A heads up — this is kind of a long post, compared to most of the others. Included herein: a visit to Folklore Brewing and Meadery; “The Hugging Molly”; YellaWood lumber, the richest man in Alabama, and a small-town downtown’s weird revitalization; Eufaula, Alabama’s historic Jewish cemetery; deer and kudzu; a quick drive through Smut Eye; boiled peanuts. If you only have a minute or suffer from a short attention span, I think the photos from the Jewish cemetery are the highlight, and you’re welcome to scroll straight to them. It was our visit to that cemetery that inspired me to write about this drive.
Once a year my wife Glory goes to this big convention of Alabama lawyers, and I get to ride along. Every year it’s on or near the ocean, and while she’s shuffling from one hotel conference room to the next I get to spend the day reading and writing and walking on the beach, eating long lunches or checking out the local record store. At the end of the day we are given free drinks and have the rest of the night to find and eat as much seafood as we can.
It’s not a bad deal.
But what I want to write about here is yesterday’s drive back from this most recent trip to the beach. (“Yesterday,” now, is a few weeks ago; but most of this was written a day after the trip, so I’ll let it stand.) We decided that going and coming we’d stick as much as possible to the state and county roads, avoiding the interstates and taking in as much of our state as we could. On the way south we drove through Selma and Oak Hill and McWilliams, down through Enterprise and Brewton and on into Florida, where the convention was held. We didn’t make many stops on the way down, though I did get out of the car long enough to take a few photos of this old gas station, covered in Biblical and all-American texts:
After our last day at the beach, we consulted my Alabama Gazetteer, one of my favorite, handiest possessions, for an alternate route home. We left the beach too late to get too far, and we ended up for the night in Dothan. They were having a Fourth(ish) of July celebration at the fairgrounds, complete with seed-spitting contest and talent show, but we decided food and drink were a greater priority and, alas, we never made it to the fairgrounds. I’d be sorrier to have missed it if we hadn’t let our GPS direct us instead to the Folklore Brewing and Meadery, which lies some distance out of town and is situated on somebody’s old family farm, and which, it turns out, is a pretty magical place. They make good beer (I especially enjoyed the Front Porch Pale Ale) and all kinds of muscadine mead(!), and their kitchen made me the best hamburger I’ve eaten in a very long time. A couple of sisters, maybe 20 years old and billing themselves as The Sisters, played guitar and keyboards and sang Gnarls Barkley and “No Scrubs” and a medley of “House of the Rising Sun” and “Jolene.” People sat around smoking cigars, available for purchase at the counter, and there was lots of good dog watching. After the sky got dark we could hear and occasionally see, over the trees, the fireworks from the fairgrounds. We sat and played a couple of long, high-scoring games of thirteen-card gin rummy.
It was a beautiful night.
The next morning we did finally stop at the fairgrounds to gawk at its enormous peanut — they love(!!) peanuts in Dothan — before hitting the road eastward and north.
Our route took us through Abbeville, Alabama, which bills itself as the “Home of Huggin’ Molly.” As you approach, there is this unsettling welcome, which seems depict a wild-haired madwoman with outstretched arms, chasing a small child:
(I couldn’t help but think of the recent controversial drawing that got a political cartoonist fired from his longtime gig at the Pittsburg Post-Gazette, the one that shows, on a yellow roadside caution sign, the black silhouette of our president snatching a small child from her fleeing family. Of course, any perceived similarity is only coincidental; the child-snatching menace seen here is no president but someone or something called “Huggin’ Molly.”)
We’d already noticed a billboard, a few miles back, for a Huggin’ Molly’s hot dog joint in Abbeville, but this image demanded a little online research and a detour in our drive. It turns out there’s an old story parents in Abbeville used to tell their children, about the “phantom woman” who chased after little children who stayed out too late at night. If she caught them, she’d give them a terrifying hug and scream in their little ears. A 2017 article on al.com offers further details:
“One version of the story claims Molly was the ghost of a woman who had lost an infant who dealt with the tragedy by hugging local children. Another states Molly was a professor at the former Southeast Alabama Agriculture School who was trying to keep students safe by keeping them off the streets at night.” According to the legend, she was “as much as 7 feet tall”—and, other than whatever trauma her hugs and screams may have inflicted, she was on the whole good-intentioned and harmless.
