Written by Jesse Chambers
Photography by Edward Badham
I visited Montevallo for the first time in 1982. I was an English major at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and made an impromptu, late-night road trip there with two girls, Xan and Annette, who were in my Spanish class.
We went to a girl’s apartment — one of Annette’s friends, I think. Memory fails me. We drank beer and partied — I’m not sure how long — then drove home.
I saw a bit of the beautiful University of Montevallo (UM) campus, part of Main Street and some of the town’s relatively undeveloped perimeter. The little town of Montevallo put a hook into me, and I’ve never shaken the idea that I had stumbled into a hidden bohemian oasis, a place apart from the rest of the Birmingham metro that many people in the area never visit and of which they are only dimly aware.
I wanted to make another visit but never did, not until late June, when I went to Montevallo again to find my way to the green heart of the dream. What’s the feel or character of the town, I wondered? What about all the sustainability projects I heard about in Montevallo? Is it really an overlooked progressive hideaway?
I met B-Metro photographer Edward Badham at Eclipse Coffee & Books, which serves as a prime Montevallo gathering spot, on a hot, sunny Friday morning. Serving as our guides for a day tour of Montevallo’s “green” projects, both on and off campus, are Aaron Traywick and Courtney Bennett. Traywick is a current UM student and Bennett a recent graduate. Both have been active in the UM Environmental Club and helped start ValloCycle, a bike-share program that was initiated by students and attracted support from the city and the university.
How would Bennett describe Montevallo? “I don’t really know, but after you live here you can’t really live anywhere else,” she says. “It just has a certain pull to it. I think it draws a certain sort of person. It’s very hard to leave. It’s hard to go other places.” She describes how glad she was to get back to Montevallo after spending a couple of days in Birmingham. “Just having to drive everywhere [was] really alien, because here you just walk everywhere, and it’s not a big deal.”
Originally from Anniston, Ala., Bennett graduated from the UM last December with majors in English and sociology. She stays busy, doing PR for ValloCycle, the new Montevallo Artwalk and other groups. Traywick is from Elmore, Ala., and is the first UM student to design his own degree in the new Interdisciplinary Studies program. He says that while he, Bennett and their associates have to work hard to get sustainability projects going, the town is receptive.
“One thing I’ve always been fond of when it comes to Montevallo is that there is not a lot of negative [opposition to] good ideas and good work,” he says. “We’ve had to work really hard, but it’s no harder than we would have had to work anywhere else.”
An awareness of the need for smart development in Montevallo got a boost a few years ago, according to Traywick, when citizens stopped the construction of a huge apartment complex, at least in part because they found that the city’s water-treatment facility couldn’t handle the impact.
Eclipse co-owner Cheryl Patton opened the coffee house and restaurant in 2001 with her husband, Michael Patton, who teaches philosophy at the UM.
In 2007, Michael taught the school’s first sustainability class, in which students were charged with preparing and serving a large banquet at the end of the term — a banquet prepared using food grown or produced within a 100-mile radius of Montevallo. His class, still offered on occasion, helped inspire some of the students who later became active in the Environmental Club.
The Eclipse, located in an old house with sculptures in the yard, hosts lots of events, everything from rock bands to comedy troupes to fire eaters. “It’s something different all the time,” Cheryl says, laughing. “I’ve learned to just say yes.”
Bennett, Traywick, Badham and I headed next to the nearby Parnell Memorial Library (PML), a community mainstay that, among other things, serves as the home venue of the popular theater troupe, the Montevallo Main Street Players.
We meet Libbie Rodgers, treasurer of the PML Foundation, who shows us the plans for a new organic garden being built at the library. The garden will help stop erosion that damages the Cahaba River, beautify the area near the library and educate the public, including kids, about storm-water management and rainwater harvesting.
“We have schools all around,” Rodgers says. “We have the elementary school right across the street, high school nearby, middle school nearby. And all of these will be able to come and learn from the garden.”
