Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Pies of Christmas

December 20, 2009

I just posted this at my other blog, "Finding Myself in Hoboken" and felt the readers here might like to see it too. It actually belongs on my food blog, but I think I've done enough with it.

Apple pie is appearing here and there in my life these days. My daughter is an expert baker of them, and Christmas with her and her family promises that I'll get a couple of chances to taste them. I have my own recipe; she has hers. My favorite was baked by the cook employed by a family friend in Alabama years ago. It had a lattice top, and seemed to us the perfect ratio of cinnamon to brown sugar. I find that in the North people are less likely to use quite enough of either for my taste, but I've spent a lifetime trying to duplicate that one I had so many years ago.

My favorite apple pie story came from Jim Adshead, my husband who died nine years ago. He was a G.I. in World War II, fighting in France and harbored in farmhouses, basements and barns with his buddies when the need arose. It must have been Christmas of 1944 that the guys were being sheltered by a sympathetic French farm family.

They were roused by the family with joyous cries in French that it was Christmas Day, and, although none of the boys could speak French, they knew they were being invited to the family's only day of celebration for years. It was a hungry and grateful group that joined the family to see the pride of the best feast they could scrape up, which was an apple pie. They could tell the mother, who was the cook, had prepared it especially for them, knowing that apple pie was an American favorite. They were thrilled to get any food at all, but the apple pie they were served was certainly not like any they'd ever seen in the States.

When Jim first told me the story he said it was a pathetic excuse for an apple pie, obviously made from dried apples and very little sugar--much less cinnamon, butter, or the spices they expected from an apple pie. But the boys were so touched by the gesture, and their hearts so warmed by the work involved, that they were effusive in their thanks and their gratitude for home-baked food was genuine and heartfelt.

Some forty years later Jim and I were living in Geneva and we were often exposed to the French version of apple pie. He then realized that this was the pie he was served that Christmas Day so long before--not, as it had appeared, made with dried apples, but the thinly sliced, artistically arranged, apples as preferred by the French, cooked with very little sugar and coated with apricot jam as a glaze. It's a pie, but it ain't American apple pie.

The French also make a tasty caramelized apple pie known as tarte tatin, which is tastier (if you like caramel) and made by browning the sugar in the pan, placing a crust on top, and then reversing the whole product using very deft hands. I've made it, just to see if I could, but the fact is I like to taste a bit of cinnamon in my apple pie.

And I did find a way to get just the right crunch of caramel on the lattice top of a pie not unlike that Alabama pie of years ago: You dot all the holes in the lattice with butter and sprinkle the top of the pie liberally with white sugar. The butter will melt and the sugar will brown and crisp--and the pie will be sweet enough for any Christmas guests you may have, even a barn full of half-starved G.I.'s.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Book About Fairhope and More

Paul Gaston at the Organic School Centennial Celebration, 2007
December 9, 2009
We aren’t all lucky enough to have been born the grandson of a 19th Century reformer who founded a Utopian colony. We weren’t raised in that colony, nor did we all attend a school that provided us with a lifelong love of learning and a feeling that, if the world needed changing, we were the ones to do it.

But Paul Gaston was. In Coming of Age in Utopia/The Odyssey of an Idea, he gives us a look at the elements that made him what he became as a result of his extraordinary birthright and upbringing. It’s a book by turns educational, inspiring, and even charming; revealing the thoughts and motivations of a truly elegant mind. It tells in readable prose the story of his life: Growing up in the little town of Fairhope, Alabama, saturated with the economic philosophy of Henry George as interpreted by Gaston’s grandfather, Ernest B. Gaston.

It was a heady place to begin. In those days the town was paradise for the boy, the only son of parents who encouraged him always to be himself. Further, he was educated in the town’s remarkable School of Organic Education, which emphasized the growth of the whole child and taught, along with the traditional academic subjects, dancing, singing, and athletics—all without the pressure of performance measures (grades) or the prospect of failure. Gaston acknowledges his debt to his parents for his commitment to social change as an end and his school for the education and personal balance to achieve what he might.

