges of the old town square are First United Methodist Church, Ozark Primitive Baptist and Ozark Presbyterian. The nearby Ozark Carillon and Tower erected in 1973 honors military and civilians from Fort Rucker and salutes the 60 soldiers from Dale County who died in World War I, the 56 who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country in World War II and all who’ve been killed in other battles. A separate monument stands in honor and remembrance of the victims of 9/11.

Just down Broad Street is the Dowling-Steagall House built around 1870 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. The huge two-story, tall-columned wood home topped by a portico was the first mansion in Ozark. Twin copper lion statues guard the front porch entrance originally owned by the man who organized Ozark’s waterworks, ran a hardware store and was president of the First National Bank. The house became the town’s first hospital when it was bought by Dr. Malcolm Grace but it was closed 10 years later when he died in 1933.

Ozark’s most famous politician, U.S. Rep. Henry Steagall, owned the Dowling House for 10 years, too, until his death in Washington, D.C., in 1943, after serving 28 years in Congress. He was co-author of the act that brought banking reforms and created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Steagall also co-authored the 1937 law that created the U.S. Housing Authority.

Dowling and other prominent Ozark leaders are buried in a cemetery beside the Claybank Church that was added to the National Register during the nation’s bicentennial in 1976. First built in 1829, it was replaced by the current building in 1852 as a school, nondenominational church and voting place, then in 1980 restored to its pioneer condition by descendants of the builders. The small, rough-hewn lumber building, which sits on split-log pedestals, has simple pews still used by visitors on special occasions.

While some people picnic beneath pine trees on the grounds of the first church, Ozark has no shortage of parks. The town has few equals in public recreation, with facilities spread citywide, emanating from the 16,000-square-foot Ozark Civic Center that seats 3,600. Next door in the former Emma Flowers School is the new 501-seat Flowers Center for Performing Arts, which fronts Eagle Stadium. Behind the civic center is the Perry Recreation Center founded in 1938, and the Ozark-Dale County Senior Center.

Just down Peacock Parkway is Steagall Park with picnic pavilions, a playground, splashpad, Kidzone, lighted softball and baseball fields, eight tennis courts and a basketball court, which are all lighted. Across one street is Fuqua Park, home to the youth football and baseball fields; across another street is Hodnett Nature Trail. Just down from the Alabama Power Office, Oben Everett Park has lighted basketball courts, a playground and covered pavilion.

The old town charm and happenings are most likely lost on travelers along U.S. 231, which is a major thoroughfare traveled through the years by people headed to Panama City Beach and other Florida Panhandle vacation spots. That four-lane highway is home to much of modern Ozark, lined by national chain hotels, restaurants and businesses. Vacationers may recognize the half-buried pink VW in front of Our Place Diner, which opens at 6 a.m., closes at 11 p.m. and is known for “Alabama’s Best Burger.” Most passersby are familiar with the jet and helicopter mounted in front of the Alabama Aviation College and Ozark Airport – Blackwell Field.

Since Fort Rucker opened 77 years ago, Ozark has supported Army aviation through skilled workers at the post and local factories, such as Bell Helicopter. Many residents are active or retired military, or contractors at Fort Rucker. The Bell facility in Ozark employs 170 people for helicopter maintenance and refurbishing but could add another 100 workers if the Navy chooses Bell’s 407 GXi as its next training copter. Bell officials said in April the helicopter will be built in Ozark if the Navy contract is signed.

Brauer Aerospace

It’s a wonder Mike Brauer hasn’t sprouted wings or a rotor. He grew up rebuilding airplanes with his dad, a design engineer who worked for Cessna and at Fort Rucker. The son graduated from Aviation College in Ozark, then got an aerospace manufacturing degree from Troy State University.

As the younger Brauer talks to a visitor, there are six airplane frames stacked to his right, a World War II plane frame behind him and on his left, a German Fokker VIII World War I fighter plane with twin machine guns. Those are hobbies he will return to, he says, if he ever finds the time.

