York, Alabama is a small town (population: 3,000) that holds many complicated racial and economic issues. Through an unconventional form of ecotourism, we explored local history, current concerns, and sense of community. In meeting locals young and old, we learned about the region's development and collapse as a railroad hub, the evolution of the cotton and timber industries, civil rights issues, racial tensions, environmental concerns, and yearnings for their city's future.
During our short time here, neighbors were incredibly generous in sharing their stories with us. We were not comprehensive: as outsiders, this would be impossible even if we were to stay in York for many, many years.
From these stories, we created and displayed new town slogans on a billboard attached to our tandem bike. As the CAlabama Peddlers, we cycled over two hundred miles in Sumter County to promote the community.
Through this journal of conversations and images, we want to share some of the issues that impact this southern Black Belt town. We welcome your comments and thoughts.
marksearch (sue + bruce)
Weather: Partly sunny, mid-60s
Mileage: Walking tour of York
The Coleman Center is our project sponsor
Our new home is the old Bank of York. We were told that the walls are so thick that we wouldn't be able to hear the rumble of the trains roll by. Not so. About every four hours, a freight train howls, dings and barges through this humble crossroads. During our first night, was difficult to tell our location in relation to the tracks from the sound alone. When we woke the next day, we saw that they are spitting distance from our front door.
Avenue A: York Bank is the brick building with the curved windows
Our neighbor on Avenue A
Map of York drawn by the Urban Studio, Auburn University
We took a self-guided walking tour of downtown York to distribute our calling card to local businesses.
Broad Street (Highway 17) heading towards Fourth Avenue (Highway 11)
Local businesses in downtown York:
An old caboose from the train line that took over the AT&N
Weather: Blustery, high clouds, low to mid-50s
Mileage: 2 Mile Hike
Remnant of the old railroad
We watched and waited for the wind to die down so we could take our rig out. It never did. We had not planned for this kind of weather! The clouds rolled on through, and by the late afternoon, the sun poked out and the temperature peaked.
We decided to walk the buried track right-of-way from the old Sumter & Choctaw Railway, which runs east from along Avenue A. On our USGS map, you can see the route extends three miles east to Curl Station and then another three to Lilita, where the line seems to end.
At the end of Avenue A, and the end of the open green space, is a brick ranch house and truck junkyard. We saw a gate and a tied up and energetically barking dog at the continuation of the right of way. Some people were gathered at the front of the house, so we asked them if we could walk the railroad. At first they looked at us like we were crazy; we explained that we are interested in the old railroad and just wanted to check out what's there. They said awhile back some people came in and tore out all of the tracks, taking all of the metal. They didn't know what all else was back there, but figured we could walk a ways.
We found a fairly clear, very level pathway, ideal for a recreation trail. (In 2005, a group from the Urban Studio, part of the architecture program at Auburn University, came to York to develop a small town initiative. One of their proposals for York was the development of a rails-to-trails system.
We hadn't walked but a few yards before we entered a magical and pristine forest, lush with electric spring growth. We walked under the branches of old, mature trees: tulip, pine, chestnuts and something that looked like mulberry. We passed by a lovely wide dry marsh area, populated by tall willows not yet in leaf. In the heart of the forest we heard three loud gunshots; was it hunting season? Something important to find out!
Tulip Tree flower
Chestnut Tree flower
Weather: Sunny, clear, mid-high 70s
Mileage: 18.9 miles round trip to Cuba
After yesterday's City Council meeting, we were told to to get in touch with Josh Tillery at the Price & Tillery Furniture Store, so that we might be able to speak at the next Rotary Club meeting. As we rode there (only a few blocks) we waved to everyone in their cars, on the street, on their front porches. Folks smile because they just don't know what we are. We feel like a two-person parade.
Josh Tillery gave us great advice on which roads to were good to ride on and which ones to avoid. Josh used to be a tri-athlete and rode his bike all over the county. He told us some good routes to follow; state highways and the smaller roads are equally dangerous. The highways have shoulders but cars and logging trucks go real fast; the smaller roads are in questionable condition and have no shoulders. Still, there are lots of interesting little towns to visit that are all within 20-30 miles of York.
