1885. This was the year Henry de Bardeleben, dubbed "King of the Southern Iron World," established the rural industrial town of Bessemer, naming it after Henry Bessemer, the British industrialist who had discovered how to make steel from pig iron. This very year my grandmother on my father's side, Edith Johnson, was born in the farming town of Greensboro in Hale County, Alabama. Grandma Edie, as we called her, married her first husband, Parker, whom she and everybody else called Crockett, although I never understood just why. They had a son, Frank, who became Mother's first husband and "Daddy Frank" to me and all of his other grandchildren. As fate would have it, they ended up in Bessemer around 1905, following in the tracks left by hordes of others who had also wrenched themselves away--some were forced off the land--from the rich waxy soil of cotton country and into the satellite towns of Birmingham: Bessemer, Dolomite, Jonesboro, Muscoda, Ishkooda, Acipco, Black Diamond--where the men labored in blast furnaces and foundries and rolling mills or crawled on their bellies with lights on their heads, digging in the veins of mine shafts.
For mysterious reasons, Crockett didn't last long at U.S. Pipe and Foundry, although I have never been able to learn the straight of why he left there to haul furniture for Walker/Handley and Sons. Throughout my childhood, two stories made the rounds about Crockett's time at U.S. Pipe. The first one came from Daddy Frank, who boasted that his father had slapped a white foreman for calling him an ape. "Daddy slapped the somabitch," he would brag. "When the somabitch called him a gorilla, Daddy told him he could have his gorilla job and stick it where the sun don't shine." In another version of the story that my father heard years later from a man long retired from Pipe Shop, Crockett was fired for labor organizing. Of course, it is conceivable that they could both be true.
When Daddy Frank started at Pipe Shop in 1921, he was sixteen years old. He worked there for forty-four years, his tenure ending abruptly with the stroke that paralyzed him the evening after the morning he put in his last shift. The year Daddy Frank began to work at Pipe Shop was a momentous one in the plant's history, the year U.S. Pipe purchased the rights to a centrifugal casting method, which revolutionized the production of cast-iron pipe. Dimitri Sensaud de Lavaud, a French engineer, was the inventor and he must have been to cast-iron production what Eli Whitney was to cotton. Two years later, in 1923, my father would be born and eventually tied to "the de Lavaud," the section of the plant where he spent almost the entirety of the nearly thirty years he worked there. The last line of his service record reads
Union on Strike since 10-31-74 through date of death
12-5-74. Removed from payroll. DECEASED