Columbiana, Alabama—a place with front porches bearing American flags. There are hanging ferns, historic homes, dog-walkers who wave.
The welcome-to-town sign reads: “Home of Governor Robert Bentley.”
“Hot aw-mighty,” remarks one old woman. “Hope folks don’t judge us by what’s on TV. It’s too bad about that mess with Governor Bentley.”
It sure is.
Because this place is more than a two-word byline in a shocking news story. This is heaven.
Reason number one: Davis Drug Company.
In the back of Davis’ there’s a flat-top grill. They serve cheeseburgers and tea that’s sweet enough to cause temporary blindness.
Bernard P. Fife sits at the counter.
Vinyl stools. Milkshakes. Pimento cheese. Coke in green-tinted bell glasses.
We’re eating lunch with Rachel. She teaches tenth-grade English. She has the personality of a cherub.
“Wouldn’t live anywhere else,” she says. “This is our bubble from the rest of the world.”
A bubble. Kids mind their manners in Columbiana. High-schoolers drive trucks, wear boots, and listen to Alan Jackson. Teenagers still know who Loretta Lynn is. There is low crime.
It’s a place where schoolteachers are like mothers. Principals are like chaplains. Where the librarian deserves his own book in the Bible.
Rachel says, “Always knew I wanted to teach at THIS school.”
I ask why.
“My tenth-grade teacher, Mrs. Owens, she was the best. I wanted to be like her.”
Mrs. Owens. During my short time in town, I’ve heard more about Mrs. Owens than I have about the aforementioned ex-politician.
I motion to include Mrs. Owens’ name on the town sign. Because she is local values, country wisdom, and good people.
“Mrs. Owens, was my favorite,” says Rachel.
I also meet Rachel’s husband Joe—from New Jersey. He’s a long way from home.
“I’m the only Yankee around for miles,” he says. “But this is home.”
He’s lived here for many years now. Joe has even picked up the hint of an accent.
When he first visited town, he took the grand tour, which doesn’t take five minutes—the city isn’t much bigger than a throw rug.
“Drove down one street,” Joe says. “Saw all these flags hanging from porches, the sun was out, and it just hit me. This is Americana. I needed to be here.”
Well, I toured the same streets earlier today. I saw the same sunlight poking through the same red and white nylon flags.
I shook hands with remarkable people:
A boy who nearly died in a car wreck—whose principal sat beside him in ICU. I met a woman who raises chickens and sells farm-eggs for four bucks per dozen. A woman who hugged my neck and called me “Sugar Face.” And Mrs. Owens.
I ask Joe if he ever misses New Jersey.
“Never,” he says.
And why would he. Because this is Beulah Land. Where bloodhounds sleep underneath dogtrot houses. Where the downtown is made of Confederate brick. It’s a lot more than drugstores with handmade French fries. And it’s more than headlines about former governors.
This is Shelby County.
This is where God lives.
Susan - April 30, 2017 2:18 pm
True , Shelby County is Gods country,people are genuine and salt of the earth. Lived there for years until I moved North….. to Huntsville, pretty great here too.
grace - April 30, 2017 2:35 pm
My daddy’s family hailed from Columbiana, and I remember taking the drivedown old 280 from Birmingham often.
Jeanie - April 30, 2017 3:53 pm
Kay Keel - April 30, 2017 4:30 pm
You need to write a book called “Road Trips” and include maps to all these wonderful small town diners that take us back to a simpler time.
cindy bryan - April 30, 2017 4:37 pm
Sean, I want to write like you when I grow up. I’m 52. I hope you’re not offended.
Judy Miller - April 30, 2017 8:13 pm
In my humble opinion, anywhere would be better than New Jersey. LOL.
LindaD - June 24, 2017 2:25 pm
I had a wonderful childhood in NJ, raised in a small town not unlike some of the ones Sean talks about here, away from the rat race. But I’m really happy to be finishing my life here in AL, no doubt about it. Remember, there’s more to NJ than what you see on TV.
Jim C - June 24, 2017 8:04 pm
Me, too, Linda D. Even though my town was 30 miles west of NYC it was far removed from the rat race. Also had a house down the shore…the best of both worlds. Having said that, I’m not leaving Shelby Co.
Arlene - April 30, 2017 9:37 pm
Patricia Gibson - April 30, 2017 11:08 pm
Sounds like heaven!
Willie - May 1, 2017 2:31 pm
Another goodum, Sean. I look forward to your stories every day.
Mary Pettit - May 1, 2017 7:32 pm
I met a lady from Columbiana. Her name was Barbara Joiner. She was a Baptist missionary and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Tells a great story about Christmas cookies and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Miriam Smith - September 24, 2017 7:28 pm
Miss Barbara passed away a few months ago. She was a lovely lady with a heart for Hod.
Betty - May 2, 2017 1:38 am
I married a wonderful man from Shelby County and wouldn’t live any other place. I thought I was a city girl until I moved here.
Margaret - June 24, 2017 1:59 pm
Have Adair relatives all over Shelby county. Sweet place.
Deanna J - June 24, 2017 2:01 pm
Have friends in Shelby county! Great place!
Mary Ann Massey - June 24, 2017 7:12 pm
Not too far from my hometown of Childersburg….now, THERE is a story! WE are the oldest city in the country….St. Augustine just THINKS they are….❤️?
Mary Anne Tomlinson - June 25, 2017 1:10 am
Sorry to dispute your word. Pensacola is America’s Earliest Settlement. Ahead of St. Augustine. But you know what? That doesn’t matter nearly as much as Sean’s hometown stories. Sean, I love reading your stories. Please don’t stop.
Patricia Terrell - June 25, 2017 2:51 am
Always enjoyed visiting my husband’s relatives in the Montevallo/Columbiana area. Truly Southern. Love being from the South.
Annette Bailey - June 25, 2017 5:35 pm
In Andalusia, my husband had an old drugstore with the swivel chairs and an old soda fountain. He knew how to make a banana split, root beer float, and then go fill a few prescriptions. Folks loved him so much that he couldn’t take vacations. When learning he’d be gone for a few days, they’d tell the visiting druggist they’d wait until he got back. Horace worked hard. He sold papers, drove a school bus, and helped his Dad build homes. He went to Auburn to become a pharmacist and is loved by many. He must have hired every niece and nephew to work in the store just to help them out. He also hired his Mom, two aunts, his brother…who later became a pharmacist, and me…his wife. When he had to retire early due to health problems with early onset Parkinson’s, it almost broke his heart. And the folks of Andy missed him too. You see, he’d go to the store if you needed anything for your child or yourself. Sorry Sean, I didn’t mean to go off on your story. Horace doesn’t feel,well today and I’m just a little worried about him. He such a good person. Kind, quiet, gentle. You just brought back some memories about 40 yrs. ago. Love your stories and share them as often as I see them sir. I can’t wait to buy your books. I’m going to Pensacola soon to the nearest Books A Million!
David M Wray - July 31, 2017 3:16 pm
I heard the you would be speaking in Columbiana,Al. soon, but I cannot locate the link
for this. please advise. My wife and I live in Montgomery and would like to attend this event
if it is open to the public.