We decided to head out to Lake Louise, a recreation area a few miles outside of town off of Route 11. We tried to ride on some of the back roads as much as possible; but when we had to ride on the highway, cars and trucks gave us a wide berth. The road encircling the lake was gorgeous; verdant growth perfumed with honeysuckle. We saw one guy getting ready to fish; otherwise the expanse was empty of people. The road alternated from pavement to orange dirt without warning.
We had looped back around to Route 11 and saw that it was only 5 miles to Cuba, a town close to the Mississippi border, and headed that way. We passed through lumber farms, vast clear-cut acreage, new pine forest arranged in dense too-perfect rows, and truck yards with hungry truck beds waiting to be filled.
We rode off of the state route onto Sheepskin Road; saw horse farms, small homes with new gardens drawn into the clay soil, and many territorial dogs.
The Ward House: Antebellum plantation (built 1830s)
Cuba is about half the size of York; its humble streets, populated with old white houses, hugged the railroad tracks. We found downtown: vacant save for one store, Lulu's, which sold antiques and hand-made crafts. It was closed. Nearby there was a blue-awninged post office in a 1970s building; next door to that was a large storefront of the same vintage, empty.
We stopped at a small market connected to a gas station on Highway 11 to fuel up on water.We spent some time talking to some folks hanging out there.They had many stories to share!
Weather: High fluffy clouds, high 70s-low 80s
Mileage: No Ride
Doug visits the folks at the Sumter Rehabilitation Home every other Thursday; he invited us to come with him so we could meet some of the old timers. The home is a sprawling brick building a little distance outside of town.
Doug gave a real lively reading of his poetry; everyone there, black and white, finds resonance with his remembrances. Must have been a dozen or so in the room; none seemed under 80 years old.
After the reading we spent some time talking with folks about their memories. Many of them grew up in towns surrounding York: Cuba, Morningstar, Ward. They talked about the industry of the area, the railroad, farming, cotton, old plantations and now the paper mills. We asked one woman how she managed to be so spunky at 102 years old. She told us: "One evening I saw a face in the window, a white face. He called my name and told me, 'I am the Lord and I am always with you.' So that's how I carry on."
In the afternoon, we made a list of contacts: people and places we should visit.We walked around York's downtown and stopped by Inez's Kut and Kurl: closed. Then it was off to Ellis' Flower Shop to try to speak with Tom Taylor, the president of the Lion's Club. But they were closed too. We were experiencing a long-standing York tradition of shutting down at noon on Thursdays: most stores are closed except for the ones that have owners from outside of York. We asked one store-owner about its origin; he didn't know. We suggested that the break was for watching the grass grow; "Naw," he said, "It's to mow!" (We later learned that the historic reason for the early closures: Thursday afternoon used to be cattle auction day.)
THE PLACE YOU ALWAYS KNEW
This slogan has emerged from the conversations we have had about York's past. No matter who we talk to, everyone seems to agree that York was a better place years ago and that it has the potential to return to its former glory. Also, when York was first founded, it was called "New York".
Weather: High Clouds, sunshine, low 80s
Ride: 20.1 miles
Today we rode northeast up Route 11 to Livingston, a pleasant (though hot!) route through tree farms, lumber mills, houses, and a generous sprinkling of small churches.
As we entered the town, we could hear the music flowing from the town's main square.
Tim Truelove playing the blues...
The Sucarnochee Folklife Festival, an annual event held at the University of Western Alabama in Livingston, draws craftspeople from all over the region. It was a day full of good music, interesting stories and delicious local treats.
Even if people were not from York, they had a story to tell about the area. Everyone agreed that the slogans help with community spirit.
These kids sang a gospel song for us; in exchange, Bruce sang an Italian gondola song for them!
At sunset we spied the "Welcome to York" sign on our way home.
Weather: Hazy and humid, high 80s
Ride: 10.6 miles
At lunchtime, we met with the members of the Rotary Club at the Briar Patch to talk to them about our project. Everyone agreed that publicizing a positive image of York is valuable.
We spent the afternoon posting information around town about the upcoming bike repair day. Richard Saxton, a resident artist who created the MunicipalWORKSHOP program, transformed an old TV & radio repair shop into a self-sufficient bike repair shed. The Coleman Center hosts monthly bike repair sessions.
As we rode around town, we spoke with residents about their hopes for York.