Coming of Age in Utopia takes the reader from a small-town, sheltered existence to an impressive, productive, and highly visible life as a citizen of the world. Gaston’s talent as a scholar and historian takes him on travels to Europe and lands him in a career as a professor of Southern history at the prestigious University of Virginia. Along the way he builds a loving family with the seemingly perfect wife—the beautiful and brilliant Mary Wilkinson of Frogmore Manor, Frogmore, South Carolina. The couple are deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, and Gaston sees as part of his personal mission the need to touch the minds and hearts of young Southerners who come to his University classes with a fixed notion of honor and tradition, and to challenge them through exposure to the reality of history and enlighten them with a broader vision.

Gaston chose to teach Southern history at a Southern university at a point in time at which the very past seemed to be changing. He chose U VA and stayed there because he was confronted with a peculiarly "Southern" mindset--the tradition-bound kids who felt it necessary to preserve every vestige of the Old South (read "segregation") in their power. They were to have some power, being born to it in Virginia, and had been indoctrinated in the Gone With the Wind side of things. As a professor of history he had a unique opportunity to clobber them over the heads with the real history, and being the gentleman he is and always was, he didn't clobber but engaged their minds and challenged their cherished heritage through facts.

Because of the time and place, he was called upon to go public with his knowledge and to stand by his principles. He joined protest groups and was president of at least one anti-segregation activist organization. His classes influenced countless students, probably in many cases against their will. At Charlottesville's first sit-in, he was hit in the face and later found himself facing the hitters in a court of law. The tires of his car were slashed, and his family's life was disrupted by hateful telephone calls at all hours. In the meantime he met with Julian Bond, Dr. Martin Luther King, John Lewis and other stars of the early Civil Rights struggle as they worked together to make positive changes in the South and throughout the country.

Coming of Age in Utopia shows a natural progression of the man who was raised in Fairhope to honor its purpose of changing the world through economic reform; and educated at the Organic School to fulfill his own goals of opening minds, all the while (and equally importantly) living as fine a life as he found humanly possible. He examines his own motives at times, expresses regrets, and duly accepts the many honors and accolades that come his way.

It is a compelling tale, filled with important events, peopled with powerful characters, and revealing insights gained through study and experience. It is a good, solid book to read, transporting the reader from a place called Fairhope in a certain halcyon time to the larger world at a crucial point in history.

Written with optimism, good will, and grace, Coming of Age in Utopia is a book about a great deal more than the little town of Fairhope. It is about the finding and fulfilling of a personal mission, living a full and happy life--and leaving the world a better place.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Finding Me in Fairhope

December 3, 2009

I keep popping up in Fairhope, as if I still lived there. The fact is, I'm now in Hoboken again and trying to adjust to the culture shock. It's nice to be here, but I am planning a month-long visit to Fairhope in February, where I'll escape the cold and perhaps explore the "new" Fairhope further. I know, I know, it gets pretty cold in Fairhope in February, but I can promise you it won't be as cold as where I'll be coming from.

I found myself in the Fairhope Courier recently. Friends have advised me of the terrific article by Mike Odom, and I found it online here. Check it out and see if it doesn't just make you itch to buy my book.

I hope you scratch that itch.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Fairhope from a Distance

I'm back home in Hoboken now, cogitating on the trip I just made. While in Fairhope, I bought Paul Gaston's autobiographical book, hot off the presses, in which he deals with the phenomenon of returning home--and the home is Fairhope. It's a lovely book, Growing Up in Utopia, and when I've finished I'll review it here. For now, I urge you to make your way to Page and Palette and buy a copy.

I've rented a little furnished house on Pine Crest for the month of February. This was not a clear-cut, easy thing to do. I found myself conflicted about everything in Fairhope still, yet something in me felt the pull to spend at least one more February there. I've had two Februaries in Hoboken, and, wintry as the month might be in Fairhope, the weather will be balmy compared to here. There will be the warmth of friends, the ease of the pace, to say nothing of some unsettled real estate affairs in neighboring Montrose--and the eternal magnet of Fairhope to attract me once again. Just when I decide there is nothing more to do there, a small part of me wants or needs to go home again.

It's not that I want to be part of Mardi Gras. I can't believe that tradition has made its way to Fairhope at all--in fact it is in many ways symbolic of what conflicts me about the direction of the little tourist town. Too many pointless imports, and not enough respect for the tenets of the utopian founders. Well, that's a battle over and lost, no matter how many diehards like me turn up to complain.

