Established in 1885, Dothan is a center of industry and commerce in Alabama's Wiregrass region in the southeast corner of the state. Throughout its history, the city's economic and political fortunes have been tied to the rich soil that makes the surrounding agricultural industry so profitable. In 1903, Dothan became the seat of Houston County, the 67th and last county incorporated in Alabama. Following the devastation of the cotton crops by boll weevil infestation in the 1910s, the area embraced peanut farming and has developed into one of the largest peanut-producing regions in the world. Even with new investments in commerce, medicine, and education, Dothan remains linked to it agricultural past and serves as a hub for the region's predominantly rural and small-town population. Since the 1980s, Dothan has been governed by a mayor, elected from the city at-large, and a six-member commission.
Situated at the intersection of two Native American trade routes and supplied by a freshwater spring, present-day Dothan was a Yamassee and Creek trading post in the years before non-Indians began settling in southeastern Alabama. During the 1830s, the area's extensive stands of yellow pine attracted lumbermen from Georgia who established a permanent campsite at the spring's clearing and named it Poplar Head for the surrounding trees. Soon, settlers who were lured to the area by the availability of land built modest log cabins near the spring. This early settlement was located near the present-day intersection of Main and Fortner Streets. Growth, however, was slow; by 1860, only nine families lived in Poplar Head.
For nearly 20 years, the Poplar Head community changed little. By the late 1870s, however, with the rise of the lumber, turpentine, and naval stores industries in the area, more settlers came to the area for work. They began clearing the land surrounding Poplar Head for farms and built more homes. Despite this spurt of growth, the settlement remained isolated. When residents appealed to the federal government to establish the community's first post office, they discovered there was another town in Alabama named Poplar Head. A local minister suggested renaming the town Dothan, in honor of a small village mentioned in the Bible. The name was approved and the town was incorporated on November 10, 1885.
In its early days, Dothan was a rough place that took a toll on its more civic-minded citizens. Area farmers and lumbermen who came into town on the weekends had little respect for the officials and laws of the newly incorporated government. In its first five years, a succession of mayors and lawmen resigned their positions in exasperation. A growing divide between the townspeople and the local farmers resulted in the 1889 "Dothan Riot," which occurred after the town passed an ordinance taxing cotton wagons that traveled through the city. The local Farmers' Alliance protested the measure, and their leader was arrested for refusing to pay the tax. His arrest resulted in a gun fight in which he and two other farmers were killed by the local marshal. Such violence was unprecedented in the small town, and after the riot tensions between the farmers and local officials cooled. The two groups began working together, taking full advantage of the new Alabama Midland Railroad track that came through the city in 1889, connecting the town with Montgomery, Alabama, and Bainbridge, Georgia. The coming of the railroad transformed Dothan into the commercial center of Henry County, and the growth of the town soon outpaced both its riverfront rival Columbia and the county seat of Abbeville.
As Dothan continued to grow in size and importance, town boosters began to call for an expanded role in county and state politics. Local bankers and the editor of the Dothan Light led the push to create a new county, with Dothan as its seat of government. Area delegates to Alabama's 1901 constitutional convention successfully amended the state's laws on county size to allow for the new entity. The Alabama legislature created Houston County, named in honor of former governor George S. Houston (1874-1878), in February 1903, and Dothan was selected as its seat of government.
Dothan's status as the county seat certainly enhanced its political role, but the local economy remained deeply tied to agriculture. While other Alabama cities like Birmingham and Mobile were expanding their industries, Dothan remained little more than a transportation hub for cotton, lumber, and commercial farming goods. By the 1920s, with most of the virgin forests gone and cotton crops destroyed by the boll weevil, Dothan's economic future was in serious jeopardy. Some local boosters attempted to improve the city's economy by opening small factories and textile mills. A coffin-manufacturing plant and a textile mill that made men's overalls were both short-lived ventures, and the Great Depression brought the area's search for new industry to a standstill.
By the mid-1930s, several businessmen renewed Dothan's search for new industry. They bought advertisements in northern newspapers that touted the region's desire to industrialize and convinced local politicians to construct the Dothan Regional Airport. In 1938, after years of effort, Dothan Hosiery opened. It was one of the town's first successful businesses not directly tied to agriculture. Soon, more industries relocated to Dothan, including a furniture manufacturer, a small aircraft depot, and a cigar plant.
