Lessons learned early in life are often the ones that stick. That’s certainly true for Kathy Colbenson, president and CEO of CHRIS 180, a behavioral health and child welfare organization. Her father, a minister, was active in the civil rights movement. In 1955, he preached a sermon that said you can’t be both a Christian and a bigot. His position—unpopular at the time—cost him, says Colbenson. But he believed in doing what was right.
“The belief system that guided him, and the faith that guided him, is also what guides me,” says Colbenson, 68. “We have to help people live their lives with dignity, and that means empowering them to be responsible, to make choices, to take charge of their lives, and to give them the opportunities to do that.”
To that end, CHRIS 180 offers everything from housing and mental health counseling to skill building and training for the workforce. It specializes in helping people recover from trauma. “Therapy doesn’t change anything that happened to you. It changes you—and how you move forward,” says Colbenson, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “We can learn, grow, and do better.”
CHRIS 180 has grown tremendously since Colbenson took over as CEO in 1987. Back then, it had basically one program and less than 20 employees. Now, it has more than 400 employees and an annual budget of around $29 million.
“We’re not the organization that just gives out sandwiches or provides shelter. We do that, but that’s the hook sometimes to come in. Our goal is to help people make change,” she explains.
Outside of work, Colbenson is married and has two adult daughters, three cats, and three dogs. She enjoys spending time outside. When asked what she is most proud of, professionally, Colbenson mentions a program for homeless LGBTQ youth. When CHRIS 180 started the program in 2000, it was the first of its kind in the Southeast.
“There were some people who stopped giving to us, but we did the right thing,” she says about the program. “That’s what I’m proud of: At CHRIS 180, we do the right thing.”
Better than anyone, Jill Binkley understands breast cancer. As founder of TurningPoint Breast Cancer Rehabilitation, an organization that treats people regardless of their ability to pay, she’s helped some 5,000 patients move through the various stages of treatment and recovery. She’s also lived that journey herself—twice.
Binkley was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, when she was just 42; she received a second diagnosis in 2007. In between those years, she founded TurningPoint, the very organization that she and so many others needed. “When I first started, I thought maybe I’m the only one that has these issues. Of course that’s not true,” says Binkley, now 63. “I realized that I wasn’t alone.”
One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime. Besides a sense of reassurance and belonging, TurningPoint provides those patients with physical and massage therapy, counseling, and help with nutrition and exercise. The organization fills gaps in care, says Binkley, who started her career as a physical therapist. She believes all breast cancer patients deserve access to the sort of services offered by TurningPoint.
“I can’t imagine having done anything else with my career,” says Binkley. “Every single day, we have patients come in who are scared and hurting, physically and emotionally, and almost every person who comes here leaves feeling so much better.”
Binkley practices what she preaches in terms of being active. The mother of three is an avid rower and has a golden retriever she loves to train. She also likes to travel, sometimes for work, spreading TurningPoint’s message through advocacy and promotion.
“I want people to know that going through breast cancer is devastating and it doesn’t need to be,” she says. “There are people out here that can help.”
Many a song has been written about Tennessee. Countless artists have dedicated their work to her beauty, drawing inspiration from her mountains and waterways. And now, the Volunteer State can claim another love letter of sorts—a luxury hotel called the Tennessean that honors its birthplace at every turn.
Each floor is named after a state river—Clinch, Hiwassee, Ocoee, Holston. Locally made furniture fills the rooms, and marble bathrooms nod to the area’s many quarries. Headboards above each bed bear a map of the Tennessee River.
Taken together, thoughtful touches like these add up to something grand, helping make the Tennessean, which opened in 2017, one of the most talked-about hotels in the South. Condé Nast Traveler has twice ranked it among the best twenty-five hotels in the region, and Southern Living named the Tennessean its top hotel in 2018.
The accolades are apt. Guests are charmed from the moment they step inside the lobby, which has soaring ceilings and a giant bookshelf showing the Tennessee River along the spines of its books. I took full advantage of the hotel’s concierge services, which included a complimentary car that took me anywhere I wanted to go within three miles.
But that left me to wonder: Why leave? The hotel’s restaurant and bar, the Drawing Room, is reason enough to stay a spell, thanks to its rotating menu, showcasing the bounty of Tennessee. Three items truly stood out for me: sheep’s milk cheese from Blackberry Farm (in Walland), cured country ham from Benton’s (based in Madisonville), and the local veggies, including pumpkin, corn, and butter beans. The restaurant feels both lavish and intimate, the sort of place locals go on special occasions—in fact, when I was there, the group next to me was celebrating a birthday.
No doubt, part of the Drawing Room’s appeal is the bar, which has one of the largest selections of bourbons and whiskeys in Knoxville (173 bottles!). It also shakes up unique cocktails that capture the spirit of Tennessee. Two stand out: the Tullahoma Dew, made with George Dickel No. 12 Tennessee Sour Mash, Mountain Dew syrup, and rhubarb bitters, and the Orange You Glad You Tailgated, a vodka drink with smoked ice that celebrates the nearby University of Tennessee. Both are solid and sweet reminders: The Tennessean belongs to Tennessee.
