Situated just east of the intersection of U.S. 431 and Alabama 204, Duke is where the hustle of Anniston, Oxford, even Alexandria seems to be a world away. For Alton Burgess, nowhere could be better.
“I just sit here and watch the world go by,” said Burgess, a man some refer to as the “mayor” of Duke. “I got eight acres here, and it’s all I need.”
Burgess, who was born in the house he now owns, has lived in Duke for most of his life. Now, he sells produce, flowers and antiques.
“And about anything else to make an honest dollar,” Burgess said. Burgess also works full-time for the Department of Mental Health and helps out at the Calhoun County Adult Training Facility, a center for physically and mentally disabled adults. The training facility occupies what used to be the old Duke School.
“It’s a good thing,” he said. “It’s a real good thing.”
The staff at the facility teach their clients life skills, like how to brush their teeth and get dressed, but also teach them crafts and work skills few others know how to do, like chair caning. Clients at the facility often visit Burgess and the animals he raises, which include chickens, goats and two miniature donkeys — Jack and Jill.
“They love interacting with the animals,” said Sterling Fiering, a teacher’s aide at the facility. “I think it’s pet therapy. I really do.”
Kay Sewell, project supervisor of the center, agreed.
“It’s laid back and calm,” she said. “It’s really good for them.”
Some clients at the center also take pride in buying produce from Burgess, and visits next door can also act as a disciplinary tool for the center.
“They try to do their best with their goals, so they can go over there,” said Willienann Funderburg, another teacher’s aide at the facility.
For Burgess, the relationship he has with those at the center is an important one.
“I like for them to be around,” he said. “They’re good company. They just enjoy getting out in the community. I try to help them out as much as I can.”
Burgess enjoys the casual conversation and laughter that comes from working in Duke.
“I’m gonna hang up a sign that says ‘No laughin’ and no cuttin’ up. This is a business,’” Burgess joked of his produce shop.
“Then what are you gonna do?” said his wife of 25 years, Donna.
The way Burgess runs his produce shop is a reminder of a time gone by.
“People think I’m crazy,” he said. “I run it on an Honest John system.”
Burgess said he often has to run errands during the day, so he leaves a box on the stand’s table where people can drop cash or checks for the goods they need.
“I figure if they steal it, they must’ve been hungry, so I ain’t gonna worry about it,” he said.
Crime and pranks aren’t a major problem for the residents of Duke. With the exception of a bus fire in April, residents cannot recall any issues they have experienced.
“You can tell everybody loves everybody here,” Sewell said. “People will stop by and help you out.”
Burgess thinks a lot of people today need a healthy dose of country life.
“People need to slow down and enjoy life,” he said. “I enjoy quiet country living. And old stuff. Old stuff is my thing.”
It isn’t hard to tell. From the vintage washing machines to old phone booth doors to a mule collar, the man’s collection is varied.
Where does he get all of this stuff?
“Ramblin,” he said. Burgess visits yard sales and other stores across the state, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles to find an interesting piece. But perhaps nothing is more valuable than the country lifestyle Duke provides.
“I couldn’t make a better community than Duke,” Burgess said. “I wouldn’t live nowhere else.”