When one thinks of the Black Belt, there are many misconceptions that one could focus on – poverty, racism, etc. So going to the "Gateway of the Black Belt", Greene County, originally sent a shiver down my spine. I was so wrong, though, and all of my misconceptions were shattered instantly. In fact, Greene County exceeded all of my expectations both in beauty and in financial promise.
Our first stop gave us a glimpse of the promise we were going to face. As we visited the Chamber of Commerce/Industrial Development Authority building, we stepped back in time. The building is on the historic square and is where records for the county were kept. The building's downstairs area still has original books of records from the county that date back to the 1850's. These books are unique in style, handwriting, binding and overall looks. You can even pull them out and open them up, remarking in their historical beauty. Fittingly, this is where we met local historian Ralph Liverman. Liverman is a wealth of information about Greene County and is passionate about his county's history. That history is very rich.
Greene County is actually older than the state of Alabama. It was originally established in 1819. Because it was surrounded by rivers on three sides, Greene was very populated and prosperous in the 1800's. In fact, it was the most populated county in Alabama during that period. Cotton was an industry that boomed there, making Greene very wealthy. That certainly shows in the current antebellum homes in the area.
Of course, you cannot speak of the history of Greene County without addressing slavery. Before the Civil War, slaves were plentiful in Greene because the industries were all agricultural-based. In fact, at one point at the height of slavery in the South, 75% of the county's population was African-American. Greene is still heavily populated by African-Americans because after the Civil War, many freed slaves decided to stay. And who wouldn't want to stay in Greene with all of its natural beauty? Of course, the freeing of slaves did cost the county much of its prosperity, and Greene slowly became the least populated county in the state of Alabama. But there is a new hope for Greene and its economic prosperity.
The Civil Rights Movement was also an important part of Greene's rich history. Martin Luther King Junior preached at a local church in Greene County, and he even stayed in some of the houses there. The current IDA president Phillis Belcher can remember King staying at her house when she was a little girl, and now understands the importance of his visits to the county. Greene also boasts the first black probate judge in America. The first black sheriff of Greene County, Thomas Gilmore, is famous for being the non-violence pastor sheriff who wouldn't carry a gun. Greene County is embracing that time in history by honoring the church that MLK Jr. spoke at with a Civil Rights marker, and by renaming the county square after Gilmore. Even Mayor Hattie Edwards, who is the first black female mayor of Eutaw, knows that the Civil Rights Movement played an important part in shaping the county, and she embraces the past so it can help the county move forward in its future. These types of historical reminders are making Greene County a very popular stop in Civil Rights tours through Alabama.
Greene County is using its rich history to build its current tourism industry. As I said before, you can literally step back in time when going to Greene County. There are tons of antebellum homes lining the streets, and the town square in Eutaw has the original county courthouses and buildings. Unlike many areas in Alabama that were burned by the Union in the Civil War, Greene County was spared because it was difficult to get to because it was surrounded by rivers. So homes from the early 1800's still stand in excellent condition on all the streets, especially in the county seat of Eutaw. The county and its citizens have done an excellent job maintaining the historical feel of the county. In Eutaw, the Kirkwood Mansion/plantation is perhaps the most beautiful example of the rich history of the county. Everything inside the home is decorated to period, and the decorations are beyond beautiful. As someone who has done a lot of historical tours in cities around the nation, I was extremely impressed by the collection of artifacts that Kirkwood has. The other thing about Kirkwood that is so impressive is the fact that they allow tours to come through every single room of the house, including its lovely tower/spire. Most historical home tours will block off sections of the home or not allow you to see every nook and cranny. In Kirkwood and many of the other historical homes we toured, we were allowed to see and explore everything. You could literally spend days going through Kirkwood and other historical homes in the area admiring their history and decorations. I highly recommend going to Greene County just to see these antebellum homes, which will be open to a county-wide tour in October.