Knoxville is home to Tennessee’s official state theater—and it’s a beaut. The Tennessee Theatre opened in 1928 as a movie house and now serves as a performing arts center. The stunning interior showcases design elements from around the world, including Asian carpets and drapes, Italian terrazzo flooring, and chandelier crystals from the Czech Republic. Take in a show, or attend one of the open houses held throughout the year.
This article appears in our Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Southbound.
Acclaimed blues musician Tab Benoit is founder of Voice of the Wetlands, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about Louisiana’s coastal erosion.
Why should someone visit the wetlands?
You feel the life there. It touches all your senses. Every little bit of land is living; it’s got movement. The sounds you hear are sounds you don’t hear anywhere else on the planet. It has inspired artists and painters and photographers and musicians. Even as a kid, I loved that feeling of life all around me.
When’s the best time of year to go?
Summertime is when you can really get that sense of “Wow, this place is alive.” But spring is great, too, when everything starts to green up again. In wintertime, we get the roseate spoonbill, which is a pink bird that almost looks like a flamingo. They fly in from South America.
What’s the best way for people to see these wetlands?
You have to get in a boat or on an airplane. Go to Houma airport and look up Hammonds Air Service to charter a flight. Within thirty minutes of taking off, you’re going to see everything you need to see.
And by boat?
There’s Annie Miller’s Swamp Tours in Houma. She pretty much started the swamp tour business. She’s gone now, but her son does the tours. They go out and call the alligators by name.
Besides alligators, what other wildlife might someone see?
All kinds of fish, turtles, and bald eagles—which are a good indication of what’s going on. Bald eagles nest for life, and they always nest in the big, strong, sturdy, cypress trees. When you see them moving out of their nests, it means the cypress swamp is about to die.
Why are the wetlands disappearing?
We’re losing them because of the manipulation of the mouth of the Mississippi River and the rechanneling of the river water. This is man messing with Mother Nature.
While visitors are in Houma, where can they go to relax and hear music? On the Canal Bar is a cool spot. Bands play outside when the weather is good. It also happens to be the place where I learned to fly—it used to be a seaplane base. In fact, the stage is right on the ramp where they launched the seaplanes.
Any favorite restaurants?
I like the boiled crabs and crawfish at Big Al’s. He also sells a lot of alligator. At Boudreau & Thibodeau’s, they do old-school recipes, like gumbos and etouffees. It’s authentic home cooking.
Anything else visitors should do while they’re in the area?
I would tell people to drive to Cocodrie and go to CoCo Marina. They have a restaurant and a lot of charter fishing that goes out from there. It’s a good way to take a drive down an old bayou and see the shrimp boats and how people live.
This article appears in our Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Southbound.
Cart Blackwell is curator at the Mobile Carnival Museum, the oldest such museum in the United States.
Most people associate Mardi Gras with New Orleans, but Mobile is home to the country’s oldest Carnival, first celebrated in 1703. Tell us about that history. Our first Carnival dates back to our early French period, when a group of sailors and settlers celebrated at the original Fort of Mobile on Ash Wednesday. The Americans took it to another level: In the 1830s, a group of Mobile men staged a parade and threw an invitation-only ball. And those two ingredients now define the American Carnival, whether it’s celebrated in Mobile, New Orleans, or Biloxi.
Speaking of other cities, why should people visit Mobile in particular for Mardi Gras? Mobile’s Carnival is approachable. It’s very family-friendly. Also, the parade floats and costume designs change each year. That’s something special—and not necessarily the case in New Orleans. They recycle a bit.
Where’s the best place to watch the parades? A really good viewpoint is where Dauphin and Royal streets cross, right in the heart of downtown. Another good location is Bienville Square. You can’t get more Mobile than that, with the beautiful oak trees and the fountain.
Why do krewes in Mobile throw MoonPies? Previously, the popular throw was Cracker Jack boxes, and they’re hard as can be. A MoonPie is forgiving.
Where should visitors stay if they want to be in the middle of the action? We have several beautiful historic hotels, including the Battle House hotel and the Admiral. Both are on the parade route.
After a long day of parade watching, what’s a good place to get a bite to eat? One is the Bluegill. They have flaming oysters, which are phenomenal—served smoking, with a wonderful cheese on them. A little more upscale is Felix’s Fish Camp. They have a trio of soups: turtle soup, gumbo, and the best crab soup that you will ever put in your mouth.
Where should Carnival-goers pick up a souvenir? Toomey’s Mardi Gras. You can get anything there, from costumes and beads to MoonPies and stuffed animals.
Apart from participating in it, how can people learn about Mardi Gras in Mobile? Come visit us at the Mobile Carnival Museum. We are known for our textiles and have the world’s largest collection of trains, which are worn at presentations and balls. They’re all locally designed and made.
Any other can’t-miss attractions that visitors should check out while in Mobile? The USS Alabama is one of only a handful of World War II battleships. The conveniently anchored vessel offers a glimpse into the lives of the Greatest Generation, not to mention majestic views of Mobile Bay.
