Through an unconventional form of ecotourism, the CAlabama Peddlers explored the local history, current concerns, and sense of community of the residents of one small city: York, AL (population: 3,000). York’s residents shared stories about the region’s development and collapse as a railroad hub, the evolution of the cotton and timber industries, environmental and political concerns, civil rights issues, and yearnings for their city’s future. From these stories, the Peddlers collaboratively created and displayed thought-provoking slogans on a billboard attached to their tandem bike. As the CAlabama Peddlers, marksearch (a wife-husband team), cycled over two hundred miles in Sumter County, Alabama. Our conversations, images, GPS data, and videos are archived on this documentary blog.
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 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:
- We Come to York, Alabama
- The Place You Always Knew, York AL
- Come Home to York, Alabama
- The Once & Future York
- Switchin’ Tracks in York
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
Weather: Crisp and cool, low 80s
Ride: 12.5 miles Take a look at our route…
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:
- York is Cool
- York is Awesome
- York is Quaint
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: 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 change 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: 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. Check out our route…
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:
- Best City Ever
- Big, Beautiful, Bright
- Best Place to Play
- Welcoming and Friendly
- York’s Future is Important
Check out our route…
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 Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama
- Crazy in Alabama, Mark Childress
- To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee
- The Way Forward is With A Broken Heart, Alice Walker
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.
Check out our route…
Here’s our final slogan, based on the many railroad stories that people told us:
Weather: Muggy, high 80s
Ride: No ride
Today we took a drive to Birmingham to visit the Civil Rights Institute, an amazing collection of information about the civil rights movement. The museum’s presentations are very dynamic and include sound, video, installation, text and photos. The museum is located in what is called the Civil Right’s District, a six-block area that served as the epi-center of the movement.
After touring the Institute, we enjoyed a delicious and hearty meal of greens, ribs, cornbread and cat-fish.
On our way home we took a break from the interstate to drive through some small towns. We stopped off to explore Eutaw (pronounced ‘utah’) just at twilight: its architecture was ethereal.
Overall it felt strange to move through the landscape at an auto’s pace.
Weather: Humid, muggy, low 90s
Ride: 3.3 miles Check out our route…
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: Hot, hot, hot! high 90s
Ride: 26.0 miles Check out our route…
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: Clear skies, hot, upper 90s
Ride: 3.1 miles Check out our route…
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: 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.