Growing up in Decatur in the 1940s and ‘50s was much different than today, although some of the old familiar landmarks are still there. Things like the tennis courts on Gordon Drive, the boat harbor and some of the stores on Bank Street, although their occupants have changed many times.
Jane Walker had such a childhood, living a block from Delano Park, on a tree-shaded street only a stone’s throw away from those tennis courts near Decatur High School. Many times she played there late into the night, the bright lights making it safe and easy to see the tennis balls being lobbed back and forth over the net.
She swam at Blue Haven, the community pool across from the high school she attended. Everyone knew everyone else, and the mothers looked out for all of the kids, not just their own.
Jane loved the sense of community and the fact that she and her friends could safely walk almost anywhere they wanted to go for entertainment, including the Princess Theatre on Second Avenue. They skated at Phillips Rollercade just down the road and went to lots of ballgames on Friday nights. There was always something to do, her life was full and she enjoyed it immensely.
She graduated from Decatur High in 1947, then went to work as a secretary for the Veterans On-the-Job-Training program the same year. She would remain there until the early 50s when she went to work at Wolverine Tube, not far from where she lived.
In 1950, a friend introduced her to a nice young man who had recently returned from his stint in the Air Force, where he was stationed for much of the war in Vienna, Austria, as a radio tower operator. He was attentive, charming and fun to be around, and with his olive complexion and shock of dark hair falling over his forehead, was certainly easy on the eyes. Their first date was to the Princess Theatre, its colorful marquee brightly lit and the smell of popcorn wafting out onto the pavement where they stood in line to get their tickets.
It turned out that they so enjoyed each other’s company that their first date turned into one of many. As time went on, they could be seen together around Decatur almost every weekend. They both enjoyed movies and would often go out to the Skyline Drive-In on Highway 31S. Afterward, they sometimes went to a little restaurant near the drive-in to share pimento cheese sandwiches and talk, getting to know each other better. It wasn’t long before they fell in love over those pimento cheese sandwiches.
Eventually, Knouff invited her to church in his hometown, almost 20 miles away in the little city of Town Creek. She’d never even been to Town Creek before, but she found the town to be charming and the people there to be nice and welcoming. She met his parents, Sherman and Mattie Sue Knouff, with whom she immediately felt comfortable. The young couple often had Sunday dinner with them in their home which was located on Highway 20, on the original Knouff property purchased in 1896. Sherman, the son of an Indiana farmer who migrated to Alabama, was the second generation to farm on the 842 acre property in Town Creek.
J.R. grew up in a very different atmosphere than Jane. Town Creek was then and still is today, a farming community, surrounded by fields of cotton and row crops, the sound of tractors and combines always background music to his childhood, those and the train that came whizzing through town several times each day and into the night.
J.R., the third generation to farm on the Knouff property, also owned and operated a tractor business. His mother, formerly Mattie Armstrong, owned a building downtown inherited from her father, one of many busy merchants who made their living in Town Creek. Jane recalls King’s Department Store, Brackin’s Drugs, and several other businesses and beauty shops along the main thoroughfare through the little town, which is actually Alabama Hwy. 101.
Jane and J.R. often met up with his sister, Doreen, and her husband, Cullen Sugg, whose claim to fame was that he’d played football for Alabama the year they went to the Rose Bowl. Jane found the couple to be a lot of fun and always enjoyed being with them on trips to see Alabama play ball.
Their relationship grew and their feelings deepened. Finally, after two and a half years of dating, he proposed.
And so it was that the city girl became a country wife on June 21, 1952. The ceremony was held at the Grant Street Church of Christ. They honeymooned atop Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
If you’d have asked her earlier, Jane would have told you that she never thought she’d ever live anywhere except Decatur, but she made the transition to Town Creek easily and was so busy that she had little time to miss the bustle of city life.
They set up housekeeping in a house that belonged to his Aunt Bessie, right next door to J.R.’s parents. They would have two children while living there, Debbie and Rickey. In 1955, when Rickey was two months old, they moved into a new house they’d built on Highway 20, at the time a two-lane road, now a four-lane that runs through Town Creek. They moved in on Thanksgiving Day, and she vowed she’d never do that again!
By the time, Marsha, their third child came along in 1970, they were well settled in on the farm. From her front porch, Jane could stand and look out over a sea of cotton and row crops. Life was good, she was happy and content.
The two older children attended Hazlewood Elementary, Middle School and High School. Marsha attended the Lawrence Center, a small private school in nearby Courtland. Jane was very involved with their school, joining the PTA, as well as doing some substitute teaching. Debbie was a cheerleader, and Rickey was in the band. Jane seldom sat on the bleachers, instead helping in the concession stand more often than not.
