Dozier #039;endearing#039; to its residents, visitors

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 20, 2005

Look and search:

You might just see a redhead boy and his father walking a dirt road holding a pair of cane, fishing poles.

In a world where everyone misses Mayberry, one may just find the simple life in Dozier endearing. Little white houses, closely clipped lawns, welcoming nods and smiles from its citizens.

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The world moves fast, but Dozier slows you down. Stop. Sit. Listen. Laugh. And smile. There's a feel that if you stayed in Dozier for a week, there'd be a name for every face, a frequent handshake from every man and a hug from every woman. They might not know you, but they'd like to.

Two years away from its Centennial celebration, Dozier hasn't changed much. Houses have been built. Houses have been destroyed. Businesses have come. Businesses have gone. Settled by Daniel Dozier, a minister, in the late 1880s, the town was incorporated in 1907.

Dozier's center of commerce

Henderson, Black and Merrill is over 100 years old and could possibly be the last large mercantile store still in operation in Alabama.

It's vast, with intertwined, connecting rooms. Like most mercantile stores in rural areas, it was established to serve the farmers of south Crenshaw County. Soon, said president and town mayor R.R. 'Bud' Johnson, he knew the store would have to evolve or perish. It would have to become more diversified in what it offered to the public in and around Dozier, he said.

Johnson's son, Billy, graduated from Troy in the 70s with a business degree.

"I went with Billy to Louisiana. He was interviewing for a job down there," said Johnson. "But they weren't going to pay him much, even with a degree. I told him, 'let's go back and change that old store.' Farming was playing out, I said. Lowe's is picking up. Home Depot is picking up. Let's go back and diversify that old business and get into what they're doing. They're making money. So we borrowed some money and built warehouses."

Now, the mercantile store features a vast array of products. From hardware and farm supplies to home decoration and automotive parts. The store even expanded into warehouses and offered materials like lumber, sheetrock and molding for homebuilders.

Johnson says prices are kept reasonable.

"We have good prices," he said. "To come to Dozier you have to have good prices and a reason to go. Because we don't have opera houses, or casinos or golf courses, movie theaters, that kind of stuff."

Smiles and handshakes also bring back the business.

"I stopped and shook a fellow's hand one day and thanked him for coming," said Johnson. "He said you know, I traded at Lowe's for 20 years and the boss man never did come down to thank me for doing business with him."

Henderson, Black and Merrill has remained what it was 100 years ago - the center of Dozier. It's also the very lifeblood of the town, paying more each month in sales tax than the rest of the businesses combined in Dozier, said Johnson.

Survived the Great Depression

Its motto is 'Safe and Friendly Since 1910.'

That's when the First National Bank of Dozier was chartered by Johnson's father-in-law.

"In order to get a franchise to operate a bank, Mr. Merrrill had to build a fireproof vault," said Johnson. The original vault is inside the mercantile store, bound volumes and records from the early 1900s stacked on shelves and the floor. "I found some from 1919 one day, but the paper's getting old and it's crumbling."

Dozier's bank was one of the few banks in the Alabama to survive the Great Depression. While many banks were locking their doors to customers, the First National Bank in Dozier struggled through the country's economic disaster.

President Willie Smith exhibits a financial statement from 1911. The bank's assets were listed as $96,000, a substantial sum in the early 20th century. Times have changed but Smith said one thing hasn't:

"We still know everybody that comes in here," he said.

Dandy good groceries

The Big Dandy sits on the corner of Dozier's small business strip. It has the look and feel of a small town grocery store, with friendly service and an appreciation for your business. The store is clean and well stocked. Some may seek the bargains of larger grocery stores, Johnson said, but the Big Dandy has thrived in Dozier's small community.

"I'm extremely proud of the Big Dandy," said Johnson. "For a grocery store in a small place like this, it needs volume. And it's really been an asset to our little town."

Home of Jan Cook

Johnson said Dozier is proud of its native daughter, Jan Cook, former auditor for the State of Alabama.

"Jan has done a lot of good for this little town," said Johnson.

Cook still resides in Dozier, in a house she had completely renovated. The home she was raised in is just a few blocks away from the center of town. She helped the town acquire the funding to build a community center and the center was subsequently named after her.

Future of promise

Dozier has seen its share of pitfalls. The textile plant, Dozier Manufacturing, shut its doors when the North American Free Trade Agreement caused many textile-based manufacturers to move south to Mexico for cheaper labor. Likewise, the diner that served those workers outside the plant, shut down as well.

Also, Dozier School closed in 1992.

Johnson said the school closing was hard for the town to take.

"I guess it just wasn't feasible to operate our little school," he said. "People were leaving and going to private schools, or to Brantley, or to Straughn (in Covington County.)"

In 1990, the Crenshaw County Board of Education filed a formal petition with the courts to close the school. In July of 1991, U.S. District Judge Robert Varner ordered that Dozier should be closed, chastising the Board of Education for allowing Dozier to become practically an 'all black' facility. The Dozier and Brantley attendance zones were consolidated. Dozier was granted a stay, allowing the school to open in 1992, its last official year.

Johnson said there is hope that both the old manufacturing building and school will be put to use in the future, either for storage or as a possible industrial site.

He said Hyundai's arrival in Crenshaw County has breathed new optimism into the town and county. Also, the SMART Plant in Luverne employs a number of Dozier residents.

"Someone told me that at small community like Dozier couldn't survive the school closing, but we're still here," said Johnson.