Good Towns: The Shoals, Alabama

January 14 2014

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Welcome to the Shoals! We’re highlighting this special area of Alabama, including the cities of Florence, Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia, and Sheffield, as our newest feature in the Good Towns series. Spotlighting special towns across the country, Good Towns is about the character, the history, the people, the unique things that make a town a special place. We hope you enjoy this story about the Shoals area in Alabama, and we invite you to share your thoughts and ideas for the next Good Town.

A few miles outside the Shoals, the waters of the Tennessee River give rise to a deep, particulate fog. A fog that, like the grain of an old photograph, evokes nostalgia and a sense of anticipation, guiding toward a certain time and place. You can almost smell the river in the air—the river that is dotted with the small towns of Florence, Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia, and Sheffield, which make up an area called “the Shoals.” Just as the land is made fertile by the flow of the river and the grit in the water that has drifted to settle on the banks, the Shoals is a rich aggregate of art, culture, and community.
World Famous
John Gifford opens the door at 9:00 a.m. He makes the coffee and cleans up around the office, tidying from a full day of recording that took place the day before. The Mountain Dew in his hand suggests that it might have been a full night of rocking tracks and jamming musicians and maybe just a few beers. John is the studio manager of this iconic studio, which means he basically does everything—he gives tours to folks every day from as far as Quebec and New Zealand and China; he works the sound boards; he creates set ups for musicians; and he works alongside founder, Rick Hall, to maintain one of the longest operating studios in the world. He accommodates anyone, from a group of Native American flautists, to heavy metal bands, to Girl Scouts belting “Be Our Guest.” And that’s exactly how you feel when you walk in the door of Fame Studios—you’re a treasured guest, no matter who you are, and you’re officially a part of the history of Fame Studios.
Rick Hall, who has owned and operated the studio since 1962, hasn’t changed much since he started his work. In a time when the South personified segregation, Rick personified community through music. Fame not only survived segregation, it defied it. White or Black, if you could jam, you were welcome. Alicia Keys, Otis Redding, Duane Allman, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and countless other artists poured out their hearts and souls of music in this place, yet it’s just as welcoming to the everyday music lover.
There’s nothing glossy about this place—the brown carpet and beige speckled tile don’t aim to impress. There’s just something about the place that’s intangible, and that X factor has brought big-time musicians down to Rick’s sweet home and to the hospitable house party that is Fame.
John leans back on the kitchenette counter and recaps some of his recent work as the coffee percolates a percussion. An occasional Cheshire grin is the only hint you might get that he knows he’s one of only a few people to do what he does. “Rick calls me Johnny,” he says, and he admits he didn’t like it at first. “But when Rick Hall calls you ‘Johnny,’ you say ‘Yes Sir!’” What Rick has done in Muscle Shoals is indeed legendary. Just as the river brings life to the Shoals, Fame brings a steady rush of soul to the city.
Ivy Green
Just down the road from a place so well known for its funky rhythm is a place so esteemed because of a little girl who could not hear at all.
Ivy Green, the birthplace of Helen Keller, nestles within a grid of post-war ranch homes, a literal community built around the heritage of an international hero.
This unassuming residence makes no assertions that it is the home of a hero. A small white cottage, windows flanked with magnolia-green shutters, sits at the end of a long brick walk. The leaves of the massive oak trees along the path rustle in the wind, the soothing sound of which Helen never experienced. But it was here that Helen learned to understand the only sense that really matters— the heart. The home is quaint, and of typical Southern architecture, all nearly perfectly restored with original furnishings. Inside the front door, the wooden bannister is smooth and worn by the hands that slid and grasped for balance and direction. The delicate china is set out upon the polished wooden table. (Though these details are off limits to the general public, Ivy Green welcomes children and adults who are blind to experience the home as Helen would have—by touch and feel.) The home is beautifully restored, allowing visitors to imagine the struggles and the triumphs that happened at Ivy Green.
The city of Tuscumbia bought the home in the 1950s, and the Helen Keller Birthplace Foundation has restored, repaired, and maintained the home all these years. Each summer, actors re-enact portions of Helen’s childhood during performances of “The Miracle Worker,” and Camp Courage, a camp for disabled children, will begin its second summer this year at Ivy Green. Visitors travel from all over the world to experience the sacred atmosphere. A Chinese physician once said, “We don’t consider Helen to be an American hero. She belongs to the world.” Helen’s legacy transcends the Shoals, and yet, to the woman who inspired the world, Tuscumbia was home.
And the water pump still sits humbly poised behind the house where it once brought forth enlightenment through a fluvial stream. Like a river that sings.
Coon Dog Cemetery
