Public Invited to Tour New Roland Cooper Cabins on March 11

Each cabin features a fire pit, grill and attached deck. (WAW | Contributed)

Roland Cooper State Park near Camden, Ala., will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Saturday, March 11, 2017, to celebrate four new cabins recently installed in the park’s main campground. The ribbon-cutting ceremony will take place during the Second Saturday in the Park Music Series, which features local musicians, family fun and a cabin open house. The event is free and runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The new cabins were built by Alabama’s Rustic River Park Homes and feature two bedrooms, one full bath, kitchen, living room and dining area. Each cabin also offers a gas range, central heat and air conditioning, a fire pit, grill and attached deck. One of the four cabins is Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessible.

“The new cabins are beautifully built and offer the comfort of home in the peaceful, natural setting of Roland Cooper State Park,” said Kelly Ezell, Oak Mountain State Park Superintendent and Central Alabama State Parks District Superintendent. “Alabama State Parks is proud to partner with Recreation Resource Management to offer this overnight option at Roland Cooper.”

In addition to the newly installed cabins, Roland Cooper State Park features RV and primitive camping, cabins, pavilions, fishing and boating. The park is also a stop on the Alabama Bass Trail and a weigh-in station for the state regulated alligator hunts.

Each kitchen has a gas range, microwave and coffee maker. (WAW | Contributed)

For more information about the park or to make cabin or camping reservations, call 334-682-4838 or visit www.alapark.com/roland-cooper-state-park.

The Alabama State Parks Division relies on visitor fees and the support of other partners like local communities to fund the majority of their operations. To learn more about Alabama State Parks, visitwww.alapark.com.

Tears and Laugher: Who was Roland Cooper?

In April of 1977, I had not quite yet started kindergarten at Thomasville Elementary School. Elvis was still alive, and Roland Cooper State Park was known as Bridgeport State Park. But on Saturday, April 30, 1977, a man named Charles Lee Bufford murdered another man, former state senator and Wilcox County probate judge, William Roland Cooper, Jr.  

Senator Cooper was known as Wily Fox of Wilcox, and had served in the legislature for almost 20 years. He was one of Alabama’s most famous and effective senators. He resigned after being appointed as Wilcox County probate judge by Governor George Wallace. A Tuscaloosa News editorial commented at the time, “Wilcox’s gain will be the legislature’s loss. His seat will be filled, but his influence will not be replaced.” 

Bufford had been serving a short sentence in the Wilcox County jail for auto theft. Cooper had “hired” 23-year-old Bufford to help him in his garden through an unofficial program that allowed private citizens to check out inmates for the day. 

That evening, Bufford was arrested in Selma for driving under the influence in Cooper’s car. He said he had drunk six beers. Cooper’s body was found in his garden. He was 63-years-old. 

In a statement to police, Bufford admitted he had lost his temper and hit Cooper in the head with a garden tool. He said Cooper had cussed him for planting corn wrong, and that he was alive when he had left him. 

Bufford was sentenced to death on May, 19, 1978 for the robbery and murder of Cooper. 

After the Alabama death penalty statute was ruled unconstitutional in 1980, it was reformed and Bufford’s case was reversed. He was granted a new trial. Little evidence could be produced by investigators at the second trial, and this fact was highlighted by Bufford’s attorney. His handwritten confession had been unexplainably destroyed, and important details were left out of the typewritten version presented to the court, including Bufford’s description of Cooper’s demeanor and actions. 

On November 12, 1981 Bufford was released a free man. After a two-hour deliberation, a Wilcox County jury acquitted him of all charges. He served just less than four years for the intentional killing of Cooper. 

One of the jurors was asked by reporter Alvin Benn – who covered the retrial for the Montgomery Advertiser – how they could acquit someone who had admitted his guilt. She answered, “We thought four years was enough for what he did.” 

Bridgeport State Park was renamed Roland Cooper State Park in the late 1970’s to honor Roland Cooper, Jr. He now permanently rests in peace on an end lot in the Camden Cemetery just off Broad Street beside the Baptist Church. Even on his headstone it reads, “One worthy of remembrance. A life of service to God and to mankind.” 

Roland Cooper State Park was one of five parks that closed in October of 2015 after state budget cuts. The reopening celebration will be Sunday, September 11, from 3 p.m. until 7 p.m. It is our hope as a county that the park will never be threatened with closure again. It has a name that should never be allowed to disappear into history.

