What do Bear Bryant, Mercedes-Benz, Rommel’s Afrika Korps, Moundville (at one time the largest city north of Mexico), great BBQ ribs, a premier collection of American art, Miss Universe, the Bama Belle Riverboat, FDR’s PWA, the SEC, houndstooth hats, Italianate architecture and Nick’s in the Sticks have in common?
Did you guess that they are all part of the fascinating history of Tuscaloosa, Alabama? I’ll begin with what may be the most obvious fact. Paul “Bear” Bryant, easily recognizable for his sartorially correct houndstooth hats was the legendary coach of the U of A football team. The Bear was a winner and his record proves it. In 38 years as a college football coach he had only one losing season and that was at Texas A. & M. Two years later that team won the conference championship. Over the years at various schools he amassed a phenomenal record, taking 29 teams to bowl games, while winning 15 conference championships. The Bryant Museum on the campus of the University of Alabama chronicles the history of Alabama football for over a century. And, if you didn’t already know, Coach Bryant picked up the “Bear” nickname as a youth by wrestling with a bear at a carnival, or so the story goes. Alabama, of course, was, and still is, a powerhouse of the Southeastern Conference (the SEC.)
And where does Miss Universe come into the picture. Sylvia Hitchcock Carson is the only University of Alabama student to be selected as Miss Universe. Sylvia was only the fourth Miss USA to go on and win the Miss Universe crown. I know all this from several years of working with Sylvia in the modeling business in Florida. Even though she was raised in Florida she often spoke enthusiastically about Alabama and once was quoted as saying that she was never in awe of people she met – with the exception of, you guessed it, Bear Bryant.
Were you aware of the Mercedes-Benz factory down the road from Tuscaloosa? When you visit this wonderful little city be sure to put the factory tour on your agenda. You’ll marvel at the robots doing the welding and assembly. I particularly enjoyed watching the robotic arms placing the windscreens and rear windows in the vehicles. It takes just seconds and the robots always seem to get the right windows for the right cars. Each car is assembled to order and the pieces have bar codes which the robot reads in order to select the correct parts. I didn’t catch them making any mistakes!
There is also a really nice little museum there with a selection of perfectly restored older Mercedes vehicles as well as a few new ones, including a C class racing car. And, adjacent to the autos you’ll find a small gift shop with lots of very nice Mercedes-Benz memorabilia and gifts.
As long as you’re touring the county you will be well served to visit the Aliceville Museum in Aliceville. You can visit the site where Field Marshall Rommel’s Afrika Korps troops were held in captivity. Between 1942 and 1945 as many as 6,000 German prisoners where held at Camp Aliceville, one of the largest POW camps in the U.S. Maybe you didn’t know that there were 511 POW camps holding nearly 400,000 German prisoners in the U.S. during World War II. The museum holds paintings, sculpture, photos and other objects from the period. A fifteen minute video contains eyewitness accounts by former POWs, guards & civilian employees.
Oh, and Nick’s in the Sticks is a restaurant/bar/saloon that is an institution in Tuscaloosa. You can staple a dollar bill to the ceiling if you wish. I’m not fond of giving away my money, but you can sign it, draw pictures on it, put hieroglyphics on it – whatever you want. Just keep it clean and someone will bring a staple gun and you’ll become an instant part of the local tradition. They even serve food so bring your appetite. You won’t believe the onion rings. Excellent steaks!
And those great BBQ ribs can be found at Dreamland BBQ, serving since 1958 so they’ve got to be good. They serve some sides dishes, but concentrate on the ribs – they’re served with white bread and lots of great BBQ sauce. Just skip the bread and chow down on the ribs.
Back in the city it’s time for a visit to the Bama Theatre. I was raised in the small town movie business and love these old movie “palaces” from the 30’s. This one was a Public Works Administration (PWA) project built through FDR’s New Deal Program. It opened in 1938 and was the first building in Tuscaloosa with air conditioning. It retains its original “Bama” name and has a beautiful interior, a reproduction of the courtyard of the Davanzati Palace of Florence, Italy. The orchestra and balcony sections are decorated as a Spanish courtyard and the twinkling stars and clouds on the night sky ceiling offer an open-air feeling. Now serving as a performing arts center it is also equipped with modern projection equipment for viewing movies.
For a different view of Tuscaloosa, take a cruise on the Bama Belle, an outstanding replica of paddlewheel riverboats that churned up and down the Black Warrior River in the early 1900’s. I didn’t have time during my visit, so you’ll want to look it up on the internet for more information.
