Remember When: Red Level was a bustling town?

Published 12:40 am Saturday, October 22, 2016

“Where I was born, where I was raised, where I keep all my yesterdays…where I came back to settle down, it’s where they’ll put me in the ground. This is my town!” Red Level is such a great place to hail from! So many residents who grew up in that part of Covington County express that sentiment and agree with the words of that Montgomery Gentry song on country radio. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that hundreds who have grown up on cotton field and cornfield farms, and country roads and students, products of the Red Level School, have gone on to be successful in many walks of life.

sue_bass_wilsonWhile visiting the Three Notch Museum this week, I was reminded that Red Level used to be a bustling little town – a long street full of business storefronts with fancy brickwork and even a train depot there on the main street at one time. Back in the 1980s, the late Dick Clark, Red Level hardware mogul, presented the newly established museum at the time with its first photo to display of the busy downtown dated not too long after automobiles were invented. That “iron horse” ran right through the middle of the Red Level downtown!

The late Leland Rainer donated a scrapbook that was in his wife’s family, the Terrys, along with some other significant items of Dr. J. E. (James Edward) Terry including his doctor’s bag, his business ledger, and an array of pocket-size appointment books that date back in the 1920s and 30s.

The scrapbook of Miss Margaret Terry was an interesting artifact that one can peruse and instantly get lost in with all it reveals. The Valedictorian of Red Level High School, Class of 1931, Miss Terry began posting pictures in her high school scrapbook about the time of her freshman year. She even included pictures of the ravaging Flood of 1929 which were unique scenes of the Red Level and River Falls area during a treacherous period. So that the people of Red Level would not go hungry, bread from the Brunson Bakery in Andalusia had to be delivered and handed over to Red Level Grocer Charlie Sellers as baker Charlie Brunson waded across a shallow area, it is remembered.

Miss Terry’s report cards were signed by Principal G. H. Jordan. A photo of Red Level School in 1926, the family home, mother’s car and daddy’s car, family photos, and a December 7, 1927, check on The People’s Bank of Red Level (“my first check on my account” she wrote) written for $10.61 to Sears Roebuck & Co. were all carefully preserved in this album.

A piano recital program under the direction of Mark M. McGowin, teacher of stringed instruments and piano, was included in her keepsakes – “McGowin presents his advanced pupils in piano recital.” Pupils in the recital were Lena Caton, Carrie Costen, Margaret Foshee, Catherine Barrow, Margaret Terry, and Bennie Avis Adams.

One phone call I made to Ophelia Adams Albritton, sister of Ben Avis Adams Orcutt, several years ago helped to paint a picture of families growing up in and around downtown Red Level. Ben Avis was the salutatorian in the Class of 1931. Senior parties in the spring of ’31, dances, the senior class play, “The Patsy,” a comedy, and commencement exercises in May of 1931 at RLHS were the routine events for the graduates in that era with the brunt of the depression yet to come.

     Miss Margaret Terry, valedictorian, spoke the typical and traditional remarks in her address:

“We are leaving for all times these old familiar halls, these teachers we have learned to love, our classmates and school companions with whom we shall never again be associated with in just the same way. …We hope that we shall go forth and do you honor in the years to come. We shall be students as long as we live and in the years to come, we shall look back with appreciation of what you have made possible for us through your zeal and leadership. …The hardest word to say in the English language is the word, ‘goodbye.’ In saying this word tonight, we the class of 1931 do it with a tear, a sigh, and a smile as our ships draw out from port.”

Miss Margaret Terry was the daughter of Dr. J. E. Terry and Lula M. Durham Terry. Dr. Terry was a graduate of The Southern University in Greensboro, Ala., where he attended medical college around 1900-1901. In Dr. Terry’s many appointment books dated yearly that he carried in his coat pocket, he logged methodically the patients whom he treated as he went around the town, the farms, and the countryside making house calls. Sometimes he was paid “in cash” as he noted and other times he was paid in eggs, hogs, cows and calves, firewood, and turnip greens. If a mother was in “confinement,” then she had just “given birth.”

     Dr. Terry’s daughter Margaret left Red Level after graduation for college at Birmingham-Southern. According to Mrs. Albritton, Ben Avis’ sister who stated that Ben Avis was one of Margaret’s best friends, Miss Margaret Terry, the young ambitious lady who was bound for success, sadly and tragically passed away in Birmingham from pneumonia. Dr. Terry was so devastated that according to friends, he died from grief a couple of years later in his prime.

The best part of this story is that his son, Dr. Luther L. Terry, whose name may be familiar to many of you locals eventually became the surgeon general of the United States from 1961-1965. He is best known for affixing the warning label on the side of cigarette packages – “Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health.” As a result, 19 million people quit smoking! Dr. L. L. Terry earned a B. S. degree from Birmingham-Southern in 1931 and an M.D. from Tulane in 1935. He was called to active duty in 1942 in the Public Health Service and became chief of medical services in 1943 at the U. S. Marine Hospital in Baltimore. Terry served as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania until he retired in 1982. During his medical career, he earned 17 honorary degrees. In his last years, Terry’s chief medical interest was preventing smoke in the workplace. He believed that companies should take steps to prevent non-smoking employees from being exposed to cigarette smoke in their places of employment.

This story can be compared to a Pleasant Home School graduate Underwood Cross who became the official pilot for President Lyndon B. Johnson. He authored the book, “Around the World with LBJ.” Stories of small town graduates like these act as an inspiration for young students who visit our local history museum here in Andalusia and hear these stories.

Several years ago Red Level was celebrating some milestone at which time an outstanding display was set at the Red Level Community Center. Janice Castleberry was in charge of collecting all of the pictures, artifacts, and information. After the exhibition had been on display for a long time and many of the old timers and younger generation folks had “ooh-ed” and “ah-ed” over all of the scenes of days gone by, everyone up that way decided that it would behoove Red Level to establish a museum of its own. I understand that those artifacts are in storage waiting for the right time and place to “strike while the iron is hot!” In this whirlwind life we all live in, it really seems to do us all a world of good to remember this, remember that, and REMEMBER WHEN!