There's a new Fairhope now, and I certainly know it. The old one is not quite buried yet, however, with this last trip I for one was able to identify the source of my conflict about the place. When I lived there I carved out as my mission the education of the new people about the place; after over 18 years I realized I was talking to myself. History is not high on the agenda of a town on the move and on the make. New people are not interested in the old ways, even if they were radical and would be avant garde today. The new who have come to Fairhope would be even less interested in the radical and avant garde.

Let me wind up with a positive line from The Fair Hope of Heaven. "No matter where people move, they look for the tribe they can relate to, and there is a sense of inclusiveness in the many tribes of Fairhope. They are pleased to meet and work with new people. And the tribes reflect a myriad of interests which may catch a person off guard and may trigger new enthusiams."

There is still a chance for me, then, in the new Fairhope. I still have a tribe there, and it is not one of those staging or attending Mardi Gras festivities. There are writers and artists I haven't yet met. There are people I know and trust from years past. And there is always the coastline of Mobile Bay with its spectacular sunsets and instant solitude and peace.

Here's what one writer was inspired to say in a book about Fairhope: "And somewhere in a gully on a particular day in a certain season, the fortunate wanderer will actually find a tree covered in butterflies...It should not be a surprise, even if it is not expected, if a shadow dances among the leaves, a face appears (or seems to), even a community of phantoms from the past. Here you will find answers, questions, and a host of stories."

That writer was me. The book is called Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree. And somewhere in my heart I retain the belief that that magic might happen only in Fairhope.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

One Foot in Another World

November 26, 2009

I've been back in Fairhope for just over a week and the dust of Hoboken is still on my shoes. My work is cut out for me, with the help of friends and family cleaning out the old family homestead and getting it rented or sold. I leave Tuesday morning and will probably return to Fairhope for the month of February. After a Thanksgiving holiday I'll have to hustle to get the last things done.

It isn't easy going back into a former life and facing the emotions of loss and regret. The house I grew up in has become, after our mother's death, a sore point for my brother, my sister, and I. There is the question hanging over us as to what we do with the property. We three have considerable difficulty looking at the historic house as a property instead of "home," with all its positive and negative connotations. The three children are at odds and it feels like the rift may not ever heal.

This has caused a stalemate at the house, which has been on the market since early February. Not that it isn't clearly a beauty of a home, but it was left abandoned and does not show well. I came here to take care of that and to come up with a plan to do right by the house itself. With the help of my brother and his wife, we have begun the painful process of setting the house to rights and working out a plan to move forward. Our sister lived in the house for several years, and announced without consulting us that she was selling it when she moved out, leaving considerable junk in every room and moving to Portland, Oregon. Walking into the place, deprived of the talk, laughter and love that had warmed it for so many years, my brother and I experience emotions that could only be described as equal parts of sorrow and anger. For my brother, who lives so near, this heart-tug has been almost unbearable.

I saw my job in coming here as taking charge of the project (being the middle child, always the negotiator) and keeping the lines of communication open between the brother and sister. This sounds fine and commendable, but there is the matter of my own response to the dear old house, the space that seems to put its arms around you when you step inside. So far four truckloads have been carried off to the dump and to local charities. The brother has taken charge of cutting through the jungle of overgrown weeds and plants put in place by our mother so many years ago. It's hard to think of that backyard without picturing her out there, digging, pulling up, and planting--her constant occupation and the source of comfort and pride for her lifetime. She collected driftwood and fashioned it into lamps and tables, hung some of it on walls "as is." It took on a significance for her that is not always easy to understand, but with her eye for the decorative, she was able to show the beauty of driftwood objects to all. Now the whole property is littered here and there with elegant pieces of driftwood. We have found a local artist who loves to work with driftwood and given him free rein to take what he wants. Mama would be pleased with that.

My sister was always a bookworm, preferring mysteries and the work of English writers like P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. She took her best books, of course, but in bookcases there were still yellowing paperbacks of Dickens and Agatha Christie, and many many more. It was hard to heap them into the cartons to take them away, but, knowing that she left them we could assume she didn't want them any more, and certainly condition problems would have kept them from being attractive to anyone else.

With all the work we are doing it is impossible to exclude the element of emotion. I shall take this day of Thanksgiving off from thinking much about it, and just be thankful that I once had this house to live in, that I now have the life I do, and that we'll soon reach a solution for the house itself. It seems to be asking me to take care of it, and I know that, with the support I have, I'm up to the job.

