Remember Avondale Lake

Vicki Davis on pier at swimming area, Avondale Lake

Vicki Davis on pier at swimming area, Avondale Lake

When the waters of Logan Martin reservoir began to rise in 1963, they slowly covered the remaining foundation walls of Easonville, Alabama, committing a once-bustling little country village to the whims of history and nostalgia. This impoundment also engulfed two smaller lakes that were part of the Easonville environs — Harmon Lake and Avondale Lake.

Both lakes had been built by damming a stream of running water, same as Logan Martin and all other Alabama lakes (there are no natural lakes anywhere in the state). Avondale Lake, originally known as Waites’ Lake, was created from the outflow of a cluster of ice-cold springs near old U.S. 231 South, in the area now known as River Oaks and Harmon Island.

Using slip scrapes and mules, the Waites family built their lake in the early 1900s on farm property adjacent to the now-submerged Old U.S. 231 highway. It was 5 miles south of Pell City, just right to escape the bustle, noise and smoke of its main industry, Avondale Mills, and became a very popular hangout for that company’s employees and guests.

The lake’s excess flow was routed through two spillways, one at each end of the dam. These waters melded in a swamp just north of the lake, forming a stream that was later used to fill privately-owned Harmon Lake, whose runoff, in turn, joined Easonville Creek as it made its way to the Coosa River.

In the 1940s, the lake property was bought by the mill as a pure water source for its plant in Pell City and also to provide free outdoor recreation for everyone connected with Avondale, which included the majority of Pell City folks as well as lots of Sylacaugans. Conversely, Harmon Lake, which sported a dance hall and better fishing, was open to the general public, but the owners charged for everything.

Sylacauga resident Doug Dickey, who was raised in Pell City and learned to swim in Waites’ Lake, speaks of this purchase: “It was a wonderful thing, like all the other things Avondale provided for its workers and their families.” Dickey adds that, in addition to good working conditions (at least for that era), the mill complex included company housing, on-site schools, an activity center with pool tables, etc, tennis courts, a football field and a baseball field.

Before company-sponsored transportation was set up, mill workers usually hitchhiked, bicycled or rode ‘shank’s mare’ (walked) the whole 5 miles from the Mill Village to the lake on weekends and during the summer months. Gerald Ensley, who often walked this trek, relates a story of a local man who drove it in a 1931 Ford.

One day this man headed for Pell City, nattily decked out in clean bib overalls and a necktie. Ensley and a group of boys also set out at the same time, in the same direction. He said they passed that man five times on the side of the road, changing flat tires. The man would never offer anyone a ride, partly because he kept the car’s back seat full of spare tires.

Dickey tells of Forrest Finch, who used his personal truck to transport mill workers from Coal City. After Finch had taken his neighbors home at the end of their shift, he would often return and drive another load of kids to Avondale Lake, where he served as a volunteer lifeguard while they swam.

One of these lucky kids was Pete Rich, who later worked as a lifeguard after Avondale bought the lake. Rich went on to achieve sports fame while playing for Southern Miss. In fact, the stadium at Pell City High School, where he was head football coach, is named after him.

In later years, the company ran a school bus on a regular hourly schedule to and from the lake, entirely without charge, but limited to mill people, their families and guests. These runs were driven for a number of years by “Jellybean” Clemons, who also transported vacationers on longer journeys to Avondale’s Camp Helen, a nicely-appointed private resort area in the Florida panhandle.

Avondale Mills’ owners, the Comer family, were very supportive of youth groups such as the Boy Scouts. There was a smaller recreation area adjacent to the lake property in what is now River Oaks, where the mill hosted Scout outings and other community and company functions. Most mill-sponsored activities were presided over by their plant personnel manager, Norman Smith, who also held various local civic positions.

Avondale Lake had it all, it would seem. There was a bath-house for changing into swim clothes, a large pavilion for parties and gatherings, a few flat-bottomed boats, a duck-pin bowling alley, swimming area, boat dock, a pump house for the mill’s water supply and various other water resort amenities.

