Native Americans fished and hunted along the Cahaba’s banks long before the white man settled in North America.
But with the surrender of Creek land in 1814, white settlers flowed into Alabama to build homes by its rivers and use the bounty of its fields and forests. Among them was Warren Truss, a North Carolinian. Truss settled in the area sometime before 1820, acquiring 1,000 acres of land and building a mill on the Cahaba. Soon the nearby settlement became know as “Truss”.
For several decades, Trussville was a rural, rather isolated community, and farming was the major occupation. Although the tiny hamlet sent a contingent of officers and men to fight for the Confederacy, the Civil War directly touched Trussville only toward the end of the conflict. According to Trussville Through the Years, by Carol and Earl Massey, Union Gen. John T. Croxton led a raiding party to Trussville early in 1865 to burn the Confederate storehouse. They succeeded, but the people of Trussville put out the fire and salvaged much of the burned grain and flour.
Formal education was a little slow in coming to Trussville, although the literacy rate was above average for central Alabama in 1860. In 1869, Professor R. G. Hewitt founded Trussville Academy, a log structure housing 100 students. Hewitt made a lasting impression on the community. The middle school and high school in Trussville still carry his name.
Railroad service came after the Civil War, opening up industrial development in the 1880s. During the last part of the 19th and the early 20th centuries, a furnace producing pig iron succeeded in Trussville under various ownerships.
Envisioning a flourishing new city, a group of local residents organized the Trussville and Cahaba River Land Company. But the anticipated boom along the Cahaba never occurred. Instead, the city that succeeded from the iron and steel industry was Birmingham.
During the Depression, part of the government’s economic recovery program was to allocate land suitable for low-rent housing and part-time farms. One such location was to be in the Trussville area, but further investigation showed that the 615 acres of “Slag Heap Village” were unsuitable for farming.
However, the land was suitable for suburban housing. Fired by the vision of project manager W. H. Kestler, the “Cahaba Project” went up, opening in April 1938. Homes were sturdily built, with indoor plumbing, running water, electricity and amenities rare at that time in much of Alabama. The project included 287 residential units – apartments, duplexes and single-family homes. The government also built a high school and cooperative store, interspersing the area with malls, sidewalks, paved streets and parks.
Trussville children in the 50s, enjoyed an uncomplicated, small-town life. Children entertained themselves by walking up and down the street playing on the Mall, and swimming in the Cahaba. There was a library located in the commissary. Most families had only one car or no vehicle, but a bus went daily into Birmingham in the morning and came back that afternoon.
A special charm of the Project today is the canopy of stately trees that lines Chalkville Road and adjacent streets. Many were planned in the 30s and 40s. Most of the Project was originally devoid of trees, because the area had been farmland before the government acquired it. The Project, like many modern subdivisions, had its own special entrance. The gazebo at the corner of Main Street and Parkway Drive, a long-time Trussville landmark, was part of such an entrance.
On June 10, 1947, the town of Trussville was incorporated, absorbing both the Cahaba Village and “old Trussville.” Early in 1948, the government deeded all park property to the town.
Trussville grew, but quietly and fairly slowly in the 50s. General suburban sprawl and the completion of I-59 created more growth during the 60s and 70s. However, Trussville was still a well-kept secret.
Like an adolescent in a growth spurt, the city expanded in all directions during a frenzied period in 1985.
“It started when Birmingham was doing a lot of annexing. They tried to annex our new (Hewitt-Trussville) high school, which was less than a year old,” says City Clerk Lynn Porter. Fired by this move, the late Charles Grover, then the mayor, and city council members announced their own plan and policy of annexation. From mid-May through the end of the year, the council held annexation meetings several times weekly. Frequent annexation continued into 1987. When the dust settled, Trussville had tripled its land mass and doubled its population.
Things haven’t slowed down since. From 3,500 residents shown in the 1980 census, Trussville’s population has grown to about 12,500 in 2000. This growth is expected to continue at a fast clip.
Attracted by good schools, a safe environment and friendly atmosphere, Trussville has become a drawing card for young, middle-income families. Many have gravitated to older homes in the Cahaba Project, often upgrading or remodeling them. Numerous subdivisions and residential areas have also sprung up within its boundaries. The city now extends from I-459 northward to the Jefferson County line, and takes in a sizable area west of I-59. To meet the needs of Trussville’s growth, restaurants, retail and service establishments (including two major shopping centers built in 2000) have sprung up. A major, 120-acre complex for youth sports was completed in the mid-1990s. The public library completed a major expansion in 1997, and a senior citizens activity center opened in 1999.
Gene Melton, mayor of Trussville since 1996, says the city is facing the challenge of managing this growth, while maintaining its unique charm. “After all, one thing that attracts people to Trussville is its small-town atmosphere,” he says.
One approach to doing this involves the Cahaba-the city’s long time symbol. A $2.2 million Greenways Project, funded in 2000, will heighten the river’s role as the heart and soul of the community. Threading its way along the Cahaba from the sports complex through the downtown area, the lighted walking-biking trail will be more than two miles long. A pedestrian bridge will provide access to the library, community center and mall area.
Long ago, Trussville adopted as its motto, “Gateway to happy living.” For old-timers and newcomers, the motto still rings true.
Acknoledgements: Much material came from Trussville Through the Years, by Carol and Earl Massey, and The Making of a City: Trussville, Alabama 1830-1970, by Douglas Claire Purcell. For further information, reference copies of the Massey’s book are in the Trussville Public Library. Purcell’s paper is on file in the Southern history sections at Birmingham’s downtown library.