There are some fine old historic homes and buildings that you can drive past beginning with the Jemison Van de Graaff Mansion. This is a perfect place to begin a driving tour of the city for a couple of reasons. The fact that it is the first stop on the Greater Tuscaloosa Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Tuscaloosa Driving Tour is reason # 1. Number 2 is the fact that it houses the visitor’s bureau and this is where you can pick up a map of the driving tour. The Mansion is a splendid example of Italianate architecture so get your camera ready – it is a beautiful structure. And, if you remember the Van de Graaff name from your high school science classes, the famous physicist, Robert, was the youngest son of the Tuscaloosa Van de Graaffs. So stop in, meet some friendly folks and then proceed on your exploration of the city.
For a fine dining experience with wonderful evening and nighttime riverfront views the Cypress Inn is your best bet. You can sit at your table and watch the tugboats pushing barges up and down the Black Warrior River or walk out on the lighted deck for an even better sunset view. Advertising the “Best Happy Hour in Town,” you might want to follow up with an aged Hereford Ribeye or the Cypress Inn Special – ground chuck wrapped in bacon, topped with cheddar & mozzarella cheese, smothered with sautéed onions, mushrooms, bell pepper and fresh tomatoes. That sounded really good to me, but I had already decided on the Jumbo Gulf Shrimp before I got that far down on the menu. Finish the evening with the Black Warrior Mud Sundae, Peanut Butter Pie or Bread Pudding glazed with homemade whisky sauce.
You probably don’t know that one of world’s finest collections of American art is to be found in the countryside of Tuscaloosa. I would guess that there are art collectors, art dealers and museums all over the globe that know of Jack Warner’s fabulous collection, but I have to confess that I had never heard of it before. Or, at least, I don’t recall hearing of it. And I collect American art, although mine is a fairly narrow range, including primarily Native American and Southwestern art.
This astonishing collection of works by Winslow Homer, Jamie Wyeth, Albert Bierstadt, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Edward Hicks, Thomas Cole and many, many more is proudly presented by Mr. Warner. At the age of 90 and after 40 years of collecting he enjoys recounting stories from his days spent at auctions outbidding others in the process of amassing this unprecedented collection of American art. One of my favorite artists, Dave McGary of New Mexico has several bronzes gracing the gardens surrounding the museum, proof that Jack has recently been acquiring new pieces for his gallery.
If you are a true art lover, or even if you’re not, you might enjoy staying at the Warner Lodge adjacent to the Westervelt Warner Museum of American Art where you’ll find fine accommodations with complimentary breakfast, Wi-Fi in every room, fitness center and plenty of Southern hospitality.
Should you happen to be in town during a production of Theatre Tuscaloosa be sure to catch a show. You’ll find yourself in a beautiful, modern theatre with all the latest equipment and technology for a finely produced event. I managed a back stage tour and was impressed with the stage, the stagehands, the wardrobe department – the whole works! But, I was a couple of weeks too early to see Driving Miss Daisy. Maybe next time.
A great way to learn about a community’s personality is to find a copy of the local magazine. Most cities have one and smaller cities seem to key in on the character of the city and it is often done by examining one of the “characters” of the city. I picked up a copy of Tuscaloosa and a story about a local gymnastics coach who, along with her husband, has led the U of A team for 32 years, taking them to four NCAA Championships and 23 NCAA Regional Championships. Her first quote in the story relates to Bear Bryant and the philosophy of “always doing the right thing.” My impression of the people of Tuscaloosa is that this philosophy is one that appears to be widely held in the community. I think when you visit Tuscaloosa you’ll see what I mean. And, in case you’re wondering, that coaching couple is Sarah and David Patterson. Maybe you’ll get a chance to meet them when you visit.
There is one more stop that, in my opinion, is mandatory before you leave Tuscaloosa County. National Geographic described Moundville as “The Big Apple of the 14th Century.” Thirteen miles south of Tuscaloosa, the Moundville Archaeological Park of The University of Alabama is a fascinating conglomerate of Mississippian era Indian mounds. It is a National Historic Landmark and includes over 300 acres with 28 large flat-topped mounds. It is possible to climb to the top of Temple Mound to get a panoramic view of the entire site.
There are campgrounds, nature trails, and a conference building available. The University is involved in ongoing excavations of some of the sites and a new museum has just opened that is very impressive. Included among the many artifacts from the site are life size replicas of life at the height of this great civilization. Be sure and ask to see the famous stone Rattlesnake Disk. If you can visit in October you will be treated to the Moundville Native American Festival. Enjoy the drums, have your children’s faces painted, do some shopping, devour some Native foods, join in the dancing and . . . Keep on Traveling!