When you think of a militia, meaning a citizen group that organized themselves for defense, you may think of rural America, working-class people and rebels.

There was an early militia – 1950s through 1970s – in Foley. And it defied the mainstream depiction of a militia.

Foley business leader John Snook organized a citizens group to defend southern Baldwin County, though it does not appear that he called it a militia. His names for the force included “drill squad” and “shooting team.”  Others called them “Snook’s Soldiers.”

Snook was the owner/operator of Gulf Telephone Company, the only phone company in southern Baldwin County at the time. He was a millionaire, a leader in the Chamber of Commerce, and later founder of the Snook Foundation, which funneled millions into Baldwin charities and local developments.

Snook was not rural, not working class, and not a rebel. He was the second-generation primary owner of a telephone company back when it was new technology. His father founded the phone company and later handed it off to his son, John, a graduate and former instructor at Ohio State University.

John Snook did not fit the narrative of a militia founder that we see in most national media. Snook’s employees and citizen defenders were mostly hard-working white-collar workers.

John Snook became concerned that southern Baldwin County may be unusually vulnerable to an invasion. The entire southern end of Baldwin County is the Gulf of Mexico. The southern part of the county is low-lying. There were no organized defenses. John Snook organized some defenses. Independently. On his own initiative. With no government money and no government permission.

The potential invaders that concerned Snook changed as the world scene changed. After World War II, he feared invasion by Nazis or Nazi sympathizers. During and after the Korean War of the early 1950s, Snook feared a Communist invasion, likely Russian-backed.    

After Fidel Castro took over Cuba in 1959 and then turned Communist and accepted Russian backing, there was an added worry of a Cuban invasion backed by Russians.

And during all times, Snook worried about terrorists invading.

So Snook organized, armed, and trained his army of defenders. Most of the ‘Snook Soldiers’ were employees of his Gulf Telephone Company. They were concerned with defending the land and people of southern Baldwin and safeguarding the valuable infrastructure of Snook’s Gulf Telephone Company. The equipment and lines of Gulf Telephone were worth millions. The jobs of these employees/defenders were at risk if the telephone infrastructure went down.

Snook also owned a second company – the Hotel Magnolia in downtown Foley. It was located across a street from his telephone company. He built an underground tunnel connecting the two. The semi-secret tunnel was not only for his rapid movement and his militia between his two companies, but he also hardened the tunnel as a bomb shelter. This was during the early Cold War when many businesses and homes built fallout shelters in case of a nuclear attack.

Mobile TV station NBC15 and reporter Darwin Singleton compiled a video about the tunnel:  The Mystery of the Foley Tunnel - YouTube   

Snook was ahead of his time by about two decades in forming a militia. Also, he was ahead of his time in enlisting female defenders. Female employees of both of his companies were armed and trained decades before equal employment opportunity laws.

Snook’s wife, Marjorie Snook, said, “John was always ahead of his time.”

Though refurbished, the Hotel Magnolia is still there and operating as the Magnolia Inn. The Gulf Telephone Company was sold in 1999 to what later became AT&T. The old phone company building has been refurbished and is still on North McKenzie Street, highway 59 in downtown Foley.

One of the more controversial times for Snook and his defenders was when federal authorities began investigating them in the 1960s. The feds hit him with excise taxes on a cache of weapons and ammunition. The large cache included five machine guns and three automatic rifles. Snook, being a law-abiding citizen, paid the taxes as ordered by the IRS but then sued for a refund. That was a correct procedure.

Snook had set up a loophole. His was a card-carrying special auxiliary deputy sheriff of Baldwin County. Law enforcement officers were specifically exempt from the excise taxes, but was a citizen who paid for and carried a special deputy card actually a law enforcement officer intended to be excluded from the excise tax on weapons?

In federal district court in Mobile, Snook’s lawyers effectively argued that Snook and his army performed a surprising number of valuable services for the sheriff’s office -- “removing fallen trees from public roads, keeping criminal suspects under surveillance, distributing ballot boxes on elections days, directing traffic around accidents, evacuating people and clearing roads during hurricanes, looking out for vandalism on Halloween, and assisting with ticket sales at the county fair.”

The district court was impressed with these support activities and held that they exempted Auxiliary Deputy Sheriff Snook from the weapons taxes. The court ordered the taxes refunded to Snook.

The federal government appealed to the Circuit Court of Appeals. They reversed the decision and refused to return the taxes to Snook, holding that the law enforcement exemption does not apply to auxiliary deputies and that all the helpful tasks of the Snook militia did not involve or require the use of these weapons.

No invasion force ever entered South Baldwin County. Could it be that the Snook militia was never necessary? Or did their presence serve as a slight deterrent to an opportunistic attack backed by Cubans, Russians, or terrorists? A Russian newspaper published a front-page piece about Snook’s militia, referring to his organized women as “the Nylon Army.”

Snook later became ill and died in 1994. His militia gradually died. His good works in Baldwin County did not die, carried on by his wife, Marjorie Snook and, after her death, by the Snook Foundation.

I can just imagine that if John Snook were alive and well today, he might have his militia operating as a defense against potential Islamic extremists such as the 9/11 attackers, illegals making their way to South Baldwin County, and violent criminals.

Jim Zeigler is a retired Alabama Public Service Commissioner and State Auditor. He can be reached for comment at ZeiglerElderCare@yahoo.com.