Brauer Aerospace found a way to save helicopter owners big money on skids and has turned the innovation into big business. (Phil Free/Powergrams)

Behind his desk at Brauer Aerospace, the company he started with a $400 loan in 1983, Brauer has new contract orders stacked several inches high that will take his workers through 2022. At his back are blueprints and U.S. patents that have kept Brauer and his employees busy and profitable since he decided to create a better version of the helicopter skid shoes his dad designed. He knew copters frequently — and dangerously — wear through their long, thin landing limb bottoms, so he combined tungsten and other “secret ingredients” into a thin pad that can be easily clamped onto worn-out skid shoes.

Brauer initially couldn’t afford to advertise, but Rotor & Wing magazine, the gold standard industry publication, gave him a small free ad and he was soon contacted by oil company executives who used helicopters to fly workers back and forth to oil rigs. Brauer’s invention took off after the Navy awarded him a $140,000 contract and followed up with a second substantial order. In a few short years, Brauer Aerospace had outgrown the original 60-by-80-foot building and was getting orders for military copters from more than 90 countries.

“I’ve added on six times, I think,” he says walking through the center of the factory, which is next door to the Alabama Power Crew Headquarters. “We’ve grown quite a bit through the years.”

Brauer, 58, and his 20-30 local employees now retrofit all of the Airbus Lakota training helicopters at Fort Rucker. He starts naming the foreign government contracts — Canada, Germany, Italy, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Japan — when someone suggests it would be almost as easy to name the countries Brauer doesn’t sell skid shoes. He also has steady business with law enforcement agencies in every state.

Brauer Aerospace sells its skid shoes for half the price of what new landing skids cost, and the Brauer skids last 125 times as long. They’ve sold more than 23,000 pairs of the 26-pound clamp-ons.

“We’re the largest manufacturer of skid shoes in the country,” Brauer says as he looks at a helicopter skid with a foot-long split down the middle sent from Europe. “We feel like we have the best shoe in the world.”

The Southern Star

The United Kingdom has the monarchy; Ozark has the Adams Family.

Joe Adams is in his 63rd year as editor of The Southern Star. (Phil Free/Powergrams)

Since 1867, the Adams have edited and published what today is Alabama’s oldest family-owned newspaper, The Southern Star. Founder Joseph A. Adams moved the weekly from Newton to Ozark in 1870. Joseph H. Adams took over in 1887, John Q. Adams in 1907, Jesse B. Adams in 1925, a second John Q. Adams in 1930 and Joseph H. Adams, or simply “Joe” as his byline states, became editor in 1957.

Joe Adams, 86, in August began his 63rd year as editor, officially becoming the longest serving of his family. His dad was listed as editor on the masthead from 1930 to 1992 but was only active until 1983. The surviving scion has been editor and publisher for a half-century.

The Southern Star hasn’t been an all-male operation. Adams notes that his grandmother came to the rescue of his short-handed dad in the 1950s, agreeing to help her son “get the paper out” until it was fully staffed again, but ended up becoming a vital cog in the machine for 44 years.

“Her last 12 years at the Star were my first 12 years,” Adams says of the namesake of the Vivian B. Adams School that has helped people with intellectual disabilities since 1971. “She did it all, from bookkeeping to reporting … a little of everything at the paper.”

Two metal plates are bolted to the Star building Adams bought in 1977, both plaques given by readers. One was dedicated in 1932 for the newspaper’s “worthy and uninterrupted service to Ozark and Dale County.” The second was presented in 1967 to commemorate the Star’s century of “outstanding leadership … and dedication to the principles of freedom and democracy.”

The Southern Star has been a fixture in Ozark for generations. (Phil Free/Powergrams)

An Alabama Tourism Department historic marker credits Jesse Adams and Congressman Steagall for prompting the federal government in the mid-1930s to purchase 35,000 acres in Dale County, then persuading the War Department in 1941 to use that land as the nucleus of the 64,000-acre infantry training post that would become Fort Rucker.

