The National Heritage Area program began in the 1980s and includes 55 National Heritage Areas today. The program is funded through the National Park Service and carries their mission outside of park boundaries into lived-in landscapes. In 2009, Congress designated the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area (MSNHA), recognizing the historical, cultural, and natural significance of the six counties of northwest Alabama. The MSNHA is housed at the University of North Alabama and partners with programs on campus as well as nonprofit organizations, city and county governments, local businesses, artists, musicians, historic preservation organizations, and Main Street programs within the six-county region. The MSNHA also works on regional initiatives including many focused on developing recreational opportunities throughout the Tennessee River Valley.
In 2017, the MSNHA partnered with UNA’s Public History Center and Florence-based photographer Abraham Rowe to develop Hidden Spaces. While the history of our region is dominated by nationally significant stories—including that of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Muscle Shoals Sound, and the Trail of Tears—there are many, many other people, places, and events that have shaped the narratives of our community. In exploring these lesser-known stories, Hidden Spaces takes us to quiet locations that see few other visitors and invites us into places where creative people live and work. The project, which combines contemporary photography and historical research, has resulted in five exhibitions, oral histories, and a website. On our adventures around the MSNHA, the Hidden Spaces team met many fascinating people, sampled the best gas station food in north Alabama, and truly developed a deep appreciation for our region. Curiosity drives our work, as does our desire to share what makes northwest Alabama such an interesting place.
Photographs by Abraham Rowe for Hidden Spaces, clockwise: Lake in Mooresville, Alabama; Village School constructed in 1918, Colbert County, Alabama; Home in Old Town Decatur, Alabama; Figurines in a Window Sill, Old Town Decatur, Alabama; Gravestone of Henrietta Maria in Wilson Cemetery, St. Florian, Alabama; Old Town Decatur Railroad
Many of our adventures have shown us a different side of a well-known place. For example, Mooresville, located in Limestone County, attracts visitors from across the country who come to explore a town seemingly untouched by time. I’m always reminded of the fictional Alabama town of Spectre from the book and film Big Fish when I visit (although, unlike in the movie, everyone in Mooresville does appear to wear shoes). The historic homes of the community, the well-tended gardens, the church with its famous hand atop the steeple pointing up to the heavens, the flowers of 1818 Farms, and the historic post office are worth traveling to the town to visit. But it is the backwater of the Tennessee River—Limestone Bay—that caught our attention. A narrow red dirt road leads out of the south side of town and takes you to a completely different landscape of fields and swamps. The contrast between the wild tangle of the swamps and the neat order of the town is stark. While visiting Mooresville is like stepping into the nineteenth century, exploring the backwater, with its herons, egrets, turtles, beavers, and other wildlife, pushes us even further back, reminding us of a time before Euro Americans had found their way to Alabama. Interested in exploring the landscape outside of Mooresville? Head into Wheeler Wildlife Refuge on a rental bike from Southern Carnage Bike Shop, located at 5081 Mooresville Road, Mooresville, Alabama, 35649.
Other adventures have taken us to places whose history may be difficult to discern at first glance. Walking through Old Town Decatur today would leave you with the impression that the neighborhood has always been a quiet residential community. But at one time, this historic neighborhood was home to a thriving African American and immigrant community filled with businesses, doctor’s offices and pharmacies, grocers, pool halls, and more. A lion even lived behind a chain link fence at one home. When the trial of the Scottsboro Boys moved to Decatur from Scottsboro, the neighborhood saw a huge influx of people interested in the trial. When she came to recant her accusation of rape, Ruby Bates is thought to have stayed in one of the homes on the eastern edge of the neighborhood. Today, the vacant lots where blighted buildings have been torn down almost create a park-like setting around those homes that still stand. However, the steps that lead up from the sidewalk to front walks that go nowhere remind us that homes once stood in these spaces. To share the story of Old Town as it was, the Hidden Spaces team created a walking tour that takes you around this community and shows you what it once was like. You can begin the tour outside the Morgan County Archives, located at 624 Bank Street NE, Decatur, Alabama 35601.
Hidden Spaces reminds us that taking life a little bit slower—taking the time to uncover stories and travel down unfamiliar roads—can lead to fascinating people and places. Take some time to get out and explore on your own.
Story by Carrie Barske
Carrie Barske Crawford is the director of the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area and an affiliated faculty member in the history department at the University of North Alabama. She teaches courses in exhibit design, museum interpretation, and women’s history. She is also an avid hiker, backpacker, kayaker, maker, gardener, and equestrian, and a dear friend to the Alabama Chanin and Project Threadways teams.