Goldiggers Bar and Grill is part of the Lakeshore Marina complex,
although historians might dispute the choice of “Goldiggers” as the name
for any establishment in this county. Not a lot of gold was involved in
the county’s settlement — which is something you can guess when you
drive around. The median household income is US$33,000, and the poverty
rate, 19 percent, is six percentage points higher than the national
rate. Lots of businesses — lunch counters and shoe stores and butcher
shops like small towns always used to have — are boarded up.
along the main street of Haleyville one weekday morning, I noticed that
you can actually hear crickets in the bricks of some of the empty
Some business owners are making a go of it. And
some, more than a go. The menu at Chef Troy’s Talk of the Town
Restaurant, located in the tiny community of Houston, is four times
bigger than what it was when the place opened eight years ago. Sometimes
in the summer, Chef Troy Hill will do $25,000 a week in business, and
that’s not counting catering. The economy’s been sluggish recently, he
said (meaning the last three years), but he thinks that things will pick
up when people start to realize they can’t stay at home and collect
welfare. “People here in the United States have been getting too many
things given to them,” he said. He thinks that’s going to change under
Toby and Judy Sherrill, along with most of their family,
run the old Dixie Theatre and the adjacent Dixie Den restaurant on the
main street of Haleyville. Like Chef Troy, the Sherrills are
hard-working and community-minded, and in response to a question about
Trump, Toby will tell you that he’s optimistic about the future. It’s
not clear how much credit Trump can take for this. It could just be that
to be in business in Winston County, you have to be an optimist.
Our time in Winston County began with someone telling us to report to the sheriff in Double Springs before we got ourselves shot. This wasn’t a threat. But the point was made: strangers poking around Winston County might not mix well with the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
That was our introduction. Our time in Winston County ended one week later, on the front porch of a mobile home in the woods off County Road 68, when the summer night was thick as velvet and alive with the sounds of crickets and frogs, and the apple and cranberry wine was being poured round by a man who made knives, some of them as big as my forearm. We were talking, the way people always used to talk on summer porches before there was television.
There was the Haleyville librarian, Carla Waldrep (“Miss Carla,” as she’s known locally); her father, James Crane, the knife-maker (“Ain’t nothing for me to trade a knife for a gun — or maybe two knives for a good gun”); Carla’s mother, Margaret, who was born “oh, three mile away” into a family of 14 children; and Carla’s husband, Chuck, who’s a long-haul truck driver and was just in from Tennessee that afternoon. “We never imagined we’d be in the state we are in now,” Miss Carla observed about American politics. “We thought they would work together for the betterment of the people.” It was hard to know if Miss Carla was being critical of the president or the forces aligned against him. Or both. This was not an uncommon ambiguity in Winston County conversation.
Politics aside, if you ever get a chance to sit on a porch in the woods of North Alabama in the middle of summer, with people as good as Miss Carla and her family, I recommend you take it. Even if you remember everything that’s wrong with the place — and its overwhelming support for Trump most neatly conveys that wrongness for me — you’re going to fall a bit in love with it. So fair warning.
But also be warned that not everyone is as open and hospitable as Miss Carla and her kin. Not that the people we met in Winston County were unfriendly. It’s just that, to varying degrees of intensity, suspicion is the starting point of any acquaintance an outsider has with somebody who’s from there. And pretty much everybody who is there is from there.
Wanda Kay Curtis, who runs a Christian-themed vintage and collectibles store called Restored by Grace on Haleyville Road in Double Springs, didn’t exactly say no when I asked if we could attend the church she goes to. Her husband’s the preacher. I had the sense that their family made up most of the congregation. But she didn’t exactly say yes, either. Wanda said her church was probably too backwoods for us. And left it at that.
An expression of a fierce, withholding neutrality is something that feels very American to me. It might only last for a few seconds, but it’s not what I’m used to. Canadians generally feel the need to at least pretend to welcome strangers they encounter. Not so Winston County.
“Y’all not from around here” was the most common conversation opener we encountered. This was always stated in a way that was more assertion than question. We were noticed everywhere we went. By the teenager behind the counter at a fast-food joint called Jack’s who could not, for the life of her, understand Nigel’s English accent. (He was trying to say “cheeseburger.”) By the waitress at the barbecue place on 195 who’d just got back from a church bus tour to see a life-size replica of Noah’s ark in Kentucky. And by everybody in the Galley Restaurant every time we sat down for breakfast every morning.
A few good old boys always patronized the Galley at that time of day — guys accustomed to getting up early, but now with not much to do once they did. They make a good breakfast at the Galley: biscuits, sausage, fried eggs, grits. Fox News was usually on the TV, and coffee was in the pot.
Red Hubbard was our server on several occasions. She has a spark that makes you think she could be running some enormous corporation somewhere had she been dealt a better hand. We were in the Galley regularly, and it was Red (pronounced Ray-yed) who told us, cheerfully and with the forthright tone of someone stating an obvious fact, that we kind of stood out.
But suspicion tended to evaporate pretty quickly. By the time we stopped in to say goodbye to Wanda Kay Curtis six days after we first met her, she was giving us knitted pot holders for our wives and inspirational CDs to listen to on the drive back home.
Judy (back left) and Toby Sherrill (centre) with their children in the lobby of the Dixie Theatre in Haleyville. The Sherrills run the theatre as well as the Dixie Den restaurant next door.
Readers of a certain vintage might have brushed up against Winston
County in January 1994, when it was mentioned in a widely read obituary.
Pat Buttram had died.
Buttram was an actor famous for playing
Gene Autry’s sidekick in the singing cowboy’s TV show and movies from
the 1950s. Later in his career, Buttram played Mr. Haney, the porkpie
hat-wearing con artist on the 1960s sitcom Green Acres. The humour of
Green Acres was adolescent. By happy coincidence, that’s what I was in
the 1960s. A star-struck 12-year-old part of me is amazed I’ve spoken to
somebody who actually knew Mr. Haney.
