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Off The Beaten Path

Snapshots: Demopolis - The Heart of the Canebrake

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Snapshots: Demopolis - The Heart of the Canebrake

Demopolis is a beautiful town in the heart of the Canebreak region of Western Alabama. This part of the state was once covered with thick stands of a native bamboo-like species called Arundinaria. While much of this cane was destroyed to make room for cotton plantations, the area is still called the Canebreak, and Demopolis is the region’s biggest town. Demopolis was founded by a group of French expats in 1817 and given its name from the Greek for The People’s City. It would become a major transportation hub, sitting at the confluence of the Black Warrior and Tombigbee Rivers, a status which would only grow when the railroad arrived. Today, Demopolis is a quaint and quiet town of around 7,000. I really loved it there and kept thinking it’s what a Norman Rockwell painting would look like if it aged a few decades. The old brick buildings have stood up well to the tests of time and the town has a lot of charm to it. While I wish I had had a little better weather to take these photos in, I still think they show the beauty of Demopolis, a small town which is the heart of the Canebreak.

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The Free State of Winston - A Very Uncivil War

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The Free State of Winston - A Very Uncivil War

As I was driving through Double Springs, Alabama I saw in front of the courthouse what looked like the ubiquitous small-town war memorial which I have found pretty much everywhere I’ve visited on this journey in both the North and the South. But this one was different because unfurled behind it were both Union and Confederate flags, so I hit the brakes and went in for a closer look. What I discovered was a Civil War memorial to The Free State of Winston. The plaque on the memorial read as follows:

DUAL DESTINY

The Civil War was not fought between the North and South but rather between the Union and Confederate armies. Perhaps as many as 300,000 Southerners served in the Union Army. The majority of the Appalachian South, from West Virginia to Winston County, was pro-Union. Winston provided 239 Union and 112 Confederate soldiers, 21 of whom shared last names.

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Snapshots: Selma - Faded Glory in the Black Belt

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Snapshots: Selma - Faded Glory in the Black Belt

Selma, Alabama is a stunning city. Rarely have I driven into a place on this whole journey where I have been more eager to jump out of my van and start taking photos. The downtown area is packed with historic buildings reminiscent of days gone by. The neighborhoods are full of old Victorian-era mansions that hark back to better days in the Queen City of the Black Belt. As in most of the Black Belt of Alabama, cotton was king during the antebellum period and Selma’s position right on the Alabama River made it a prime place for a thriving city. During the war, Selma was a major shipbuilding center and manufacturing town for the confederacy. The post-war years were difficult on Selma and race relations were strained way past the point of breaking as lynchings and intimidation were common occurrences. Selma became notorious during the Civil Rights Movement, especially on the topic of voting rights, and was the jumping off point for the Selma to Montgomery March. Driving or walking around Selma today, it is apparent that the city has seen better days. Buildings are crumbling and many of the old homes are boarded up and falling apart, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture what it once was. As in so many parts of the country, the economy in Selma is struggling and there aren’t enough jobs or money to go around. I hope for the best for the future of this beautiful city. You should definitely go for a visit, spend some time in the wonderful Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail visitor center run by the National Park Service, walk across the Edmund Petus Bridge and then just go for a ramble and see what you can find. While at first glance you may think that “Queen City” is a bit grandiose, but the deeper you look the more appropriate you’ll find it. I hope you enjoy these photos from The Queen City of the Black Belt.

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This Week on the Road - April 25th-May 2nd

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This Week on the Road - April 25th-May 2nd

It’s been busy, busy, busy out here on the road this week. This week has taken me from Selma to Demopolis in Western Alabama, back through Tuscaloosa to Birmingham and then north and west through Bankhead National Forest and on to Muscle Shoals where I am writing to you from today. I celebrated Orthodox Easter, hiked to some waterfalls, shouted “Roll Tide”, ate quail, and of course took lots of photos along the way. I’m into the home stretch of this leg of the journey as I need to be home in a week and a half, so I’ve been hustling out here. I have made plenty of time to stop and smell the beautiful wildflowers though, and enjoy some hills after 4 months of flatness in every direction. HERE is the link to this week’s map if you like to follow along.

