Home / Culture / Postcard from Waverly, 2007 (including apologies to Waverly, 2011)

Postcard from Waverly, 2007 (including apologies to Waverly, 2011)

This is something I wrote for East Alabama Living Magazine four years ago. It’s not good. But it’s something. And it’s about Waverly (at least as it existed in 2007). So, of course, there’s some stuff about the Old 280 Boogie (Timeliness! Feed the beast!) … which is being held tomorrow for the 11th year in a row — the first ever without The Pine Hill Haints (bet they don’t have snakes like this in Burma), the first ever with Azure Ray’s Maria Taylor (here’s what she thinks about Auburn football). We’ve obviously been woefully negligent in our content countdown to this year’s event and we sincerely hope that these links [the Facebook page…  The Plainsman’s story on the changes the planners are having to makelast year’s photo galleryBen’s one-year-old attempt to reconcile the carefully orchestrated waltz of A-Day and the Boogie’s free-form, oak-shaded jazz…] and even to an extent this story will serve as acceptable apologies to everyone who needs one.

The author and some other folks — including the girl with the best Auburn tattoo ever — at the 2010 Old 280 Boogie in Waverly, Ala.

When residents of Waverly, Alabama cross paths, you can hear it a block away; it’s that quiet and folks are that friendly. If you live there, people know the name of your dog.

Today, folks wanting their mail in this little pocket of a place sewn from the corners of Lee, Chambers and Tallapoosa counties park with plenty of room on Patrick Street and stroll into the tiny post-office through doors wide-open since morning. Thanks to the bypass, there might be a dog lying around – maybe Opie, the town hound. If not, just wait.

Until the turn of this century, whole generations of Auburn students (and other denizens of Lee County) mostly identified Waverly as the pretty postcard on the straight-shot to Birmingham and back, recognizable by the heartbeat rhythm of the concrete forming it’s narrow main drag, and remembered for the near-death encounters with18-wheelers in front the ancient cemetery’s stone brick wall.

Waverly native Carolyn Stubbs maintains that despite the riskiness of that particular stretch of road, accidents in town have been few and far between “probably because it was so obviously dangerous, people had to slow down.”

Wrecks or no wrecks – in the minds of many, Highway 280, which once joined Patrick Street and skewered Waverly with traffic, once also defined the scenic town and dictated its personality.

(According to one local resident, on the weekends of Auburn football home games “people used to bolt themselves inside their houses.”)

However, whatever truth may have existed to that notion – and there are those who might fight you on it – disappeared in 2000 when the state of Alabama rerouted the highway just to the south and, suddenly, you could hear the birds again.

“The children play on the street now,” says 86-year-old Wilbur High, the story-telling owner of the white two-story antebellum home nestled at the corner of Patrick and County Rd. 11. The house, built around 1860, is a Waverly showplace, and frequently used for weddings. Half of it rests in Lee County, the other half in Chambers.

“They ride bicycles now, they ride skate boards and everything up and down the street.”

High, born and raised down the road in Camp Hill, married a girl from one of Waverly’s oldest families (Mayberry) in 1945, and moved to Waverly from Auburn in 1972. He calls it the perfect place to live.

“It’s the perfect place to live.”

What High and his neighbors lack in proximity to modern convenience, they make up for in arms-length access to the tools of sustainable, intentional living.

“I think everyone in town is perfectly happy with it and loves it to death,” he says.

Carolyn Stubbs’ family has been perfectly happy with it for 175 years. And Stubbs, a registered forester who manages timber for private landowners, and whose family itself owns hundreds of acres in and surrounding Waverly, is certain she knows how to stay happy with it.

“I’ll hear people all the time asking just for an acre, and if you start selling and start developing and cutting it up then all of a sudden it’s not Waverly, it isn’t rural,” says Stubbs, who admits to only really appreciating her home upon returning from college. She is currently a member of the Waverly Planning Commission.

“You have to fight to keep it rural and the same, you have to work at it.”

But despite the integrity of its extra-old-fashioned veneer —or perhaps because of it — change has come to Waverly, turning it’s 2.7 square miles into an increasingly fertile common ground shared between ostensibly distinct generations both essentially after the same thing: peace and quiet. One plays dominoes at the senior center. The other rides skateboards at the bon-fire.