Weather: Clear and cool, high 70s
Ride: .8 miles
A self-proclaimed local historian stopped by our studio this morning to show us old photos of the city. He used to have a regular section in the Sumter Record Journal called "York Yesteryear": old photos paired with current images of York. People around town knew he was collecting old photos and would donate whatever they had, mostly images from the 1930s to the 1960s.
He talked to us about some of the changes that York has undergone. He wants us to continue to boost community morale.
Friday is fried chicken and gravy day at the Pig:
After lunch we met with a "town elder" who has lived in York over eighty years. We spent over three hours with him and his wife; they generously shared their memories with us about his work on the AT&N Railroad as a brakeman and also about the local food economy from fishing to robbing honey.
Brakeman on the AT&N:
In exchange for their incredible stories, we washed dishes and tidied the kitchen.
Weather: Partly cloudy, high 70s
Ride: 29.7 miles
New Slogan (#4):
Once & Future York
We based our fourth slogan on the designs of one industrious sign-maker in town.
On our way out of York, we stopped at the middle school to introduce ourselves and set-up up some meetings with different classes. The school administrators were certain that the kids would be excited by the bike.
Our plan was to take some back roads to reach a town called Emelle. We would visit a few small towns along the way: Millville, Payneville and Boyd. From our USGS map it was impossible to tell the size of the towns and road conditions.
Though we traveled through some exquisite countryside, we saw very few people.
Because there were no road or town signs, we quickly became lost! We missed the turn for the Payneville Millville Road, our "short-cut" and ended up in Lauderdale County, MS. Luckily for us, school was letting out and a school bus, announcing the county name, rode by. If we hadn't seen the bus, we would have thought we were still in Alabama and still heading in the right direction. It was challenging to synch the USGS with the GPS. So, we back-tracked about three miles until we thought we found the Payneville Millville Road.
Turns out that the Payneville Millville Road is a dirt turn-off that looks very much like a logging road. Wanting to continue our adventure, we went ahead on the brilliant orange rutted passageway to see what we would see.
The road was only five miles (give or take) but because of muddy conditions, it was very challenging to navigate. During our several hour ride/walk, we saw only one person, a satisfied hunter who zoomed by us in his ATV with a few still turkeys stacked in the back.
At a certain point, the road degenerated into a narrow path and we came upon a rusting, depression-era truss bridge with a badly damaged approach trestle. After testing the bridge, we safely crossed.
We gave up on trying to reach Emelle since the sun was heading down. We made our way back to York and decided that we would not travel on anymore back roads.
Weather: High clouds, High 80s, humid
Our major community service effort was hosting a bike repair day at the York Bike Shed, a public art project developed by Richard Saxton. Richard converted this shed, which used to be the town's radio and tv repair shop, into a self-sustaining building. It is equipped with solar panels and a grey-water system that irrigates the surrounding garden.
The shed, which had been closed since the fall, needed a little "tlc". With the community's help, we organized the bike shed's tools and supplies, and revived the garden.
Over the course of the morning, we gave away and helped repair more than a dozen bikes.
Weather: Clear skies, hot, upper 90s
Ride: 3.1 miles
Since it was Sunday morning, we decided to visit one of the many churches in York. A town of 3000 residents, York boasts over twenty different houses of worship! The First Baptist Church congregation warmly welcomed us. The two-hour service was full of impassioned words and celebratory music. With everyone singing, the music was visceral.
We spent some time after the service to talk to folks about their York memories and perspectives. We passed out many York city plans. We tried to get some one-on-one time with the minister, but he was very busy; he had to rush over and deliver another service at a different church.
We spent the afternoon riding around York and talking to folks as they relaxed on their front porches.
In the evening we met with a Katrina refugee at Church's Chicken: a young woman who had been attending Tulane and is now finishing her pre-law degree in Livingston. She impressed us with her unwavering optimism given the challenges she faces.
Weather: Hot, hot, hot! high 90s
Ride: 26.0 miles
Because it was promising to be an extremely hot day, we started off early in the morning. As we headed off to Livingston, we made a stop at the Sumter County Rehab Center to give them photos from our earlier visit.