“Chick” Moore, a gentle giant of a man, was caretaker and director of activities. He wore a pistol (for snakes, of course), and could easily handle most any sort of occasion or problem that arose. According to renowned local artist, Wayne Spradley, Moore was well-known for his ability to kill a swimming snake from a distance with his small-caliber revolver.

Vicki Davis Mize, a Pell Citian, tells that Chick and his wife were warm, friendly people who loved to cater to mill family crowds. Both were excellent cooks who knew how to prepare food in great quantity. Mize says everyone’s favorite was their strawberry shortcake. The Moores also hosted fish fries and barbecues.

Spradley, who frequented both lakes and worked as a lifeguard at Harmon Lake, says Avondale’s waters were crystal clear and very cold — so cold, in fact, there was a shower head near the swimming area, not to keep the lake clean, but to accustom bathers to its icy chill.

The more than 30-acre lake was stocked with bream and bass. Its clear water made it easy to see fish of all sizes, including some gigantic drum and carp, as they leisurely prowled their domain and accepted food from visitors, often coming into the swimming area itself. According to several local folks, the lake also hosted a prodigious number of snakes.

Spradley recalls when a sunken boat was being removed near the swimming area. As they turned it over to drain the water, more than a dozen copperheads slithered out from underneath. But, according to Gerald Ensley, this never seemed to stop anybody from running around bare-foot all over the place.

The springs that formed Avondale Lake had sufficient flow to power a grist mill, built adjacent to one of the spillways. It used what’s known as a turbine wheel, rather than the more familiar overshot wooden wheel of older mills. Ensley recalls his family hauling wagonloads of corn and wheat to this mill for grinding into meal and flour.

Ensley explained that the two grains were ground on different days of the week, because each required different stones and gap settings. But you could drop off your load any time, and they would keep it in a storage area until the day for grinding that particular grain. The gristmill continued to operate after Avondale purchased the property.

Several churches used Avondale Lake for baptisms. Vicki Mize was baptized in the lake’s swimming area by her father, the Rev. Harvey L. Davis, pastor of Coosa Valley Baptist Church, then at its original location in Easonville. The Davises also owned a general merchandise store on Old U.S. 231 South, adjacent to the gate that entered the lake property.

Their store was a natural stop-and-shop place for lake visitors as well as highway travelers and local citizens. Other merchants with similar stores nearby were the Harmons, Fraims, and Wadsworths. The Harmons also owned a cotton gin next to their store in the middle of Easonville. All these merchants served the mercantile needs of many local pioneer families, such as Lee, Abbott, Gholson, Ingram, Hurst, Cosper, Smith and Watson.

Wayne Spradley tells of a huge bass he caught in the spillway below the grist mill. He ran all the way to Harmon’s store, some 3 miles away, to have it officially weighed. The fish topped out at only three-quarters of a pound, but in young Wayne’s eyes it was a real whopper.

Several 10-pound bass and other near-record fish have been caught from the lake and its environs. Spradley relates that his older brother, Jimmy, caught a dinner-plate-size bream that came within a few ounces of a new world record. A devious ‘friend’ traded him two fishing rods and a boxful of tackle for this fish, then proceeded to win a local fishing contest with it, stealing a prize worth many times the cost of the gear he had traded to Jimmy.

Today, Avondale and Harmon Lakes exist mainly among the cherished memories of mill folks and other local seniors. Since the Coosa began to engulf them in 1963, these once-popular lakes have been relegated to blue-shaded underwater locations on fishing maps. There’s little written material about them, anywhere. Indeed, this entire narrative comes from fond recollections of the good people mentioned herein.

But even today, Mr. Waites’ ageless springs keep bubbling, adding their generous share of clean, cold water to Alabama Power’s huge Logan Martin reservoir. If the fish you catch between Harmon Island and River Oaks Point taste a little fresher, you’ve probably found Avondale Lake.

Editor’s note: For more on Easonville, see
DISCOVER The Essence of St. Clair June & July issue at www.discoverstclair.com.

Story by Jerry C. Smith
Historical images courtesy
of the Vicki Davis Mize Collection

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