Amanda Walker is a columnist with The West Alabama Watchman, Al.com, The Thomasville Times, and The Wilcox Progressive Era. For more information, visit her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/AmandaWalker.Columnist.

Roland Cooper, a Wilcox County economic asset, set to reopen

Roland Cooper’s campground is nestled under tall pine trees. (Photo by Kim G. Nix)

Roland Cooper’s campground is nestled under tall pine trees. (Photo by Kim G. Nix)

The folks who love the outdoors in the middle of the Alabama Black Belt have experienced a wide range of emotions in the past year concerning one of the area’s iconic destinations. Those emotions have gone from disappointment and frustration to hope and, now, celebration.

Roland Cooper State Park near Camden was a casualty of funding shortfalls during last year’s budget crisis. The park has been shuttered, but the Alabama State Parks system hoped to find a qualified company to sign a contract to operate the park.

Much to the folks in west central Alabama’s delight, Recreation Resource Management was awarded the contract to operate the park, and the Arizona company is fast at work to try to get the park, located on the banks of the scenic Miller’s Ferry Reservoir on the Alabama River, open for Labor Day.

Kelly Ezell, State Parks’ Central District Supervisor, said Recreation Resource Management (RRM) operates more than 150 campsites in 11 states and has the expertise to make Roland Cooper successful.
Of course, Ezell said the park’s reopening couldn’t have happened without the cooperation of a number of entities.

“RRM is there working right now,” said Ezell, who also is Oak Mountain State Park Superintendent. “We’ve worked with the city (Camden) and county (Wilcox). They’ve helped us to get things back in shape. We’ve had crews from other state parks in there, removing some trees and limbs. We want to get it cleaned up so it will be opened back up by Labor Day.”

Although the park has only been closed a little more than 10 months, Ezell said the lack of maintenance causes any property to suffer deterioration.

“We’re just trying to get the grounds back in shape,” she said. “Nobody has cut the grass. We tried to get down to Roland Cooper to check on things about once a month, but it’s not like having a crew on the ground to take care of the everyday upkeep. Almost a year is a long time for something to sit idle, and a lot of things happen.

“Right now, we’re making sure all the water and electric are working at the campsites. We’ve been very fortunate to have the City of Camden and Wilcox County to help us get everything in shape.”
Ezell said the state’s equipment has been moved to a secure area to make room for RRM’s equipment in the maintenance building, and that the six cabins are being cleaned and the maintenance brought up to standards.

The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division has used Roland Cooper as the weigh-in site for the annual alligator hunts in the West Central Zone. Although the park is not officially open, State Parks is continuing to allow the gators to be weighed in during the transitional period.

Ezell said Roland Cooper has quality amenities for those who enjoy the outdoors in a rural setting, especially with the quick access to the great fishing offered on Miller’s Ferry.

“The boat launch and the pier at Roland Cooper are basically brand-new,” she said. “There’s a brand-new bath house there. We’ve got a lot to work with and build on at Roland Cooper.”

Ezell said in addition to the City of Camden and Wilcox County, the Wilcox Area Chamber of Commerce has been a constant advocate for the re-opening of the park.

“I think it was such a shock to the area when it closed,” she said. “The park was a very important asset to that area. I think everybody is very invested in getting it open and functioning.”

Hunter Hines, President of the Wilcox Area Chamber of Commerce, agrees with Ezell’s assessment.

“This is about as good news as we could have for our area,” Hines said. “The park is second to none in terms of economic impact for our area. We can’t host a fishing tournament with over 50 boats without the park. It’s hard to put a dollar amount on the economic impact we’ve lost in the last 10 months.”
Hines said areas with large cities aren’t impacted as much by park closures as a rural area like Wilcox County.

“Think about the campers and cabins, not to mention the fishermen, who came to this area and spent their money buying gas and groceries in our little, small community,” he said. “That kind of impact is huge for us and is detrimental when it’s not there.

“Now we’ll be able to get back to marketing little ol’ Camden to the big bass tournaments, fishermen and people who love the outdoors.”