That's all we all can be thankful for, at the heart of it--the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to accept the curves life gives us. Today I'll be able to recharge the batteries among friends and loved ones, and tomorrow I'll do what must be done about the house.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Book Tour Information

I'll leave Hoboken Tuesday (November 17) for the launch of my book The Fair Hope of Heaven in paperback. Enterprising readers may have already ordered it from in that format, but I held back its general release to the Fairhope reading public until now. It was first published in hard cover in January, and I went to Fairhope at that time to get it into the local indie bookstore. It will retail for a mere $16.95 in paperback, as against $26.95 for the hard cover.

I've written a lot about the book on this blog, and on my other blog "Finding Myself in Hoboken," and on my website. It seems much of my life is devoted--when not finding myself in Hoboken--to finding Fairhope.

Even though the book has the words "fair" and "hope" in the title, I never thought of it as a book about the town of Fairhope until market forces--read that to mean publishers--informed me that it was. I thought it was about the way history and events transform people and places, reflecting on this through my memories of a unique childhood in the kind of nonconformist environment that Fairhope, Alabama, offered in the middle of the 20th Century. I included character sketches of people I knew, thinking for all the world that I had created a new Lake Wobegon Days, and, although knowing it would appeal to others who shared the memories, I felt that my book was universal in scope. Part of me would still like to believe that--but the reaction from publishers was that it was charming but limited to readers in Fairhope. I hope sales of the soft cover may still prove me right.

So I'll get on the plane Tuesday and plan to visit old friends and see the new construction in the town where I spent much of my life. I'll investigate the possibility of taking control of the old family homestead.

My schedule of public appearances include book talks at the Fairhope Museum of History, 2 P.M. Thursday, November 19 and the Marietta Johnson Museum, 2 P.M. Friday November 20, and signing the book at Page & Palette Sunday November 22 (at 2 P.M. also). I'll have Thanksgiving with a couple I've known for at least 60 years, with their friends and relations. I'll see family and classmates and people I worked closely with before I moved to Hoboken in December 2007. I'm no longer distraught at how many of the old building and funky cottages have been destroyed and replaced. Like a newcomer, I'll be refreshed by balmy weather and sunsets on Mobile Bay.

From The Fair Hope of Heaven: "The coastline of Mobile Bay with sunset views is just one part of the equation. Its calming effect cannot be denied, and the transcendent, everlasting quality of that particular body of water and its constant gentle motion is a source of comfort and serenity to all who live anywhere near it."

I look forward to this trip. Indeed I do. I hope I see you there.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Ready Or Not, Fairhope: Here I Come!

In two weeks I'll be cooling my heels in the very town about which I've written two books and innumerable blog posts: Fairhope, Alabama. I've released The Fair Hope of Heaven/A Hundred Years After Utopia in paperback, and will be signing copies at the beloved indie bookstore Page and Palette November 22 from 2-4 P.M.

If you've followed this blog at all, you know about The Fair Hope of Heaven. My original title was When We Had the Sky, and much of the material was contained in the first books, Meet Me at The Butterfly Tree, but this book really came to life after I had lived in Hoboken for several months and read a delightful little book called Utopia, New Jersey. It inspired me to take a more positive look at Fairhope's utopian origins and compare them to the Fairhope of today. There is much history of the real Fairhope in The Fair Hope of Heaven, and some conjecture about its present and future.

In addition to chapters about Upton Sinclair's brief life in Fairhope, and that of E.B. Gaston, the founder of the village, there are chapters about the eccentric Communist Willard Edwards (who left Fairhope for what he expected to be greener pastures in Soviet Russia under Stalin) and Dian Stitt Arnold, who built her own utopian life around horses, dogs, and children. I'll be discussing Fairhope history and the earlier chapters of the book at the Fairhope Museum of History at a tea (made from Fairhope-grown tea leaves) on November 19 at 2 P.M. and reading the chapter on Dian Arnold and her mentor Blanche Brown at 2 P.M. November 20 at the Marietta Johnson Museum.

If you are in the Fairhope area, I hope you'll come to one of the events. If you don't live anywhere nearby, the book is available at and at Barnes & I'd love to meet you and talk with you about the Fairhope I remember and the Fairhope you want to get to know.

