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?