JCHA NEWSLETTER –SUMMER 2019

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Docena Mining Camp
A Century Ahead of Time, Yet Too Late

—by: John Troulias


D

ocena was a shaft mine into the Pratt coal seam. Docena (Spanish for "twelfth") was the twelfth mine opened in the Pratt Coal Seam of the Warrior Coal Field. Begun in 1905, the mining camp was designed with a Spanish flavor. Precast into the concrete over the main entrance to the commissary is "Mercado" (Spanish for "market"). The commissary building looks as if it would fit in Barcelona or Madrid. The park was named Docena Prado (Spanish for "meadow").

In Thomas Hagood’s 1960 thesis for Birmingham Southern College, Hagood reported he had learned the suggestion for a camp with Hispanic flavor was credited to Ed F. Stallingworth, who had done some railroad work in Mexico.

Being a retired railroader, I wanted to find him. Accessing the US Census and local records I found Edward F. Stollenwerck had been the Trainmaster for the Birmingham Mineral Railroad and later the L&N Railroad Train Dispatcher for the Birmingham area. In these positions he would have had contact with TCI management regarding movement of trains traveling through TCI’s area and interchanging freight trains with TCI. This may have given him the opportunity for the recommendation for the camp.

The proposed mine site had been owned by the Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) church which had plans to build a college there and a black community named "Booker" in honor of Booker T. Washington. Tennessee Coal Iron & RR Company ("TCI") did a land swap with the church which received the property now home to Miles College in Fairfield. A few miles away from Docena, the neighborhood of Booker Heights was begun in 1912.

The Birmingham Southern Railroad ran a spur from its mainline in Ensley to Docena to serve the mine. The rails were removed after the mine closed save for the bridge over Second Creek, a Village Creek tributary. There is community interest in converting this route to a walking trail.

Most coal and ore mines in Jefferson County were within walking distance from another mine/camp. Everyone was within walking distance of a friend or relative in the next camp. This was not applicable at Docena as it was not close to any other community.

It was one of the last three coal mining towns built by TCI (including Bayview and Edgewater). Planners used their mine camp building knowledge and created a camp with a little extra community identity. There were schools, a clubhouse, a full-time physician and a social worker.

Docena Mercado-Precast Sign

Docena Mercado-Precast Sign

As in a few other camps, TCI built a Community Church building which was used alternately by Baptists and Methodists. It is now used by the Docena Baptist Church. The building is in good shape except it needs some roof repairs soon. Even though the population is less than when the mine was in operation there are at least four churches in Docena now.

In the early 20th Century even "modern" Docena was subject to tragedy: In June 1941 five miners received fatal injuries from a mine explosion at which time the mine employed over 1000 people. (Est. 450 on day shift when accident occurred.) Employment topped out at 1,250 during the Second World War.

TCI president George Gordon Crawford traveled to the Canal Zone to recruit Dr. Lloyd Noland who was working with Alabamian William C. Gorgas to come to Birmingham to address the mining communities’ health. In 1913 Dr Noland accepted the challenge and made dramatic improvements in workers' health and camp sanitation.

In a Birmingham News article, TCI stated: "…That the money invested in establishing these facilities (the new camps) has been most profitably spent, because of the fact that the workers and their families are 100 per cent more contented with their surroundings than was the case prior to the adoption of the modern plan of development."

The houses for the miners are the standard mine house: four rooms with one center common fireplace (one to two families per house) and laid out in a mostly grid pattern. There was no indoor plumbing with TCI "honey wagons" traveling down the alleys to pump out the "privies". Coal was also delivered in wagons via the alleys. Eventually the privies were replaced by sanitary sewer.

The camps had both black and white miners, but were segregated. The white miner families would live on one side of the street while the black miners lived on the other across small alleys.

The larger management houses tended to be on the more contoured streets and on the outer perimeter. Although in many mining communities the chimney has been removed and the houses significantly modified most of the Docena houses still have the central fireplace and a metal roof.

Until recent decades TCI’s Ensley and Fairfield plants produced many finished metal products so metal roofs would be the logical choice. The most-often addition is an enclosure of the porch. Docena remains as one of the best examples of a mining camp in Jefferson County. It has not been "preserved" but instead it just hasn’t changed. With the exception of automobiles at most houses time has stood still.

Many of the streets have recently been repaved by Jefferson County but not widened so it’s a little crowded at times with all of the personal vehicles. Docena is one of the best examples of a later built mining camp in the County. The community still does not have a neighboring community. The Post Office is the only business remaining. Docena may qualify by some government standards as a "food desert". The only shopping area, a gas station/convenience store with an adjacent Mexican restaurant, is almost a mile away.

Docena-Community Church Building Built 1918

Docena-Community Church Building Built 1918

A CENTURY AHEAD (The Hispanic Accent)

Two miles away is Pratt City, site of one of the earliest mines to open. Its miners included a mix of French, Greek, Italian, and Irish. Docena, begun significantly later, was populated by first generation Americans and mostly Alabamians. Being one of the last coal mines opened in Jefferson County most of its residents were born in the U.S. and consisted of blacks and whites. A review of the 1930 Census of "Docena Camp" revealed approximately 90% Alabama natives, a few from England and Scotland, one from Poland, and one teacher born in Sweden.

The residents are still the same mix with a few new residents whose native language is Spanish. None of them were there when the "Mercado" was open and may have never seen any of the Spanish accents in Docena.

