|City/Town: • Prattville|
|Location Class: • Commercial|
|Built: • 1934 | Abandoned: • ~2007|
|Status: • Abandoned|
|Photojournalist: • David Bulit|
Driving along Highway 31 near Prattville, it’s hard not to notice a set of brick, abandoned storefronts with an odd, beehived-shaped concrete structure on the property. It’s also hard not to notice the large sign on I-65 of a red devil along with the words, “Go to church or the devil will get you.” The histories of these two local landmarks are actually connected and it all started with the formation of the Tan-Kar Oil Company and their Red Devil filling stations owned by M. W. Stuart.
Moses Wadsworth Stuart Sr.
Moses Wadsworth Stuart Sr. was born on September 17, 1874, in the small town of Fort Deposit. His father was a city alderman and a merchant, and it was at his father’s store that he received his first work experience employed as a clerk and delivery boy. He received his education at the Montgomery Public School, which stood at the corner of Montgomery and Molton Streets, but dropped out after the eighth grade after getting a job as a cash boy at Goetter, Weil & Co. Later, he got a job as a clerk at G. B. Trimble & Co., a real estate and banking firm. Having learned about real estate and insurance, he set out to do business on his own. Stuart started out by purchasing houses with $1 down, remodeling them, and selling them at a profit to pay off the mortgage. He moved on to building homes in the Peacock Tract subdivision in Montgomery before moving on to much larger projects such as the Winter Apartments, Martha Stuart Apartments, Hotel Dexter, and several other buildings. He also purchased the property his old schoolhouse once stood and sold it at a profit to the Shepard Building Corporation.
When the Ford Model A was introduced, Stuart figured this was an opportune moment to open a dealership in Montgomery. He didn’t have a showroom and had only sold 18 automobiles before having his dealer license revoked. Later, he operated a Hupmobile dealership, although this business venture was even shorter-lived than the previous. According to Stuart, he got an idea for a motorcycle with a floor in it and a shield on the front that would make for a great delivery wagon. The idea was patented and he held the patent for many years, but since there was no interest in it, he let the patent expire. The modern motorcycles with floorboards and windshields are designed after his original patent, or so he claimed.
Red Devil Lake
In 1928, he started the Tan-Kar Oil Company along with his partners Bill Reynolds and Isaac Fred Solomon who he eventually bought out. The first filling station was located near Maxwell Air Force Base which Stuart called the “Red Devil”, and got a statue of a red devil and a loudspeaker and went about the city shouting, “Red devil! Red devil!” There were eventually 18 filling stations in and around Montgomery, and as far as Selma. After the Red Devil station just north of the Reese Ferry Bridge on Highway 31 was built, Stuart received a letter from Standard Oil threatening to run him out of business. He responded by expanding the station into a recreation park.
Red Devil Lake and Stuart’s Water Park opened on June 16, 1934, and included a lake, a pavilion where they served barbecue daily, a bathhouse, a 50-foot-high slide, a grist mill powered by an old water wheel, and a small pool with a beehive-shaped fountain which was made of concrete set in the center of it. A restaurant located on the lake’s dam featured a chute that routed bream and trout into a fish tank inside the restaurant, where patrons could choose the fish for their dinner. Free admission to Red Devil Lake was also offered to those who purchased five gallons from any Red Devil filling station.
Destruction or demolition?
In April 1938, the southern parts of Alabama, and Montgomery in particular, saw massive flooding after heavy rainfall destroyed the Bridge Creek dam. Property damage to Prattville’s downtown was kept to a minimum as merchants and shop owners barricaded their businesses. Dwellings in the Bradford Cotton Mill and Allenville Mill villages were washed away leaving 3,000 people homeless. It was found later that besides the destruction of the Bridge Creek dam, the dams at the Prattville Fishing Club, Lake Haven Inn, Springlake Camp, Whitewater Lake, and Red Devil Lake were also destroyed. The following year, Stuart informed the press that he was in the process of reclaiming 50 acres of land in the Pine Creek swamp. He added that the damages caused by the flooding to Red Devil Lake were being repaired and that the property would be greatly improved in the coming months.
The following year on August 18, 1939, Prattville saw the worst flood in its history as the Alabama River topped 53.9 feet overnight. Several dams broke, including Red Devil Lake, causing Autauga Creek to become a raging torrent that caused an estimated $250,000 in damages. Barricades in front of buildings proved useless as they were washed away. A railroad trestle downtown broke in half, businesses were damaged, and buildings collapsed under the immense and sudden rush of water. Following this disaster, a flood committee was formed and a concerted effort was undertaken resulting in the construction of flood control works along Autauga Creek. Red Devil Lake though never repaired. By Stuart’s own account though, he had his workers tear down the park after he arrived at the lake one day and didn’t like the people frequenting it. “Tear down everything,” he told his workers, “Tear it down and throw it in the lake. This isn’t what I want to own.” According to state records, the Red Devil Lake business was officially dissolved on August 6, 1938.
