Those traveling to The Shoals often ask for the best routes into and out of the area. I’m not sure what your definition of “best” may be, but I personally love to travel visually interesting routes, when time allows. For those that have the time and inclination for a scenic drive, I always recommend taking part of the journey on the Natchez Trace Parkway.
The Natchez Trace Parkway is a 444-mile historical path that travels from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee, and connects the Cumberland and Mississippi rivers. It follows a geologic ridgeline that prehistoric animals followed in search of new grazing land and water sources. The Trace connected tribal homelands of the Natchez, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations. Native travelers used the same pathways repeatedly, creating natural sunken sections in the ground.
Two hours south x southeast of The Shoals lies the metropolis of Birmingham—that’s how I have it in my childhood memory. It was the 1960s and 70s and we rarely made the trip. At that time, it was a place of strife, and violence, and steel, and, for a small child, the great unknown. It wasn’t until I returned to Alabama in the year 2000 to settle back into my home state that I came to know—and began to understand—this city that lies in the heart of Alabama.
One of the three closest airports to The Shoals is here, in what is called the “Magic City”; many guests who visit our studio choose to fly or take the train to Birmingham and make the two-hour drive through the Southwestern Appalachians to Northwest Alabama.
Officially founded in 1871, Birmingham built itself around railroad transportation and the railroading industry—which is still in operation today, but the major industry that spurred economy and growth was iron and steel production—hard work for strong people. While the manufacturing industry is still recognized as a large presence, other businesses and industries, like medical technology and banking, have strengthened and added growth to the area in the past 50 years.
I took the pieces you threw away, and put them together night and day, washed by rain, dried by sun, a million pieces all in one.
-Howard Finster, “Poem for the Garden”
Howard Finster, a Southern Baptist minister and self-proclaimed “man of visions” moved to Pennville, Georgia in 1961, having purchased four acres of land that was mostly swamp. After draining the land with a series of homemade canals and channels, he began building the Plant Farm Museum, a biblical roadside attraction that would house “all the wonders of God’s creation.” Finster’s modern-day Garden of Eden was covered in biblical verses, paintings, and sculptures of the artist’s own design and punctuated by a series of structures including the Bible House, Mirror House, Hubcap Tower, Bicycle Tower, and a Folk Art Chapel which was five stories tall and built without plans or the aid of an architect.
In 1965, Howard Finster retired from preaching and increasingly dedicated himself to the Plant Farm Museum and his burgeoning career as a visual artist.
Ten years later, Finster’s elaborate environment was featured in Esquire magazine and renamed Paradise Garden. The garden has changed greatly over the years, and many of its original works have been acquired by collectors and museums. Few images of the garden in its original state exist.
Fortunately, one anonymous visitor to the garden in the mid-1970s held onto his or her pictures, and we are able to experience the garden at the height of its beauty – intact and un-plundered.
–Phillip March Jones
Last summer, friend Lisa Fox hosted our first Alabama Chanin Pop-up Shop at her East Village store, lf8, for Makeshift 2014 and New York Design Week. After a run at Billy Reid Austin over the holidays, our indigo collection is available at lf8 in New York this spring. The shop features our one-of-a-kind, hand-dyed indigo pieces alongside our A. Chanin machine-made line, Heath + Alabama Chanin collaboration, accessories, books, and more.
Readings, workshops, Makeshift conversations, and special events will take place over the course of the two months–more details to come. Visit here to see last year’s programming and learn more about Makeshift.
Alabama Chanin @ lf8 through May 22nd:
80 E. 7th Street
New York, NY 10003
Follow @alabamachanin and @lf8_elevate on Instagram for updates.
For more information, contact: sales (at) alabamachanin.com, or call, +646.861.2837
Music has always been an integral part of The Shoals. We are placed along the banks of what the native people have long called, “the river that sings.” W.C. Handy, The Father of the Blues, was born here; legendary producer and founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips, is also from The Shoals. So, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the influential style of music known as the Muscle Shoals Sound emerged from this same musically rich place.
Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, we had an abstract idea of the big sounds being produced all around us—but no one ever made a fuss about it. Sure, our neighbors made music for a living, but those neighbors certainly weren’t famous, were they? (Were they?) And so it wasn’t until years later that many in our community began to understand exactly what was happening around us while we were growing up.
“Organic buildings are the strength and lightness of the spiders’ spinning, buildings qualified by light, bred by native character to environment, married to the ground.” — Frank Lloyd Wright
When visiting the Shoals area, or anywhere in Alabama for that matter, you should take time to visit the Rosenbaum House in Florence, Alabama. Nestled among otherwise ordinary Southern homes, this gem of craftsmanship and architecture is a perfect example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian style of design and is the only home he built in Alabama. Constructed nearly 60 years ago, the house was inhabited by the Rosenbaums (the home’s sole occupants) until 1999, when the family donated the property to the city of Florence. The home has been completely restored to look exactly as it did when the Rosenbaums lived there. Walking through it, you can feel the life and love that seeps from it still.