Alabama Bass Trail Program Director Kay Donaldson said the park has been used during its closure for some fishing tournaments. “The willingness of the state park to give the city of Camden the opportunity to continue hosting fishing tournaments while the park was closed was outstanding.” She said. “It was vital to the community to keep those dollars flowing to the gas stations and stores from tournament anglers.”

Hines said there will be a grand re-opening ceremony at Roland Cooper from 3-7 p.m. September 11 with a “Music in the Park” theme. Visitors are urged to bring lawn chairs to enjoy the music and meet the new park managers.

James “Big Daddy” Lawler has been promoting the outdoors in west central Alabama for more years than he would readily admit. He hosts a weekly radio show called “Gettin’ Outdoors Radio with Big Daddy Lawler” that airs from 7-9 a.m. on Saturdays.

“Opening the campgrounds and cabins back up at Roland Cooper is huge,” Lawler said. “You just don’t have much lodging in what I call the rural South, which fits our area to a tee. Because of the uncertainty of being able to use the boat launch at the park, we lost the stop on the Alabama Bass Trail, which was a huge economic loss for our area. Opening the park back up will give us an opportunity to attract those big bass tournaments again with the use of those facilities.”

Lawler, who recently received the Alabama Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Communicator of the Year award, said the Camden area can’t worry about what was lost during the park’s closure, only what the re-opening will mean.

“We can’t look back,” he said. “We’ve got to look ahead. This company (RRM) is very experienced at running venues like this, and I think they’re going to be an asset to the area.”

Lawler said as the nation becomes more urban, there is a renewed appreciation for rural areas that allow visitors to reconnect with nature.

“Being away from everybody is an advantage for us,” he said. “Everybody in the big town wants to come to the rural areas. I’ve been saying this for 35 years; What we have to offer in Wilcox, Marengo, Monroe and Dallas counties is the most diversified natural resources in the nation. And when I say natural resources, I’m not just talking about the hunting and fishing. I’m talking about the birding, native wildflowers and the red hills salamander areas. There is so much we have available.

“I tell everybody, nobody is passing through Wilcox County. We’re not close to the interstate or a big highway. People have got to be coming here for a reason. And Roland Cooper State Park is huge reason to come here.”

David Rainer is public information manager and outdoor columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His column appears weekly in The West Alabama Watchman. 

Talks to reopen Wilcox’s Roland Cooper in the works

RolandCooper

The Alabama State Parks Division, in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will soon begin negotiations to reopen Roland Cooper State Park near Camden, Ala. If negotiations are successful, the park will reopen under a concessionaire contract with an Arizona based management company, Recreational Resources Management (RRM), Inc. While there is no official timeline for the potential reopening of the park at the present, conservation officials are hopeful to conclude the process as quickly as possible.

Roland Cooper was one of five state parks to close due to budget constraints in 2015. Since then, Bladon Springs, Florala and Paul M. Grist state parks have reopened under agreements with local municipalities. The Roland Cooper site is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and leased to the Alabama State Parks Division.

In June 2016, the parks division began accepting bids for the operation, by concession contract, of all or a portion of park operations at Roland Cooper. Parks was contacted by 19 interested parties, but RRM was the only concessionaire to submit a bid.

“We are thrilled at the opportunity to begin a discussion that could reopen Roland Cooper,” said Greg Lein, State Parks Director. “RRM has many years of experience working with state and federal agencies in the operation of parks similar to this one. We are hopeful to once again offer this resource to all Alabamians and visitors from other states.”

The prospective bid covers most aspects of the park’s operations except the nine-hole Deer Haven Golf Course, which can possibly be bid on by a different concessionaire or be repurposed for other park-related programs under a new master plan for the park site and other nearby U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sites. RRM has also expressed interest in operating the park for an extended term of up to 12 years. The extended term would be contingent upon all parties’ satisfaction with the first two years of the agreement.

RRM has 25 years of park operations experience and presently manages more than 30 concession contracts covering 125 campgrounds, park stores, marinas, and day use areas in 11 states. RRM has managed sites for the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, California State Parks, Arizona State Parks, and TVA sites including one in Alabama. Its regional headquarters are based in California, Arizona, Minnesota and Florida.

Roland Cooper State Park features camping, cabins, pavilions, fishing and boating. The park is also a stop on the Alabama Bass Trail and a weigh-in station for the state regulated alligator hunts. For more information about the park, visit www.alapark.com/roland-cooper-state-park.