Gordo in June

A celebration of mules, chickens and day lilies

Story Birney Imes | Photographs Sam Gause & Birney Imes

For most travelers — specifically, those using Highway 82 and headed for, say, Birmingham or Tuscaloosa — Gordo, Ala., is little more than a minor inconvenience: a stop light, couple of gas stations, the Piggly Wiggly on the hill, the guy by the side of the road selling mildewed gourds and the ubiquitous Dollar General. A View-Master disc of small-town images quickly viewed.

Those, who have always wondered but never looked, may indulge their curiosity by turning off 82 onto Main at the defunct gas station now shared by Billy’s Barbecue and Gordo Feed and Seed. On the surface, this Alabama hamlet looks like any other small Southern town trying to decide if it’s going to fade away or reconstitute itself. At first glance, Option 1 is winning out, though one cannot help but notice the town’s stock of historic architecture, some of which seems to have found new purpose.

Bump over the railroad tracks past the grain elevator and the traveler encounters Petals, a combination florist, gift shop and beauty salon. “Gordo has more beauty salons than women,” one local laughed, only half jokingly. On the day we peeked in, owners Margaret Tilley and Nikki Mullenix were busy with prom corsages — for most, life here revolves around high school activities, sports in particular.

On the left above what was an auto parts store, a prankster has painted over a NAPA Auto Parts sign, leaving visible the letters A-R-T. The odd assortment of objects in the window and the colorful fabric obstructing the view within suggest the building may no longer be a source for spark plugs and fan belts.

Across the way is the Starboard Rail Books, owned by Craig Patterson, who is one year into his second term as mayor. If it happens to be Saturday morning, the traveler would do well to park and go inside. There, surrounded by 17,000 or so well-thumbed paperbacks and various artists’ imaginings of Civil War encounters, he would likely find — and be welcomed to — a weekly bull session that occurs here most Saturdays.

The topic the morning we visited was the upcoming Mule Day/Chickenfest, set for the first Saturday in June. The event is Gordo’s equivalent of Fat Tuesday, Running of the Bulls and the Burning Man Festival. OK, we exaggerate, but not by much. The festival celebrates the town’s agrarian roots and offers tribute to its largest and most profitable industry, chicken farming. Events include parades featuring mules, antique cars and tractors, a beef and chicken cook-off and lots of small-town merriment.

Patterson, a retired fireman, Naval Reservist and history buff is often asked about his town’s curious name (in Spanish, gordo means “fat”). “Back in the 1840s some veterans of the Mexican-American War settled around there. They had fought in the battle of Cerro Gordo (translation: ‘wide hill’).” Thus Gordo.

In all likelihood you will find Glenn House in Patterson’s bookstore on Saturdays, who with his consort, Kathy Fedders, is the patron saint of Gordo’s fledgling art community. (The NAPA “ART” building is their doing and their base of operation.) House, who at 82 confronts life with the enthusiasm of an 8-year-old, worked as a graphic designer in the various print shops of Tuscaloosa before helping start the University of Alabama’s prestigious book arts program.

With Fedders’ help, House is bringing to his hometown, by fits and starts, an arts community rooted in the antiquarian art of letterpress printing. “Glenn is a treasure for humanity,” one of the recipients of his benevolence said recently. House and Fedders allow UA graduate students in the book arts program to use the studio space they’ve created in the old Gordo Hardware building, where they plan to create a printing museum.

That Glenn House would be an arts impresario was almost inevitable. He is one of five boys raised by Lucile House, the woman who decided to give Pickens County children a museum after a school field trip to one such institution in Tuscaloosa. Hence, Ma ’Cille’s Museum of Miscellanea. [Writer’s note: Lucile House’s museum was Ma ’Cille’s because her son Glenn thought two “L”s looked better on the sign. Technically, she is Ma ’Cile.] This lifelong project not only gloriously fulfilled its original intent, but also became a magnet for artists, photographers and the curious who came from afar to admire the creation of this determined country woman. Years ago the museum was disassembled, and its contents auctioned off. Three of Ma ’Cile’s granddaughters are trying to recreate their version of their mother’s vision in a house a couple of blocks off Main Street.

Len and Rene Holliman’s first home here was a 900-square-foot concrete block tenant house. Not long after they settled in, a woman in Reform, Ala., offered Rene a row of day lilies, enough to encircle their house. As day lilies will do, they multiplied, and in 1992 Rene announced she was having a sale: $5 a clump. The rest, as they say, is history. Day lilies have morphed into a family business and the Hollimans (hollimangardens.com) now offer more than 500 varieties and sell to customers from Oregon to New York.

The Holliman’s annual day lily sale takes place the weekend following Mule Day — this year, June 7, 8 and 9.

If one is looking for a field trip around the first of June, Gordo beckons.

For the rest of the year life here mirrors that of many Southern small towns, pretty much hidden from view and requiring a local connection to be of much interest.

Evidence what one member of the county’s geneological society declared about the day’s proceedings at one of its twice-a-month meetings: “This is good entertainment.”