Let Us Now Praise the Back Roads of Alabama

By Clay Risen
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 25, 2009

It's true: Even the Birmingham airport smells like barbecue. And it's true that there is no better football than November's Auburn-Alabama game, a.k.a. the Iron Bowl. And of course it's true that the state is bounded, at its northern and southern edges, by two great tourist draws: the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, just below the Tennessee border, and the USS Alabama, docked permanently in Mobile Bay.

But there is a lot more to Alabama than pork and pigskins. Despite the proliferation of suburbs and highways, vast pockets of the state have managed to hold onto their roots, and even develop new ones.

Such appreciation doesn't come naturally to me as a Tennessean. In the same way Northerners look down on Southerners, as a general rule northern Southerners (we call it the "Mid-South") look disparagingly at our lower-state neighbors. When I was a kid, trips into Alabama were like surgical strikes, hitting only the most cosmopolitan places: the bright lights of Birmingham, the gee-wizardry of Huntsville.

But my attitude changed a few years ago, when I ventured down to Fairhope, a small town on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. Founded in 1894 as a utopian community based on the fair-tax theories of economist Henry George, the town has long been a magnet for intellectuals, Southern or otherwise; Sherwood Anderson, Upton Sinclair and Clarence Darrow all spent time there. Even today, long since subsumed into the greater Mobile metropolitan area, it remains a popular place for writers, painters and craftspeople to set up shop.

In what has become an annual pilgrimage, I was there for Southern Writers Reading, a pre-Thanksgiving literary festival that draws heavily on the local arts community. Organized by author and cultural impresario Sonny Brewer, the festival has featured Rick Bragg, Bret Anthony Johnston and Winston Groom, among others, and its proceeds benefit the town's literary nonprofit group.

Downtown Fairhope, just a few blocks in from a bluff that offers striking views of the bay, is a warren of boutiques and cafes, galleries and restaurants. When in town, I make a point of visiting Page and Palette, the premier local bookstore, and Guy's Gumbo Shack, a recently reopened local culinary landmark, as often as possible. The Gumbo Shack doesn't have an immense menu, but what it does have (gumbo, of course) it serves better than any place outside New Orleans.

On my most recent trip, taken with several old high school friends, I spent a day exploring the western side of the bay south of Mobile. Past the city suburbs, the scenery rapidly turns to bayou, more Cajun Red than Crimson Tide. The major industries are still waterborne, a mix of boat repair and crabbing. In recent decades it has added an Asian flavor as well, as Vietnamese immigrants, many erstwhile fishermen, have set up shop. For a long stretch of road, we saw more Buddhist temples than churches.

Our first destination was Mary's Place, a crab shack with a renowned buffet in Coden, about 30 minutes south of Mobile. The lunch buffet is offered seven days a week, but on Sundays a church bulletin in hand will get you $1 off. Open since 1935, Mary's runs the $9.55 all-you-can-eat lunch, featuring local oddities such as deep-fried corn on the cob and such crowd-pleasers as grilled oysters, in addition to a full menu. Some say Mary's has gone downhill a bit since its founder, Lotty (Mary) Branch, died back in 1979, but $9.55 ($9.20 during the week) for all you can eat is hard to beat.

Few outsiders realize how far the bayou extends into Alabama, but it's in full bloom south of Coden. Little arms of brackish, reedy water creep alongside the roads. Inlets off the bay are choked with trawlers: The area was home to Forrest Gump's buddy Benjamin Buford "Bubba" Blue, he of shrimp-boat fame.

Our goal, though, was Dauphin Island, a slip of land between Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Accessed via a three-mile causeway, Dauphin Island was the original capital of French Louisiana but, once the government moved to the mainland, it became an isolated community, for centuries reached only by boat.

History and military buffs all, we headed straight to the eastern end of the island, site of Fort Gaines. A link in the immense chain of coastal fortifications built from Maine to Texas after the War of 1812, Fort Gaines played a critical role in the early stages of the Battle of Mobile Bay, in which Union Admiral David Farragut blockaded one of the South's major ports during the Civil War. The fort is today an open-air museum, and we spent the good part of an afternoon clambering along its battlements and exploring its cavernous galleries, supported by complex brick barrel vaulting.

* * *

Full of fried food, we headed north from Fairhope. But rather than following Interstate 65 toward Montgomery, the next logical step on the tourist itinerary, we took U.S. Route 43 toward Demopolis, at the heart of the Black Belt.

So named because of its loamy soil, the Black Belt, running across central Alabama and into Mississippi, is sparsely populated and overwhelmingly poor and African American. That fact makes Demopolis stand out: A relatively well-off little town, it was founded by Bonapartists in the wake of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815 (some of the surrounding towns are named after the French general's victories), and its downtown retains its original orderly garden-city design. Several nearby mansions are on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Greek Revivalist Gaineswood, and are well worth a visit.

But the area's real architectural attraction lies east of Demopolis, in and around Hale County, long one of the nation's poorest counties and home to the subjects of James Agee's book "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men."

