Extolling the Shoals

Saturday, July 20, 2013 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Florence, AL to Tupelo, MS

Neither of us had visited the Shoals area before, so we had a bit of orientation to do last night after our arrival.  We learned that 'The Shoals' refers to the four-city area split by the Tennessee River (pictured above) but joined in spirit as one community.  Sprawling on the northern bank sits Florence (pop. 39,359), founded in 1818 by an Italian native, who named it for his favorite city in the Old Country.  Strategically located at the western end of the treacherous shoals on the Tennessee River, Florence harnessed the river's power to become an early center of textile manufacturing. 

Florence's three smaller and younger siblings occupy the land across the river.  Named for a Chickasaw chief, Tuscumbia (pop. 8,423) was founded in 1820 near the head of a large spring.  Its rich farmland made the town an early center for agriculture, but today Tuscumbia known primarily as the birthplace of Helen Keller, internationally acclaimed author and advocate for the disabled.  North of Tuscumbia, Sheffield (pop. 9,050), a respected recording mecca in the music industry, wasn't incorporated until 1884.  Established in 1923, the youngest city of the group—Muscle Shoals (pop. 13,175)—was an unlikely offspring of Henry Ford.

(map from shoalsunited.com)
Early in the last century, the Shoals area attracted the attention of two of America's leading industrialists.  In 1921, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison visited the area and announced their vision of creating a 75-mile-long metropolis centered around the Shoals.  With electrical power supplied by the newly completed Wilson Dam, Ford intended to build a factory that would employ upwards of a million workers.  But the federal government rejected Ford's offer to purchase the dam and implemented the Tennessee Valley Authority instead.  Locals did vote to incorporate the town of Muscle Shoals as a result of Ford's interest, but as it turns out, most are just as happy not to be living in the "Detroit of the South."
At the top of our agenda Saturday morning in Florence was the W.C. Handy Home and Museum, but our early start offered the opportunity to search for a few letterboxes before the museum opened.  The elegant downtown public library was sheltering a box, but we never made it inside the door.  Our attention was diverted by a dazzling array of spotlessly polished automobiles parked in the streets, many with their hoods agape to show off the sparkling chrome within.  Downtown arteries were blocked off for a well-attended car show.

After perusing the pampered autos for a few minutes, we left for greener boxing pastures when we discovered that the library didn't open until late morning on Saturdays.  The University of North Alabama was close by and offered several hidden treasures.

Founded as Lagrange College in 1830, the university was the first state-chartered institute of higher learning in Alabama.  After moving to its current location in 1854, the campus was occupied by both Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War.  With a landscape and facilities master plan designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the University of North Alabama's shaded walkways and spacious green lawns give it the appearance of a wealthy estate.

University of North Alabama
Enthralled with its beauty, we wandered the mostly empty campus at will this Saturday morning and easily located the two letterboxes hidden there.  Our idyllic tour was jolted to an ugly reality when the clue for one of the letterboxes pointed us to a large cage housing two miserable lions.  Leo III and Una, two African lions, were brought to the enclosure as cubs and suffer a life of captivity.  Apparently they are forced into even smaller cages and dragged off to the football stadium for home games to be displayed on the sidelines.  Where is the ASPCA when they're needed?  Not only are these majestic animals cruelly confined in an unnatural environment, they are subjected to severe distress caused by the bizarre experience of being surrounded by the overwhelming noise, crowds and confusion of a football game—certainly not something they would encounter in the grassy plains of their African homeland.

Sadly disappointed by this ugly blemish on an otherwise beautiful campus, we soon left the university and made our way to the Handy museum, which is housed in the log cabin where the legendary musician was born, though it has been moved a few blocks from its original location.  An attached building houses an impressive collection of memorabilia, musical instruments and correspondence of the Florence native renowned as the "Father of the Blues."

Our visit to Florence happened to coincide with opening day of the annual ten-day W.C. Handy Festival, which brings music of all genres to a variety of venues across the city and the greater Shoals area.  Unable to wait for the kick-off events tonight, we could only add it to our list of places we'd like to revisit, especially for the culminating final day parade featuring a traditional street strut in which participants twirl decorated parasols as they high step down the streets of the city.

