Rutledge Heights & Fairfield Highlands
Annexed to Midfield – Beginning 1964
1. Early Settlers
In the antebellum era, lands surrounding what would later be called Woodward and Dolomite supported several prosperous cotton plantations. Rutledge Springs on Possom Valley Road (Valley Road) was one of these.
James Rutledge (1787-1864) and his brother were on their way to Texas from Gastona, North Carolina. They stopped to rest by a spring about eight miles West of Fort Jones. James settled in the area in 1816, and the land near his spring (Rutledge Springs), was the center of Methodism in the western part of Jefferson County and the site of many camp meetings and revivals. Rutledge donated land for the church building and cemetery and the Bethlehem Methodist Church was established in 1818. The Reverend James Tarrant, with his slave, Adam, also a minister, raised the first building for Bethlehem Methodist Church. James Tarrant, a Revolutionary soldier from Virginia, was the first minister.
Old Possum Valley Road ran from Elyton, the first Seat of Justice in Jefferson County to the Warrior River. Men who lived along the road were appointed as Overseers of the road and were responsible for keeping their stretch of the road passable. Court Minutes from 1857 named Robert Hughes Overseer of the road from Bethlehem Meetinghouse to John Clark’s place.
The old road going over the hill to connect Rutledge Springs to Huntsville Road came to be known as Rutledge Road, and is the namesake of the community of Rutledge. The old Rutledge homestead was on this road, just up the hill on the left. The spring itself was a little further up the hill on the right. Later, as the Wilkes family established prominence on the other end of this road, parts of the road came to be known as Wilkes Road.
As early as 1815, the area of Jefferson County settled along the Old Possum Valley Road was called the Bethlehem Precinct. This was also an early voting precinct. Families living in Hueytown, Dolomite, Woodward, Rutledge Springs, and other small communities were recorded as living in the Bethlehem Precinct of Jefferson County.
2. Middle Years
The following is written from an account given by Robert (87) and Cecil (97) Ponder on Oct. 1st, 2003.
T.D. Ponder (1886) moved his family from Odenville, Alabama to “Wilkes Hill”, which was at the top of the hill on Rutledge Drive (later to become Fairfield Highlands) in 1922. They moved to a five-acre spread that later became the building and grounds of Fairfield Highlands United Methodist Church. At that time the road was called Wilkes Road and there were only 14 homes on the hill with no water and power.
The move required three wagons pulled by mules borrowed from a friend in Odenville. They moved into a two-story house with a “cistern” used to catch water for the animals (cows, pigs, chickens). The kids attended Wilkes School with Robert starting the first grade there.
T.D. had a road built by the house and he named it 5th Avenue. (When TCI later started their development, they started their numbers from there. Which explains why there are no 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th avenues there.) Water was bought from a man who delivered it by barrels that he brought from the spring in a mule-drawn wagon. After awhile T.D. grew tired of this and dug a well. He had to go down 100 feet to find water.
In 1924 T.D. bought a house across the road. There was no well so Cecil and sometimes others drove the Model T Ford to Rutledge Springs and filled the running board with huge water cans and brought it back up the hill. The hill had several steep parts and the Model T had to back up the hill (reverse having a lower gear than forward first) about a half mile. The road was later graded, eliminating the steeper parts.
About 1925 Cecil built tennis courts on the property and people came from all around to play tennis. The water line and electric service began on Wilkes Road about early 1925.
The first boy-scout troop (No. 63) was started by R.C. “Pop” Glasgow in 1928. He designated a first class scout (Robert Ponder) to attend the Confederate Veterans Memorial in Montgomery.
Two maps of Rutledge Springs and Wilkes Hill in the 20s and 30s that were drawn by T.D. Ponder are included.
TCI owned the property and in 1925 the Tennessee Land Co. placed Mr. Evans in charge of developing what they called “Fairfield Highlands”. In keeping with their Fairfield design, a grid-like arrangement of numbered streets and avenues laid out the area for the housing development. Wilkes Road was changed to Rutledge Drive. The first of many houses built was on 8th Street between 5th and 6th Avenue. Cost of the houses was $4,000 to $7,000. The laying of water and power lines had already begun. Later C.J. McDonald Realty Co. developed the area that includes Highland Drive. Much later, Belcher would develop Rutledge Heights and the area called the Belcher Addition across 8th St. from Rutledge School.
Sometime before 1925, Jefferson County built a school on the hill on the corner of 8th Ave. and 9th Street. This wood frame building came to be known as Rutledge School. In 1926 a two-story brick building would replace it. Those who lived on the hill attended Wilkes School through the 4th grade and attended Rutledge for the 5th and 6th grades. Mary Lou Bingham, who lived closer to Wilkes School, attended all nine grades at Wilkes.
It seems to be the consensus of all of the old-timers on the hill that the old frog pond “was always there.” They can remember it as a place for all kinds of water recreation including fishing, boating and frog gigging. There was a platform constructed by the pond for Saturday night square dances. (There was mention of “Home Brew” being passed around there.) A tennis court was also built there.
4. Early Churches
It was on this platform that the Fairfield Highlands Presbyterian Church got its start. A wood frame Church building was constructed there in late 1925 that is still in use today. A beautiful new sanctuary was completed in 1927…so much for the “home brew”.