Just a few miles west of Ivy Green, through soft, rolling hills and past fields dotted with hay bales, lies a very different kind of memorial. Down a winding road, one must follow the tracks until they grow warm, until the bars of light flickering through the tree line are punctuated by a hand-painted sign—an image of a noble coon dog, signaling that the trace is over.
This is the Coon Dog Cemetery, which is exactly what you might expect it to be. Over 300 coon dogs have been laid to rest here since 1937, when Key Underwood buried his faithful coon dog, Troop. Troop and Key had been friends and hunting companions for more than 15 years, and Key felt there was no place more fitting for Troop to rest than at their hunting club. In the years since, the nearly 300 dogs laid to rest here have all been verified as coon hounds in order to be buried alongside Troop.
A creek in the distance sings a solemn dirge while the winds through the hollow whisper eulogy praises. These were, indeed, very good dogs. Across the grassy meadow, stone markers and colorful flowers mark the gravesites beneath the trees. These dogs were truly family members, and the spirit of their relationship is kept alive in these woods.
The full scene itself is awe-inspiring. Reverence overcomes a visitor, and all the while one might expect the quirk of the situation to leave one laughing. And it does. Any dog lover smiles knowingly when he reads, “Here lies Ranger. He was good as the best and better than the rest,” or “He wasn’t the best, but he was the best I ever had,” and chuckles out loud when he notices several plastic garden squirrels sitting at the foot of a grave marker. Whether etched in granite, hand-carved in wood, or honored by a simple, unmarked stone—the character of each dog is fondly memorialized here.
Staggs Grocery
Only one year before Key Underwood buried Troop in a hollow in northwest Alabama, LD and Carrie Staggs opened the doors to a beloved community grocery store in East Florence, Staggs Grocery. From 1936 to 1979, Staggs served as a grocery store for the community, and in 1979 it became exclusively a restaurant. Staggs has seen other businesses come and go over its 77-year tenure, but the worn green awning and the hand-painted sign above the door are a sight for “many a sore eye.” Inside the door now stands fourth-generation owner Lynn Staggs and his wife, Pat.
Six women work on the short-order line, not an idle hand in sight or an ounce of pretentiousness, as the friendly folks serve up the best burgers in town on styrofoam plates. The place is full of regulars and soon-to-be regulars. “I mentioned once that I couldn’t find a good burger in town,” says William Phillips, as he sinks his teeth into the handmade burger before him. “And they said to me, ‘Well, you clearly haven’t been to Staggs yet.’” This is Phillips’ fourth time to Staggs, and he’s confident that he’s on his way to becoming one of those regulars.
Lynn chats with his customers and friends, not about how the food is—it’s always good—but about how the weather is, how folks are getting along these days, and plans for the weekend. Dock Killen and his wife, Elizabeth, come in the door. Elizabeth, who met Dock six years ago in a ballroom dancing class, pushes Dock in his wheelchair, his face obscured by his WWII Veteran hat, but his smile beams beneath the brim. “Well, Lord! How have you been, stranger?” Lynn shouts, his hand extended to Dock’s. It’s been a long time since they’ve seen each other—nearly a year. In fact, Dock, at age 91, hasn’t been well enough to leave the house except for one other time earlier in the year. But Dock is one of those regulars you hear about at Staggs, and on his outing today, Elizabeth knew there was no question where they’d be going.
“He’s been coming here for years,” says Lynn. “I can’t even remember how far back.” He’s known the Staggs family since Lynn’s grandparents ran the place. Now Lynn’s daughter, Christy, is working in Staggs. She’s got history here, and she’s heard the stories of men like Dock and his friends, and she’s heard stories about her own family from patrons who’ve been coming longer than she’s been alive. It is their hope that new customers will become regulars, like so many before, and that Staggs will continue its tradition of great food and great relationships.
A Storied Downtown
Downtown Florence is the epitome of a Southern town. The sidewalked streets direct the feet of neighbors, shop owners, bankers, and visitors throughout the quaint community. A stroll through town would read like a guidebook to Southern architecture—Victorian homes reside next to hospitable, front-porched bungalows, exuding a sense of traditional Southern architecture, updated with an artistic community whimsy. Passing through Court Street’s 100-year-old facades reminds you of the history of the town—though the architecture isn’t the only reminder. Lunch-goers love to snack on a scoop (or two) of orange pineapple ice cream or a famous egg-and-olive sandwich from Trowbridge’s—a nearly century-old lunch counter, so small and full that you’ve got no choice but to make new friends and “buddy up” with old ones.
Just down the street from Trowbridges is the flagship store for the Southern-inspired fashion label, Billy Reid. Housed in the former Anderson’s Bookstore building, this boutique showcases an array of carefully curated items that serve to highlight their beautiful, relaxed, well-made pieces. A piano, upon which fingers once danced to the tune of the Southern gospels and Alabama blues, is now gutted of its musical parts and displays that artwork that is the Billy Reid collection. A solid wood church pulpit serves as the register, which is watched from the adjacent exposed-brick wall by a noble buck, haloed by vintage china. Billy Reid is a source of pride for Florence, Alabama, residents. Having made his start in New York, Billy Reid relocated with his wife to Florence, her hometown. In a way, his pieces personify the community of the Shoals—authentic, with a bit of grit; modernity executed with old-school construction values. People are proud of this fashion movement, for they are truly a part of the story.
