You wouldn’t expect it, but as you drive north on Highway 331 from DeFuniak Springs
through Paxton, Florida, the road actually gets better when you pass over the state line into Alabama. Houses emerge from the trees, right next to the road, where before there were only trees, with occasional houses set way back from the road, atop a hill or hidden behind a dense screen of oaks. Something about this part of the country makes people want to spread their things out across the yard, too, but that stops on the Alabama side. Children’s toys, car parts, Mountain Dew bottles, styrofoam cups, old newspapers; all are there, laid out for some future archaeologist to puzzle over. They could argue about material culture, ritual cleansing, consumer iconography, all from the litany of Floridian junk in Floridian yards. But in Florala the yards get a lot cleaner all of a sudden, and smaller. You just don’t expect that.
331 comes to an abrupt stop just inside of town. I’ve never taken the right turn, toward other Alabama towns with names like Hacoda, Samson, or Geneva. The left turn offers a reward that I’m afraid those other towns just couldn’t quite live up to. There are beautiful old churches to behold there, a few blocks of small businesses that proudly predate Floridian strip malls, a somewhat-out-of-place statue of Elvis Presley, and a deep, round lake just behind the trees on your left. Sherwood Anderson and Ray Bradbury would feel right at home in a town like that one. I’m not afraid to say it: Florala, Alabama is my favorite little town in America.
Sherwood Anderson and Ray Bradbury would appreciate the darkness at the heart of this little town, too, so like the darkness at the heart of every little town. Every building has a story. There’s a burnt-out shell of a building across from the Family Dollar down one street, next to the local newspaper office and a combination video rental and tanning salon that seems to have been closed up for some time. What happened there? Arson? Accident? There is an imposing Victorian mansion down another street, up for sale. In a story taken straight from the exposition of a horror story, it was the home of a Fin de Siècle doctor, perhaps built for his bored Northern wife. Word is, of course, that the house is haunted. I’m not inclined to disagree, even though I don’t believe in ghosts. There’s not a better candidate for a haunted house anywhere in the South than this one. I’m told that the high school basketball coach from another town nearby is supposed to have bought the home less than ten years ago, but the realtor’s sign out front says it didn’t work out for him.
“This is one of the rare parts of Alabama where you can’t see the poverty,” someone who grew up in the area told me on my first trip, “but it’s still there.” It starts to peep through just another block or two west of the antiques stores downtown, where immense old textile factories stand abandoned, windows busted out, vines creeping up the sides of their brick facades. Local tycoons like Seymour Gitenstein kept these factories going until the mid-nineties, when NAFTA pulled the rug out from beneath them. At least ten years ago, there was still a Gitenstein scholarship for local students going to college, but if you stick around town there aren’t many options for a job: Family Dollar, Dollar General, Huddle House, antique stores, schools, or convenience stores. There’s a certain pride in the cleanliness of the town, even as the Hydra-headed American economy lops off the head that used to keep towns like this afloat.
Florala can still take pride in the Masonic Day celebration, though, held annually on the week of the 24th of June. Though it seems to have shrunk some over the years, when I went there was still a great little carnival set up just north of Lake Jackson spanning a whole block, complete with a Ferris Wheel, Midway games, huge slides, and a funhouse. I swore that I could see Ray Bradbury sitting on a picnic table by the funhouse, taking notes. That same night, he summoned a violent storm from the Gulf. A random gust of wind from his storm overturned the slides and one of the bounce houses while children were still playing on them, injuring several. Thankfully none were hurt too badly. Things like that are commonplace in small-town America, as Bradbury knew. The festival went on as planned the next year.
This post is part one of a series of 50 essays on state archives. The Alabama State Archives can be found at
. The photos on this page, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the digital archives at
. Anyone interested in history should check out the state archives of every state in the region they’re studying. There is a great deal of overlap, especially for early history, and they all have excellent collections.