We next wander through Orr Park, a large green-space that runs along a lovely stretch of Shoal Creek, and look at the many sculptures — including animal faces and serpents — carved by hand in dead cedar trees in the park by coal miner and local artist, Tim Tingle. We leave Orr Park and pick up the Parks Trail, walking in the direction of Stephens Park. We follow Traywick, a sort of intrepid expedition leader who walks barefoot, even in the underbrush in a sort of wild, unkempt area. As we walk, we see pieces of graffiti and chalk art on retaining walls, and see fruit trees planted along the path by a family that lives nearby.
Traywick tells me that Montevallo is a place where all the good stuff is not right on the surface. ”There’s a lot of really beautiful and obscure treasures,” he says.
After a long, though enjoyable, walk, made bearable on a hot day by water we drink from Traywick’s glass jar, we reach the UM Organic Garden on County Road 10. The garden gives UM environmental studies students hands-on credit and supplies food to Shelby Emergency Assistance. When we arrive — at about noon — manager Holly Pless Wadleigh, a master gardener, has been working for hours, watering and tying up tomatoes.
“I spend a lot of hours out here,” says Wadleigh, a UM biology major, who grew up on a farm in Tennessee. “I love gardening. “
She adds, “I just wanted to teach other people how to grow stuff, and when I found out that we were feeding the needy, that was a plus.”
After a walk to the UM campus, we visit the art department, where students are making bike racks, but not just ordinary bike racks. These racks will be used by ValloCycle and will conform to specifications, but will also be attractive pieces of sculpture. Collin Williams, an associate art professor and director of new media, tells us that this class was part of the popular UM service learning program that allows students to earn class credit while doing community projects. Student Rachel Hall is making a bike rack meant to lie flat, using metal rings cut from recycled pipe. It will be used at the science building, so Hall says, “I wanted to do something that mimicked cell structure and growth.”
Hall gets the Montevallo vibe. “It’s just a small community where people are really connected and really aware and just want to do what they can to change things, and just have a nice community,” she says.
After a stroll across campus, and badly in need of food and hydration, we stop at Main Streeet Tavern, a popular gathering spot on the town’s traditional commercial strip, where I have an overflowing shrimp po’ boy and, more important, about two pitchers of water. After a quick stop at the House of Serendipity, a book, antique and collectibles shop run by Bruce and Jane McClanahan that has been a fixture on the street since 1977, we drive to see one of the most impressive achievements of the Montevallo green and academic communities, the James Wylie Shepherd Observatory (JWSO), located about 2.5 miles from town on the former site of a former UM construction landfill.
Opened in 2008, the JWSO — housed in a shiny, metal dome — rises from the grass in a clearing in an undeveloped area like the domed-shaped house in Woody Allen’s futuristic comedy Sleepers. As we arrive, work is underway on the JWSO’s new pavilion, or command center, which is being built with cast-off cedar logs, self-composting toilets, solar path lighting, a rain-water collection system and solar panels connected to the Alabama Power electrical grid.
The directors of the JWSO are on hand that day — Michael Sterner, a mathematics professor, and Michael Powell, the same philosophy professor who taught the sustainability class. Sterner and Powell both have a deep interest in astronomy. “I have been an amateur astronomer my whole life,” Powell says. They sponsored an astronomy club on campus and then worked to clear numerous administrative and funding hurdles and build a permanent facility. “This was sort of a dream for a long time,” according to Sterner.
The day ends for me — as well as for Badham, Bennett, Traywick, Cummings and the Pattons — on the front porch at Eclipse. I sip a Good People IPA and listen to Michael Patton describe the origins of a popular series of events, called The Life Raft Debates, that he stages each October for the philosophy department. Teachers assume the persona of their favorite philosopher, Patton says, and compete to be chosen by the audience as the philosopher they would take on a life raft to start a new society. (For more, go to www.liferaftdebate.com).
As I listen and drink my IPA, it is not hard to for me to feel that, given the easy atmosphere I feel among this crew of people, I could be very comfortable living in Montevallo.
At any rate, I know I will visit again, and not 30 years later this time.
After the trip, I asked some local luminaries in emails and phone calls what they thought makes Montevallo special.
Mary Lou Williams, executive director of Montevallo Chamber of Commerce, says, “We have a comfortable, small-town environment with big-city attractions.” She adds, “I think Montevallo is a microcosm of our region— a fine university and a diverse population, our interest in the arts.”
