Mon June 25, 2007
From the Farm House to the State House: The Life and Times of Fuller Kimbrell
From the Farm House to the State House is the first of two books by Fuller Kimbrell about his life from birth to around 1970, in which he has been at the center of an enormous amount of Alabama history and politics in his long life.
By Don Noble
On June 22, 2007, Fuller Kimbrell celebrated his 98th birthday. He is fond of telling people he has almost never been sick or been to the doctor, and that is probably true. The title of his second book, You Won't Believe It But It's So, published in 2006 when Kimbrell was 97, covers this territory of believe-it-or-not. This book is anecdotal, relating stories from Kimbrell's life from his birth near Berry, Alabama, in 1909 to the year 1970. Amusing as it is, You Won't Believe It But It's So augments and repeats much of the material in From the Farm House to the State House, which is the more important book.
From the Farm House to the State House is not exactly written. The book was pretty clearly dictated, taped and then transcribed, and the editing could have been much better. It is not a poem, but the oral quality of the work lends it authenticity. It is Fuller Kimbrell talking.
And Kimbrell has a lot to say, having been at the center of an enormous amount of Alabama history and politics in his long life. Historians should regard this book as a primary document. At times I actually wondered if Kimbrell really meant to tell all that he did.
Kimbrell grew up poor, the eleventh child of fourteen, in Walker and Fayette counties. His father, he says, "had nine mules and ten boys." Kimbrell finished high school in June 1927 but "did not accept the diploma so I could go back in the fall and play football." Some things don't change. There was no money for college, so Kimbrell set out, first to Indiana and then returning to work in a variety of businesses in west Alabama. Over the decades Kimbrell worked at farming, in clothing stores, and for the WPA. He became and still is, proudly, a yellow-dog Democrat.
His real talent lay, however, as a businessman. Kimbrell, over the years, has sold power units for small sawmills, disc harrows, tractors, and other farm implements. He has sold Fords and Studebakers, held dealerships with John Deere and International Harvester. He has owned companies that make concrete pipe, asphalt, and more. He reveled in the buying, selling and trading, and was good at it. But business is not the center of this book.
In 1946 Kimbrell won election to the state senate, and during the first Folsom administration, 1954-1958, he was state finance director. These are the sections that will most interest readers, because he tells, straightforwardly and with no apologies, how politics was done.
As promised, Folsom paved 100 miles of roads, improved education for blacks and whites, and Kimbrell and Folsom both pushed for a new Alabama Constitution to replace the malodorous and much-amended 1901 document. They failed, but Kimbrell's nephew, the journalist and journalism professor Bailey Thomson, was working on that issue right up until his untimely death.
When a senator from east Alabama threatened to vote against a Folsom administration bill, Kimbrell fooled him into going on a taxpayer-supported junket to Argentina to study the fire-ant problem. When Mrs. Folsom decided to go into the cosmetics business, Kimbrell "felt justified in putting two ladies" who worked for her cosmetics company "on as clerks in the house and senate." After all, this was promoting private enterprise.
Later, when George Wallace wanted Senator Joe Foster to withdraw from the Public Service Commission race so the Wallace man, Ed Pepper, would win easily, Kimbrell writes that Foster agreed to take $27,500 to withdraw. Kimbrell delivered it in a brown paper bag.
In 1954, Folsom wanted the highway director from his first term, a Tuscaloosa businessman, to be docks director, but "It came up that [he] had just been indicted about income tax." This made the appointment impossible, but a "high official" of Brown and Bigelow assured Folsom there was no problem. Kimbrell says, "I don't know whether he had talked to President Truman or one of his aides, but the next morning when we came to breakfast, he said, '[Your man] will have his pardon by telegram today.' And he did." "That's politics to the fullest extent," says Kimbrell.
On a lighter note, Kimbrell recounts how one day he was called by the Governor's office and asked to hire Miss Jamelle Moore as his secretary. "Of course she was not a qualified secretary by any means, but she was very ladylike and a beautiful lady." Later, she and Folsom married, and Kimbrell can say, "I am the only man I ever heard of whose secretary became the governor's wife and was a governor's mother."
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.