Another legendary Florence designer is Natalie Chanin of Alabama Chanin. Drawing inspiration from the quilt-making past of the Shoals area, Alabama Chanin relies on original techniques to create her handcrafted and authentically made garments. While creating classic and beautiful pieces, Alabama Chanin has revisited the traditional quilting-circles, inspiring the revival of this dying art. And though her roots are in Florence, Chanin has received national acclaim, most recently when she was recognized with a prestigious award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (an elite club of which fellow Alabaman, Billy Reid, is also a member).
The Muscle Shoals Piecemakers Guild—a local quilting circle—is a group that values the dying art of quilting and piecemaking. They share family stories, swap techniques and tips, and enjoy the company of the group—the group that has been brought together by a mutual admiration of the craft that represents so much of their heritage. The women agree that all quilts tell a story. As an author pens paragraphs, these women sew stanzas.
So although this small, friendly town on the Tennessee River in northwest Alabama may look like a small dot on the map, the international influence, contributed to by designers, artist communities, and the University of North Alabama, is remarkable. Maybe it’s not the melting pot of New York City, but then again, with UNA’s French, Canadian, Turkish, and Chinese populations, maybe Florence is an idyllic community of cooperative differences.
Open for two years in January, City Hardware is a “new kid on the block,” but it has been inspired by the land and by farming traditions in bringing the freshest of food and most authentic of preparations. The restaurant promotes food that is “Southern healthy,” with most of its produce and meat coming from Jack-O-Lantern Farms in Muscle Shoals. The City Hardware team aims to help promote good, healthy, Southern-style food.
A Study In Sustainable Farming
“Now, don’t go scaring my chickens. Those are my show chickens.” They peck around as their owner, Steve Carpenter, walks toward their coop, and “Mr. Bluebeard” crows. Steve Carpenter and his wife, Connie, got started growing pumpkins and gourds, and they have now expanded their farming to greens, vegetables, chickens, and grass-fed beef. He and Connie not only grow, they also make—homemade balms and from-scratch breads, pies, and cakes.
Built in 1952, the greenhouses (which were originally used as TVA research facilities) served as labs to test soils, fertilizers, and plant growth. But here, lab coats have been exchanged for barn jackets, and you’ll find no synthetic fertilizers in these greenhouses. In fact, you won’t find much in the way of dirt. Steve and Connie have embarked on a cutting-edge farming technique using hydroponic growing methods—produce grown in water. What takes nearly five acres of ground in traditional farming takes but one greenhouse in his hydroponic facilities. Like specimens in a laboratory, these seedlings are carefully monitored until they are transferred to the styrofoam grid that floats atop the raised basins of water, extending in rows the length of the greenhouse. Steve not only knows the history of farming; he understands the future as well.
“You know,” Steve grins, “this is how they grow their vegetables on the International Space Station.”
He’s proud of his work, and he’s proud of the people he serves. Walking back into his market, Steve opens the door to dozens of Shoals’ citizens who come to him for their food. He greets them individually as they walk through his doors.
“Ninety percent of these people I know pretty well,” says Steve. The others he’s sure to get to know. They come for his eggs and his beef, and they come to fill their kitchen tables and their restaurant tables (City Hardware, The Factory, and Billy Reid are just a few of his customers). He gathers an order for the Billy Reid employee Thanksgiving lunch. He serves his community and recognizes that many have served before him.
Serving More Than Coffee
Peering through the windows of Rivertown Coffee, past the notices for community yoga, CD release parties, and local comic book sales, you can see two men buzzing behind the counter. One is a man with a moustache who had been chatting with his wife and toting his precious, young son alongside at the Alabama Chanin Studio opening the night before. The other is John Cartwright, owner of Rivertown Coffee. If it seems that the men greet each guest as a friend, it is because they are friends. Much like every scene in downtown Florence, people gather discussing events where they’ve mingled together before. Not surprisingly, many faces are familiar. We’ve already seen several of these people in our brief visit to the Shoals. The warmth of the shop is matched by the warmth of the personalities that work and drink there. Ultra-realistic paintings line the walls, customers don Billy Reid oxfords and Alabama Chanin knotted belts, and local musicians sell their CDs on the counter. People here are proud of each other, proud of the work they are doing, and proud of where they come from.
A woman notices a young man wearing a shirt that is screen-printed with Birmingham, Alabama’s old slogan, “It’s nice to have you in Birmingham.” She says to him, “I really do like that shirt. It would be great to have something like that for Florence.” The wheels in her head are turning, and it is obvious that she is brainstorming about creating yet another way for people to show their pride for their great town.