After publishing last week’s This Week, I headed directly for Old Cahawba, the first capital city of the state of Alabama. It served as the capital from 1820-1825, but regular flooding caused the legislature to move out to higher ground. The city declined over the next century and by the time of its centennial, Cahawba was all but abandoned. Today there is nothing left but a few brick columns, an old cemetery and a few foundations. There really wasn’t much to see, but I enjoyed wandering around and imagining myself back to its heyday when its citizens probably thought it was a pretty cool place. Cahawba is managed today as a State Archaeological Site. It’s only about 20 minutes from Selma and for me it was worth seeing, but I wouldn’t necessarily go too far out of my way to visit…

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Rickwood Field: America's Oldest Baseball Stadium

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Rickwood Field: America's Oldest Baseball Stadium

Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama was built by industrialist Rick Woodward, and opened its doors for Opening Day on August 18th, 1910, making it the oldest professional baseball park still standing in the United States. In its heyday, RIckwood saw the likes of Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron pass through its gates. In addition to being home of the Birmingham Barons, Rickwood Field was also home to the Negro League’s Black Barons. Local legend Willie Mays got his start with the Black Barons at Rickwood when he was just 16. The great pitcher Satchel Paige also spent several years with the Black Barons in the 1920’s. During the sixties, there was a minor league affiliate of the Kansas City (later Oakland) A’s playing at Rickwood, which included on their roster Reggie Jackson and Rollie Fingers. When the A’s left town, a new Barons team was brought in several years later, and played at the old stadium until 1987. Today, the Barons play one game a year at their historic stadium, called the Rickwood Classic. The field is still used regularly though, hosting local high school games, adult recreation leagues and even the odd corporate softball game or wedding. Since 1992, the stadium has been in the care of the Friends of Rickwood who not only maintain the stadium, but have attempted to restore it a little at a time to it’s 1948 appearance. The stadium has been used in several films including Cobb, Soul of the Game, and, most recently, 42. It is a wonderful place to visit and is full of history and nostalgia. I spent time just sitting in the bleachers and enjoying the quiet view. Next time you’re in Birmingham, go check out Rickwood Field. If you like baseball or just cool old buildings, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

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Gip's Place: Alabama's Last Juke Joint

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Gip's Place: Alabama's Last Juke Joint

You can find Gip’s place using your GPS these days. It’s probably on there, but at some point you’re just going to have to trust it and keep going. And you’re just going to have to trust me that it will be worth it. Gip’s is a special place, one of the last authentic Southern Juke Joints, and the very last in the whole state of Alabama. It’s only about a half-hour from downtown Birmingham, but it’s a world away. Henry “Gip” Gipson has been hosting people in his backyard since 1952, slowly adding this and that along the way until he had created a real music venue with a stage and lights and a sound system. He was a grave digger by day, so he needed an outlet in his down time and he found that outlet in the blues. Today, Mr. Gip is almost a hundred years old, but he still enjoys welcoming people into his Juke Joint, sipping a beer and listening to great music. Since he never had a business license, local authorities shut him down several years ago. He said he might not be able to run a business without a license, but nobody was going to stop him from throwing a party in his backyard every Saturday night. And that’s exactly what it is. Bring your own drinks and make a contribution for the band and the bills and then pull up a seat and enjoy. Feel free to get out and dance too. While Mr. Gip is in a wheelchair these days, I remember when he would dance the night away with any- and everyone that walked in the door. And everyone is welcome at Gip’s Place. If you don’t believe there is a place where young and old, black and white, American and international people can get along anymore, you’ve clearly never been to Gip’s on a Saturday night. When I was there this last weekend I even saw Elvis and Marilyn there. There were people in shorts and T-shirts, and others in business suits and ties. Out front in the parking lot, there were cars and trucks of all makes and models, and even a limousine. You really have to go, and go now, because Mr. Gip isn’t going to be around forever and once he goes, it’s unlikely that the community will allow this place to continue. Even if they do, it won’t be the same without the man himself holding court on the dance floor. This place is as iconically Southern as it gets. Be sure you see it before it’s gone.

