By Renée S. Gordon
The cities and towns of North Alabama form a cluster of some of the most unique places in the country. Each is an absolute original with a distinctive history and incomparable sites and attractions. Accommodations and dining establishments are eclectic, numerous and provide good value for your travel dollars. Best of all, a visit to the foothill communities of North Alabama is a perfect place for a family vacation. www.northalabama.org
Huntsville, the 4th largest city in the state, was designated in 2010 one of “America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations,” and more than 200-years ago it was considered to be an equally attractive travel objective.
In 1805 John Hunt, a Revolutionary War veteran, relocated from Tennessee to the Big Spring area of Alabama in what was then Mississippi Territory. His two room log cabin represented the beginning of the first white settlement in what would become Huntsville. Hunt left his land to file a claim and while he was gone Leroy Pope, who named the settlement Twickenham after a home in England, purchased the land. Hunt returned, Pope’s title was voided and in 1811 the 60-acre town of Huntsville was born. www.huntsville.org
Huntsville was the largest city in Alabama Territory by 1819 and it was here that 44 representatives gathered in a Constitutional Convention for statehood. The Alabama Constitution Village interprets this event and the period from 1805-19 in 8 meticulously reconstructed structures with living history programs and tours. Emphasis is placed on the cultural mix and the lives of white and black settlers are showcased. Alabama was admitted as the 22nd state on December 14, 1819. www.earlyworks.com
Almost exactly one year after the firing on Fort Sumter Union troops took over Huntsville to disrupt Confederate rail communications. The 1860s Historic Huntsville Depot remains one of the oldest railroad structures in the country. It is open daily for tours and trolley rides. At one point the Confederates retook the city but by 1863 it was firmly under Union control and as a Union base it was spared destruction.
The 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldier’s Memorial, 2800 Poplar Ave., commemorates the contributions of not only the 10th Cavalry but of all African Americans who have served in America’s armed forces. The 10th was deployed to Camp Forse under the command of 1st. Lt. John “Black Jack” Pershing. They bivouacked at this location for three months from October 1898.
In 1896 Oakwood College, so named because of the 65 oak trees on the land, was established as the sole African American Seventh-Day Adventist College in the US. The land upon which the college stands was formerly the Peter Blow plantation where Sam Blow, better known as Dred Scott, was enslaved for 12-years. Legend has it that some of his relatives are interred on the campus in an area denoted by four granite markers along with nearly 50 other slaves. www.oakwood.edu
Few African American individuals impacted on American history more than Dred Scott. It is the 1857 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, that no black, free or enslaved, or their children, had ever been citizens or ever could be that served as fuel for the 1861 conflagration. The enslaved Scott was brought to Huntsville in 1818. His home site is at 7000 Adventist Blvd. www.americancivilwar.com/colored/dred_scott.html
Harrison Brothers Hardware Store and Museum is America’s oldest hardware store. Established in 1879, the store moved to its present location in 1897. It is listed on the National Register and is filled with nostalgic items and handcrafts that you can purchase and have rung up on an authentic 104-year old hand crank cash register. All of the items on the upper shelves are original. 124 South Side Square.
The 120-acre Huntsville Botanical Garden has 80 developed acres of flora, fauna and thematic activity areas including gem mining, a butterfly garden, trading post and aquatic garden. Twelve treehouses have been specially created for the child in all of us and feature a pirate ship, a huge flowerpot and the Gnome Dome complete with toadstools, fairies and a wee fireplace. The main walking trail is 1.5-miles and it is handicapped accessible. You really can spend the day but earmark at least two-hours. www.hsvbg.org
Huntsville has more rocket scientists per capita than any other city in the world! That astonishing fact is a result of its place in the origins of rocket science. In 1949 Redfield Arsenal was sold for use by former Third Reich scientists, who had worked for the US on Operation Paperclip during WWII, as a facility to work on space science. In 1954, Werner von Braun, the most famous among them, presented a proposal for launching a missile into space. The first successful launch took place in 1958 and shortly thereafter Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Fifteen million people have since visited Huntsville’s US Space & Rocket Center complex consisting of the world’s most comprehensive flight museum, Spacedome IMAX Theater, Space Camp, Space Academy, Aviation Challenge Mach I, II and III, a Space Shot Ride and an outstanding gift shop. www.ussrc.com
The museum tour begins in the foyer where visitors can view a 15-ft. 1908 monoplane created by William Quick and simultaneously see a rocket on the exterior through the glass dome. Continuing into the 476-ft. Davison Center for Space Exploration you are greeted by a restored 363-ft. Saturn V rocket horizontally suspended above the floor. The tour takes you through the interactive exhibits that interpret the research, training, launch and re-entry process. The highlights are a 22-layer Gemini spacesuit, a lunar module, a Lunar Rover Vehicle, a moon rock and a Mobile Quarantine Unit. A fun fact, a modern cell phone has more technological power than the first rocket.
