Correction: Earlier versions of this feature misstated the last name of the author of “Forrest Gump.” He is Winston Groom, not Broom. This version has been corrected.
With the exception of Merriam-Webster, the word “utopia” is open to interpretation, especially when applied to the spirited town of Fairhope.
For example, the late 19th-century founders of the community on Alabama’s Mobile Bay characterized utopia as a populist society based on the idea of communal land ownership and an acceptance of eccentricities and the people who practiced them. Exhibit A: the woman who canoed naked under the pier.
A 21st-century traveler like myself defines the word as a destination with free parking, a swimmable bay, pecan trees, public art, literary legacies and an enthusiastic embrace of the unconventional. Exhibit B: the town-wide celebration of oxygen-deprived fish.
Same city, different utopias.
“Fairhope was founded by socialists, and it attracted wacky people: freethinkers, raw foodists, nudists, free lovers, sculptors, artists, writers,” said Donnie Barrett, director of the Fairhope Museum of History and one of the more colorful characters around. “We still live in that legacy because of the special people who started the town.”
Despite its unorthodox origins, Fairhope does not force its zaniness like a circus clown. For instance, there are no bumper stickers that read, “Keep Fairhope Utopian!” Nor are there banners promoting “A fair hope of success,” the motto that inspired the town’s moniker. More subtly, a local bookstore turned civic pride into quaffable art by spelling out “Fairhope” in coffee beans. The sign looked, and smelled, good.
Only two ideas from the utopian experiment survive today: the Fairhope Single Tax Corp., which owns and leases 4,500 acres and seeds many beautification and cultural programs; and the Fairhope Organic School, created by progressive educator Marietta Johnson. The alternative school relocated south of town, but the former “third-life” (a.k.a., fifth- and sixth-grade) classroom is open to visitors as the Marietta Johnson Museum.
“Education was a life process,” Maggie Mosteller-Timbes, the museum director, explained of Johnson’s philosophy. “There were no tests, no grades and no homework. The child was a whole organism: mind, body and spirit, not just intellect.”
At first glance, the town appears sweet-tea Southern, with spring plantings on every corner and wood benches for those hours when the humidity breaks. Independent boutiques sell a wide variety of dress codes, from frilly dresses for a garden party to Tilley sun hats for an outdoor crab boil.
But upon closer inspection, I sensed something unusual in the air, especially when I looked up. (Note: Severe weather is not typically in Fairhope’s sky; the town is south of the tornado belt, though it is vulnerable to hurricanes.)
A giant crab dressed like a pageant queen hung from the top deck of the history museum. Closer to eye level, a crustacean dolled up like Divine preened from behind a Realtor’s storefront window. She was a big old tease.
The sculptural seafood buffet is part of a public art program inspired by a freak show of nature. At least once a summer, thousands of fish and shellfish float to the surface of Mobile Bay gasping for air, due to a lack of oxygen in the lower depths. Fairhopians rush to the shore with nets and buckets, scooping up their meal plan for the next few months.
“You have to quit because you can’t clean them all,” resident Mike Bernhardt said of the jubilee, which occurs in only two places in the world, Mobile Bay and Japan.
For fishermen, this is their utopia.
During those times when the fish are breathing well, the sportsmen line up their poles along the municipal pier, 12 miles by boat from Mobile. The activities along the quarter-mile walkway are chaste compared with those from the 1900s. On a warm Saturday evening, couples strolled hand-in-hand, and parents pushed baby carriages. A man yanked in a white trout halfway, only to watch it get away. As far I could see, no one was boating in the buff, as resident Winifred Duncan once did.
Though hardly scandalous, many folks did walk around barefoot on the sandy beach and grassy parkland flanking the pier. Typical hot-weather attire. However, for many residents, naked feet conjure up images of Henry James Stuart, known as the Hermit.
In 1926, the ailing Stuart moved to Fairhope from Idaho, with mortality quick on his tail. Not expecting to live long, he built a Hobbit-like structure out of bricks, milled his own grains, bathed in Rock Creek and eschewed footwear, even for outings to town. Stuart lived another 24 years, but his story is guaranteed to last much longer — in his dome hut, which still stands, and between the pages of a novel by local author Sonny Brewer.
Curious about the Hermit’s life, I stopped by Page and Palette, a bookstore around since 1968. The store displays a full case of Fairhope authors, many recognizable from the bestseller list or airport newstands: Jimmy Buffett, Fannie Flagg, Rick Bragg, Andy Andrews, Winston “Forrest Gump” Groom.
“The amount of literary people here just blows your mind,” said Mac Pulitzer, great-grandson of the legendary newspaper publisher. “Per capita, this is probably the highest in the country.”
Pulitzer hopes to contribute to the town’s literary prominence with the Pulitizer Hotel and the first-ever Pulitzer Library, both scheduled to open next spring. He plans to fill the repository with more than 2,000 books, including every Pulitzer prize winner from nearly a century plus the classics. He will also reserve shelf space for local authors. He might need to build an additional wing.
“I think Sonny Brewer was right when he said, ‘We have more published authors and writers than we do readers,’ ” said Karin Wilson, president of Page and Palette.
During my stay, I tried to understand why Fairhope drew so many creative types. Was it the bay views, the beach, the laid-back vibe? Or the fish you can pluck from the bay and the pecans you can shake from the trees? Perhaps it was the ghosts of eccentrics past returning with more stories? Maybe it was all of the above.
“The facts are usually crazier than the fiction here,” said Mosteller-Timbes. “There’s always good material.”
As I sat on the pier watching the sun drop over Mobile, I felt a story taking shape. It would center on a utopia lost and found on the coast of Alabama.