This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Wiregrass: The Transformation of Southeast Alabama, 1880-1930




Byrd, William

Type of Degree





The southeast corner of Alabama is popularly known as the Wiregrass. The name was originally inspired by the native grass that pioneers found growing abundantly in the region’s longleaf pine forests. However, by the mid twentieth century the original forest and the region’s namesake wiregrass was all but gone from the region. What happened to the wiregrass? The vast forest that confronted the first settlers had been replaced by a new landscape of farms and small towns interspersed by a few remnant patches of forest on hillsides and in river bottoms. Settlers moved into the Alabama Wiregrass at the dawn of the nineteenth century, and Native Americans had hunted in region’s forests for centuries. However, the period of time stretching roughly from 1880 to 1930 marked an era of almost unimaginable change. The region’s landscape was utterly transformed. The great longleaf forests were steadily cleared by loggers. The first lumber operations were small, limited by seasonal labor and slow flowing rivers for transportation. Beginning in the late 1880s railroads replaced rivers as the region’s avenues of commerce and the lumber business expanded to an industrial scale. The big sawmills cleared the forests and eventually shut down their operations, leaving only stumps. Along with the loggers came legions of farmers. Many were poor families looking for homesteads in the piney woods or among the stumps of the ever-expanding cutover. The farmers faced all of the struggles inherent to agriculture in the late nineteenth century South. Despite sincere difficulties, the small farms of the Wiregrass persisted. Forced from cotton monoculture by the boll weevil infestation, these farmers adopted more viable farming practices. The perseverance of the Wiregrass farmers ensured that the longleaf forests and their wiregrass would not return even though the region’s biggest sawmills had closed. Industrial lumber and modern agriculture worked in tandem to shape both the landscape and the society of the twentieth-century Alabama Wiregrass