Many people, including this writer, are in love with a. town that never existed, a town where Andy, Barney, Opie, Aunt Bea, Comer, and Goober lived and worked and helped each other through the ups and downs of small town living. (We can say with pride that two of those characters were played by Alabamians, Sylacauga native Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle and Goober played by Jasper native, George Lindsay). Some Sylacauga natives can remember living in such a town.
Not so long ago a small town grew up around the marble deposits in Sylacauga, called Gantt’s Quarry, a town with churches, a school, a post office, a couple of stores, a baseball team, and especially work and homes for people that were community and had happy, useful lives. This town was named after Dr. Edward Gantt, a regimental hospital surgeon, who discovered the delights of the beautiful marble in Sylacauga as he came through the area with Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812. Gantt later came back to the area, purchased land here, and began what became Gantt’s Quarry.
Today that community is unknown to some Sylacauga citizens, like it never existed; but it is a foundation of what Sylacauga is all bout, one of two places in the world where pure white marble is located. Shirley Williams Blankenship gets a faraway, whimsical look in her eyes as she describes to me what it was like to live in such a community; and she speaks with pride about her parents who raised her there. She was born at home on Sorrell Road, just off the Fayetteville Road, to Edward W. and Lenora Hobbs Blankenship, attended by Dr. A.K. Whetstone.
Mr. Blankenship worked on a machine, she remembers being called a channel machine, down in the big hole. It was hard work, but a good life, and he fed his family. The Blankenship’s lived at three different locations at Gantt’s Quarry and Moretti-Harrah, and each house was an upgrade from the last, all close to the big hole where her daddy worked. The small wooden houses up near the hole were box-shaped, rectangular like trailers, and were called shacks. The houses were untainted, but they had marble steps which was cheaper than wood. Shirley’s family unfortunately went through the trauma of losing everything in a house fire while living in a duplex. The kerosine stove in the neighbor’s house exploded and ignited the house. This was a comfortable house where at last the family had an insole bathroom and a bathtub, but still no hot water. they heated water on the stove and poured it into the bathtub, but felt fortunate to have it.
Shirley’s memories, even of an event like the fire, do not linger on the bad, but she remembers most what a wonderful community Gantt’s Quarry was. She awakened to the sounds of the neighborhood where many families, including her own had chickens and kept a cow for milk and butter. Her mother sold milk to supplement income and help neighbors who did not have a cow. Their family, and many others, had a garden to raise vegetables for food. Most houses had outhouses and Shirley remembers how there was a man who kept the privies sprayed to keep insects and odors down.
The sounds of machinery down in the hole and at the finishing plant as well as the sound of a whistle that was blown in the morning, at noon, and in the evening were pretty normal as was the sound of the Dinky, a train that was used to move marble and equipment from one part of the quarry to the other. The whistle blew to indicate that they were about to blast in the quarry, usually in the evening; and when it blew, people took shelter from the rocks that might spray upward. Not many traffic sounds back then, for Shirley and her family, as well as most other workers did not own cars. They walked to school and church and to the community store. They walked to the post office and to the bus stop. On Saturdays they could take one of the City Buses to Sylacauga to stock up on groceries or buy clothes, etc. Shirley remembers when she and her Mom would go to a movie in town, they would ride the bus and come home the same way.
Gantt’s Quarry had community events like gospel singings at the church or school. They had tennis courts, and later on a golf course, the first in the area. Shirley has fond memories of attending Gantt’s Quarry School through eighth grade and then transferring to Sylacauga High School where she graduated in 1955. She and her best friend, Peggy Benton Culp, may have both frequented the library which was in a space at the Post Office because they both ended up as valuable helpers at the counter at B.B. Comer Library. Shirley worked at First National Bank for a number of years. She grew up to a be kind, generous, woman who bought the family their first car and their first house. She was determined to have a home in a day when single women could not easily borrow money to buy houses. She bought two. She has given back to the community in countless ways as a volunteer for the Sylacauga Marble Festival and can be often seen eating lunch with friends at Hickory Street Cafe. She is a veritable encyclopedia about Sylacauga and the people she has known and loved in her life’s journey, but especially her heart remembers her Mother and Daddy and living in a wonderful community called Gantt’s Quarry; and it was not so long ago at that.