Editorials Joe Adams wrote during his tenure helped push voters to approve taxes that have been important to his community. The first, in 1961, was the passage by 37 votes of a 3-mill property tax earmarked for the Dale Medical Center, which had no public assistance. The tax now brings in more than $1 million annually. The second, in 1972, was for the sale and taxation of alcohol, which was legal in most of the surrounding counties. The measure had failed in 1937 and 1963, but passed by 437 votes on the third try, and has since brought more than $3 million to the Adams School.

“I don’t know if those would have happened without strong editorial support,” says Adams.

The Southern Star is facing the same tough times that newspapers across the nation are enduring. At 75 cents per issue, or $29.43 for a year, it would seem a bargain for the 3,000 current subscribers of the weekly. Yet, Adams and his two employees can’t garner the income of a decade ago, much less of 50 years earlier when the newspaper had its own printing press.

“Unfortunately, we are way down in advertising income and subscriptions,” says Adams, who is recuperating from congestive heart failure. “I didn’t think social media — Facebook, Twitter and the others — would take such a toll on newspapers, but it has.”

Adams takes satisfaction in being the senior editor among Alabama newspapers, in running “by far the oldest business in Dale County” and in his 16 years of prior active military and Army National Guard service.

“I guess I’m the only editor and publisher in the state who is also a retired military officer,” he says.

Holman House

Joe Adams couldn’t have known it as a youngster, but his grandparents’ house would become one of the most heralded in America. He was Jesse DaCosta Holman’s first grandchild to roam the huge halls of Ozark’s most amazing abode.

Alabama Architectural Historian Robert Gamble says there is “no more impressive a home to be found … in terms of size and quality” in a regional triangle bounded by Mobile, Montgomery and Tallahassee, Florida. Saving the house led to the formation of the Ozark Heritage Association (OHA), which since 2013 has raised money to preserve the 24,000-square-foot Greek Revival structure.

Built 107 years ago by local African American craftsmen Arthur and Luther Boykin, the Holman House was added in 1982 to the National Register of Historic Places. The Boykins built other significant houses on Broad Street and were known throughout the Wiregrass. Boykin granddaughter Paulette Love is today on the board of the nonprofit protecting the Holman House.

John Runkle returned to Ozark six years ago after 25 years in Washington, D.C., and now volunteers at the 21-room mansion that has many of its original fixtures, such as chandeliers and push-button light controls. He spent most of his career near America’s most acclaimed buildings, yet marvels at the construction details and special features inside, outside and on the 2.58-acre Holman lot.

As workers replace a large fountain on the west side of the house, Runkle heads up the front porch stairs between the four massive white Corinthian columns that support an ornate triangular portico. He walks beneath the big balcony resting on the front doorway.

The wide central hallway with 14-foot-tall beamed ceilings is a popular feature for weddings and civic events that help fund upkeep and improvements. It has five hidden pocket doors and ends at a stairway anchored by a pair of small columns topped by brass fixtures. On the stairway landing are three stained-glass painted windows.

The first-floor library has a green tile fireplace with copper squares on either side sculpted to represent a horse and a mule, which was the original business that fueled Holman’s wealth. He added to his fortune with a Buick dealership and the Ozark Cotton Mills. Both rooms facing Broad Street have semicircular windows over casement windows that open to the large white tile porch. Most of the rooms have unique windows, distinctive fireplace mantels and walls that curve at top to the ceilings.

The dining room is noted for its beveled and stained- glass windows, hand-painted artwork and original wallpaper. A five-fixture glass chandelier was found in the basement during renovations, then restored and placed above the original family dining table. The chandelier matches 10 stand-alone fixtures that hang around it from the ceiling. The kitchen, butler’s pantry and adjacent areas behind the dining room have been updated with commercial equipment for rental affairs.

“All of the craftmanship in this house is amazing,” says Runkle, noting that an Auburn University expert said the architecture is unsurpassed in the Southeast.

