When we are planning a trip and looking at a map, it is usually our custom to take the main highways, whether it is an interstate or a nice wide four-lane. We want to get to our destination by the most direct route with the least number of hassles. I recently took one of those major highway excursions, but I wondered about some of those small towns just off the road. Such was my “side trip” along Interstate 65 on my way from Tennessee to points south. It turned out to be my destination for a few days of exploring the I-65 corridor in North Alabama.
I had passed road signs on prior trips for Athens, Decatur, and Cullman, and wondered what I was missing by not stopping. This time I stopped.
Athens is about fifteen miles south of the Tennessee state line. It is the county seat of Limestone County with a 1926 courthouse that has a Confederate soldier statue still facing north standing guard. On the historic town square Limestone Drugs has an old-fashioned soda fountain. The Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives houses artifacts during the Revolutionary War through the present from local soldiers.
Athens is not left out when it comes to annual events either. The Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention occurs each October and attracts musicians and visitors from all around the country. www.athens.edu/fiddlers. A Storytelling Festival will be held October 27th and 29th - 31st in 2015 in downtown Athens www.athensstorytellingfestival.com. Storytelling being the oldest form of education, the town is looking forward to making this an annual event. Things are happening in Athens. But I wouldn’t have known without getting off the main highway.
Farther down I-65 Decatur is situated on the Tennessee River and has really graduated from town status to city with its population of 56,000. The neighborhood of Old Decatur dates to the early 1800s. The historic district’s most significant building is the Old State Bank (built in 1833), which is located on SR 20/US 72 Alt. It was one of the few buildings in Decatur to survive the Civil War. While visiting downtown Decatur, I stopped by Simp McGee’s and sampled the great menu and heard tales of the colorful riverboat captain for whom the restaurant was named.
Decatur has a lot of annual and special events worthy of note. The Alabama Jubilee Hot Air Balloon Classic runs on Memorial Day and fills the sky with colorful balloons from across the country (www.alabamajubilee.net). The Spirit of America Festival celebrates the Fourth of July. A barbeque cook-off called Riverfest is held the third Saturday in September at Ingalls Harbor. Incidently, Ingalls Harbor is the site of several bass tournaments.
Just to the east of Decatur along I-565 heading toward Huntsville sits the little town of Mooresville. Its claim to fame is the fact that it was incorporated one month before Alabama became a state. In October 1818, it was incorporated into the Alabama territory. The town with a population of 63 has a post office, several homes built in the 1800s, or houses looking like those of that century. But I wouldn’t have known that without getting off the main highway.
Cullman has several points of uniqueness. The most surprising one is the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament. It is situated on 380 acres of isolated farmland just outside Cullman in Hanceville. Several buildings make up this shrine, temple, and monastery for the Poor Clare Nuns of Perpetual Adoration. The shrine is the result of Mother Mary Angelica’s work, which included founding of the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN).
Within the city limits of Cullman, the Ave Maria Grotto is another awe-inspiring place to visit. Its three-acre are on the grounds of the St. Bernard Abbey and contains 125 miniature replicas of famous churches, shrines, and buildings from around the world. Most of the miniatures are the creations of one of the early Benedictine monks, Brother Joseph Zoettl.
One of Alabama’s longest covered bridges (I wouldn’t have known Alabama had covered bridges unless I got off the main highway) is located near Cullman. The Clarkson Covered Bridge was the site of the 1863 Civil War Battle of Hog Mountain and is surrounded by a park with picnic tables, hiking trails, and a shallow creek.
A part of the Wallace State Community College, the Evelyn Burrow Museum (www.burrowmuseum.org) is another gem of a place. Unbelievably, it houses a $9.5 million collection of objects d’art, some dating back to the 1600s. There are 5000 pieces of porcelain, statues, and china from around the world. They were collected over period of 65 years by Evelyn and her late husband Ottis Burrow. The collection consists of works by Remington, Dresden, Faberge, and Tiffany.
Just a couple miles outside of Cullman, the Seven Winds Kitchen (http://sevenwindskitchen.com) makes peanut and pecan brittle the way it ought to be made. In 1994, daughters of Berta Gammon, Jane Gammon and Frances Scruggs, opened Seven Winds Kitchen and Gift Shop in Logan, Alabama, so they could share their mother's art of candy making. Their candy is all hand-made. The brittle is hand-pulled. Good stuff. But I wouldn’t have known any of this without getting off the main highway.
The Interstate 65 corridor of North Alabama is just one place I found to get off the main road and see what is there besides gas stations and a rest areas. This country is full of places like these. But I wouldn’t have found them if I hadn’t gotten off the main highway.
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