The grand opening of the Federal Community Building was held on February 10, 1942, almost eighty years ago. This area had a problem, and the facility was built to have a place to solve the problem. We all know that, no matter how big, beautiful, and state of the art, buildings do not solve problems. Because World War II was a reality, defense related industry sprang up in this area. In fact, a new defense plant, Alabama Ordinance Works, was built ten miles away in Childersburg; and our city’s population doubled very quickly, some say, over-night. Avondale Mills was thriving and turning out cloth used for military uniforms and other war supplies. Both Sylacauga and Childersburg as well as Talladega were given grants to construct activity buildings that could be used by defense workers and civilians living in the area.
The Federal Community Building was built to be a temporary structure and last ten years; and people in Sylacauga who grew up using that facility just called it the Sylacauga Recreation Building or, more often, the Rec. A local newspaper said the construction here began on October 20, 1941, and was completed by the end of the years. Construction cost was $75,000 and was supported by funds from the city, Avondale Mills, and proceeds from some designated dances and activities held there. Maintenance was handled by the city. After the war was over, the city purchased the building for $7,500.
The opening was delayed until February because furniture and equipment had to be delivered and set up. Sylacauga had a Park and Recreation Board then, and Mrs. Beth Wallace Yates, a former school teacher from nearby Columbiana, was put in charge of the program, a pretty tall order for an extremely talented and capable woman. The building was well planned and quickly constructed and included a gym, clubrooms, game rooms, music rooms, kitchen, snack bar, and restroom facilities. Some of you may even remember the black and white checkerboard tile of the lobby.
Maxye Veazey and Billie Sides assisted Mrs. Yates with extensive planning for activities for the defense workers as well as community activities. Working with Mrs. Yates to organize and implement Negro programs in those days before integration were Verlie Collins and Esther Pope.
The dedication included speeches by United States House of Representative, Sam Hobbs, officials of the City of Sylacauga and Avondale Mills. Lewis Simpkins and his orchestra provided the music for a dance following the formalities.
Everyone was all in to developing activities for both the new population of defense workers and the business and professional people who were already living in Sylacauga. A Birmingham News Article of 1949 was entitled, “In Sylacauga, It’s the Playing That’s the Thing- and Youngsters are Happily Busy: The Fire of Juvenile Delinquency is Quenched.” The article quoted Mayor Ed Howard responding to the statement that Sylacauga is a town that spends as much on its recreation as its Fire Department. Mayor Howard said, “And why not? Delinquency is more dangerous than fires.” This was the beginning of the national recognition that Sylacauga’s recreation program received during the 1950’s. This article reported, “To find delinquency in this town, you will have to look in the dictionary. This is the town in which no minor has been arrested in more than a year. This is the town in which no bicycle or skate thefts have been reported in nearly a year.”
So that is why I write this week about the Rec. Although this is the story of another time and another population dynamic, I think we can still learn from remembrances. Another motive behind this writing is my personal admiration for Beth Yates and Maxye Veazey and their enthusiasm for their vocations. They worked with purpose and energy that transferred to the people they served.
About thirteen years ago, in April, 2009, I walked into Ken Brewer’s Sylacauga Today office on Norton and asked if I could write a guest eulogy about my friend, Beth Yates, who had just passed. That was my first article for the newspaper, and I still have a passion for Sylacauga and the people like Beth Yates who made it the city that it became. Next week more about the Rec and the innovations that made people take notice of its programs, and it was not so long ago at that.