COLUMBIANA, Ala.—When I come to this town I get a little emotional. It just does something to me.
Maybe it’s the American flags hanging from every porch, shop, and shed. Or it could be the fried food at the Exxon station. Or maybe it’s because I have friends here.
The town sits smack-dab in the geographic center of the state. The first settlers started migrating here in 1792. And these were very tough people.
They came in wagons, on horseback, traveling across sloping hills, over jagged mountains, fording streams, and clearing paths with hatchets. They came from Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Some of these people were slap crazy.
To give you an example, here’s a story a guy told me:
In 1826 there were heated debates about where the Shelby County seat would be. Montevallo was pushing hard for it. Columbiana was pushing even harder.
When Columiana won, people in this town got so hyped up with excitement they bored huge holes into hundred-foot pine trees, filled each crevice with gunpowder, and lit them on fire.
What followed was a series of hellish blasts and explosions ringing throughout Alabama’s hillsides like artillery. I’m sure there was a lot of whooping and hollering, too.
You don’t even want to know what these people did to you if you were late on your property taxes.
But anyway, after the townspeople had blown up enough trees to satisfy themselves, they got busy building this cute town.
It really is a gem. The old buildings. The painted advertisements on aged brick walls. The way people honk and wave at each other when they recognize that they are, in fact, first cousins.
And, oh, the churches.
You’ve never seen churches like you’ll see in these parts. There are tons of them. And when I say “tons,” I mean that there are some 200 churches in a few-minute radius.
Church has always been a huge deal here. An old-timer told me that before the original settlers here erected church buildings, they would meet in the woods, or in meadows, on farmland, or beneath clear skies.
He also told me that when competent preachers couldn’t be found among small congregations, sometimes elderly women would serve as the church leaders. These fiery rural women were known to deliver weekly sermons with snuff wads tucked in their lower lips.
Today, you’ll see modest one-story meeting houses scattered all over the countryside. Tall steeples on tin rooftops, with double doors flung open as if to say, “You’re welcome here, friend.”
But if you ask me, Columbiana’s masterstroke is the courthouse. The dazzling, limestone, Beaux-Arts courthouse sits plopped right on Main Street. It is a gracious structure, adorned with copper-colored roofing, cupolas, a clock tower, and fat Corinthian-style columns supporting a monstrous Grecian portico.
The thing took two years to build. And since 1906, its majesty has gone unrivaled by anything around for miles.
Sometimes you see motorists on Main Street riding by the courthouse, nearly wrecking their vehicles trying to take dangerous smartphone photos of the building.
I am one such motorist.
It was also here, in this town, where one of God’s favorite librarians sat at a Shelby County High School office desk, amidst stacks of overdue books and loose-leaf paperwork, and went on to change my life.
I was a fledgling writer when I first got an email from him. He was a large guy with a husky white beard and a rosy face like a sunburned cherub.
It was our mutual love of “The Andy Griffith Show” that brought us together. I have never met anyone who loved the show more.
He believed in my writing. Maybe even more than I did. He would share my work with anyone who came in earshot, force feeding my stuff to his coworkers, students, friends, and family members until they were sick of me.
To say this guy gave me a shot in the arm would be an understatement. He gave me a new pair of arms.
When he retired, I attended his farewell party. It was held in the library of the high school. I showed up early and felt very out of place.
I was a foreigner in the room, I didn’t belong in Shelby County High School any more than I belonged in Buckingham Palace. I was a stranger in this town. I felt like a fool.
But there I was, eating cake and drinking sweet tea like I belonged.
It was a marvelous party. Standing room only. People had come from as far away as Tennessee to see him off and tell him how special he was.
Former students wept through smiles, telling old stories. Coworkers raised SOLO cups in his honor. There was a little money tree you could attach dollar bills to. Also, pound cake. Lots of pound cake.
When they asked what he was going to do in his newfound retirement, he said he was finally going to put time aside and write a book. And everyone applauded him. I applauded him. It was a great day.
He died only weeks later.
The news of his passing hit me so hard I couldn’t see for weeks. Mainly, because of something he said to me before I left that get-together. Something I will never forget.
He gave me a hug. His python arms wrapped around me until I disappeared into his girth. He said with a face-scrunching smile, “You’ve always got a home here in Columbiana, Sean.”
Maybe that’s why I get a little emotional when I’m in town.