[An incomplete version of Steve Rogers’ column ran in Packet #1248. This is the full version. -Ed.]
My family cemetery is in a wide spot in the road in East Alabama called Letohatchee.
It’s little more than an old rail stop, a post office and two old country stores along a county road between Highway 80 and I-65. If it weren’t for the interstate and some businesses that have cropped up there, including Mid State Stockyards and the associated Custard Cattle Co., the area would be almost unheard of, much less noticed.
Our family cemetery is at the end of the road that goes by the rail depot. Don’t turn right on Chicken Pit Road but stay straight on the aptly named Cemetery Road. In runs right along the CSX Rail line that links Mobile and Pensacola to Montgomery and the rest of the world.
Up until 30 years ago, rain could wreak havoc on a funeral, forcing a walk through red mud, a hike down the railroad tracks or rides on old-fashioned railroad hand cars to get to the cemetery.
The road, such as it is, is not much better today. But it still dead ends with the Letohatchee Cemetery on the right and the Rogers Family Cemetery on the left. Ours has a large iron gate with “Rogers” across the top, paid for through years of annual donations to the Rogers Family Cemetery Trust.
Our family has its reunion each year — the first Sunday in May — at the cemetery. The gathering doubles as a meeting of the Cemetery Trust.
In addition to the railroad stop and grain elevators and the two abandoned country stores, Letohatchee, which ironically is in Lowndes County, Ala., has been marked for years by a stately white Victorian with a gabled roof and porch that overlooks the depot and Highway 97.
If motorists zipping through from Hayneville to the interstate — or Greenville or Brewton way back in the day — they couldn’t help but notice the house, surrounded by stately old oaks and magnolias. I used to go their as a kid, usually after the family reunion, to visit more with relatives, play with young cousins I seldom would see again and listen to grownups talk about things I didn’t know or care about.
Even then — it’s been 50 years ago — the trees seemed huge.
That was Cousin Booley’s house. He’s dead now, but the home remains in the family.
During those visits as a child, I marveled at the hand pump that brought gushes of clear, cool water from its spout when you tugged it up and down. It seemed so hard the first year, but the magic of aging made it easier year after year.
Older relatives talked about the days when they pumped that handle several times a day for everything for drinking and cooking water to laundry and bathing. It had only been a few years since “city” water had made its way to the rural stretch, so what seemed like a chore to me had been an every day fact of life for them.
I couldn’t fathom what it must have been like the day they could simply turn a handle to get water in the kitchen sink, the bathroom toilet — another “modern” miracle replacing the outhouse, which I also found intriguing as a child — or the shower.
I was reminded of that well pump, the outhouse and other “luxuries” of another era recently during a conversation with an elderly Columbus couple.
For almost a year now, the city has been working on the latest $4.5 million street, sidewalk and drainage project. While big-ticket streets like College and Second Avenue North get much of the attention because of the number of people who use them every day, a smaller, more nondescript name on the list of more than 80 streets caught my attention.
The asphalt stretches only about 200 yards. The rest of the road remains unpaved at this point so as not to attract drivers looking for a short cut. Plans for other, also little used streets in the area will wait for a future project or until development in the area — if it ever comes — takes place.
The residents on the road aren’t rich. They don’t have relatives in high places. It is not some exclusive neighborhood. In fact, most people couldn’t find it with a map. The house where the elderly couple lives is innocuous at best. But it is home and has been for years.
So what made this little stretch get my attention?
When the city finally spent the $5,000 or so it cost to have that asphalt put down after God knows how many years of neglect, the couple in their 70s or older finally could open their windows on cool spring and fall mornings and evenings and let the fresh air blow through.
For a man who has been on oxygen for years and couldn’t tolerate the dust that clogged his lungs and coated everything it wafted over, it was almost like a miracle.
Some may question spending money on such a small stretch of remote road that benefits just one house, but when you watch the curtains fluttering in the window as the outside air blows through, you understand that sometimes, it’s not all about dollars and results and cost-benefit analysis, sometimes government is about people and touching lives in the smallest ways.
