Semmes: City of New Growth

For some outsiders, this western Mobile County municipality is simply known for two things: Highway 98 and nurseries. Indeed, both are key. But, Mayor David Baker notes, “We were founded on the nursery business, but we branched out.”

Mayor David Baker has worked tirelessly to build up the West Mobile community, while maintaining its small-town charm. Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau

Ironically, bordering two-century-old Mobile, Semmes is not yet officially 8 years old. But as the municipal seal on Mayor David Baker’s coffee mug proclaims, Semmes was “Incorporated in 2011. 200 Years in the Making.” Translation: “We’ve been here longer than you think.”

Indeed, they have. But there is new life on Highway 98, in a 2,100-acre town of 2,897 residents, where everyone is in the nursery business, used to be, or knows someone who is. Mobile County’s 11th municipality is the new Semmes.

John Williams, current owner of Tom Dodd Nurseries, strolls through his greenhouse, tending his crops of potted plants.

A Rich Agricultural History

Early Semmes settlers write about an 1800s pre-settlement. Later, villagers established what they called “a reliable road lined with postal box stops for receiving mail.” That “reliable road” was eventually paved and renamed —Highway 98.

As for the town, the namesake of Admiral Raphael Semmes sprouted from the ground up — literally. Many municipalities tout seeds of growth. So does Semmes. But Semmes’ seeds were real.

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Longtime residents claim their soil can grow anything. In the early 1900s, the good news of fertile earth reached the Far East. Japanese horticulturists Kosaku Sawada and T. Kiyono came to town, establishing nurseries and developing and marketing Asian imports — camellias and azaleas. And, oh boy, did they take off!

Dozens of other local nurseries were planted. They, too, made good money from pink flowers. Semmes became known as the nursery center of the Southeast. Most Alabama farmers depended on food crops, but Semmes nurserymen thrived on ornamental plant nurseries.

“Back then it was balls and burlap,” recalls Alice Dodd Baker, daughter of Tom Dodd, a pioneer nurseryman. “Plants were not in pots. Workers dug them up, wrapped the roots in burlap balls and loaded them on refrigerated north-bound railcars.”

Alice grew up in her dad’s business, Tom Dodd Nurseries. “I am amazed at the diversity,” she says, gazing over acres of potted seedlings. “Today we grow crepe myrtles, hollies, roses, just about everything. The nursery business has seen good times and recessions, but there will always be a market for azaleas and camellias.”

John Williams is the current owner of Tom Dodd Nurseries. “What sets us apart from other areas is good water sources and milder winters,” he says, walking between endless rows of budding potential profits. “Our winters are generally mild but still have plenty of ‘chill hours’ that Florida cannot match.”

One of the local hangouts is Melissa Andrews’ barber shop.

A Quaint, Burgeoning Community

Just as the ornamental plant market diversified, so has the town, in business, community and culture. “We aren’t Mobile, and we never will be,” notes Baker. “But we offer big-city services without a lot of big-city problems.”

The business district is a melting pot of national chains and locally owned shops. Three town favorites of the latter share the same shopping complex: Semmes House of Pizza beats anything served at a pizza house with a red roof, Meggie B’s Gifts and More has a following from Mississippi to Mobile, and Tillman’s Barber Shop is Semmes’ own version of CNN — they also cut hair. Barber, hairstylist and owner Melissa Andrews smiles, “If we served coffee, nobody would leave.”

Semmes House of Pizza offers a wide variety of delicious Italian pies.

The town has evolved through hard work and perseverance.

Terri Nelson was an original member of The Friends of Semmes committee, established in 2002. The group coordinated the community’s first Christmas parade, but duties quickly expanded. “There was always talk of becoming our own city,” Nelson recalls. “Mobile wanted Semmes. Prichard wanted Semmes. And Semmes wanted Semmes.”

The self-governing drive intensified around 2009 with the Incorporate Semmes committee collecting signatures on petitions. After months of negotiations, neighbors calling on neighbors and many meetings, a vote on incorporation was held Aug. 17, 2010. The outcome was “Yes,” by 431 to 151 (not counting absentee votes).

Semmes incorporated on May 2, 2011. “After incorporation, the work continued,” says Nelson. “Today the Friends of Semmes committee no longer exists, but the people still work hard to make our town a success.”

Take the Semmes Regional Library, for example. “Our County Commission wanted a library here,” recalls Diane Moore, who, with others, was a force in overseeing the library’s development and survival. “But the Commission wanted us to raise the bulk of the money. We didn’t realize how much money.”

The Semmes Library committee was thinking $10,000. The Commission was thinking $300,000. Between September 2007 and September 2008, generous benefactors, school children, nurserymen and residents pitched in. “We did not raise $300,000,” Moore says, smiling. “We raised $350,000.”

