Monday, April 27, 2009

Quick History of Florence, Alabama

A mound on north bank of the Tennessee River shows an advanced civilization lived in our area some 2,000 years ago.

Florence is county seat of Lauderdale County.

Seven trustees of a newly organized Cypress Land Company issued a charter to establish a town.

The company had acquired 5,515.77 acres of land for about $ 15.45 per acre for the town.

A first land sale was held in 1818, and a second in 1823.

One Hundred eighty people, including General Andrew Jackson purchased land during the sales

Florence laid out by Ferdinand Sannoner (pictured above), the Italian surveyor who named our city.

Sanonner named the city after his favorite Italian city, Florence, Italy which was built around the River Arno.

The Jackson Military Road was constructed through Florence between 1817 and 1822.

Three hundred workmen improved earlier Indian roads which passed through present day downtown Florence

The city was one of the first textile centers in this part of the country.

A cotton factory was located on a nearby creek in 1818.

Florence suffered greatly during Civil War.

The town repeatedly changed hands, part of the city was burned, and almost all industry was destroyed.

Population of the town jumped from 1,600 to 6,000 people from 1887 to 1890.

Work began in 1831, on construction of a canal to bypass Muscle Shoals. The attempt failed.

In 1875, an new effort to construct a canal was successful.

On November 10, 1890, a steamboat passed through locks on way from St Louis to Chattanooga.

Canal used until completion of Wilson Dam in 1925.

La Grange College moved from Colbert County to Florence in 1885.

La Grange College evolved to the University of North Alabama.

Florence has provided four Alabama governors: Edward A O'Neal, Emmett O'Neal, Robert M Patton, and Hugh McVay

W C Handy, the Father of the Blues was born at Florence in 1873.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Amazing Trace
Dero Sanford

By J. Wes Yoder | Dec 08/Jan 09 | Garden and Gun Magazine

The Amazing Trace

Why drive the ancient route connecting Nashville to Natchez when you can ride?

I’ve never spent much time on a motorcycle, so when I told of my plan to cover almost a thousand miles on the Natchez Trace, my friends who ride told me I was stupid. So did my mother. But I picked up a rented Harley-Davidson one Monday in early fall and stuffed a bag of clothes in one saddlebag and some books in the other. It was a big black machine with lots of chrome and leather. It was wide and heavy, and I didn’t know if I could get it out of the parking lot. The weekend before, I’d taken a motorcycle safety course in which I’d practiced on a toy-size bike and chiefly learned two things: that in educational settings adults are no less socially awkward than children, perhaps more so, and that for some reason a majority of the people who choose to risk their lives on motorcycles are cigarette smokers. It’s just a fact, but not a useful one, I found as I fired up the bike under the watchful gaze of the goateed Harley agent.

Just the word motorcycle has always held romance for me. Like Mexico, it triggers an idea of escape, the fond illusion of freedom. And what better road than the unspoiled, undeveloped Natchez Trace, a 444-mile-long two-lane highway stretching from Natchez, Mississippi (Mile Post 0) to Nashville, Tennessee (Mile Post 444)? Nicknamed the Devil’s Backbone, the trace follows the curves and slopes of an ancient migratory route worn down by bison that drifted from the grazing pastures of central Mississippi, north through Alabama, to the salt licks of southern Appalachia in central Tennessee. Then followed Natchez, Choctaw, and Chickasaw Indians on the “trace” of the hunt, then explorers, traders, trappers, bandits, soldiers, scam artists, bootleggers, and preachers. The route became obsolete in the 1820s with the invention of the steamboat. But the National Park Service toiled for many years (intermittently, from the 1930s to 2005) to complete a scenic parkway that follows the route of the original trace. It was this route that I sought, an unadulterated Southern landscape, free from commercial traffic, strip malls, Cracker Barrels, and mega churches.

The Natchez Trace as a road trip is not for the young man trying to commune with the memory of Jack Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson. There are almost no signs of human life, besides fencerows and the road itself. There are no billboards or roadside motels or beer halls. There is a different kind of sameness, the continuity of a land with more identity oozing from it than anyplace I’ve been. Vast and discordant truth and legend, where the trees can be more frightening than the ghosts, and a storm more spiritual than a baptism. So the adventure and romance are there, if you are open to them.

I started my journey in Nashville at the north end of the trace. Ten minutes after I left the dealership I was on the road, and as I toe-shifted through the gears, it sounded as if I were cocking then discharging a weapon, six rounds in a row. The curves were delightful. So was the sound of the motor mixed with the wind. An hour later I eased up to an overlook, where I found four official-looking Harley riders: two men with Vietnam credentials, and their girls in tank tops.

