Walk Hard

Alabammy Bound

Every state in the Union has its back-roads’ “World’s Largest” or “Birthplace of” tourist attractions. 

Many of these can take some time to ferret out, and they may not all appeal to the masses.  But, for the more adventurous, a side trek onto Robert Frost’s “road less traveled” can be worth much. 

An interesting amalgam of such attractions awaits the curious.  An ancient game, a hillbilly legend, a destructive bug, a humble legume, and one of nature’s strangest creatures are allDominoes gameCredit: wtvy.com memorialized or celebrated in one little pocket of southeastern Alabama close to the Florida border.

Throwin’ Bones
In Covington County, Alabama (south central part of the state adjoining the Florida panhandle border), lies Andalusia, Alabama.  It is a small town (though sprawling for its size of roughly 8,000 people). 

Amid all of Andalusia’s light industrial growth and the newness of its many nationally recognized businesses there is something ancient that features heavily in the town’s tourism trade.  It has a quirky claim to fame in its competition-level love of one of humanity’s earliest games.

Dominoes probably originated in Asia as a variant of dice.  The dots on the tiles are called “pips”, and various configurations exist in the number of pips per tile. The name “dominoes” French women playing dominos (early 19th C; lithograph detail)Credit: public domainwas applied to the black-and-white European version of the game tiles because of their resemblance to the black Italian domino half-mask worn in masquerades (the word “domino” is first recorded in the mask-usage sense about 1694 CE). 

The oldest confirmed game set was found in the tomb of Tutankhamen (c. 1355 BCE) in Egypt.  They were popular in early China, and played in Korea and in Laos. It is believed the Venetian explorer, Marco Polo (1254-1324 CE), introduced the game to Europe upon his return from his first journey to the Far East.  The French learned the game from the Italians, and by the 18th Century the game’s popularity had reached England.  From there, it made the jump to the United States.  Europeans added the strategic “blank” tile to the game, and today there are hundreds of versions played with these very basic pieces.

The game is global, but it is Andalusia, Alabama, that holds the title of “Domino Capital of the World”.  In 1976, a domino tournament was started as a Bicentennial civic project; very ambitiously (and cheekily) the event was named the “World Championship Domino Tournament”.  The jest grew into a local tradition, and for the past 37 years several hundred competitors from anywhere in the US and elsewhere converge on little ol’ Andalusia, Alabama (2012’s tourney ran from July 13-July 14).  Cash prizes totaling $20,000 and trophies were awarded in the recent event – over $800,000 in prize money has been dispensed since inception. Domino Tournament (Andalusia, AL)Credit: blog.al.comOf course, Beauty has Her place in the tournament as well: in addition to vying for the title of world’s best dominoes player, a Miss World Domino is selected as well.

Oh, Lonesome Me
A chronically depressed, dour Alabama man put “hillbilly music” into the minds and hearts of mainstream culture in the 1940s.  Though The Carter Family, Jimmy Rodgers, TheHiram King "Hank" WilliamsCredit: knoxville.com Stoneman Family, and others preceded him, it was the wailing and whining of Hank Williams – as well as his outstanding storytelling in song – that spawned modern Country & Western music.  And for the man who came from out of nowhere, flamed brightly, and was gone, it only seems fitting that his hometown of Georgiana, Alabama, should similarly be an out-of-the-way state-of-mind and not a vibrant village.

The town of Georgiana in Butler County, Alabama, was a wide place on a dirt main street in Hank’s day.  Hiram King “Hank” Williams was born in nearby Mount Olive, Alabama (also in Butler County) on September 17, 1923.  By 1930, the Williams’ family fortunes took a severe turn for the worst when the breadwinner suffered a brain aneurysm (that left him debilitated for over eight years).  After living in several other small southern Alabama towns, the family finally moved into a house at 127 Rose Street in Georgiana along with a relative (Opal Williams) in 1935.

Georgiana, AL, main strip (1925)Credit: Butler County News

The young Hiram Williams met a black street performer in town.  Rufus Payne (died impoverished in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1939) taught the boy how to play guitar.  Payment for the lessons might be pocket change or some of Hiram’s mother’s home cooking.  As Hiram Williams grew into his instrument – and his talent – he unofficially changed his name to “Hank”, thinking it had a better sound to it than his own given name. 

