Tag Archives: Chilton County

Backroads and Byways

Forest at Shady Grove Church

My first memory of the photographs of William Christenberry (1936-2016) is in 1973 in an exhibit at the art gallery in Garland Hall on the University of Alabama campus. I was on campus for freshman orientation and had a couple of free hours one afternoon. It is my first awareness of putting Christenberry’s name with images that seemed immediately familiar somehow.

I have written about Christenberry in the past. He photographed the forgotten byways and captured a disappearing South; his disappearing South has nothing to do with nostalgia or the myths of any “lost cause.” He was drawn to the kudzu-covered landscapes and decaying buildings of primarily rural areas, mostly in Hale County, Alabama, where his “people” came from.

Christenberry’s photographs of places rarely have people in them, so his best-known work has escaped the racial politics which sometimes taints contemporary perceptions of  20th Century Southern photography. (He did have a somewhat obsessive installation called “The Klan Room” on his property, behind locked doors; rarely seen – except in photographs in books – it included objects that the artist collected and created to express his fascination and revulsion with that racist terrorist group.)

As I have begun to wander out a bit more recently, I find myself taking back roads and being attracted to the kinds of places that Christenberry exalted and taught me to better appreciate. These are not sad places. Instead, there is a pride that comes through the decay and a sense-memory inspired by them.

Thorsby, Alabama

A couple of weeks ago, traveling to Harrison Fruit Farms in Chilton County for my first “peach run” of the season, I became acutely aware of places on the side of the road that I have probably passed hundreds of times over the years. A group of abandoned buildings in Thorsby, Alabama, called out to be photographed. Especially appealing are the ruins of the once stately Bank of Thorsby building, dated 1909. It is in the remaining details – the cornices, the lettering in the windows, the date – that the history is revealed and the legacy is sealed.

The town of Thorsby was settled by Scandinavian immigrants in the 19th Century. They were among the first farmers to cultivate the famous Chilton County peaches. The current remains of the town’s business district still face the railroad tracks running alongside U.S. Highway 31. Concordia Cemetery, a peaceful resting place for some of those early Scandinavian settlers, sits on the town’s edge. 

A few days after the peach run, I took my mother on a quick trip to Ryan’s Creek Cemetery in Cullman County to check on her parents’ graves and make sure the flowers placed for Decoration Day on the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend had survived recent storms. We always drive around and visit sites from Mother’s childhood during these trips. On this day, she wanted to see the Shady Grove Church that I had photographed back in December. She had never been there but had admired the photographs I took several months ago.

The little church is in the Logan community, on the other side of the county from Ryan’s Creek, but we took off down backroads and eventually found our way to the churchyard of Shady Grove Methodist, part of north Alabama’s “Hallelujah Trail” of historic places of worship. Dating from the 1890s, the church is a peaceful and quiet place. During the half hour we were there, not a single car passed on the narrow road that runs between the church and its adjoining cemetery. The church has not held regular services in a hundred years, but it is well-maintained and freshly painted with bud vases and cut flowers in the windows. Paths lead down into the woods in several directions. Visiting there is a tranquil interlude in a frantic world.

These were the kinds of places Christenberry was drawn to several counties away. I think of him whenever I find one. On this Memorial Day, get off the interstate and find a place of contemplation along the backroads, wherever you might be.

The Peach Highway and Jimmie’s Peach Stand

100_1927  I get a little reflective as the Alabama peach season draws to a close. The state of Georgia, of course, has appropriated all of the peach titles and has done an admirable job of marketing its peaches as if they are something special. But a growing number of Southerners have discovered the rich and considerable delights of peaches grown in Chilton County, Alabama. On a May morning in the French Market in New Orleans a few years ago, I was pleased to hear a local shopper ask a vendor if any Chilton County peaches had arrived yet. He replied that he didn’t have any but that the lady a couple of stalls down had just gotten her first delivery of the season that very morning – “and they sure are good this year.” The shopper grinned like a child on Christmas and rushed to buy a basket.

I have long been a fan of Chilton County peaches but it was only when I moved back to Alabama in 1999 that I became something of a snob about them. The local crop is becoming better known and any traveler on I-65 between Birmingham and Montgomery is bombarded by the billboards promoting the tourist-driven peach shops at exits around Clanton. The biggest billboard of all for Chilton County peaches is the giant peach water tower at exit 212 in Clanton. The giant peach water tower in Gaffney, South Carolina, is older and bigger but each makes its point with kitschy panache.

To truly get a feel for Chilton County peaches, however, you must wander off the interstate and experience the numerous peach stands along Highway 82. When I lived in Montgomery from 1999 to 2002 I frequently traveled U.S. Highway 82 on the way to Tuscaloosa, where my parents lived at the time. Outside Montgomery, traveling northwest on 82, after going past the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail resort and subdivisions in the town of Prattville, the highway turns aggressively two-lane and rural through Autauga, Chilton, and Bibb counties on the way to Tuscaloosa.

As soon as you pass into Chilton County, from either direction, the roadside stands begin to appear. Some vendors come and go and others have been there for years. Sometime around Mother’s Day the stands, which have stood vacant during the cooler months, put up their freshly painted signs and the first succulent peaches of the year make their debut, lined up in full farm baskets and beckoning to all travelers. It is almost impossible not to stop. That moment – when I catch sight of my first peach stand of the season open for business with that sensual peach color and aroma – has become one of the defining moments of the growing season. My heart soars; I have been known to shout.

After sampling most of the stands, one has become my clear favorite – not just for consistent quality but for sheer “ambience,” if that word applies for a humble fruit stand on a lonely stretch of rural highway (and I think it’s the perfect word). Jimmie’s is my hands-down favorite peach stand in Chilton County.

Jimmie’s is located at a fork at the top of a hill where County Road 15 feeds into Highway 82. It’s a simple open wooden structure with display space on two sides facing each road. Baskets of peaches are lined up across the shelves facing Highway 82 and whatever other produce is in season is usually displayed on the other side.

Jimmie’s, which is a family-run stand, only sells peaches that they grow. To drive the point home, one of their peach orchards stands next to the stand and the truck regularly pulls in with peaches and other produce from orchards and parts of the farm farther down the road. A few years ago I asked Mrs. Harrison if they had any okra in yet and was told that they had sold out of okra that morning but if I could wait a few minutes they were out in the garden getting some more now. A few minutes later the truck pulled up and Mrs. Harrison told them to unload the okra first since “that’s what this man is waiting for.”

I now live in north Alabama, but my parents are in Birmingham and I manage to drive the seventy-something miles from Birmingham down to Jimmie’s every two weeks during the season. Usually I buy a basket for myself and fill additional orders from friends throughout Alabama. The car smells amazing on the trip back after the “peach run.”

If you happen to get to Jimmie’s after hours, and if anything was left when they closed up for the night, there’s an honor box so you can buy what you need, leave the money in the box, and be on your way. Honor boxes. You don’t see them much anymore but every time I encounter one it strikes me as one of the most civilized and hopeful things left in the world.