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This Week on the Road - April 18th-25th

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This Week on the Road - April 18th-25th

It’s been a busy and fascinating week out here on the road. Wildflowers are blooming everywhere here in Alabama and it is truly magical to see all the beautiful colors along the side of the road. We’ve had some pretty serious April showers here as well, but when the sun is out the temperatures have climbed into the 80’s. I’ve made a big loop this week from southeast Alabama to west-central Alabama, and gotten a lot of history to think about along the way. From the Civil War to Civil Rights, this part of Alabama is both fascinating and tragic. I spent a few days in the state capital of Montgomery and am winding the week up here in beautiful Selma. I’ve had my hustle on this week, but with the longer days I’ve been able to cover a lot of ground.

When I finished writing last week’s This Week post, I did, in fact, head on to Dothan, a small city which I really enjoyed. Dothan is in a region called The Wiregrass which extends into southwest Georgia and the Florida panhandle. The downtown area was compact and walkable and absolutely packed with beautiful murals and statues. I really enjoyed just wandering around and having a look and, of course, taking lots of photos. I love when I can explore somewhere that’s totally new to me and somewhere where I go in with no idea of what I’ll find there. Sometimes it’s a real treat, as was the case here. I strolled around until well after the sun was down, and then went for a wonderful dinner at the local and family run Hunts Seafood Restaurant south of town. I got a half-order of oysters there which was enough to feed me twice. It’s always a good sign when you pull into a small-town restaurant on a Wednesday night and the parking lot is completely packed…

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Snapshots: Dothan, Alabama - Murals and Magic in the Wiregrass

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Snapshots: Dothan, Alabama - Murals and Magic in the Wiregrass

Pulling into downtown Dothan, Alabama, I had no idea what to expect from it. I knew it was the seventh largest city in Alabama, and the “Hub of the Wiregrass” - a region which covers southeast Alabama, southwest Georgia and parts of the Florida panhandle. Other than that I was pretty much going in blind. What I found was a pleasant city with a compact downtown full of beautiful murals and statues. Dothan has an excellent art museum, a gorgeous opera house, and some wonderful cafes and restaurants all within just a few blocks of each other. It was a quiet and pleasurable place for a stroll, and I had a beautiful day to do just that. I spent several hours photographing this beautiful city, and you can see the results in this post. I really enjoyed my time in Dothan and I’m already looking forward to my next visit. If you’re ever in southeast Alabama, be sure you stop in and say ‘hello’ - you will definitely be surprised by what you find here.

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This Week on the Road - April 11th-18th

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This Week on the Road - April 11th-18th

Hello everyone, another week has past and it’s time for another edition of This Week on the Road. It’s been a pretty great week out here in Southern Alabama, beginning with a much needed and well enjoyed visit to the Gulf Coast and a few minutes on the beach. I also spent some wonderful time in beautiful Mobile, a city which I really enjoyed. The week ended with a long drive across the south of the state heading east, through rural farmland and quaint little towns. It’s been a great first week here in The Heart of Dixie, and I’m looking forward to everything the state has to offer in the coming few weeks. HERE is this week’s map if you want to follow along as we go!

When I finished posting my This Week article last week, I did, in fact, get out of town. I love New Orleans, and it’s always hard to go, and it was particularly hard with French Quarter Fest starting the following day, but it was way past time for me to get out of Louisiana. I scooted down to the interstate, and took Route 10 all the way to Alabama. I hate the interstate and its never-ending monotony, but it’s great when you have places you have to be and a limited time to get there.