In 1937, Hank Williams (at the age of 14) headed off to the capital-city lights of Montgomery, Alabama.  He became a Country legend in his own lifetime from there, dying at the young age of 29 in 1953 (of alcohol and drug-induced heart failure).

Hank Williams Boyhood Home & Museum

In Georgiana today the little house the Williams family occupied during Hank’s earlier years is a museum and shrine to this great musician and singer/songwriter.  It is almost certain Georgiana hasGerogian, AL (current)Credit: AL Highway Patrol improved over the time of Hank’s living there – the streets are paved now, the town boasts roughly 2,000 people, and the legacy of Hank Williams is guaranteed to be a tourist draw for the most hard-core fans who want to follow the legend’s odyssey from its earliest years.

It is difficult to celebrate a destructive and ruinous pest.  However, the town of Enterprise, Alabama, has a special place in its heart for the boll weevil.

This destructive insect was indigenous to South America.  When cotton became the juggernaut of cash crops in the early 19th Century in the United States, the boll weevil had a much more attractive food supply than it had in its native lands.  King Cotton was lunch.  And supper.  And breakfast the next day for the boll weevil as it migrated from Mexico via Texas.

What is now Enterprise, Alabama, in Coffee County, was settled by one man in 1881.  He opened a mercantile on what is today the town’s Main Street, and a village grew up around it. It was incorporated in 1896 with 250 people – by the end of its first decade in 1906 there were almost 4,000 residents.

In 1915, the boll weevil left Texas and found the delicious cotton bolls of Southern Alabama to its liking.  The crop destruction was record-setting.  Close to 60% of Coffee County’s cotton crop was destroyed in the fields.  Farmers faced bankruptcy; the local economy was on the brink of ruin.  Coffee County farmers, however, did the unthinkable, and reaped the rewards – instead of fighting the weevil, they gave up on cotton.  They shifted to different crops, none of which were of any interest to the weevil.  This eco-agricultural change-over inadvertently benefited the farmers as well: cotton is a voracious feeder on its soil’s nutrients and without proper crop rotation the cotton will deplete the land’s ability to sustain it.

Boll Weevil Monument (early)Credit: public domain

By 1917, Coffee County’s enterprising farmers saw themselves produce and harvest more peanuts than any other county in the nation.  These quick-thinking and adaptable peopleBoll Weevil Monument (current)Credit: c21regencyrealty.com had only one thing to thank for their success: the boll weevil, the very thing that had brought disaster. 

As a reminder of their “benefactor” the world’s only monument to an agricultural nightmare was crafted.  On December 11, 1919, the Boll Weevil Monument was dedicated in downtown Enterprise, Alabama (the seat of Coffee County). 

The statue is a typically classic female form, her arms raised majestically on high holding a giant boll weevil aloft in exaltation.  The statue’s base is inscribed:

“In profound appreciation of the boll weevil and what it has done as the herald of prosperity, this monument was erected by the citizens of Enterprise, Coffee County, Alabama”

Goober Peas
As the good citizens of Coffee County praised the boll weevil for its history-changing presence, the good citizens of Dothan, Alabama, decided to go the more direct route and praise the crop itself that brought such prosperity.

A poplar glade surrounding a freshwater spring provided travelers in the 1700s and early 1800s a respite when crossing through what is now Houston County, Alabama (the extreme southeastern corner of the state).  Many noted the quality of lush tree growth near the spring (named “Poplar Head” because of the poplar trees and the fact this site was the well-spring or “head” of the water source).  Some settled there in the 1830s and began logging (the sandy soil was thought too poor for farming, but the pine timber was old growth and plentiful). 

A hamlet developed, but its limited economy meant Poplar Head did not thrive, and by the dawn of the Civil War it had been nearly abandoned.   A local route for the Pony Express was set up in the area of the dying town and combined with post-War developments the village slowly came back to life. In late 1885, a move was made to incorporate.  However, as strange as the town’s name was – “Poplar Head” – the residents learned that moniker had already been registered by yet a different Alabama town in the northern part of the state!  It was re-christened “Dothan” (a biblical city name).  With over 65,000 people today Dothan is the largest city in its area of Alabama.

