Alabama 200 ushers in Baldwin County’s version of 1776
by Suzanne Hudson photos by George Fuller
Blank stares. A double-take. Or, “Alabama 200? What’s that?” Those are just a few of the responses I get when promoting this celebration. But I’m happy to fill folks in. I have ulterior motives, after all.
It was late summer, 2017, when I wandered into a meeting of Baldwin’s AL 200 Education Committee, having contacted Felisha Anderson, county chairperson. An enthusiastic advocate, she was happy to have another retired educator on board. Still, I was clueless about exactly what the “AL 200” was all about. Sure, I knew it had to do with the bicentennial year of statehood, that this committee was one of many devoted to the celebration of said statehood year. As I perused the literature covering such projects as placing new historic markers, a historical book, a list honoring “people of our past,” tours, a “birthday cake” float for use in various parades and festivals, bicentennial flags, and more, it began to dawn on me. I flashed back to the year 1976, when I was a braless and hairy-legged college student. This wasn’t just any old celebration.
1976 was a big fat fluffy commercial and patriotic deal. Special coins were minted, “America’s Bicentennial,” emblazoned on everything from this new money to airplane banners to underwear. Over-the-top celebrations began in 1975, ramping to crescendo on July 4, 1976, over-the-stratosphere fireworks blanketing the nation, television specials blasting every America-loving lyric ever written, and odes to the USA raised unto the heavens from institutions as varied as the Smithsonian, Disneyland, and the Super Bowl. You young whippersnappers should google it up in order to truly appreciate the bigness of it all.
And now Baldwin County is fixing to put on a county version of 1976.
The committee was very welcoming to me, open to input and volunteer work – there seemed to be no micro-managers in the bunch – which was a good thing, since I had, as noted, a not-so-hidden agenda: a county-wide “Read Local” campaign to educate folks about our history.
It made perfect sense. Our county, I shamelessly maintain, has more authors than all the other counties in this state put together. As a matter of fact, we have a friendly rivalry with Monroe County, just up the road, to lay claim to “Literary Capital of Alabama.” Surely I could find a few novels steeped in local history that could be used in schools. I put out a call to writer friends, and, when the dust settled, had three titles the Board of Education approved: V for Victor by Mark Childress, The Poet of Tolstoy Park by Sonny Brewer, and Waffle House Rules by Joe Formichella. Full disclosure: Joe is my husband.
Turns out, Jay Lamar, state executive director of AL 200, is a fan of our “Read Local” push. She is sharing the idea with other counties in the hopes that they can come up with their own community reads. “I’d like to see a little healthy competition among the counties,” she told me, as each entity is charged with doing special events informed by its unique history. According to Lamar, there are some standout counties in the state, but “Baldwin is giving them a run for their money, because this county is very aware of its history, has extensive archives, and enjoys a lot of support at the local and county government levels.” She emphasized that, because of Baldwin’s growing economy, it is prepared to make the most of AL 200. Bottom line: Baldwin 200, Lamar says, “is one of the best in the state in large part because Felisha Anderson is awesome and has put together a very knowledgeable and diverse committee.”
Even though he’s a pain, Sonny Brewer and I both know there’s true friendship and affection between the lines. And there have been plenty of lines edited between us, going back to our university days – all the way back to creative writing classes in the mid 1970s, when Sonny wore a beard that rivaled Henry Stuart’s. So of course I was tickled that his Poet of Tolstoy Park was among the books selected for an AL 200 county-wide read.
The fictionalized story of Stuart, the quirky “barefoot hermit” of Fairhope, Poet has gained fans over the years. It has also brought folks from places as far and wide as Spain, England, and Canada to visit the little round “hermit hut” that sits near Highway 98 and Parker Road. It’s a jarring oddity amongst the banks of modern buildings, and one almost expects a Hobbit to come creeping around the curved walls. Thanks to Sonny, it was designated an historic structure back in 2006, after a New York Times article noted: “Though the state of Alabama designated the hut a landmark, his [Sonny’s] application needed more work. They said it was too weird.” Seems all it took was a public shaming.
The real shame would be, Sonny says, “for the general public to be unaware of the quirky and, yes, weird little bits of our Baldwin County heritage,” like the story told in Poet. It’s the tale of a man who moved, on doctor’s orders, from Idaho to the Eastern Shore, to a warmer climate in which to die. Except that he didn’t. Die, that is. Instead he gardened, philosophized, walked back and forth to town (forever bare of feet), survived the hurricane of 1926, and built his little round hut, brick by brick. “He embodies the spirit of Fairhope – that experiment based on Henry George’s principles – a revolutionary spirit. And we should pay homage to the weirdness,” Sonny says, pleased that his book was selected. “I’m honored,” he says, “that my name and my work are associated with an invitation to read something that’s not on a cell phone.”
Now that’s the spirit.
“I’ve seen snakes and gotten chased by plenty of horseflies, but nothing disturbing,” Mike Bunn says. “The only truly disturbing encounter was this morning when I got stung by a Guinea wasp.” Welcome to the woods.
A city boy from Columbus, Ga., who loves himself some woods, Bunn is a soft-spoken man who has also been passionate about the past ever since childhood, when his grandmothers regaled him with stories about what things were like, way back when. A cousin in Charleston layered in Civil War lore, so it’s no wonder he wound up with a master’s degree in history, finally wending his way to the director’s post at Historic Blakeley State Park.
Through his work on the AL 200 Education Committee, he has developed lesson plans for area teachers, for a day or two’s worth of lessons about Baldwin County history: The Creek Indian Wars, the War of 1812, and some Civil War battles that took place here in our backyard. Schools are urged to take advantage of local sites for field trips. And the larger public is encouraged to visit and take advantage of the unique settings as well.Bunn points out that Blakeley is a huge historical site, consisting of over 2,000 acres, a variety of camping areas, and 16 miles of trails, including horseback and biking trails. A riverfront walkway allows visitors to take in the lush vegetation and wildlife. Boat cruises run by licensed captains offer a nautical perspective as historical lectures are delivered.
In this special year, Bunn believes the AL 200 bicentennial will bring a renewed interest in the rich history and natural beauty that is his everyday world, and we can’t help but agree, infected by the pride he takes in this wildlife paradise.