By Billy Ray Warren
The Magnolia Church’s property sits in a community known, variously, as Pine Ridge or East Hill. It’s bordered on the east by Weeden Heights and on the west by Sweetwater. Longtime residents of these three communities know almost exactly where each begins and ends, though there have never been any signs erected to delineate the borders.
Weeden Heights begins on its eastern boundary on Fulton Street; as it moves west, it includes Crown Street, Eclipse Street and so on ‘til it culminates on Broadway Street. Huntsville Road is the dividing line that determines whether a family lives on North Weakly Street or South Weakley or on any other street between Fulton and Broadway.
East Hill/Pine Ridge begins at Hudson Street on the eastern edge and ends at Ironside Street on the west. From that point, Sweetwater begins and continues roughly to Royal Avenue Recreation Center.
Now why, exactly, were these boundaries important? Well, each had its own churches, its own traditions, and, to an extent, its own elementary school.
Take Weeden Heights, for example. Until it was annexed into the City of Florence in 1950, it was just another community in rural Lauderdale County. Citizens in this tight-unit enclave were beholden to Mr. John D. Weeden, for whom the community was named since it had been part of the vast landholdings connected to Mr. Weeden’s ancestral mansion, Sweetwater. From the huge spring near the mansion, Mr. Weeden developed an elaborate system by which water was pumped to each home. Residents paid him $1.00 per month for what was termed “water rent.” Children attended Weeden Elementary School which was located between Franklin and Broadway Streets, exactly where Broadway Recreation Center is today.
In the East Hill/Pine Ridge community, white children in the elementary grades attended Brandon Elementary School on the site where the new hospital is currently under construction. African-American children (there were none in Weeden Heights and few in East Hill/Pine Ridge) attended Pine Ridge School, a two-room building that sat near what today is the southeast corner of Kirkman Street and Veterans Drive – just a few blocks from Magnolia’s building. There were two African-American teachers in this small building which had been owned by TVA and was moved from the Reservation to its site.
Sweetwater, too, boasted churches and traditions of its own. Residents were/are very proud of their heritage; in fact, the annual Sweetwater Reunion was held for many years (though it has ceased), with current residents serving as hosts for those who had moved away. People came from practically every state in the United States to reminisce about their early schooling at Brandon or Patton Elementary School; the excitement of the railroad that bisected their community; their employment at one of the many industries located very near their homes; and their own shopping district on Royal Avenue.
Someone has said, correctly, that the only constant in life is change. Today, there are dramatic changes in progress in the communities surrounding Magnolia’s property. It is fascinating to witness and just as fascinating to consider what the future holds for the fast-developing corridor in which the property is located.