Hollie Cost agrees. The busy Cost — a UM professor of special education, coordinator of the service learning program, city council member and now a mayoral candidate — thinks her adopted town is special.
“I would venture to say that the diversity of the people in a population this size coupled with the cultural, natural and athletic opportunities offered locally are unmatched by any other Alabama community,” Cost argues. “I don’t know of any other communities of our size that can boast a public liberal arts university, a historical village civic education center, a sister city in Japan, a nationally recognized trail system, a city-wide bike share, a historic downtown and a prolific arts community.”
Bennett and Traywick told me that Montevallo seems to have another distinction you wouldn’t expect — a surprising level of acceptance of gay people. Kelly Wacker is an art historian and member of the UM faculty who moved to Montevallo in 2002 with her partner, artist Amy Feger. She agrees that Montevallo treats the GLBTQ community pretty well, and her speculations as to why that is true may also include clues to the mystery of Montevallo’s seemingly progressive nature, despite its location in the Bible Belt.
“It’s tolerant, to sum it up in one word,” Wacker say. “I don’t know specifically what is is about the University or the town that encourages that. I think some of it may have to do with the history of the University, because it’s a liberal arts college and has been through its history. About Montevallo, I think that people are interested in people as individuals and [in their] personal character, and that seems to come first more than anything else.”
The town’s relative isolation may have something to do with the fact that people feel safe to express themselves there, Wacker suggests. “We’re a little outside the Birmingham metro area, and it has been in a sort of bubble that is a little protective, and characters are embraced in Montevallo. it is kind of a special place in that sense.”
Badham has been lucky enough to return to Montevallo since our visit. He went back a week or two later to shoot a couple of other locations. One of those locations was the magnificent Ebenezer Swamp, a nature preserve that UM biology professor Michael Hardig and others helped save from the development of a proposed limestone quarry nearby. The site preserves 80 acres of endangered upland hardwood swamp.
I emailed Badham and asked if he had any thoughts, impressions or memories of Montevallo to share.
“As I drove into Montevallo it seemed pretty much like every other time I have been there, a sleepy little country side village,” Badham wrote. “But upon the arrival of my barefoot bohemian guide, Aaron, it was as if he let us through a portal, and we entered into a strange and wonderful land of enchantment — a place where wild animals, wizards and serpents frolic merrily in the park, a place where you can peer into other galaxies, and where giant steam-punk creatures lurk in the swamp. It is a hidden mecca of sustainability and magic.”
A hidden mecca? Maybe so. A mecca that more people from Birmingham should probably check out.
Montevallo: It’s not that far away
A visitor’s guide
Main St. Tavern. 529 Main St. On Montevallo’s downtown commercial strip, the Tavern dishes out fresh, scratch-made cuisine during the day and hard-rock bands at night. Open Tues.-Sat. (205) 665-0336. www.mainsttavern.com
El Agave. 628 Main St.. This Mexican restaurant offers big helpings, vegetarian options and a nice view of downtown. It’s “Margarita Night” on Tues. & Thurs. (205) 665-0035.
Eclipse. 1032 Main St. This gathering spot, in addition to hosting a wide variety of events, offers healthy salads and sandwiches, organic coffee, award-winning milkshakes and high-gravity beers. Spend an afternoon hanging out on the porch. Open Mon.-Sat. (205) 665-4232. www.eclipsecoffee.com
House of Serendipity. 645 Main St. Stumble across treasures at this unique gift and full-service book shop, open since the 1970s. Serendipity offers china, antiques, and vintage greeting cards, books and toys. Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m-4 p.m. (205) 665-7996.
Blue Phrog Gallery. 955 Main St. The gallery’s unique architecture reflects the diversity of the art inside. Over 40 local and regional artists showcase everything from chainsaw carvings to hand-crafted jewelry to re-purposed metal sculptures. Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun. by appointment. (205) 665.3766. www.bluephroggallery.com
Aree’s Attic. 720 and 730 Middle St.. There’s no telling what you’ll find behind the gated entrance to this jam-packed antique shop – VHS tapes, records, video games, musical instruments, even tools, birdcages and movie posters. (205) 417-0095.