This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue ofSouthbound.
The historical heft of Thistletop Inn strikes me right at the door. Turns out these circa-1860 double doors are from an old stagecoach stop between Louisville and Nashville. Inside, I see materials from other structures around the South: doorknobs from New Orleans, dining room doors from a Louisville hotel, beams from a Nashville candy factory and a Charleston wharf. Seemingly every bit of this building has a backstory.
Luckily, I like stories.
This one, the story of Thistletop Inn, begins with a man named Braxton Dixon. A master builder known for salvaging and repurposing old materials, he was a favorite of the celebrity set, with a client list that reads like a Who’s Who of country and rock music (Johnny and June Cash, Roy Orbison, and Tammy Wynette, to name a few). Dixon built several dozen homes over his lifetime, including the inn, which was originally constructed as a private residence in the early 1970s. Its current owners, Mary Jane and Fred Peace, bought the place in 2006 and opened Thistletop Inn as a bed and breakfast in 2010. It’s the only building by Dixon that’s open to the public, and for that reason alone, it’s worth a visit. But there are other reasons, too.
The inn is a refuge. Located in Goodlettsville, a fifteen-minute drive from Nashville, it sits on eleven acres of rolling countryside. Yet despite the sprawling setting, the inn itself is intimate, with only four guest rooms: two in the main building and one in each of the two stand-alone houses. (The Avalon House, which Dixon originally built as a horse barn, mixes modern furnishings with antiques; the Highland House, which Dixon did not build, features original photography by Fred of rock-and-roll artists, such as Stevie Nicks, Mick Jagger, and Linda Ronstadt, and is a favorite of the singer-songwriter set.) I stayed in the Dauphine King Suite, the larger of the two rooms in the main house. To get there, I climbed a red spiral staircase, salvaged from an old theater on Dauphine Street in New Orleans. The room feels like a luxury tree house, complete with massive windows, an exposed wood ceiling, and stained-glass panels from Scotland. A small balcony overlooks the lawn.
The Peaces live elsewhere in the main house, which includes a kitchen, back deck, and a downstairs area for concerts, which are held about once a month. (They’re BYOB and free if you’re staying at the inn, though donations for the band are welcome.) In the morning, Fred made a simple but delicious breakfast after inquiring about our preferences, (eggs, potatoes, and fresh fruit), and we all sat on the deck to enjoy the view. Later, Mary Jane and I walked around the side of the house to see the etched glass window with a rose and thistle pattern that inspired the inn’s name. The floor-to-ceiling window came from a convent in Kentucky and is believed to date from 1850. Like most everything at Thistletop Inn, if this window could speak, it would surely have a lot to say.
Dixon’s list of celebrity clients included the legendary Johnny Cash, who convinced Dixon to sell him a home he’d been building for himself on Tennessee’s Old Hickory Lake, about a half-hour drive north of Nashville. Visit Nashville’s Johnny Cash Museum to see furnishings from that house (upholstered chairs, a wood buffet, assorted knickknacks) as well as a stone wall from one of its rooms. Sadly, they are all that’s left. The building burned down during a renovation in 2007.
This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue ofSouthbound.
Michelle Maziar is careful about how she describes her work. She’s not helping people. She’s not giving back. And she definitely would not say that she is a voice for the voiceless. “People have voices. We just put tape over their mouths,” she says. “My responsibility is to remove barriers of participation—to break down barriers so that people have the opportunity to pursue the American dream.”
More than most, Maziar, 39, knows about the American dream. Her family lived it. Fleeing religious persecution in Russia, her Jewish grandfather immigrated to America in 1918 when he was just 14 years old. He wound up settling in Atlanta and became a successful businessman. Today, his granddaughter, Maziar, works to ensure that immigrants arriving now are afforded some of the same opportunities he had. “It was a profound honor to launch this office in a city that gave my family so much,” says Maziar, founding director of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and the Welcoming Atlanta initiative. “I am a product of what immigration looks like when it’s done right.”
Maziar grew up in Atlanta. She studied political science at Tulane University and later earned a master’s degree from Harvard University, where she studied migration. Between degrees, Maziar worked at a small Buckhead nonprofit that serves immigrants and their families. She made the jump to government because she wanted to have a broader impact. Outside of Atlanta, Maziar regularly speaks and advises on issues related to immigration. She recently worked with the United Nations to develop a set of global recommendations. “Working in government, especially municipal government, is the most efficient and effective way of transforming lives,” she says. “There’s such a gain to all members of the city when people are validated, recognized, and when people have opportunity.”
Toni Washington has never been one to back down from a challenge. One of nine children, she grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and learned from an early age how to hold her own. That tenacity served Washington well when she signed up for the fire service in the 1990s. “A lot of people did not think I could do it,” she recalls. “I wanted to show everybody that I could.”
Washington proved her critics wrong and then some. She finished second in her class and went on to earn a master’s degree in managerial leadership. Now, the 51-year-old serves as fire chief for Decatur. She’s the only active, female fire chief in the country, as well as Decatur’s first female and first African American fire chief—points of both pride and disappointment. “It’s bittersweet. I’m very happy of what I’ve accomplished, but I’m sad that I’m the only one in 2019,” she says.