Before leaving Florence, we were determined to have a look at the 100-ft single lift lock at the Wilson Dam.  A search for a letterbox took us to a small "dam overlook park," but there was nothing to see there except a jungle of overgrown weeds hiding a distant section of the river.  We tried driving the bridge across the top of the dam but there was no place to pull over, and on either bank, access to the proximity of the lock was strictly prohibited.

Eventually we stumbled upon River Heritage Park, which we hoped would gain us the view we sought.  The park is home to a large interactive fountain with a music and light show on summer evenings.  During the day, it provides a cooling playground for area children.

Cooling off in the fountain spray was popular on this hot day.
Another admirable—and fitting—feature of River Heritage Park is the city Walk of Honor, a string of commemorative columns honoring local citizens who have brought fame to themselves and their hometown.
A few miles west, the Natchez Trace Parkway bridge over the Tennessee River is named for General Coffee.
What we did not find at the park was a place to get a good view of the lock.  As we searched, we encountered Richie, who was patrolling the park for the city police department.  An affable fellow and hospitable ambassador for his hometown, Richie explained that, like so many other 'sensitive' locations, access to the area around the lock had been locked down after the terrorist activity of 2001.  "It sure was a great place for a cheap date when I was in high school," he reminisced.  Barred from the view we sought, we drove over to Riverview Street (whose river view has been blocked by development) to visit an unexpected jewel in this small Southern city. 

The 'front' of the Rosenbaum House with the street in the 'back'
Built in 1939 on the heels of the Great Depression, Rosenbaum House is the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed structure in Alabama and one of the few in the Southeast open to visitors.  Designed in Wright's Usonian architectural style, the house embodies his vision of an affordable home for a middle income American family.  Original cost for the 1,540 sq. ft. home was $14,000, including furnishings, which Wright insisted on supplying himself.  By the time the homeowners had their fourth child, they engaged Wright to design a 1,000-sq.ft addition.  Breaking with tradition, the back of the house faces the street.  Windows on that side are small and high, designed for light and privacy.  Facing the river, the front of the house features walls of windows to bring in the outdoors. 

Wright-designed furniture in Rosenbaum House
Every piece of furniture was designed by the architect and intended for efficiency.  At the time, he found the novel material plywood much to his liking, using it widely in both furniture and built-in storage compartments.  By 1999, the elderly original owner could no longer maintain the home, which was in a severe state of disrepair.  The city purchased the house and its furnishings and has invested more than $700,000 restoring it to its original splendor and operating it as a museum. 

After a late lunch at the popular Rosie's Cantina downtown, we finally left Florence around 3 p.m., arriving in Tuscumbia just in time for a leisurely visit to the Keller birthplace.  Built in the Virginia cottage style by Helen's grandparents, Ivy Green contains much of the original Keller family furniture and hundreds of mementos of Helen Keller's life, including photos, letters, and her original Braille typewriter and library.

Ivy Green, childhood home of Helen Keller
Now housed in a gazebo shelter, the famous well pump where Helen learned her first word—"w-a-t-e-r"—is a favorite spot of Ivy Green's many visitors.  Teacher Anne Sullivan described the child's breakthrough that day in her journal:  "Helen has learned that everything has a name and that the manual alphabet is the key to everything she wants to know."  By nightfall of that momentous day, the pupil had learned more than 30 words.

Behind the home are numerous outbuildings dating back to the time when Keller was born at Ivy Green in 1880.  Also on the grounds is an outdoor theater where local actors perform "The Miracle Worker" each summer during the annual Helen Keller Festival.  (We missed this year's performance schedule by only a week.)

Finally at 4:30, we drove back onto the Natchez Trace Parkway, making only a few brief stops for letterboxes and restrooms on this unremarkable section of the road.  Two hours later, we exited at MM260 and made our way to a restaurant for dinner and then to our hotel in Tupelo.