Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Birmingham or Bust

The great Hillbilly Road Trip was not a luxurious drive – there were huge chunks of miles to be covered everyday. The biggest chunk was Gainesville, Florida to Birmingham, Alabama. A lot of road and not a lot of stops; fortunately my brother drove all the way through Georgia so I could at least snap pictures from the car.

It rained all the way until we got well into Georgia and my brother and I used the opportunity to try to learn from my father what it was like to grow up in the Appalachians. He remembered the days before his family's home had electricity and to get power his father had to clear the land for the lines to be brought in. We discovered that my father's family subsisted mostly on the crops they grew and the animals they raised on small piece of land in a community known as Persimmon in Georgia. And every member of his mother's family played musical instruments except his mother, and so musical ability has eluded my family entirely. His maternal grandfather, "Grandpa Justus", often entertained the entire clan with his banjo picking (see the photo in the previous post).

Eventually my dad's father succumbed to pressure from my grandmother and moved to Michigan to work in the auto industry on the factory loading docks. He left his family behind in Georgia and drove 20 hours straight on holiday weekends to be with them. Meanwhile my father's oldest sister had managed to get my dad and his siblings accepted in the Tallulah Gorge School, a boarding school run by the Women's Club for poor Appalachian children. Eventually the entire family moved up to Michigan, but my dad was the last to leave because he had to harvest the corn crop he was growing as a school project.

Pontiac, Michigan was a new world for my father and he would ride his bike through the neighborhood in amazement at the great number of houses in such close proximity to each other. The girls at the school like to ask him lots of questions in order to hear him answer in his Southern accent, but my dad said he liked the attention!

You know you're in the South when large bits of the roadside are engulfed in Kudzu

Our first real stop in Albany, Georgia was for an amazing lunch at Pearly's Famous Country Cooking. The owner of the restaurant met us in the parking lot and told us all about Albany's oldest family-owned restaurant before we even set foot in the door. The menu of Southern favorites was overwhelming but I settled on turkey pot roast, greens, cornbread and cheese grits. After lunch, the owner returned with complimentary dessert: buttermilk pie, the house specialty. Truly a monumental meal and our first act of Southern hospitality. And because we had traveled off the beaten path to dine at Pearly's, we stumbled across a wonderful mid-century motel sign, just as the sun peaked out from behind the clouds.

As we neared Alabama, I saw a sign for folk art and we stopped in Brooklyn, Georgia. It appeared that the folk art was really just advertisement for a small roadside church. The artist, Floria Yancey, is a self-taught artist and preacher originally from Alabama. The work reminded me of Florida's Mary Proctor or Ruby Williams with a little Howard Finster evangelism thrown in.

Finally, we drove into Birmingham and out first stop was the monumental Vulcan statue which my brother and I proclaimed as "Vulcan awesome." Downtown Birmingham was somewhat obscured by the summer haze but the view from New Deal era hilltop park was a great way to orient us to the city.

A miniature version of the 56 foot tall original stands outside Vulcan Park's museum

We stayed in the historic Tutwiler Hotel in the middle of downtown and we quickly set out on foot to explore the city. We found great architecture and wonderful vintage signs and I saw just enough to make me want to go back. Our accomodations were super-deluxe and after a great meal at one of Birmingham's urban eateries I couldn't have felt more distant from that little North Georgia farm that my father grew up on...

Friday, August 27, 2010

Rainy evening in Hogtown

The great hillbilly road trip started off uneventfully with a rainy drive to my parent's house in Gainesville, formerly known as Hogtown. The weather cleared briefly so I could stop at a few of my favorite signs on US 441and grab a few images. 441 has been significant road in my life; my high school was located on the north end of 441 in Gainesville, my first job out of college was at the south end and if you followed the road north even further into Georgia eventually you'd end up in my Dad's home of Rabun County. I'd love to drive it the entire way but that would mean hours and hours of extra driving and we don't have that kind of time...

First the Florida Motel, which I've never photographed before. I used to produce a self promotional calendar called Florida Roadside Retro with my brother's images and this sign was one of the featured images. I noticed the hotel itself appeared to be made of chert; one major difference between North Central Florida and Central Florida is that up here they have more existing structures made of indigenous building materials.

Further up 441 is the wonderful Arby's sign which is always lit and can be counted on to look great even on a rainy day like today. I used to ride down to this Arby's with high school friends for lunch and I miss Arby's milkshakes.

The amazing time machine that is Krispy Kreme donuts did not have its sign lit, but it was wonderful to see how remarkably unchanged it was. When my mom was trying to bribe us to go to First Methodist Church with her she used one of two bribes: Krispy Kremes or feeding the ducks at the duck pond. At that time my dad got all the religion he needed watching Country Gospel Jubilee on TV. I can still hear the theme song in my head to this day.

The closest thing to a hillbilly sighting was Andy Griffith in his first big screen role in 1957's "Face in the Crowd" on TCM. He played a pretty rotten dude, nothing like Sheriff Andy Taylor. Just outside of the room with the TV, images of my relatives from Andy Griffith's neck of the world line the hallway as if creating a path of our journey to begin...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Hillbilly Road Trip

I was asked to design a logo for the Society for Commercial Archeology's upcoming conference in Arkansas, Odyssey in the Ozarks, and I asked "what kind of imagery do you want to use, hillbillies drinking moonshine?" The overwhelming response via email was a collective "NO!"