As the budget talks of August and September draw closer for Columbus and Lowndes County governments, residents almost certainly will hear more discussion of the dissolution of the Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority into two separate entities.
The split already is in the works with the county hiring former CLRA Director Roger Short to plan the future of the community centers in the county, the downtown Columbus soccer complex which is owned by the county and other programs.
The existing city parks and at least some staff will be taken into the city as another department rather than the separate entity it has been.
Many people, including me, at first had serious questions about the split and how it was orchestrated by county supervisors. I wondered whether it was going to be good for one, the other or both.
I still question how it was orchestrated but in recent weeks, I’ve said in this space I think it can be good for both city and county residents. That’s even more clear this week. But the city must do more to make sure it happens because so far, the current CLRA has not shown evidence that it can manage the city’s assets.
For instance, since last fall, the watering system at the soccer complex has been broken, a victim of a lightning strike or someone who didn’t know how to operate it. As a result, expensive grass has taken a beating, fields have deteriorated and at least 19 trees have died from a combination of a lack of water and the drought that has only begun to wash away in recent weeks.
Likewise, flower beds that once were a centerpiece to the park were overgrown with weeds and the flowers that did return grew unkempt and unattractive.
Those problems fall at the feet of the CLRA. People an make excuses about being phased out or whatever but these problems have existed for months. And the longer they go unattended, the more of our investment we lose and the bigger the black eye the appearance leaves on the city.
Short, in his new role for the county, told supervisors he is taking steps to get those issues addressed — at the current CLRA’s expense — before the county takes over Oct. 1. The city is lucky the county will manage such an important facility.
It raises questions about other park assets that will remain in the city’s hands, namely Propst Park, Lee Park, several community enters and smaller recreation areas. And I haven’t even talked about Luxapilila Creek Park and what it could become.
Meanwhile, the county already is looking ahead. Supervisors mentioned today leasing the old West Lowndes Middle School from the county school district as a rec enter for the western part of the county. Its gym, cafeteria, baseball and football fields, with some work, could become centerpieces for that area.
The Caledonia area already has Ola J. Pickett Park.
And supervisors today allocated $25,000 for a playground adjacent to the community enter and walking track at New Hope. It keeps a commitment made to state fish and wildlife leaders as part of a grant to get New Hope’s baseball field officially deeded to the school district.
That work will keep the county busy for awhile. But other, long-range plans have been discussed in recent months. One would have the state give the 1,100-acre Lake Lowndes State Park, its gym, ball fields, cabins, conference center, gym, camp and RV sites, rails and other facilities back o the county.
Yes, back to the county because that’s who actually gave it to the state years ago.
Such an idea may be a dream or far-fetched, but it could work. The state is looking everywhere for cost-cutting ideas. Shedding itself of having the manage, promote and maintain Lake Lowndes could help that goal.
Likewise, Lowndes County, as it develops, could better use the park for local recreation needs while at the same time better promoting and managing it for tourists. And if it was going to happen, it makes more sense to think about it while the county is still shaping its long-term recreation plans rather than trying to adjust later on.
With the split of city and country responsibilities for their own parks and rec, the county will have between $400,000 and $450,000 left from its current CLRA funding to kick off its park program. And with the tax incentives for Steel Dynamics starting to come off the books in the next year, county revenues will spike for the next few years.
Continued investment earnings from the county’s hospital sale nest egg also will help.
So the pieces are in play. Those all are things to watch as the county discusses its parks future in the months ahead.
On the city side, as I said, taxpayers should watch how the city plans to be accountable for its own recreation assets and the sports programs it has promised to keep. It actually may be able to reduce funding and do more if it handles it correctly.
So when the budget debates address parks and recreation in August and September, don’t get lost in tales of woe-is-me. Instead, listen for vision and opportunities because they are out there for both the city and county.
Editor’s note: Columbus resident Steve Rogers is a veteran- award-winning editor, writer and editorial writer. His columns appear weekly in The Packet. He an be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.