Even though we have visited Livingston a few times, we thought it would be a good idea to ride there again and talk to more folks. On our way, we rode through some of the newer housing developments in York. We spoke with one neighbor who was bursting with York accolades: she is glad that she lives in a place where people know and care about each other. She is concerned for York's youth and hopes that there will be enough job opportunities to encourage them either to stay or return. In exchange for her York stories, we picked up some stray trash on her impeccable yard.
We took a "short cut", a road that would by-pass much of the heavily trafficked Highway 11. This detour took us through some wonderfully shaded woods, a few old homes, and a simple church.Across the road from the church was a cemetery populated with very old and some homemade markers. It was very, very peaceful.
We stopped at our favorite lunch spot, the Touch of Home.There we ran into several people that we knew; made us feel a little bit like locals!
We toured around Livingston and saw some stunning architecture; even the more simple homes possessed a solid presence.
We rode through the University of West Alabama campus because someone had told us a story about the covered bridge there. The Alamuchee-Bellamy Covered Bridge was moved to the campus in the 1970s and strides over a small lake; it is the oldest covered bridge in Alabama. You can smell its history as you move through it.
Looping back to Highway 11 we came upon Livingston's city hall, which is housed in the former train station. Though the train doesn't stop there anymore, it loudly passes by, as often as several times an hour.
Weather: Humid, muggy, low 90s
Ride: 3.3 miles
As the humidity increases, we are learning how to be slow.
Today we drove to Meridian, MS for lunch with Johnny Davis and wife Sherry. Meridian is the closest big city to York. This is where many people go to work and shop (it's about a forty minute drive). We had a bit of culture shock seeing all of the strip malls and big box stores. Johnny and Sherry shared their inspiring York stories with us. Johnny proclaimed York as "the world's best kept secret." They are excited about the recent opening of their new antique shop called the Watcha Ma Callit Store.
In the afternoon we took a slow, short ride to visit with Mary Zeno, a local poet. We were happy to sit in her yard, drink ice tea and listen to her wonderful poetry. She recalled for us stories about her dad, who was known as 'ol' wheelbarrow man". After he finished his day job as a janitor at one of the mills, he would walk around town with his wheelbarrow, offering his services as a handyman. Children and dogs always followed him; they all loved to be around him.
As one of our service activities, we are typing up Mary's new poems and preserving them for her on a CD.
We talked to our neighbor Doug about some good routes to take for our future rides.
Weather: Humid, hazy, muggy with light afternoon drizzles, high 80s
Ride: 12.5 mi (Three short rides)
Today we paid a visit to Mrs. Black, a retired schoolteacher who taught in the Sumter County school system for forty years. She is a local town historian and wrote a book called Twelve Plus, which chronicles her father's life in the region. Her husband, Lucius Black, served several terms as a state representative. Their house is full of photos and awards that they both have won over the years for their service to the community. She told us incredible stories about the civil rights era in York.
In the afternoon we went to the West End School to meet with several classes. The kids, who all had already seen us riding through town at least once or twice, were really excited to see the bike up close. We talked to them about bike safety and they shared their thoughts about York with us. Here is a list of some slogans that they used to describe their town:
An important part of the Coleman Center is the Hightower Library. We spent some time there, talking to the librarians and borrowing books.
Some of the books we checked out were:
The Coleman Center is also home to a small historical museum. Here are some of photos that document York's early years.
In thanks for allowing us to photograph the museum's images, we dusted and cleaned the photos' frames.
We had a great evening ride through Grant City. We stopped and spoke with lots of folks.
As we were riding, clusters of kids joined us.
We wanted to find the sign-maker who created many of the signs in and around York. His work inspired many of our designs and we wanted to thank him for his creativity. Here are some samples of his great work:
We didn't have any luck finding after riding to several places where the kids thought he lived. Everyone knows who he is, but no one we spoke to knows where he is.
Here's our final slogan, based on the many railroad stories that people told us:
Weather: Humid, rainy, high 80s
Drive to Gainesville, AL
A number of people told us that we should visit the town of Gainesville because its historic architecture. The trip was further than what we could manage in a day. Since we were fortunate to have the use of a vehicle, we drove to the town (which is about 30 miles north of York). The terrain changed dramatically as we traveled north: tree farms gave way to catfish farms.
We set to meet with the informal town historian, who, with her husband, has renovated many of the town's antebellum homes.