The town’s tranquility has been a tractor beam to those off the beaten paths of more commercially conventional (and rapidly expanding) Auburn and Opelika since the the ‘70s; artists, musicians and plain old hippies have staked their claim of serenity alongside the old timers at a slow but steady rate. As a result, the town has acquired a reputation, however slight, as a sort of pseudo artist’s colony, a reputation folks might disagree on but don’t really seem to mind*.

“That’s not the bulk of Waverly,” says Stubbs speaking of the increasingly visible Bubba-bohemian milieu, “but we’re glad to have people moving here that are interested in keeping the town the way it is.”

Stubbs is currently involved in renovating and restoring the old school auditorium that once hosted weekly, community-organized plays, a tradition she hopes to renew (in some shape or form).

“Waverly has always had a diverse population with creative and clever residents that care about the community.”

Despite gaps in age (and, sure, maybe politics), Waverly’s citizenry remains tight nit*, contentedly nesting on unmolested, un-condo’d, and un-mall’d acres of Alabama, a distressingly rare commodity in an increasingly rerouted South.

“Waverly does have zoning [laws],” Stubbs said. “We aren’t interested in big development. We just want Waverly to stay this way and avoid unplanned, haphazard development by people who are only in it for the immediate financial return. ”

People very unlike Scott Peek.

Not that he’ll take credit for it, but if Waverly’s avant-garde renaissance can be traced to anyone, it’s Peek. A “new-comer” to Waverly for 16 years, he made the long 12 mile migration from Auburn in 1991 (he graduated from Auburn University with a degree in visual design in 1987), blazing a trail many have followed, but treading lightly; hs wife Frances is an artist and professor of interior design at Auburn specializing in space manipulation.

“We’ve been havin’ yard sales and swap meets and music and bon fires and cookin’ and all that since the first year we moved out here,” Peek says.  “It has just expanded, but I like that just as much as printin’ shirts, you know?”

Peek owns Standard Deluxe, a more nationally than regionally known screen-printing shop housed in an old cotton warehouse set 50 yards off the road in Waverly’s “business district” that typically swims with the sunny sounds of the internationally known reggae artists for whom he prints t-shirts. Not 100 yards away (in Lee County) is the High Corner Co-Op, Peek’s other baby, a nostalgically swank tin-roofed variety store specializing mostly in Standard Deluxe creations and other local art. Only recently recycled from the offices of a timber man who logged by mule (so as to not tear up the land), it was named in homage to High from whom Peek rents his buildings and swaps stories. Peek’s humble yet impressive operation is widely respected in its particular industry niche for hand-made quality, originality and a sort of know-it-when-you-see-it sincerity. Stubbs even suggests that Peek and Co.’s trademark aesthetic, defined by its slogan as “Real Southern Vernacular Post-Modern Eclectic,” has actually gone a long way in dampening the differences between Waverly old and new.

“The thing about [Standard Deluxe] is, though they’re very modern in some of the things they do a lot of their art is sort of old fashioned art, and I think Scott Peek has appreciated that [style] for quite a while,” Stubbs says.

Peek, who started the town’s unofficially official website, says he’s in Waverly for the long haul.

“[The business] could be anywhere,” he said, “but the whole small time vibe… if you gotta be somewhere, this is a nice place to be. We’ve been able to pretty much do what we want to and get by.”

He isn’t alone.

Across the street, inhabiting what was once a Model-T-selling Ford dealership, is a 3-year-old business infinitely more out of its element, at least seemingly.

Named after the state bird, the Yellow Hammer restaurant is, at first glance of its Mediterranean-inspired gourmet menu, as unexpected an eatery as could be imagined in rural Alabama. But read between the lines and you’ll find yet another example of Waverly’s unique arrangement.

“We use as much local produce as we can find, as often as we can find it,” says impressively goateed Collin Donnelly, the restaurant’s chef. Donnelly grew up in Auburn; he and wife Amanda, the restaurant’s manager, live adjacent to the Yellow Hammer in what was once an old dress shop.

“There are a couple of pear trees across the street, some fig trees… there’s a pomegranate tree, down the road, there’s a persimmon tree a couple of miles that way,” he says, pointing. “I get squash blossoms, green beans and okra from a guy down the road here, so the town has probably affected us more than we’ve affected it.”

