The Mayor of Oxford, Alabama has earned the nickname The Mayor of Big Box. During his tenure in office, Leon Smith, the seven-term Mayor, has saturated his small city with big chain stores. There are currently 4 Wal-Marts within 20 miles of Oxford, including the supercenter on Plaza Lane in Oxford, and another one 7 miles away in Anniston. The city population has more than doubled since 1990, but by 2007 stood at only 20,329. Oxford has a Best Buy, Lowe’s, JC Penneys, Sears, Kohl’s, Dollar General, Dillard’s, TJ Maxx and Wal-Mart. Now the community’s going to get its first Sam’s Club. Wal-Mart currently has 91 supercenters in Alabama, a state which has been very lax in its land use laws, and 13 Sam’s Clubs. But Mayor Smith may not have been fully prepared for the criticism this Sam’s Club project has generated — and all over some rocks and dirt. Preservation groups in Alabama are upset that the city is letting Wal-Mart developers dig for fill dirt on a hill that the Associated Press referred to as “the foundation of an ancient Native American site.” Over the years, Wal-Mart Realty has chosen sites over Native American burial grounds, near civil war battlefields, on George Washington’s boyhood home, etc. In Oxford, state officials told the AP that the large stone mound that tops the 200-foot rise near the Sam’s Club site was put there a 1,000 years ago by Indians during a religious observance. These rock mound formations have been found up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and date to a period of activity around 1000 A.D. “It’s just heartbreaking,” a representative of the Alabama Historical Commission told the AP. “I find it hard to believe that for fill dirt anyone would do this.” But this is not just fill dirt: it’s Wal-Mart fill dirt. The city of Oxford paid for a study of the mound, and concluded that Indian artifacts existed in the red clay of the mound. But when Mayor Smith looks at the historic site, he sees something very different. “It’s the ugliest old hill in the world,” Smith told the Associated Press. “It’s just a pile of rocks is all it is.” So the red soil is being carried by truck down to the Sam’s Club site, and dumped there as fill for the big box’s foundation. Wal-Mart says that none of the material from the rock mound has actually been dug up for use at the site, but almost everything around the mound has been stripped away. The Alabama Historical Commission has organized petitions to protect the mound, but the project continues to grind away. A spokesman for the city said they hope to remove the top of the hill entirely, and create an 8 acre site for a motel or restaurant at the top, overlooking the Choccolocco Valley. “It would be a beautiful view,” Mayor Smith observed.
For those who have no historical view, destroying the top of this mountain, and using the fill dirt to build up another Wal-Mart store, is a beautiful thing. It makes sense to Mayor Smith to take the ‘ugliest old hill in the world’ and use it for the ugliest retail box building in the world. Indian historians in Alabama point out that similar mounds have been protected from development in places like Montague, Massachusetts and North Smithfield, R.I., and elsewhere. “With increasing development occurring, these sites are in jeopardy,” a member of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama told the AP. “Here, you’re looking at a site that is a sacred site for us. A colleague of mine referred to these places as `prayers in stone.’ For us it’s immaterial whether there are burial or historical artifacts present. The site itself is historic.” The city bought this controversial land for development purposes several years back, and then paid the University of Alabama to do a study of the site. The University found Indian pottery at the top of the mountain, and said the mound was erected by Indians. Mayor Leon Smith sees the new Sam’s Club as just one more concrete reason why he refers to his city as the “retail Capital of Calhoun County.” Readers are urged to email Mayor Leon Smith at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Smith, There are apparently some folks in the Oxford area who don’t agree with you that historic Native American sites are just ‘a pile of rocks.’ Allowing more big box retail in Oxford is a decision that could be described as dumb as rocks. You have the state’s Historical Commission urging you not to use the Indian site as fill dirt for a Sam’s Club. Let Wal-Mart truck in its dirt for some other site — perhaps from the local businesses that they will force to shut down. You are taking dirt from the ‘ugliest hill in the world’ to build some of the ugliest big box stores in the world. If you think this is progress and a form of economic development, consider the words of Wal-Mart itself: ‘At Wal-Mart, we make dust. Our competitors eat dust.’ Economically speaking, Oxford would be better of with a pile or rocks than more big box stores. It’s time for Oxford to show a little more respect for the history of your community, and a little less devotion to concrete and asphalt malls.”