A visit to the Alabama Rural Heritage Center.

En route to the beach, we bit back into our royal plan of making a pilgrimage to every Rural Studio construction in the state. So we stopped and spent some time exploring the Alabama Rural Heritage Center in the tiny town of Thomaston. The wide open spaces combine with ingenious construction innovations to produce the effect that made Rural Studio so famous.

The kids explore the handmade local wares.

Unlike other schools of architecture, the Rural Studio celebrates the story which emerges from every single design and construction. In many cases, the designers create a website which reveals the plans and charts the journey through the project. The ARHC building’s story, like the audacity of those who first dared to dream it, is preserved eternally at the project website.

In August of 2003, the Alabama Rural Heritage Foundation, and the Rural Studio of Auburn University began a partnership helped along by a $400,000 grant from HUD with the intent of helping to stimulate economic development in the community of Thomaston. Using less than half of this grant money, five determined Auburn students in the Rural Studio Program, Abbey Barnett, Melissa Harold, Paul Kardous, Nathan Makemson, and Robert White, embarked on a thesis project to design and construct the Alabama Rural Heritage Center (ARHC).

Free experimental beams made from recycled, compacted trash.

Rather than starting from scratch, the students renovated the Home Economics building of the old Marengo County High School and constructed a new 5,000 square-foot addition which includes a gift shop, commercial kitchen, packaging room, and vegetable cleaning/processing area. A separate grant allowed the students to add an outdoor pavilion/deck intended for use by the community.

True to the Sambo’s building philosophy, the students’ construction process made use of experimental and eco-minded materials, including the free “trash beams” pictured above.

On April 9, 2005, The Alabama Rural Heritage Foundation celebrated the grand-opening of the new Alabama Rural Heritage Center.

Max concurred with the ingenuity of offering free meteorites to little people. Each of the kids selected at least two “Alabama meteorites” with accompanying brochure. I crossed my fingers quietly, hoping that the idea for a “meteorite fight” would not leak from my brain to theirs.

The sense of community is enhanced by the prodiguous pamphlets, signs, and cards announcing the work and support of local artists, artisans, and nonprofit centers. Deeply-rooted communities tend to be those that engage us at multiple levels- from our individual preferences and affinities to our group identities and social concerns.

The gift shop overflowed with the with the creations of local artists, artisans, and traditional crafters. Since many creators leave a business card next to their creations, it’s more like a gallery of local creatives than it is a gift shop. The gourmet Mama Nem’s Red Pepper Jelly is made and sold in-house.

Local historian and advocate Foster Dickinson collaborated with Nancy Anderson to birth a book/curriculum guide which is now on my wish-list, Treasuring Alabama’s Black Belt: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Teaching Place. If you can’t find it in stores, I’m sure ARHC wouldn’t mind maling a copy in exchange for a phone call and little mullah.

Hours of operation for the gift ship are Thurday and Friday from 10 am to 4 pm and Saturdays from 10 am to 1 pm. You can also make purchases by email (ruralher@frontiernet.net) or by placing a call to 334-627-3388. The kitchen and dining area are still available for rent if you’re seeking a special place to host an event in Alabama.

The kind lady who eagerly answered all my questions at the gift shop (and who even went so far as to compliment me on my “well-behaved children”) explained a little project she had started on the back wall of the old school. This project, the Kid’s Korner, featured art for sale by young Alabama kids who donate their creations as a fundraiser for the Center.

When she said the project “wasn’t going as well as she had hoped”, I had a feeling we’d be mailing some art donations from the Coryell Castle before the tomatoes got fat enough to fall from the vines. If you live locally and find yourself staring at that same “feeling”, just write a short note about the artists, scoop up the art, and mail the whole cornucopia to Rural Heritage and Gift Shop, 133 Sixth Avenue, Thomaston, AL 36783.

Otherwise, scurry over to their Facebook page to learn more about upcoming events and opportunities.