Monroeville’s Mockingbird

50 Years after the debut of To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s Alabama hometown celebrates (carefully) the book that made it famous.

Article: Mike Wilson

Mike WIlson

Maycomb, the setting for the novel, is not on any map of Alabama. It is a made-up place. But if you know where to look, you can find its blueprint in Monroeville, whose landmarks—including some lost to time—inspired one of the South’s greatest stories.

The first thing you notice is the white clock tower on the old county courthouse. It still chimes the hour. Built in 1903, the Romanesque building now houses the Monroe County Heritage Museum, with rooms dedicated to Nelle and her lifelong friend Truman Capote, who spent summers here as a boy.

The courtroom is on the second floor. The movie plays continuously on a TV set, so you can compare the Hollywood set to the real thing. The resemblance is astonishing: same lawyers’ tables, same arched windows, same graceful, curving balcony.

The museum offers a walking tour of Monroeville “as Harper Lee and Truman Capote knew it.” Much of the world they grew up in is gone. Nelle’s childhood home on South Alabama Avenue was torn down years ago. The site is now occupied by Mel’s Dairy Dream. The Faulk place next door, where Capote lived, was lost in a fire. All that’s left is a commemorative marker and the rough stone wall that stood between the childhood homes of two of America’s greatest authors.

Boo Radley’s place isn’t on the tour, but locals say the spooky house in the neighborhood was where the Cannon gas station is now. Between the gas station and the school once stood a big water oak tree like the one where Boo left trinkets for Jem and Scout.

Monroeville would like to do more to promote literary tourism, but town leaders proceed cautiously in deference to Nelle, who despises the idea of anyone using her story for commercial gain.

Fortunately for restaurateur Sam Therrell, Nelle is a friend, so she puts up with the name of his establishment: Radley’s Fountain Grille.

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Stay in Monroeville (pop. 7,000) for a few days and you’ll get to know just about everybody. The mayor is Mike Kennedy, whose family used to own the phone company. His picture appears on a billboard with the Mockingbird Court, high school girls who serve as hostesses for the chamber of commerce.

At the Beehive Coffee & Books on the square, you’ll meet owner Christina Nettles, who knows how the town takes its coffee. Christina chose not to stock the biography about Nelle, because she knew Nelle didn’t like it.

If your timing is good, when you’re in the square, you might see Miss Alice, Nelle’s sister and closest friend. (Neither ever married.) Miss Alice has been practicing law here since 1943 and still goes to the office several days a week, dressing in a proper business suit and tennis shoes. She turns 99 in September.

As for Nelle, once in a while she’ll make the trip to the Wind Creek Casino in Atmore, 40 miles south of town, where she delights in feeding dollar bills into the slots. The other people playing the Sizzling 7 machines are unaware that the woman next to them is one of the best-selling authors in the history of the written word.

Another of Nelle’s best friends is the Rev. Thomas Lane Butts, an 80-year-old retired United Methodist minister. She likes to tease him. She’ll say, “You rascal, what are you up to?” And he’ll say, “I’m up to anything I can reach.” She’ll ask him if he knows a certain obscure fact, and when he doesn’t, she’ll say, “If you want to be an educated man, Dr. Butts, you need to know that.”

When they part, he’ll reach out, tousle her hair, and kiss her on the top of her head. It makes her laugh.

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