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Go on an Antebellum Adventure
by Rebecca Hitt
So you’re a history buff, huh? And you must be pretty smart too, if you're coming to visit Huntsville. You are in for a rare, historical, delectable treat, my historian friend. During your weekend excursions, you are going to explore over 200 years worth of Huntsville sagas, spanning from yesteryear before Alabama was a state and ending in the uncharted terrain of history yet to made in man’s quest to conquer the stars. Are you ready for an adventure? Are you ready to unlock the secrets of the past? I think you are… Let’s begin.
• Start off at the Huntsville/Madison County Visitor Center
This is where you are going to formulate your game plan. Grab a few maps (in particular, the downtown one), and a few brochures for the places you will be exploring - including the Digital Walking Tour brochure.
Grab coupons for the attractions and museums you'll be going to. The nice folks at the Visitor Center will make sure you get everything you need!
• Big Spring Park and Downtown Square
The birthplace of Huntsville is Big Spring International Park.
Clearly this needs to be your first stop on your historic adventure weekend. John Hunt (who puts the “Hunt” in “Huntsville”) built his cabin here. The park also has ties to cotton transportation in the 1800s and now showcases some of the international hodgepodge of Huntsville. Plus, it’s so darn pretty. Check out the historic markers in Big Spring Park and on the Square.
• Harrison Brothers Hardware Store
Part museum, part store, Harrison Brothers Hardware is guaranteed to have a unique souvenirs to remember your Huntsville trip. Doesn’t hurt that it is a totally cool building built in 1898, either.
Stroll through the years and among beautiful homes in the historic Twickenham neighborhood. Along with the brochure, you can go to http://huntsvillehistorytours.org where you'll find pictures of the homes along with historical background. You can also make it an audio tour and listen to local historians give you a private tour. (So fancy!)
• Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment
This textile mill-turned arts and entertainment hub is the largest privately-owned center for the arts in the U.S. She may have been built in 1901 but she’s never looked better!
Restaurants for Day 1
Breakfast - Dallas Mill Deli
Get the French toast! They make the syrup in house. Perfect time to go since they are less busy in the mornings than they are at lunch.
Lunch - Cotton Row
So named because this was the area where cotton farmers came to sell and arrange transportation for their cotton in the 1800s. And the building itself is old, being erected in 1821. You do need to make reservations though. 1:00-2:00 is the best time.
Dinner- Gibson’s BBQ
Because it should practically be illegal to visit a southern city and not eat BBQ at least once. Gibson’s BBQ has been a Huntsville staple since 1956. Try the chicken loaded baked potato. Bonus: if you're not from north Alabama, make sure you pour white sauce all over your chicken. If you are from north Alabama, you should eat it on your chicken anyway because it's tasty.
• Alabama Constitution Hall Park
Spot where the Alabama constitution was written in 1819, making Huntsville the first capitol of Alabama. Step back in time when you enter this living history museum set around life in Huntsville around the early 1800s. And right behind the museum is a perfect example of what makes the Rocket City so unique - Alan Shepard’s footprints. You have the juxtaposition of space history right next to the birthplace of the state. Helpful tip: Get the combo ticket with the Huntsville Historic Depot at the museum’s front desk to save money.
Arguably the most important building in Huntsville's history, in my humble historian opinion. The Depot served as a Civil War prison to wounded Confederate soldiers for ten days. The walls of the second and third floor are marked with graffiti from Civil War soldiers. Later, railroad workers added their names and marks to the walls. Unfortunately, you cannot leave your mark. But you can walk on the same floorboards as Union and Civil War soldiers. Helpful hint: Take the guided tour! Those guys really know their stuff.
• Weeden House Museum and Garden
I’m not sure if you have noticed a pattern here, but a good many of Huntsville history hot spots are also gorgeous and picturesque. The Weeden House is another such example. The Weeden House was built in 1819 and was the home of influential painter and poet Maria Howard Weeden, and also served as the living quarters of Union officers during the occupation of Huntsville. Helpful Hint: Although you don’t have to, you can call ahead and schedule a tour!
Known originally as the “Burying Place,” Maple Hill Cemetery practically radiates Alabama and Huntsville history. The cemetery is the final resting place for several of Alabama and Huntsville greats including 5 governors, 5 senators, a host of unknown Confederate soldiers and exactly 8 Union officers. Maple Hill was officially established in 1818 and stands as the oldest and largest still operating cemetery in the state of Alabama. Not only is it a history-lover’s jackpot, it’s just plain beautiful to walk around in.
Restaurants for Day 2
Breakfast- Your Hotel
Eat breakfast at your hotel. You have an early start today! Load up on fruit and protein to fuel your history adventure.
Lunch - Big Spring Cafe
Perfect for history buffs, Big Spring Cafe is noted as the city's oldest restaurant and serves as an iconic local dining spot. Don't plan on counting your calories, though - good 'ole fashioned burgers and fries (served extra greasy) are what's on the menu.
Huntsville is known for taking old buildings and turning them into amazing spaces. Find your dinner at one of the many spots at an old stove factory that has turned into a mixed-use space that usually offers live music or entertainment each night.