When I got to Alabama, I headed southwest on 188 to beautiful Bayou La Batre. You may remember the name from Forrest Gump, as it is where Bubba was from and where Forrest went to start his shrimping company. It really is a shrimping town, and if you’ve been following along with me on this journey, you know I’m a sucker for old shrimping boats. The fleet there was really beautiful, and I stopped off to have a look and take some photos. While I was stopped, a young man of maybe 9 or 10 named Matthew pulled up…

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Snapshots: Surrounded by Frogs on a Rayne-y Day

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Snapshots: Surrounded by Frogs on a Rayne-y Day

Out on the prairie in the heart of Acadiana sits the tiny old railroad town of Rayne, Louisiana. Originally called Pouppeville, the citizens decided to rename their town Rayne in honor of the engineer who laid the tracks. In the early 1900’s, three brothers started a frog leg business, shipping frog legs all over the country, and Rayne got a reputation as the Frog Capital of the World. They truly have run with their nickname and frogs are everywhere you look in this quiet little town. They even host a Frog Festival every May! I loved walking the streets and taking these photos, and this post is just a sampling of all the frogs to be found in Rayne. They made me smile and reminded me that life is too short to take too seriously. How can you take things too seriously when you are constantly surrounded by frogs? Kudos to the citizens of Rayne for keeping their sense of humor and bringing a lot of joy to their town streets. Your town made me want to jump for joy!

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Snapshots: St. Francisville - Small Town Louisiana at its Best!

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Snapshots: St. Francisville - Small Town Louisiana at its Best!

St. Francisville, Louisiana may be small, but it sure packs a big punch. This beautiful Southern town got its start way back in 1809. It was built on a hill overlooking the older French settlement of Bayou Sara, which was at one time the largest port on the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Memphis. For 74 days back in 1810, St. Francisville served as the capital city of the independent Republic of West Florida when it ousted its Spanish occupants before being annexed by the United States. In the years leading up to the Civil War, St. Francisville was the supply center and main town for surrounding plantations, perfectly situated for trade on a bluff high above the river. Today it contains a fascinating collection of antebellum, creole and Victorian homes, and some beautiful churches and businesses as well. I spent a lovely afternoon there, wandering the quiet streets and taking these photos. The few people I met on my stroll were remarkably pleasant and kept pointing me towards even more beautiful parts of town for me to shoot. The river has been high this year, and you’ll see a few photos at the end of the flooding in the area. St. Francisville is a wonderful escape from the big cities and offers a magical combination of small-town charm, fascinating history and delightful people. You should definitely put it on your list!

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Teddy's Juke Joint - Like Coming Home

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Teddy's Juke Joint - Like Coming Home

Just off of the infamous Highway 61 near Zachary, Louisiana, you turn off on a dirt road and find yourself standing outside of Teddy’s Juke Joint. It’s hard to imagine you’re only 15 minutes from downtown Baton Rouge, because it feels a world apart. As you approach the front door, you may wonder if it’s open, but I promise you it is - every night of the week. As soon as you open that door, though, be prepared to be transported to a different time and a different world. Much like stepping into a music lover’s version of Narnia, Teddy’s is a whirlwind of colorful lights and amazing sounds. It’s what I would imagine it would be like inside of a kaleidoscope. As wonderful as this place appears at first glance, the real magic has yet to happen. Teddy and his wife Nancy have been running this joint for over 40 years, and they are some of the most hospitable and wonderful people you’re likely to meet - just good people all around. Pull up a seat at the bar and order a drink and you’ll soon find your feet tapping along with the beat and your face smiling from ear to ear. Teddy spins the records and Nancy pours the drinks, and together they manage to keep the place spotless and running smoothly, with a little help from their friends on the weekend. Speaking of the weekend, that’s an ideal time to come to Teddy’s as there are frequently live bands and jam sessions, but any night of the week your ears will be treated to great blues, soul, and an occasional slip into rock and roll. If you’re hungry, they’ll whip you up a pork chop sandwich or some red beans and rice with their own secret blend of seasoning. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting all of the remaining true Southern juke joints over the last decade, and Teddy’s is definitely my favorite. It’s the southernmost juke joint on Highway 61, and the only one that’s open 7 days a week. Whenever I’m anywhere near Baton Rouge, I find my steering wheel pulling me towards Teddy’s, even if it’s just to stop in and say hi. I know I’ll find some good conversation, a hot meal, a cold beer and great music. Yep, Teddy’s is a lot like coming home…

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