By Renee S. Gordon
” I will not just live my life. I will not just spend my life. I will invest my life.”
By the time Alabama was granted statehood in 1819 the state had years of history in its past. Archeological evidence points to Native American habitation for more than 10,000 years and explorers noted encounters with the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Alibamos who gave their name to the state. Spanish explorer Alonso Alvarez de Pineda entered Mobile Bay in 1519 but it was DeSoto, in 1540, who was first to traverse the region. The French constructed Fort Louis in 1702 and the struggle for supremacy in the region among the big three European powers began in earnest. Sixty-one years later the English received the territory as a provision of the Treaty of Paris ending the French and Indian Wars.
Records indicate that the French introduced slavery into the region in 1737 and in the years 1763-83 the British encouraged the importation of slaves in the area. In the years immediately following the American Revolution an influx of British Loyalists moved into the territory bringing their slaves with them. At the onset of the Civil War nearly 50% of the population was enslaved and less than 1percent were free blacks.
Obviously Alabama can be viewed as a place where the sheer number of cultural influences played a significant role in its post-statehood history in its institutions, customs and practices. The state has had a huge impact on the country’s history, not only in Civil Rights, but also in areas as varied as architecture, cuisine and music. I invite you to explore those things that are “Absolutely Alabama,” a cultural mix, through Alabama’s sites, attractions, and people. www.alabama.travel
This is the “Year of Alabama Music” and in homage to the designation we’ll begin in a music Mecca, the Muscle Shoals region, Florence, Sheffield, Muscle Shoals and Tuscumbia, in North Alabama. These quiet towns were transformed into the “Hit Recording Capital of the World” in 1959 when Rick Hall established the legendary, Florence Alabama Music Enterprise, FAME Recording Studio. The number of artists who made their way to Muscle Shoals, including, Percy Sledge, The Osmonds, Aretha, Duane Allman, the Stones, Lennon, Dylan, the Staple Singers and Ritchie, to record the Muscle Shoals Sound is stunning. The slate of performers was always interracial, united by a love of Southern Soul music. Other studios were founded and eventually they numbered more than a dozen. They operated on different schedules so that it was possible to record round the clock. Most studio tours are gratis but reservations are recommended and Alabama’s “Year of Music” tours can be scheduled through Colbert County Tourism, [email protected] or www.visitmuscleshoalsal.com
A tour of FAME Studio is literally an immersion in music history. The studio is filled with posters, awards and photographs. Guests can visit the unaltered studio where so many greats recorded and actually sit on the piano stool where Aretha sang and played at the same time for the first time and morphed into “Lady Soul” as she sang “I Never Loved a Man.” www.fame2.com
There were earlier musical influences in Florence. It was there that the “Father of the Blues.” W. C. Handy, was born. The W. C. Handy Home and Museum is a three-part facility with the premier exhibition being a 2-room log cabin, built by his father and grandfather immediately after Emancipation, in which he was born. The cabin was relocated from its original site in 1968. Highlights of the exhibitions are a rare set of Deagan organ chimes, a handmade wardrobe from the mid-1800s, Handy’s personal piano and trumpet and handwritten sheet music. www.florenceal.org
The only edifice Frank Lloyd Wright designed in Alabama is the 1939 Rosenbaum House. This restored Usonian structure was Wright’s response to affordable housing and was constructed of cypress, cedar and glass and incorporates a multilevel roof, exterior entrances to all rooms, four fireplaces, built in furniture and the natural topography of the land. This is the only one of his homes to have woodwork designs on the windows. The house is owned by the City of Florence, tours are limited and reservations are recommended. www.wrightinalabama.com
The Alabama Music Hall of Fame was created to honor Alabama’s musical greats and has been located in Tuscumbia since 1990. The 12,500-ft. Hall is a complex that consists of exhibit areas, a portrait gallery, a recording studio and museum shop. Tours begin in the foyer with a display of bronze stars and award-winning posters from the Handy Music Festival and continue into the exhibit area. Portraits of artists inducted into the Hall of Fame line the walls of the first gallery. The only multiple inductee is Lionel Ritchie.
Showcases and dioramas within the museum reflect the state’s musical heritage with costumes, props and audio experiences. A highlight of the tour is a walk thru Alabama’s tour bus so large that the museum was actually built around it. You can conclude your visit by recording a song in the mini-studio and becoming part of the Muscle Shoals’ story. www.alamhof.org
A different type of inspiration can be gained at Ivy Green, the birth home of Helen Keller. Born healthy in 1880, a childhood disease in 1882 rendered her blind and deaf. In March of 1887, Anne Sullivan came to Ivy Green as her teacher and never again left her side. Helen’s breakthrough would come when later that year she made the connection between the water pouring across her fingers from a black metal pump in the yard and the letters, “w-a-t-e-r”, being spelled into her hand by the “miracle worker,” her teacher. Helen would go on to graduate cum laude from Radcliffe, write numerous books, lecture on 5 continents and work tirelessly for rights for the deaf, the blind and women.
The clapboard main house, built in the 1820 by Helen’s grandparents, was the second house constructed in the city,. Immediately east of this house is the cottage, where Helen was born and where Helen and Anne lived. The original pump is situated between the two. Tours feature personal belongings, furnishings, photographs and awards and honors. Artifacts not to be misses are Helen’s books toys and Braille typewriter.
The Lion’s International Memorial Garden displays gifts she received from the 25 countries she visited during her lifetime. In 1954 the property was included on the National Register. W. C. Handy played his trumpet at the opening at Helen’s personal request.
Tours of the home and grounds are offered daily and seasonally William Gibson’s play, “The Miracle Worker,” is performed on an outdoor stage at Ivy Green. Information is available online. www.helenkellerbirthplace.org
Tuscumbia was founded 7 years before Alabama became a state on the site of a former Chickasaw village. A group of settlers escaping an Indian attack arrived in the area and were given assistance by Chief Taskaambi, for whom the city was ultimately named. Tuscumbia’s historic district, consisting of 22 structures, was the first in North Alabama to be listed on the National Register. Free guided walking tours are offered from Memorial Day until July 4th. www.visittuscumbiaal.com
The 80-ft. wide and 48-ft. tall world’s largest man-made waterfall is located in Tuscumbia’s Spring Park, the site of the city’s founding. The central features of this urban oasis are two monumental statues memorializing the Native American presence. “Sacred Tears” is an 8-ft., 1-ton, sculpture of a native woman with a baby in one arm and her other hand resting on a cross representing all those who perished on the Trail of Tears.
On November 30, 1827 as the Cherokee passed through Tuscumbia on the Trail of Tears the Tuscumbians gave them food and warm clothing. Chief Chilly McIntosh stated at that time, “As long as our nation remains upon this earth we will recollect Tuscumbia.” These sentiments and a statue of the chief are also in the park.
The Claunch Café, a family owned and operated eatery, anchors the park. The setting is lovely and the food is delicious.
Don’t leave the area without dining in the Rattlesnake Saloon, one of the most unique restaurants in the country. The thrill begins as you arrive because guests are picked up in the parking lot and driven down a circuitous path to a sheltered area beneath a natural outcropping, once the home of Native Americans. The saloon has both indoor and outdoor dining and lots of photo ops. Believe me, there is no other place like it.
The Hampton Inn & Suites in Florence is a best bet for lodging for this portion of our trip. It provides all the amenities, is in an ideal location, and offers affordable rates. www.hamptoninn.com
In part two we will visit several other Alabama cities that are absolutely great. Join me next week and I will fly you to the moon.
Information on planning a trip to Alabama is available online at any of the sites listed and www.northalabama.org.
I wish you smooth and insightful travels!