WHAT'S HISTORICAL ABOUT A WATERTOWER?
The Faunsdale water tower is typical of the water storage system commonly seen in rural Alabama at the turn of the twentieth century. First introduced in 1894, the “Tin Man” design, with its steel tank, conical roof, and hemispherical bottom on an open trestle structure, was popular in the South through the 1920s. Faunsdale’s tower is believed to date from the period between 1900 and 1910, the height of the town’s prosperity. The village itself had a population of 352 then, and its voting precinct numbered 3,812.
Construction of water towers became popular in the latter half of the 19th century due to growing concerns about the spread of cholera and typhoid from rivers, streams and reservoirs. An increased awareness of the need for sanitation and hygiene led to the development of structures to store clean water until needed. Between 1896 and 1924, over 6,000 water towers were built in the United States.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Faunsdale found itself at a crossroad, both literally and figuratively. Situated within the Canebrake region of Alabama’s Black Belt, it had started life in 1862 as a railroad depot from which local farmers and those from neighboring communities shipped their cotton for sale on the international market. With the cotton economy continuing as the town’s focus, businesses began to spring up around the depot. By the 1880s, Faunsdale was prospering on the production, storage, ginning and compressing of cotton. It had two cotton gins, a cotton seed mill (1899), and several warehouses.
Yet Faunsdale’s survival and future prosperity was dependent not just on its railroad junction, but on its ability to offer a reliable and clean water supply. In a catalog from the period, the Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Company articulated the importance of a municipal water tower: “No one thing marks more clearly the departure of a village from obscurity to a position of prominence and wealth than the installation of the first and most vital public improvement—a water works.”
Water towers performed a secondary function as well: fire protection. As small towns like Faunsdale grew larger with the construction of frame residential and commercial buildings, they faced a potentially devastating fire. Equally disastrous to a town’s economic viability could be the exorbitant rates imposed on the population by insurance companies, due to the lack of stored water needed for firefighting.
But Faunsdale’s new state-of-the-art water tower did not deliver the prominence and wealth its boosters promised. The boll weevil arrived in Marengo County Alabama in 1911, and Faunsdale, heavily invested in the cotton industry, struggled for survival as cotton production in the Black Belt declined by 71 percent. By 1920, Faunsdale’s population had shrunk by nearly 30 percent. At the close of World War I, a decade before the stock market crash of 1929, dropping farm prices and the decline of agricultural land values sent agricultural communities into an early depression. As local farmers began turning cropland into ranchland for the cattle industry, the town of Faunsdale lost its industrial focus and impetus for growth.
Faunsdale’s water tower steadfastly served the needs of the small rural community until the 1960s, when an underground water system was put in place. Like other defunct water towers throughout the country, it began to suffer from neglect as the town council struggled with a tight budget to meet pressing community needs. The paint wore off, rust set in, and a vigorous poison ivy vine took root at its base. Expensive to maintain, the tower was equally expensive to demolish. An inquiry from a movie company offering to buy it and blow it up with explosives during production was met with polite interest. A firm offer never materialized.