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.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Before Fairhope Was Precious

I've written a lot about my memories of Fairhope, both on this blog and in two books. I lived there as a child and again when I moved back in 1988 until I left for good in December of 2007.

Others are compelled to write about Fairhope too--from Sonny Brewer with his lyrical The Poet of Tolstoy Park to Rick Bragg in the current issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

It is Bragg's latest that inspires this post. He is, like many of us, somewhat conflicted about Fairhope. He writes that he loves the bay, the surrounding geography of what is now Fairhope, but that he finds it "too precious" to be a comfortable place to live. It's a tourist town now, and an extension of Mobile, and his article, which you can read here and post a comment on if you wish, has generated much response across the board. There are those who love Fairhope and think Bragg got it right, others who love Fairhope and think he didn't, and those who just love everything Rick Bragg writes and don't know anything about Fairhope.

If you want to read some about old Fairhope, you can find a post on this blog "In Praise of Old Libraries," or one with a picture of the Christian Church, one of the first structures in town, or one about the corner of Fairhope Avenue and Section Street, which I call "The Center of the Universe."

There was a time when I thought I'd live out my days in Fairhope. But life has its way of changing, and the time came when I didn't want to live there another day.

But I still love to visit, and I still cherish all the memories I have of when it was simpler and less self-conscious, less precious--simply an extraordinary little town peopled with unusual, special, thinking folks. I recommend that Fairhope. You'll find it in the writings of those who knew it long ago, including myself in Meet Me at The Butterfly Tree and The Fair Hope of Heaven. Newcomers and visiting luminaries tend to write about the little city as if it held the answer to all questions, the fount of all wisdom, and as if it is the magical Norman Rockwell town they've always dreamed about. Fairhope has a great many pleasant qualities and a few drawbacks. It is in transition now from a haven for intellectuals to some new incarnation, but it is situated in one of the most beautiful spots you'll find. Just don't expect too much. There is more to Fairhope than meets the eye, but it isn't all pretty.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Real Life and Real Estate

There's a house for sale in Fairhopeland, Montrose to be exact. Practically the last historic house standing in what used to be a quiet, mysterious village on the Eastern Shore, rife with stories about days dating to the early Spanish explorers. This example of Creole Cottage architecture was built from timbers and on the foundation of an early Catholic church and has housed many a complex and happy family, including Morris Timbes and his adorable wife and delightful and brilliant children (one of whom was me). Today the bids are flying, and the house is coveted by at least one delightful family with hopes of someday occupying it. Don't these endearing people just touch your heart? Don't you wish every story in real life had a happy ending?

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Latest News of the Fair Hope of Heaven

Don Noble, Alabama's premier book reviewer, wrote some very nice words about my book The Fair Hope of Heaven/A Hundred Years after Utopia. His review, which was aired on Alabama Public Radio, can be read at this link. Click on the blue letters and read what the nice man said.

I love Don's thoughtful interviews on Alabama Public Television, and am angling for an appearance next time I'm in the state. Right now it looks as if that will be October. Whether I get a booking on the show remains to be seen. Watch this space for further information. In the meantime, go to or Barnes and or go to Page and Palette in Fairhope and buy the book.

Also, this was published in John Sledge's book column in the Mobile Press-Register on Sunday: "...Mary Lois Timbes is also inspired by memories of growing up in a simpler time and place. In The Fair Hope of Heaven, she has expanded and updated her earlier reminiscence of Fairhope, Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree. Her new effort features more stories and more characters. 'All little towns of the late 1940s an early 1950s were simpler and more nurturing than they are today,' she writes, but this particular one had a history of and until recent years retained a faint whiff of the bohemian.'

"Included in this delightful volume are portraits of such Fairhope icons as Ernest Berry Gaston (the founder), Marietta Johnson (of Organic School fame), Winifred Duncan (author of Webs in the Wind, a book about spiders) and Craig Sheldon (sculptor). Also highlighted are the bayside burg's more quirky facets, like the nudist colony that once flourished around 1910.

"Despite all the changes since Timbes' youth, Fairhope's magnificent natural situation remains impressive, and she gives it due coverage. The modest architecture and colorful, outsized personalities have mostly gone, but the sweeping bay views, dramatic gullies and warm evenings remain constant, and continue to draw visitors and new residents from far and wide. 'Fairhope may have changed as the world has changed,' Timbes concludes, 'yet it retains remnants of Utopia at its heart.'"