Twenty-two steps up the divided stairway to the second floor lead to a massive hallway identical to downstairs, though 12 feet high, but that once was partitioned off for a young couple when Fort Rucker urged Ozark families to take in soldier families because of a shortage of housing on the post. The right side rooms have been turned into a bridal suite for weddings. The other side is now dominated by the Val McGee Military History Museum, in honor of the local veteran who authored “The Origins of Fort Rucker.”

The OHA has used $105,000 in Wiregrass Resource Conservation and Development grants the past two years to make major improvements to the Holman House. The organization continues seeking paying memberships and contributions.

Ed Lisenby Lake

Before dawn most every day, Jim Overton takes his place front and center between crickets, minnows, night crawlers and just about anything else someone could need to fish at Lisenby Lake. He sells snacks, rents batteries, anchors, paddles, motors, life vests and the whole boat package for $30. He takes pictures of the big bass, shellcrackers and catfish that people lug back to the clubhouse to weigh.

“There’s been some 8- to 10-pound catfish caught out there recently, some real big bass,” says Overton, who’s been at the lake 19 years since he retired from General Telephone & Electronics. “There’s real enjoyment working out here. It’s not a job, it’s a blessing.”

The 96-acre lake was built by the state in 1958 and is now operated by the city of Ozark. It reaches 26 feet deep in the center, but many people choose to cast a line from several fingers of land extending into the lake or along the scattered piers jutting out into the water.

On a hot summer morning, cars are parked near the shore where the drivers have set lawn chairs. These fishermen hope to break the Lisenby records: largemouth bass of 14.88 pounds; channel catfish at 30 pounds; shellcracker of 4.2 pounds; and bluegill at 2.69 pounds.

Some visitors have come to picnic at the many concrete tables in the 390-acre park; others are tossing food to friendly ducks wandering through the pine trees. A 3.1-mile path that is part of the Alabama Birding Trails entices others to walk or jog around the lake (pets on a leash are welcomed). An archery park at the lake entrance hillside is next to a new mountain bike trail.

“It’s beautiful here, just a great place to be,” says Laith Fontenot, an Ozark native who’s been supervisor at Lisenby for two years.

On a wall over Fontenot’s head is a mounted 11-pound bass that was caught by a fisherman standing on the rock peninsula directly behind the lake office. He says a potentially bigger bass was recently caught that was 21 inches long but weighed in at 10 pounds after laying its eggs. Fontenot says three men made three excursions to Lisenby and caught 120 pounds of catfish, never reeling in more than six or seven on a single visit.

“Trying to get the word out, get more than our everyday customers to come here, is our challenge,” Fontenot says. “If people see Lisenby Lake, they’ll be awed like I am every morning when I come to work.”

Carroll High School

The days of the “three R’s” are long gone at Carroll High School. While reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic will always be fundamental, students in Ozark begin focusing on their future starting in the ninth grade.

Since its new campus opened in 2013, Carroll High has been home to six “career academies” that prepare the 700 students for specific skills that will enhance their college or career endeavors. The school is among the first in Alabama to follow this path, employing traditional educators alongside former industry-experienced personnel.

Carroll High School is serious about preparing students for careers. (Phil Free/Powergrams)

Students start out in the Freshman Academy, getting required basic courses out of the way before choosing either the Alabama Power Business Academy, the Arts Academy, the Human Services Academy, the Industrial Technology Academy, the Medical Science Academy or the STEM Academy. Alabama Power employees, for example, will speak to students during the school year, giving advice to supplement courses such as business applications or Microsoft Office. Twice each year students attend a luncheon for business etiquette lessons.

Mike Stough left the business world in Memphis, Tennessee, 15 years ago to follow in the footsteps of his parents, both educators in his hometown of Opelika. He was assistant principal at Carroll for four years before becoming Career Center director in 2015.

“I decided I wanted to make a difference,” Stough says of his career change as he walks through the wide halls that double as 593-person-capacity storm shelters that can withstand 200 mph winds when the steel storm doors and windows are closed.

