Saturday, August 08, 2009

Fairhope, A Storybook Town

It has come to my attention that Fairhope is billed in the promotional literature as a “Storybook Town.” It has also been called such things as a “little Norman Rockwell town,” and a “Disneyland town.”

Aargh. I am doing what I can, by harping on the subject of Fairhope history on this blog, to keep it from becoming any of those things.

When I first moved back in 1988, there actually were some remnants of Norman Rockwell cottages, little houses that had been built between the two World Wars -- modest houses that looked as if nice families lived there. Fairhope had an undiscovered quality that I would hardly have called “storybook” in the sense of the charming little Tudor homes of California or the New England farm houses, or the Midwestern carpenter gothics of the 1800’s. It was almost unreal in its quietness. The last of the fabled hotels of the town, The Colonial Inn, stood decrepit in its prime spot overlooking the bay, all but abandoned, awaiting the wrecker's ball.

There was very little to do on a Saturday night. There were a few eateries, but only one really nice one, a remodeled old farmhouse out behind the new shopping center, known as Dusty's. It was owned by a local character who had had a career as a cocktail pianist and had a young, creative wife who put the restaurant on the map, thereby giving parched little Fairhope a first-class place to take visitors or a special date.

A novel had been published in 1959, written by a young man named Robert E. Bell, who had been so entranced by what he called the magic of Fairhope, that he set his story in a fictionized version of the town, renaming it Moss Bayou, and smothering the setting with such phrases as "Somewhere after a turn down the street, he saw a glimmer of water, gold-flaked through the trees; the frond-dragging palms bent with the curve of the road which heat-danced ahead of him, charging the sky with its electrical glare." The title of the book was The Butterfly Tree, and it was not the last book to drench Fairhope in the mysteries of the imagination of an outsider.

An insider, I worked with Bob many years later on a book that I hoped would present a more realistic picture of the Fairhope I knew, incorporating his lyrical prose describing a town projected from his memories with my own workaday knowledge of what it was like to grow up in the little enclave that I found neither magical nor romantic. The book we collaborated on reflected two sensibilities and embraced Fairhope from two sides. Its title was Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, and if you've read much of this blog or if you click on the link, you'll know almost all there is to know about it short of actually reading it.

Both those books may have contributed to the myth that Fairhope was some kind of ethereal, enchanted locale, a Brigadoon that only appeared in the line of vision of the fortunate few. Charming as that image might be, it simply isn't true. My second book, The Fair Hope of Heaven/A Hundred Years After Utopia, seeks to dispell the mythology as much as possible.

Fairhope was a very real town, founded on the principle of providing economic parity, especially in housing. Land was available on a 99-year lease basis, with a low “rent” or tax, to be paid to the Colony yearly, to be determined by what would be considered fair market value. Each family could build what it could afford on the land leased from the Colony. Little houses were built by the impecunious couples who wanted to participate in the Utopian experiment known as the Single Tax Colony, and these houses were expanded room by room as the families grew. That is why so many of the early cottages had small rooms and lots of them. Those little affordable abodes grew with the families that inhabited them.

The Single Tax experiment could hardly be called a rousing success, especially after the Federal Government established an income tax on all citizens in 1913. It was a sound principle that eventually was proved wildly impractical, perhaps especially in Fairhope, the town that was created in order to prove the opposite. Apparently greed is human nature, and the selflessness required to ensure cooperative individualism -- the term used by E.B. Gaston, Fairhope's founder to describe his ideal economy -- was soon overshadowed by the wave of opportunists who learned how to exploit the very land he fought to preserve.

If Fairhope is a storybook town, the story has been rewritten too many times to be of much consequence. Even the historical cottages, for the most part, have been demolished and replaced by monuments to the prosperity of their owners -- huge, ostentatious houses that compete with each other for attention and blur the landscape that was once authentic, meaningful and charming in spite of itself. That it is still a storybook town is the greatest fiction of all.

3 comments:

steve said...

I believe your synopsis pretty much nails it.

Onetime Res said...

I never saw it as a "storybook town," as you say--just a quiet place with some hilarious growing pains. It's a great living metaphor for people grappling for "the good old days" which, of course, never existed.

Mary Lois said...

For more on this particular storybook town, visit my website at www.findingfairhope.com