Washington hopes to change that fact. This year, she helped to host the state’s first-ever fire camp for young women. Firefighting has traditionally been—and still is—a male-dominated field. Washington estimates that women make up only about 3 percent of the fire service. “I’ve been working hard, these last few years, introducing women into the fire service and letting them know it’s an option,” she says. Washington sees it as her duty to prepare the next generation of leaders. (She comes from a family of trailblazers. Her grandfather was one of the first African American police officers in Savannah; her mother was also a police officer.)
Outside of work, Washington enjoys traveling, reading, and spending time with her family. She is married and has three daughters and two grandsons. She offers them the same advice she gives to other young people, especially women: “Have a plan, work hard, and shatter the glass ceiling.”
There’s a street in Montgomery that locals say is one of the most historic in America. A large fountain sits at the western end, the site of the city’s once-booming slave market. At the eastern end is the Alabama State Capitol, where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy. In between is Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor in the late 1950s. The street is also home to the spot where Rosa Parks boarded the bus on which she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger.
That roughly half-mile street, Dexter Avenue, tells the story of Montgomery as both the birthplace of the Confederacy and the city where the modern civil rights movement took off. The history here is complicated, crowded, and occasionally competing, and it’s on full display this year as Alabama gears up for its bicentennial celebration. Alabama became a state on December 14, 1819; Montgomery was founded the same year along the banks of the Alabama River.
The capital city is ready to celebrate the anniversary. Its latest and greatest draw is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the first U.S. memorial dedicated to the victims of lynching and racial terror. When it opened in April 2018, the country took notice, with everyone from Gloria Steinem and Al Gore to The Roots turning up in support. About the memorial, the New York Times said: “There is nothing like it in the country. Which is the point.”
Set on a small hilltop overlooking Montgomery, the memorial contains more than 800 weathered steel slabs. Each represents a county where a lynching has taken place and includes the name or names, when known, of those killed. The slabs are hung from the roof, but the floor is sloped, making them appear at eye level at the start of the memorial and rise above people’s heads toward the end. Along the way, visitors may read purported justifications for the killings: “For voting.” “For asking a white woman for a drink of water.” “For organizing local sharecroppers.” The six-acre site is a powerful reminder of the past, but it also serves as a call to action. An identical set of steel slabs rests on the ground nearby; they are meant to be claimed and installed by the counties they represent. So far, none have moved. But the Equal Justice Initiative, the organization behind the memorial, is in talks with dozens of communities interested in erecting their monuments.
The provocative memorial opened at the same time as downtown’s Legacy Museum, which sits on the site of a former slave warehouse. The 11,000-square-foot museum helps put the memorial into context, tracing the history of racial inequality from slavery and segregation to present-day mass incarceration.
While downtown, don’t miss several other spots significant to Montgomery’s history. The Rosa Parks Museum puts visitors directly outside a replica of her bus to watch a reenactment of her arrest. By design, the room is dark and cold, much like the evening of December 1, 1955. It was this event that led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the success of which electrified the civil rights movement and catapulted a young King into the national spotlight. See where MLK preached at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, which offers tours of his office and the sanctuary. If you go on a Sunday, note that the organist King hired still plays services. From there, visit the Dexter Parsonage Museum, the simple clapboard house where King lived with his family.
For a look inside another historic home, this one from the Civil War era, head to the First White House of the Confederacy, once the residence of Jefferson Davis and his family. Tour his bedroom and see a variety of keepsakes, such as his pipe, a lock of his hair, and flowers from his grave. Nearby is the Alabama State Capitol. It’s here that Southern delegates met to organize the Confederate States of America and swore in Davis as their president in 1861. The Senate room is restored to look like it did that year, complete with replica desks and light fixtures. A monument to Davis sits outside the capitol building not far from where King stood to deliver his famous “How Long, Not Long” speech at the end of the historic Selma to Montgomery march in 1965.
The capitol steps are the perfect place to pause and reflect on the various histories contained within Montgomery, and to think about the city’s future. King similarly took the long view when he addressed marchers that day. “How long?” he asked in unison with the crowd: “Not long. Because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
More to Explore: Taste of Montgomery
So fiercely does Montgomery love its food, it named its Minor League Baseball team the Montgomery Biscuits. (The team’s mascot? A biscuit-eating beast named Big Mo.) Begin your culinary tour of the capital at Cahawba House, a cozy breakfast and lunch spot known for—you guessed it—biscuits. The restaurant also makes a pretty mean cinnamon beignet.
If you prefer a quick in-and-out lunch, try Derk’s Filet and Vine, a restaurant and market in one. Make a plate at the hot bar, which is always stocked with Southern favorites, such as pulled pork, fried chicken, and vegetables cooked into submission. The jalapeño cornbread is perfection. Wash it all down with some sweet tea, and pick up a six-pack of Imperial Stout from Alabama’s Blue Pants Brewery to go. Speaking of beer, Montgomery recently welcomed its first production brewery: Common Bond. Its industrial downtown taproom doesn’t serve food—just good beer, including crowd-friendly American ales—but you can call Bibb Street Pizza next door and have a pie delivered.
