STORY BY ELISABETH ALTAMIRANO-SMITH
PHOTOS CONTRIBUTED BY JIM GILL
People passing through Chilton County on Interstate 65 and Lay Dam Road have beheld a terrific sight for decades — the “Big Peach” water tower. This year marks the 30th anniversary of its construction that has helped place Clanton as a national landmark. Constructed in 1992 by Chicago Bridge and Iron, the peach tower was the second peach tower erected in the United States which was modeled after tower in Gaffney, South Carolina. Clanton’s now, well-known water tower almost never came into existence.
“Chicago Bridge and Iron also built the peach tower in Gaffney and as part of their city’s contract they requested that ‘no other water tower be built in the form of a peach’ so that their city could hold the unique claim to having the only one,” said Jim Gill, business development manager of Chicago Bridge and Iron. “When the City of Clanton was accepting bids for the tower’s construction, I went to the City of Gaffney and explained that if they did not release us from that part of the contract, that another company could build the peach tower, so the City of Gaffney allowed Chicago Bridge and Iron to build Clanton’s.”
Although modeled after Gaffney’s peach, Clanton’s tower is much taller and holds a whopping 500,000 gallons of water. Before the tower could be built, HyCon Construction was hired to lay the foundation. Special attention to the foundation’s depth was made so that the tower would never fall over during a wind storm or tornado. The tower can withstand up to 100 mph winds and has the soil bearing of 3,000 pounds per square foot.
Two Chilton County residents, Jay Turner of Jemison and Robbie Autrey of Maplesville, worked for HyCon at the time and worked on the peach tower’s foundation.
“The water tower cost about two million dollars to build,” said Turner, former foundation superintendent for HyCon. “HyTech, a sub-company of HyCon, put on the base coat and then a special artist came in to give the peach its ‘peach fuzz’ paint detail to make it look real. That paint job doubled the cost.”
In addition to the costly paint job, other defining features added to the cost as well.
“It cost more for the leaf and the pointy pivot to be added to the peachoid,” Gill said. “Those costs were unprecedented for the time for building a water tower. Mayor Billy Joe Driver was the driving force behind the peach and the reason Clanton has the tower. When presented with the cost, he reached out to several areas in the community that would help fund the project of which included Alabama Power. If he thought that something might keep the tower from being built, he did the work himself to make sure it happened and that the project succeeded.”
Chicago Bridge and Iron made a three-foot model of the Peach Tower that was taken to the location site and set up to give the engineers an idea of which direction the peach should face.
The fabrication of the peach came from Chicago Bridge and Iron, which is a well-known steel infrastructure company that has specialized in building bridges, water towers
and nuclear plants since 1889. CB&I also built landing ships, barges and Navy vessels during World War II. One of their most iconic creations includes the St. Louis Arch.
Sheets of fabricated steel were cut and shaped to form the giant peach. The parts were shipped from Kankakee, Illinois to Clanton. Even though computer technology had not reached the general population in 1992, CB&I had state-of-the-art computers to digitize and map out the blueprints and construction of the giant peach.
Once complete, artist Peter Freudenberg of New Jersey was hired to complete the “peach fuzz” paint detail.
“He was connected to the top of the Big Peach and just hung off the sides while he painted it,” said Turner.
The Peach Tower was and still is a great source of pride for all of those involved in its construction. Former laborer for HyCon Robbie Autrey signed his name on the inside of the foundation and artist Peter Freudenberg signed his name on the bottom of the peach.
“Everybody loves it,” said Turner. “They see it on their way to the beach. It gives our area a great sense of pride. When someone asks where we are from, most of us say ‘we live near the Big Peach Tower exit.’”