Delta, Alabama—Blame it on the vegetarians. "My daughter, when she was two, refused to eat meat, but she looooved boiled [pronounced "bold"] peanuts," explains Wilma Alexander, aka "the Peanut Lady." "So we started to give her peanuts to get her more protein."
Not long after that, Wilma started hawking her wares at flea markets, then moved on to a tent and a pickup truck. Her big break came after she recovered from knee replacement surgery, when a state agency gave her a grant to help build the operation. "They said 'you have a client base and everything,'" she says with a touch of pride.
Last spring, when she lost her her job at a gas station, she turned the stand into a full-time gig. She does a brisk business, considering that she's parked on the grass off to the side of an otherwise empty stretch of state highway 431, in an otherwise empty stretch of eastern Alabama.
So what's the secret to the perfect peanut? Wilma doesn't hesitate: "My method of cooking."
"We had a bold [boiled] peanut man a mile up the road and he didn't hurt our business one bit." And then she lets me in on a secret: "His niece used to come on all the way over here to have our peanuts. She said her uncle just didn't cook them right."
Atlanta, Georgia—From this point forward, we're finished with the Appalachians. Since this trip began 23 days ago, hardly a day has gone by where we haven't passed through the mountains at least once, taking us through all manner of gaps and gulches, hills and hollows, knobs and notches, and whatever other names they might have come up with for mountains and the various ways around them. I like to think we've caught a real taste of the region—a town killed by coal; a county built on contraband; commercialization gone crazy; pulled pork; and some pretty awesome music. But there's one subject (ok, probably a lot of subjects) I've been meaning to write about since we first crossed into Tennessee. And since we're not coming back, I'd be remiss if I let the occasion pass without at least mentioning the lost state of Franklin.
For four glorious years in the 1780s, the northeastern corner of Tennessee, originally part of North Carolina, operated as a quasi-independent state, known as "Franklin" (or maybe it was "Frankland"; the accounts vary). It appealed for statehood under the Articles of Confederation, but, as with most other items on the agenda during that period, saw its application go nowhere, and was eventually folded into Tennessee. The end. It was all over and done with in less than a decade, and to my knowledge there's no Franklin Liberation Front or anything like that devoted to restoring its sovereignty—which is probably for the best.
I can't credit Franklin for secretly saving civilization—its greatest legacy might just be this Americana band—but it's a pretty clear example of how the map of the United States could very easily look a lot different. And there's a bigger takeaway, too: Franklin reflects a volatility in the early republic that tends to get glossed over when conservatives (and whoever else) heap too much praise on the founding founders. Franklin, like Kentucky, flirted with breaking away from the Union altogether if Spain could just guarantee protection and water rights on the Mississippi River. As much as we like to talk about Jefferson and Hamilton, the nation was founded, as much as anything, by a bunch of opportunists who really just wanted cheap land and economic prosperity and didn't much care how they got it—even if it meant casting their lots with another king.
Cup o' Jones: BJU's history may offend many, but credit where credit's due: A Jonathan Edwards themed coffee shop is an idea whose time has come (photo: Tim Murphy).
Greenville, South Carolina—Some of you may know Bob Jones University as the fun-loving school that briefly held the Guinness World Record for largest kazoo ensemble. More likely, though, you know it as a bastion of the far right: For decades, big-shot conservative politicians from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush have traveled to the self-described "fundamentalist" outpost to pander to the Christian right, all the while pleading ignorance to its institutional opposition to Catholicism ("a Satanic counterfeit") and its longstanding ban on interracial dating.
The dating policy was reversed in 2000 (provided you have parental consent and a chaperone, of course), but the school still has a pretty detailed personal conduct code, which bans, among other things, phones that have Internet access, "contemporary Christian music," Gmail, and "posters of movie and music stars." I stopped by BJU on Tuesday hoping to speak with some current students about what brought them there (the art program is supposed to be excellent), how they like the school, and what they make of the school's not-so-distant history. But, alas, when I approached a group of undergrads, they broke the bad news: "We're not technically allowed to talk to reporters unless we have the school's permission," as one of them explained.
So much for that. Instead, I ended up walking across campus, checking out the Renaissance art museum (quite impressive, in addition to being the only place at BJU where you'll find Catholics); the Shakespeare-centric theater; and the memorial to the school's namesake, which places him in the tradition of transcendent historical figures like George Whitefield and Billy Sunday.
Values: Greenville, South Carolina—Despite its namesake's anti-Catholic rhetoric, and the school's longstanding ban on interracial dating (which came to an end in 2000), generations of conservative politicians, from Reagan to George W. Bush, traveled to Bob Jones University to pander to the far right (Photo: Tim Murphy).
Primary Season: Congressional races get all the ink, but thousands of people will vote for people like Pam Hurst in the Tennessee primary—whether or not they know who she is (Photo: Tim Murphy).We left Murfreesboro, Tennessee a few days ago, but since it's stuck with me, and since I've had some down time for the first time this trip, I thought I'd put up this stray bit of overheard wisdom. To set the scene: Murfreesboro is a small-sized city with an old-fashioned downtown square centered around the county courthouse. With the retirement of long-time congressman Bart Gordon, a Democrat, the upcoming Republican primary has taken on an added significance this year; the inside of the City Cafe is cluttered with literature for the various candidates lining up to replace him. In the corner by the window, five elderly women are studying up on the races not just for Congress, but down-ballot positions as well.
"Oh, he's very niiiice," says woman #1. Then she drops her voice: "He talked for quite a while." They talk it over and agree not to let the latter become the enemy of the former. Moving on, now: "This here means they're independent," says friend #2. She's referring to, I think, the box that says "independent." "They don't go either way, really," explains woman #3.
And now they plunge into the unexplored places: county clerk, register of deeds, jailer. "I don't even know who this is," says woman #3, perplexed.
"Oh, that doesn't matter," says friend #2. "You just check one and keep on going."