In 1993 Samuel Mockbee, an architecture professor at Auburn, established a program for students to live and work in Newbern, a town of 230 people at the county's center. Mockbee believed that the sort of skilled design that usually went exclusively to the rich could also benefit the lives of the rural poor. Calling his project Rural Studio, Mockbee tasked his students with designing and building projects for local clients: parks, the fire department, residents, churches. But he placed severe restrictions on what they could spend while also requiring them to meet as many of the clients' needs as possible, no matter how idiosyncratic.

The result, more than 80 projects spread across dozens of square miles, is a living museum displaying the power of good design. The projects tend toward the quotidian but with a flair and ingenuity borne of necessity and empathy: There is a chapel with a roof made from castoff car windshields, a birding tower wrought from an abandoned fire tower, and a house with a massive butterfly roof, which channels rainwater down to a cistern. The shower floor in the so-called Music Man House is made from an old truck bed. One of the most recent projects is the critically acclaimed Hale County Animal Shelter, essentially a wood-framed Quonset hut with rows of kennels underneath.

A particular favorite of mine is the Rural Heritage Center, which Rural Studio students carved out of an old high school in nearby Thomaston. You can't miss it: Drawing on highway vernacular, the center is marked by a giant billboard that doubles as a backdrop to an outdoor theater space.

An outer room, ventilated through a line of clerestory openings, is a display space for local artisans. On my most recent visit, I bought a birdhouse made from an old door, the knob serving as a perch. At the back of the room is an air-conditioned box housing a crafts and gift shop, complete with a floor-to-ceiling rack for pepper jellies and watermelon-rind pickles; the shop in turn connects to the cafe, a great place for a well-deserved dinner after a day of touring back-country architectural gems.

There's still more art north of Demopolis, along Route 43 as it continues toward Tuscaloosa. About 10 miles away sits Forkland, a speck of a town that is home to Jim Bird's sculpture garden. Situated on 10 acres of Bird's 1,000-acre farm are dozens of giant figures fashioned from farm detritus, including a 32-foot Tin Man with feet made from overturned bathtubs.

* * *

Four more hours north on Route 43 took us to Florence, one of the Quad Cities of northwestern Alabama along the Tennessee River. Florence is a blast from an idyllic Southern past, innocent and friendly if also slow and out of the way. The tree-shaded streets are lined with well-kept Victorian and Georgian Revival homes. The downtown dining hot spot is still the local lunch counter, Trowbridge's, famous for its egg-and-olive sandwiches and orange-and-pineapple ice cream. The day I was there, scrums of high-schoolers brushed shoulders with local businessmen beneath walls decorated with black-and-white photos of old Florence (which looks strikingly like modern-day Florence).

Not everything is Harper Lee and Fannie Flagg, though. After lunch I walked two blocks to Pickett Place, a stately home that designer Billy Reid converted to his studio and flagship store a few years ago. He is renowned for clothing that blends rural chic with a dollop of urbane edginess, and his work regularly shows up in glossy magazines and in his shops in New York and Dallas. But when he went looking for a comfortable, quiet place to set up his headquarters, his wife, a Florence native, persuaded him to settle in her home town.

A visit to Billy Reid is not your usual shopping experience. Sweaters and slim-fitting oxfords pour out of dresser drawers. Staffers readily offer Cokes or water as you browse; later in the day they switch to bourbon. And if you're lucky, Reid will venture downstairs from his offices to discuss his latest designs. (Unfortunately, he was on a week-long hunting trip when I visited.)

Florence is also home to a small but quirky collection of museums and sights. The Rosenbaum House is Frank Lloyd Wright's only completed project in Alabama and one of the purest examples of his Usonian home design. Both W.C. Handy, known as the Father of the Blues, and Helen Keller were born in the area, and both have small, well-appointed museums in their memory. Handy is also honored every summer by the W.C. Handy Music Festival, which over the years has featured the likes of Dizzie Gillespie, Percy Sledge and Ellis Marsalis.

Just across the Tennessee River in Sheffield sits the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, home of the legendary Swampers, a studio rhythm section whose distinctive sound drew soul, rock and country greats alike, including Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones and Willie Nelson; Lynyrd Skynyrd later immortalized the band in "Sweet Home Alabama":

Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers;

And they've been known to pick a song or two.

Lord they get me off so much.

They pick me up when I'm feeling blue

Now how about you?

Though the working studios have moved, 30-minute tours of the original facilities are still available.

For one final taste of back-roads Alabama, the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard is just a few miles west of the Quad Cities and well worth a visit. More than 185 certified coon dogs lay buried here, many with elaborate headstones and freshly laid flowers.

Florence lies about an hour west of Huntsville, near the state's border with Tennessee, making for an easy getaway from Alabama. But it's never easy for me. After years being taught to look down on this strange state, I always manage to find something new and exciting along its back roads and byways. Which is why I keep coming back.

Clay Risen is author of "A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination," published this month by John Wiley and Sons.

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