Delightful Street Art On a Grand Scale:
The Murals of Dothan, AL
By Susan J. Young
When the boll weevil chewed its way through cotton crops across the South decades ago, it changed life in Dothan, AL, a southeastern Alabama city where cotton was king.
But Dothan simply reinvented itself as a major peanut producing region. Now more than half the nation’s peanut crop is produced within a 100-mile radius of the city.
Each fall, Dothan hosts the National Peanut Festival. In addition, 40 colorful, five-foot-tall “Peanuts Around Town” sculptures grace the downtown area. .
But it's the town’s historical past --visions of the King Cotton era, native American culture and southern lifestyle – that is the foundation for the city’s most impressive art.
More than a dozen massive murals splash colorful visual tales across exterior walls of downtown buildings.
From cotton fields to downtown parades, from a riot to an Indian raid, from military history to ladies of the South, Dothan’s stunning murals capture and showcase the pages of its history.
This highly visual street art has brought visitors back downtown. You may enjoy the artistic masterpieces by driving by, or by parking and walking from painting to painting.
The murals create an artsy cache for a rather nondescript area that’s best described as a mishmash of structures.
A City of Murals
Amid the Wiregrass Region – so named because of a plant indigenous to the region's forests, Dothan is also called “the Circle City,” because it’s surrounded by Ross Clark Circle, an outer “beltway."
Roadway spokes lead north to other Alabama towns, south toward Tallahassee, Florida's capital city, and east to Valdosta, Georgia.
With the advent of this bypass and the phenomena of “the mall” replacing downtown stores for shopping, Dothan's core downtown – as with so many cities across America – began to decline in the 20th century.
Businesses fled, leaving empty buildings. But while vacationing in tiny Chermainus, Canada, several Dothan residents were impressed with what that town had done after the loss of its major employer.
Chermainus faced adversity with ingenuity -- creating gorgeous murals on downtown walls and reinventing itself as a tourism destination.
So the vacationers returned and suggested a mural program for Dothan. The Downtown Group backed the idea and a Wiregrass Festival of Murals Board was founded.
The board contracted with renowned artists to paint murals on otherwise unattractive downtown walls.
Plaques next to each mural explain the historical perspective.
Now busloads of tourists arrive to view the murals. One mural is shown on the building wall at left.*
“The draw for the murals is that they depict the history of our area,” says Gene Shaffer, general manager, Americas Best Value Inn & Suites in Dothan. “Some of the murals are painted on historic old buildings and people love to visit them.”
Editor’s Intel: When driving around, take time to stop in parking lots or along the street in a parking spot and look behind you. The murals are at times on side alleys or off the main street.
Also helpful is a small CVB pamphlet that outlines the mural topics and gives a tiny map of the locations.
Even so, you 'll need to use your ingenuity and patience in the “hunt.” But that’s the fun.
Finding the murals can be a bit of a scavenger hunt. We just couldn’t stop until we had located them all.
The murals depict history – good and bad. It’s a refreshing change from the PRish approach by some cities with everything “sugar-coated” and no sense of reality.
Salute to the Peanut Industry
The large Civic Center dominates the downtown area. Look for it when beginning a mural tour. It's a great point of reference.
In a parking lot adjacent to the center is “Salute to the Peanut Industry” (a portion is shown below*). This 150-foot by 31-foot mural is by Susan Tooke and Bruce Rickett.
Because of the peanut’s significance to the Dothan economy, this was the first mural unveiled in fall 1993.
The right side of the mural (shown above*) showcases the marching band hoopla surrounding the National Peanut Festival.
The left side of the mural (shown at left*) presents Dr. George Washington Carver, who developed hundreds of uses for peanuts.
Born a slave, Carver, a professor of agriculture at Tuskegee Institute, overcame prejudice and poverty to make the world a better place.
Carver’s development took the peanut from its primary use at the time – hog food – to a valuable cash crop.
Johnny Mack Brown
Not all visitors today (particularly the younger set) have heard of the famous cowboy actor Johnny Mack Brown but he remains a popular figure in Dothan’s history.
Graduating from Dothan High School in 1922, he excelled in sports. He was an All American football halfback at the University of Alabama.
With his good looks and athletic prowess, Brown was a natural for Hollywood.
During a 40-year movie and television career, he played roles in 168 movies and television shows.
In many instances he performed as a cowboy hero. Co-stars included Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, John Wayne and other movie greats.
Painted by Susan Tooke a 20-foot by 11-foot mural (shown at left*) pays tribute to Brown, his career and his cowboy persona.