According to the article above, “the legend of Huggin’ Molly is unique to the Alabama town of Abbeville,” but it seems to have a slightly wider provenance than just that — and in some of her variations, the Hugging Molly (the the, I think, makes it way creepier) has a more sinister edge than in those Abbeville parents’ cautionary tales. On an ancestry.com message board, we find this—
“I am looking for information on something or someone my Grandmother used to talk about when I was a little girl. My Grandmother was born in 1906 and grew up in Mobile, Alabama. She mentioned, more than once a story about a woman who walked the streets at night and killed men. She was called the hugging Molly. My Grandmother said she killed the men by hugging them. This story creeped me out as a child and I never forgot it. Has any one else ever heard of this? I would greatly appreciate any info.”
The same writer eventually followed up in her own thread, with some answers:
“I finally, after all these years found out what the “Hugging Molly” was. I ordered a book called Gumbo Ya Ya off the internet. It was first published in 1945. It has all kinds of Louisiana folk lore in it.
“The Hugging Molly was in there. The HM was actually a mentally disturbed man who would hug women on the street. He dressed up in a white sheet or robe and would very strongly hug women at random. He never hurt anyone, but many black women were afraid of him because the white robe or sheet made them think he was part of the clan [sic].”
Yikes. A woman hugging men to death. A mentally disturbed man, hugging random women. Strongly. In a white robe.
Welcome to Abbeville!
The ancestry.com thread also does contain a couple of references to the Abbeville variant, endorsing the tamer version of the Huggin’ Molly story, the one sanctioned by the local Chamber of Commerce, in which Molly’s function is simply to keep kids off the streets (and, these days, to lure tourists to buy Abbeville hot dogs). And there’s this:
“When I was thirteen, my family moved from California to Dothan, AL. I heard the legend of Hugging molly when I moved there from a girl that lived in my neighborhood. I was very skeptical, having never heard people believing in such silliness. So, I decided to go in the woods with this silly girl. We were just walking around when this girl who seemed to be made of red light came towards us with her arms outstretched. She was moving very fast. We ran and I never ventured into the woods again. I often wonder if I just had an overactive imagination or something.”
Hm. One wonders.
One way or another, it seems that Molly has become a central piece of the small town of Abbeville’s recent re-branding — all thanks to Jimmy Rane, the local treated wood magnate, and Alabama’s richest citizen. If you live in or near Alabama, you’ve probably seen Jimmy Rane on billboards or on TV; he’s the owner of YellaWood treated lumber, an international company, and the star in a series of epically ambitious, kitschy Western-themed YellaWood ads, like this:
Jimmy Rane, it seems, carries a weighty influence in his hometown. It was Rane who opened the downtown restaurant Huggin’ Molly’s, and Rane who engineered the “Home of Huggin’ Molly” welcome sign on the edge of town. And it’s Rane, too, who’s responsible for tricking out downtown Abbeville with loads of vintage neon signs: as we drove through the little downtown, we noticed a cool old sign for Buster Brown shoes and were impressed it had survived all the years intact — until, a few seconds later, when we started to notice vintage signs over just about everything and realized that, though some of them might have been original to Abbeville, others must have been brought in more recently, as the local leadership refashioned the place into a nostalgic 1950s downtown.
Again, we take to the internet. And again confirm that it’s Jimmy Rane — and his soft spot for kitschy ‘50s memorabilia — that’s at the heart of the town’s weird “revitalization.” From what we can tell, the man is a much loved figure in Abbeville; he’s made the little town the headquarters of his hugely successful company, and he’s given loads of money to student scholarships and to the Republican party and Auburn University. And he’s sunk chunks of money into the town itself, seeking to turn it into a tourist stop (his efforts did succeed in luring us off the main road). He helped restore the looks this cool old downtown theater, where he hopes to one day show It’s a Wonderful Life and John Wayne movies and the like.
I do hope Jimmy Rane brings some longterm, meaningful prosperity and life to the town he clearly loves. But I have to admit that the new, old Abbeville kind of gave us the creeps; maybe it was just that it was a Sunday and everyone was at church or in bed — but with all the vintage signs and empty streets, we felt like we’d stumbled into an abandoned theme park, or some kind of a spotless 1950s ghost town. And so we hit the road again, before the Huggin’ Molly screamed into our ears.
We stopped a little later in Eufaula for lunch, and on our way out of that town we happened across the beautiful, old Fairview Cemetery, and — on the far edge of its grounds, overlooking Lake Eufala — this: “The Jewish Cemetery,” established in 1845 and restored and rededicated in 1987. The dead there included Jews born in Alsace, France; Poland; Bavaria; and other points of origin — immigrants who died not only in Eufaula but in Georgia and Kentucky and other places across the South and who, one way or another, ended up here.