Thus a delicious irony: while Waverly’s bucolic, traffic-less charm cultivates the Slow Food sincerity that has put the town on at least the culinary map, it’s the Yellow Hammer’s proximity to the reviled Hwy 280 that actually keeps the place in business.

(It is even more delicious when chased with a spoonful of the Yellow Hammer’s rare, seasonal honeysuckle ice-cream, which is made with real Waverly honeysuckle harvested with the help of real, local kids. It is one of the “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die” according to the state’s Bureau of Tourism and Travel, ranking alongside Auburn’s famous Toomer’s Drugs lemonade.)

As owner (and Auburn native and Auburn University fine arts graduate) Mike Hoff puts it, “you’re not going to walk in here to have a hamburger”… and Carolyn Stubbs doubts, with a chuckle, that any of the local growers are anything close to Yellow Hammer regulars.

Some items currently on the Yellow Hammer’s constantly changing menu: Molten ‘la Belle’ Chèvre Fromage Blanc & Prosciutto Truffles (appetizer), and Red Wine & Espresso Marinated Elk Rib Chop (entrée).

“Why am I out here in the middle of nowhere, is that what you’re asking?” Hoff asks with a smile.

“Because it’s perfect…”

Donnelly agrees.

“It’s off the beaten path, but not too far off,” he says.  “It’s not too far out of town, but far enough that you have to come to us.”

Yet despite its seemingly obvious benefits for a business owner, Peek still remembers 280, at least as it once was, as deadweight.

“No one in town was really profiting from [280] being here… [it being gone] just made it a nicer place to live.”

The traffic gone, a deliberate leisure has returned to the community, manifest each spring in the form of the Old 280 Boogie, an annual old fashioned block party begun in 2001 to celebrate the highway’s permanent detour around the town.

“The Boogie” has become Waverly’s signature happening. Kids and adults, “old” and “new” alike, dance in the street to music by gospel acts, local bluesmen, alt-country all-stars, and jug bands. There are food vendors and artists booths. The event is organized mostly by Stubbs (Old) and Peek (New — at least by Waverly standards) and draws crowds from all across the state.

It also lends itself to envisioning Waverly (pop. 225 according to Peek’s website) as simply one of comparatively metropolitan Auburn’s quaint local moons (Lochapolkas, Notasulga, Gold Hill), shining brightest on those days and nights when Auburn creatives use it for a stage.

But that point of view isn’t held in a single Waverly home, or in one of its few businesses; It can’t be found in the Victorian farm-house style homes, the batons in the generational relay of Waverly dynasties like the Moremans and the Graves. It can’t be found in handful of old buildings along the hundred-yard heart of town, even those renovated in a mode of fetching hipster chic by Auburn alums who first fell for Waverly in college.

To the folks — Old and New —who call it home, who earn their living and break their bread under the hush of its peculiar peacefulness, Waverly is more than a postcard, more than a roadside oddity, more than a getaway, more than an anachronism, more than a corporate bull’s-eye – to them, Waverly stands on its own two cultural feet (and props them up on a wraparound porch).

“Waverly is a simple old-fashioned southern town, with good people,” says Stubb, very matter-of-factly, when pressed to sum it up. That seems right.

The first postmaster of Waverly, Ala. is said to have carried the post-office around with him, i.e., when anyone wanted their mail, they’d have to hunt down H.M. Edmundson and ask him to fish it out of his pockets. That was in 1872. Waverly, known at the time as Pea Ridge, was laid back even then, cooler than an organic cucumber. So in that regard, things haven’t changed much.

Marcus Moreman, Jr., Edmundson’s great-great-grandson is taking a smoke break from his job at the post-office. Moreman grew up in Waverly and remembers a time when the thing to do on a Saturday night was to count cars passing through on Patrick Street – make it a game of points, one per car, between the east and west bound lanes. He recalls his daddy, Marcus Sr., a former mayor of Waverly who still lives in the directly across the street Moreman homestead built in 1881, scoring a 13 one night.

He pulls on his cigarette and exhales defiantly.

“The only things that ever dictated Waverly’s personality,” he says, “are the sun and the moon.”

Opie slowly wags his tail.


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About Jeremy Henderson

Jeremy Henderson is the editor of The War Eagle Reader and co-host of Rich and Jeremy in the Mornings on Wings 94.3 FM in Auburn. Follow him on Twitter: @wareaglereader / @jerthoughts / @RichandJeremy

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