By Gary Lloyd
TRUSSVILLE – Trussville’s most prized historical centerpiece, the Cahaba Project neighborhood, will be discussed Tuesday, Oct. 16 at a special-called meeting of the Trussville City Council.
The meeting is at 5:30 p.m. at Trussville City Hall. A representative from the Alabama Historical Commission will be on hand to discuss how to create a local historical district, and the operations and powers of one.
According to Councilman Zack Steele, two Cahaba Project homes have been demolished in the last 18 months. One is scheduled to be. In the previous eighty-plus years, only five were demolished, mostly due to fire or natural disaster, Steele said.
“What we’re seeing happen, and I’m beginning to see the dominoes fall, is we’re having people wanting to live in that neighborhood but not wanting to live in those houses,” Steele says.
Those houses were built in the 1930s as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program, a series of economic programs enacted between 1933 and 1936, focusing on relief, recovery, and reform as part of progressing from the Great Depression. The programs centered on relief for the unemployed and poor, recovery of the economy and reform of the financial system to prevent another depression.
The property on which a blast furnace was located in Trussville was sold in 1935 to Birmingham Homestead Incorporated, a Federal Housing Administration project. In the time the furnace was idle, the site served as a prison camp, called Jefferson County Camp No. 3. It accommodated between 45 and 75 prisoners, who were primarily involved in road work in the county. All the prisoners were white, whose average prison term was just more than two years. Five apartments for prison guards were provided, and a blacksmith shop and barn were also parts of the prison. The prison camp was demolished in preparation for the Federal Housing Administration’s project.
During the Great Depression years, the federal government attempted to relieve many citizens in the low-income bracket. The idea of developing homesteads with a moderate amount of acreage was considered and later pursued throughout the United States. In Jefferson County, a committee of prominent local citizens including Robert Jemison Jr., Charles F. DeBardeleben and J.F. Lies selected a site in Trussville in plain view of the slagheap from the dismantled furnace, giving the homestead project the name “Slagheap Village,” later to be known as “Cahaba Village” and “The Project.”
Senator John H. Bankhead and Dr. M.L. WIlson accompanied the trio on its inspection trip to Trussville, where it became apparent that the property would not be suitable for a homestead development. Resettlement Administrator Dr. Rexwell Tugwell came to the area on an inspection trip. The area included 30 houses for whites and 40 houses for blacks, part of the housing formerly connected to the furnace. Tugwell and his associates decided to provide homes in the area not for homestead operation or for victims of the Great Depression, but for a quality suburban residential development. Being tired of fancy names for these developments, Tugwell declared the project to be called “Slagheap Village,” since a mountain of slag from the furnace was still visible. It was later called “Cahaba Village,” after the nearby Cahaba River.
At Tugwell’s suggestion, W.H. Kestler drew up the layout plans for the project and was from thereafter called “town planner.” Cahaba Village consisted of 287 residential units — 243 homes and 44 duplex units, constructed from 1936 to 1938 at an overall cost of $2,661,981.26. The total cost included work on public utilities, streets, curbs, gutters and public buildings comprising the high school, community building and co-operative store. The acreage cost was not included. Skirting the housing development was a green stretch of properties designated as park areas to protect the encroachment of any development that may detract from the beauty of the community. The properties took two years to construct and were opened in April 1938. A waterworks, sewage disposal plant, paved and lighted streets, and some sidewalks were provided.
In 2017, Trussville declared a moratorium on the demolition of homes in the Cahaba Project to further discuss how to preserve the historic homes.
Steele, the son of a history professor, says preserving Trussville’s unique history is paramount.
“Those houses are special,” he says. “They don’t make them like that anymore. They’re pretty amazing.”