History and Heritage in Jasper, AL

Local Jasper organizations are working to improve the area's quality of life through culture and history

On Sunday, May 13, 2012 - 16:07
 Jasper, AL

Walker County’s legacy involves the humble but hardworking mule, whose usefulness in farming, mining and transportation helped shape the region. Yet its history also encompasses the vaunted Bankhead family, a prominent political clan whose members included the well-known stage and screen star Tallulah Bankhead.

Despite seeming worlds apart, each of these subjects contributes an intriguing layer to Walker County’s history and is reflected in the vibrant artistic spirit that reigns in the region.

Rooted in Culture

For evidence, look no further than the Bankhead House & Heritage Center in Jasper. The Colonial Revival home was built in 1925 by William Brockman Bankhead, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and, later, speaker of the House. In 1937, it set the scene for the marriage of Bankhead’s daughter, Tallulah, to actor John Emery. Today, the elegant structure, operated by the Walker County Community Foundation, is open to the public for gatherings revolving around history, culture and the arts.

Then there’s the 50-Mule Team Project sponsored by the Walker County Arts Alliance. Honoring the animal that helped shape life in the county, the project was first conceived as the 20-Mule Team Project, before participation in the fundraiser more than doubled in size, says Melanie Poole, president of the Arts Alliance.

Fifty almost-life-size fiberglass mules were sponsored by companies, organizations and individuals, each of which picked an artist to help create a unique equine design statement. Exhibits throughout the county include a Girl Scout-sponsored mule that sports merit badges and goes by the name of “Daisy,” the youngest scout-troop division. Another, sponsored by Reed Energy, is displayed in the company’s lobby beside a coal-filled wagon.

The Walker County Community Foundation is a nonprofit corporation founded in 1995 to help support community causes. The organization assists in a variety of endeavors, from education and health care to recreation and the arts. The foundation often partners with the Arts Alliance, whose mission is to “fill the gap” in arts education in public schools as well as sponsor community exhibits, Poole says.

“We try very hard to bring the arts to all parts of Walker County,” she adds.

Events and Festivals

A spring festival known as Art in the Park offers the public a chance to view and purchase artwork and fine crafts, and enjoy music, dance and more. In the fall, the alliance plays host to its Mystery Dinner Theater. The highly popular fundraiser honors the county’s thespian tradition, which spawned not only the great Tallulah Bankhead, but actors George Lindsey and Polly Holliday, as well.

Poole, a graphic designer and illustrator, says art-centric events drive up creativity and give the region a large dose of cultural energy and excitement. In fact, the arts are in evidence almost anywhere you go in Walker County.

“Our Focus on Arts exhibit can be seen in various facilities throughout the county, most recently in the lobby of Walker Baptist Medical Center,” Poole says of the traveling arts exhibit that features local talent. “It’s our mission to support and develop the arts in the total life of the community.”

Challenging preconceptions at times, the arts community strives to give area residents a broad perspective on the culture of northwest Alabama – and beyond. From June to August 2011, a national exhibit known as Journey Stories made its home at the Bankhead House through a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution and the Alabama Humanities Foundation.

Journey Stories traces the migration of Americans from the eastern seaboard to the west coast through personal accounts illustrated by visual art, manuscripts and audio pieces. The exhibit was based on the America on the Move project at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Smithsonian curator Tiffany Ruhl told the Jasper Daily Mountain Eagle that it was designed to illustrates Americans’ tendency toward mobility, be that by train, auto, aircraft, or yes, even the humble mule.

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