Each academy is a simulated workplace. Students wear uniforms that match their future career interests. They clock in and work in an organizational structure with student managers. Their punctuality and absences are reflected in their “paycheck.” The Medical Academy has a mock hospital with patient manikins, blood pressure instruments, IVs and other professional equipment.

The Arts Academy has a full television studio where students deliver a 7-minute broadcast to all classrooms each morning highlighting school happenings, as well as local and national news. Cosmetology students in the Human Services Academy work in a salon on campus that provides haircuts to paying customers.

At the end of each semester, junior and senior students interview with local businesses that hire them and provide feedback to Stough and academy teachers. Students can switch to another academy if their interests change.

About 100 Carroll High School students also will graduate with a head start on a possible military career. Retired Army Col. Milton Shipman leads the training.

“We have the best Junior ROTC program I’ve ever seen,” Stough says. “We have moved up into the top 5% of programs in the nation.”

Banners hanging near an expansive trophy case note that Carroll High was named by A+ College Ready a School of Excellence in 2016-17 and a School of Distinction in 2017-18. Alongside those banners is the Advanced Placement Wall of Fame, a long list of students who’ve earned college credits before graduating from high school.

“We’re trying to put our kids to work and in college, or both,” Stough says. “We don’t want them graduating and having to wait tables. We want them to have a higher income at something they enjoy doing.”

Alabama Power office

Ozark Business Office Supervisor Julie Davis, a Wiregrass native, was named this year as one of the state’s “Movers & Shapers” by Business Alabama magazine.

Davis has a passion to see young people succeed, serving on the board of directors for the Boys & Girls Club of Southeast Alabama and the Dale County Youth Leadership Program. She is a volunteer for Southeast WOW and was the founding committee’s logistics chairman for the event that helps 6,000 students across 16 counties in Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Davis is also a founding member of the Power of Youth-Wiregrass Leadership Forum.

She is on the board of directors for the Ozark-Dale County Economic Development Corp., and is secretary for Ozark Rotary.

The members of Alabama Power’s Ozark Office staff play many roles in the community. (Phil Free/Powergrams)

Davis has served for more than a decade as producer/director of the Hillcrest Baptist Church television production team. She is an active member of the Alabama Power Service Organization and on the Wiregrass United Way Funds Distribution Committee.

Away from work, Davis and her husband, Phil, enjoy spending time at the farm, the beach and with their five grandchildren.

Customer Service Representative Ann-Michele Tyson began her career with Alabama Power in the Ashford Business Office in 2007. She grew up in Eufaula and moved to St. Augustine, Florida, where she graduated from Flagler College with a bachelor’s degree in Broadcast Communications. She lives in Dothan with her husband, Brian, and their 1-year-old daughter, Paisley. Her grandfather was an Alabama Power employee and her father, Frank Straughn, retired from the company in 2017 after 50 years.

Customer Service Representative Darius Brown has worked for Alabama Power since 2012. He began his career in the Ozark Office as merchandise salesperson, and has worked as a CSR in the Slocomb, Enterprise and Ozark offices. He is an active APSO member and on the Southeast Division Safety Committee. For three years he has participated in the Safe-T-Opolis program as a LifeLiner.

“I enjoy spending time at the school and teaching the kids about power line and electricity safety,” Brown says.

He spends the majority of his free time with his wife, Terra, and their kids, Kell and Macen. Brown is heavily involved in youth sports, serving as director of the Headland Youth Athletic Association and co-director/head coach for the AAU basketball Dothan Gymrats.

Customer Service Representative Rolanda Jones transferred from the Slocomb Office to Ozark in 2015. She is vice president and Ozark/Enterprise area chairperson of the Southeast/Farley Chapter of APSO, having served as president in 2012.

A member of the Southeast Regional Planning Commission, Jones is on the Elba City Council, Elba Water and Electric Board, and Elba Planning and Zoning Committee.

She graduated from Troy State University in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology/Human Services. Her favorite hobbies are reading and restoring old furniture.

Related Stories