The US Post Office & General Store in Sprott, Alabama. Courtesy of Rural Southwest Alabama.
We’re flat-out addicted to the allure of abandoned places. So we’ve sent Liz on a mission to hop alphabetically from state-to-state exploring bygone structures steeped in history and mystery. First up: Alabama!
A one-story clapboard building stands at a dusty, deserted intersection in Sprott, Alabama. The present-day exterior features unfinished wood clapboards painted white. Shutters once pinned back to allow light inward are tightly closed. The metal sheathing on the porch roof is starting to deteriorate and the wooden porch floor could no longer withstand a crowd seeking shelter from the hot Alabama sun.
What I love most about abandoned buildings and properties are the stories they tell. Faded store signs hanging by threads on the front of rural buildings have been abandoned in favor of bustling city storefronts with more foot traffic. A weathered wooden swing still hanging from a century old tree branch in a back yard, the remains of a pot belly stove in a dilapidated summer kitchen — each piece tells us about the history of a place and time long ago. There is something wonderfully alluring about a building that time and society has forgotten. It stands stoic and alone, its creaky floorboards, leaning chimneys and sunlight-strewn windowpanes offering a glimpse into the past. Photographs, if any exist, help shed light on the people, culture, and daily activities that once enliven each now-abandoned building.
The Sprott post office today. Courtesy of Rural Southwest Alabama.
This was once the Sprott U.S. Post Office, a hub and gathering place for over a century in the small Alabama town. The post office, located here from 1881 until 1993, also shared space with a general store, L.B. Sprott General Merchandise, which sold household items, gasoline, and food. To the residents of Sprott, this building was a part of everyday life, but architecturally it was never anything spectacular. It was once a single-story, wood-frame vernacular building which featured a predominant but narrow, A-frame two-story front facade with shuttered windows on the second floor. A one-story porch supported by cinder blocks and bricks displayed a large Coca-Cola sign with ‘U.S. Post Office Sprott Ala.’ emblazoned above. The building was never meant to be photographed for a magazine or written about because of any famous architect associated with its construction. For its first several decades in existance, the Sprott post office was known only to the town and its residents.
All of that changed in 1935, when photographer Walker Evans took a photograph (right, courtesy Marv Hamm) of the building that was included in a now famous documentary about sharecroppers in Alabama entitled “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” This photograph shows a dozen or so men, clad in worn overalls and hats to shield the sun, with overworked, tired faces. This black and white photograph memorializing this small-town post office and general store now hangs in two of the most prestigious museums in the world: the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institute.
Close-up of the Walker Evans photo. Courtesy of Marv Hamm.
So, how does a building that put a non-existant town on the map, memorialized an era where sharecropping and plowing fields was the way of life and is seen by thousands of museum-goers a year become a forgotten structure at the crossroads of two lonely highways?
Photo by Walker Evans.
The building was used as a farmer’s market in 1997, when this photo was taken by Bruce Jackson.
It was later used as an antique store. Photo by Ken Booth.
Buildings, their needs, and the needs of those around them change. Farmers and their families left for better paying city jobs, the post office closed and combined forces with a nearby town, and businesses that once advertised their wares on the exterior of the building moved elsewhere. The second story of the building was removed and never replaced. The bricks supporting the porch crumbled, and the shutters closed over the windows and front door for the last time. The building was repurposed in the late twentieth century for use as a farmer’s market, then as an antique store, but neither remained open. However, the southern, rural culture that the building fostered as a community store and post office for over a century is memorialized as an important part of American history within Evans’ infamous photograph. It is said that people come by nearly every weekend to snap a photo of the Old Sprott post office.
Courtesy of Rural Southwest Alabama.
AUTHOR LIZ BEEMAN
Liz was raised in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the home of New Hope, Doylestown, and several other idyllic, flawlessly-restored and preserved towns. Upon returning to the Philadelphia area post-grad school, Liz purchased a circa 1940’s, Normandy-style row home which features the original wood floors, vintage glass door knobs and slate roof from when it was constructed. She is on the board of a historic Swedish cabin and working in the real estate development field while making a go of a career in preservation.