Ye Olde Water Wheel Restuarant
Instead of rebuilding the Red Devil Lake recreation park, Stuart had planned on reclaiming the lake and renaming it Stuart Lake along with constructing a motel, trailer court, restaurant, filling station, grocery store, and fishing area. On March 24, 1957, he opened the Water Wheel Restaurant which featured a large water wheel in the restaurant’s dining area. The water wheel actually functioned, powered by redirecting the flow of water underground from Pine Creek and running it through the dining area, surrounded by glass so patrons could view the process. The creek also powered an old grist mill down in the cellar. that ground cornmeal and flour. The restaurant also featured a 14-foot aquarium in the center filled with local fish. Almost three years later, Moses Wadsworth Stuart Sr. died on February 16, 1960, at the age of 85.
By 1966, the Water Wheel Restaurant had shut down and was occupied by Skidmore Hardware and Appliance Center. Over the years, other businesses occupied the buildings on the property such as K & J Restaurant, a few barbershops, a couple of office supply companies, and an upholstery business. In 1987, James Lee, owner of the U.S. Printing and Sign Company, said he and his partner Johnny Hollon were in the process of restoring the old fountain on the property which had been inoperable since the Water Wheel shutdown. It is not known if the fountain was ever repaired and operational. One of the last entities to occupy the property was The Music Hall which shuttered around the late-2000s. Although the structures on the property lay derelict and the lake has long been drained, the tin-sheet metal neon ‘Red Devil’ that marked the Tan-Kar gas station at Red Devil Lake was salvaged decades prior by W. S. Newell.
William Samuel Newell
William Samuel Newell was born October 2, 1921, in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1935, when he was thirteen, he and his family moved to the small community of Pintlala where he attended Pintlala School and graduated in 1941 from Lanier High School in Montgomery. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1943 where he served as a First Class Seaman during World War II aboard the USS Vincennes in the Pacific Fleet. After the war, he returned home to work alongside his family in the road construction business. He began W. S. Newell Construction in 1951 and later founded W. S. Newell, Inc., in 1963. The corporation grew into one of the Southeast’s leading road-building companies and helped build portions of I-65 and I-85 through Montgomery, as well as numerous projects throughout Alabama and the southeastern United States. In 2001, a section of I-65 near Prattville was renamed “W. S. Newell Highway” in his honor. He was one of the founders of the First Montgomery Bank, which later became Aliant Bank, and served on the board of directors for many years. Newell was also involved in several residential developments in the Montgomery area, including Towne Lake, Wynlakes, and Deer Creek.
“Go to church or the devil will get you”
Newell is possibly best known for the large sign showing a red devil on his property alongside I-65 north of Prattville that says “Go to church or the devil will get you” which was erected in 1988. Before then, he had a similar sign on his property on Hunter Loop Road in Montgomery which had been put up in 1975. In a 2005 NPR interview, he explained, “my mother, she told me, `On Sunday, if you don’t go to church, the old devil’s going to get you.’ It always stuck in my mind.” “I’m just trying to wake up the people. So many people have dropped out of churches, I’m just trying to get them back to churches.” Alongside the sign is a waterwheel which some believed was salvaged from the Waterwheel Restaurant, although this is just speculation. Another of Newell’s signs easily seen from the heavily traveled highway says “America: Love it or leave it.” Over the years, the red devil sign has changed a few times such as the font and layout, but the messaging has remained the same. W. S. Newell died on September 19, 2009, due to heart problems and complications from a stroke he suffered a number of years prior.
Local residents have mixed feelings about the sign. Some view it as a sense of pride, a piece of Alabama’s history and tradition, while others believe it gives outsiders traveling up and down I-65 negative connotations of the area. To the latter’s relief, a storm toppled the sign in 2016 but was replaced two years later by Newell’s family. Despite differing views, one cannot argue how iconic the red devil has become.
The Montgomery Advertiser. (1934, June 16). Stuart Opening Lake-Park Today
The Prattville Progress, Brenda Monfee. (1987, October 29). Businessmen restore landmark resort fountain
The Montgomery Advertiser, Martha Mueller. (1988, June 18). Newell prays sign leads men to God
The Montgomery Advertiser. (1957, May 5). Water Wheel Restaurant 6.4 Miles from Maxwell
The Montgomery Advertiser. (1955, October 16). Mr. Moses Goes On and On
The Montgomery Advertiser. (1958, December 28). Tan-Kar Oil Co. Had Start 30 Years Ago, Still Growing
The Prattville Progress. (1939, August 17). Prattville Experiences Greatest Flood
The Montgomery Advertiser. (1958, June 15). Mr. Moe Continues to Go On and On
The Montgomery Advertiser, Jefferey C. Benton. (1997, October 20). Beehive fountain was part of ill-fated recreation park