The most impactful event in the history of Marshall County was the creation of Lake Guntersville.
Historians have remarked on the changes that not only the City of Guntersville went through after the dam and the lake were built, but also the metamorphosis of the entire county. In the book, “The History of Marshall County, Alabama” by Katherine McKinstry Duncan and Larry Joe Smith, it states that the Guntersville Dam was completed on Jan. 16, 1939. In the words of Duncan and Smith, “A new era was born for the people of Marshall County – an era that would take them from an agrarian-based economy to a more stable industrial agrarian income.”
According to the book, in 1933, the Tennessee Valley was considered one of the poorest regions in the U.S. because of the numerous floods and droughts. The book stated that also in 1933, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was created to “tame” the Tennessee River. A quote from “The History of Marshall County, Alabama” summed up the feeling of the time by stating, “Who dared dream that the new government agency would spend over [$2 billion] in this southern section of the [U. S.], transforming it from a near dormant stage to a haven for industry, navigation and recreation.”
In their book, Duncan and Smith explained that the majority of the people in Marshall County believed the construction of the dam would be a “great asset to the area.” But, some were skeptical. They said, “grass would grow in the streets of Guntersville.” They said this was because “the waters would make a peninsular of the city and submerge much prime bottom crop land.” And as Duncan and Smith stated, “fortunately, just the opposite was true.”
After the waters became deeper, there was year-round navigation for shipping and other opportunities for the City of Guntersville, according to Duncan and Smith’s book. They went on to note that Guntersville became “the grain port center of the southeast” and “recreation center and power boat racing capital of the South.” The lake became a hub for sports fishing and real estate around the lake “jumped to prices never before anticipated in North Alabama.”
The Great Depression hit the people of Marshall County hard, and the benefit of the lake to the county was evident. Duncan and Smith’s book stated that local labor was the driving force for the dam construction and was “a tremendous boost to the economy of Marshall County.” They pointed out that “no better time could have been picked for the TVA project.” Also, they stated that more than $54 million was spent building the Guntersville Dam, which was “more money ever spent on a single project in Marshall County.” One of the most significant benefits of the dam to the county was the production of hydroelectric power, which allowed everyone in the county to have “low-cost electricity.”
Another gift to the county from the Roosevelt Administration was in 1933, the formation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Men were given jobs re-foresting the county with pine trees, which “contributed more money to the sagging economy.”
‘Boat Racing Capital of the South’
Even though the benefits of industrialization and having cheaper power were quickly realized, no one in the county expected the huge impact the lake would have on tourism in North Alabama, according to Dr. Pete Sparks of the Guntersville Historical Society.
“The true use of the lake didn’t come about until they realized what great tourism it would be,” Sparks said. “The first boat race was in 1940. They only were expecting a few thousand people, and it drew more than 35,000 people. It just overwhelmed the town of Guntersville because it only had a few restaurants and a few filling stations. One of the local residents said at the time that when a car moved in Guntersville, they could tell it in Gadsden. That’s how crowded that it was at the time. So, it was a big success right off.”
In the Guntersville Historical Society’s publication, “Guntersville Remembered,” which was edited by Smith, on Sunday, Aug. 26, 1939, the lake was dedicated. The book stated the day of dedication was made complete by the racing of hydroplanes, which were becoming popular at that time. It described that day as “one of the most remarkable days in the entire history of the town,” and that “no one in his wildest imagination could have predicted that up to 60,000 people would converge on Guntersville to see the new lake and witness the first Dixie Motor Races.” With the “largest crowd to ever assemble in North Alabama,” there was a “monumental traffic jam,” but “not a single traffic accident occurred,” according to Smith.
According to “Guntersville Remembered,” there were approximately 50 entrants in the six divisions that competed in the inaugural races at Spring Creek. It stated the boats “skimmed around at speeds up to 60 [mph].”
The boat races brought about the new era of tourism for the county, according to Sparks.
“Even though the boat races were a big success, they didn’t really advertise it, or it didn’t really catch on until a little later, in the 1950s,” Sparks said. “Then it became known as ‘The Playground of the South.’ That was one of the phrases that the city would use.”
According to “The History of Marshall County, Alabama,” “in later years, the Guntersville Jaycees took over the project and expanded it to the point where it gained national recognition. The book stated that Lee Taylor of Downey, California, drove the “Hustler,” and broke the world’s record for jet-powered boats. He averaged 285.213 [mph] on Lake Guntersville.
With the epic success of the boat races, one might think they would have continued forever, but according to Sparks, that wasn’t the case.
“The boat races lasted all of the way into the mid-1960s, when they faded out for a time,” Sparks said. “Of course, in the last couple of years, the boat races have come back. So, basically now, the lake is a boon for tourism with all the boat races as well as all the fishing tournaments.”
The Guntersville Lake HydroFest made its debut last year, where the boats once again brought surprises. There was another speed record broken, more people than expected turned out for the weekend of events and the event’s coordinator, along with the event itself, won awards.
This year’s Guntersville Lake HydroFest will be this summer’s biggest event at the lake featuring four classes of hydroplanes and two concerts. The weekend of racing on the South’s fastest water will open Friday, June 28, with testing and qualifying. Competitive racing will take place on Saturday and Sunday, June 29-30. A free kid’s zone with waterslides, static displays and food vendors will round out the weekend.
Tickets can be purchased online at guntersvillelakehydrofest.com. Ticket prices are as follows:
• Adult general admission: $20 per weekend pass
• Children, ages 6-12 general admission: $10 per weekend pass (children age 5 and under will be free)
• Adult ultimate weekend pass: $40 per weekend pass
• Children, ages 6-12 ultimate weekend pass: $30 per weekend pass
In partnership with the City of Guntersville, HydroFest will include two evening concerts this year. On Friday, Grammy-Award winning artist Zach Williams will perform, and Saturday night’s concert will be a 70s reunion when two of the biggest music bands of the era, Orleans and Firefall, take the stage. Concerts are included in the admission price and will be located inside the event venue on Sunset Drive.
All tickets are available now through the HydroFest website. For more information, please contact the Marshall County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (MCCVB) at firstname.lastname@example.org or call the office at 256-582-7015.