So imagine my surprise when I went to college in north Alabama and actually saw maple and sourwood and white oak in their autumn glory. I loved it.
Then I moved to south Florida, where folks mark seasonal change by which flowers are blooming. I could not wait to get back to foothills and fall foliage.
My 1970 return to the southern Appalachians coincided with a cultural click in the Southern mind — or so it seemed to me.
It was about that time that urban and suburban Southerners, uprooted from the small towns and farms of their youth and relocated in places like Birmingham and Atlanta, started seeking ways to get back to nature, but without having to suffer nature more than a weekend. Leaf-looking was the perfect outing, and the Cumberland Plateau, the tail end of the Appalachians that enter Alabama at its northeast corner and Georgia in its northwest, was the perfect place to go.
Most made it a day trip. Pack a lunch, leave early and by noon the family was picnicking beside a stream and taking in the beauty of it all. Cool mornings, warm days, blue sky as a backdrop for the reds and oranges and yellows of the trees and for the fashions purchased at special little shops in Mountain Brook and Buckhead.
Hill-country residents saw the parade approaching and concluded quickly that those city folks were out to experience something they could not get back on the cul-de-sac they called home. So they gave it to ’em.
Along the roads, locals set up stands where peanuts boiled in wash pots, pumpkins sat in piles, and apples were better than what was sold in supermarkets back home.
Add sugar cane, Indian corn and cider to the bounty and it was like walking into the pages of Foxfire, the then-popular books on mountain culture that surely inspired many a suburbanite to strike out on an October morning to see if it was really like that.
Foothill town fathers saw the day-trippers as pullets ready to be plucked, and they figured why not pluck them in Boaz, Athens or Centre?
So it followed that fall festivals became as much a part of upper Piedmont culture as Friday night football.
Of course, there had always been harvest celebrations of sorts around the region. When the crops were in, hay was in the barn, wood was split and stacked, and fruits had been turned into jellies and preserved, farmers came to town to compare, swap and sell. But city folks wanted more, so the festivals were pushed back into October, when turning trees were reaching their peak. Colors were what flatlanders in station wagons wanted to see.
Lured by the leaves, day-trippers clogged the winding two-lane roads. Used to unmannered maneuvering on suburban streets, they wove in and out, slowed to take in a particular sight and pulled off without warning when some colorful vista caught their eye.
So locals set up stands where they sold corn-shuck dolls, whirligigs and all sorts of “mountain crafts” that visitors could “collect.” They put out the jams and jellies, the breads and cakes that, if you asked a little woman in a polk bonnet, she would tell you had come out of her wood-stove oven that very morning. If that were true, and who am I to say it wasn’t, a rural way of life was being preserved because city folks wanted to buy and country folks wanted to sell.
In some places, whole towns reinvented themselves. Helen, a nondescript community in a north Georgia valley, was transformed into an Alpine village that added faux German collectables to what weekenders could purchase.
Northeast Alabama hills and highways have happily avoided the traffic jams of Helen, not to mention the tacky tawdriness of Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Cherokee, N.C. — so far. Though it is true that Alabama mountains are not so high as the Smokies, with nothing other than themselves for comparison, they are high enough. For visitors seeking fall colors that are equal to any, what they find in the hills and hollows, creeks and rivers of the Cumberland Plateau are spectacular.
Yes, the festivals are fun, but a festival alone is not enough to get sedentary suburbanites off the couches and into the cars.
It’s the leaves.
You gotta have leaves.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is retired Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.