We met Margaret early in the morning, and immediately embarked on a three-hour tour. When the town was first platted in 1832, it was, as she stated, a "real city" with a booming economy. It was close to the river and the railroad, which were both useful for shipping cotton. By 1840, the people in Sumter County comprised one third of the state's total population. According to the 2000 census, there are 220 people now living in Gainesville.
Gainesville was all but destroyed by a fire in 1855; it was rebuilt and the last remaining wooden store burned some time in the 1960s. The town's downtown is nearly vacant. Margaret is determined to turn Gainesville into a gateway for the region. She plans to transform the town's historic bank into a visitor center. This bank, which decades ago had been purchased by a wealthy businessman and relocated to his hometown, Tuscaloosa, was recently returned to Gainesville.
Margaret told us about an adventure that we would like to take: the underground railroad bike route, a 2,100 mile trip that covers territory from the deep south all the way to Ontario, Canada.
The town has several churches, but because of the area's slim population, Sunday services rotate among the different denominations. Margaret, weighted with an impressive collection of keys, took us in to a few of the buildings.
We also visited the town's two cemeteries, which are well visited by tourists who are researching their family genealogy.
Weather: Crisp and cool, low 80s
Ride: 12.5 miles
Today is our last day with our bike. We're not ready to end the project; it feels like it would take a lifetime to really get to know this small town.
A surprise visitor stopped by the bank to talk with us. Gary, a young man who grew up in York and is now back visiting during his summer break from college, shared with us an interesting perspective of the town. We talked about local and state politics, education and the school system, and York's future. Gary gave us his two cents about the different slogans that have emerged through the project and we brainstormed about what York could do with the slogans.
After lunch we rode out to Sumter Academy, the county's private school, to talk to some of the kids there. Here are some the slogans that they came up with:
We rode around the back roads that surround the school. In this area we saw a lot of small and large plots planted with corn, collards, cabbage and other young sprouts. We even saw a scattering of cows grazing in a lush pasture.
On our way back into town we visited the sawmill in the hopes of a tour. This mill, up until recently, was one of the few to operate with a steam engine. Because it was late in the afternoon, we unfortunately weren't able to see all of the machinery.
We stopped by City Hall to see if we could catch Mayor Gosa to discuss the outcomes of the project. She was very encouraged by the residents' enthusiasm to talk about their town's history and future. She invited us to stay on and continue riding around; we would have loved to extend the project, but other commitments were calling us back home. Mayor Gosa did show us plans for new welcome signs that will proclaim: "York: A City on the Move."
At dusk we went to visit Mary (the poet) at her childhood home in Grant City. We met her brother and sisters, who all fondly talked about their mother and father. They dug up some old family photos to share with us. Mary showed us the infamous wheelbarrow that her dad towed through town (the origin of his nickname, "Wheelbarrow Man"). Their home was a wonderfully organic construction: as new children came, Wheelbarrow Man birthed additions to accommodate his growing family.
Weather: Cool, sunny blue sky, high 70s
Today is our last day here in York. We packed up our trusty vehicle and sent it on its way back to California.
We transformed our traveling billboard into a slogan signboard as a gift for the town.
We sent the following letter to community-based organizations based in York:
May 7, 2007
Dear Community Member,
Have you seen two people riding a big yellow bicycle around York? Since mid-April, the CAlabama Peddlers (Sue Mark + Bruce Douglas) have been riding around York talking to people about their lives here. Folks have shared stories about York's history, the railroad, social life, environmental and political concerns, and of course, their yearnings for the city's future. Even though many people are worried about York's current downward turn, everyone expresses a deep love for the place they call home. And we are honored that everyone has so warmly welcomed us in this community.
Over the past month, we have ridden on nearly all of York's city streets and close to 200 miles in Sumter County displaying various slogans that have emerged from our conversations with young and old, black and white. From these stories, we have created and displayed the following slogans:
Our hope is that the slogans, which express many of the beliefs that were shared with us, can benefit the York community in an ongoing public format. We are sending you this information so that you can put these slogans into circulation. We are curious to know what you may decide to do.If you would, please let us know what happens with the slogans by regular post (above address) or email (email@example.com).
Thank you so much for making us feel at home in York.
Sue Mark + Bruce Douglas