Brown died in 1974 but his cowboy memory lives on as a mural -- showcasing Mack riding a rearing stead or taking on the bad guys with gun drawn.
Chief Eufaula – Creek Indian Removal
In 1993, artist Bruck Rickett completed a compelling mural of the Creek Indian Chief Eufaula. The 19-foot by 11-foot mural (shown below right*) is located along South St. Andrews St. near the Johnny Mack Brown Mural.
From a historical perspective, the Creek Indians occupied much of Georgia and Alabama in the early 1800s.
In 1830, the Indian Removal Act formalized the U.S. government’s policy of relocating eastern tribes to lands west of the Mississippi River.
So in 1832, the Creek Indians sold all their remaining land in the region in exchange for land in Oklahoma.
The mural itself depicts Chief Eufaula, known as Yoholo-Micco, as he went to Tuscaloosa (then the state capital) to address the legislature.
He said: “I come here brothers, to see the great house of Alabama and the men who make the law and to say farewell in brotherly kindness before I go to the Far West, where my people are now going.
"In these lands of Alabama, which have belonged to my forefathers and where their bones lie buried, I see that the Indian fires are going out. Soon they will be cold. New fires are lighting in the West for us, they say, and we will go there. I do not believe our Great Father means to harm his red children, but that he wishes us well.”
However, many Indians refused to leave their land, and in 1836 and 1837, the U.S. Army forced them to march to the Indian Territory. In a tragic turn of events, thousands of Indians died from hunger, exposure and disease.
DeSoto’s Journey through the Wiregrass Region
Another colorful downtown mural depicts the journey of Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto and his exploration party as he traveled inland from the Gulf of Mexico to the Dothan area in 1540.
Painted by Art Rosenbaum, this 49-foot by 33-foot mural was completed in 1993. See photo at left.*
It shows DeSoto’s party arriving up the river; the Spanish conquistador greeting the natives; Indian huts of mud and clay with hide roofs (no tepees in this part of the country); and how the two factions mingled for trading.
For the most part, the Spanish found the native Americans – ancestors of the Creek Indians – to be friendly. Often, the explorers stayed near villages to trade or replenish supplies.
The Abduction of Elizabeth Stewart
We found this 33-foot by 49-foot mural a bit difficult to spot. In fact, it was the last mural we located.
It seems amazing that such a large mural could be missed, but in fact, we went round the block several times in search of it.
This mural (shown at right*) by Art Rosenbaum shows an 1817 Creek Indian attack on a supply boat and the abduction of Elizabeth Stewart.
During this era, there were frequent skirmishes between the natives and the Army.
Stewart was a passenger onboard a supply boat headed from Mobile to Fort Scott and Fort Hughes in southwestern Georgia.
During the attack, most of the crew were killed or wounded and Stewart was abducted.
Yellow Hair, one of the Indians, had once been cared for kindly by a white woman. Thus, Stewart was put under his care. She was treated with kindness and respect. Later, she was freed by a party of soldiers and friendly Indians.
Marrying John Dill, a military officer, Stewart later settled in Fort Gaines, GA.
Mules in the Wiregrass
Located on South St. Andrews Street, this 100-foot by 23-foot mural by artist Mike Svob, is an unusual one; it features pastel coloring – yellow, blue and pink.
The Easter-egg coloring causes the mural to “pop” in a soothing way.
Completed in 1994, the mural depicts the role that mules played in the region's development.
Mules not only served as family transportation but, more importantly, plowed the land, tilled the crops, and hauled wagons for the harvest.
Mules were used heavily in the turpentine industry. Swob's mural specifically depicts the use of mules in logging.
Stables for buying and selling mules operated throughout the region; one such stable was located less than a block from this mural site.
The Dothan Riot
Located on a prominent corner at South St. Andrews St. and Main Street, this 40-foot by 16-foot mural depicts a riot that occurred at this precise spot.
In October 1889, the riot broke out over a tax the city levied on every commercial dray that traveled the city’s streets. (The lawless street scene is depicted in the photo below.*).
The Farmers’ Alliance said “no, we won’t pay,” saying it hampered their ability to haul cotton to the gins, and bales of cotton to the new railroad.
Cheryl Hardin captured the fervor of the moment in her painting – showing townspeople going at each other with fists.
Two people were killed and several wounded. The town’s mayor called out the “Posse Committee” to arrest the rioters.