I've posted a great deal about the book on this blog, so if you want a taste, browse the blog. You can read more reviews here, and once you've read the book, you might post a review of it yourself!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Education Reform? It Started in Fairhope

President Obama is committed to a deep reform of the educational system. I hope while investigating options his experts will take a look at what they call in Fairhope the Organic School.

Founded in 1907 by visionary educator Marietta Johnson, the Organic School was based on the same kind of reform that Fairhope itself was, and it fit in the little village like a glove. It was to work hand-in-hand with the Single Tax Corporation for its first years of existence, and the two institutions shared many of the same benefactors and local support.

The principles of Organic education remain radical. The basic premise is that education is natural to life (Mrs. Johnson used to say that education is life), and that children's curiosity and love of learning is to be incorporated in the process of teaching. She wrote two books on the subject which are incorporated into a slim volume called Teaching Without Failure now for sale at the Marietta Johnson Museum.

That's a daunting title. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of her system was that Mrs. Johnson believed that no child should be allowed to "fail" at education. The concept of failure was turned on its head; if the student didn't grasp the subject, it was failure of the school rather than the child. She solved this dilemma by simply eliminating measurements from the equation.

How, then, said the education Establishment, are we to know what a child is learning? The answer is that "we" don't. Any child can cram facts and pass a test, but has he really learned? Only the student in question is capable of knowing how much he has learned. In today's obsession with test scores, this is the most difficult aspect of Organic education to sell to the public.

Today, many of Mrs. Johnson's tenets have been softened at the school. It was essential to her system that students begin at the earliest year possible and remain in the school through high school. If an unfortunate child had to transfer, he had a big adjustment to make to adapt to the atmosphere of adversity in a traditional school, but soon emerged victorious, having been imbued with a basic love of the learning process. Now it is seldom that a student remains in a school from kindergarten through high school. The Organic School itself goes only through the eighth grade at this point.

But there is much to be learned from the school, which Mrs. Johnson considered a demonstration of the direction for all education. When traveling in Progressive Education circles, she was often challenged about her idea of education. "It sounds lovely," she was told, "But it could never work."

"Come to Fairhope and see," was what she answered. Many did, and many took away ideas which have become part of the schools of today.

There is a lot written about this unique approach to education reform. Read my books about it, which are at Page and Palette Bookstore in Fairhope or at or Barnes and, or drop by the Marietta Johnson Museum on the Faulkner campus for information about Mrs. Johnson and the school, or go to the campus on Pecan Ave. east of Section Street.

Or look it all up on the Internet!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Look at Fairhope, Bare Feet, and Heaven

February 18, 2009

Rupert Schmitt, a friend who spent a night or two in my garage during the 100th Reunion of the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education, wrote this as kind of a review of The Fair Hope of Heaven:

"Mary Lois Timbes is a skilled biographer.

"Upton Sinclair, the author of The Jungle lived in a cottage on the beach. He served raw food banquets. The Jungle exposed the meat packing industry and caused the passage of the meat inspection act. Today we need a peanut butter inspection act.

"Clarence Darrow visited the town two years after the Scopes Trial debated evolution in Dayton Tennessee. Imagine a trial with cheering and jeering.

"One lady, Emma Schramm had the freedom to live in a tree house 12 feet off the ground.

"The Fair Hope of Heaven reminds me of a place where students had the freedom to go bare footed to school. One boy, Paul Gaston, now a professor, went barefooted for an entire year. The Organic School principal John Campbell had the freedom to stand on his head. The Organic School, founded the same year as the Montessori School, emphasized students. Marietta Johnson would spin in her grave upon hearing of today’s educational values. Her school acted Greek Myths during hikes to gullies. Her students climbed trees while barefoot. Required classes included folk dancing, music, and arts and crafts. The children enjoyed school. 'Her school did not grade its children or have periodic tests or examinations.' John Dewey visited the school. A chapter in Schools of Tomorrow covered the Organic School.

"Fairhope was developed in Alabama by single tax Utopians from Iowa. The town was a magnet for free thinkers including Sherwood Anderson who some years later introduced Gertrude Stein in Paris to Ernest Hemingway. Northern liberals, including my father, stayed in the Colonial Inn while vacationing in Fairhope.

