Alabama The Beautiful, If A Bit Obscure

Recently, I spent a few lazy summer days traveling around the great state of Alabama.  The motto of the state is “Alabama the beautiful,” and it really is fitting.  The geographic diversity of Alabama is nothing short of amazing.  From the white sugar beaches in the south, the flat farmlands of the black belt, the pine forests, and the rolling foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, all combine to make for one heck of a scenic road trip.  However, the attractions on my journey were not purely scenic.  Nor were they of the common tourist variety either.  I went searching for the obscure, and boy did I find it.

I set off with my friend Ben, and we put together a plan of attack, dividing the state up between north and south, and allotting a day for each area.  We took the northern route first, and made our way to the Ava Maria Grotto in Cullman, Alabama.  To appreciate the grotto, having the right mindset is a must.  Ben had been there once before, with his in-laws who are Catholic, and they described it as “just a bunch of junk.”  Knowing this, and accepting it, is essential to enjoying it.  A monk who spent fifty years building miniature reproductions of great Catholic locations built the grotto on the grounds of a Benedictine Abbey.  The Vatican is there, Pisa, and most of Jerusalem, to name just a few.  All of these were made out of pieces of broken stone, perfume bottles, and anything else he could get his hands on.  Today it would be labeled “folk art,” and the sheer number of things he built is impressive.  Nearly four acres are covered by the monk’s creations.  It’s a scenic walk, through a wooded landscape and even includes the gravesite of all the abbey’s long departed monks.  Of course, in the grand European tradition, we exited through the gift shop.  The store sells mostly Catholic trinkets, but strangely does have a large collection of great (albeit, loveably tacky) post cards – something I’m passionate about.

From Cullman, we made our way up to Danville, Alabama, the birthplace of the legendary track star, Jesse Owens.  If you don’t know, Owens represented the US at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, and proved to the world that Hitler’s Aryan propaganda was a crock.  The museum is small, but well laid out.  There’s a lot of memorabilia from his life there, but strangely his gold medals are nowhere to seen.  Even stranger, is the sign on the door that informs visitors that if the museum is locked during opening hours to call the phone number provided.  The museum is actually located in the middle of a public park, and is separated from the town’s visitor’s center.  One person oversees both offices apparently.  She saw us and drove over to unlock the doors, and in the process, apologized, and said she was “cleanin’ toilets” at the visitor’s center.  On the grounds we toured a reproduction of the sharecropper’s house Owens was born in and practiced our long jump on the track that was built there.

After a quick lunch at Mel’s Family Steakhouse, Stockyard, and Slaughterhouse (you read that right) in Moulton,  we drove up into the mountains of northwest Alabama to the “Coon Dog Cemetery. “  The first dog was buried there in the 1930’s, and it has become the “go to” location for people all over the country to burry their beloved coon dogs.  I was amazed at the number of headstones – some of them rough rocks, others carved stone.  Several of the graves were decorated with flowers.  It’s a bit of a drive to get to the spot, but worth the effort.

Further along, we traveled to Tuscumbia, the birthplace of Alabama’s most famous citizen, Helen Keller.  Her home is called “Ivey Green,” and as much as it pains me to admit, it was a disappointment.  As a history teacher, I’m familiar with Keller’s life story and her considerable accomplishments, but for the uninitiated in Alabama history, there isn’t much to be learned from the “Helen Keller Story” as it’s presented in present day Ivey Green.  It’s assumed that everyone must know the story, and so most of the information that is provided is short on detail, and largely consists of, “This is the place where….”  One room of the house has been converted into a small museum, containing personal belongings of Ms. Keller, and numerous photos of her with famed important people of the early twentieth century.  Sadly, though, again if you aren’t a history buff, or even an American (there were numerous students and Japanese people when we were there), you wouldn’t understand much about this woman.  Also, there was absolutely no discussion of Keller’s later advocacy of rights for the disabled or her political activism.  It was also strangely arranged, in that you paid to enter in the back room of the house, and began the tour at the front door of the house, causing us to wander in circles.  In the end though, yes the water pump in the back yard is there, and seeing it, and really understanding the powers of the human mind to overcome obstacles, was worth it.

