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Summertime Tradition: Escape to the Lake

A Russell cabin, the original “place at the lake,” has offered generations of families a sample of summertime

photography courtesy of Russell Lands

The lake. Those words evoke anticipation, happiness, wistfulness, or nostalgia. The lake is a destination, a dream, a way of life. For most Birmingham residents, the lake means Lake Martin. Less than two hours away, Lake Martin is in a different time zone—lake time. There are no pressures or expectations at the lake. You don’t need a good reason to lie in a hammock, zip around in a boat, or do whatever you want. “I’m at the lake” is all the excuse needed.

“It is a different pace of life,” says Ken Findley. Ken and his wife, Laura, have been retreating to a cabin by the lake since 1984. Their children Baker, 23, and Bess, 20, were raised between Birmingham and Lake Martin. “We didn’t go on vacations or to the beach,” Ken says. “Every weekend we went to the lake.”

While the Findleys enjoy going out on their pontoon boat, their lake cabin itself is a sufficient enticement. “We hang out around the cabin,” Ken says. “We just enjoy the cabin life.”

The Findleys’ lake place is one of about 340 cabins leased by Russell Lands, which owns much of the property at the rim of Lake Martin. There is a sense of semi-ownership for many families who are longtime Russell cabin leaseholders, such as Walker and Bill Jones.

“People say their blood pressure drops when they see the Alexander City sign.” —Roger Holliday

“We have had a Russell cabin since 1993,” Bill says. “It’s been a great experience for our family. The cabin is relatively hassle-free. Russell Lands handles all the maintenance, and we have some flexibility on improvements we can make.” Lake Martin has been an important part of the Jones family’s life since their two grown sons were little. “My wife and I both have careers and are very busy with our jobs and community work,” Bill says. “We are completely relaxed at the lake. The pressures are left behind.”

The spiritual refreshment found at the lake goes beyond relaxation for the Joneses. “We love going to the Church in the Pines on Sunday,” Bill says. “You wear your shorts and flip flops. It’s just terrific.”

Lake Martin is a rambling, 44,000-acre bulging of the Tallapoosa River. A lovely natural environment, the lake was not made by nature. In the go-go days of the 1920s, two forces came together, and out of the collision the lake was born. Thomas W. Martin, president of Alabama Power Co., and Benjamin Russell, the founder of Russell Mills, both decided to build a hydroelectric dam on the same river, at the same time. The story goes that Russell was looking over his proposed dam site when he spied a party of surveyors. “The surveyors walk up and a guy introduces himself as an Alabama Power lawyer and talks about their plans,” says Roger Holliday, vice president of Russell Lands on Lake Martin. “Mr. Russell replied, ‘It seems to me, you’re standing on my property, talking about my dam and your vision.’”

Martin and Alabama Power got their dam, which was named for the electric power honcho, and Russell, the human dynamo known as Mr. Ben, acquired 250 miles of the resulting lake’s wooded shoreline. In the 1940s, Russell’s company began luring visitors to Lake Martin by dotting the shore with cabins.

Changing times left the Russell company holding dwellings that once housed millworkers. Some of those structures became the first Russell cabins. “The early cabins were just fishing huts,” Roger says. “Now they run the gamut from the basic cabin with a screened porch to Bobby McAlpine-designed lake houses.”

Whether a simple cabin or an architectural artwork, the lure of a lake getaway is the same. It’s all about recreation, relaxation, and renewal.

For a great list of things to do for lake living, click here.

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