Ebenezer Swamp Ecological Preserve. County Road 24 and Stage Coach Road. The University of Montevallo has preserved 80 acres of the South’s most endangered wetland, the upland hardwood swamp. With a boardwalk that extends into the swamp, visitors can observe indigenous plants and wildlife without disturbing them. Open dawn until dusk.
Orr Park. Park Road. Montevallo’s largest park offers rolling hills, trails for biking and jogging, and swimming and fishing in Shoal Creek, plus gazebos and playgrounds. And you can check out amazing sculptures carved from dead cedars by artist Tim Tingle.
Stephens Park. 154 Vine St. A pond and habitat for local plants and wildlife is a feature, as well as biking and jogging trails and athletic fields.
Montevallo Parks Trail. This 2.5-mile greenway connects Orr and Stephens parks. It winds through downtown and alongside Shoal Creek and provides wildlife habitat. At University Lake, the trail connects with an exercise trail.
Shoal Creek Canoe Trail. An excellent put-in point for canoes, kayaks or tubes, this one-mile river trail carries you through Montevallo to Orr Park.
jDarby Farm. 13650 Highway 17. This farm specializes in organic herbs and vegetables. Drop by on Farm Day (first Saturdays) for a tour, including a solar-powered barn with a menagerie of llamas, alpacas, horses and goats. Open Mon. 3-6 p.m. and by appointment. (205) 908-9518.
Moore’s Crossroads. 4700 Highway 119, from sunup to sundown. Most days, you’ll find vendors in the Pit Stop parking lot with produce from area growers. One vendor offers Amish goods, including ciders.
Lucky’s Foodland Plus. 4000 Highway 25. This market offers lots of local produce. The store’s produce manager, Ronnie Burnette, is active in the movement to promote area farmers. Mon.—Sun., 6 a.m.- 10 p.m. (205) 665-5124.
Local produce is also available at Piggy Wiggly, 4563 Highway 25. Mon.–Sun., 7 a.m.-9 p.m. (205) 665-2712.
Stars Fall on Montevallo
James Wylie Shepherd Observatory. 1093 Pebble Road, off County Road 206. Built on the site of the former University of Montevallo landfill, the JWSO is powered by solar panels and has a system to convert rainwater into purified drinking water. This observatory is one of only two in the entire country to be completely accessible to disabled persons. With landscaping by Petals from the Past farms, the site also preserves over 150 acres of Pea Ridge wilderness. To set up an appointment for a viewing, contact: Dr. Michael Sterner at (205) 665-6493 or Dr. Michael Patton at (205) 706-2450.
American Village. 3727 Highway 119. This civic education center and historical village is a nationally recognized resource for students and citizens of all ages. American Village’s primary goal is to strengthen and renew the tenets of American liberty and self-government. Mon.—Fri,. 10 a.m-4 p.m. (205) 665-3535. Admission $8.
Aldrich Coal Mine Museum. 137 County Road 203. Alabama’s only monument dedicated to coal miners everywhere. Exhibits include information about African-Americans arrested on petty or trumped-up charges and forced to work in Alabama coal mines in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Open Thurs.-Sun. and by appointment. (205) 665-2886. Admission: adults $5; children $3.
Ramsay Conference Center and Lodge. University Campus. Inexpensive and conveniently located. (205) 665-6280.
McKibbon House Bed and Breakfast. 611 East Boundary St. Built in 1900, this Victorian home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (205) 665-1275. www.mckibbonhouse.com
Fox and Pheasant Bed and Breakfast Inn. 540 Shelby St. Built by W.B. Reynolds in 1905, this reservations-only inn features an English manor setting, gardens and verandas and gardens. (205) 665-3080.
Two UM professors, Clark Hultquist and Carey Heatherley, have published a pictorial history of the city, titled Montevallo. For information, visit www.arcadiapublishing.com.
For more about Montevallo’s parks, trails and other attractions, call (205) 665-2555 or go to www.cityofmontevallo.com.
Thanks to ValloCycle for supplying some of the information for this directory. Their ValloCycle Town Map is a great guide for a Montevallo bike or walking tour. Go to http://vallocycle.com.