J.R.’s father was one of the three charter members of the Town Creek Ginning Company, so J.R. also became a stockholder in the gin. The cotton business was booming at the time and putting in a gin was an astute business move, and also made it much more convenient for local farmers.
In 1980, J.R. started a new business, Knouff Farm Supply, where he sold chemicals that farmers needed, as well as fertilizer, feed and seed, some hardware, and veterinarian supplies. He even built a landing strip on the south side of his business so that the crop dusting planes could land and take off near where they loaded their planes with chemicals. Jane often worked side by side with him.
J.R. still kept cattle and farmed, and Jane helped to organize and start the Cowbells, a group of ladies whose husbands belonged to the Lawrence County Cattlemen’s Association. She was also a member, as well as holding the office of President of the Home Demonstration Club, a group under the auspices of the Alabama Extension Service that did community outreach.
This group met to learn new ways of canning and freezing foods as well as engaging in community projects like making lap robes from scraps donated to them from Town Creek Manufacturing, a garment factory there in town that employed many local women. The lap robes were given as Christmas gifts to area nursing home residents.
Their lives became attuned to the seasons, the planting of cotton and row crops, the spring birth of calves, and the fall ginning of cotton, which often went on all night long. Anything they planned had to be done around the farmer’s schedules and the children’s school activities. She helped raise money for various activities by pitching in to make chicken stew at the park on the ‘Fourth of July.’
Often Wilburn Gower, who owned Gower’s Restaurant, but also worked for J.R., would bring his big black iron pot and cook chittlins at the store. Jane recalls that TV news anchor, Grady Reeves, would make it a point to come down on Chittlin’ Day at the restaurant because he loved them so.
At one point, Town Creek hosted a Cotton Festival. Dr. Bryce Brackin, a Town Creek native who practiced medicine in Pelham, Alabama, would come back home for this festival to enter the cotton picking contest. One year he won and never let James Pinion forget it. Another year, former Alabama state senator Albert McDonald’s wife entered the contest and put the men to shame. (McDonald served in the Alabama State Senate from 1974 to 1982. He was then elected Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries serving from 1983 to 1991).
Jane was always busy, growing a large vegetable garden, then freezing and canning her produce in the late summer and early fall. She took up needlepoint and made beautiful purses. But she wasn’t just a housewife, she could often be found in the fields, driving a truck for J.R.
Both Knouff daughters became teachers here in Lawrence County. Marsha teaches at East Lawrence, and Debbie retired from teaching at Speake.
In October of 1998, Jane lost her partner in business and life, the man who stole her heart over those pimento cheese sandwiches all those long years ago. The adjustment was and still is hard for her, but a true steel magnolia, Jane Walker Knouff straightened her shoulders and faced the world, taking on many of J.R.’s responsibilities, with the help of Rickey, who had graduated from Auburn by this time and was working in Florence. He moved back home and took over the cattle business while continuing to work a full time job. He retired from the USDA in January, 2013. Rickey is now the fourth generation to farm the land his great-grandfather purchased.
Jane’s intention was to close up the store after J.R. passed away, but she is a ‘people person’, so she kept the store opened for the next 15 years. She loved working with the public and it kept her busy. In addition to the farming supplies they’d always sold, she now sold local honey made from area cotton. She continued to work in the field, this time with Rickey, once again driving the truck while he pitched in hay bales. Rickey says that he sometimes looks up expecting to see his dad coming through the fields in his old truck to check on things.
This was Jane’s life until retirement, forced on her because of failing eye sight. She has macular degeneration, for which she has had 81 shots directly administered into her eyes. It has helped somewhat, but she still has to read with a magnifying glass.
She often wonders where the years have gone. The young bride, the community activist who worked with others to make Town Creek a better place to live and raise a family, the woman who left a life of leisure in Decatur to become a farmer’s wife in Town Creek, is now grandmother to three, and great-grandmother to two.
She is 90 years young and proud of it. And she wouldn’t have traded it for any other life. She has lived in the same house she and her husband built and often stands on her front porch, looking out over the same fields of cotton and row crops, listening to the soft lowering of the cattle as she watches white egrets flying toward the pond out back.
Over the years she has seen Town Creek change from a busy little city to one with empty store fronts. Her church membership has fallen down to about a dozen regulars, and the school where so many people graduated is now closed.
If she could be granted a wish for her adopted hometown it would be that someone would put in a grocery store, and that there would be activities for young people to keep them occupied and jobs to keep them here in Town Creek instead of moving away. She’d love to have a Jack’s Hamburgers nearby, as well. It isn’t often that you find someone who has lived such a long life and is still full of energy and able to get around very well. She knows that she has been blessed. And she has been a blessing to many.
Thanks for the memories, Mrs. Knouff, and for sharing your life with us and for giving us another glimpse of the way things were in Town Creek in the ‘good ol’ days!