The upstart lumbering town got a stop on the first stretch of railroad built in that part of the state.  Pine forests were harvested for turpentine and wood.  The area boomed.  Clearing out the forests meant arable land was available and soon enough cotton became the local staple of the agrarian economy.  The same boll weevil infestation that in the early 1900s wiped out most of the cotton elsewhere in Alabama did not spare Dothan, either.  Like their brethren in Peanut Monument (Dothan, AL)Credit: weblo.comCoffee County, the farmers shifted their main crop to peanuts.  Within a 75-mile radius of Dothan (where much of the peanut processing occurs) the area produces fully one-fourth of the peanuts in the US.

Rather than honor the boll weevil (as Coffee County had with its Boll Weevil Monument) Dothan instead made the peanut its icon.  The city calls itself “The Peanut Capital of the World” and that statement, considering the output from such concentrated farming activity, may very well be true.  But beyond the bragging rights, the residents also schedule an annual celebration for two weeks in the fall – the National Peanut Festival – rejoicing in the prosperity the peanut brought to a once dying town.

Aerial shot of National Peanut FestivalCredit: uab.edu

’Possum on the Half-Shell
The adage of “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade” could perhaps be the town creed of Red Level, Alabama.  Situated near the northeast corner of Covington County (where the Domino Capital of the World – Andalusia – is the county seat) Red Level is nothing if not inventive.  And the residents obviously have a sense of humor as well.  

Nuisance plants and animals are a bane when they take root in areas not capable of supporting them without damaging the local eco-system.  Kudzu, introduced in the Deep South as a ground cover to curtail erosion, has taken over much of the landscape where it thrives in the subtropical environment.  The Asian carp, purposely introduced into the US to combat another species, has itself almost taken over as the dominant fish in the Mississippi River.  Nutria (a very large and destructive rodent indigenous to South America) found a home in Louisiana decades ago – they are so annoyingly plentiful that despite a growing industry in nutria furs (for inexpensive linings in hats, etc.) and in nutria meat (shipped to China where it is considered a delicacy) the nutria still cause millions of dollars in property damage.

Texans know the armadillo well.  They are used to these strange looking throwback prehistoric critters.  They are mammals; within reason they are not much of a bother.  When populations become out of control, however, even something like an armadillo can get underfoot.  They are perhaps the most common form of road kill in The Lone Star State.  The waddling, armor-plated Texas speed bump made its way into Alabama via Mobile sometime in the 1950s.  Sightings were few at first; but once established, the armadillo became as big a pest in Alabama as it is in Texas. 

Armadillo(107017)Credit: tinypic.com

One slightly off-kilter man in Red Level, Alabama, concocted a scheme to use the armadillo as a means of generating some tourist interest in his little town (current population about 550).  Partly as a joke but also as a means of fund-raising for the Red Level Rescue Squad, The Red Level Armadillo Round Up was created.  Originally called the Southeastern Armadillo Roundup, the festivities included armadillo races and games, the crowning of Miss Armadillo, and The World’s Shortest Parade.  [The first in 1985 included children with banners, a float for Miss Armadillo, and the Red Level High School Band.  Later editions of this gimmick took the path of absurdity – the “parade” one year consisted of one man on stilts.] 

One of the original festival food items was armadillo stew.  The creators of the dish swore it contained no armadillo and was only a gag, but . . . did anyone really know?

The 1985 event (the first) was absurdly billed as the 10th Annual.  By the time of its true 10-year anniversary in 1995, this goofy ode to the little armored pig had altered its name to The Red Level Armadillo Round Up

The silliness continued year after year.  A musical act calling itself “Mama Diller, Papa Diller, and Little Phyllis, Too” appeared, for example.  Eventually, according to the organizers of the festival, the keystone armadillo races had to be discontinued because the animals often escaped from the race track and ran into the adjoining neighborhood, causing residents to complain.

The event is still primarily a fund-raiser; parent-teacher groups and band boosters are the beneficiaries of the proceeds.  With the races no longer in play, though, the organizers always try to have a few armadillos on hand for viewing (secured in cages).   The event can draw a large crowd – the first festival attracted 2000 visitors, effectively trebling the size of Red Level for that day. 

Final Thoughts
Never turn your nose up at an opportunity to be amused, astounded, or amazed, especially when such silliness as an Armadillo Round Up awaits you in the dustier corners of America.

Southern Alabama (attractions numbered)

Get off that beaten path and enjoy!


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