Who Was Dexter Avenue, Anyhow?

The original WPA guide's cover

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that we have been in Montgomery for two-and-a-half years.

Much of the alienation we felt upon arrival has faded. Although our other blog is called Lost in Montgomery, we’re lost considerably less of the time, both literally and metaphorically. We’ve gotten into a good groove here and have nearly perfected the conversational defenses of our city against outsiders who are only equipped with rumors and superstition. Once we start dropping facts about our new hometown, critics find themselves raising eyebrows and realizing that there might be more to Montgomery than they had previously considered.

Our credibility in the process of boosting Montgomery is enhanced by our having lived other places — places that Montgomery’s critics usually think of as more cosmopolitan and “better” urban environments. For someone who has lived in New York City, Los Angeles, and Austin to defend little ol’ Montgomery seems to really impress folks. Suddenly you are no longer a provincial rube defending your home town, but a sophisticated connoisseur of cities who can properly contextualize Montgomery’s shortcomings (lack of quality live music, international cuisine, and public transportation) with its many benefits (cost of living, climate, friendliness, lack of pretension,  etc.)

But what really enhances your ability to talk about your hometown with a curious (or even skeptical) stranger is to understand the history of the place. And it’s especially useful to dip below the surface level reaction that people have to Montgomery’s history, which can, form time to time, be a knee jerk bit of negativity about both the Civil War and the struggle for racial equality.

All of which is why we were so delighted to discover the 1995 book, Who Was Dexter Avenue, Anywhow?

The book, as the title suggest, is a collection of stories behind the street names in Montgomery, and covers all sorts of interesting anecdotes from all periods of our city’s storied history. The book, which is sold out on Amazon (but there are some used copies floating around), is the product of the English Department and the Communications Department at Auburn University at Montgomery teaming up. We got ours a while back at Capitol Book & News.

Nancy Grisham Anderson, representing the English side, and Blair Gaines, representing the Mass Comm side, managed a team of seven students (all women) to research nearly every street name in the city. Results weren’t 100 percent conclusive, but there are several gems amid the bunch. Most streets get a single sentence or so (Glenmore Road was named after some whiskey distillers), but some get an entire page, like Old Federal Road, which was, predictably, built despite protests from local Creek Indians.

Some are obvious and were named in bunches, like when you drive through our neighborhood and cross Wellington, Lexington, and Plymouth. Others, are just neat little bits of trivia — like the fact that Norman Bridge Rd. was named after a bridge built over Catoma Creek by a guy named Job Norman who was 7 feet tall and 400 pounds.

Maxwell Air Force Base? Named after a guy who was trying to land his plane in a Filipino sugar cane field, saw kids playing in it, swerved to miss them, ran into a flag pole and was killed instantly. And let us not forget Montgomery’s historic role in aviation history.

Heck, did you know that the city of Montgomery is named for one guy, and Montgomery County is named for a different guy?

The other crucial addition to your home bookshelf is the WPA Guide to 1930s Alabama. You don’t want the several hundred dollar original 1941 printing, but instead should snap up one of the University of Alabama reprints from 2000. The book is a product of the Works Progress Administration, a massive federal effort to end the Great Depression (sound timely?).

As an attempt to put out-of-work writers to work, the feds hired a bunch of them to go around and write travel guides — one for each state. The idea was to have writers practicing their craft while encouraging tourism and commerce. Pretty sharp, eh? Compare that creative thinking with today’s federal economic recovery efforts.

Anyway, Alabama’s guide is fascinating for a number of reasons. It was one of the last guides to be produced due to the dicey matter of figuring out how to talk about a state that was, while lovely, pretty much in the midst of hard core racial apartheid. The results are intriguing, if for no other reason than to be reminded that there were tourists back in the 1940s too and they were intrigued by many of the same historical sites that capture our attention today. A detailed analysis of the WPA’s guide to 1930s Montgomery might be a blog post for another day.

And as for the initial question, Who was Dexter? He appears to have been something of a less-repulsive Bernie Madoff or Ken Lay of his era. He was called “an impetuous speculator” and “dexterous Dexter” due to his land development practices. A banker by trade, he printed a ton of bank notes and then encouraged his employees to discourage buyers from redeeming them. He was peppered with lawsuits and his bank folded, but he was also known for his generosity. He founded one of the two towns that eventually merged to become Montgomery and his name is now most commonly associated with the Dexter Ave. Baptist church that was the first and only pastorate of a young man named Martin Luther King, Jr.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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