For a more upscale experience, try Central. The restaurant, set in an 1890s warehouse space, is Montgomery’s go-to place for creative cocktails and well-made classics. Order the fett sow fries to start. (They look like fries, but they’re pork belly.) Mains are made in the open kitchen using fresh and local ingredients. To pick up some of those basics, head to Montgomery Curb Market, which offers everything from flowers and produce to homemade soups and pies several mornings a week. Not ready for the day to end? Top it off with a nightcap at the downtown Aviator Bar, so named for its over-the-top airplane kitsch and wartime memorabilia.
This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue ofSouthbound.
Long before a mouse named Mickey showed up in central Florida, the South was dotted with roadside attractions and family-owned amusements. Rock formations, natural springs, botanical gardens, and menageries of animals were the mainstays of vacation fun. And while some of these beloved spots live on only in memory, many continue to welcome visitors—and have even experienced a recent surge in interest and attendance. So come along as we pay a visit to some of the region’s most legendary and long-standing attractions.
Rock City Lookout Mountain, Georgia
Real estate developer Garnet Carter hit it big as the creator of the nation’s first miniature golf course in 1928. Set atop Lookout Mountain, Georgia, it was part of his planned community, Fairyland—the name a nod to his wife Frieda’s love of European folklore. The game caught on, and he franchised the concept nationwide as Tom Thumb Golf. But as the Depression spread gloom across the country, the venture foundered, and Carter began casting about for a new business opportunity. He didn’t have to look far: Frieda had begun planting a rock garden to end all rock gardens on a portion of their development known as Rock City. At this natural collection of massive boulders, the stones are set in such a way as to create streets and alleys in between them.
Using string, Frieda had marked a trail that wound through the rock formations and ended at an outcropping known as Lover’s Leap, which offered stunning views of the countryside and glimpses of seven states. She’d planted wildflowers and other plants along the path and populated it with German statues of gnomes and other fairytale characters. In May 1932, the Carters opened Rock City Gardens to the paying public.
But the anticipated crowds failed to appear. Trouble was, unlike the popular roadside attractions of the day, Rock City’s mountaintop location failed to catch the attention of travelers. So Carter hatched a plan to get the word out. In 1936, he hired a young artist, Clark Byers, to travel the nation and paint three words—See Rock City—on the barns of willing farmers. (In exchange, he painted the rest of the barn for free.) The idea worked, and vacationers began ascending Lookout Mountain in droves.
In 1947, with the Baby Boom underway, the Carters looked to add some child-friendly appeal. They put a roof over one of the rock crevices and filled the resulting cave with glowing sculptures of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Fairyland Caverns was such a hit, Rock City opened a similar fairytale-themed attraction, Mother Goose Village, in 1964.
In the ensuing decades, shops and restaurants were added to the park, but few changes were made to Frieda’s path. In fact, to this day, Rock City’s original layout remains almost entirely intact. From Fat Man’s Squeeze, a narrow fissure along the trail through which guests hold their breath and pass, to the colorful gnomes one encounters along the way, the elements that first wowed guests more than eight decades ago continue to delight those who heed the call to see Rock City. —K.B.
The Fountain of Youth St. Augustine, Florida
A woman turns to her friend after taking a swig of water from what looks like an oversized shot glass. “Do I look younger?” she asks. Both women laugh. The drink might not have done the trick, but their smiles do.
Welcome to Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archeological Park, which promises eternal youth—or at least the dream of it. Today’s drinkers are the latest in a long string of hopefuls, supposedly starting with Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. Legend holds that he was searching for the Fountain of Youth when he arrived in present-day St. Augustine in 1513, lured by rumors of a nearby spring with waters that erased the effects of aging.
Visitors to the park can see purported evidence of Ponce de Leon’s visit to the area, including a coquina cross fifteen stones high and thirteen stones across on display next to the fountain. A small silver container, also on display, is a replica of one that held an affidavit stating that Ponce de Leon made the cross to commemorate the year of his arrival, 1513.
(Quick side note: The historical accuracy of Ponce de Leon’s search for the Fountain of Youth has eroded over the years. There is, in fact, little evidence to suggest he set out to find such a mythical fount. No matter. The legend lives on, as does the spring.)
In the late nineteenth century, the Fountain of Youth became a bona fide attraction. In fact, its guest books date to 1868, making it Florida’s oldest tourist destination. In 1900, owner Henry H. Williams sold it to Luella Day McConnell, aka Diamond Lil, who aggressively promoted “Ponce’s Famous Spring!” After she passed in 1927, the park was sold to state senator Walter B. Fraser and has remained in his family ever since.