Down the road from Ivey Green is the Alabama Music Hall of Fame (AMHF).  Despite a dated exterior and lobby, the museum is pretty impressive.  The sheer volume of musical greats that have come from Alabama is staggering:  Tammy Wynette, Hank Williams, Dinah Washington, Percy Sledge, Martha Reeves, and the Commodores, just to name a few.   All of them get their moment, but the AMHF has fallen on hard times lately.  Montgomery has taken away its funding in recent years and the days and hours the museum is open are very limited.  If you go to any of the locations I’m discussing herein, I’d suggest you go here, just to keep this landmark open.

A quick jump over from Tuscumbia is Florence, home to the Rosenbaum House – the only building in Alabama designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright.  I’m a huge Wright fan, though I must clarify that I’m a fan of his work not of him as a person (he was pretty much the embodiment of a lot of what I detest in people).  Still, though, the low-slung red brick “Usonion” style house is impressive to see.  I was fascinated by the completely unlivable layout of the home, and even more so when I learned that a family of six lived there.  I was also surprised to see that almost all of the furniture in the house was made out of pressboard, apparently a material that Wright liked working with.

Our next trip took us south of Birmingham.  We traveled down I-65 towards Wetumpka, where we stopped to see Fort Toulouse and Fort Jackson.  We were the only people there, and yet the bathroom smelled like a million people had just used the facilities.  Seriously, GAG.  Fort Toulouse is actually a reconstruction of an early French fort in Alabama dating back to the early 1700s.  By the end of the War of 1812, the fort had been given up by the French and turned over to the US government.  During that time Andrew Jackson stationed his troops there and ordered another fort next door to be built, the aptly named, “Fort Jackson.”  The two were very different in style, Fort Jackson being surrounded by soil, and sunken into the ground, and the earlier Toulouse surrounded by was wooden barricade.  This state park needed serious work to buff up the information that is provided to visitors.  I will say this, though; both forts are in picturesque areas surrounded by trees with long dangling tree moss that blows slightly in the hot summer breeze.  It’s definitely deep south photo material.

A quick stop in Alexander City, and lunch at the Big B Bar-B-Que, and on to our final stop,  the legendary Horseshoe Bend.  I’m ashamed to admit that I had never been there before, having grown up in Alabama.  My parents were quick to remind me that they had taken me there when I was very young, but given the lack of memory or any other evidence, I may have to call “shenanigans” on that one.  Horseshoe Bend is of course where Andrew Jackson defeated the Creeks, and it is also part of the National Park Service.  I had big, big ideas about what it was going to be.  In reality though, it was a field- just a big ole’ grassy field.  Again, it was a really pretty area, and there was a nice little museum, but still a field.

Such is life.

In the end, though, we had two really great days, full of site seeing, great music, and more inappropriate jokes than should be allowed.  If you decide to venture out to see some of the rarely visited areas of Alabama, make sure you have the right attitude and the right company.  Alabama’s beautiful, but slightly more obscure destinations are worth the time and effort to see.

Ave Maria Grotto: http://www.avemariagrotto.com/

Jesse Owens Museum: http://www.jesseowensmuseum.org/

Coon Dog Cemetary: http://www.coondogcemetery.com/

Ivey Green: http://www.helenkellerbirthplace.org/

Alabama Music Hall of Fame: http://www.alamhof.org/

Rosenbaum House: http://www.wrightinalabama.com/

Forts Toulouse and Jackson:  http://www.forttoulouse.com

Horseshoe Bend:  http://www.nps.gov/hobe/index.htm

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One Comment on “Alabama The Beautiful, If A Bit Obscure”

  1. Walter
    September 8, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

    Interesting! Wonder where you’ll bring us when driving up from New Orleans to Birmingham…

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