Monday, November 12, 2012

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Regarding Cracker

It often astounds me when I receive an e-mail from readers. While I do hope that people will find my efforts here worth the time to take a few minutes to read, I’m still amazed that people do read…let alone take the time to make a comment or send me message.

Any type of communication is dearly appreciated.
The other day I received an e-mail from a reader named Susan.   She wrote, “I’m from southern California and moved to Douglasville in 1998. Between Burnt Hickory and Fairburn Road on Highway 78 alongside the railroad tracks (on the south side) there used to be a little sign posted near the rail that said “CRACKER.” It was green and looked like it was a sign posted by either the railroad or the county. I always wondered what it meant. One day it was gone. Was it a racial thing?”
Great question, Susan!!!

 I knew the very sign she was referring to and had wondered myself. I instantly did a little research and asked around and was able to get back with Susan fairly quick. I decided to share the information here.
The word cracker has many meanings including a racial reference to rural poor Whites, but the sign along the railroad tracks was not racially motivated. The sign was placed there by the railroad to alert the engineer they were coming up on a particular area where railroad cars might need to be left or picked up.  The sign served as a marker and until just the last few years it was still there along the tracks.

The name “Cracker” referred to a company that stood along the tracks named Cracker Asphalt Company owned by Dr. Young, a chemist, who moved to Douglasville sometime in the mid-1950s. 
Cracker Asphalt was an asphalt and petroleum refining company.

Today we are taken a little aback regarding what was going on at the site, but we do need to remember from the 1950s through mid-1970s there were no regulations regarding businesses like Cracker Asphalt. The site covered over 40 acres and most of the waste was buried on the back part of the property. 
Everyone knew there were issues with the property. Several longtime residents have told me that if the weather was just right all of Douglasville smelled like roofing tar. It got into your house. The smoke stacks were too close to the ground. Later after citizen complaints the government told Dr. Young to raise the stacks and the problem did get better, but there were still issues.

Later the EPA did get involved and labeled the property as a hazardous area.

Let’s get back to the word “Cracker”. Why would Dr. Young use the word in the name of his company?

Was he making reference to Georgia Crackers?  “Cracker” can be a slur again rural white people as I stated above.  In fact, Georgians who lived in the extreme southern part of the state were often referred to as Georgia Crackers by their Florida neighbors.  The term came about as the Georgians would drive their cattle across the state line during the late 19th century and early 20th century looking for better grassland during the winter months.  They drove their cattle with bullwhips that made cracking sounds earning them the nickname “Crackers”.

I’ve heard Dr. Young was actually from Alabama, so I don’t think he named his business after cattlemen from South Georgia.

There were the Atlanta Crackers – a minor league baseball team that called Atlanta home from 1901 to 1965.  The team was very popular, but somehow I don’t thing Dr. Young was thinking baseball when he named his asphalt company.

Maybe we should focus on the business of Cracker Asphalt….refining petroleum. A report I found online prepared by the Environmental Protection Agency stated “it is believed Cracker Asphalt disposed of waste sludge by on-site land application.”   The report goes on to say that from 1955 to 1971 the site where Cracker Asphalt was located was used for various activities but most are undocumented mainly because prior to the 1970s the refining industry was largely unregulated across the United States.
If we connect the word “cracker” to petroleum geology and chemistry the choice of name makes perfect sense.  “Cracking” can occur during the refining process basically when long-chain hydrocarbons are converted to short chains. Yes, I know.  It sounds very involved scientifically, and it is.  Perhaps it might be best if we know that “cracking” is a process that occurs in refining, so it makes sense Dr. Young would use the word as a name for his business.

At some point during the early 1970s Dr. Young put his own name on the business changing it from Cracker Asphalt to Young Refining Company.  The EPA report I read stated that, “beginning in 1971, refining asphaltic crude; the facility also refined waste oil and produced JP-4 jet fuel.”
Around 1976, the EPA became involved when residents in the area made complaints.   The report advises they were concerned about possible leaking tanks, piles of scrap metal and debris all over the site, possible waste buried on or behind the site; including drums containing toxic and radiological wastes, and potential excess cancers and respiratory illness in the area.”

Since 2004 the business covering 40 acres along Huey Road and bordered the tracks along Bankhead has changed hands two or three times, but has always retained the Young name.

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