Despite the growth of industry, Dothan continued to be inextricably linked to the surrounding agricultural economy. The peanut industry flourished in the Wiregrass during the 1920s and 1930s, replacing cotton as the major cash crop, and the soil in the region was particularly suited to growing peanuts. Local yields were so large that Dothan proclaimed itself the "Peanut Capitol of the World" in 1938. That year, George Washington Carver spoke to a crowd of 6,000 at a weekend festival held to celebrate the end of the harvest. The event grew into the annual National Peanut Festival.
Dothan's population continued to increase during the 1940s, spurred in part by nearby Camp Rucker, an Army base activated during World War II. During the 1950s, developers filled the land around Dothan proper with expansive subdivisions. Many of these homes were purchased by soldiers after 1955, when Camp Rucker became Fort Rucker and a permanent military base.
Like most cities in Alabama, life in Dothan was deeply segregated. However, in 1949, the city became the first municipality in the state to employ African American policeman. It would be several years before cities like Talladega, Montgomery, and Mobile followed suit.
Dothan’s population at the time of the 2010 Census was 65,496. Of that number, 63.1 percent identified themselves as white, 32.5 percent as African American, 2.9 percent as Hispanic, 1.8 percent as two or more races, 1.1 percent as Asian, 0.4 percent as Native American, and 0.1 percent as Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander. The city's median household income was $39,806, and per capita income was $21,617.
Dothan serves as a hub of commerce for southeast Alabama, the Florida Panhandle, and southwest Georgia. Agriculture continues to be one of the largest sources of employment in the region. The workforce in present-day Dothan is divided among the following occupational categories:
· Educational services, and health care and social assistance (21.8 percent)
· Retail trade (13.8 percent)
· Arts, entertainment, recreation, and accommodation and food services (12.0 percent)
· Manufacturing (10.7 percent)
· Professional, scientific, management, and administrative and waste management services (8.3 percent)
· Public administration (6.1 percent)
· Transportation and warehousing and utilities (5.9 percent)
· Other services, except public administration (5.8 percent)
· Wholesale trade (4.9 percent)
· Finance, insurance, and real estate, rental, and leasing (4.5 percent)
· Construction (4.1 percent)
· Information (1.4 percent)
· Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and extractive (0.7 percent)
Dothan supports 10 elementary schools, four middle schools, and two high schools that collectively enrolled about 8,900 students in 2003. The city is served by Wallace Community College, originally begun as a vocation school in 1947, and Troy University-Dothan Campus. The Dothan campus began at Fort Rucker in 1955 and later moved into the historic Houston Hotel in downtown Dothan. The institution held separate accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools until 2005, when it was reincorporated into the Troy University system as part of restructuring plan along with the campuses in Montgomery and Phenix City.
Dothan is served by several main highways. U.S 431 runs north-south from Huntsville and beyond and enters Dothan from the northeast; it is the main north-south route in east Alabama, also traversing Gadsden, Anniston, Opelika, and Eufaula. U.S. 231 enters Dothan in the northwest and runs through east-central Alabama from Huntsville, and Montgomery, exiting the city to the south and connecting with Interstate 10 in Florida. U.S. 84 serves travelers heading east and west in the southern portion of the state.
Events and Places of Interest
Dothan is home to several cultural institutions, including Landmark Park, home of the state's official agricultural museum, the Cherry Street AME Church, considered the "Mother Church" of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination in Alabama, the world's "smallest city block," and the Wiregrass Museum of Art. The city hosts several annual festivals, including the National Peanut Festival and the Johnny Mack Brown Film Festival, held in honor of the movie star that was raised in Dothan. Each October, Landmark Park hosts the Wiregrass Heritage Festival, which features
The city is perhaps best known for its large-scale public art project: nineteen murals depicting significant events and notable
people of the Wiregrass scattered throughout the city's downtown district that have helped spur the redevelopment of that
portion of the city. Since 2006, Landmark Park has sponsored a reenactment of the Dothan Riot as part of its summer festivities.
The riot is also the subject of a mural, located on the Ellison building, near the site of the 1889 confrontation.
Braund, Kathryn Holland. "'Hog Wild and Nuts': Billy Boll Weevil Comes to the Alabama Wiregrass." Agricultural History 63 (Summer 1989): 15-39.
Kirkland, Scotty E. "'Bad, Bad Dothan!': The Dothan Riot and Wiregrass Agrarianism." Alabama Review 60 (July 2007): 163-85.
Rogers, Furman. "A History of Houston County," Master's thesis. Alabama Polytechnic Institute, Auburn, Alabama, 1952.
Stepp, Wendall H., and Pamela A. Stepp. Dothan: A Pictorial History. Norfolk, Va.: Donning Group, 1984.
Scotty E. Kirkland
University of South Alabama
Published September 8, 2009
Last updated June 7, 2013