Over the decades, the Frasers have worked to turn the property into a manicured waterfront park filled with peacocks and plenty of exhibits on Florida’s early history. Visitors can explore a recreation of a Timucuan village, which shows what Native American life was like here before the arrival of the Spanish. They can also see a statue of Pedro Menendez, who established the first successful European settlement in North America at St. Augustine, exactly where the park is now. There’s a replica of a mission church, a blacksmith shop, and a Spanish watchtower. There’s even a planetarium that explains how explorers used the stars to navigate the sea. But the main attraction at the Fountain of Youth is—and will likely always be—the spring and its supposedly miraculous water. (Small cups are provided, but you may bring your own containers, too, if you suspect it might take more than a sip to do the trick.) True, it might not help us live forever, but it’s a good reminder to make the most of the time we have left. —D.F.
Chimney Rock Western North Carolina
Before May 1949, the trek to the top of granite monolith Chimney Rock was a calf-burning pilgrimage. After following a staircase up 1,965 feet, visitors would have to climb a system of stairs and ladders 315 feet higher to reach the peak of an outcropping. If the day was clear, they’d be rewarded with panoramic views of the western North Carolina countryside and Hickory Nut Gorge. Then came the modern era. In 1947, eight tons of dynamite and eighteen months of hard labor bore an elevator shaft into a nearby cliff, thereby transforming the Chimney into one of the South’s most accessible sky-high destinations.
If the elevator’s twenty-six-story ascent transcends the vision of Chimney Rock’s early proprietors, then it isn’t by much—all puns aside, farsightedness has always been a driver of the Chimney’s success. The first stairs to the peak were built by owner Jerome Freeman, who’d bought the Chimney and its surrounding acres from a speculation company in the 1890s; however, Freeman’s successor, Dr. Lucius Morse, was the attraction’s true visionary. A former physician, Morse had moved to the mountains after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. To take in the area’s healthful climate, he often rode on horseback through the valley, admiring the Chimney from below. Morse eventually paid a man twenty-five cents to take him by donkey to the peak. There, atop the “Land of the Sky,” he conceived the idea for a sprawling park, a dam and lake, and a year-round resort town. In 1902, with help from his brothers, he bought the sixty-four-acre Chimney Rock Mountain for $5,000.
In the years that followed, the Morse family would continue to shepherd the park’s growth, expanding its footprint to 1,000 acres and adding paved roads and trails. The town of Lake Lure, which was named by Morse’s wife, was incorporated in 1927.
The ensuing decades brought more visitors and acclaim to the bustling valley. Beyond the Chimney itself, park-goers sought attractions like the 404-foot-tall Hickory Nut Falls (featured in the 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans), impressive views from the park’s aptly named Opera Box overlook, and abundant hiking. In the midst of stock car racing’s early heyday, there was even a two-mile road race that slung drivers around the mountain’s hairpin turns. The Chimney Rock Hillclimb, as it was called, was a beloved local tradition for almost forty years.
What kept people coming back year after year, though, was the view from the top of the 535-million-year-old granite landmark. When the historic elevator closed in 2012 for renovations, floods of visitors still braved the attraction’s 499 steps to share in one of the South’s natural wonders.
Today Chimney Rock, a state park since 2007, spans 5,700 acres and has six trails, including the park’s newest addition, the Skyline Trail, which opened in September 2017 and leads to the upper cascades of Hickory Nut Falls. Rock climbers, stair-running fitness fanatics, leaf peepers, even newlyweds—yes, you can get married on top of Chimney Rock—make up the 250,000 visitors the park sees each year.
As for the elevator?It reopened in 2018 and lifts visitors to the peak in just thirty-two seconds. Although it’s not the same one from the 1940s, it’s still a straight shot to the heavens. —B.C.
Weeki Wachee Springs West central Florida
Alongside U.S. 19 in west central Florida, about an hour north of Tampa, visitors descend into a concrete bunker set on a cerulean spring-fed pool. They’re not here to spy on alligators or manatees; they’ve come to see something altogether different, creatures more fabulous and rare. Since October 1947, when the first show opened at the Weeki Wachee Springs underwater theater, this natural spring—the deepest in the United States—has been the home of mermaids.
Navy frogman Newton Perry was the theater’s mastermind. After returning home from World War II, he was looking for a business opportunity. When he came upon a spring at the head of a river the Seminole Indians called Weeki Wachee (meaning “little spring” or “winding river”), he bought it, clearing the rusted appliances and wrecked cars that had been abandoned there over the decades. He perfected an underwater breathing method that allowed swimmers to take in oxygen from an air hose connected to a compressor. He then went in search of attractive local girls, who would become the park’s first mermaids.
In the early days, swimmers wore one-piece bathing suits and performed aquatic ballets or enjoyed underwater picnics, eating fruit and drinking bottled sodas while turtles and fish swam by. In 1959, the small roadside attraction made it to the big leagues: ABC purchased the park, replaced Perry’s fifty-seat theater with the current 400-seat one, and began producing elaborate circus- and pirate-themed shows, as well as underwater adaptations of classics such as The Wizard of Oz and Snow White.