There was a lot of history in this graveyard, and history I’d honestly never considered: there were two soldiers buried here who’d fought for the Confederacy, and one of the graves was flanked by both the American and Confederate flags.
A Confederate flag in a Jewish cemetery is something we hadn’t expected to see, and it made me curious about the Jewish history of the Confederacy. There is just a handful of books on the subject: among them, Robert N. Rosen’s overview, The Jewish Confederates; a reader, Jews and the Civil War; and a few biographies of Judah P. Benjamin, a “rare Sephardic Jew in the Old South and a favorite of Jefferson Davis,” the so-called “brains of the Confederacy,” who served posts as the CSA’s attorney general, secretary of war, and secretary of state.
There are also sections of Odd Fellows and Masons buried in Fairview Cemetery. Here’s one of the Masons’ headstones.
And once, too, there was a “Negro Cemetery” included on a hillside. But those graves, now, are nowhere to be seen, and a historic marker in their place tells us this: that the names of the dead are “known only to God,” “the wooden grave markers which located the burials … long since vanished.”
Any drive through the South invites us to consider the ways in which public memory is constructed, the ways in which the past is memorialized, enshrined, entombed, redacted, and revised. In one town, an entire community becomes invisible, anonymous, and lost, replaced eventually by a lone historic marker. A few towns over, a pseudo-history is fashioned from tube lights and antiques. And so it goes.
And meanwhile: there is a lot of natural beauty in Eufala, a place I’d never visited before. I could stand to spend some more time there, taking it all in. A little trail off the Jewish cemetery leads through the woods, down to a paved walking and biking path, bordered on one side by the lake and on the other by a mountain of kudzu. In the kudzu we came across four deer, three of which you can see here, just before they disappeared back into all the encompassing green.
Here’s more of the view around there:
After Eufala, we had to make better time back to Birmingham, so there weren’t many more stops. We did drive through the neighboring communities of Smut Eye and Blues Old Stand, two of my favorite-named Alabama towns. We barely missed the town of Mathews, where some of my ancestors came from, a destination for another day’s drive. The okra stew I’d slurped down in Eufala had kind of made a mess of my stomach, and I spent a good stretch of the afternoon’s drive hunched over in the passenger seat, moaning softly. We picked up the interstate in Montgomery, and for an hour everything looked like everything else again. Then we were home.
We had a good time at the beach; the water there was so clear that you could wade into it up to your neck and still clearly see your feet below you in the sand. But the highlight of the trip may have been the two days with Glory in the car. We learned a lot we didn’t know about our state, ate some good food, shot the breeze, and heard Loretta and Conway on Dothan’s “country legends” radio station.
Oh, and this:
For as long as I’ve been driving a car, I’ve made a point of stopping for boiled peanuts, anytime I see them for sale. For almost as long as that, I’ve been taking pictures of the boiled peanut stands where they’re sold, and of the signs that advertise them. Sooner or later, once the collection gets up past a hundred photos or so, I plan to compile them all into some public format. I’m almost there, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, for the last month of the summer, I’ve been posting a boiled peanut photo a day to my Instagram account. You can follow along here.
Our drive through south Alabama did turn up a few boiled peanut shots I can add to the collection. Like I say, they love their peanuts in (and around) Dothan:
Thanks for reading. Peace.
P.S. “We picked up the interstate in Montgomery, and for an hour everything looked like everything else again.” Perhaps this is not entirely fair: I’ve just driven up and down this road so many times I barely notice its eccentricities. As interstates go, there’s actually a good deal to take in. There’s a water tower in the shape of an enormous peach, and a big sign that reads “GO TO CHURCH OR THE DEVIL WILL GET YOU.” And speaking of Confederate flags, there’s a giant, obscene one on a hill: menacingly, cockily, defiantly huge, a gross display of my state’s worst impulses at work. This stretch of I-65 goes by several names, advertised along the way: somewhere between Prattville and Clanton, for example, the “Hank Williams Lost Highway” becomes the “War on Terror Memorial Highway.” It’s unclear where one ends and the other begins. But here’s what Hank Williams says, for whatever it may be worth (in a song he made famous, but which singer Leon Payne wrote):
Now, boys, don’t start to ramblin’ round / on this road of sin, or you’re sorrow bound
Take my advice, or you’ll curse the day / you started rollin’ down that lost highway
That’s all for now. See you around.
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