With the threat of tornadoes in neighboring Alabama and Georgia, some of our transplanted Bonifay "children" have come to understand the sound of the familiar "mill whistle" which we hear every day at noon to have a more urgent meaning. Former residents David and Erin (Brooks) Lauen and Stephanie (Lauen) Ford live with their families in Atlanta. This past week they heard sirens several times sending school children with their teachers to storm shelters. Their mother, Christine Lauen said Bonifay needs a dangerous- storm warning system. " Hazel, you should write an article about that."
Well, I don’t editorialize much so this is not a suggestion that our city fathers start a warning system. That doesn’t fit into my writing style. I would assume that each school has some sort of storm drill just as they do fire drills. I remember when I was teaching and the sky was threatening, some kids would become quite worried. I gave them the instructions even though we didn’t have a sustained siren sound. "Move to the inside wall. Get on your knees with your hands and arms over your head. And while you are down there, pray that God will keep the storm up in the sky." I am fully confident that He is able to do that.
But the idea of a siren as a severe weather-warning device brought to mind our noon mill whistle, which blows at 12 O’clock every day. To those of us who live here, it is a sound to which we are long accustomed. But for newcomers to our area, it sometimes causes alarm. When our former youth minister and his bride Jason and Nicole Stanland moved here a couple of years ago, they were getting settled into their home about a block from First Baptist Church. When the noon mill whistle sounded, thinking it was surely warning of some impending disaster, they were almost panic stricken. They had no knowledge of what the disaster might be nor how they were to respond to the warning. They soon became accustomed, however, to that signal telling Bonifay folk, " It’s time for lunch."
Many ask about the history of the whistle. I can’t be sure, but I’ve always thought it was a carry-over from the days in the 1940's and ‘50's when the Bonifay Heading Company employed many Bonifay and surrounding area citizens. The "header mill" as it was locally called was located near where Jerkins, Inc is now located. They made wooden barrelheads (covers) that were used mainly in the naval stores industry. Much of their equipment was powered by steam produced by burning the wood byproducts from the shaping of the circular barrelheads.
Ray Brooks who lived near the mill as a child where both his parents worked said the ash from the burning process often soiled the clothes, which his mother and sisters hung outdoors to dry.
The steam produced by the furnace also powered the mill whistle. When we lived in town in the early nineteen fifties it sounded at 12 0'clock to signal lunch time and again at 5 0'clock to signal quitting time. If there was one in the morning to signal starting time or at one to signal go back to work time I don’t recall. I actually think there was a one o’clock whistle and perhaps a 7 o'clock one.
Ray says the fire whistle which blows today was originally located atop what was Red Alford’s Western Auto Store next door to Progressive Realty on Waukesha St. I believe it is now located atop the water tank behind the Middle School Gym atop McKinnon Hill. It was when I was teaching there.
I had always assumed that the noon whistle was set on a timer, but I called Elois Bradshaw who works at Bonifay City Hall. She said, "No. We ring it by hand." The job is assigned to Sabrina Peters, but when she has to go and work at the fire station, either Elois, Frances Kline, Betty Tadlock, or City Clerk Jeri Gibson ring it. I suppose one of them is also assigned to push the button for the start of parades. Many visitors and newcomers to our town have puzzled over the fire alarm sounding at noon. Now you know the origin.
In a future article, I will write more of the history of the Bonifay Heading Company.