The crowds went wild. In the 1960s, more attractions were added to satisfy their curiosity, including glass-bottomed boats, a jungle cruise with live animals, and a tram ride to a recreated Native American camp touted as “Florida’s only authentic Seminole Indian ghost village.” Promotional literature with endorsements from the likes of Roy Rogers, Bob Hope, and even rocket scientist Wernher von Braun flooded the country. Elvis Presley visited the park. And the mermaids became international stars, with young women arriving from as far as Tokyo to audition for the coveted roles.
In the years following the 1971 opening of Walt Disney World, Weeki Wachee Springs, like many Florida roadside attractions, struggled to tread water. But the park held on, and in 2008 it became a Florida state park. In recent years, it’s seen a surge in attendance (from 151,000 guests in 2010 to almost 400,000 last year—a whopping 165 percent increase), thanks in part to the current pop culture obsession with mythical creatures. In addition to the mermaid shows—which include patriotic performances set to Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA and an adaptation of (what else?) The Little Mermaid—visitors may take in wildlife demonstrations or board a pontoon boat for a twenty-five-minute cruise on the Weeki Wachee River. And should any guests find it impossible to resist the siren call to don a Lycra tail and take the plunge, the park also offers weekend mermaid camps, where participants learn underwater ballet moves and get behind-the-scenes access to the show. —K.B.
The Lost Sea Sweetwater, Tennessee
Many have attempted to explore the depths and distance of the Lost Sea, an underground lake within Craighead Caverns, but to little avail. Divers in the seventies found several water-filled rooms deep below the surface, but the conditions were too dangerous for them to explore further. The full extent of the Lost Sea—the largest underground lake in the country and the second largest in the world—remains, well, lost to mankind.
Thanks to fossils, we do know a few things about the history of the caverns: Its earliest known inhabitant was a Pleistocene jaguar from around 20,000 years ago. Many millennia later, Cherokee Indians, led by Chief Craighead (the cave’s namesake), used the murky depths as a council chamber. Confederate soldiers mined here for saltpeter to create gunpowder. Moonshiners used parts of the spacious cave to distill their potent product. Later, the cave system housed everything from dance floors to a mushroom farm to a cockfighting ring to a fallout shelter.
In 1965, the Lost Sea found a new calling as a tourist attraction. Each year, thousands navigate the mile-long path through the caves with the help of a tour guide, then step aboard glass-bottomed boats that ferry them around the clear blue lake hidden inside the cavern. Peering into the water, it’s easy to spot rainbow trout, most of them blind. The first such trout were placed in the lake in the sixties to see if they could find a way out of the Lost Sea. They didn’t—but they proved to be such an intriguing attraction in their own right, they are now restocked every few years. (They can’t naturally reproduce in the lake.)
The lake and cave system is also home to significant geological structures, including anthodites—or “cave flowers”—one of the rarest cave formations in the world. The nationally registered natural landmark holds half of all known formations of the icy-looking crystals.
But besides these ever-evolving “flowers,” you’ll find only remnants of the cave’s past lives: black carbon on the cave’s roof from the smoke of the Cherokees’ fires; a leaching vat from Confederate soldiers; a moonshine still; dilapidated boxes of rations from a 1960s bomb shelter. Forget rooms of artifacts tucked neatly behind glass enclosures: At the Lost Sea Adventure, you can get up close and personal with the cave’s wonders. Dip your hand into the lake, rub a bear claw–shaped stalagmite for good luck, or get a “cave kiss” from the overhanging stalactites.
Choose from several tour options: an hour-and-fifteen-minute daily tour that takes you around the cavern and lake; an overnight Wild Cave Tour, where you’ll spend the night in the cave and get dirty while crawling through nooks and crannies (groups of twelve or more only); or the Super Saturday Adventure, a three-hour daytime version of the Wild Cave Tour. While you’re there, stop by the Lost Sea Village (open spring and summer), which includes a restaurant, general store, gem mine, and glass blower.
With no identified end to the lake and the water-filled rooms beneath it, there’s still much to be discovered in Craighead Caverns. Will we ever know the full scope of the Lost Sea? Perhaps not for another millennium—a mere moment in the cave system’s long and storied lifetime. —E.H.
More to Explore
Towering Achievements One of the South’s most beautiful towers, commonly known as Bok Tower, was built in 1929 in Lake Wales, Florida. The 205-foot neo-Gothic and art deco Singing Tower (so named for the sixty-bell carillon it houses) rises over a 250-acre woodland garden designed by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. And while visitors may not climb to the top, the tower certainly sends spirits soaring during twice-daily live bell concerts.
Another sky-high Sunshine State structure, the Citrus Tower in Clermont, began whisking visitors 226 feet up to its observation deck in 1956. During its early days, more than half a million guests a year took in the bird’s-eye views of glittering spring-fed lakes and orange groves stretching to the horizon. Today, most of the trees have given way to strip malls and single-family homes, but the nostalgic appeal—and a small display with early renderings, archival photos, and newspaper clippings—remains intact.
Unlike the Citrus Tower, the 407-foot Space Needle in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, affords views largely unchanged since its 1970 opening. One of many towers that sprung up across the country in the sixties following the construction of Seattle’s Space Needle for the 1962 World’s Fair, the attraction continues to sell tickets to its open-air observation deck that are good for twenty-four hours after purchase, allowing guests to ride the glass elevators to the top and take in the Great Smoky Mountains by day and night.
