OAK HILL — David Fuller is the mayor who has almost nothing.
He has no City Hall. He has no police department, not one officer. He has no full-time fire department. He has no water department. He has no full-time post office. He has no school. He has no hospital, no doctor, no dentist, no emergency room. He also has no salary.
In Oak Hill, the mayor and the City Council aren’t paid.
Fuller also has no complaints, which isn’t the oddest thing about this smallest of incorporated cities along Alabama 21, one of the longest state roads in Alabama.
Oak Hill, in Wilcox County, has 35 residents. Most are related one way or another, said Fuller, whose town may be the smallest city in this state of small towns. Census figures say another incorporated place, McMullen in Pickens County, has 10 residents. Hogwash, says McMullen’s former mayor, Essie Madison. “Well, they got it listed wrong. There’s more than 10 houses down here,” she said Wednesday.
Oak Hill is it, then. Alabama’s smallest town.
To find it, head north from Monroeville on Alabama 21. You’ll drive through some of the best timberland in the Southeast and behind a cavalcade of logging trucks, most dragging soon-to-be lumber down the road. You’ll pass by Peterman, through Beatrice and eventually arrive at the non-descript and utterly forgettable intersection of Alabama 21 and Alabama 10.
To the north is Hayneville. To the east is Pine Apple. To the west is Camden. Oak Hill’s city limits extend only about a half-mile out in any direction from the 21-10 stop sign.
The mayor’s house is just ahead, on the right, in the center of what little town there is.
“If it were any bigger than it is now, I couldn’t handle it,” Fuller says.
Civic growth doesn’t exist much in Oak Hill.
‘Oak Hill, Alabama, 36766’
There are two tales to tell in this place: one is the place itself; the other is Fuller, who means as much, if not more, to Oak Hill as Mayor Leon Smith means to Oxford, another Alabama 21 town.
There’s no other way to describe it: Fuller and his wife, Gail, run this miniscule place. Fuller is 72, not particularly tall, gray-headed, a retired electronics and instrumentation technician. He is the mayor and the chief of the volunteer fire department. (“I don’t know if it’s quite legal or not, but no one’s really challenged me on it,” he says.) He says he knows all 35 Oak Hill residents, presumably by name. His wife is master of the Oak Hill post office. It’s open only two hours a day, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., after the government tried to close it a few years ago.
Oak Hill residents, led by the mayor, fought the closure. They won, kind of. They got to keep their post office — which sits at the 21-10 junction, a block or so from the Fullers’ home — but only on a limited schedule. Gail walks to work each day, which is easy to do in such a small place.
“As I told the postal officials,” Fuller says, “that post office is the foundation of this community. It’s a critical place where everyone goes and meets each other. If you close that, we will no longer be Oak Hill, Alabama, 36766.”
Funny thing, Fuller never wanted to be mayor. He was born in Philadelphia — yes, that Philadelphia — and lived his early years in Pennsylvania near Valley Forge, where he and his friends used to play. His Alabama-bred parents moved back to Wilcox County when he was in the sixth grade, which allowed him to grow up in a nearby place, Furman. After he and Gail married and they looked for a place to live, they settled just to the south in Oak Hill.
The town was bigger then, more than 100 residents, and Fuller became involved with the volunteer fire department. When the former mayor, Howard Williamson, stepped down, someone suggested that Fuller was the man for the job.
“It just kinda got thrown in my lap, so to speak,” he says. “I was kinda running the volunteer fire department, and they said I could do more things.”
Well, yeah, he could.
Today, gosh knows how many years later, Fuller is still doing more things for Oak Hill. Wednesday morning, as he led a reporter around town, walking slowly as if shuffling across his living-room floor, Fuller waved to drivers (who waved back), said hello to a man at the gas station and pointed out little nuances — a Kudzu-covered ravine, a pothole that needed fixing, a building that used to be something before decay won the battle.
At one point, he stopped on the side of Alabama 10, near the city’s tennis court and the Presbyterian church’s annex, and picked up a piece of trash.
Someone’s car lost an antenna, he said.
“In bigger cities, you have got to hit things running to keep up with folks. Here, you go at your own pace.
“We’re laid back.”
The all-volunteer city
Oak Hill isn’t your typical Alabama town, and here’s why: It doesn’t have money problems because, frankly, it doesn’t have much money.
There’s only one business here, a gas station and store. It sits across the street from the post office. That’s it. While other cities gorge on sales-tax revenue, Oak Hill can’t. Its annual budget is less than $30,000, the mayor says.
What Oak Hill isn’t is destitute. A 2-cent gasoline tax helps out, as does money from the state and county. That gas tax, however, only goes so far — about $100 a month, usually less, to put gas in the tank of the firefighters’ only operating truck. (Which in the summer sits across the street from the mayor’s house, uncovered, in a field.)
Oak Hill children go to school in Camden. Oak Hill people who need medical care go anywhere they can: Montgomery, Birmingham, Mobile, Monroeville. The Wilcox County sheriff provides security.
And Oak Hill’s City Council meets not in its chambers – which don’t exist – but in its members’ homes, usually the mayor’s. Occasionally, the council will meet in the home of a member whose health makes it difficult for him to leave the house. Many of the city’s records are kept at Fuller’s home or the home of the city clerk.
No Oak Hill politician draws a salary. Can’t afford it. The only person in the city who gets paid, the mayor said, is the man who picks up the trash. “We call ourselves an all-volunteer town,” Fuller said, and it shows. The mayor wishes one of the other council members, or someone else, even, would step up and volunteer to be mayor. But in Oak Hill, having someone other than Fuller as mayor seems almost far-fetched.
Plus, there’s only 35 people to pick from. Some are children. And six already are in office. Most elections here aren’t even contested.
Oak Hill is a place almost weird in its communal spirit. Most of the residents are black — a 3-1 ratio, Fuller estimates — and, yet, only one councilman is black, a man named Joseph Jenkins. Fuller is a white mayor of a majority black town of fewer than 50 people.
That fact is only a big deal to outsiders.
“We get along very well. Mainly, it’s because we have to live together and work together and we realize we’re not going to get anything done if we don’t help each other out ... They’re my walking buddies. I see them every day.”
Once a month in this unique place, Fuller and the council members meet in a living room or kitchen to handle Oak Hill’s business, which usually isn’t that much. A recurring discussion often takes place: Why is Oak Hill still a city? “Why,” Fuller asks, “are we still doing this?”
The mayor pauses.
“We’ve been successful making things go being an organized town. We’ve kept it going.”
In Oak Hill, they know no other way.