In 1938, Stanley Rosenbaum, a young Harvard College graduate who lived in Florence and worked in his family’s movie theater business, married New York fashion model Mildred Bookholtz and brought her home to Alabama. As a wedding gift, Stanley’s parents gave the newlyweds two acres of land and a small sum of money with which to build a home. The couple optimistically turned to world famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, known for his innovative design approach and affordability. The Rosenbaums asked Wright to build them a home with three bedrooms, two baths, a large kitchen, a study, a living room large enough to accommodate Mildred’s piano, and all for the sum of $7,500. To their surprise, Wright agreed.
I’d wager that every native, and recent guest, to The Shoals would urge future visitors to set aside time for lunch at Trowbridge’s Ice Cream Parlor and Sandwich Shop. The universally beloved local eatery is a backdrop for so many of our memories, and it has managed to serve up simple, delicious food for decades, while keeping its unpretentious charm. The green awning and the window advertising “Sandwiches, Ice Cream, Sundaes” are as iconic to residents as any official logo or state seal.
The little shop was opened in 1918 by Paul Trowbridge and is still run by his grandson. The story (as it was told to me) says that in 1917, Mr. Trowbridge was traveling to North Carolina for a dairy convention and stopped in Florence on the way. He loved the lush area and the town enough to move his family from Texas to Florence and opened Trowbridge’s shortly thereafter.
As our new travel series expands, we realized that we have never laid the groundwork by adequately defining and describing the community that we call “The Shoals.” Since Alabama Chanin’s inception, love of community has been the cornerstone of our inspiration, design philosophies, and production practices. Shared stories of our region’s history, our neighbors, and our food, have inspired our work and brought visitors from afar. Reflecting on how much we talk about our home—The Shoals—I thought we should (finally) explain exactly what that term means.
“The Shoals” is a reference to the low-lying shoals of the Tennessee River in Northwest Alabama, at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, along which the cities of Florence (where The Factory is located), Sheffield, Muscle Shoals, and Tuscumbia are situated. The name “The Shoals” is also a shorter way of saying the Florence-Muscle Shoals Metropolitan Area—also known as the “Quad Cities”—which spans two counties and is home to somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000 people. Before each city was named, the region was called the “Muscle Shoals District”; it was supposedly named such by Native Americans who found that navigating the strong current of the Tennessee River in this area almost impossible—and paddling upstream required a great deal of “muscle.”
It is believed that prehistoric Native American tribes crossed into North America during the Ice Age and followed herds of buffalo into the Northern Alabama region. This area was settled by what became the Woodland Indians (1000 BC – 900 AD) who built several ceremonial and burial mounds in the area. The largest in the area—tucked away between the local farmers co-op and the scrap metal yard—holds artifacts dating back over 10,000 years. I’ve been told that this holy site is believed by many to be part of a chain of important spiritual points in North America and has been visited by holy people of many different tribes across North and South America. Our friend Tom Hendrix’ wall is a living testament to the spiritual nature of our ancient Indian community.
About two hours south of The Shoals is Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city. It is a city built on railroad industries and iron and steel production. Birmingham has been called “The Iron City” and “The Magic City,” and it has a contentious past as a central player in our nation’s civil rights struggle. But today’s Birmingham has much to offer in the way of history, art, food, culture, and nightlife.
One of our favorite spots is The Garage, run by our long-time friend Kay Woehle. Kay’s father, architect Fritz Woehle, bought the building that houses The Garage in the 1970s. Back then, the former garage (pictured in the old, bent black and white photos shown here) was being repurposed as storage space.
Fritz converted part of the building into a design space and leased the remaining space to other artists and small business owners. The Garage—known for years as The Garage Café—was opened in one of these spaces by Jimmy Watson in the mid-1990s. After Jimmy passed away earlier this year, the Woehle family took over management of the bar.
Flags or Fences
Shreveport, Louisiana; Lexington, Kentucky; Atlanta, Georgia; Nashville, Tennessee; Austin, Texas; Jackson, Mississippi; Birmingham, Alabama; Corbin, Kentucky; Knoxville, Tennessee; Oxford, Mississippi; or The Shoals, Alabama.
No matter where Phillip March Jones finds himself, he takes photographs of the extraordinary ordinary, the peculiar still life: unusual signs, unfinished fence projects, garden rails, giant farm animals, and confusing natural anomalies.
The photos here—part of his Pictures Take You Places series—were captured last month in and around The Shoals.
Check out his recently released book: Pictures Take You Places