It was the first time I’d ever parked the thing, and as I went over to their picnic table, they all called, “Your lights are on.” I fiddled with the controls, and a man started walking toward me. I managed “It’s my first day on a bike,” and they all said they could see that. When I told them I was writing a story for a magazine, they offered to help: “Well, set your camera up. If it’s Hustler, we’ll take our clothes off for you.” They were weathered people who knew how to laugh. They might have offered me a Busch Light if I’d stayed awhile, but dark was coming and I needed to make it down to Florence.

On the Natchez Trace, it seems there is a historical marker every other mile. The National Park Service has apparently sifted every bit of folk history that ever mentioned the trace, from settler’s diaries to Native American oral histories to forgotten generals’ memoirs. If I had stopped to read every nugget on every painted plywood sign, I would still be out there. For me, the markers with the most meaning read only, “Sunken Trace.” Here I stopped off at every chance to see where the old road remains. Before the steam engine, any trader who floated goods down from middle America had to abandon his raft and hike home. And so the trace was paved with footsteps. I liked standing between the earthen walls of the old trail, among the roots that reach out from the banks, but not for long. This was a one-way street through the dark forest, a tunnel almost, and some of the ones who longed for home would never make it. In the half-light and shadows I was most struck by how, after all this time, the path refuses to be erased by erosion or undergrowth, as if damp travelers were still coursing through.

In downtown Florence, I pulled into a place called the Veranda on Walnut. Night was falling and the house was empty, so I got back on the bike and found a Mexican restaurant where I ate too much, drank a bit, and watched every last snap of a Monday night football game that I cared nothing about. In the morning the man named Ron who owned the B&B had his breakfast with me. He explained that he was on a diet as he ate eggs and bacon and grits with diet butter. That’s why he held off on the hot banana bread. A nervous white dog was on his lap, but it was me he called “son.”

I headed out that morning toward Tupelo, hoping the autumn chill would make me alert on my machine. In the dappled light on a low flat stretch of highway, I slowed for something dark in my path: a brown bull with straight horizontal horns that were short and sharp. He was a sickly looking creature with a knobby spine that looked as if he might have been cast from the pasture by a herd of put-off females. I revved the motor. He had stupid eyes and would not move. Remembering my horn, I took a while finding it, then in trying to get it to sound, I took my hand off the clutch and the bike lurched and stalled. The bull walked off into the trees. Before I rolled away, I reconciled myself to him. “Poor fool,” I said, “neither one of us belongs on this highway.”

I motored on between the trees and over the Tennessee River and down into the fertile and fabled Black Belt. Here the defining feature of the land is its will to sink into itself. Your eye goes not to what is high, but to whatever has managed to make itself lowly. It is as if that rich, dark soil is so lustful for moisture that it sinks down toward the water table, and when it gets there it becomes a swamp, never to see light again.

In Canton, I stayed in a place called the McWillie-Singleton House, a B&B that was so nice that I felt embarrassed to be sleeping there alone. I took a pecan brew from the fridge, walked across an ancient heart-pine floor under ceilings high enough to squint at, listened to Delta blues, and shot pool until the fridge was empty.

It had been warm. My wrists and nose were sunburned. But in the morning I could see my breath. I rode along one of the more beautiful stretches of the trace, ten or so miles beside a reservoir east of Jackson, and the wind I sucked was as cool as menthol. The land flattened out, and in the swamps there were trees that had no more branches and were white and smooth and stood like crooked pillars of something that had once been great.

I figure I’ll be trying to pen this land to page until the day I die. But the land changes even as we try to stay the same. Once there were swamps with panthers and gators and bears. But men drained and burned that off to farm. Then crops didn’t pay, so they planted ugly pine trees for making cardboard and toilet paper. And they dug lakes to farm catfish. And today they’re draining those because corn feed is too expensive, and people are scared.

I was coming to Natchez, and I wanted to see that river. But first I stopped in Raymond on a tip that I would find a most unusual record store. I pulled up to the old cedar train station just as a hipster girl was pulling a cardboard Elvis out onto the porch. Going in I noticed the peeling paint on the walls and the fading lettering on a side door that read, “Colored.” Inside there were thousands of albums—only good stuff. Lamenting my lack of trunk space, I bought only two. I asked the girl what this place was doing there.

“I don’t know,” she said. “But they come from all over the world.”

Toward Natchez the live oaks draped in Spanish moss were like limbs coming unbandaged. There were lily pads in the swamps, hay in the fields. That evening, after I had checked into my room and walked down to the river, I ate a slab of ribs, drank some bourbon, and went to sleep happy.

