March 15, 1999

County gained economically from lake construction

By Scott Wright

According to one Alabama Power Company report, the cost for the construction of Weiss Lake and Dam was somewhere in the neighborhood of $35 million. In order to acquire much of the land the lake now covers, Alabama Power spent thousands of those dollars to purchase approximately 10,000 acres from local landowners.

Some people in Cherokee County were happy to sell their land to Alabama Power. Others, like the owners of the rich farmland along Yancey's Bend in Cedar Bluff considered their land priceless and ultimately had their land condemned by the state and taken from them.

"People just didn't like change," said retired schoolteacher Billy Godfrey, referring to the decision to build Weiss Lake. "No one does. It's human nature. But if no one ever gave way to progress, we'd still be in the horse-and-buggy days."

For Lewis Wright of Alexis, the price of progress was "around $90 an acre," for the 65 acres he lost to inundation by Weiss lake. Wright added, "We were glad to get rid of those fields; we were glad to see the lake. Before, there was nothing but farming (in Cherokee County)."

Consequently, local landowners accustomed to toiling in fields all day soon discovered there was now money to be made in a new business enterprise: land speculation.

After the reservoir was filled in 1960, Wright found himself the owner of several acres of lakefront property. Unfortunately, he -- like so many others at that time -- never anticipated real estate values would increase to today's levels. He sold his land a short time later for a "few hundred dollars." In reflection he commented that he and his wife Sara "would've done a lot better if we had held on to that property a little longer."

Godfrey also dabbled in real estate after the lake was built. "I bought some land to speculate on," he said. He thought for a moment before adding, "I did alright (money-wise), but not as well as people do today."

Some who benefited in the short-term from the sale of their land didn't fair too well over time. One life-long Cherokee County resident who asked to remain anonymous told a story of a Centre man he knew who "never had nothing, not even an outside toilet" before the lake was built.

According to the source, the landowner "got some money from the power company, and he went out and bought a nice boat and started drinking. He lived big for a year or two, then his money ran out and he ended up right back where he started from."

Kenny Gossett, who worked on the spillway dam as an apprentice pipe fitter said, "The lake has definitely been more of a benefit than a detriment to the county. The good farmland was worth more to some -- and people could appeal (the condemnation of their land) if they wanted to. But Alabama Power gave people a fair market price for their land."

State representative Richard Lindsey, like many younger residents, has never known Cherokee County without Weiss Lake. but from his experiences in Montgomery, he knows how fortunate the county is to have it.

"I think basically if we didn't have Weiss Lake in Cherokee County, we would be a much poorer county," Lindsey said. "And I say that based on looking at other rural counties in Alabama that don't have an economic resource like Weiss Lake."

Lindsey added, "Statistics show that, among rural counties, Cherokee is near the top in (economic) growth, and I would attribute that in large part to the lake."

Unfortunately, in an endeavor that made winners out of so many people, necessity also dictated that there would be some losers. After all, construction of Weiss Lake forced several families to abandon their homes.

But because of the lake's economic benefits in the areas of tourism and real estate over the last 40 years, there have been a lot of other families who didn't have to abandon theirs.