Wright In The Heart Of Alabama
Driving down Riverview Drive, English-style cottages, Tudor homes, and traditional houses line the street. Flanked by these nearly 100-year-old traditional homes is a cognac-colored, L-shaped home on the corner of a two-acre lot. The cantilevered carport draws the eye toward the home, which anyone who passes by knows is something special. This is the Rosenbaum House, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s dozens of Usonian houses built across the United States.
An Alabama native, Stanley Rosenbaum, and his wife, Mildred, once called this now-iconic house a home. And though the neighbors on the beautiful street shook their heads at the construction of the Rosenbaum home—it was certainly a strange sight to see against the Tennessee River it overlooked—it would be the neighborhood that would eventually save this historic piece of architecture. Over the years, the Rosenbaum home deteriorated and became an eyesore. The city purchased the home and restored it, down to each book and piece of original furnishing, using a special one-cent city sales tax.
The Rosenbaum house was built with local materials; a unique structure born of its locale. Cypress wood and Decatur-made brick transformed this modern design into a true piece of Alabama heritage. Inside the home, the flood of natural light, tinged a Cherokee red by the cypress and the brick, is warming to a structure that might otherwise seem cold. Each room has access to the outside, and at the time of construction had a view to the Tennessee River below. The home is furnished with original pieces, Eames bentwood chairs alongside Wright-original pieces that he designed for the home. Though small in square footage, the home seems spacious and efficient—true of Wright’s nature, designed for purpose and not just for decoration.
Barbara Broach likens the home to an Impressionist painting—the doorways and cutouts and woodwork draw the eye from room to room, like the foot of a small ballerina draws the eye to another corner of a painting by Degas.
Barbara is the head of the City of Florence’s Arts and Museums, and a frequenter of the Rivertown Coffee Shop. “Well hello, again,” she says. “I’ve been thinking about that Birmingham t-shirt all day!” Of course she had, since she’d first seen the shirt at Rivertown Coffee earlier that morning. As the leader of the Rosenbaum House renovation project, Barbara sees the renaissance culture that exists in Florence, a place that some might think has a tendency toward modesty rather than modernism.
Barbara is one of many who actively seek to preserve a continuing legacy in Florence—a storied heritage of art, nature, and community.
The River That Sings
Nearly 20 years before the Frank Lloyd Wright construction was restored and memorialized, Tom Hendrix began a memorial of a different kind. Just outside of Florence, down County Road 8 and just off the Natchez Trace Parkway, Hendrix has built a stone wall around his house; 1.25 miles long and at times up to 30 feet thick. It is not a wall to protect him from danger, but to protect a memory. A fortress to preserve history, to memorialize a woman, and a people, that daily influences not only Tom Hendrix’s life but also the lives of so many in Lauderdale County.
For over 30 years, Tom Hendrix has been constructing by hand, stone by stone, a wall in commemoration of his great-great-grandmother, a member of the Yuchi Native American Tribe that once lived along the Tennessee River in Lauderdale County. Her name was Te-lah-nay, and in 1839, she and her sister were removed from the land and sent to the Indian Nations in Oklahoma. They, and many others, made the journey and carved a path that would later be known as the Trail of Tears.
Tom says that Te-lah-nay listened to all of the rivers in the Indian Nations, and none of them sang to her like the Nun-nuh-sae, the river that sings. So she slipped away one morning after the winter passed and began her five-year trek home. Now, Tom is continuing to honor her legacy and her connection to her home by laying one stone for every step of her journey.
Over 30 years, Tom has built a wall from over 8.5 million pounds of stone. And though this has been a deeply personal journey for Tom, his wife, Doreen, has been his helper and his partner. She’s been his support and his record keeper. She says, “Tom has worn out three trucks, 22 wheel barrows, 2,700 pairs of gloves, three dogs, and one 80-year-old man.”
“It’s a very spiritual place,” he says. “I can’t explain it. No one can explain it in words. You just have to experience it.” Many who visit the wall walk the length of it with arms spread out to the side, as if embracing the essence of the place, the same life-force that called Te-lah-nay home.
And Te-lah-nay longed for that essence of the river each step of the journey. Through tireless days of travel, she followed the siren call of the beautiful river that sings. The River was her mother. It was her sister. And she knew she was nearly home when she could smell the river.
The Shoals area—Florence, Tuscumbia, Muscle Shoals, and Sheffield—is clearly a special place. It shapes, and is shaped by, the people who invest their lives here. Whether the song of the river or the arts of the community or the heritage of its ancestors, the vibrancy of the area is strong and beautiful and is sure to leave a lasting memory with any who have visited.
Regions is proud to be a part of the community of the Shoals, Alabama. 
Know a Good Town? We'd love to explore it! Send your ideas to editor@seethegood.com


