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.
Collectively, The Shoals today holds a number of notable places and attractions—many of which we have highlighted or will highlight on the Journal. Florence is home to The University of North Alabama, whose campus was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted—the same firm that designed New York City’s Central Park. The city is the birthplace of legendary producer Sam Phillips and of W.C. Handy—often referred to as Father of the Blues. The Frank Lloyd Wright Rosenbaum Home—more on that in the coming weeks—is also located in Florence. Muscle Shoals famously birthed the “Muscle Shoals Sound” and still houses Fame Studios; interestingly, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios is not technically located in Muscle Shoals at all, but rather in neighboring Sheffield. Helen Keller was born in raised in Tuscumbia, which is also home to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Wilson Dam, a neoclassical-style dam that combines both ancient Roman and Greek styles of architecture, joins the two counties—Colbert and Lauderdale. The dam was completed in 1924 and, though it predates the Tennessee Valley Authority, is now overseen by TVA.
The Shoals has produced a number of creative talents across virtually every field and specialty—from athletics, to musicians and writers, to famed humanitarians. Our musical heritage is well documented—and the documentary Muscle Shoals, is highly recommended viewing. Longtime Shoals resident Charles Moore was renowned for his iconic Civil Rights-era photography. Author T.S. Stribling used Florence and Lauderdale County as the setting for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Store. Another Shoals native, Hank Klibanoff, won the Pulitzer Prize for History alongside Gene Roberts for their book, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation. And today we look to artists like Jason Isbell, The Drive-By Truckers, and fellow designer Billy Reid for inspiration.
When I was a girl, driving from rural Lauderdale County across the bridge into Colbert County felt like an enormous undertaking. Today, the community doesn’t feel quite so large and the neighboring cities have become the heart of what we call The Shoals. The region continues to grow and diversify, welcoming a varied group of artists and residents. The artisans who work with Alabama Chanin are spread throughout these cities and beyond. You can hear emerging musical talents, both local and national, locally produced on Single Lock Records and presented at their new venue, 116 Mobile Street. The University of North Alabama annually hosts the George Lindsey UNA Film Festival—a growing, competitive festival for independent filmmakers.
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