Letters from Gorgas–46 sweetheart letters give a glimpse to Alabama’s pre-war life and times

PIERCELETTER1“My dearest little ray of sunshine:”

So begins begins this first letter in a collection of 46 missives sent in 1939-1940 from one Dalton Wilford Pierce, a Gorgas Steam Plant clerk, to his 17-year-old girlfriend in Birmingham.

The letters were donated to the History Center by Anne Greene of Birmingham and chronicle the light-hearted but determined efforts of Mr. Pierce to woo Miss Lottie Peterson. Her responses are not part of the collection, but over 13 months of weekly messages we infer that she graduates from Wheeler’s Business College in Birmingham, where Pierce likely met her, that she moves over the summer from her home in Eastlake to Irvington, New Jersey, finds a job, then returns to Birmingham.

Pierce himself is a power plant resident worker, a clerk who ends many letters with a hidden message written in shorthand. We read that he’s up for the Chief Clerk’s job, a promotion he lands in the summer of 1939. Meanwhile, he gives glimpses of life on the Warrior River—the shock of a steamboat whistle, the nighttime sounds of bullfrogs, passing time pitching horseshoes, and a record 22-inch snowfall in January 1940 that shut down plant communications.

Alabama Chamber of Commerce image. Thanks to Alabama Department of Archives and History

Alabama Chamber of Commerce image of the Gorgas power plant on the Warrior River. Thanks to Alabama Department of Archives and History

What we know about Gorgas — or any power plant — comes mainly from company archives, newspaper mentions, environmental enforcement, and a few local histories. What these letters provide is the often missing human face of the facility, the resident workers like Pierce, whose lives emanate from the daily routines of their workplace. Here are some excerpts:

“By the way, we did have a little excitement last night, one of the men in Camp went crazy from drink and had to be taken to Jasper in a straight jacket. He got after another man with a screw driver (heck no it wasn’t me) and almost wrecked the Guest House before they got him under control. …It’s kind of hard on a man’s nerves with nothing to do from 5;O’clock until bed time but just sit around and play checkers or listen to a opera conducted by the bull frogs on Warrior River.”

Largely typed, but sometimes written in longhand, the letters are dated approximately one per week. They are two- and sometimes three-pages long, written on company letterhead with the printed footer message, “This paper made in Alabama from Alabama Pine.”

PIERCENVELOPECROPMany are sent with an extra 10-cent “Special Delivery” stamp. Special short-hand messages abound at the end of letters and sometimes on the envelope.

News about the plant is sparse but telling. We learn that the #2 Plant begins operation on Monday, May 16 and 85 men are recruited to the workforce. Life is regimented at the plant: They pitch horseshoes for recreation, have regular checkups by a company doctor, and call mealtimes “chow.”

News of the January 1940 snowfall overshadows the Nazis' moves. The ice and below-zero temperatures form ice thick enough for skating on the Black Warrior.

News of the January 1940 snowfall overshadows the Nazis’ moves. Below-zero temperatures form ice thick enough for skating on the Black Warrior.

The letters’ tone and Pierce’s comments resound with the kind of stereotypical innocence we associate with 1950s advertising. Pre-war, Pierce wonders if the United States will get involved in the “scrap across the pond” but mostly avoids mention of the political events that fill the newspapers. He and Lottie smoke Lucky Strike cigarettes, go to dances, drink “malteds” and see movies at the Alabama—including the December 1939 release of Gone with the Wind. Expectedly, their private romantic moments take place in Pierce’s car “Josephine,” which he laments having to trade for a four-door Chevy that summer.

But this is not a 50’s stereotype or the Endless Summer of California. Summer ends very prosaically in Alabama in 1939:

“9/7/39

Dearest Dimples:

I’ve almost took that one way ticket West since I wrote you last. Have been in bed with Malaria Fever and they even said I did some tall talking while I was out of my head for a few hours. You should have been here you might have heard something interesting.”

And a droughty December plunges the plant in enforced darkness to conserve energy:

"Lights out" was ordered even at the power plant when the river was low.

“Lights out” was ordered even at the power plant when the river was low.

On Dec. 18, 1939, Pierce writes on The American Radio Relay League letterhead:

“Dearest Honey Lamb:

Did you ever hear of a Power Plant about to run out of electricity? Well, this place is getting so tight for juice that no lights can be allowed to burn at night unless absolutely necessary. If it don’t rain during the next week it looks like we’ll have to burn candles on Christmas Trees this year. The rivers are lower than they have been in years and if something goes wrong with one of the generators in Gorgas Town it gonna be too bad.”

It is followed by a record snowfall Jan. 24 & 25, 1940, reported in the papers and which Pierce relates as light-heartedly to his “Dearest Pal:

“…We’ve been having a time at our Radio Station W-4-CCP. It has been the only means of communication from Gorgas and I kinda know how Mr. Byrd (or whatever his name is) feels at the South Pole.”

The letters are no less fun to read because this very young couple didn’t marry and remain together through old age. The final letter in the collection is a February 1940 commercial Valentine’s Day card with

One of Pierce's shorthand messages to Lottie. Can anyone translate?

One of Pierce’s shorthand messages to Lottie. Can anyone translate?

no message, just a signature. We know that Pierce and his Dimples did live into old age, however. Ms. Green says Wilford’s name is sewn into a family quilt, signifying his importance as a family friend at one time. Both are deceased. Lottie died in 1992.

The history of the Alabama Power Company has run a parallel existence. Suffice it to say, the company was founded in 1906 and was delivering power to Birmingham via the Lay Dam in 1914.* Beside generating electricity and industrial development for the state, the company generated an unmatched  century of government, civil and environmental activity. For Gorgas, a coal-burning plant built around 1918 and expanded with U.S. government war funds, retirement will begin this year in reaction to EPA limits on mercury and greenhouse gas emissions.

*A centennial exhibit of Lay Dam’s history is open at the Alabama Power Company main office M-F, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. through Nov. 7, 2014. Come through the main entrance at 600 18th Street North, and bring photo id.

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