A Look Back at “Patchwork: A Chronicle of Alabama in the New South,” part two
*You should read “A Look Back,” part one first.
It was ten years ago this month that I concluded the year-long “Patchwork” project that had me reading, traveling, interviewing, and news-watching, all with an eye focused sharply on my home state of Alabama. What began with trips to Mobile, over to eastern Alabama around Lake Martin, then west into the Black Belt in August and September continued for seven more months and carried me physically, intellectually, and historically throughout the state.
Rounding out 2009, I was reading at home and traveling as much as possible. In October, I went to the Kentuck Festival of the Arts in Northport, outside of Tuscaloosa; in November, to the Turkey Day Classic Parade in downtown Montgomery and to the Iron Bowl game in Auburn; and in December, up to Birmingham to roam around a bit. Kentuck was a natural choice for this project. This annual art festival was founded in the early ’70s and is now ranked as one of the best in the nation. Since it was fall though, there had to be football. The Turkey Day Classic was then the annual game between rival HBCUs Alabama State and Tuskegee, but since I wasn’t going to miss my family dinner, I only went to the parade, which is an event in itself. That same weekend, I also went to my first Iron Bowl, but my Tigers lost a heartbreaker in Jordan-Hare from what is now called “The Drive.” Up in Birmingham, I was busy: interviewing Brian Scott Teasley (of Man or Astroman?) who then owned Bottle Tree Cafe, shopping at Charlemagne Records, eating at Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs and at Urban Standard, then interviewing the president of Free the Hops at the J. Clyde. By the time I got home from that last trip of 2009, it was time to give exams at school then go home for Christmas.
As the new year 2010 rolled in, I pointed my car back into the Black Belt. That September trip had sliced right through the middle, but these latter trips went well north and south of Highway 80. In January, I went down to Forest Home in Butler County; in February, I was back in Tuscaloosa; and March put me in Camden in Wilcox County. Forest Home is a place that you’d probably never go unless you had a reason, and my reason was that my aunt and uncle – my father’s sister and her husband – lived there on a parcel of family land. Up in Tuscaloosa, I had interviews set up with filmmaker (and now podcaster) Andrew Beck Grace, photographer (and now ASCA director) Elliott Knight, letterpress printer Amos Kennedy (who was then Gordo), and the Snows who operate the Snows Bend Farm CSA. I had also planned my trip for that late-January weekend so I could catch a Drive-By Truckers show at the Jupiter Bar & Grill on The Strip.
As winter faded and spring was coming, the trip to Camden centered around Black Belt Treasures, then I was in eastern Alabama again to visit Tuskegee, Auburn, and the small communities between. Back then, Fred’s Feed & Seed (and Pickin’ Parlor) was still open in Loachapoka, but that day it was quiet, so I went on to Waverly to spend the day with Scott Peek of Standard Deluxe (and the Old 280 Boogie).
Where the majority of my travels in the “Patchwork” project kept me in central Alabama, the last two trips, both taken in the spring, stretched out to opposite ends of the state, first to the Wiregrass in the lower southeastern portion, then to Huntsville, up near the Tennessee border. That run into the Wiregrass was the least structured of the bunch and involved a lot of driving, but it did include an interview with Bill Perkins, the editorial-page editor for The Dothan Eagle. Up in Huntsville, the highlight was an interview, at the old Mullins Restaurant, with a guy named Wyatt Akin, who used to maintain an archive of skateboarding pictures and footage called Skate Alabama.
By May 2010, I was worn out. Most of the artist-teacher fellows that year did one-time workshops during the summer prior, but I had slung my work all over the calendar. I found, at the convening in New York City, that I was the only fellow whose project wasn’t finished. But it was worth it. What I did couldn’t have been compressed into a continuous two- or three-week timeframe. To wrap my head around Alabama, I had to ramble and read and wonder and talk to people and think about things and ramble some more. Being alone in the car for those long drives was just right for thinking.
I did a lot in the time period between August 2009 and April 2010, considering that I was also teaching full-time and had a wife and two small children at home. The picture here shows in red the counties where I went, some of them multiple times. However, I do have a few regrets about where I didn’t go. I still can’t believe that I didn’t get up to Muscle Shoals, where all that great music was made, or to the Ave Maria Grotto near Cullman, and I wish that I had made a trip into northeastern Alabama, to places like Sylacauga, known for its beautiful marble, and Fort Payne, the sock capitol of the world. I also know now that I should have spent more time talking with editors and reporters from small-town newspapers. Those folks are treasure troves of knowledge about their local communities, and they could have told me about things I never even knew to look for.
Ten years later, as I think about those trips, which were meant to visit the places in Alabama that too few people talk about, I’ve been sad to learn how many are closed or gone: Charlemagne Records, Five Points South Music Hall, Bottle Tree Cafe, Jupiter Bar & Grill, Pete’s Hot Dogs, the Syrup Soppin’ Festival, Fred’s Feed & Seed, Mullins Restaurant. But it’s been good to know that others are doing well: Black Belt Treasures, Standard Deluxe, Snows Bend Farm. I guess the simple fact is that some things change and some don’t. ‘Bama and Auburn haven’t stopped trading Ws and Ls. The year of the project, Alabama’s politicians were fighting over gambling, and they still are now. Yep, I guess that’s it. Some things change, and certainly, in Alabama . . . some things don’t.
Here are few images from the latter portions of the project:
Though I was impressed by this woman’s hat, I’m glad I wasn’t sitting behind her.
Charlemagne Records closed recently, after being in business for 42 years.
This would probably look like a joke to many Americans,
but it’s a real place: the volunteer fire department in the
small community of Peckerwood, north of Alexander City.
I spent most of a day with printer Amos Kennedy, who has
since moved to Detroit. We also walked around the corner
so I could meet Glenn House Sr., who has now passed away.
One of the original locations of Standard Deluxe in Waverly
Thank you for writing about Father Caswell. I just mailed a copy to a nun who remembers him..It is getting very rare to find someone I can share his story with. I would like to see him declared a saint. Cindy pittman
Thank YOU, Ms. Pittman. Though I’m Catholic and live in Montgomery, he was before my time. Though it sounds like he did both admirable and necessary work with his life.
Hi Foster, May I call you Foster? Thank you for the reply. I worked for about 6 months scaring up information and asking the secretary of thearchbishop in Mobile to put Father Mike on the road to sainthood. All I can say is racism is still alive and thriving.If I had not been warned about the racism, it might have broken my heart. I talked to one of the original orphans, and he is 78 years old.
Thank you for your story. Cindy