I can’t think of many things that provide a better learning and adventure opportunity for children than space camp. Enrollment is not tied to academic ability and every child has a chance to experience science in a real way, develop leadership skills and form international friendships. Accommodations replicate an international space station. Adults are invited to participate in various programs with their children or as a getaway with friends. Camps range in length of enrollment and cost varies accordingly. This is really great! www.spacecamp.com
Originally the site of a Tennessee River ferry operated by Henry Rhodes, Rhodes Ferry Landing was officially renamed Decatur, to honor Stephen Decatur, in 1821. In the early 19th-Century it was a railroad terminus and in 1864 it was the scene of a Civil War battle and only four buildings were unburned. The 116-acre rebuilt areas known as Old Decatur and the Albany Historic Districts contain the largest number of historic Victorian structures in the state. Walking tour brochures are available. www.decaturcvb.org
Do not leave Decatur without a meal at the award-winning Big Bob Gibson BBQ. Since 1925 they have been kings of the pit and have been featured on The Today Show, the Food Network and in magazines and newspapers numerous times. The great taste is achieved using hickory wood in huge outdoor pits. You can eat-in, take-out or order online. www.bigbobgibson.com
Scottsboro, our final regional stop, is situated on the site of Crow Town, a Cherokee village and was named for Robert Scott, who moved into the area around 1851. www.cityofscottsboro.com
The end of the line for some lost luggage is Scottsboro’s hidden gem the Unclaimed Baggage Center. This 40,000-sq.-ft store introduces 7,000 items daily, more than 1-million yearly into the inventory. Nearly 3-billion bags are checked annually and less than 50 percent are lost. Bags from airlines and other forms of mass transit, as well as things left in seat pockets, are purchased and some items are cleaned for sale in the store. Forty percent of the items are donated to charity, including medical aids and eyeglasses and some are discarded. Since Doyle Owens opened the store in 1970 more than 800,000 shoppers have found bargains there. www.unclaimedbaggage.com
The landmark case of the Scottsboro Boys is recognized as one of “The Greatest Trials in World History.” It began in March of 1931 when nine black youths, and several whites, jumped aboard a train in Chattanooga, TN headed toward Memphis. A fight between the black and white males ended with the blacks forcing the whites to leave the train in Stevenson, Al. They retaliated by reporting the black youths who were removed from the train by armed men at Paint Rock, Alabama, taken to jail in Scottsboro and accused of raping two white girls that were found in the train car. They ranged in age from 13 to 21. www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottsboro_Boys
The first trial lasted three days and resulted in a death sentence for eight of them and life in prison for the ninth. In a second trial one of the women admitted there had been no rape but again they were sentenced to death. In 1935 the case reached the Supreme Court. They voided the verdict and sent it back for retrial and in 1937 a plea bargain was reached. The last of the “boys” was pardoned in 1976.
The Scottsboro Boys Museum & Cultural Center opened in 2010 in the former 1878 historic Joyce Chapel United Methodist Church. Tours include a film that details the trials and displays of newspaper accounts, photographs, artifacts and memorabilia. Interestingly Lionel Toy Train Co. made the mock up of the train that was used in the courtroom. This case is important in the history of Civil Rights and should be an important site as you tour the area. www.scottsborostories.blogspot.com
I wish you smooth and insightful travels!