The Return of the Small Town: Boom Days 2010 in Fort Payne, AL

A glimpse at the culture of Fort Payne, Alabama.

It can be common for people who grow up in a small town to want to move away as soon they graduate high school, as was the case for myself.  Since I graduated from Fort Payne High School in 1999, I have lived in Florida, Virginia, and for the last five years, Nashville.  That means for over 11 years, I have pretty much lived away from the hometown that molded me.  Now, I realize that a lot of this could be that I am married now and have a baby on the way, but I must admit, my old hometown suddenly seems really cool again.  Maybe it’s because the pace of my life is slowing down, compared to my single days and even my married-with-no-children days, and is now starting to match the speed of a small town and no longer a big city.  But I still think something special is happening in this small town, apart from my interference or commentary.

This past weekend my wife and I spent the weekend there with my parents, sister, and her husband.  My sister Dana had mentioned to me that there was this thing going on called “Boom Days” on Saturday in the city park.  She heard something about free pancakes and people dressed up like “old times”.  That’s all she knew.  I was way too curious about this possible Lord of the Rings picnic not to go.  So I went.

Turns out the pancakes weren’t free, but instead they were part of an all-you-can-eat-pancake-buffet for just five bucks, and the people dressed up were Civil War reenacters, not from Medieval times.  There was also a llama, a clown, a car show, a guy on a unicycle, horses, cool crafts exhibits, three concert stages, (four if you count two guys playing bluegrass on the sidewalk), a BBQ competition, and even a dog show.  I had originally only planned to check it out for a little while to say that I went, then leave.  But instead, I was there for over two and half hours and left with a slight sunburn.

In other words, I had a whole lot of fun.  It was a reunion of sorts: I caught up with some childhood classmates like Alex Igou and Tiffanie Baker Vincent, as well as our legendary elementary school librarian, Mrs. Jane Mauldin.  Boom Days 2010 was truly the kind of city wide event that had something for everybody.  I predict that like the days of June Jam (1982-1997), Boom Days will similarly help the culture of the town to resurface.

It wasn’t really until I was in college and started bringing friends home for the weekend that I realized that Fort Payne supersedes commercialized stereotypes of what a small Southern town is supposed to be like.  Fort Payne is not simply Country music, cows, and tractors- which are all good and necessary.  Being that when I was growing up I was constantly in plays and musicals, most of them written and directed by native Eddie McPherson, I was always aware of Fort Payne’s love of the arts.  It has to mean something when there are two theatres in downtown, on the same street, a block away from each other.

Fort Payne is also set apart from many towns in that half of the city is on a mountain and the other half is in a valley.  I grew up on the mountain side, sandwiched in between Little River Canyon, Little River Falls, De Soto State Park, and the artistic town of Mentone.  So while the valley half is where I learned to be social and outgoing, at school and at church, it was the outdoorsy mountain half that catered to my introspective and artistic side.  Simply put, Fort Payne is the perfect environment to yield well-rounded and level-headed people.

It takes a village.  Mine was Fort Payne.

All of the scenic route snapshots  used in this post were taken during Boom Days 2010, courtesy of Nick Shell.

What Ever Happened to the Amusement Park Called “Canyon Land Park”, Near Fort Payne, Alabama?

During the early 1970’s up until circa 1983, there was an amusement park called Canyon Land, just a few miles outside of my hometown of Fort Payne, Alabama on Lookout Mountain. In ‘70’s fashion, very comparable to the Dharma Initiative on LOST, Canyon Land could best be described as “1977 carnival meets small zoo”. One of the rides was a ski lift that took people over an actual canyon, Little River Canyon.

Being that I was born in 1981 and the park closed a few years later, my descriptions aren’t based on me being there during its prime. But my parents did go on dates there as teenagers.

Fortunately in 1993 (7th grade) my church youth minister Eddie McPherson was able to rent the shut down amusement park for $4 for the Halloween season. Our youth group put on an evangelical version of a “spook house” called Hell House. We used the old roller coaster carts and its track to manually push the guests through a “no flashlights allowed tour of hell” which ended with a bright room featuring Jesus (played by my dad) who invited them to Heaven.

