History: Idle Hour Park purchased at a bargain price

Editor’s Note: Russell County has a long history that is important to the State of Alabama and its evolvement from an area described in the book “Russell County in Retrospect” by Anne Kendrick Walker as a “barbaric land” to what it is today. Many of the people who set their roots in the county in its early days including the state’s first Territorial Delegate to the United States Congress, important Native Americans who paid with their lives to cede land that created the county, a family that started a place of higher learning in south Russell County that later led to the establishment of one of the state’s most known institutions of education today and a former slave who placed a monument to honor his former owner, are very much important to the formation of Alabama. The story that follows is another of a series to inform you – our readers – about the history of Russell County. 

Early negotiations for the sale of Idle Hour Park began in 1949, barely a year after the tragic death of Roy Martin, Sr. in a plane accident near Bay St. Louis, Miss. that killed the movie theater owner and three other people on Feb. 11, 1948 when it crashed into the Pearl River. Movie theaters and rental properties were what made Martin a very rich man, but the park in Phenix City was his favorite project. He spent more money on the park than his family knew. 

E.D. Martin and Roy Martin, Jr. had the park assessed upon their father’s death in early 1949 and found out the entire facility which included a football stadium, baseball stadium, swimming pool, bowling alleys, ballroom, zoo, midway, carnival rides, lake with boat docks and airport were valued at over $3 million. The sons were not interested in operating the entertainment center and wanted to sell the property.

Phenix City Mayor Homer Cobb was interested in obtaining the park for the community and pushed for the city to purchase the property. Unfortunately, Cobb died on Aug, 24, 1950 before the property could be purchased. He had negotiated to purchase the property at $250,000 which he hoped would be financed through a Reconstruction Finance Corporation loan. After his death, the city was approved for a RFC loan of $200,000, Negotiations were reopened and a purchase price of $225,000 was agreed upon along with a promise by the city to rename the park to honor Roy Martin, Sr. and to erect a memorial shaft in the park at a meeting of the city council and the Martin sons in Dec. 1949. However, Cobb’s death caused the purchase to be delayed further.

In Jan. 1951, the deal was finally approved and completed at a price of $150,000 with the two sports stadiums thrown in as gifts from the Martin sons. The story of the purchase was covered in the Friday, Jan. 5, 1951 Phenix-Girard Journal newspaper which stated:

“After two years of dickering, Phenix City finally bought Idle Hour park Thursday for the knocked-down price of $150,000, with the Martin football and baseball stadiums thrown in as a gift.

“The deal was helped along by a donation of $30,000 from Phenix City night club operator Jimmy Mathews, who gave an additional $1,000 for a library fund.

“. . . A $50,000 check – first payment on the park – was handed to E.D. Martin and Roy Martin, Jr., owners and sons of the late Roy Martin, Sr., builder of the large amusement center.

“With $50,000 already paid, a balance of $100,000 remains to be paid by the city over a period of five years.

“Commissioner Roy Greene and Mayor J.D. Harris explained that the $30,000 gift from Mr. Mathews was used to make part of the down payment of $50,000.

“It is expected,” said Mr. Greene, “that additional donations of $20,000 will make up the first payment of $50,000.

“The $150,000 price tag – with the donation and gift of the stadiums – represents a considerable reduction in the original price of $200,000.”

Because of the delays in obtaining the RFC loan, the city was able to negotiate a price it would not need to complete the loan. And because of the financial success of the operation of the park, the first payment of $20,000 was made six months ahead of time with plans to make a second payment when the first payment was originally due, according to Mayor Harris in a front page story in the Phenix-Girard Journal in July 1951.

Mayor Harris congratulated A.L. Gullatt, economy-minded commissioner who operated the park. The $20,000 note, the first of five payments to be made annually, was not due until Jan. 1952.

“Commissioner Gullatt told me that when the first note actually comes due in January he hopes to be able to pay the second note,” the mayor said.

Money for the first payment came entirely from proceeds at the large amusement center. Fees from activities in the park were expected to be enough to make future payments as well.

Over the years that followed, the park slowly fell into disrepair. The skating center, bowling alleys, ballroom, zoo, lake and carnival rides and airport were all closed down. The baseball and football stadiums were allowed to deteriorate as well. The great amusement center Roy Martin, Sr. worked so hard to build for the community he loved no longer existed.

But, slowly things began to change. A basketball center named to honor Roy Martin, Sr. was built. A youth softball and baseball complex was constructed. A new community center was built along the old midway of the park. A walking track was constructed around Moon Lake. The two stadiums built by Roy Martin, Sr. to be used by Central High were transformed into two of the best prep sports facilities in the state. 

And finally, the promise to rename the park to honor Martin was done and today is known as Martin-Idle Hour Park. With more plans for the city facilities, there will no doubt be many more improvements taking place at the park.