COVID Field Trip #1 – Chambers County

As the new year rolled over, we made a simple resolution – to get out of the house. We love our old home, and we’re lucky to have spent the last ten months or so quarantining inside, but still – it’s important to get out, even if just for a drive, to see the world. And there’s so much to see, even just in a socially distanced day trip. Plus, I got a cool new camera for Christmas. So we’ve decided to visit Alabama courthouses and take pictures. A modest goal. 2020’s taught us lots of things, but one big one is humility. And we’ve long loved the kind of granular travel experience that comes from really looking closely at the people, places and things which surround us – that’s pretty much how Lost in Montgomery got started.

I’m not sure why we chose Chambers County as our first destination, but it seemed approachable and was someplace we’d never been before, so we packed up the dog on a nice Sunday afternoon and went exploring. As we often do, we brought our trusty 1930s WPA Guide to Alabama along for the ride. It’s a great way to get some history of the places we pass through as we drive around, even if it’s not terribly up to date.

It’s just an hour and fifteen minutes from Montgomery to LaFayette, Alabama – the Chambers County seat. Lafayette (original spelling) was named in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, whose visit through Alabama is still venerated down at Old Alabama Town. It’s now spelled LaFayette, and it’s pronounced “la-Fay-et.” But why, other than the general tendency of Americans to butcher words from other languages (see also: Ay-rab, Alabama and Ponce de LEON) is it spelled and pronounced differently now? On our trip we learned about Johnson J. Hooper, a new-to-us but supposedly famous humorist and legendary newspaperman who invented a character named Captain Simon Suggs. Suggs (who Wikipedia describes as a “backwoods Southerner”) pronounced the town name like “LaFait,” and it stuck. Hooper’s work may have inspired Mark Twain, so that’s cool, but also he was deep into the Confederacy, so there’s that. In any case, it’s LaFayette now.

The drive to Chambers County is quite lovely. You go through some of Auburn in passing, and we were surprised to see how far the Auburn-proximate sprawl of unattractive mini-mansions spread up to the Lee County edge. Then it’s a nice country road, basically empty the day we drove it, past beautiful rolling hay fields bordered by the ubiquitous Southern combination of very expensive houses and small places considerably worse for wear.

Chambers County itself is named for Henry H. Chambers, who never actually lived there. Chambers was a surgeon in Andrew Jackson’s army during what Wikipedia describes as the “Indian Wars.” He lived in Huntsville, ran for governor twice (losing both races), represented Alabama in the Senate for a year until he died in office. The guy who replaced him, Israel Pickens, had beaten Chambers twice to win the governor’s office. Must have been quite a rivalry.

The courthouse square is charming, if largely abandoned. Since it was a Sunday, everything was closed, but we saw a yarn shop and a couple of bail bonds places. The buildings had nice bones – the shell of a long-abandoned department-style shop practically begged for refinishing, and there was a beautiful old theater fronted by turquoise tiles. We wondered what movie last graced its screen.

The book Historic Alabama Courthouses is pretty snarky when it describes the current Chambers County Courthouse (built in 1900 and restored in 2003). Author Delos Hughes has this to say:

“Looking closely at both Chambers County courthouses pictured here and supra [that would be the previous courthouse] should be sufficient warning against reading too much about the distinctive qualities of communities from characteristics of their public buildings. If the 1837 courthouse is a near duplicate of the Troup County building (and perhaps other courthouses as well), the 1900 courthouse is at least a close cousin of the Calhoun County courthouse of 1902, unsurprising as both were designed by James W. Golucke. To appear progressive by adopting a fashionable style and hiring a popular architect was apparently more important to some Alabama counties than was expressing in their public architecture anything unique about themselves.”

Sick architecture burn, right?

The courthouse is pretty nice, if not especially overwhelming in any way. It’s an imposing brick structure with a pretty cool dome and nice details around the windows. When we were there, the grounds boasted a wealth of winter-white camellias.

As we walked around, we noted a number of details that signified a little disrepair around the edges – the front had a weird murder basement type service entrance below ground, and up close the windows were a little patched and worn.

The murder basement

Water drainage was staining the bricks in places. But still, it had the feel of something the town could be proud of. By far the best part was a statue of Joe Louis, who was from Chambers County.

Afterward, we looked to no avail for something to eat, settling on gas station snacks, and decided to drive home. But first, we saw two cool solar installations – one test site for the city of LaFayette, and another gigantic utility-scale one that’s used by Wal-Mart. On the way back, we stopped at the lovely Kreher Nature Preserve – an unexpected delight just north of Auburn, with a network of trails and a number of cool places to see birds. We will definitely go back there. It was a lovely place to spend an Alabama winter afternoon.

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