Salute to Fort Rucker
Before there was a U.S. Air Force, there was Army Aviation. Many fledging flyers got their start at Fort Rucker, about 18 miles north of Dothan.
The fort developed in the aftermath of the recession and the adversity caused by the boll weevil. To give the region an economic boost, more than 35,000 acres of land was turned into the Camp Rucker recreational area with a lake, picnic area, and a game refuge.
During World War II, Camp Rucker became a training camp for more than 31,000 infantrymen. They learned to operate tanks, artillery and spotter aircraft
On Oct. 26, 1955, the site's designation was changed to Fort Rucker.
Today, the fort is the most important economic entity in the Dothan area.
Located across from the Civic Center on Main Street, the Fort Rucker mural (shown at left*) shows the many military training tracks offered at Fort Rucker.
At 65 feet by 17 feet, this mural boasts an Apache Longbow helicopter as its prime feature. The mural is by Wes Hardin.
Cherry Street A.M.E. Church
Wes Hardin, one of the mural collection’s most prolific artists, painted this mural that depicts the heritage of Black residents and their heritage at the turn of the 20th century.
The Cherry Street A.M.E. Church (shown at right*) was founded in the 1860s as the Colored Methodist Church. It’s the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in Alabama.
In the 1870s, the church changed its name to Gaines Chapel, and in 1907 it adopted its present name.
Local Black residents were able to obtain left-over bricks from completed building projects or ruins around town and use them to construct the church. Bricks were brought from dozens of sources, often by children.
All the bricks – despite the mishmash of sources – matched. That's because the brick factory in Dothan produced only one color of brick -- red.
This mural, which measures 91 feet by 25 feet, was painted by Wes Hardin in 1999.
It shows children bringing bricks to the church site for its construction.
Editor’s Note: The stunning focal point of the mural – one we just couldn’t take our eyes off – is a lovely little girl dressed for church in a white dress with daisies in her hands (see photo below). The girl’s expression is simply enchanting. This was our favorite vignette.
The Steamboat Era
If you thought steamboatin’ was just on the Mississippi, it’s important to know that this method of river transport was prolific throughout the South during the period from 1800-1900.
Given the lack of good roads during this era (pre-automobile), the Chattahoochee River – and to a lesser extent the smaller Choctawhatchee – became water highways.
River boats plied local waters between plantations and towns.
Onboard were bales of cotton, cattle hides and barrels of turpentine and pitch.
Passengers also traveled elsewhere in the South by boat. A favorite journey for Dothan residents was a four-day trip to Apalachicola, FL, on the Gulf of Mexico.
Pictured in this 82-foot by 24-foot mural (shown above right*) is the John W. Callahan. The boat was 153 feet long, and 35 feet wide, with a draft of only 31 inches.
Steamboat travel declined rapidly with the arrival of the railroad in Dothan. But the steamboat era’s memory lives on in this mural painted in 2000 by Wes Harden.
Tribute to Sherman Rose
Wes Harden also created the “Tribute to Sherman Rose” mural that commemorates the bravery and dedication of the Tuskegee Airmen.
This 53-foot by 12-foot mural (shown below*) features African-American airmen; Sherman Rose, a Dothan resident, pilot and flight instructor; and military aerial battle scenes.
Starting in 1939, Tuskegee Institute’s civilian pilot training program began training African-Americans as fighter pilots.
A Dothan resident, Sherman Rose, was one of the first institute’s first students. He also became a pilot instructor.
Thirty-five Black pilots and 300 Black mechanics and support personnel made up the original 99th Pursuit Squadron, later called the 99th Fighter Squadron.
Throughout World War II, despite hefty enemy fire, the Tuskegee airmen never lost a bomber they escorted, a remarkable record. In fact, many bomber pilots requested the airmen and their P-51s.
By the end of the war, more than 900 Black pilots and 10,000 Black support personnel had served valiantly. Some 66 Tuskegee Airmen died for their country.
After the war, Rose continued training pilots in the Dothan area. He became Fort Rucker’s first Black instructor, serving through 1974.
Women of the Wiregrass
Completed in May 2003, this 60-foot by 18-foot mural (a portion is shown above*) is dedicated to the women who helped build Dothan into the city it is today.
Artist Cheryl Hardin has impeccably captured the essence of women of the Wiregrass region, both past and present. From the artist’s perspective, three dominant areas are showcased.
The woman in pink and peach represents southern hospitality as well as the cultural and economic contributions women have made to Dothan.
The pageant contestant in the yellow frilly dress symbolizes personal achievement – striving to reach goals and supporting the community’s endeavors.
