A ghost town
Rachael Scarborough King
Star Staff Writer
Published: August 15, 2006
OHATCHEE – In the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, Ohatchee’s downtown square was a bustling place, with a café and soda fountain, two grocery stores, a drug store, a doctor’s office, the town hall – and a movie theater known for playing films deemed too explicit for Anniston’s theaters.
Ohatchee didn’t have censors, meaning that the theater could play pictures like “The Outlaw,” which was famous (or infamous) for its generous portrayal of Jane Russell’s décolletage.
Marie Guthrie, a longtime Ohatchee resident, remembers the crowds of people trying to see the film.
“Of course, some of the people got to see it and some didn’t,” Guthrie said, laughing. “Some got in that shouldn’t have.”
The square near the corner of Spring Road and Main Street used to be the center of life in Ohatchee, before good highways put Anniston and Gadsden a short drive away.
Now, “it’s like a ghost town up here,” said Susie McCrelles Watts, who owns Susie’s Country Store, one of the few businesses left on the square.
“It’s just nobody,” she added.
The downtown area, with its clapboard storefronts and grassy square bordering the train tracks, dates to the 1930s, Mayor Joseph Roberson said.
“I was always told what a booming town it was once upon a time,” Roberson said. “It was just a hustling, bustling place.”
The decline started in the 1960s, he said, when Alabama 144 was built, winding east to U.S. 431 and Anniston, and west to Alabama 77 and Gadsden.
“Unfortunately the economics of the (area) changed and the highway came through and bypassed the old downtown,” he said.
The activity now has shifted to the area at the intersection of Alabama 144 and 77, which features a Jack’s restaurant, gas station and shopping plaza. The town hall relocated to a new municipal complex there in 2002.
“We were fortunate enough and maybe smart enough to move out on the highway … and revitalize the town,” Roberson, who has been mayor since 1984, said. “My vision was to build a town nucleus again in a different location, bring it down here where the traffic was (and) the people are.”
Many of Ohatchee’s older residents look back on the old downtown with a sense of nostalgia.
“The town square used to be the center of the town,” said Virgie Hunst, who moved with her parents to a house on the square in 1946. “It was really lively.”
“On Saturday afternoons you couldn’t find a parking place in Ohatchee,” added Donald Nunnally. “A lot of young ones (now) don’t know that that was the town at one time.”
Curt Dover said the hang-out in those days was Doc’s Café, right next to the movie theater.
“You could flip a nickel up there (on the counter) and let it bounce a time or two and he’d come out the back door and say, ‘I’ll be there in a minute,'” Dover said. “Doc, he ran that café for years and years but I guess it got where it wasn’t profitable.”
Most of the storefronts are now boarded up. Susie’s, a salvage grocery store, is open two whole days and two half days a week, the owner said.
Last year, some local residents approached the City Council with concerns about the decay. At a council meeting Lamar and Cathy Crosson said the area was filled with stray animals and trash and that they suspected a nearby house of harboring drug dealers.
Roberson said that over the years he has fielded requests for the city to redevelop the town square. Possible uses have included turning the buildings into an arts and crafts center.
“We agree with that (and) we think it would be nice, too … but it takes some community involvement and support and effort too,” he said.
“It’s hard for the town to do all these things, it takes a lot of time to arrange all that. We’d love to see things like that go on but we’d like to see some more community involvement.”
McCrelles, the owner of Susie’s, said she doesn’t know what could be done to revitalize the square but that she would be interested in playing a part.
“There’s a lot of people that does not know that Ohatchee has a square … and that’s the sad part about it because it’s cute, it’s just something different,” she said. “I just wish it was like it was, it needs to be popping out here. It needs something going on.”
Many longtime residents agreed with Roberson that the town’s shift away from the old downtown has caused some changes in the community.
“Everybody knew each other. We have a lot of transient traffic now stopping at our service stations and restaurants,” Roberson said. “It’s not probably as close-knit as it was back then when there was less automobiles and kids didn’t have as much to do.”
“I guess it was (more close-knit) ’cause it’s kind of scattered out now, everybody knew everybody then,” Hunst said. “I think it’s good to spread out, to be optimistic about it, ’cause it’s got room to grow over here.”
For many older Ohatchee residents, the new senior center behind town hall in some ways approximates the old downtown as a daily gathering place for the community.
“There ain’t no downtown area now, I haven’t been up there in years,” Joe Carter said. “This (senior center) right here is the best thing we’ve had in Ohatchee since I can remember.”