Fresh off a spring break trip to the Appalachians where I stayed in Asheville's Mountaineer Inn, which features a 40-foot high neon hillbilly complete with bare feet, corn cob pipe, and rifle, I was surprised at the conviction of my client's wishes. At the Asheville motel the hillbilly stereotype is celebrated in the motel's office and throughout the rooms; in fact the young clerk was more than happy to tell me about how he knew moonshiners who still practiced their illicit trade.

I wondered about the paradox of how the hillbilly stereotype could at the same time be offensive on one hand, yet embraced in enormous neon on the other. I realized that I had mixed feelings about the term myself, as my father's family had left the mountains of Appalachia to find work in the auto industry in Michigan, traveling the "hillbilly highway" back and forth between their mountain homes and their Detroit factory jobs. My dad, plucked from rural Rabun County, Georgia right before high school, soon found himself in Pontiac, Michigan in what must have been to him a strange new world. Eventually he found his way to Michigan State University where he met my mom, a native Michigander, and they stayed up north until I was 18 months old before relocating to Florida. Some of my father's brothers and sisters stayed in Michigan and some moved back to the mountains. As a result, I grew up knowing two families that had very different cultural backgrounds, one Midwestern, one Appalachian.

That's my dad on the right

As a kid, my dad's family in the mountains always seemed more mysterious than my Michigan relatives. They talked funny, grew their own vegetables, and went to churches that prohibited drinking. Just driving up the steep roads to their homes was an adventure for a flatlander like myself. When I was young, I saw my mountain relatives as hillbillies in the negative sense of the word; simple, primitive and unsophisticated.

The film Deliverance was filmed in my dad's hometown of Clayton, GA

As I grew older, however, I found that these folks were some of the kindest, generous and most loving people I have ever met. I see them now as hard working, industrious, warm and sincere. I guess I needed a little maturity to get over my own naive bias. And while my mother's childhood is well documented; she even has self-published a book on growing up in a small mid-western town; my father's childhood still seems mysteriously fascinating to me.

Intrigued by the paradox of the hillbilly stereotype and my own history with the term, I decided to present a paper on the subject at the aforementioned SCA conference. While preparing the paper, I have had great help from my roadside friends, even Debra Jane Selzer, the amazing creator of roadsidearchitecture.com, has been collecting images for me on her latest roadtrip. Friends on Flickr have offered to let me borrow their images. And I'm headed to visit one of my favorite authors of the roadside South, Tim Hollis, author of books like Dixie before Disney and the Land of the Smokies.

After visiting Tim's museum in Birmingham, I head to Gatlinburg and its many hillbilly-themed tourist traps. From there I'll cross the Smokies into Rabun County to see my North Georgia kin. My goal is to post updates from the road, ala Debra Jane, but that will all depend upon the quality of the wireless connection and my commitment level once I actually get out there.

My traveling partners on this road trip are my father and brother. In addition to looking for hillbilly stuff along the road, I think I'm trying to learn about my own inner hillbilly. Ride along and I'll let you know what I find...

Sunday, August 8, 2010

I love St. Augustine

I know it sounds like I'm gushing, but St. Augustine has always been one of my favorite places in Florida. As a kid we growing up in Gainesville, we visited America's oldest city often and the school trip our class made there in 4th grade was epic. As an adult I found it was a great place to take a date and the first time I ever held my wife's hand was the coldest day of 2003 on a day-long excursion to St. Augustine.

There are countless other reasons to love the place. No other Florida city, (except perhaps Pensacola), has nearly as much history, dating back to when Ponce de Leon came ashore near the present day Fountain of Youth. Speaking of which, there are some really great old Florida attractions still in operation inside the city, including the Fountain of Youth, Potter's Wax Museum, Alligator Farm, Zorayda's Castle and Ripley's Believe It or Not.

Then there is the architecture. Mostly Spanish or Mediterranean influenced it ranges from the over-the-top like the Ponce de Leon Hotel, now Flagler College, to the quaint, like many of the charming little homes on the narrow streets near the city center. I love noticing details, and St. Augustine is a city full of so much fascinating stuff that I'm surprised every time I'm there.

So here are some images from a quick walk around town on a very cloudy July day recently. I'm looking forward to making some new discoveries there, hopefully soon!

Some mid-century discoveries, these colorful signs are on US 1 just past the Ponces of the previous post.

This is the former Hotel Alcazar built by Henry Flagler, now the Lightner Museum. A quirky little museum, it's worth a stop if you've never seen it before.

A cozy sidewalk cafe.

Five of the six flags that have flown over St. Augustine. Do you know which one is missing?

Potter's Wax Museum has been in St. Augustine for over 50 years. Some day I may actually pay admission and go inside.

More typical charming St. Augustine details.

Found this on the not-so-quaint maze of tourist shops that is St. George Street. This building is surfaced with Vitrolite, a mid to early twentieth century art glass building material that I only know about from reading Debra Jane Selzer's blog.

The Oldest House Museum- one of many little museums in St. Augustine.

I'm not a big fan of graffiti, but I kinda like this guy.

Looking towards Flagler College.

This one's new- A car wash designed to look like a steamboat- cheesy but I love it!