Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Alabama Trifecta: Motorcycles, Wright, and the Coon Dog Cemetery

While Martha was giving her paper at her conference, Bruce and I went to the Barber Motorsports Museum. It bills itself as the world’s largest collection of motorcycles.

While the photos in the brochure were remarkable, I wasn’t super excited about going. Motorcycles… I didn’t understand how they could be alluring in the same way that a car, train, airplane, boat, or Kitchen Aid mixer could be alluring. As they say, different strokes. But I was wrong.

Except for one ride on a 125cc trail bike, my motorcycling was limited to the Honda 50s my brother and I had when we were kids. We spent hours playing mini-bike polo in the backyard with croquet mallets, a sport only slightly safer than lawn darts. I thought it was the best thing ever.

Although the Barber Museum is within the city limits of Birmingham it was quite a drive from our hotel. It’s at one of those Interstate exits that doesn’t have much going on, just a gas station or two. We turned onto the grounds and then drove for maybe a half a mile through a well-raked forest until we came to the museum.

As we parked, we figured that something was up since we heard the high-pitched scream of race cars. We walked over to the edge of the parking lot and where we had a great view of a dell and what looked like a grand prix race track in a park. It reminded me of photos of English Grand Prix racing from the 1950s. There was a racetrack alright, but no grandstands, hospitality tents, big billboards, and especially no Jumbrotrons. A bunch of Porsches were racing around the track like the proverbial bats out of hell. Clearly this was unlike any museum I’d been to.

From the exterior, the Barber Museum could be the headquarters of a flush defense contractor in an anonymous office park near the Washington Beltway.  The building was a sleek modernist thing, the grounds were immaculately cared for, and there was a particularly hideous sculpture in the lawn near the entrance.  Nothing says Military Industrial Complex like a modern building in an office park punctuated by hideous sculpture.

Since I intermittently subscribe to my father’s dictum that “you don’t go on vacation to save money” Bruce and I opted for the “Premium Museum Tour” for an extra $15. This mean that we would be on a docent-led tour and would also get to visit the museum’s restoration shop. We had a few minutes to walk around before our tour started. I had no idea that there were so many different kinds of motorcycles. Yowza!

The museum is enormous. It’s seriously huge, with a great multistory atrium at its center. Curving ramps connect the floors. It felt like a giant riff on the Guggenheim Museum’s famous Art of the Motorcycle Show. (The Barber Museum lent a bunch of motorcycles to that show.)

I’m not sure if it was a slow day at the museum, or if this is normal, but there were only five others on the tour. There was a Mr. Peepers-ish retired professor, his wife, and thirty something daughter, who, if you were pitching her as a blind date, you’d lead with her good personality. There was also a young Asian couple who didn’t say much and wandered off regularly to take photos. I had the impression that they didn’t understand a whole lot of what the docent was saying.

Our docent, a courtly gent named Coffee—yes that was his first name—did a great job showing us around the place.  Did I mention that it’s enormous?  There are floors and floors of motorcycles. Almost all of them shinier than the day they came out of the factory, workshop, or the Mother Ship.

The tour wasn’t in chronological order. Coffee treated us as if we were his new best friends and showing us his personal favorites. He was a motorcycle savant and born raconteur so treated us to non-stop patter.

The tour went like this: Coffee would come up to some bike, looked just like a motorcycle to me. He’d say:

This is a rare 250cc Finkelbein-Widgeon. I know what you’re thinking, that it looks like any 250cc Finkelbein-Widgeon, and you’d be right, except that this one has an external gonkulator and the only other example of one is in the Smithsonian. And the one in the Smithsonian has the gonkulator from the 500cc Widgeon-Finkelbein; I’ve even gone to Washington to look at it.

Then there would be dramatic pause. 

This one is the real deal.

And then there would be oohing and aahing from the Mr. Peepers family. Bruce would smile and stroke his beard.

The Asian couple would be taking a photo of another bike and not listening. I’d say to myself “WTF is a gonkulator?” 

Just when the oohing and aah-ing had subsided, Coffee would go on to say that this particular motorcycle was the first one to complete a counterclockwise circumnavigation of both North and South Dakota and that the driver was Olle Neilson Johnson Olsen Anderson, Lawrence Welk’s accordion teacher. Then there would be even more wonderment, especially from the Mr. Peepers family.  My guess is that they downloaded a lot of Lawrence Welk tunes. As they say, one man’s schmaltz is another’s zipper music.