This cultural practice was also applied to some previously established mining communities. TCI’s social science director Marion Whidden drew from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, "The Song of Hiawatha" as follows:

Fossil became Wenonah; Eureka became Ishkooda; Smith’s Mining camp became Muscoda. These American Indian words were not local to Alabama but have outlived the mines.

After the Docena mine and commissary closed Andrew and Greta Tortorici operated the Docena Lucky Store in the former commissary building. Their Store was the main outlet for town talk, tall tales, and the latest news. Mr. and Mrs. Tortorici kept the store from 1961 to 1998. Both of them died within the last year after a 68-year marriage.

A church used the commissary after the store closed but the building has been vacant for several years. The commissary appears in good structural shape except for a small roof leak. There are no utilities, and the main entrance doors have been left ajar. The commissary serves as an excellent example of a well-built building centrally located in a well-planned mining community. Although the population is less now than when it was a mining camp, instead of one shared church building there are now four churches with their own buildings.

A family friend’s father, Hiram "Humpty" Hutto, grew up in Docena. Every boy in the camp was assigned a nickname. Humpty recalled being awoken by a cold foot. With three older brothers, someone was always sharing the bed with him. When daylight came Humpty discovered the brothers were sleeping with a grown man. He probably had a little to drink, came in late and quietly went to bed. The house was in the proper position on the street, the bedroom was laid out correctly, but the man turned up the wrong street.

Co-worker Phillip said at least by the 1940s there was a private bus that made a route through many of the mining camps in northwestern Jefferson County. Most passengers would exit in downtown Ensley. On Saturday evening he and his buddies would catch the bus to Ensley, window shop for a while, and then "hang out" around the Ensley Theatre. Several times the manager, seeing the boys, created a "job" for them and let them see the movie for free.

Martha was three in Docena when her father got an above-ground supervisor job at another mine but she remembered the chicken. Martha watched from her step as her neighbor’s chicken crossed the alley into her yard for a little privacy. After laying an egg the chicken returned to her own side of the alley at which time Martha ran to retrieve the egg to show it to her mother. One Sunday Martha told her mother that she had a new daddy – she didn’t recognize him because she had only been seeing him returning from the mine covered in coal dust.

My wife, as a child, drew a house and showed it to her farm-raised mother who remarked "That’s good but houses do not have chimneys in the middle." A few days later, on the way to Birmingham the family passed by a camp house and she happily exclaimed "Look, Mother. Houses do have chimneys in the middle."

By the time TCI built Docena it had plenty of experience with this house design. The "square tops" can still be seen with many of them scattered on Red Mountain in the former mining areas. In Docena, little has changed since they were built.

Both of my grandfathers were local miners. I never saw one and the other died while I was young. I heard many stories. He worked in many of the mines in northwestern Jefferson County. When a new mine opened it had to pay 5 cents/hour or so premium to attract skilled miners.

With exception for the one set of twins, most of the 13 children were born in a different house and usually in a different camp. My grandfather never had a car or drove and even after leaving the mines for a permanent job in a mill. He always lived within a mile of the mine or mill and walked every day to work.

This April, the Docena Commissary building burned. In comparing the before and after photos, note that even an out-of-control fire did not bring down the main walls. Neither utilities nor lightning were to blame, so it must have been questionable circumstances – most likely mischief. The building has not been razed as of this printing. Although much smaller than Birmingham’s Terminal Station, it’s just a reminder another historic building has slipped away.

 
Docena Mercado - Dec 2018
Docena Mercado Apr 2019

Top photo: Docena Mercado - Dec 2018. Bottom photo: Docena Mercado Apr 2019

 
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2019 JCHA MEMBERSHIP / RENEWAL FORMCLICK TO OPEN FORM


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Jefferson County Historical Association Books


historic birmingham & jefferson county

Historic Birmingham
and Jefferson County
By James R. Bennett
$30 (member discount)

The History of Jefferson County Before 1850

The History of Jefferson County Before 1850
By Will F. Franke, edited by
Thomas M. West, Jr.
$33

Pizitz Genesis of a Retail Giant

Pizitz Genesis of a Retail Giant
By James R. Bennett
$30

 


About JCHA Publications

The Jefferson County Historical Association offers several books that offer a fresh insight into the rich history of Birmingham and Jefferson County Alabama. They tell the fascinating story of the people and industries that made Jefferson County and Alabama the industrial center of the South.

From first-hand accounts to thoroughly researched narratives, The JCHA publishes books that bring forth rich episodes of Jefferson Counties history in a readable style that engages both scholarly and general audiences.

Ordering JCHA Books

These JCHA books can be purchased at meetings of the Jefferson County Historical Association or ordered by mail.

Click the link below to print or save a book order form. PDF format.

Book Order Form

You may also order by sending your check or money order to the following address along with $5.00 for shipping and taxes (please add $2.00 for each additional book):

The Jefferson County Historical Association
PO Box 130285
Birmingham, AL 35213-0285

Please indicate book title and quantity when ordering.

 

Other Source Publications Co-Sponsored by the JCHA:

  • Tannehill and the Growth of the Alabama Iron Industry — James R. Bennett, Alabama Historic Ironworks Commission, 1999, available at www.tannehill.org, $45.
  • The Valley and the Hills, an Illustrated History of Birmingham and Jefferson County — Leah Rawls Atkins, Windsor Publications, 1981, available at the Birmingham Public Library Southern History Department, http://www.birminghamarchives.org/ArchivesStore.htm, $30

 
 

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