It was a lot of fun for a 12 year old kid to explore that old place. The grass was taller than I was, where the parking lot used to be. Much of the place had basically been frozen in time as it evidently was abruptly shut down. In a room that stored all the old ski lift chairs, I found a completely intact Mellow Yellow can from 1979 (which I still have in my old bedroom at my parents’ house.

The urban legend is that the man who ran the place just let all the zoo animals go free into the woods. Therefore, to this day, jaguars and monkeys and all kinds of exotic animals can still be spotted on a lucky day. That would be fun to believe.

Because I helped resurrect Canyon Land for a few weeks in 1993, I tend to imagine what current lively buildings and attractions would be like if they became old an abandoned. Like Starbuck’s, for example. Twenty years from now, will all those Seattle-esque building be defunct? Like the old Food World building that remained years after the Super Wal-Mart came to town.

Not so much a ghost town. But a ghost attraction. Once filled with people laughing and buying ice cream. Now, only visited by raccoons.

Canyon Land is so forsaken that not even the Internet really acknowledges it. No Wikipedia entry. The best Google was able to do was take me to Ebay where someone is trying to sell Canyon Land postcards and tickets from 1970.

Also, for anyone who would like to purchase Canyon Land, it’s currently for sale. For the low, low price of $2.4 million.

Stage Presence: How I Went From a Shy Kid to an Outgoing Local Actor, Thanks to Eddie McPherson

Growing up, I was labeled a “shy kid”. But in 1989 when I was in 3rd grade, a young local playwright named Eddie McPherson had faith and saw potential in me, recruiting me to portray an island native boy named Maybe in a play he wrote. Wearing a loin cloth, a rope belt, and a khaki colored t-shirt, I spoke in broken English. (Though off the top of my head I can’t think of any island societies where a white boy with brown spiky hair would not be speaking English as a first language.) This play, Captain Gilabo, would be the vehicle that introduced me to a life where I realized it was actually easier and more natural to be on the stage than it was to hide in the corner, afraid of the spotlight.

Eddie McPherson

Every year he would choose me to play a decent sized role for his newest play, from 3rd grade until 9th grade when he moved away from our small town. But my participation in drama didn’t stop only with Eddie McPherson’s plays. During the summers of my childhood to support local charities, for my senior class play, in the after school program I worked for, and in college, I had stage presence. Actually ending up on the front page of my hometown paper several times, promoting the current play I was in.

Not that I was an amazing actor, it’s more that I learned that a good majority of people didn’t necessarily want to be in plays. But for me, I realized that if I simply memorized my lines and pretended to be someone else, I could pull it off. (Because we all have to adapt our personality to better suite those we are around on a daily basis, it seemed to me that acting is a constant part of life anyway.) I became a hometown child actor not because I was necessarily great at it, but because I was willing to do it.

Simply put, I didn’t have much competition. That’s one of the same reasons I have such a passion for writing. The truth is, hardly anyone I know writes on facebook. It gives me the corner on the market. If it was a crowded market instead, I doubt I would be as inspired to participate so regularly. But knowing my competitions were “25 Things” forwards and “What Kind of Hot Pocket Are You?” quizzes, I learned to take advantage of the “notes” tab.

I am convinced there are many entertaining, insightful, and talented people with an impressive ability to write. But they just don’t do it. I wish they would. Some of the best inspiration I get is by reading the writings of the people that hear the same dog whistle as me.

The inspiration and the audience are often one in the same.

The people that are tired of the all too familiar Christian writing involving a predictable moral point like “just trust in God and everything will be alright” like it was copied and pasted from a 2001 email forward that says only people who really love God will send it to everyone in their contacts, or the seemingly smart but ultimately depressing, Debbie Downer-like “my take on what’s wrong with today’s church” bit.

And people who realize that reminiscing about the memories we all share is more fun than worrying out the future and things we can’t control. And people that like to be made aware of the subtle, random aspects of life that we accept yet don’t notice. “Christian Seinfeld with an actual point.”  When people ask me what can of stuff I write, that is my answer.

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