Hospitality & Hot Sauce

Fayette, Alabama, offers visitors a treasure trove of experience

Story Birney Imes | Photographs Luisa Porter

The gold-domed courthouse in Fayette, Alabama, has a majesty beyond what one would expect of a sparsely populated county in the rural South. The building is near the center of a small solar system of shops, churches, carefully tended homes, a weekly newspaper and the makers of two staples that grace Southern tables: Golden Eagle Syrup and Alabama Sunshine hot sauce.

Lovingly restored in the 1990s, the courthouse is the province of Probate Judge William Oswalt.

The judge responds to my request for rooftop access with a tap to his iPhone.

“Rabbit, I’ve got somebody here who needs to get on top of the courthouse to take some pictures.”

“He’ll be here in 10 minutes,” Oswalt says, putting away the phone.

Fifteen minutes later, Phillip “Rabbit” Rushing and I are on our way to the roof, navigating an unlit labyrinth of steel beams, ductwork and three wooden ladders. 

From the courthouse roof, Fayette has a Matchbox quality, as though a Lionel train might come chugging through at any moment.

Across the street at the jail, two trusties in orange jump suits sponge soapy water onto the sheriff’s SUV.

Though I’d be pressed to tell you what they are, I’ve always thought this small town of 5,000 in western Alabama had qualities that set it apart.

Years ago I happened upon its astonishing folk art museum in the basement of the civic center (a 1930s grammar school beautifully repurposed) and now, add to that a jaw-dropping aquatic center that attracts would-be water sprites and their parents from miles around.

The town draws you in and makes you feel at home. Were you forced to disappear and assume a new identity, this would be a good place to end up.

“We got a lot of down-home, good people here,” Rabbit says. “Neighbors are neighbors. We don’t lock our doors.”

Rabbit and I have climbed through the window in the copula and are sitting on the roof. He is director of maintenance for Fayette County and seems to know everyone and their backstory.

He knows the names of the two trusties washing the sheriff’s car. Knows what they are in for. Has a pretty good idea what they will do once they’re released.

We talked about the town, Alabama football, music.

“Diana Ross and the Supremes was my all-time favorite,” Rabbit says. “Smoky Robinson and the Miracles, the Righteous Brothers. Now, that’s music.”

We had all the time in the world. It’s a pattern that would repeat itself. Everyone I met in Fayette treated me as an old friend, answering my questions or giving me the name and phone number of someone who could.

DIG IN
When I asked for a lunch recommendation, Rabbit points toward a yellow Victorian, the home of his brother’s mother-in-law, Ann Phillips. He’s not the only fan of Ann’s Sweet Digs restaurant; the judge suggests it, as does Glenda Robertson, the director of the Fayette Civic Center.

“It’s like eating with grandma,” Glenda says.

Well, sort of. If grandma had a restaurant in a two-bedroom apartment with cement block walls and cement floor in an aging block of rental units well past their prime and once used to house work-release inmates from the county jail.

But never mind all that. Sweet Digs is charming, homey and unintentionally offbeat. The walls of the place are painted pink and lime green and are covered by paintings by the restaurant’s owner.

Four days a week (Monday through Thursday) Ann Phillips, 72, rises at 4 a.m. By 4:30, she’s in the kitchen of her restaurant (across a narrow drive adjacent to her backyard). If everything is going according to plan, yeast rolls and desserts are in the oven by 5.

On my order slip, I circle “BBQ Pork Chops, Cheesy Potatoes, Okra (breaded and baked), Asian Slaw, Cornbread and Tea.” The tab comes to $6.50. Glenda is wrong about one detail; my grandma didn’t cook like this.

Ann serves her diners on Churchill Blue Willow china. She confides she never much liked the plates, once available at A&P. Someone gave her 12 and she started using them; they were durable and elegant. Through her garage/estate sale meanderings, she now has 100 of them.

Later, she takes me for a tour of her Victorian home with its six fully decorated Christmas trees. Here is someone who has elevated estate-sale shopping to an art form. Each room has a china cabinet filled with glassware of a single color: There’s green Depression glass, pink Depression glass, milk glass, clear pressed glass. The place is filled with scavenged treasures, more a testament to good taste and perseverance than an outlay of cash.

HOT SUNSHINE
Around the corner from Sweet Digs, you will find the showroom, corporate offices and manufacturing facility for Alabama Sunshine, a homegrown hot sauce company founded two decades ago by Sally and Fred Smith.

Fred Smith began dabbling in hot sauce back in the 1980s when he worked in management for Arvin Automotive, a maker of exhaust systems for Ford, Chrysler and GM. In 1995 Smith took an early buy-out — Arvin has since closed its Fayette plant — to devote all his energy to his hot sauce. He makes nine hot sauces and distributes about 50 products, including salsas, barbecue sauces and jellies.

I ask about the name, Alabama Sunshine.

“I’m not real smart,” Smith says, “but I give the Lord a lot of credit for putting that name in my head.”

Smith, 79 and a four-time cancer survivor, sold Alabama Sunshine in 2004, but two years later, when the new owner was about to sell to someone who was going to move the company away, he bought it back.

“I kinda had a passion for Fayette,” Smith says.

A PASSION FOR ART
A passion of a different sort resulted in what may be Fayette’s most distinctive institution.

The late Jack Black, general manager of the local radio station and owner of the town’s newspaper, was able to turn his love for art and the people who made it into what has been described as the “jewel in Fayette’s crown,” its art museum.

One of Black’s “discoveries” was Jimmy Lee Sudduth, his neighbor, who made “paintings” using clay mixed with a sugary binder. “Sweet mud,” Sudduth called it. Black encouraged Sudduth and helped arrange the first of what would be more than 50 exhibitions of his work.

