Let me tell you about the “French connection” in Demopolis, Alabama. It’s quite a story. In spite of the horrific heat at the end of June while we were camping near Demopolis, Mike and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about the history, meeting some of the people, and snapping pictures of historic landmarks. So let me get you up-to-date on this little Southern jewel of a city.
Olive groves, grapes, and the wine industry do not flourish in Demopolis, Alabama, in the county of Marengo, but the occasional olive tree can be found. The influence of its founding French fathers is still there, but it’s about as scattered as the olive trees. A few French names and some possible descendants of the exiled followers of Napoleon may be all that’s left of its French origins. But the story remains, and it’s a good one.
The now defunct Marengo Theater in the Demopolis Theater District, was named for the County of Marengo, which was named for the Marengo village in France, the site of Napoleon’s battle with the Austrians on June 14, 1800.
Demopolis was originally founded as The Vine and Olive Colony, which failed because the vines and olives did not flourish there. The French military aristocrats were also not suited as pioneers of a wild and unsettled territory — the women going about their chores in court dress and the men plowing in capes and cocked hats. Of course, that’s just a local legend, but it does make for a colorful tale.
But all was not lost for the French connection. General Lefebvre Desnouettes, Napoleon’s former aide-de camp, later bought the site of Dempolis. And though these French pioneers intermarried with the Americans over the years and all but disappeared, a street — Desnouettes Street — is named for the general, as well as other French names such as Herbert and Linden (the county seat), and Marengo.
As Mike and I stood on the corner at Walnut Avenue taking pictures, a lady stopped and pointed to The Robertson Banking Company across the street. She asked us if we knew about the mural that was painted there depicting the history of the city.
In 1995, the Robertson Banking Company commissioned a painting by Margaret Webb, which included the general himself, standing with one hand shoved inside his jacket after the manner of Bonaparte, and leaning on his rifle. (One of the general’s rifles is displayed in the State Archives in Montgomery, Alabama).
We thanked the enthusiastic young woman and told her we were RVers, retired and off to see the world — starting with our own state.
“Oh,” she said. “That’s what I want to do when I grow up.”
So we stepped across the street to see and add to our collection of photos. Each part of this commissioned painting, which takes pride of place on the wall of the Robertson Banking Company, is representative of a scene or landmark in the history of Demopolis, some of it tongue-in-cheek. At the bottom center is a mock-coat-of-arms. The “Lions rampant” are a fox and a rooster.
The fox is representative of the local claim to fame of American Playwright, Lillian Hellman, author of “The Little Foxes” and long-time romantic partner of Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon). Although “Lilly” was born in 1905 in New Orleans, and spent her time between there and New York, her mother was Julia Newhouse of Demopolis, AL. It is said that Lilly’s fictional Hubbard family was drawn from relatives of her maternal grandmother, who was a Marx. Lillian has quite a colorful history herself. Asking if Lillian Hellman was controversial is like asking if the Pope is Catholic.
The rooster is another wild tale feather. Two counties had a problem. Demopolis sits at the confluence of the Black Warrior and Tombigbee Rivers. In 1919 a river bridge was needed to cross the Tombigbee River between Marengo and Sumter Counties. But there was no money to build a bridge.
That’s when Frank Derby of Sumter County came up with the idea of having a White Elephant Sale — with roosters. Derby wasn’t shy. He buttonholed President Woodrow Wilson and even European leaders, to donate roosters. Then he got Helen Keller in on the act. The celebration, rooster auction and barbecue were held August 14-15, 1919, in Demopolis and the bridge was subsequently built. They called it — what else? — Rooster Bridge.
The mighty rooster is now sort of the town mascot. According to a waitress we talked to, they even have a big rooster that they “hide’ in different places about town. (Not real, of course). You never know where it will be from one week to the next. We never verified that, and never saw the rooster, but we take her word for it.
Rooster Hall was once the Presbyterian Church, built in 1843. The building served the church until after the Civil War when it was occupied by Federal troops. It then served as the county courthouse, with the county seat moved from Linden to Demopolis. In 1871, the county seat was returned to Linden and Rooster Hall became the Demopolis Opera Association. which closed in 1902. Rooster Hall is now part of the Demopolis Public Square, part of the National Register of Historic Places in downtown Demopolis.
Next on the agenda is one of the oldest town squares in the state, established in 1819. You will love its beautiful landscaping, gazebo, fountain, and statue. We especially enjoyed the breeze while sitting in the gazebo.
Catch ya later,