And a woman in a buggy (not shown in the photo above*) represents the family influence and the importance of women as wives and mothers.
Four major buildings, located atop the mural, show major buildings that represent banking, religion, the library and education.
Central in the mural are mothers and daughters from the 1890s. Behind them, the artist painted images of girls in Sunday School attire from the early 1900s.
Fort Scott: Protector of the Wiregrass
Completed in July 2003, the Fort Scott mural is along South St. Andrews Street.
Artist Wes Hardin shows the river, the workings of the fort, and the historical figures so critical in the fort’s story.
The fort’s early history was characterized by Indian raids.
Andrew Jackson (before his Presidential era) arrived in 1818 with the Georgia Militia – ready to enter battles against native Americans from Florida making raids into Georgia.
Former President Zachary Taylor also was stationed at the fort for a time. Both Presidents are pictured in portraits above the main fort mural.
Other key figures in the fort’s history are also depicted. They include Osceola, Florida’s Seminole Indian Chief; Mrs. Stewart and Yellow Knife, all shown at left.*
Texas’ hero Sam Houston; and Princess Milly Francis are also portrayed.
One of the most endearing parts of this 53-foot by 18-foot mural is the likeness of Jack Wingate, who showed the artist where the fort once stood. See photo at right.*
The actual fort site is atop a bluff along the Flint River near the confluence with the Chatahoochee River.
Trees and bushes located where the fort once stood, were swept away in a flood.
But Hardin with Wingate’s help created a mural that depicts what the fort might have looked like – see photo of the bluffs at left -- based on as available historical information.
Early Commerce in the Wiregrass
Completed in 2006, Dothan’s largest mural is a stunner. Located between North Foster Street and North St. Andrews Street, it depicts the region’s three major early industries – turpentine, cotton and logging. It also depicts the effects of the coming of the railroad.
Each vignette is framed with a top and side brown arch for “separation.” Each vignette is a scene within itself. In total, the mural (shown below*) panels span 222 feet by 28 feet.
Artist Wes Harden focuses on vivid agricultural scenes in the turpentine and cotton vignettes; those boast vivid portrayals of local residents completing everyday tasks. In the logging and railroad vignettes, the artist also focuses on the railroad's influence on Dothan.
A bit of history….In the 1800s, there was little in the way of commerce in southeastern Alabama. Much of the area was covered by pine forests.
Rivers were too far away, dirt roads often impassable.
But when the railroad arrived, turpentine became a huge industry. By the 1890s, Dothan was the largest inland shipping point for turpentine in the world.
Trees that yield resin for turpentine, however, cease production by the 10th year.
Thus, logging became a by-product industry that grew into a major economic powerhouse.
Trains that operated on “log rails” were versatile. They could be moved to new logging sites simply by moving the rails. So the locals were able to harvest trees quickly and over a vast area.
Cotton became the major crop of the region in the 1800s. But after the boll weevil destroyed cotton fields throughout the South, the area switched to peanuts as its major cash crop in the 1900s.
Not only did the railroad contribute to the flow of goods -- including cotton and peanuts -- from Dothan’s fields to markets in distant lands, the iron horse also became the prime means of transport for Dothan residents who needed to travel around the South.
The Hidden Mural
We don’t have a photo of this mural because it’s within the historic Dothan Opera House (see photo at left*). Created by Wes Hardin, the 31.5-foot by 18-foot mural was completed in 2003 and is on the “fire curtain” inside the 1915-era Opera House.
At the time the 580-seat Opera House opened, the city only had a population of about 8,000 or so.
Construction of the facility was a major achievement. The Opera House is shown at left.*
Few operas actually have played here, but theatrical performances fill the opera house throughout the year.
The attractive building is on North St. Andrews Street just across the street from the Dothan Civic Center.
The Annual Wiregrass Festival of Murals
Since its inception in 1992, the Wiregrass Festival of Murals celebrates Dothan’s downtown artistic treasures.
Visitors can enjoy concerts, theater presentations, a jazz festival and a free street festival. In addition, you’ll find arts & crafts vendors, children’s activities, food vendors, and horse and wagon tours of the many murals; the slow moving wagons are a great way to see the murals without worrying about driving and looking at the same time.
The 2008 festival is slated for April 29 to May 3. Contact the Downtown Group at 334-793-3097
Beyond the Murals
While the murals are perhaps the most appealing and unusual attraction for visitors to the area, you’ll find other options for exploration as well.
