Devil on the 'Go to Church' sign has an intriguing backstory
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an update on a roadside sign that has been an Interstate 65 landmark for three decades. The sign, which has the silhouette of a red devil and the words "Go To Church or The Devil Will Get You," was toppled by a storm in late 2016 and is in the process of being restored by the owners, Sam and Keith Newell, sons of W.S. Newell. You can click here to read more.
After the story was published, I received an email from Ralph Foster, a reader who told me the sign was not the first appearance of the long-tailed devil.
"The red devil silhouette actually is much older," he wrote. "It was part of a tin sheet-metal neon sign on Highway 31 between Montgomery and Prattville, marking the Tan-Kar gas station at Red Devil Lake. The devil sign survived the closure and demolition of the old station and remained abandoned on the highway until Mr. [W.S.] Newell acquired it from the property owners. He then used it on his now famous 'Go to Church' sign."
Foster continued: "I can recall as a child seeing the red devil sign on Highway 31 when we went to Prattville. I'm glad it has survived all these years, and that the Newell family is replacing the sign. It is truly history within history."
I was, of course, fascinated to learn the origins of Alabama's iconic red devil. But Foster's email raised more questions - most importantly, what the heck was Red Devil Lake? I'd never heard of it.
At Foster's suggestion, I went to the Facebook page Times Gone By - History of Montgomery, Alabama. The page includes wonderful historical photos and stories from the area. And that's where I found my answers.
Alabama's Red Devil Lake
Red Devil Lake no longer exists. In 1939, a catastrophic flood destroyed much of downtown Prattville and the lake was never refilled. But let's back up and find out how, why and when the lake was created, and what it had to do with the devil on the sign.
Mose W. Stuart Sr., a Montgomery businessman, owned the first local automobile dealerships for Ford and the Hapmobile, said Carolyn Wright, administrator of the Times Gone By page. Stuart decided he should also provide gas for the cars and opened a chain of stations in the late 1920s. The Tan-Kar Oil Co. would eventually have 18 stations in Montgomery, Selma and Highland Home.
"He called his first station the Red Devil and got a statue of a red devil and a loudspeaker and went about the city shouting, 'Red devil! Red devil!'" Wright explained. "His first station was near Maxwell. After he built the Red Devil station just north of the Reese Ferry Bridge on Highway 31, he received a letter from Standard Oil Co. threatening to run him out of business. His response was to expand the station into a recreation park."
An interesting business plan, but apparently it worked for Stuart. In 1935, the park was completed, and it included a lake, pavilion, bath house, a 50-foot-high slide and a grist mill powered by a water wheel. "There was also a beehive shaped fountain which was made of concrete over a wooden frame and set in a small pool," Wright said.
This odd beehive-shaped fountain survives today and can be seen alongside side U.S. Highway 31, just north of Reese Ferry Road.
In August of 1939, the dam at Red Devil Lake burst. The book "Prattville, Alabama: A Brief History of the Fountain City" includes this recollection from resident Gene Kerlin: "It was the worst flood Prattville ever had. The Red Devil dam broke. A railroad trestle downtown was also destroyed in the flood." The waters caused $250,000 in damage, the book said.
Fate of the Red Devil
Stuart never rebuilt the park but a restaurant on the site, the Water Wheel, remained until the 1950s.
"[Stuart] also built a restaurant at the lake's dam featuring a chute that routed bream and trout into a fish tank inside the restaurant," Wright said. "Patrons could choose the fish for their dinners."
The beehive fountain was the only other reminder of the recreation area. At one time, the sign may have perched atop the fountain, although it was later used to promoted a Red Devil station. A photo in the state archives dated 1953 shows the devil sign outside a Tan-Kar station in Montgomery.
Wright said, "Montgomery Tin Shop made a devil figure out of tin and I think at one time it was placed on the top of the beehive. The devil was bright red and holding a scythe. It is six feet tall. Fast forward to the 1980s. W.S. Newell bought the devil tin figure and, in 1988, placed it on a sign that he put on his property on I-65."
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