Tag Archives: Franklin D. Roosevelt

The Paint Rock Valley and “Green, Green Grass of Home”

IMG_1474  It was a soggy Earth Day 2015 event at Monte Sano State Park in Huntsville on Sunday, April 19. It was raining when I arrived shortly after the noon opening and the early attendance was sparse with some exhibitors either absent or late for set-up.

IMG_1473Even so, my favorite local goat cheese purveyor, Paul Spell of Humble Heart Farms in Elkmont (www.humbleheartfarms.com), was open for business and busy giving out samples. I bought my usual, Humble Heart’s Tuscan blend, and a package of the French blend. At another booth I picked up some herbs – chives, mint, and rosemary – to continue to pot up this year’s herb garden in the back yard. I already have some mint and lots of basil growing back there.

Despite the rain, I hit a few of the tables and booths that were set up and had a chat with Steve Northcutt of the Nature Conservancy. One of the reasons I made a special effort to get to the Earth Day event this year was because my friend Judy Prince from Birmingham planned to be there to recruit support for her initiatives and clean-up projects serving her native Paint Rock Valley in northeast Alabama along the Paint Rock River’s winding path to the Tennessee River. Because of health and the weather, Judy was not able to attend and in her absence Steve was handling a drawing for a Paint Rock River canoe trip. I am planning two canoe trips for this year — the Paint Rock River and the Cahaba River.

IMG_1483After leaving the Earth Day event, I wandered through the park, winding up at a scenic overlook that also has a small museum and memorial dedicated to the Civilian Conservation Corps of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. At a time when Alabama’s Republican elected officials seem to be on the verge of closing down a number of state parks, it was a reminder of how much this part of Alabama owes to FDR and his Depression-era recovery policies. Every town in the Tennessee Valley should have a monument to Roosevelt.

As I left Monte Sano, there was a break in the rain and more people seemed to be arriving at the Earth Day festivities. Since the Paint Rock Valley was on my mind I decided to make the short drive to Jackson County and drive through the upper Paint Rock Valley for a while.

The Paint Rock River meanders for about sixty river miles from its origins in northernmost Alabama to where it enters the Tennessee next to a spectacular bluff known as Paint Rock. I saw the Paint Rock on a boating day trip along the Tennessee from Guntersville Dam to Decatur a couple of years ago. It is only accessible from the river and is worth checking out if you get the opportunity.

IMG_1506My Sunday drive, however, took me into the upper reaches where the headwaters come together and form the small but ecologically significant Paint Rock River and its surrounding valley. Due to recent rains and storms, the river was flowing fast with a lot of mud and debris and was beginning to overflow its banks. There are a number of places along the two-lane highway through the valley where the road goes alongside the river. The area is sparsely populated and there are abundant farmland and animals grazing in pastures along the river’s course. IMG_1486

Occasionally you pass through a more settled area. The towns of Princeton and Trenton huddle close to the road. My afternoon drive took me as far into the valley as the town of Estillfork. One of the things that struck me along the drive is the way most of the houses, stores, and churches are right on the road, even where there was space to build farther back.

My friend Judy Prince is a psychotherapist based in Birmingham but her roots are in the upper Paint Rock Valley and in Estillfork, where her family ran a country store for decades. Judy has been active with various projects to enrichen the valley and preserve and pay homage to its beauty, community life, history, and heritage. It is through visits to the area in conjunction with Judy’s Paint Rock Valley History Project and Connect UP (CUP) initiatives that I have been introduced to the upper Paint Rock Valley. There are multiple goals, part of which is building connections and community with the area’s Appalachian and Native American cultures. “Building community” has become a theme for me lately, it seems.

Judy has been active in using a “rolling store” to dispense heirloom Cherokee Purple tomato seedlings and seeds. The rolling store idea is in honor of her father, Pete Prince, who once operated a rolling store in the valley in addition to his stationary store in Estillfork. IMG_1491

Judy has ongoing plans for a History Store and Working Farm as a wellness and healing center to serve the community and people in need from the community and beyond including those with physical and mental challenges, veterans, the elderly, and youth. One of her goals is to utilize the projects to connect residents of the area with those from outside the community and to increase interaction and exchange from diverse communities. Judy speaks passionately about all of these projects and her enthusiasm is contagious. She wants to bring more visitors into the valley while also enabling those in the community to venture forth and seek broader exposure to other options of doing and living.

IMG_1500Highway 65, the curving road that follows the Paint Rock River through the valley, is named “The Curly Putman Highway” in honor of songwriter Claude “Curly” Putman, the Paint Rock Valley native (Princeton) who wrote “Green, Green Grass of Home.” That song, written in the 1960s, was an often covered tune that was a country hit for Porter Wagoner and later an international hit for pop star Tom Jones.

