Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Walkabout Wednesday - Rocket City USA

Huntsville, Alabama is located in the north central part of the state, less than twenty miles from the Tennessee state line. It’s the fourth largest city in Alabama with a 2008 population of roughly 177,000. The metropolitan area, which includes surrounding towns, has a population of over half a million.

The town was settled in 1805 by John Hunt. Hence the name Huntsville, though it didn’t get that name until 1812. Originally known as Twickenham, it was the first incorporated town in Alabama in 1811. It grew quickly because of the cotton and railroad industries, and cotton still plays a part in this area’s economy.

In 1819, a constitutional convention was held in Huntsville and the town became the capital of the new state of Alabama. Then on April 11, 1862, the city was occupied by Union troops during the War of Northern Aggression. After the war, the area became a center for cotton mills. Each mill had its own housing, school, church, stores and other supportive businesses. One of the mill areas, Merrimack, was recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places and the old mill offices were remodeled into a performing arts center.

The depression years saw a decline in Huntsville’s industry, but the city became known as the Watercress Capital of the World. There are still a few spots around where the cress still grows.

By 1940, Huntsville was a sleepy little town with less than 15,000 inhabitants. Then with the US’s involvement in World War II, the town was chosen as the site for a chemical and munitions manufacturing plant. The Huntsville Arsenal closed after the war, but by that time, Wernher von Braun and his German rocket science team had been brought to the US and they settled in Huntsville to begin developing the United States’ space program.

Marshall Space Flight Center was dedicated on September 8, 1960 by then President Dwight Eisenhower and we began the space race to the moon and became known as Rocket City USA. Huntsville is still heavily tied to the space program as well as the US Missile Defense Command. It also is home to the second largest research park in the world.

In terms of geography, Huntsville is located in the Tennessee River valley. Several plateaus and large hills, which we residents call mountains, surround the city. The area is also heavily dotted with caves in the limestone bedrock, and we have the occasional sinkhole or two. We are also the headquarters for the National Speleological Society.

The climate is humid subtropical, characterized by hot, humid summers and generally mild winters. Some years, we have outbreaks of tornadic activity in spring and fall, though tornadoes can occur during any month as evidenced by the November 1989 tornado that killed 21 and injured nearly 500 people. Snowfall is rare but occasionally Mother Nature will goof like she did on January 1, 1963 when she dumped 17 inches of snow on the city in 24 hours. The last significant snowfall was 13 years ago, and forecasters say we’re overdue. Because snow is so rare, the area has no real road equipment to deal with it, and the standing joke is that if you drop a tray of ice cubes on your kitchen floor, the city will most likely close the schools for the day.

Huntsville is also an official US Customs port of entry, which is why you can go into the McDonald’s near Huntsville International Airport and find members of the US Border Patrol. They are NOT guarding the border between Alabama and Mississippi; rather they are looking at the numerous air shipments that arrive from all over the world.

The city has three historic districts, numerous museums and parks, a large yearly music festival, a yearly arts festival in the park and an annual science fiction convention (of course we do because we’re The Rocket City). Performing arts abound, and the downtown area is highlighted by the Von Braun Center, which opened in 1975 and includes an arena where Elvis performed on May 31, 1975 and where Goldie Hawn’s son plays hockey for the local university. The VBC also plays host to the Heart of Dixie Romance Readers’ Luncheon each May.

Does Huntsville have any notable natives? Sure! There’s Tallulah Bankhead, the actress; Bo Bice, American Idol runner-up; Albert Russel Erskine, chairman of the Studebaker Corporation; the country music group Heartland; John Hendricks, founder and chairman of the Discovery Channel; Grammy-winning singer Brian McKnight; numerous MLB and NFL athletes as well a several Olympic medal winners; and Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia.

I like to say it’s one of the best kept secrets in the country. It’s international in flavor because of the high-tech industries and the universities yet still retains a small-town feel. Our schools are good and the cost of living is low compared to other areas of this size.

And if you’re ever in the area, y’all give us a holler and we’ll treat you to biscuits and grits, tea so sweet it will make your teeth hurt, and take you to eat BBQ at Angel’s husband’s restaurant.

Where do YOU live and what's it famous for?


Barbara Vey said...

I live in South Milwaukee, about 20 minutes south of Milwaukee which is famous for Laverne and Shirley, Happy Days, the Milwaukee Brewers, cheese and beer. Of course, there's a lot more history, but these are the things most people think of. :)

Annie said...

