Tuscaloosa is the kind of girl you have to get to know before you can truly appreciate… That initial glance at one of the kitsch-at-first-sight Southern bottle trees adorning a well-landscaped lawn might leave you a little perplexed, but by the time you see another bottle tree a few streets down, the conspiracy theories take over. At this point, you can keep on driving and comfort yourself with the thought that, “Tuscaloosans are just weird,” or you can muster up the courage to stop your car and ask a bystander about the significance of these bottle trees.
If you make the right choice, you might find out that “evil spirits cannot resist crawling into the colored glass of the Southern bottle tree” and “once inside the bottles, they become trapped and are destroyed by the morning sun”. You might also discover that the bottle tree is “one of the oldest traditions in the South”. Sometimes curiosity is just plain fun.
And the bottle trees are just the beginning. The more I wander, gab, and learn from the locals, the lusher the cultural landscape. What have I learned? For starters, there is a strong suit of local artists and artisans whose creations are particular to this area’s geography and history. A few examples:
- Potter Daniel Livingston’s unique Raku pottery is created through a lengthy process that is just as unique as its products. I appreciate Livingston’s self-description as a “child of the 60’s”, which, in this case, suggests he has the patience and humility to let the clay speak for itself.
- Master woodturner Maurice Clabagh lives just down the street from us.
- Steve Turner of Sunheart Metalworks is a self-taught metalsmith who has done wonders for the local Arboretum.
- The West Alabama Quilter’s Guild is a well-kept folk secret. These ladies patch history and a slice of life into each quilt.
- Ann Betak’s local landscape paintings offer fresh romantic renditions of Tuscaloosa’s enchantments.
- Chip Cooper’s photographs breathe nostalgia into Southern gothic.
- Brian Bishop’s paintings turn the ordinary into the interesting. Very nice contemporary feel without the excessive drama.
For every artist or artisan, there is a small store, gallery, or market that offers localisms and a slice of Tuscaloosa. A few suggestions for those seeking to shop for art, antiques, history, culture, or beauty in the Tuscaloosa area:
For the artistically-inclined, this town is brimming with sources for inspiration:
- One-half mile north of Tuscaloosa was the Creek Indian village known as Black Warrior’s Town, of which Oce-Oche-Motla was chief. After Tecumseh’s visit in 1811, these Indians became hostile to white settlers. In 1812 Little Warrior brought Mrs. Martha C. Crawley of Tennessee to this Indian Village as a captive. She was rescued by Tandy Walker, a blacksmith, and taken to St. Stephens. This was one of the incidents which led to the Creek War. The village was destroyed in October 1813 by Colonel John Coffee and his Tennessee Volunteers, one of whom was Davy Crockett.
- A moving bit of local history at Greenwood Cemetery- Born in South Carolina in 1813, Benjamin Farrar Eddins raised and led a company of volunteers that served in the 41st Alabama Infantry Regiment. Retired due to ill health, he returned to lead the Home Guards, a militia made up of old men and young boys. While trying to render the covered bridge impassable to Federal troops on the night of April 3, 1865, he and 15-year-old John Carson were wounded in a skirmish with Croxton’s Raiders. Later that evening, Mayor Obediah Berry and Catholic priest William McDonough surrendered the city on this site. Carson was disabled for life. On April 10, 1865, Capt. Eddins became the only local citizen to die defending the city. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
- The Strode House- Less than 0.25 miles from the house where I spent my adolescent years, this spot is quite sentimental for me. Dr. Hudson Strode (1892-1976)–author, scholar, teacher, and world traveler–and his beloved wife, Therese (1900-1986) lived here from 1941 until their deaths. Professor of English at the University of Alabama (1916-1961): he was renowned for his courses in Shakespeare and Creative Writing, his students publishing 59 novels and innumerable short stories; his authoring of 13 books including a 3-volume biography of Jefferson Davis and editing a volume of Mr. Davis’ letters. Dr. Strode received numerous honors and awards including being knighted by King Gustav VI of Sweden. Famous for their hospitality, the Strodes entertained students, friends and world figures in this house which they bequeathed with its gardens and a generous educational endowment to the University which they loved and served so faithfully.
- The Shirley Bridge- James Shirley, 1835, built the first wooden covered bridge at this site. Bridges here were part of first road connecting Columbus, Miss. and Northport. A Tuscaloosa Co. company of Confederate Army, “The Plow Boys,” en route to Columbus, July 1861, crossed bridge here. Union Gen. John T. Croxton, April 1865, after capturing Tuscaloosa, crossed bridge here. Republican Legislator, M. T. Crossland, on way to capitol at Montgomery, Nov. 1868 was assassinated near the bridge. A section of the 1882 steel, single span bridge once used for crossing Black Warrior River at Tuscaloosa was re-erected here in 1922.