And then we’d move across the floor to another motorcycle, this one with a cam-powered centrifugal exhaust framistan, typically seen only on early Boeing biplanes and only effective in months containing the letter R. There would be lots more oohing and aah-ing and even, on occasion, knowing looks. 

This went on for quite some time and was all very entertaining even if the combination of his accent and the motorcycle chat meant that I didn’t have any idea what he was talking about.

I did notice that the Japanese woman had some whack shoes.

The Barber is spotless. In fact, it makes the Metropolitan Museum look as if it’s been on an episode of Hoarders. There were 1,600 motorcycles, in addition to perhaps 50 cars, and they mostly sparkle except for the few that are, for whatever reason are keep in non-sparkly condition.

That racetrack we saw, it’s a 2.38 16 turn thing, this weekend rented to the Alabama Porsche club.

There are all sorts of races at the track, including some featuring vintage cars.  Vintage being before the invention of anything having to do with safety, I think. 

Since we were scheduled to pick up M at the end of her conference session, we had to tear ourselves away from the museum before all sorts of other two wheeled treasures passed before our eyes. However, it’s on my list to return to, right after I learn what an external gonkulator is.

We were trying to stay on sort of a schedule since we needed to drive 117 miles to Florence (hometown of designer Billy Reid) to see the Rosenbaum House, the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in the state of Alabama.

But on the highway we saw a Toyota Prius sporting a TRUMP bumper sticker. That’s something I never thought I’d see.

Because we were pressed for time, we did not go to the Jesse Owens Museum in Oakville, the Helen Keller Home Gardens & Museum in Tuscumbia, nor any of the 32 “revered sites celebrating the cultural and spiritual heritage” of northern Alabama on the Hallelujah Trail.  In other words, 14 Methodist churches, 4 Presbyterian churches, not to mention a smattering of Episcopal, Baptist, non-denominational places, one Roman Catholic church, and even a synagogue. Sounds like a real barrel of laughs.

It’s my guess that the tour promoters did not know The Hallelujah Trail is a 1965 comedy/westernrevered by certain members of my family. It starred Burt Lancaster, Lee Remick, Jim Hutton, and Brian Keith. The movie is the story of a wagon train of whiskey en route to the parched miners of Denver. Chaos, chuckles, and a tuneful soundtrack are the order of the day as the Temperance League, the US Cavalry, the miners, and the local Indians all try to take control of the hooch. It’s not all PC but that shouldn’t come as a surprise given its subject and the era when the film was made.

So, without being distracted by those other cool spots (not to mention 14 different Methodist churches) we found the Rosenbaum House without too much trouble. We checked in at the visitor’s center, a mid-century modern former school building across the street from the house. A docent took us in a group of 8 over to the house.

The house was built by Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum with a generous wedding gift ($7,500 plus a city lot) from his father, Louis. Mr. Rosenbaum senior owned a chain of movie theatres but his son was a Harvard man, spoke five languages, and taught English at the local university.  The Roenbaums were part of Florence’s small Jewish community.

Instead of building a house in revival style like the other houses in the neighborhood, Stanley and Mildred contacted Frank Lloyd Wright who agreed to build a house for them. It was Wright’s second low-ish cost Usonian house.  I say low-ish, since Wright homes rarely—if ever—cost what the architect said they’d cost.

The house started out as 1,500 square feet, but in 1948 Wright added an addition of approximately 1,100 square feet.

As with many Wright homes, it’s more art object than live-able by today’s standards. The original kitchen and baths are tiny even when judged against New York City apartment standards. Wright’s chairs were uncomfortable and prone to falling over if the user didn’t have the posture of a ballet dancer. And of course, the roof leaked. The Rosenbaums' four sons shared a bedroom with two sets of bunk beds. Sounds grim to me, but the Rosenbaums loved it.

The docent was knowledgeable if not warm (on a 0 to Coffee at the Barber scale, he was a .5) but didn’t make facts up out of whole cloth the way some house museum docents do. And there was, thankfully, no talk of gonkulators.

Like many house museums, we saw a staged version of the Rosenbaum’s domestic bliss rather than a snapshot of the real deal. Our guide was quite clear about that. Even so, it looked like a real 1950 ish home, just one that had been staged for a shelter magazine. (We weren’t permitted to take interior photographs, which in the age of camera phones seems a tad old fashioned, so thank you Mr. Google for these interior shots.)