Buttram was born and
raised in Winston County. He’s buried in the Methodist cemetery on
County Road 93 northwest of Double Springs. And if you remember Mr.
Haney, you might be interested to know that the elongated twang of his
voice wasn’t acting. The high-pitched drawl that sounded like air brakes
on an 18-wheeler was actually how Buttram talked — at least that’s what
Shirley Sudduth told me. Shirley knew Buttram before he became famous,
and the evidence of her lifelong interest in his career is clear enough
to any visitor she cordially receives.
Shirley helps organize
the annual Pat Buttram Days, a local fundraiser every fall that pretty
much everybody in Winston County enjoys so long as it doesn’t conflict
with football. The house she shares with her husband, Coy, is a little
on the cluttered side, although Shirley prefers the word “collector” to
“hoarder.” It’s partly a Pat Buttram museum and partly a home for
Shirley’s I Love Lucy memorabilia. She also paints lighthouses for
people who are terminally ill to remind them of the beacon of Christ.
has buried four of her five children. We were standing in a narrow
hallway between two of her full-to-capacity bookshelves when Shirley
told me about the night the angel of the Lord visited her daughter, and
her daughter convinced the angel to ask God to let her live long enough
to raise her child. Which is what happened. Years later, when the angel
returned and her daughter died, a white feather drifted down from the
sky, which Shirley takes as a sign that her daughter is happy and in
This was the second time in three days that someone I’d
known for less than half an hour told me about a direct communication
with God. After I’d been there for a while, I didn’t doubt these
testimonials — at least, I didn’t doubt the conviction with which they
were offered. Because this is something that you have to take on board
about Winston County, and I mean really take on board.
to 2010 figures from the Association of Religious Data Archives, almost
15,000 people (nearly two-thirds of the population) belong to one of
the county’s 75 officially recognized congregations, 62 of which are
Evangelical Protestant. And that is the key demographic of Winston
County: while there may be a shortage of people with university
educations (11.4 percent of the population), a shortage of
African-Americans (0.8 percent) and a shortage of Muslims (practically
zeee-roh), there is no shortage of old-time Christian believers.
Winston County alone, you can go to the Adair Chapel or the Antioch
Baptist or the Arley Church of Christ or the Arley United Methodist or
the Ashridge United Methodist, and that’s just some of the A’s in a
directory of the county’s churches. And if you do attend one of those
churches, you’re not going because you want to show off your new shoes.
You’re going because you believe. You’re there to raise your hands and
witness the coming of the Lord. You’re there to be saved. Do not
underestimate this. In Winston County, the spirit of the Lord is as
present as the weather is. And the weather is like walking into a sauna.
Winston County is home to more than a few impressively large
churches, with ample parking and comfortable adjunct residences for the
pastor’s family. But there are also lots of places in the woods that
nobody knows much about. These bring the number of churches in the
county up to something more like 100, each of them sharing the
conviction that their particular interpretation of the Word is right and
everybody else’s isn’t. This is something else worth bearing in mind:
if you argue religion (or for that matter, politics or football) with
someone from Winston County, there is every possibility that you are
arguing with someone who has been raised to believe that any facts you
might mention are not facts at all.
The national pastime of Winston County is sizing people up. So why didn’t they size up the fakery of Donald Trump?
During our stay, there were times when it felt like we had, in fact, gone back more than 50 years.
And it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. One Sunday morning, Nigel and I showed up unannounced at the old Corinth Church, a plain wooden one-room building with 14 pews and no electric lights, situated in the woods of the Bankhead National Forest. We introduced ourselves to Pastor Bill Wilson and his wife, Bonnie, and at the beginning of the service, just before prayers for family or friends or fellow church members who were ill, of which there seemed to be quite a few, Pastor Wilson introduced us to the 30-or-so members of the congregation. There was no pulpit, no organ, no piano. No anything except unpainted wooden walls and the wobbly voices of God-fearing people singing the good old hymns the way they’ve been sung for generations. There was something comforting about it, Nigel said.
The great Olympic runner Jesse Owens, who is as iconic a black hero as they come, was born in Lawrence County, immediately north of this almost exclusively white, high school-educated, socially conservative Trump stronghold. A lawyer named Jerry Jackson, who is white, mentioned this to me. The emotions stirred by pronouncing Owens’ name brought Mr. Jerry, as he’s better known, to tears. Something else that doesn’t square with the stereotypes: a distinguished federal judge responsible for landmark civil rights decisions in the 1950s and ’60s was from Haleyville. Frank M. Johnson, who was (needless to say) white, was so great a jurist that George Wallace, Alabama’s segregationist governor for 16 years, off and on, and a four-time candidate for president, called him an “integrating, scalliwagging, carpet-bagging liar.”
I’ll grant you the mainstream of public opinion in Winston County. It’s pretty obvious by the way the county voted. But there are unexpected back eddies. “I’ll tell you one thing,” somebody who made me promise not to name him for fear he’d be “run out of town” said, “but I can’t stand that sonofabitch we have in the White House now.”
And curiously, at a time when everyone else in the world couldn’t stop talking about Donald Trump, nobody I spoke to in Haleyville or Double Springs or Addison wanted to pursue the subject with much enthusiasm.
You can let what Shirley and Coy Sudduth had to say about politics stand as the general view (even people introduced to me as big fans of the president didn’t contradict them). They said that they didn’t vote for Trump as such. “We voted for change,” Shirley said. And that pretty much sums it up. And they think the economy is picking up. At least that’s what they hear. Then, the subject is dropped.