I wasn’t planning on burning the highway back in one straight shot. And I can’t recommend that any novice rider sit on a seven-hundred-pound hog for nine hours straight, but I did. For much of the ride home I counted the mile markers. But two or three times that day, and I’m not sure where, I stopped watching my speed, stopped counting the markers. I saw the trees and the light in them. I smelled the fallow fields and the things the vultures circled. The highway carried me nowhere in those long moments. The land was unbroken—it knew no boundaries, no state lines, no mile markers, and at that time, which was no time, I didn’t either.

Home away from Home

Beds and breakfast offer in-and-out-of-towners new scenery
Saturday, April 18, 2009

Exotic vacations and getaways can be expensive with airfare and hotel costs adding to the equation.

Click to enlarge
The Veranda on Walnut Bed
Matt McKean/TimesDaily

But a nice staycation at a bed and breakfast can be an inexpensive way to reach the final destination of R&R.

At The Veranda on Walnut Bed & Breakfast, Ron and Doris Ross welcome their guests with baked pecan brownies. For breakfast, it's Belgian waffles topped with homemade strawberry jam or a traditional breakfast of biscuits, sausage, eggs, ham, bacon and fresh fruit.

The Rosses opened The Veranda six years ago, and according to Doris, the perks of a bed and breakfast include meeting new people.

"It's a very interesting business to be in because you meet so many different people from all over the country," Ross said.

Ross said customers come from as far as Florida and Georgia, but some of their most faithful clients are from the Shoals.

"That makes me feel very good knowing that they picked us over going out of town," she said.

The Veranda features three rooms. The largest room, the Christopher Suite, includes a California king bed, private bathroom and kitchen. Newlyweds often choose the suite, hence the nickname "The Honeymoon Suite."

"It gives them a neat place to stay without staying at a hotel," Ross said.

Ashley Winkle, of Florence Mainstreet, and her husband stayed at the Veranda for Valentine's Day 2008. Winkle said it was their first time doing a bed and breakfast and the stay was great.

"You get to get away from the house," Winkle said. "It's just a change of scenery."

She said the biggest benefit was not being stuck with the daunting task of packing and unloading luggage.

"It was nice to just go and stay somewhere different," Winkle said.

Carolyn Waterman, owner of The Limestone House Bed and Breakfast in Florence, said more people are staying in town for their vacations.

"We've noticed in the last 6-7 months we're getting more people from a 15-mile radius that just wanted to get away," she said. "It's a nice weekend getaway for them."

Attractions such as the theater, restaurants and downtown night life in Florence bring more people to the area, Waterman said. In addition, people often take a weekend to come to the area for the museums including the Kennedy-Douglass Center for the Arts and Pope's Tavern.

"I think the Shoals has a lot to offer," Waterman said. "People are enjoying downtown a little bit more."

The Limestone House opened almost five years ago after Waterman and her husband relocated to Florence from Washington, D.C. The inn features two rooms, The Ford Room and The Edison Suite, both adorned with antiques.

"It certainly is more economical, and it still feels like a vacation," Waterman said. "People like bed and breakfasts because it is not like a hotel."

She said most couples return to the inn after staying there once. "Our business has increased every year," Waterman said.

The Emma House nestled in Killen offers wedding packages and celebratory event planning for anniversaries, parties and romantic dinners. But the Emma House is not a typical bed and breakfast. It features a medical spa that offers hair and nail care and Swedish massages.

Shelbia Brown can be reached at 740-5733 or

Friday, April 17, 2009

Lost Forever

Hawkins-Sample House, 219 Hermitage Drive, Florence, Lauderdale County, AL

Here is an historic photo of a Florence home we have sadly, lost forever. Pictures like these remind me of why preservation is so important. I can just imagine this house being painted soft, creamy yellow with dark green shutters while bright red geraniums hanging from baskets sway in the breeze and a young family talks to passersby.

Residents of downtown Florence don't just live here they are ambassadors of Downtown! They exude a pride of place not found in newer neighborhoods. Downtown residents know their neighbors and their kids and can tell you more than just a name about the people next door.

I invite you to explore the historic homes of downtown Florence. They are all worth saving! Revitalize YOUR downtown by becoming a resident and save our treasured places.


Friday, April 3, 2009

Visit of the Birthplace of the Muscle Shoals Musical Style

TRACEY TEO / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

MUSCLE SHOALS, Ala. – Nashville has long been known as the country-music capital, and Memphis proudly claims to be the home of blues and birthplace of rock 'n' roll. Tiny Muscle Shoals, which spawned the famous Muscle Shoals Sound, was once touted as the "hit recording capital of the world," but it has never had the glamour of more sophisticated Southern music meccas.

