Holley has his finger on history


SUMITON – Joe Paul Holley has not only worked on projects that made history in Alabama, but he also writes and speaks about the impact of local history on society.

Holley's family moved to the area during World War II, and he's been here ever since. He attended Sumiton School and then graduated from Dora High in 1958.

He landed a job with the Alabama Highway Department, which later became the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT). "I got very lucky and got every break in the book," Holley said. His work wasn't in the construction part of building highways, but in where they were located and the routes that they followed. 

He worked on the "new road" that connected Sumiton to Oakman. This stretch of highway linked the towns of Cordova, Parrish, and Oakman to Highway 78 West and Birmingham.

"I guess they thought I had some propensity for dealing with the public and political entities, so I got tasked with selling those locations to the public," he said.

Negotiating with property owners and cities was a dance. Many wanted to influence where the highway would go. "It was quite an experience," he said.

Meeting all the environmental and engineering requirements plus satisfying the public was sometimes quite interesting, according to Holley.

This work gave Holley a great deal of experience, and his job moved to Montgomery to act as a liaison between ALDOT, the Legislature, the Governor's Office, and the public.

This was during the Guy Hunt administration, but even after the Republican left office and Democrat Jim Folsom became governor, Holley stayed on and continued his work with ALDOT. "So, we must have been good," Holley said with a hardy laugh. He worked for three administrations.

One of the challenges is the fact that Alabama is unique politically. "If the rest of the nation is for it, generally Alabama is against it," he said.

Even no-brainer safety measures that would seemingly benefit everyone like seatbelt laws, motorcycle helmets, and child restraint could be a difficult sell. "You'd be surprised in Alabama how many couldn't support a baby seat law," Holley said. When Holley would press the legislator for a reason he would not support a baby seat law, they would say, "My people just don't like these federal laws," he remembered.

Another law that came to mind was the Open Container law which made it illegal for a vehicle to have an open container of alcohol. A tradeoff that helped get the law pass in Alabama was that an empty container could not be used as evidence. With the empty container stipulation, the Legislature passed what Holley calls the "Chug-a-lug law."

Lobbying was fun and rewarding work, according to Holley, because you could see the results of your work. "That's what I tell people about my career," he said. He bores his wife to death by showing her some of the bridges, overpasses, and highway work that he helped bring to life. People take them for granted, but they are significant accomplishments in the history of Alabama.

Holley has an interesting hobby, as well. He read a book by Laurence Ritter entitled "The Glory of Their Times." Ritter interviewed old Major League Baseball players from before the turn of the last century. 

During this time, he went back to UAB, and he also took a class on interviewing and research. He began thinking about working on a project of his own about baseball. "I've watched it all my life, my relatives played, why can't I go out and find these old semi-pro ballplayers from Walker and Jefferson counties and interview them?" he said.

During his research, Holley learned that Judge Roy Mayhall and Judge Al Blanton were involved with baseball. "It's amazing the impact the game had on their political careers," he said. During that time, baseball had an amazing impact on society.

It wasn't necessarily the mechanics of the game, but the impact that baseball had on society, according to Holley. An example is the Jackie Robinson story and the integration of Major League Baseball in 1947. 

Baseball was key in breaking down the Sunday Blue Laws, which prohibited most businesses from opening on Sunday. The game also had an impact on immigration laws.

Holley's research landed him as a consultant on movies and documentaries. He has written scripts and he narrated a segment about semi-pro baseball in the area for a TBS series about the South.

Holley does public speaking. "I've spoken at churches, a bar association, historical, and ethnic groups," he said.

Holley talked about the town of Brookside, which is about 15 miles from Sumiton. The town has Russian and Italian immigrants. In the early 1920s, the people in the other cities around Alabama had never seen an immigrant. The immigrants in Brookside learned that they could draw capacity crowds just like the Harlem Globetrotters, according to Holley. "They learned the game and were good baseball players," he said. "They would cuss the umpire in Russian. They didn't use signals, they would yell to each other in Italian or Russian, according to Holley. "The crowd ate it up," he said.

Holley published a story about Ivy Paul Andrews from Dora, as well as Dan and Sam Bankhead, who were two African Americans who played baseball professionally. 

Holley has also written about other historical events in the area. There was a deputy sheriff who was murdered by bootleggers in the 1920s at Drummond Switch, which is near Empire. "It took a long time to put this story together because research before the internet was not easy," he said. 

His research takes him to libraries, historical societies, and graveyards.

Joe McCluney, who was once the head of the chamber of commerce in Jasper, told Holley about a chance meeting at a restaurant near Indiana. When McCluney told the man that he was from Jasper, the man exclaimed, "That's where Golf Bag Sam was from." Holley's research indicated that Samuel "Golf Bag Sam" Hunt was an enforcer for Al Capone in Chicago and was born in Jasper but later moved to Chicago and worked for Capone. 

This was before the internet, so research was more difficult. He hit a dead end when he tried to verify that the gangster was from Jasper. Later, when Holley had access to the internet, he found a blurb that said Hunt died in Schenectady, N.Y. and was buried in Birmingham.

Holley decided to start with Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham. It was there that he found Hunt's grave. With the birth and death dates, he wasn't able to verify that Hunt was from Jasper, but he discovered the obit for Hunt's father, and there is where details of Samuel Hunt's life came together. 

"You have to be patient to do this work, but I love doing it," he said. "It's like a detective story."