Had to laugh at the comment about the ice cubes on the kitchen floor. It's like that in the UK...we generally have a fairly mild climate, so if we get more than an inch of snow the whole country grinds to a halt. Nobody has snow chains for their car tyres. The points freeze on the railway lines. Pretty soon, everyone's off work, and outside having a massive snowball fight.

Smarty Pants said...

Oh, oh! I know the guitarist from Heartland. He worked at the bank with my mom. :)

I'll claim Alabama as home, but being born in Tucson, let's see... we're famous for Saguaro cactus they always show in desert scenes of movies (although they only grow in southern Arizona), Old Tucson, a tourist attraction where they used to film westerns, turquoise jewelry and other Native American craft items... that's about it. Unless you think 330 days of cloudless skies a year is noteworthy (don't get excited, it comes with 115 degree summers).

Problem Child said...

I love living here. Folks shake their heads when I say that, but I really do.

If we're overdue for snow...yikes. Guess I should be sure my emergency supplies are ready.

I moved around a lot as a kid, but the home base was Knoxville, TN. Home of UT and our Vols!

Instigator said...

Originally, I claim Midland, Michigan as home (although I wasn't born there). I don't remember much about it other than where on my hand it sits though. :-)

I've lived in Bama for most of my life and have no problems calling it home now. I like it...although I will admit to asking my father, "Where?!?" when he told us we were moving to Alabama. Hey, I was only 9 at the time. Cut me some slack.


Lynn Raye Harris said...

Great post, PM! That is truly why HSV is so great. I'm not native, but claim AL as my home now. (Though I AM a native Southerner.) You forgot to mention the other joke: Huntsville is 30 minutes from Alabama. ;-)

PM's Mother said...

North Carolina is my home and I think PM could give you the run-down on that great state but now I live on St. Simons Island, Georgia.

The climate is sub-tropical and the winters are mild. We do have to worry about hurricanes. I think the last hurricane to hit this area was in 1894 so we are really overdue.

I guess the most famous of residents that I know of was author Eugenia Price; and there is Bill Diehl who authored several novels (one or two were made into movies.) I'm sure we have other famous residents -- specially on Sea Island which is a hop and skip east of here. (You must drive across St. Simons to reach Sea Island.

There is also a lot of early American history here. Georgia is one of the 13 American Colonies. Our most famous landmark is the lighthouse.

Culinarily (is that a word?) we are known for our seafood -- shrimp, yum! On the mainland is a place called Willie's Wee-nee Wagon that has great hot dogs and is known for their pork chop sandwiches (they will give you $1,000.00 if you can find a better one) and their slogan is "We Relisj Your Bun".

There is so much more, but it would be better if you could come visit our island !

PS: PM forgot the Cotton Row Run!

Pamela Hearon said...

My hometown is in western KY. Kentucky is well-known for its bluegrass and race horses, of course, but also for the poverty in the Appalachian region. It's always bothered me that people think the entire state looks like the tv documentaries that cover that region.
KY is a beautiful state, and we actually have colleges and indoor plumbing and shoes:-)

Liza said...

I live in Nashville, TN, which is of course Music City, USA. We also don't know how to handle the snow so it will shut down the city if we get any this year.

My great aunt lived in Huntsville for about 50 years, so I used to visit her there all the time. It really changed from when we would go as kids to my last visit with her. She is now in our hometown with family, but still misses Huntsville.

catslady said...

I live in Pittsburgh, PA and it has tons of history - I believe Louis and Clark started their trek here, lots of forts and because we have the 3 merging rivers it was a big transportation hub and where travelers congregated, we had a huge steel industry and tons of coal so we got a reputation for the dirty city but it's all cleaned up and most of the steel mills are gone. We have the Superbowl Steelers, the Stanley cup Penguins and the not so good Pirates lol. Lots of cultural events, colleges, etc. too. Not a lot of sun though lol.

Marilyn Shoemaker said...

Nice post Marilyn.

I live in Seattle, WA and of course the Space Needle, Pike's Place Market and wonderful chefs and seafood restaurants. Also, Starbucks, The Boeing Company and Microsoft.

Let's also not forget the Seattle Seahawks and Seattle Mariners.

As for music, Jimi Hendricks, the song Louie,Louie, Pearl Jam and grunge, Bruce Lee and Kurt Cobain. Down the street from my actress Dyan Cannon lived at one time.

Laurie said...

I live in Stuart, Florida. It is known as the Sailfish capital, lots of charter fishing. It became infamous in September 2004 when the eyes of two Hurricanes: Jeanne and Francis both came ashore here (3 weeks apart).

Beautiful beaches!!