First, while in the downtown area, stop in the small Millennium Park to view the 10-foot cast bronze statue that depicts Joseph of Bible fame (the statue is shown in the photo at right*).
The Bible phrasing that led to the city’s naming is on the statue’s base: “For I heard them say, let us go to Dothan” – Genesis 37.17
The Wiregrass Museum of Art (334-794-3871 or www.wiregrassmuseum.org), 126 Museum Ave. is a small but impressive art museum right in the heart of downtown.
It’s in a brick building (see photo at left*) near the Civic Center.
The focus is American and Southern fine, decorative, and design arts from 1945 to the present.
Also, the museum features American works on paper from 1945 to the present.
The museum emphasizes both Alabama Artists and women artists (but also has other exhibitions as well.)
Also downtown is the George Washington Carver Museum (334-712-0933 or www.gwcarvermuseum.org), 305 North Foster St.
Just outside town is the official Agricultural Museum for the State of Alabama. It’s called Dothan Landmark Park (334-794-3452 or www.landmarkpark.com), Highway 431 North.
This 100-acre facility features an 1890s living history farm with farm implements, traditional crops of the region, and also several historic buildings moved here.
For example, you may visit a one-room schoolhouse, its desks still in place.
A turn-of-the century church has lovely stained glass windows for its entry (see photo at left*).
And, there’s a wonderful general store, as well as a gazebo.
Editor’s Intel: Definitely visit the general store. The interior is representative of a bygone era.
Display cases from the early 1900s hold historical products like elixirs, old cigar boxes, soaps and so on (see photo below*).
You may also buy candy and get an ice cream soda from an old-fashioned soda station.
The park also includes elevated boardwalks, nature trails, wildlife exhibits, a planetarium, and a picnic area.
Special programs include Spring Farm Day in March; Antique and Collector Car Show in October; Wiregrass Heritage Festival in October; and Victorian Christmas in December.
Nearby is the Dothan Area Botanical Gardens (334-793-3224 or www.dabg.com). Eight fully established gardens (with more in progress) spread over more than 50 acres.
The city also has a botanical garden and other draws. About 15 miles north of Dothan is the Army Aviation Museum in Fort Rucker (334-598-2508 or www.armyavnmuseum.org). The big draw is the collection of 160 military aircraft on display.
Where to Stay
Most of the lodging accommodations are located on the Ross Clark Circle. They’re an easy drive from the downtown core and the murals, as well as the other attractions. For example, you’ll find Sleep Inn, Hampton Inn, Comfort Inn, Best Western and so on.
During our recent visit, we stayed at Americas Best Value Inn (334-793-5200 or www.americasbestvalueinn.com), 2901 Ross Clark Circle.
The room featured two comfortable queen beds, lots of dresser storage, a good range of cable tv stations, in-room coffee maker and free Wi Fi. We were also quite comfortable with two chairs and a table.
The sink and large mirror is just outside the bathroom (toilet and tub/shower) so one person can put on make-up while the other is in the shower.
We found the $69 rack rate – which you may get cheaper depending on where you book – an excellent value. The room was quite clean.
Among the perks of staying in Dothan? Friendly southern hospitality makes a hotel stay a pleasant experience.
Americas Best Value Inn had helpful staff willing to suggest touring options. The hotel also offered free coffee and muffins in the small lobby during early morning hours.
While many hotel guests staying along the circle are likely just passing through en route to another location, “when our guests ask what there is to see in Dothan, we mention the murals,” says Shafer. “I think it helps with people [who decide] to stay an extra night with us.”
“The guests that go and tour the murals are definitely shocked at the number of murals that our city has,” Shafer notes. “Guests comment on the beauty of them and the depiction of the history of Dothan and the Wiregrass.”
(At left is a small portion of Dothan's newest mural, the 40-foot-long Camp Recovery," painted by Wes Hardin. Many soldiers were sickened by mosquito bites at the low-lying Fort Scott and were taken to higher ground at the so-named Camp Recovery.*)
So next time you’re headed east or west along I-10 in northern Florida, continue a side trip to Dothan. Or, if you’re traveling to other points in Georgia or Alabama, allow one extra night to visit Dothan and its captivating murals.
For More Information
You might stop at the Visitor Information Center at 3311 Ross Clark Circle, NW
Dothan, Alabama. Contact 334-794-6622
Or, visit the Dothan Convention & Visitors Bureau at www.dothanalcvb.com. You may download an audio tour of the murals here.
*Photos are owned and copyrighted by Susan J. Young. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos.