Celebrating the Black Belt

Keeping Alabama’s rural heritage and culture alive never looked—or tasted—as good as it does in Thomaston.
Robert C. Martin

A large sign made of metal screen and oversize letters heralds the most notable new landmark in Thomaston. At a time when many Southern towns search for ways to revive their downtowns, this Black Belt community has discovered a surefire way to succeed―the Alabama Rural Heritage Center.

A combination folk art gallery, theater, restaurant, and community meeting place, the unique building in the small town about 40 miles west of Selma serves as Thomaston’s way of keeping its regional culture alive, while also providing needed jobs.

A Town’s Hub
Established in 1987 by the nonprofit Alabama Rural Heritage Foundation, the center celebrates all things handmade by enabling artists from across the state to display and sell their crafts. It also serves as the town’s hub, with indoor and outdoor stages (where the Heritage Players theatrical group periodically presents plays), an athletic field-turned-garden spot, meeting rooms, and Mama Nems Bistro.

“When people around here say, ‘We’re going to the center,’ everybody knows what they mean,” says Gayle Etheridge, foundation director. “Through the years, it has become a mainstay for Thomaston and an integral part of the Black Belt.”

Apart from being a popular gathering spot, the center also employs full- and part-time workers in an area that often struggles economically. Crafts ranging from handwoven shawls to intricately constructed music boxes sold in the gallery space and Heritage Shoppe ultimately put money back into this town of roughly 400 residents.

“I have a sort of grassroots philosophy that works hand in hand with the foundation,” Gayle adds. “If we don’t save ourselves, then nobody else will do it for us.”

Auburn Lends a Hand
The center settled back into the restored home economics building of the former Marengo County High School three years ago. A group of architectural students from Auburn University’s Rural Studio program took on the renovation as their thesis project.

“Because we received a federal grant from HUD to fund the improvements, we contacted them to make sure our joint venture with the Rural Studio was permissible,” Gayle explains. “Luckily, HUD was excited about the collaboration, and their Birmingham division now touts our center as one of their shining-star facilities!”

Auburn University students came to the center’s aid in another, rather unexpected, way by sharing their recipe for pepper jelly.

Besides selling one-of-a-kind crafts, the Heritage Shoppe also offers a unique line of green and red pepper jellies, made with ingredients grown locally and prepared in the center’s kitchen.

Brunch at Mama’s You can also find pepper jelly on the menu of the center’s Mama Nems Bistro. Overseen by Montgomery chef Robert Cawley and local chef Dodd Orten, the restaurant offers a Sunday brunch featuring signature dishes such as Black Belt Eggs Benedict and Pepper Jelly Omelets, as well as Friday and Saturday night specials that include homemade desserts and a great wine selection.

“Now that word of Mama Nems has gotten out, more people know where we are,” Gayle says. “It’s another way of finding us.” That―and the sign. •

The Alabama Rural Heritage Center: 133 Sixth Avenue, Thomaston; www.craftsofalabama.com or (334) 627-3388. Hours: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday. Mama Nems Bistro is open 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and 10:30 am-2 p.m. Sunday for brunch and for special occasions.

Pepper Jelly Pride
The center celebrates the Black Belt region during its first Pepper Jelly Festival, Saturday, April 12. In addition to offering live entertainment and works by local artists, the festival features a health fair, domino tournament, “lost arts” demonstrations, and games for the kids. “We might even crown a Pepper Jelly King and Queen!” Gayle adds.

"Celebrating the Black Belt" is from the February 2008 issue of Alabama Living: People & Places, a special section of Southern Living for our subscribers in Alabama.