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Parts of Eastern Alabama split between 2 time zones

By Brian McDearman
(Columbus, Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer

PHENIX CITY (AP) — It's 6 a.m.

Russell County High School bookkeeper Vonnie Gilboy's alarm clock does its daily duty, waking her two hours before she has to make the 9-mile trip to school from her Hatchechubbee home.

She walks into the kitchen to start the morning pot of coffee.

Now it's 5 a.m.

No, this isn't an episode from "The Twilight Zone." It's all part of living in the netherland between Eastern and Central time zones.

Vonnie's job puts her on Eastern Daylight Time while her husband, Jim, is the pastor at Hatchechubbee Baptist, which puts him on Central Daylight Time.

"My life is split," Gilboy said recently in the school office.

"Half of my life is in Central and half of my life is in Eastern."

In reality, the Chattahoochee Valley region is split.

According to the federal government, which sets time zones in the United States, the Georgia-Alabama border is the boundary between Central and Eastern time. But for generations, the economic vitality of Columbus has lured Alabama commuters across the river in pursuit of jobs.

The government of Phenix City — as well as those of Smiths Station in Lee County and Valley and Lanett in Chambers County — observes Eastern time.

However, throughout unincorporated Russell County, as well as in parts of Lee and Chambers counties, people set their watches by their jobs — not geography.

It's created a gray zone where clocks are second-guessed and what time it is depends on whom you ask — a land of missed doctors' appointments, PTA meetings and lunch dates.

Although strange for newcomers, longtime residents of the region say it is second nature.

Vonnie works on her time, Jim stays on his, and for the most part the household schedule flows without any glitches.

Except on Wednesdays and Sundays, when Jim, a pastor of 12 years, gives his sermons at church.

"To this day, she asks me, 'What time do we have to be there?' " Jim said, adding that somehow his wife always makes it on time.

That's not to say everyone makes it to church on time.

This summer, Jim was asked to renew a Hatchechubbee couple's vows after 50 years of marriage. They lived on Central time, but they put Eastern time — 5 p.m. — on the invitations to accommodate relatives driving 2 hours from Atlanta.

They also invited a friend and her children who live 10 minutes down the road in Hurtsboro. The friend thought the ceremony was at 5 p.m. Central time.

"She had them all dressed up real nice, but they showed up an hour late," Jim said.

Time Warp

Little mix-ups like these are just a part of life for people in this time warp.

Amanda Beachum lives in Salem and works at the BP station at Bleecker Junction off U.S. 431. She's five months pregnant, and because of complications with her health insurance, she sees two ob-gyns — one in Opelika (Central time) and one in Phenix City (Eastern time).

She recently set an appointment with her Phenix City doctor and marked the time on her work calendar — noon. Trouble was, she arrived at noon Central time — or 1 p.m. Eastern. She had to return the next day.

"I've been here for six years and it's still confusing," she said.

"I've been here 16 years and it hasn't gotten any better," chimed in her co-worker, Ellen Plott, who sets her watch to Eastern time, but sends her children to Lee County Schools, where Central time rules. She accommodates by subdividing her schedule into "school time" and "my time."

Residents and local government officials say they're not sure how long people in the region have synchronized their clocks with Georgia, or whether East Alabama has ever uniformly been on Central time.

"It's just a relic from the old days," said Arnold Leak, mayor of Valley

Phenix City Mayor Jeff Hardin recalled the clocks at Smiths Station High School, where he was a student, being an hour off the ones at home in Phenix City.

"From the time I was a child, it was on Eastern time," Hardin said.

Historians and people from the region generally agree the practice began with Columbus textile mill workers who lived across the river.

By the mid-1800s, Columbus already had established itself as an industrial center for textiles. After the Civil War, the mills in Columbus grew in size and number, and with that expansion came the need for more workers, many of whom settled just across the bridge from the factories.

Many of the mills established company towns for their employees, including a town of several hundred workers of the Eagle and Phenix Mill, Phenix City's namesake.

The four standard U.S. time zones — Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific — were first instituted by the railroads in 1883 to simplify interstate commerce. Before that, towns across America were set to a confusing patchwork of times determined by a well-known local clock that might be found on a church steeple or in a jeweler's window.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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