Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Time in Old Fairhope

From the novel I'm working on, That Was Tomorrow, here's an excerpt about The Gables, a hotel run by Capt. and Mrs. Jack Cross:

The first settlers, who had moved from Iowa and other parts of the Midwest, had not been farmers, but were eager to learn how to grow enough food to feed their families, and they had assumed this gloriously warm climate would provide a garden of Eden for them. By now they had learned that the soil of Fairhope was sandy and alkaline, not ideal for many crops. But they endured in a spirit of cooperation and optimism, and many had accepted conventional wisdom that citrus, particularly the new Japanese satsuma orange, might be the salvation of Fairhope’s economy. The growing season was indeed a long one, and they experimented to extend it even longer if they could by growing and preparing vegetables and fruit unknown to them before their move to the South. There was a bounty of okra, which was quite tasty when you got used to it, and there were varieties of peas, beans and nuts which they came to enjoy over time.

That initial visit, Amelia stayed at the Gables, a simple two-storey wooden building, which Mrs. Johnson had recommended to her. The Gables was a little less fashionable and less expensive than the Colonial Inn, which sat a few blocks west, on the bluff overlooking the bay. The Gables, on the other hand, was right in town and just a few blocks from the school. The Gables was run by Captain and Mrs. Jack Cross. Mrs. Cross was a busy, funny lady—and her husband a raconteur with an English accent, who held forth with his pipe and a cup of tea on the front porch every afternoon, as cronies and neighbors stopped by to discuss the fate of the world with him. They often talked about the politics of the village, and about the future of the single tax system, and about books they were reading and authors they admired. The elders of the town stopped by to air the latest issues they were dealing with—even E.B. Gaston, the editor of The Courier and virtually the founder of Fairhope—stopped by on his morning walk to exchange pleasantries with the Crosses. It seemed to Amelia that this little hotel was the hub of the community, but the more she got to know her way around, other such hubs were revealed to her. There were three or four little cafes in the village of about 1,500, and about 15 hotels with dining rooms, and coffee urns all over town were hot with fresh brew all day long.

“Wherever there’s people in Fairhope,” Mrs. Cross said to her, “There’s coffee. Or maybe that should be, wherever there’s coffee, there’s people.” She made tea for her husband and his friends, but there was always hot coffee as well. The Crosses, both devoted to the cause of single tax, had moved to Fairhope with the idea of running a farm, but, like many idealists who had never farmed before, changed their minds after a year or two, at which time they had taken over the management of the Gables Hotel, where Mrs. Cross cooked and supervised work inthe kitchen. She laid an old-fashioned boarding house type of table, which was popular with locals as well as transients.

Amelia found both the Crosses fascinating people, and their visitors from town were a certain breed—earnest, wordy, and wise, with one central agenda, which was how best to put Fairhope on the map and change the world through single tax philosophy.

They hadn’t yet realized that the wave of the immediate future of Fairhope was actually Amelia and those like her who were moving to the town to participate in Mrs. Johnson’s school. Seven years before, the famed educational philosopher John Dewey had come to Fairhope to review the school for a book he was writing. His visit had set the little village on its ear with excitement. The children, informed that the only day Dr. Dewey had available to observe the school was Christmas Eve, voted to keep the school open its regular hours that day so that he might get a fair picture of it in operation. Mrs. Johnson took some of them outside, as was her custom so often, to teach a class, Dewey’s daughter photographed the scene which became the frontispiece of a book.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Old Oak

I used to live on Bayview Street directly across from this oak tree. People who had grown up in Fairhope told me when they were kids growing up they would climb to one of the welcoming lower limbs and sit for hours and read. This came from at least two people of different generations, making the oak symbolize to me the mood of Fairhope of a former day, when children climbed trees to read and spent hours just exploring, playing, and dreaming. Marietta Johnson once said, "The little child should have much time for play, and even for dreaming. If one may not dream in childhood, when will time be found for this accomplishment?"