The Rosenbaums were the only family to live in the house. As they grew up, the Rosenbaum boys scattered (no doubt due psychological scarring due to no private space in which to check out contraband Playboy mags). After Stanley’s death, Mrs. R. eventually went into a retirement home.

The City of Florence acquired the house, restored and repaired it (it had LOTS of issues), and now it’s open to tourists. I think they said that about 8,000 people visit each year.

Even if you’re not a Wright aficionado, it’s worth the visit. It required a lot of vision on the part of the city to save the structure and it seems to be doing a good job as its steward. You can get a different look at the Rosenbaum House--through the filter of a Billy Reid fashion shoot here.

After the Rosenbaum House, it was time for something a little (ok, a lot) less esoteric, the Key Underwood Coon Dog Cemetery. According to the brochure, it’s a Southern icon.

The Coon Dog Cemetery wasn’t even on my radar until I picked up the brochure at the Alabama Welcome Center.  Whoever wrote that brochure should get the Pulitzer Prize for Tri-Fold Tourism Brochures.

In a small, grassy clearing deep in the rich, thick wilderness of Freedom Hills, Key Underwood sadly buried his faithful coon dog, Troop. They had hunted together for more than fifteen years.
The burial spot was a popular hunting camp where coon hunters from miles around gathered to plot their hunting strategies, tell tall tales, chew tobacco, and compare coon hounds. 

How can you not want to go to a place like that?!?

The cemetery was about 30 miles from the Rosenbaum house—30 miles into the woods. The brochure said that it was in the town of Cherokee, but as far as I could tell, Cherokee was more of an idea than an actual place. Midway through our journey there I concluded that that even Lewis and Clark had better cell service.

But lo and behold, there it was just as promised in the brochure, in a clearing in the forest. The casual visitor might mistake it for a picnic area. It’s perhaps a half an acre, with lots of different kinds of tombstones. They range from slick things from the Rock of Ages quarry in Barre, VT to things that were obviously homemade.  It’s maintained better than plenty of cemeteries in small towns in Pennsylvania.

Someone had put US flags on lots of the graves. I think they were just and expression of patriotism surely all those dogs can’t have been veterans.

The tombstones and epitaphs were quite touching really. They were all shapes and sizes and different materials. Some had leashes and dog collars left on them as offerings to the dog gods.

There was a sign with a number you could call if you wanted to inter your coon dog there. 

But the place is just for coon dogs, no Labradoodle, Goldenoodle, or English Trenchweasel need apply. When it comes to canines, separate and unequal is the order of the day.

We were enjoying the place when another car drove up. I wondered how anyone in his or her right mind would have found the place.

It turns out that our new best friends were Cindy and her daughter Brianna. They were from West Tennessee and on their way to a hair show in Birmingham (no I am not making this up).  They’d seen the coon dog cemetery in the movie Sweet Home Alabama and wanted to see it for themselves. 

Sweet Home Alabama, I said, You mean that movie with Reese Witherspoon and that good looking guy whose name I don’t know? I saw that movie!

That was the one.  Pretty much all I remember is that it’s a RomCom and she’s cute and he’s especially cute, as in so good looking that he’s probably from another planet. Cindy and Brianna remembered the Coon Dog Cemetery.

We yammered up a storm, Yankees and folks from Dixie agreeing that this was just about the choicest place ever. 

We commemorated our fast friendship by doing what modern folks do, by taking a selfie.

We followed the GPS out of the place and it took us over about 8 miles of unpaved road to get back to something approximating the “main road”. There were times when I thought we might get stuck in mud and then we would have been even more up the creek than when we were locked in the Confederate cemetery.

I was under no illusions that a guy as good looking as Reese Witherspoons’s co-star would come out of the hills—or back from another planet--to save us.

The GPS was sort of screwing with us since we went west to go east and passed the sign that said Welcome to Mississippi. Visiting Mississippi was not in the plan. At least not in any plan we discussed.

But perhaps it was in God’s plan since he laid the village of Tremont before us.

Tremont is the birthplace of Tammy Wynette...

...and has a slow church zone...

...not to mention he Tremont Grocery...

..and 178 Wash & Dry.

The next day we flew back home, but not before someone in the hotel elevator asked me if I were going to the hair show. I said no, I wasn’t, but I met a lovely young woman at the coon dog cemetery who said she’d be there.