On Feb. 6, 1926, with Brother Weaver as moderator, twenty-eight dedicated men and women met in the front yard of Brother Roberts and established the Fairfield Highlands Baptist Church. Twenty days later, Brother W.R. Weaver became the first pastor. A wood frame tabernacle was purchased from Fairfield First Baptist Church and moved to 910 9th Street. The tabernacle was one large room so curtains were used to section off Sunday School classes and were drawn back for the worship service. At the end of 1942, Fairfield Highlands Baptist Church had completed a new two-story brick education center.
On September 7, 1938 at a tent revival on the corner of 11th Ave. and 8th St., charter members signed and pledged their loyalty to the birth of Fairfield Highlands Methodist Church. The Civitan Club House on 7th Ave. and 9th St. became their first meeting place until an old store was purchased on the corner of 11th Ave. and 8th Street. The store was remodeled into a church and many additions and renovations were made to the structure over the next several years.
In December 1959, fire destroyed this building and the church met at the school where plans were made to buy property at Rutledge Dr. and 5th Ave. (the old Ponder homestead). In 1961 the first complex of some 14 Sunday school classes, church office and assembly hall was completed. It wasn’t until Jan. 5, 1975 that the new sanctuary and additional class rooms were completed.
The old property on the corner of 11th Ave. and 9th St. remained vacant for awhile, then about early 1961 a group from the Midfield Church of Christ who were looking to “swarm” (a tradition of the Church of Christ to solve over-crowding conditions in one church by creating another), purchesed the property. They did the necessary repairs and additions, and the first service of the Fairfield Highlands Church of Christ was held on Feb. 28th, 1962 with 128 attending. Brother Ed Holt was the pastor.
In the late 20s and early 30s business sprang up along 8th street to take advantage of the housing development that was occurring there. This road was also another route from a section of Brighton to Valley Road. One such business was Martin’s general store on the corner of 8th Street and 11th Ave. Lindsey’s Grocery was on 8th St. and Rutledge Drive.
The corner of 8th St. and 9th Ave. became the “downtown” of the Fairfield Highlands area. D.O. Parsons opened a grocery store on that corner about 1928. It later became Vowell Grocery Store and then Ernest Whiten’s Grocery. The first building was wood frame, but Whiten demolished the old building and replaced it with a new brick store. Ernest started out by peddling a few groceries at a time that he bought from Bessemer before buying the store from Vowell.
Arthur Roberts was a postman delivering mail to the Highlands for the Fairfield Post Office. He talked his supervisors into having the mail dropped off at the back of Whiten’s Grocery and letting him make his deliveries from there from1950 until about 1960.
R.M. Evans opened a service station on the corner across 8th St. from the grocery store. A small shopping center grew from the station along 8th Street. Next to the station was Thornton’s Cafe’, and then Bill Whiten’s Cleaners. Claude Wilson operated the service station in the 50s and early 60s. Mike Gibbons would own the service station and convenience store until it burned down. Across 9th Ave. from the shopping center station there was another service station owned by Johnny Brown.
Unfortunately, the old downtown area is a ghost town today.
6. Joseph N. Rutledge School
In 1932 in an effort to help it’s employees get through the depression, TCI permitted local residents to clear property on 8th St. for firewood and plant a garden there. Later they deeded the property to the Jefferson County Board of Education to build a school. Guy Smith (1921) attended the 1st thru 3rd grade at the old Rutledge School on the corner of 8th St. and 9th Avenue. He attended the 4th grade in the Marion Ruff building on 11th Ave. beside the Presbyterian Church, and the 5th and 6th grades in a building across 9th St. from Rutledge School in what later became the Masonic Lodge. In 1934 he attended the new Joseph N. Rutledge School on 8th St. for the 7th thru the 9th grades. For a brief period there were two Rutledge schools, with the old school going from 1st thru 4th grades and the new school going from the 5th thru the 8th. When the one on the hill closed up, the building became a civic building. Rutledge Middle School on 8th St. is still in use today.
7. Annexation to Midfield
With the annexation of the Wilkes area to Midfield in 1962, The Rutledge and Fairfield Highlands areas suddenly bordered Midfield and efforts began almost immediately for merger of these areas. There was also a push by Fairfield to annex these areas and a battle for the hearts and minds of these people who could choose Midfield, Fairfield, or neither began. After a petition to annex to Midfield was filed on Sept. 28, 1962, Judge J. Harris Moore set Oct. 30 as the date for the special referendum.
It was a very ambitious merger proposal which included Rutledge Heights, Rutledge School, the Belcher Addition, all of Billy Goat Hill, and the Oakland-Newton Dr. section. And it failed.
With the failure to come in as one great annex, smaller sections began to petition the Midfield City Council to be taken in through unanimous consent of their street or neighborhood by proclamation. Rutledge Heights annexed in 1964. By the time James Breckenridge organized some petition gatherers and placed a “Sign Up Here” sign in his front yard in 1967, a small group of houses in the Belcher Addition that came up to his property had just come in.
The annex that Mr. Breckenridge was working on was much larger and required an election. The election was won and the annexation of some fifty houses, including the Presbyterian Church and their half of the frog pond was effective on Feb. 28, 1968. Identification of the Highlands annexes became so complicated at one point that the Midfield Street and Sanitation Department was painting a yellow triangle on the curb in front of Midfield properties to mark them for garbage pick-up.
As neighbors began to see others with free garbage pick-up and were left without effective police and fire protection once the cities of Midfield and Fairfield quit competing for them, a rash of petition-proclamation annexations began. There is a file drawer at the Midfield City Hall that is full from front to back with files on these and other annexations to date.