This museum isn’t nicknamed the “Jewel of the Mountain” for nothing. When Dr. William Burritt died in 1955, he willed his home and the 167 surrounding acres to the City of Huntsville to be used as a city museum. The complex is divided into two main sections— one side is Dr. Burritt’s home, which provides narrative for Dr. Burritt’s life, and the other is a living history park featuring six 19th century restored buildings, detailing rural farm life in Huntsville. (Bonus: the barns come complete with farm animals!)
Ever wonder why NASA is in Huntsville? Well, that’s because U.S. space program was practically born here. Werhner von Braun and the Paperclip Scientists, the race to the moon— all against the backdrop of Huntsville. The museum has an impressive array of artifacts including one of the three Saturn V rockets left in existence. Also try to work in a bus tour which takes you out to Marshall Space Flight Center, if you can, where you’ll be able to squeeze in a couple more registered historic landmarks. Not only will you get to dive into space exploration’s past, you will get an up-close experience with history yet to be made with NASA’s Journey to Mars aboard the Space Launch System, which is centered at MSFC. While at the museum and on the bus tour, you’ll also be immersed in life and science on board the International Space Station. Imagine that… you making the history… has a nice ring to it, right?
Restaurants for Day 3
Breakfast - Blue Plate Cafe
This. This is a good ol’ country Southern breakfast, just like your Grandma used to make. Or the one she always wished she could make. You definitely want a biscuit. It should be illegal to not order a biscuit here. My personal favorite dish is biscuits and gravy with a side of tomatoes. Perfection.
Lunch - Ol Heidelberg’s
Time to put all your hard-earned German knowledge gained this morning to good use! This restaurant is family-owned and has been churning out schnitzel since 1972. Really, there isn’t a wrong choice you could make with the menu. The dish that always seems to lure me in— Gypsy Schnitzel. Or really anything with that heavenly garlic cream sauce.
Dinner - Big Ed’s Pizzeria
Big Ed’s has been serving up gooey, cheesy pizza goodness for over 50 years. Now that is experience I, and my belly, can trust. Sunday hours are 4:00-10:00 PM so you have plenty of time to savor the taste of a history adventure, and a pizza, done well.
— Most of the museums have websites. Check them out for additional research.
— Download the Explore Huntsville app which will give you lots of extra tips and tricks to maximize your Huntsville experience!
— Bring a handful of quarters to use Friday for the downtown parking machines. Downtown parking on Saturday and Sunday are free. (You may want to grab a few extra so you can buy a couple of handfuls of duck and goldfish food at Big Spring Park!)
— Wear comfortable shoes! And bring lots of water. Exploring history is hard work!
Looking for something a little spooky to go along with your history tales? The Huntsville Ghost Walks stand apart from other ghost walks in the nation; these tales have the research to back them up. Tours are led by local historians so even if you don’t particularly believe in ghosts, you will still get lots of good history out of the walk. There are three main tours, and also a limited number of trolley and bicycle tours, to pick from so this is worth stopping in more than once. The Huntsville Ghost Walks begin on Saturday nights in September and run through the end of October.
If you are looking for a more “direct” contact to the past, you need to plan your trip around the Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll, which is one of the nation’s largest living history strolls, featuring over 75 costumed volunteers portraying some of Huntsville's most notorious past residents. The stroll also features traditional music, special exhibits, an auto display, and student scavenger hunts. This only happens once a year! Make sure you come early and stay the whole afternoon or you might miss someone.
Additional research materials:
Hidden History of North Alabama and King Cotton to Space Capital: The Huntsville-Madison County Story by Jacque Proctor Reeves
Huntsville Air and Space by T. Gary Wicks
Homesteading Space by David Hitt, Owen Garriott, and Joe Kerwin
Incidents of the War: The Civil War Journal of Mary Jane Chadwick edited and annotated by Nancy M. Rohr
The Wondrous McCrarys— Alabama Pioneers: Same Family, Same Farm, 200 Years by Joseph Jones
Congratulations! You’ve done it. You have just navigated and explored your way through 200 plus years of Huntsville history. What an adventure it has been. But as you know, a historian’s job is never done. More research must be conducted. New discoveries are uncovered all the time. You’ve only begun to crack the surface of the Rocket City. It won’t be long before you hear the siren call that is Huntsville history… see you next time!
Although not born nor raised in Huntsville, being a generally smart lady, Rebecca high-tailed it here as quickly as she could. She graduated from Auburn University with a bachelor's in history and with a giant crush on the “stuff” of history, whether in a museum or a historic site. Most of her waking hours involve working in museum education for the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. Like any good child of the South, she loves storytelling, which she considers an art form. Rebecca enjoys sharing Huntsville’s tales to anyone who will listen whether during Huntsville Ghost Walks, conducting tours of the Huntsville Depot, leading Breakfast Trolley tours or bringing history to life during the Cemetery Stroll. She is also a member of the Huntsville-Madison County Historical Society and the Huntsville Historic Marker Committee.
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