"Not all of the people espoused complete freedom. Bill Edwards, one of the teachers, never spanked his children: 'Punishment for their infractions was that they would be required to run up and down the stairs twice.' His students in woodshop built a 36-foot ketch. 'They had to tear a wall out of the Arts and Crafts Building to extract it and take it to the bay for a trial run.' After the stock market crashed, Bill moved his family to the U.S.S.R. Disillusioned, he returned to the U.S. in 1935.

"The Organic School is still open for business, however because of liability issues, the students of today must wear shoes."

Rupert's comments give only a taste of the many stories you'll find in The Fair Hope of Heaven. Willard Edwards, the chap who moved to Stalin's Russia, had much more impact than the building of the Osprey or the move to and from Russia--and there are other characters, including Blanche Brown and Dian Arnold, Gretchen Riggs, Verda Horne, and the ubiquitous Craig Sheldon in the book.

I hope more of its readers will respond here and tell us their favorite stories from old Fairhope. If you don't have stories of your own, you're sure to find many in The Fair Hope of Heaven!

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Fair Hope of Heaven--Reviews Trickle in

February 9, 2009

Reviews for my new book The Fair Hope of Heaven/A Hundred Years After Utopia have begun to trickle in on

See for yourself:

Some dreams are realistic, some are utopian. I would almost put in the latter category my dream of someday writing a book with the exquisite timing of this one. One day, we find ourselves living in the very prototype of an advanced capitalist society; a few months later, Newsweek adorns its cover with the inscription, “We Are All Socialists Now.” And indeed, that "S" word is now on everyone's lips. But when you read Mary Lois Timbes’ newest work on Fairhope, Alabama, you might not use the word socialist quite so glibly. This is a charming, breezy read about a town founded roughly a century ago on the belief in the idea of Henry George, who believed that land is the only commodity that should be taxed at all, and all citizens should share equitably in the fruits of those taxes.
Yet, as Ms. Timbes tell us, Fairhope was not socialist. It was, in fact, the model of an individualistic society in the sense of celebrating the diversity and accepting the eccentricities of its residents—the kind of characters who typically would be ostracized in small towns and lost in big ones.

Reading about Fairhope would be a delightful experience at any time, but it is especially valuable now, when we are all questioning some of the assumptions upon which our social and economic thinking has been based. Get ready to experience a place where you probably wished you could live, but never imagined existed. You?ll revel in the outstanding accomplishments of its residents of yesteryear and wonder why its current residents haven't been interested in returning the town to the glories of its past. Perhaps after reading this book, they just might.
This was written by Washington D.C. attorney, blogger and author Dan Spiro.

Dr. Paul M. Gaston, author of a number of books about Fairhope, writes:
With insight and sensitivity, Mary Lois Timbes recalls and reveals the Fairhope utopian colony as it once was and has become. The biographical sketches of some of the colony's unique characters will delight those who knew them and attract those who meet them here for the first time.

This from Perdita Buchan, a writer and teacher of writing, whose own book Utopia, New Jersey, inspired me to get back to writing this, my latest opus:
The Fair Hope of Heaven is a charming evocation of the town on Mobile Bay that began as a utopian experiment - and of the many unusual and appealing characters who made it their home from its beginning in 1894 to the present. Eccentric they may have been, but they lived lives valuable to themselves and the community. And it is valuable to have them remembered.

I'm told by John Sledge that there will be a review of the book in the Mobile Press-Register as well. If you want to find out about the book first hand, it's for sale in Fairhope's Page and Palette bookstore.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Upton Sinclair, from The Fair Hope of Heaven

January 15, 2008

Upton Sinclair moved to a cottage on the beach in Fairhope in 1909. He was a famous novelist at the time, having written The Jungle three years earlier. I have a chapter on Sinclair in The Fair Hope of Heaven. Sinclair was a man looking for the perfect place to live, and for a time he tried Fairhope.

Most of us remember the name Sinclair Lewis from American Lit classes in college, but this is the other Sinclair. Anthony Arthur said that Upton Sinclair once remarked, “Maybe we should just both take the name Upton Sinclair Lewis.”

