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.

I Was Born in a Small Town

While movies we watch tend to portray life in the “big city” because it’s more practical to film in larger cities, I would say that the settings of Country songs portray what life was like for most of us while growing up, whether the hometown is in the South or not. In fact, I can’t really think of anyone I personally know who grew up in the heart of a big city. Small towns and suburbs seem to be much more relevant to America as I know it, compared to the city life I grew up seeing on John Hughes’ movies set in Chicago (like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and Saved by the Bell which was set near Los Angeles. Somewhere between Seinfeld and Little House on the Prairie is the setting of my real life.

Spending my first 18 years in Fort Payne, Alabama, it seemed everyone I knew pretty much knew everything about me. Actually, I should say that everyone knew everything about everyone. There was no avoiding it. I graduated in a class of 183 students, most of whom I knew from at least Kindergarten. Their parents had seen me grow up. We pretty much all went to one of four main churches (either Baptist or Methodist).

Just saying the name “Fort Payne” has the same connotation to me as the word “cousin” or “aunt” or “1st grade teacher”- people who knew me as a kid that cried when E.T. had to leave Elliot to go back to his home planet. People who I could never try to act too cool around- they simply know me too well. That’s what my hometown is to me.

And that’s not a bad thing, at all. There definitely is a unique comfort in a home town. Hence the word “home”.

Back in February, my wife and I had a free weekend so we decided to spend it at a free bed-and-breakfast in Fort Payne (my parents’ house). We noticed how quiet and peaceful the city is. The opposite of the life we often know in Nashville. My wife wanted to take a driving tour of the place, so since I had already shown her the tourist spots (the canyon and the waterfall) I decided to drive her around the neighborhoods I spent time in.

As I drove up the big hill where we as Cub Scouts had a box car race, I saw my friend Alex Igou’s dad working in the yard. My wife was amazed that he knew who I was right away and that we talked a good 10 minutes before we went on our way to get some coffee at the local coffee shop. Which is owned and ran by my other friend Alex Pate’s mom. While there, the other customers who came in also greeted me by name. That caused my wife to say, “Do you know EVERYBODY in this town?!”

Pretty much. Nearly all 13,000 of them. Or I would least be recognized as “Jack Shell’s boy”. I learned that the same reasons an 18-year old kid was ready to leave his small hometown on Graduation Day became the same reasons I found the town endearing today, ten years later.

The town that for a brief time in 1989 held the record for the world’s largest cake. The town that the Country music super-group Alabama put on the map. The town with the self-proclaimed title “Sock Capitol of the World”, which is proudly displayed on the green Fort Payne City Limits sign with the word “capitol” being misspelled. Maybe one day they’ll finally fix that sign.


This article was posted in The Franklin News of Franklin, TX in July 2009.