As I drove through the Paint Rock Valley with Curly Putman’s plaintive song in my head, I was reminded of a road trip I took many years ago through another mostly rural area of central Alabama. I was with a friend who was visiting the area from Los Angeles. At one point, I veered off the main road to show her a quaint small town that was just off the highway. She was quiet and gazed out the window as we drove down the street that ran through the middle of the town, past neat little houses and a docile town square surrounded by a few small local businesses and a few shuttered storefronts. After a moment, she turned to me and said, “Why would anyone choose to live here?”

I was caught off-guard and didn’t have a ready answer at that moment but I have often thought about her question over the years. Why does anyone live anywhere? And how many of us have the luxury of choosing where to live? I have lived all over the country and I don’t think I ever really got to choose. You live where you were born and then you live where life, family, education, career, circumstances, and serendipity take you.

There are people who live in the upper Paint Rock Valley. Some stay there their entire lives and some leave as soon as they are able. Some return at some point and some never come back. Others come and stay or come and go. For some it is “home” and for others it’s just a place along the road. The country is full of communities like those along the Paint Rock River. They deserve our discovery, our attention, and our respect. They can learn from us; more importantly, we can learn from them.

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(For more information about Joys of Simplicity Wellness Adventures and the Connect UP Program, and for contact information for Judy Prince, check her website at www.tinyurl.com/lutybme).

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Tracking Down Mrs. Roosevelt

IMG_0746 A couple of weeks ago I spent fourteen fascinating hours watching Ken Burns’s newest documentary, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.” I have had a fondness for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt since I heard my grandmother talk about them when I was growing up.

It is easy to forget after so many years how important FDR’s Great Depression recovery policies were to the country as a whole and particularly to the part of north Alabama and the Tennessee River Valley where I currently live. At the time the Tennessee Valley Authority was inaugurated as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the improvements in the infrastructure for north Alabama led to the development and progress of the decades to come. TVA’s Wilson Dam changed the Shoals area immeasurably. I am convinced that Huntsville’s considerable growth and the development of its substantial technology, space, and defense industries can be traced directly back to the technological advances spawned by the Roosevelt administration of the 1930s. I am also convinced that some of the local politicians who run campaigns railing against “big government” and “government interference” would not have been born if not for the government assistance and programs that came to the aid of so many millions during the Roosevelt New Deal era.

Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Works Progress Administration (WPA). Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Federal Housing Authority (FHA). Social Security Administration (SSA). The alphabet soup of programs initiated by the FDR administration is large and impressive. Some of them still exist today. Most towns, wherever you travel in the country, still utilize the legacy of the New Deal in extant public spaces, buildings, tourist sites, roads and highways, dams and factories. The WPA art works, photographs, performing arts, and literature were created by many people — some of whom would move on to become among the brightest lights of twentieth century American arts.

When Roosevelt took office in 1933, about 90% of urban Americans had electricity compared to roughly 10% of rural Americans. The Rural Electrification Administration (REA) was created to rectify that situation and by 1942 the number had risen to 50%. Ten years later, close to 100% of Americans in rural areas had electricity.

My grandmother often talked about listening to Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” by her radio (after the REA had supplied electricity to her family’s rural Cullman County residence). My mother still has recollections of my Grandmother Harbison pulling her chair right up to the radio to listen to the coverage of FDR’s funeral in 1945. She sat listening all day.

During a recent conversation about the Burns documentary, Mother mentioned how she had always enjoyed reading Eleanor Roosevelt’s daily syndicated newspaper column, “My Day,” which ran from the time Mrs. Roosevelt was First Lady in 1936 to her death in 1962. “I wish I had saved those in a scrapbook or something,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be nice to look back at them now?”

My quest had begun.

Fuelled by the documentary, I searched for a book compilation of the columns. What I found was My Day by Eleanor Roosevelt: The Best of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Acclaimed Newspaper Columns 1936-1962, edited by David Emblidge (New York: MJF Books, 2001). I ordered it and will soon give it to my mother, but I am reading it first and having a grand time of it. Mrs. Roosevelt’s written communication skills are as clear, blunt, and articulate as her husband’s much-lauded oral communication skills and she tackles a staggering array of issues with taste, tact, and progressive common sense. There are also warm personal insights about holiday outings with the family, gardening, fashion(!), and the amazing array of 20th century personalities she knew — from her uncle Theodore Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy, from Helen Keller to Autherine Lucy, Shirley Temple to Nikita Krushchev, Winston Churchill to Humphrey Bogart, … you get the idea.

I have a tattered and fraying tee-shirt with FDR’s image that I usually just wear for yard work. One afternoon I wore it to one of the local farmers’ markets and a vendor at one of the produce stands called me over. “My parents loved FDR,” she said. “My dad always said he saved us from sure ruin.”

“My Day” and Ken Burns’s striking new documentary provide human and first-hand insights into some of the most important events of the twentieth century. We all need to remember and learn.