Paired with Black’s desire for a museum, or perhaps the reason for it, was the persistence of Lois Wilson, a fiercely independent woman who spent her childhood in Fayette and most of her adult life making art in New York. Wilson wanted a repository for her life’s work.

Wilson’s trips home during her adult life were infrequent. A lively correspondence between Black and Wilson illuminates her artistic strivings and her desire that Fayette have a museum to which she could bequeath her work.

“It is easy to assume that I am either a fool or a supreme egotist to think that my modest collection … will make a museum,” Wilson wrote in April, 1969.

“Each one born on earth is indebted,” she wrote in another letter. “However little I have, I use this way to pay off a part of the indebtedness I owe to the town I love and to the boys and girls of the present and the future who may come to appreciate it. … The impact of it (my art) may be less aesthetic than it is social. It is a record of a development of a former cotton picker who by sheer persistence never gave up!”

Black and Wilson’s dreams became a museum in 1969 and for 35 years, until his death in 2004, he was its director. The Fayette Art Museum owns more than 4,000 pieces, 2,600 from Wilson.

Each summer for the past nine years the “boys and girls of the future” in Fayette County have attended a free arts camp in the museum’s basement.

SUMMERTIME AT THE FAC
A more recent municipal dream came to fruition in 2013 with the opening of the Fayette Aquatic Center.

After a feasibility study and visits to several similar facilities, the town council passed a bond issue to fund the park.

With three water slides and a lazy river water ride, the FAC has become a regional attraction, drawing from a 75-mile radius. For its 2015 season, the park provided 89 full- and part-time jobs, many of them filled by area teenagers.

“It has been an economic engine,” says Anne Hamner, a Fayette resident who was on the city council at the time. “People have been to Fayette to visit the water park who wouldn’t come here for any reason.”

Before we got off the phone, I asked Hamner the question everyone I’ve met here has answered in his or her own way. What is it about Fayette?

“People just love this community and care for it,” she says. “It’s just amazing; wherever you go, you can find some connection to this small town. They love it and care about it.”


BIG PERSONALITY, LITTLE BITTY LADY

Story Birney Imes

As the artist Lois Wilson entered her 60s, her worries about the survival of her oeuvre after her death deepened.

For almost two decades she had lived in an apartment in Yonkers, a scruffy working-class suburb just north of New York City. And now her health was failing.

Even so, in a letter during that time, she describes her circumstances in upbeat terms:

“The apartment which I now occupy in the slums is delightful. I can keep warm by gas heat, have a landlord who is a mechanic and most helpful when I cannot help myself. I learn much of carpentry, tools and all the things I need to know. His child often does my errands, and I am 800 feet from a grocery store. In view of this and the physical incapacity, I have to consider what is best for me and least demanding of others.”

Wilson was a prolific artist who sold little work. She made her first paintings as a child in rural Alabama with shoe polish. In Yonkers, she scavenged wood from discarded furniture — the panels of drawers she disassembled became the canvas for her aboriginal-like drawings. “I spend half the night cleaning and sandpapering,” she wrote. “I can hardly wait to make my drawing on it.”

Her small apartment was almost uninhabitable; art was stacked on virtually every horizontal surface; even the bathtub was filled with paintings.

She wept one day after seeing the work of a recently deceased artist used to replace a broken window. She had a horror the same fate would befall her work.

Wilson had begun correspondence with Jack Black, a newspaperman and radio station manager in her hometown of Fayette, Alabama. Black was also a collector and an advocate for the arts and artists. Over his lifetime, he would “discover,” encourage and promote folk artists like Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Sybil Gibson, Brother Ben Perkins and Fred Webster. Black wanted a museum for his hometown, and Wilson’s trove of work would be the nucleus of it.

Wilson was a prolific letter writer. Her letters reveal a single-minded devotion to her art and its preservation and a matter-of-fact acceptance of the meagerness of her circumstances. And, a sense of humor.

Wilson describes the narrative of her life in a 1969 letter to the Birmingham Museum of Art:

“My background is — daughter of a drunken blacksmith — got B’ham News scholarship to Auburn 1925 … left after one year because of hookworms, excessive pride, lack of money and little opportunity to learn art and too much math for (a) course in architecture … Got a scholarship to Miss Child’s school in Boston — left to take job so I could eat — spent a few months in France and Italy in 1930 (the guest of a wealthy friend). Joined the W.A.C. (Women’s Army Corps) — got G.I. training at Art Students League and been having a full life all my life and regret that people have formed the habit of being ill or getting old … it’s so foolish.”

Thanks in large part to the efforts of Black and a progressive mayor, $500 was appropriated for the establishment of an art museum in the Fayette city hall in 1969. The money paid for the shipping of 110 of Wilson’s pieces from Yonkers. Two more shipments of Wilson’s work, the final one just weeks before her death in 1980, brought the total to 2,600. In 1982 renovations of the Fayette Grammar School were completed, and that building became the town’s civic center and art museum. Black was its director and curator until his death in 2004.

Wilson’s “aboriginal panel paintings” line a long, black hallway in the museum. Some of the pieces are playful; others express sympathy for the mistreatment of the Native American and others offer a caustic indictment of societal norms.

About her work, Wilson wrote the following:

“When you go to Fayette again, look them over. I think you will see that whereas they are not great art, they are not to be hidden under the bed when company comes.”

Black’s daughter Claire Black met Wilson during a rare visit home by the artist in the 1970s.

I expected someone who was very bohemian looking, … but she was much more of a Tallulah Bankhead personality than a garden-variety hippie,” Claire Black said. “She had a big personality and was a little bitty lady. She could really hold forth and everybody was in rapture.”

“At some point during her visit, my mother said to her, ‘Lois, that’s such a beautiful dress.’ She said, ‘Thanks I bought it at a thrift store for 50 cents.’”