Huntsville’s history is an interesting tale of ingenuity and perserverance, as well as the benefits of keeping an eye on the future.
In the foothills of the Cumberland mountains, in a beautiful green valley nestled in a bend of the Tennessee River, John Hunt (http://huntsville.about.com/library/blank/blpicjohnhunt.htm) first brought his family to settle near a large spring in an community that would later become known as Huntsville, Alabama. Hunt’s home, and the land surrounding it, was later bought by LeRoy Pope (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LeRoy_Pope) , a Georgian businessman, for $43 per acre. Pope quickly set about creating a proper town, organizing its incorporation and securing its position as the county seat. Not long after, land was designated for such necessities as a bank, courthouse, schools and more. Huntsville was then “on the map” and became the site of the state’s first Constitutional Convention and the signing of the state’s first Constitution. That location is now the site of a reproduction village known as Alabama Constitution Hall Village – a full scale city block rendering an example of Huntsville back in the early 1800’s.
Since its incorporation in 1811, Huntsville has been a pacesetter for the state of Alabama, as shown by the large number of “firsts”, including the state’s first newspaper, library, school, Protestant church and bank. Huntsville also served as the first state capital as well. The city quickly grew into a city of stone and brick with many buildings from that period still intact today in Huntsville’s historic districts. One of the most precious to Huntsvillians is the Merchants and Planters Bank, now owned by Big Spring Partners, which was Huntsville’s first bank. The columns for the bank were floated up the Tennessee River and transported to the “Big Spring” via the Indian Creek Canal, a now-defunct waterway originally designed to connect Huntsville’s cotton trading area with the Tennessee River.
Roadway construction, creation of railroads, industrialization of the cotton industry and other endeavors quickly spread throughout the area and people flocked to Huntsville for jobs. At that time, Cotton was “King.” Huntsville and Madison County became the largest cotton growing area in the south. While North Alabama still grows a lot of cotton, its biggest cash crop has changed from cotton to technology.
Some of the earliest settlers built stately homes in what is now the Twickenham Historic Preservation District. These homes have been lovingly restored and offer a sort of “living museum” of antebellum architecture rarely existing in other southern cities today. Entrepreneurs grew and sold cotton, opened hardware and building material stores and grew the economic base of the city. Cotton milling/textiles came to the area at this point with multiple “mill villages” providing jobs and living necessities for thousands – housing, schools, hospitals and more.
During the Great Depression, cotton farming and cotton milling continued, though with great strain. Many mills closed, workers striked and workers went to work with FDR’s “New Deal,” building many of the area’s favorite amenities – Monte Sano State Park (www.alapark.com/montesano/), Guntersville State Park and Guntersville Lake, a part of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) (www.tva.gov/abouttva/history.htm).
In 1941, the army announced that they were establishing a chemical weapons manufacturing facility on 40,000 acres. This land was located in the southwest corner of Madison County and bordered the Tennessee River. In 1949, the U. S. Army brought a team of German rocket scientists into the facility to organize the U. S. military’s Ordnance Guided Missile Center. The leader of this group was the famed “space flight visionary” – Dr. Wernher von Braun (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wernher_von_Braun). From that time, the growth of the area has never slowed down. This period of Huntsville’s history was followed by the creation of Cummings Research Park (www.huntsvillealabamausa.com/new_exp/new_crp_toc.html) – one of the largest research parks in the country – which became home to countless engineering firms and, more recently, a genomics institute known as the Hudson-Alpha Institute for Biotechnology (www.hudsonalpha.org/).
One of my favorite parts of my job is getting to introduce newcomers to this wonderful area. I also help those who have been here for a while “connect” with it better. Isn’t it funny how you can drive down the same street day after day, but never feel like you are a part of it? I never feel that way in Huntsville. There’s always a great story about the area I’m visiting, a story about a “character” who once lived there or an exciting new endeavor going on there. Only in Huntsville can you drive through former farm land to an exquisite building of steel, glass and wood – like Hudson-Alpha – and know that the cures to so many horrific diseases – like cancer – are being sought there. You can see the Saturn V rocket from 90% of Huntsville, yet I look at it and remember that Huntsvillians before me put man on the moon with that rocket. And the list goes on and on.
I think of the cow, Lily Flagg, for whom a large stretch of city road is named. Or “Salt” White, a salt monopolist for whom Whitesburg Drive is named. Or what about Senator Sparkman, who championed so many programs during the birth of Redstone Arsenal to protect his country while also protecting his city and state. If you ever “just don’t know who to ask” when you face a question about Huntsville, be sure to ask some “old timer.” Or, stop in at 204 Gates Avenue (downtown) and we’ll point you in the right direction.
The websites to some of my favorite places are featured below with restaurants and shopping featured on the sidebar for your information. I hope you’ll take the time to visit their websites and, more importantly, visit them in person. Don’t just come to Huntsville – be sure to “Come HOME to Huntsville.” You’ll be glad you did.
AREA ATTRACTIONS TO CHECK OUT:
One of the south’s oldest working hardware stores: www.harrisonbrothershardware.com/
Alabama Constitution Hall Village, the Historic Train Depot, Santa’s Village and EarlyWorks Hands on history museum: www.earlyworks.com/
Lowe Mill Arts Center: www.lowemill.net/
VanValkenburgh & Wilkinson, REALTORS www.historicandfinehomes.com
Great community calendar that can be customized per your interest: www.ourvalleyevents.com
U.S. Space & Rocket Center www.spacecamp.com
Huntsville Madison County Botanical Garden, home of the Butterfly House AND Galaxy of Lights www.hsvbg.org
Huntsville Museum of Art www.hsvmuseum.org
Great organization for getting into business & civic opportunities: www.leadershiphsv.org/
More information about Huntsville, Alabama http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huntsville,_Alabama