Small towns creatively rejuvenate
by Margaret Dabbs
Jul 28, 2010 | 3926 views | 0 0 comments | 55 55 recommendations | email to a friend | print
On a recent solo trip to Mobile with no strict time deadline, I decided to avoid the interstate and take the roads less traveled. This decision resulted in numerous rewards as well as an unanticipated revelation. Many of the small towns in Alabama, complete with genuine heart and spirit, are reviving themselves with unusual and creative projects.

The water tower at the end of Main Street in Greensboro, the county seat of Hale County, boasts the descriptive title, Catfish Capital of Alabama. With a population less than 3,000, this proud town still has a viable downtown. The occupied buildings include two large furniture stores with inviting window displays, Sledge’s Hardware with its original wooden floors, and several locally owned businesses. Even the unoccupied storefronts have been maintained to look neat and tidy rather than sad and depressing. Residents sit on benches outside the stores and an older gentleman was happy to make eye contact and carry on a short but pleasant conversation about the weather.

One of the newest kids on the Main Street block is Pie Lab, at home in Greensboro in the old pool hall building since last fall. True to the name, this small café, re-created as a light, cheerful space with salvaged and donated items, serves a coconut cream pie with a graham cracker crust and strawberry lemonade that in and of themselves justify a trip down Highway 69 from Jasper.

Some days you might find Butterscotch-Bourbon Pecan Pie, Mixed Berry Cobbler made with a local farmer’s blueberries and strawberries, Oreo Pie, and a quiche or lasagna pie on the menu.

But Pie Lab is so much more than a café. Developed by a social issue oriented graphic design group, it is meant to offer a “welcoming neutral space” where people can come together and share ideas, perhaps a new twist on the community center. The tables, long and narrow, are designed to seat you with folks you may not know as this unusual business strives to be a setting for community development.

Since Pie Lab collaborates with other organizations in the area, small-business workshops are held there, culinary students develop and market new products, and others learn how to run a small business or develop a website for a local business. After the Pie Lab designers made a new sign for the local beauty shop, the owner of the shop taught ballroom dancing lessons there and open-mike night adds another dimension to the already long list of activities organized or sponsored by this highly motivated organization.

In a part of Alabama where economic opportunities are often few and far between, Pie Lab wears many hats and offers a kind of creative energy where the questions become “What if?” and “Why not?” With the ideas this type of thinking encourages, the possibilities for further rejuvenation of our grass-roots communities are endless.

From Greensboro, Highway 25 rolls on for about 30 miles through eye-pleasing catfish farm country. Then the Alabama Rural Heritage Foundation and Center in the former home of Marengo County High School will not let you miss Thomaston, a tiny community of about 400. The foundation’s sign is so huge, it reaches out and grabs you. A normal-sized sign is equally compelling and arouses curiosity as it tells you to “Eat Pepper Jelly.” You simply must stop.

Claiming the title as the “oldest standing county high school in Alabama,” trees grow out of broken windows in the gym and community garden vegetables, mostly corn, are cultivated on the old football field. However, the home economics building was recently renovated with federal HUD funds in a mutually beneficial joint project with the heritage foundation and five architecture students from Auburn University’s Rural Studio.

This facility now houses the Rural Heritage Center, The Heritage Shoppe, and the production kitchen for Mama Nems green pepper jelly, red pepper jelly, and watermelon rind pickles. The center focuses on creating new industry by developing and marketing new products and hosts a folk art gallery, plays, the Pepper Jelly Festival, and art camps. Mama Nems products are sold in addition to novel artwork and crafts made exclusively by Alabama artists and craftsmen.

The partnership with Auburn still thrives as Mama Nems product recipes are developed at the university. With guidance from Auburn, plans are in the works for growing all the fruits and vegetables for Mama Nems products in the football field garden.

Thomaston took the step to maintain its identity and vitality by teaming up with a state university as they jointly re-defined a dilapidated county high school building. A former center of education now reaches out to an even wider spectrum of the community by offering education of a different kind, potential employment possibilities, and exposure to and preservation of a rich arts culture.

While Jasper is larger than and no longer quite as off-the-beaten-path as Greensboro and Thomaston, it is still a small town which struggles to preserve its special qualities while facing many of the same social and economic issues as the much smaller communities. A look around quickly reassures us that in our own way, we are taking similar steps to deal with those issues.

About two years ago, a crew of gardeners pulled together by Paul Kennedy, president of the Walker Area Community Foundation, started meeting to develop plans for a community garden. Today, with the gracious generosity of the Walker County Commission who shares some of the old airport property with them, 39 raised beds are actively gardened with flowers, vegetables, and herbs. The products from about one third of them are being used by food banks and soup kitchens while the others are enjoyed by families and individuals who reap the benefits of digging in the soil and growing their own vegetables.

For several years a lonely home vacantly dominated a city block at 800 7th Street, persistently begging for attention. Built in the 1920’s by William Brockman Bankhead and occupied by his extraordinary family, this formerly magnificent home had fallen on terrible times.

The Walker Area Community Foundation raised money, purchased, and diligently renovated this home with an amazing outpouring of support from a wide variety of sources. While this massive project is still a work in progress, the Bankhead House and Heritage Center is open today with plans to host traveling exhibits, literary, art, and musical events, and showcase and highlight the people of Alabama with emphasis on the people of Walker County. Paul Kennedy describes the purpose of what he calls “the people’s house,” with these words, “To inspire greatness in all generations of the people of Walker County thru the arts, preserving our heritage, and simple interaction.”

Greensboro brings people and ideas together downtown at the Pie Lab. Thomaston utilizes an old school to preserve and share art and history and develop new ways to add jobs to the local economy. Jasper and Walker County garden and develop a center where the culture is preserved, pride is restored, and the individuality of its citizens is recognized. These small communities and towns adamantly refuse to fall off the map. Instead, they are making their marks on the map while holding onto and preserving their unique identities.

Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890.