Upton Sinclair was a Socialist, an idealist, a food faddist, and a complex and interesting man who wrote books whenever he felt the world’s ills needed correcting, which meant that he wrote books constantly. He lived during a period in which like-minded idealists banded together, often in colonies, not unlike our own Utopian Fairhope. After camping in inadequate shacks since their marriage, with money from The Jungle Sinclair and his wife Meta had bought an old private school building on the Palisades in New Jersey to house the artists’ colony that was his dream. He called the project Helicon Home Colony, after the Greek muse of the arts, Helicon. John Dewey, also a figure in Fairhope, visited his colony and even the young Sinclair Lewis, a Yale student, helped out with janitorial duties.

Helicon Home Colony burned in 1907, and with it went Sinclair’s hopes for his own personal ideal world. From there he traveled with wife and baby David to Carmel, where he experimented with health foods and wrote books and plays intended to convert mankind to his two pet causes: health diets and Socialism. He wrote books about raw food diets, fasting, vegetarianism. He and his family were to spend time in Battle Creek at Kellogg’s and health guru Bernarr MacFadden’s establishments, and other such enclaves, before they moved to Fairhope to try it out.

Raised by a puritan mother and an alcoholic father, Sinclair early on thought of himself as a genius. His personal heroes were Shelley, Hamlet, and Jesus Christ. He was convinced that he was ordained to write the Great American Novel, and he made at least 60 attempts at it, most of which sold very well and had literary merit while succeeding best at presenting his latest propaganda soapbox.

As a Socialist, he would have been well-acquainted with the Single Taxers, and Fairhope had a strong attraction to those who sought a heaven on earth, as many did in those days. Young David, well-read in the books of his parents’ choosing, was getting old enough for school, and the Sinclairs probably saw the need for some life with other children. David Sinclair became one of the first children enrolled in the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education.

In his 1932 autobiography, Sinclair wrote: “For the winter (1909-10) I took my family to the single tax colony at Fairhope, Alabama, on Mobile Bay. Since I couldn’t have a colony of my own, I would try other people’s. Here were two or three hundren assorted reformers, having organized their affairs according to the gospel of Henry George; trying to eke a living from poor soil, and feeling certain they were setting an example to the rest of the world. The climate permitted the outdoor life, and we found a cottage for rent on the bay-front, remote from the village.

“…I was overworking again; and when my recalcitrant stomach made too much trouble, I would take another fast for a day, three days, a week. I was trying the raw food died, and failing, as before. I was now a full-fledged physical culturist, following a Spartan regime. In front of our house ran a long pier, out to the deep water of the bay. Often the boards of this peir were covered with frost, very stimulating to the far feet, and whipped by icy winds, stimulating to the skin; each morning I made a swim in this bay a part of my law.”

In The Fair Hope of Heaven I have included some lovely diary entries by the young bride of Sinclair’s secretary – Dave Howatt, also a raw-food advocate – describing the scene in Fairhope of those halcyon, idealistic days. These pages deserve a blog post of their own, offering an enchanting portrait of a young woman in love in another era, in a bayside village that is long gone.

The marriage between Upton and Meta Sinclair, unlike the Howatts', was not to last much longer. Meta's physical passion had been more than he bargained for, and he sought to quell it in any way he could, at last inviting her to bring her young lover, Alfred Kuttner, to join them in Fairhope, where such liaisons were not unheard of. It was in Fairhope that Sinclair wrote his autobiographical work, Love’s Pilgrimage, allowing Meta to pen the portions concerning Corydon, the female protagonist.

Probably the member of the Sinclair family to benefit most from his brief time in Fairhope was David, who was enrolled in the Organic School, and loved the life out of doors, later becoming a scientist and probably early on imbued with the free spirit of Fairhope in those days. There is a charming excerpt from Sinclair's description of himself and David sleeping on the outdoor porch of their beach cottage. I'll leave it to you to find the description yourself in the book.

The Fairhope to which Upton Sinclair repaired a century ago is a very different one from the one you'll find today. Most of the beach cottages have been replaced by large, imposing and impressive multi-million-dollar homes. People no longer move to town for escape from the tribulations of modern life, or for the intellectual pursuits in planning a better world. But they move there because they love its possibilities, still. They want the best place they can find, and they very often find it in Fairhope.

The Fair Hope of Heaven can be found at Page & Palette Bookstore in Fairhope, on or on my website.