In 2017, the library was in danger of losing its lease. Responding to passionate community pressure, the County Commission agreed to purchase the property. Today it serves 21,000 patrons and includes The Semmesonian, a revolving art gallery featuring area artists, including the works of curator-contributor Mary Rodning.

“Semmes is such a great place for artists,” says Rodning, walking among the current Semmesonian exhibits. “My paintings were inspired many times by the area’s wildflowers.”

Others share her inspiration. Brandon Van Hook’s artistic medium of choice is barbecue. He is the owner of the Hickory Pit Too, a popular local barbecue restaurant referred to as “the other city hall.”

At the Hickory Pit Too, the area’s famous barbecue joint, the menu is chock-full of delicious, down-home food, including a monstrosity of a burger.

Hickory Pit Too’s hamburger draws crowds from afar. It’s the largest in Mobile County and perhaps in Alabama. Appropriately named the “BossHawg,” a 20-ounce beef patty is stacked with pulled pork and piled with trimmings, between Frisbee-sized buns. Anything bigger should require a builder’s permit. Eat it within 45 minutes and receive a free T-shirt. Hundreds have tried. Few have earned the T-shirt. But, that’s not the only reason folks venture to this charming suburb.

“People are just drawn to Semmes,” says Brandon. “It is totally different from most other towns I know. Friends are made instantly. People come to Semmes and stay.”

The Semmes Senior Center is a testament to that. It resembles a stately residential mansion because at one time it was one — the Blackwell-Baston estate. Nicknamed “Jewel of the Community,” it is ground zero for area seniors. “This is a town focal point,” says director Linda Davis. “Members meet — many daily — for all sorts of activities. They talk about families, politics, generally visit and enjoy each other’s company.”  And they shoot pool.

“Some of these guys are really good,” notes billiards devotee and center regular, Terry Lynn. “See that award over there?” he adds, pointing at a large countertop trophy. “My name’s not on it.”  The game pauses for a laughter break.

A Deep-rooted Pride of Place

On the other end of the age spectrum, Mary G. Montgomery High School is another “gem” of community. Almost everyone in town attended the school and cheers on the Vikings. “Our school is part of the unique relationship of living here,” says Terra Price, MGM signature academy specialist and 2003 school valedictorian. “You know the students’ parents, sisters and brothers. You see students grow and realize, ‘I was that kid.’”

Biomedical sciences instructor Charlie Crabtree offers students extensive lab experiences.

On-campus education includes agriculture and industry, business and technology, humanities, engineering and biomedical. Like the city itself, the classes are hands-on.

On MB’s visit, students of Charlie Crabtree’s principles of biomedical sciences class are centrifuging blood components. “Actually, it’s simulated blood,” says the MGM science teacher and 1982 graduate. “We use milk, red food coloring and a little cooking oil, but it’s very similar to real.”

Across campus, on stage in the school’s auditorium, rehearsals are underway. Mollie Betsch’s drama class takes five. “I have always loved theater and love teaching it,” she says. MGM’s thespian group is award-winning and competes in state-level competition.

Mary G. Montgomery is the second largest high school in Mobile County. Semmes Middle School is the largest junior high in Alabama. Blake DeWitt is a graduate
of both.

Like many, he gives back. “This is my community,” says DeWitt, branch director of the Semmes Boys and Girls Club, which oversees about 160 children. “We try to give kids opportunities they would not have otherwise. Mobile County owns our building, but what we do belongs to Semmes. It is our place in history.”

Education has always been a vital part of Semmes history, dating back to the 1902 One Room Schoolhouse. It still stands.

Semmes’ 1902 One Room Schoolhouse is the oldest functioning school building in the state. The structure was moved to its current location to serve as a museum with the typical furniture and accessories of the day.

“In 1992 we discovered the old building was to be demolished as part of the new school system construction,” recalls Carolyn Owens, retired high school counselor and schoolhouse guide and ambassador. Again, Semmes to the rescue. Owens notes, “We saved it and moved it back to its original location (from across the street) here on Wulff Road.”

The One Room Schoolhouse, with period furnishings including lunch pails circa 1920, school desks and a wood-burning heater, is the oldest in-use school building in Alabama. It, along with Malone Chapel, a replica of the 1900s Mount Pleasant Church, is a focal point of Semmes’ Heritage Park.

Thanks to Highway 98, the mayor adds, “You can reach a lot of places from here, and many of our people do — working in Pascagoula, Mobile and other areas. But at the end of the day, Semmes is a great place to come home to.”

No Place Like Home

Robin Dixon, director of the Semmes Recreation and Community Center, adds about her town, “You come here and you stay. You put down roots. This is home.”

In the halls of Mary G. Montgomery High School, inspirational messages adorn the walls. One reads: “Success comes in cans, not can’ts.” The words are applicable, not just to students, but to the town that never said, “We can’t,” and turned Semmes the community into Semmes the city.

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