Another stop that would be great for any recreational person is Leavellwood. Leavellwood is a hunting and fishing lodge that takes camping to a whole other level. The ponds and hunting areas are pristine and a true testament to nature's beauty. But for those who may not be as interested in the outdoors like myself, there is a lodge that will take your breath away. Nicely decorated with the owner's prize kills as well as other natural decorations, the accommodations you receive at Leavellwood would make any city girl or guy want to live in the woods forever. This impressive lodge is a great place just to get away and unwind. I would highly recommend it for hunters and fishermen, and even those who may just want some peace.
Other areas of Greene's tourism industry include its hospitality and culinary stops. While they may not be avant-garde in its cooking, Truman's is the epitome of Southern food and hospitality. We ate there twice in our stops in Greene County, and each experience was better than the next. Truman's has one of the best barbeque sauces, which they sell around the country, and a great variety of Southern favorites. My best dish was the potato salad, and I highly recommend this place to anyone visiting Greene. More importantly than the food, though, was the people who worked and ate there. They were always so friendly, inviting us to eat with them even though we were total strangers, and always offering one more piece of wonderful food.
Speaking of great food, there are other industries besides tourism that are booming in Greene. One surprising one is the shrimping industry. As someone who visits the Gulf quite often, I always thought shrimp had to come from the Gulf. Was I ever wrong! Dickie Odom produces huge shrimp and catfish on his farm. After farming catfish for years, he got the idea to cultivate shrimp after a conversation with some wildlife experts at Auburn who told him that some shrimp will survive in low-saline water. So, Dickie decided to start farming shrimp right there in Greene County. He sells directly to his customers instead of using a middle-man or company. Dickie says he often has hundreds of customers coming to the farm to buy pounds of shrimp from him. He says he harvests about hundreds of thousands of pounds of shrimp each year, as well as catfish. Besides being a unique farmer in Greene, Dickie is also one of the nicest people you'll come across. He is so accommodating and just an all-around great guy. More importantly he's an innovator in Greene County, and he's bringing jobs to a community that often has to look to its neighboring counties for work.
Other big industries in Greene County include retail, packaging, and manufacturing. Rock-Tenn, which provides paperboard and packaging solutions for companies, is the largest employer in the county. United Roofing, a manufacturing company, and TEPPCO, a subsidiary operating company, are other well-known employers in the county. These companies are located in Greene County's industrial parks, which are large but overall not well-populated. The IDA says they are always looking to bring new industries in to the county and are hoping to fill their large industrial parks soon.
One area that the county is really excelling at, though, is its workforce development. The county is building its first new high school in over 30 years right now. In fact, to build the new high school, the county had to vote to raise taxes by 3 mils to pay for the new facility. The measure passed by 75% of the vote. That shows just how dedicated the county and its residents are to education. The fact that people would be willing to pay more in taxes to help their children grow and develop their workforce education says a lot about the type of people that live in Greene. The new school will also offer a career-tech program that will be state-of-the-art, and the superintendent of schools says this will be a major accomplishment for everyone in the county.
Overall, we were really surprised by the culture of Greene County. Its rich history really draws tourists from all over the world. We were pleasantly surprised to step back in time when we went to Greene, focusing on the past while developing its future potential through tourism. The historic homes, recreational lodges, and culinary treats were astounding. Besides the tourism industry, some surprising businesses are popping up in Greene as well, like the shrimp-farming industry. While there is still room to grow, the industrial parks in Greene show a lot of potential. There is also a lot of potential in Greene's workforce as the county begins to refocus on education with its new school and technical career programs. It may be the "Gateway to the Black Belt," but Greene County epitomizes the positive features of the area. Overall, what's working is the people, the historical tourism, and the educational priorities for the county.
Kirkwood Mansion: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Kirkwood-Mansion/105329122867152
Dickie Odom shrimp: 10141 US Hwy 43 Boligee, Alabama 35443 205-372-2804
Greene County tour of homes: http://www.alblackbeltheritage.org/node/325
Greene County IDA: http://gcidb.net/
Greene County Board of Education: http://www.greene.k12.al.us/
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