The Olive and Vine Company
In order to appreciate A. G. Gaston and his extraordinary success against all odds, we must first understand the world as he knew it.
Gaston was born in the tiny, western Alabama town of Demopolis. Situated halfway between Montgomery, Alabama, and Jackson, Mississippi, Demopolis boasts a long and infamous history. The town is located at the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers, used as water highways by Native peoples, early explorers, traders, and settlers. Lodged within the geographic triangle of Tuscaloosa to the north, Mobile to the south, and Montgomery to the east, Demopolis sits dead center in what came to be known as the Black Belt of southern agriculture-as much for the darkness of the soil as for the color of the people who tended it.
President Andrew Jackson, who would launch a meticulous removal of Native American inhabitants from their lands during his administration, had actually started his sweep years before as a militiaman. In the case of Demopolis and its environs, it was the Choctaws who were forced to relocate in 1816. The following year the land was granted by the U.S. Congress to a group of aristocratic exiles who had been banished from France after the revolution for their allegiance to France’s fallen dictator Napoléon Bonaparte.
The exiles named their new home Demopolis-”city of the people”-and re-created there a French village called Aingleville. They had come with the intention of coaxing groves of olives and grapes from the region’s fertile soil, founding the Olive and Vine Colony toward this end. However, the combination of unsuitable growing conditions for their preferred crops and the inexperience on the part of the settlers resulted in a magnificent failure in production. According to legend, the exiles were comically unprepared for rural life; men and women alike were said to tend to their farming duties in full court attire. Not a few of the exiles quickly succumbed to the harshness of the agricultural regime, and many of those who survived fled back to Paris once amnesty had been granted to them by the new, more reasonable King Louis Philippe.
Not all who had come to Demopolis from France, however, died or left immediately, and those who remained-among them Napoléon’s former aide-de-camp, General Lefebvre-Desnouettes-laid roots deep in the Alabama soil. The area’s few remaining Choctaw Indians (the very tribe whose families had been displaced by the arrival of the French) helped educate the settlers as to which crops would thrive on the land, and shared their own food with the newcomers to protect them from starvation.
As the decade of the 1820s dawned, much of the area’s French influence had been amalgamated into the wider culture of the region. With many exiles departed, the land that made up the newly formed Marengo County (977 square miles, in which Demopolis is included) came into the hands of the cotton farmers who had begun to make their fortunes across the South-in large part through slave labor. The cotton farmers dug in their heels and accomplished what, by and large, the French could not: They coaxed riches from the soil, tilling the canebrakes that surrounded the municipality and producing a viable living out of King Cotton. Of course, the cotton farmers had one crucial advantage over the French: Most had brought their slaves with them.