Sea Change Aquatic attractions have evolved alongside our understanding of ocean life. Case in point, Marineland Dolphin Adventure in St. Augustine, Florida. Some time after it opened in 1938, its namesake stars jumped through hoops; today, they delight visitors by showcasing their natural behaviors, such as blowing bubbles. Also in vogue? Interactive experiences. At Marineland, which is owned by the Georgia Aquarium, visitors can get in the water with dolphins—the same is true at Theater of the Sea in Islamorada, Florida. Theater of the Sea opened in 1946 and is the country’s second-oldest sea attraction, after Marineland.
Believe it or Not
If it’s shocking, strange, or just plain weird, it likely has a home at one of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museums. The first temporary Odditorium premiered at the World’s Fair in 1933, followed by appearances at other expositions; the first permanent one opened in 1950 in St. Augustine, Florida, inside a circa-1887 Moorish-style castle that was once the home of William G. Warden, of Standard Oil Company fame. Each Odditorium (there are thirty) is housed in an unusual building (a cruise ship run aground, a toppled Empire State Building) and features between 400 and 700 exhibits showcasing everything from a six-legged cow to a shrunken human head. Ripley’s operates additional locations in Florida, as well as ones in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Nearer, My God, to Thee
Behind many a monument is man’s search for meaning. Sometimes the tribute is oversized, as it is at Fields of the Wood in Murphy, North Carolina. This biblical theme park includes a rendering of the Ten Commandments so large it can be seen from 5,000 feet in the air. Another awe-inspiring memorial, the Great Cross, can be spotted along the banks of the Matanzas River in St. Augustine, Florida. Standing 208 feet tall, it’s reportedly the country’s largest cross.
Other times, tributes are small in scale. Take, for example, the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, Alabama, where visitors can see miniature replicas of the world’s great religious structures, such as St. Peter’s Basilica, made by a Benedictine monk. Using stone, concrete, and donated materials (marbles, shells, costume jewelry), Brother Joseph Zoettl created 125 tiny buildings over a nearly fifty-year period. In a similar vein, a minister in Lucedale, Mississippi, built Palestine Gardens, a scale model of the Holy Land, featuring Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the River Jordan.
Lastly, tributes may be true to size, as is the case at Christ in the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Visitors here can see more than 130 figures in fourteen life-size dioramas depicting scenes from the life of Jesus Christ.
Is there an animal more primal, more quintessentially Southern, than the alligator? See more than 2,000 of the snapping, prehistoric-looking reptiles, including two rare leucistic, or white, alligators (there are only twelve in the world), at Orlando’s Gatorland, which opened in 1949. Also in Florida, don’t miss the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, founded in 1893. It boasts a bird rookery (alligators help keep avian predators at bay) and is the only place in the world with all twenty-four recognized species of crocodilian.
Where the Lion is King
As the nation’s first drive-through safari park, Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee, Florida, debuted the notion of a “cageless” zoo when it opened in 1967. Cruise through at eight miles an hour and spot giraffes, zebras, lions, and more. No convertibles allowed!
While many of the South’s favorite attractions have stood the test of time, some live on only in snapshots, souvenirs, and memories.
Cypress Gardens: This Winter Haven attraction was once one of central Florida’s biggest tourist draws. It began life as a botanical garden in 1936, and during its heyday in the fifties and sixties, it was well-known for its water ski shows and hoop-skirted Southern belles strolling the grounds. Though it hung on for decades, adding thrill rides and a water park in the early 2000s, it was ultimately shuttered in 2009. Today, it is the site of Legoland Florida, and while the belles are gone with the wind, visitors may still stroll the historic gardens and take in a ski show performed by Lego pirates.
Frontier Land: Opened in 1965 in Cherokee, North Carolina, this Old West–themed park entertained visitors with train rides, a gondola, several carnival-type rides, and, according to a park press release, “an Indian attack on the pioneers and soldiers every hour throughout the day.” Converted into a waterpark in 1983, it was finally razed in the mid-nineties to make way for Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort.
Magic World: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, has seen many an attraction come and go. Among the most unusual was this mashup of dinosaurs, thrill rides, UFOs, even an Arabian village complete with a magic carpet ride. The park lasted from the mid-sixties until 1995; only the volcano, which served as the park’s centerpiece, remains. (It’s now the focal point of Professor Hacker’s Lost Treasure Golf.)
Porpoise Island: Another bygone Pigeon Forge destination, this Polynesian-themed attraction offered visitors in the seventies and eighties a taste of the South Pacific in the Smokies. Today, the dolphin lagoons and hula dancers have given way to a shopping and entertainment complex dubbed The Island. Instead of the nightly luau, visitors can book a table at Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen or Margaritaville.
This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue ofSouthbound.
Since 1961, Atlanta magazine, the city’s premier general interest publication, has served as the authority on Atlanta, providing its readers with a mix of long-form nonfiction, lively lifestyle coverage, in-depth service journalism, and literary essays, columns, and profiles.