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  • Proud of our North Alabama neighbors. Sweet Home Alabama !!

    Connie Tucker Long
  • This article is great! I graduated from the University of North Alabama and lived in Florence for four years, and this article gives me so much pride for my Alma Mater!

  • I have just joined Florence/Lauderdale Tourism as their Communications Manager, and I could not have put together a better article to showcase our beautiful area. Thanks for the great photos and stories. Georgia Turner

    Georgia Turner
  • What a wonderfully written story of my hometown. It's amazing how much we have in this area that a lot of people have no idea is here. Thank you for telling our story.

    Beth Rutledge Baker
  • Born and raised in Detroit. Glad we ended up in Florence. Raised our family here. Still here. Glad we are here.

    Helen Allman
  • Although I live in Tennessee, I adore the Shoals. I am proud to create music in this area. Recently moving into a studio office at Cypress Moon Film and Music Studio, it has been one of the most exciting adventures in my life. I have crossed the Alabama/Tennessee line all of my life. As a child I would stand in the road and straddle the line. I felt even then a strong connection to my sister state. I am honored to be a part of the peaceful creative vibe of this legendary area.

    Dorothy Guinn
  • What a wonderful article. I left this area when I was younger, and I could not wait to get back home. I believe the Shoals gets in the blood, and even if a person is not from here, it can still be felt. I am from Zip City, north of Florence, which could also spark an article!

    Sheila Colston
  • What happened to Pope's Tavern and the W.C. Handy house? Surely these should be included for visitors to Florence? After all, Handy was the "Father of the Blues," and Pope's Tavern lodged famous travelers!

    Judy Lemoine
  • This is such a well-written article!! On my next trip west, I'm getting off the interstate and coming to visit! I'm Southern-born and bred, and I think it will feel like coming home!

  • This is such a well-written article! On my next road trip west, I'm getting off the Interstate and coming to visit! I'm Southern-born and bred, and I think it will feel like coming home!