The Heart of Hale County

Story & Photographs Jenny Adams

On a recent trip to Hale County, I acquired a hand-drawn map to help me around the area. They are supplied for free at the headquarters of Rural Studio, the acclaimed architecture program run by Auburn University. The irony of fourth-year architecture students hand drawing a map clearly not to scale was not lost on me.

After only a weekend, though, it occurred to me how appropriate the disproportionate map was, because Hale County is “not to scale” with the rest of the world. And it is that very lack of proportion that makes it one of Alabama’s most intriguing places to visit.

Hale County — which includes the towns of Akron, Newbern and Greensboro — is notable for its intense poverty. According to recent census figures, 26 percent of the families here are below the poverty line.

It is because of that poverty — at least in part — that this obscure corner of the South offers architectural treasures, ancient and modern, that make it an unconventional, yet richly rewarding travel destination.

Poverty has kept modern developers from destroying much of the area’s antebellum and Victorian homes built in a time when the Black Belt region was awash in cotton money and Greensboro was one of the richest towns in Alabama.

Some buildings are restored; others are crumbling. Even in their worst decay, the allure of these fading ladies is enough to make you pull over and get out of the car for a more leisurely assessment.

Poverty also has spawned new, creative coalitions for aid, including Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization (HERO) and Rural Studio. The two are not connected, yet both are contributing to a quality of life for the entire community. More on them later.

FRIDAY
Begin your day early in Newbern, just a few miles south of Greensboro down Highway 61. The town consists of a few hundred residents and a single, blinking yellow traffic light. Start at The Morrisette House, the lovingly restored Victorian that is the base camp of Rural Studio, a design-build lab for Auburn architecture students.

Founded in 1993 by Mississippian and MacArthur “genius award” recipient Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee, Rural Studio might be best described as a cross between a study-abroad program and a stint in the Peace Corps. Students live in the area and, as projects, build homes and public buildings for residents and communities in Hale County.

The results are astonishing. Using native and commonly available building materials and working with locals, Rural Studio students have created structures that are cutting-edge modern and down-home utilitarian.

Stop in the Newbern Mercantile and pack a picnic lunch. It’s next door to the post office, which is quaint enough to double as a set for the movie version of Eudora Welty’s Why I Live at the P.O.

Pack a cheeseburger, a cold can of Coca-Cola and a piping hot side of fried onion rings. Walk across the street to one of Rural Studio’s signature buildings — the Newbern Fire Hall.

Built from cedar planks, galvanized aluminum and polycarbonate panels, it took the students years to complete. The building doubles as a town hall. Students congregate daily at this junction, but much of their planning and pre-work is done in a building called Red Barn, adjacent to the post office. The corner is a great place to meet locals.

Rural Studio projects are sprinkled across the landscape of Hale County, and you can spend a few hours or an entire weekend driving around visiting them. There’s a brand new playscape for children, constructed entirely of repurposed oil drums at Lion’s Park, and the Rural Studio Dog Pound features a striking, curved lamella roof.

It’s not only architectural sightseeing that draws visitors to the Black Belt, however. The dark, mineral-rich soil has nurtured all manner of wild game. There is no public hunting ground for deer, but if you can arrange to spend part of the season on private grounds, it’s worth the drive.

If you bag a buck, head down Highway 25 to Ritchey’s Deer Processing, where they will take the hassle off your hands. Duck season is open to the public and the best spot, according to in-the-know locals, is along the stretch of the Black Warrior River that skirts the county.

A tour of the 1840s Greek Revival Magnolia Grove mansion is a great way to round out the day. It’s decorated in period furnishings, and you can also tour the restored servants’ quarters out back. Lodging options are sparse. There’s an Inn Motel & Restaurant on State Street, but I suggest you opt for Muckle House B&B on Main Street. Built in 1906, this charming neoclassical Victorian is Southern to a “T” with its wide front porch and gracious staff.

SATURDAY
Spend the day in Greensboro. When the cotton industry dried up, the fertile, tar-colored soil in this area found a new purpose. In the 1960s, farmers began breeding catfish in the rainwater ponds. Additional ponds were created; eventually Greensboro became “The Catfish Capital” of Alabama. The Mustang Oil gas station serves it deep-fried. If you are into multi-tasking, leave your vehicle for a tune-up while you lunch. Loved the barbecue chicken. Upon my suggestion that they bottle the sauce, the girl behind the counter handed me a Styrofoam cup of it. I was tempted to sip on it afterwards as I cruised Main Street.

Greensboro’s Main Street is home to the town’s other philanthropic force, HERO. The mission statement on its website reads: A catalyst for community development in areas of the Alabama Black Belt to end rural poverty. As a non-profit housing resource center, HERO provides community resources and housing education.

That statement, like many mission statements, is formal. The manifestations of HERO’s work are much more convivial. There’s PieLab — a non-profit restaurant focused on creating social change by teaching skills to underprivileged and at-risk youth. Kids learn culinary and service skills in the making and selling of the delicious selection of savory and sweet pies that rotate daily.

Inside “the lab,” natural light spills in from giant front windows, bathing everything — from the flour-dusted green Cuisinart mixer to the jars of pickled vegetables, funky T-shirts and caramel pecans for sale. Next door is the simply named Thrift Store, also run by HERO. Greensboro is a great town for those who love spending a lazy weekend day ambling through flea markets in search of lost treasure. The Greensboro Flea Market is crammed floor to ceiling with lamps from the ’70s, kitschy bric-a-brac and wooden tables in various sizes and shades of finish.

HERO’s latest project, opened in September 2011, is HERO Bike. At-risk youth are trained as artisans, custom designing bikes made from bamboo frames. On weekends you can take a workshop and build your own.

There’s also an unnamed leather goods store a few doors down, selling custom leather belts, bags and cowboy hats; and you can get a dose of history by touring the Safe House Black Historic Museum, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. found refuge while organizing his peace protests. There’s no nightlife to speak of in Greensboro, outside of the occasional band playing at PieLab, but if you spend a few hours chatting with locals, you will likely be invited to dinner or at the least, wine on the porch.

Before I left, I overheard a discussion about plans to restore the town’s old Opera House (circa 1903) to its original glory. If what I experienced during my weekend there is any guide, I’m certain they will succeed, because this is a place with a giant heart.

As I drove toward home, I looked down at my computer-generated directions. The lines seemed a little too straight, the paper too clean. I smiled thinking of my little map of Hale County tucked away in my journal — the best souvenir that money didn’t buy.