History of Woodland Hills
We are soliciting histories, anecdotes, photographs, and anything else that residents may have to describe the history of our neighborhood. If you have anything you would like to contribute, please contact John Sikes at 246-6117 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Old photographs depicting neighborhood events, streets, the swimming pool, early construction, etc. are especially welcome. These can be digitally scanned and returned undamaged.
Please enjoy this verbal history of Woodland Hills as told by Mrs. Charles (T. C.) Wilkins, a former 45-year resident of Woodland Hills.
Woodland Hills – 50 years
Dr. A. W. Patton, a well-known Tuscaloosa dentist, and R. F. “Speedy” Holifield were the original developers of Woodland Hills. Both lived on the “big” lake. Woodland Hills was officially incorporated in 1957, although several homes, especially around and near the two lakes, were built prior to incorporation.
Moved to Tuscaloosa in 1961
Chuck and T. C. Wilkins moved from Pittsburgh to Tuscaloosa in 1961. Dr. Wilkins, who originally came from Wyoming, had accepted the position as head of the metallurgical engineering department at the University of Alabama. Their contractor, Bobby Luna, built the house while the Wilkins’ were still living in Pittsburgh. At the time, the street (later to become Firethorn Drive) ended at their lot, which is now a couple of lots north of Stonehill Lane. Firethorn did not yet reach Pelham Heights Road in the other direction. There were few houses in Woodland Hills at the time although many lots were for sale, and a few houses were under construction in 1961.
Hilltop, Firethorn, or Pyracantha?
According to Mrs. Wilkins, before the street got its name “Firethorn,” the city planned to name the street “Hilltop.” While this name is appropriate in a purely physical sense, Mrs. Wilkins and other neighbors didn’t think much of it. The name “Pyracantha” was suggested, but the common shrub name “Firethorn” won out, primarily because of the spelling difficulty posed by “Pyracantha!” The neighbors asked the city to reconsider “Hilltop,” and, fortunately, they agreed to Firethorn Drive.
Natural attractiveness of Woodland Hills
Mrs. Wilkins says the characteristic that attracted her most to Woodland Hills was.the trees! A true nature lover, she noted that deer and raccoon (of course!) were very common, and the lake was home to beaver, a Great Blue Heron, and a temporary home to migratory wild ducks and a few domestic ducks. Green heron, kingfishers, and redwing blackbirds were also common around the lakes. She told the story about a frightened deer that crashed into the wall of her neighbors’ house one night, making so much noise it woke up the residents. Hoof prints were found on the ground the next morning, confirming that a deer caused the noise.
“Really in the country”
The neighborhood was very quiet (I-59/20 had not yet been constructed). It was “really in the country” in 1961. Most of the residents were young adults with many young children and teenagers. Most owned two cars. Mrs. Wilkins remembers very well the amount of time she spent driving kids to school, shopping, and otherwise taking care of household business. There were no malls so most shopping was done downtown – quite a distance from Woodland Hills. She says she would often drive 70 miles in a single day. Every house in Woodland Hills used to have a gas lamp in front near the street curb, giving the neighborhood a “village” effect. Street lighting was not installed until the mid-1970s.
Schools in Tuscaloosa
Mrs. Wilkins’ daughter Linda was an elementary school student the year they moved to Tuscaloosa. For one year, Linda attended the old school on 15th Street (now Veteran’s Memorial Boulevard), which was located on the large vacant lot across from American Christian Academy (formerly Eastwood Middle School). The school was in terrible shape – it had oiled wooden floors and potbelly stoves for heat. There were no halls, so students moved from class to class outside, rain, cold, or sunshine. Mrs. Wilkins remembered cracks in the floors so large that she caught a heel in one, pulling off her shoe. Fortunately, Linda moved on to a new school the next year, Eastwood Middle School.
Woodland Hills Garden Club
Mrs. Wilkins is a long-time active member of the Woodland Hills Garden Club, and still possesses years of minutes and other records related to the Garden Club, which was formed in 1953. While membership is now much lower (because most women are working full-time), during the 1960s the membership exceeded 60. The Garden Club held annual neighborhood picnics, usually at the swimming pool. Mrs. Wilkins remembered one particularly well-attended picnic that was held at the Child’s home (at the corner of Firethorn and Stonehill Lane) – now the residence of Wade and Kim Davis.
Mrs. Wilkins says that Dr. Patton and Mr. Holifield once owned most of the land around the lakes, and they took really good care of it. But there were problems. In the late 1960s, the dam broke on the big lake, causing flooding in Cherokee Hills. In the early 1970s, erosion running off from the construction of I59/20 began filling the big lake. Although a newcomer would never know it, the lake used to be bigger and reached almost to Woodland Road. After these problems, the property owners around the lakes have maintained the lakes, which is why the lakes are not available for public use.
Lake Christmas Tree
Probably some longer-time Tuscaloosa residents remember the Christmas tree on the big lake. Every year for several years, men in the neighborhood would set up a pole on a platform in the middle of the lake and string Christmas lights to create a floating Christmas tree. Mr. T. Earl Johnson was famous for never failing to fall into the lake while building the tree! Residents of Woodland Hills would go down to the lake with their families, drink hot chocolate and sing Christmas carols.
Well-Known Residents of Woodland Hills
Mrs. Wilkins named several notable former and current residents:
- Bobby Luna: A building contractor who built many homes in Woodland Hills, Mr. Luna played football at Alabama in 1951 – 54. He became the 6th draft choice for the San Francisco 49ers.
- Tuscaloosa mayors: George Van Tassel served from 1956 to 1969) and Snow Hinton was mayor 1969 – 1976.
- Pierce Pratt: Retired from the FBI, lived in Woodland Hills from 1963 to 1998.
- William (Bill) Foster: Tuscaloosa County Assistant District Attorney, lived on Firethorn Drive from 1962 -1980.
- Dr. Cordell Wynn: Dr. Wynn is former President of Stillman College and a former Trustee of the University of Alabama.
- C. M. Newton: Former University of Alabama head basketball coach (late 1960s through mid-1970s), Coach Newton became the Athletic Director for the University of Kentucky.
- Don Staley: Current head coach of the University of Alabama’s women’s soccer team. Don and family just recently moved from the neighborhood.
- John Foster: Was head coach of men and women’s swim teams at the University of Alabama in the 1960s and 1970s.
- Dr. Robert Hopper and Dr. Robert Bills: former deans of the College of Education.
- Scott Coogler: A former resident and local attorney, circuit judge, and recently named Federal district judge.