The oak came to evoke the heart of Fairhope itself to me--like a sturdy, comforting friend. That venerable tree had held growing children in its limbs when they still had time to read and to dream. I never passed it without feeling a nostalgia for its embrace even though I had never felt it. It is something I visit when I go back to Fairhope, just to scope out the neighborhood, just to confirm my hope that some good things don't change.
This woodcut, produced in the early 1920's by Wharton Esherick, looks like the same oak tree to me. Over the years it's had a limb or two pruned, and it has lost its Spanish moss, but it continues to grow and spread and be the best tree it can. I sent a copy of the top picture to one of the lecturers from the symposium and he says without a doubt it is the same tree. I hope we're both right, and that Esherick saw his own children climbing in it, and maybe lingering with a book in its sturdy branches. It is a remnant of the best of Fairhope. Wharton Esherick appears as a minor character in my novel That Was Tomorrow, set in 1921 in Fairhope. For more about my book, visit  my website.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Wharton Esherick and Fairhope

For the current inhabitants of Fairhope, the name Wharton Esherick is rarely remembered. But in his day he had some impact, and there can be no doubt that the years he spent in Fairhope (1919-1920) changed him forever.

I heard from my friend Chock McInnis about a symposium on Esherick at the University of Pennsylvania October 1-3, and we both planned to go. He was bringing some people from Fairhope, he hoped, and had great expectations for the conference. His special interest was in learning something about Sherwood Anderson, the writer who was Esherick's great friend in Fairhope, and picking up more information about Esherick himself. the symposium promised sessions on the many influences on Wharton Esherick, and Chock and I both knew he had always said he got his start as a woodcarver in Fairhope. I knew that Esherick had come to Fairhope to teach art at the School of Organic Education, and left with a new set of carving tools that was to change his life. But there was much more to learn.

At the prestigious UPenn symposium, I was astonished to hear "Fairhope, Alabama" ringing clearly any number of times in almost every lecture about Esherick. The picture these talks painted was of a Bohemian Socialist-leaning settlement in a remote and seductive place. I yearned to jump up and take the lectern to throw in a few choice facts myself. I had learned of Esherick when I worked at the Marietta Johnson Museum in Fairhope some ten years ago. A picture he had painted of Marietta Johnson hung in over the mantelpiece at the School Home, but I never knew that. It was not a flattering likeness, and as I child I always secretly hoped it wasn't her. Esherick was not very successful as a painter, but when he learned to carve he became known as the country's premier wood sculptor. His woodcuts are elegant and simple; his furniture is breathtakingly bold and practical as well. His relationship to his medium seems organic and fundamental. Along with a few other artists, he was present at the birth of what has come to be called Modernism.

Chock, Marlene Cavanaugh and I were all pleased to introduce ourselves at the coffee breaks to those who would listen by saying "We're from Fairhope!" although I had to qualify it since I no longer live there. At last Fairhope emerges from the shadows as more than a classy retirement community--a place that nurtured an artist who came to be in the vanguard of the Modernists. We watch Power Point presentations that showed snapshots of his family, him working in his woodshop, and samples of his paintings, woodcuts, sculpture, furniture, utensils, and even houses, designed by Esherick. His amazing oeuvre has a whimsical personality of its own, both practical and unique. It in many ways embodies what I think of as "old Fairhope," created as he himself evolved and lived what he thought of as an organic life. A very stimulating two days that left me with a wish for more--more recognition for Esherick and more information as Chock and I separately seek to research the Fairhope of the past.

Update in 2012: Wharton Esherick makes a cameo appearance in my book That Was Tomorrow, now available as an eBook. Esherick and his friend Sherwood Anderson make a brief appearance at a Fairhope party, which they may well have done in 1921. Esherick had left Fairhope but returned from time to time to visit, and he and Anderson did enjoy the party scene. That Was Tomorrow is now available on my website my website or on amazon. com, Barnes & Noble. com or on iBooks.