It's a world away from the LA music scene, and that's partly what attracted such diverse music legends as Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart during Muscle Shoals' heyday in the '60s and '70s.

The rural area was a refuge from the limelight and gave musicians a place to focus on their work with no distractions. But the main reason artists flocked to this obscure corner of northwestern Alabama was to get that indefinable, funky sound that couldn't be duplicated elsewhere. Many attribute that trademark sound, a confluence of country, rock and soul, to the smoking hot Muscle Shoals rhythm section known as the Swampers.

A tour of the recording studio of Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, known as FAME, takes visitors back to a time when a revolution was under way in music. In the '60s, the lines between musical styles were blurred, and FAME became a hit factory for artists bold enough to experiment and find their own sound.

Alabama native Wilson Pickett, a major player in the development of Southern soul music, produced some of his best work at FAME, including the 1966 sensation "Mustang Sally." Many consider his soulful rendition of "Hey Jude," with Duane Allman on slide guitar, to be the birth of Southern rock.

Ben Tanner, a FAME engineer who often conducts studio tours, directs attention to the Wurlitzer electric piano that Spooner Oldham played on Aretha Franklin's 1967 hit "I Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Love You)." He says it's still played today.

Old photographs of Otis Redding, Little Richard and Clarence Carter adorn the studio walls, and fans get a chuckle out of the far-out, groovy fashions.

Tanner points out that a number of successful black artists recorded at FAME, and he calls the studio "one of the first racially integrated workplaces in Alabama." While the battle for civil rights was raging in other parts of the state, black and white musicians played side by side in Muscle Shoals.

In 1969, Cher released her album 3614 Jackson Highway, the address of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio where the record was cut. Although that was almost 40 years ago, Cher fans still show up to have photographs made in front of the unglamorous building, imitating Cher's album cover pose.

"It happens all the time," studio owner Noel Webster says. "People make pilgrimages here."

Thanks to Webster, this building that was once vacant and condemned is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Fans from around the world arrive clutching albums and CDs by Lynyrd Skynrd, the Rolling Stones and many other bands that made history here. Some seem almost reverential as they check out old sound equipment and the instruments that were played on their favorite classic tracks.

Webster bought the studio in 1999 as a venue where he could record his own music, but with so much interest in the studio's history, he has been thrust into the role of museum curator and tour guide, telling stories of legendary Muscle Shoals jam sessions.

Even the bathroom is a source of fascination. David Hood, a bassist for the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, left behind his signature, as did many other renowned performers. Legend has it that Mick Jagger penned "Wild Horses" here.

The Alabama Music Hall of Fame is a tribute to Alabama's musical heritage and honors distinguished Alabama music professionals of every genre. On entering the lobby, visitors take the "Walk of Fame," a path inlaid with a series of bronze stars. Each is engraved with the name of a famous Alabama musician.

The Inductee Gallery features portraits of Hank Williams, Nat King Cole and W.C. Handy.

A tour of "Southern Star," the tour bus once used by the country band Alabama, offers a glimpse of what life on the road was like. Band members slept in bunk beds and had a makeshift living room where they could relax between performances.

For aspiring singers with dreams of chart-topping hits, making a CD in the museum's recording studio is a Hall of Fame highlight.

A musical odyssey through northwestern Alabama wouldn't be complete without paying homage to W.C. Handy, father of the blues. The W.C. Handy Home and Museum is a two-room log cabin in Florence that originally stood several blocks from its current site.

A knowledgeable tour guide sheds light on how Handy overcame some of his early struggles and how his most famous composition, "Memphis Blues," became a success. The piano on which Handy composed another famous piece, "St. Louis Blues" is on display as well as his trumpet and other memorabilia.


Note: FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio are both working studios; call ahead for a tour.

•Alabama Music Hall of Fame, Highway 72 West, Tuscumbia; 1-800-239-2643;

•FAME Recording Studio, 603 E. Avalon Ave., Muscle Shoals; 256-381-0801;

•Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, 3614 Jackson Highway. Sheffield; 256-783-2641;

•W.C. Handy Home and Museum, 620 W. College St., Florence; 256-760-6434.


•Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa, 800 Cox Creek Parkway South, Florence; 1-800-593-6450.


•On The Rocks, 110 N. Court St., Florence; 256-760-2212; This is a great place to catch the Muscle Shoals Sound. Local bands play here regularly.

Tracey Teo is a freelance writer in Indiana.