This southeast Alabama town is renowned for being at the center of peanut agriculture, but it’s grown to include famous murals and festivals, too.
By Connie Emerson
When compared to other Alabama cities, Dothan is a bit out of the way. It’s far removed from any interstates, making it one of those places you need to travel to on purpose. Which is probably why the town’s Festival of Murals project began in 1993. Today those murals are only one of the reasons why Dothan is worth a trip off the beaten concrete path.
If you do make this town a destination, you’ll discover that the little Southern city (population approximately 65,000) is full of surprises.
The murals are a great focus for newcomers, for they help to highlight Dothan’s claims to fame. Its renown in the peanut world is evident as “Salute to the Peanut Industry” was the first commissioned mural. It features George Washington Carver, who discovered more than 300 uses for the peanut. “The Steamboat Era” mural recalls the 1800s when rivers served as the primary transportation routes in Houston County, and a mural titled “Sherman Rose “” Tuskeegee Airmen” honors longtime Dothan resident Rose, who became the only black flight instructor at nearby Fort Rucker. The Steamboat and Tuskeegee Airmen murals, as well as two others, were created by internationally known artist Wes Hardin, who lives in Dothan.
All of the city’s 14 murals are within walking distance of each other. However, the Hidden Mural appears only when the curtain is opened at the Dothan Opera House. Restored to its 1915 grandeur, the opera house there is now the venue for theatrical productions, as well as ballet and symphony performances.
Another downtown attraction, Porter Hardware (136 E. Main St., open Monday through Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.), has been in business since 1889 and hasn’t changed a bit. With dark wood chests whose shelves and drawers go from floor to pressed-tin ceiling, it’s one of the few places left in America where customers can buy nails by the pound.
And while you’re downtown, you might want to stop in at the Wiregrass Museum of Art. Its five galleries contain eclectic exhibits ranging from small sculptures and porcelains to shows mounted by local artists. Most enchanting, in my view, are the works displayed in the Atrium Gallery on the first floor. They’re all the creations of young people, ranging from 5 years old to college age, who participate in the museum’s art classes.
If you visit in spring, you’ll be especially interested in the Azalea-Dogwood Trail. Marked by a pinkish-lavender strip, it wends its way through the city’s Garden District. The area is at its most spectacular in late March when the flowering plants are in full bloom, but April is still just fine. Maps of the route, which can be followed by car or on foot, are available at the Dothan Visitors Center (3311 Ross Clark Circle).
Another visitors center map is great for anyone who likes treasure hunts. “Peanuts Around Town” shows the locations of 51 super-size acrylic plastic peanuts, which are scattered throughout Dothan. The “Eye on America” peanut “” Uncle Sam decked out in red, white, and blue top hat and tails “” stands outside the CBS-affiliate TV station. The “Paper Boy” peanut, dressed in old-fashioned knickers and tweed cap, waves a copy of the newspaper outside the plant where the daily Dothan Eagle is published. “Captain Cash” guards the Southland Bank on Ross Clark Circle (the 14-mile road that encircles the city), and “Elvis Nut” sightings occur regularly on the grounds of a Days Inn hotel.
The Dothan Area Botanical Gardens is young, as such places go, founded in 1990. Although most of the plants aren’t mature enough yet to rival those in Alabama’s older public gardens, people interested in roses, hydrangeas, herbs, and more won’t want to miss the gardens.
An enormous array of military aircraft, including one of the largest collections of helicopters in the world, is housed at the Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker. Although it’s impossible for the museum to show off its more than 160 aeronautical treasures at one time, the fixed wing, rotary wing, and vertical aircraft on display do a great job of tracing the history of army aviation from early-day biplanes to the highly technical aircraft flown today. Full-sized dioramas; an Army Aviation Hall of Fame with portraits and citations lining its walls; and films all add even more interest. And great merchandise can be found in the gift shop. Admission to this very popular museum is free.
Golfers will want to play a round or two at Highland Oaks, one of the eight courses that make up the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, the largest golf course project ever attempted anywhere. Proclaimed by Golf Digest to be the seventh best public course in the United States, this 36-hole Dothan complex features three 9-hole courses, which can be played in three 18-hole combinations, and a 9-hole par-3 course. Be sure to ask for a tip sheet that gives advice on how to play the regulation courses.
Just a few miles from Dothan, thrill seekers will find the chance to do sport parachute jumping at Headland Municipal Airport.
As far as shopping is concerned, Dothan is a treasure-trove for antique hunters. An Antique Trail List, also available at the visitors center, provides information about more than a dozen stores or malls in town, plus others outside the city limits.
When you want evening entertainment plus down-home Southern cooking, buy tickets to “Grits on the Side,” presented at the Understudy Theatre. A talented cast of four, plus accompanist, presents an original musical review that pokes gentle fun at Southern life. The buffet dinner that comes with the price of admission features such fare as Southern-fried chicken, greens, pecan pie and, of course, grits on the side. The show is offered only twice a year, in the spring and fall, so check schedules. Another theater, Opus Nostrum, produces approximately five plays per year.
Other tasty dining-out options include The River Nile, an artsy bakery-restaurant downtown with imaginative cuisine and decor; Grate Things on Westgate Parkway, a tearoom and gift shop where the local ladies go for lunch; and the Old Mill Restaurant on Murphy Mill Road, whose specialties include great fried shrimp at reasonable prices (ask for a table by the mill wheel).
Like most Southern cities, Dothan caters to kids “” its own and those who are visiting. Adventureland Theme Park beckons with two 18-hole miniature golf courses, a figure-8 go-cart track, water cannon bumper boats, and a big arcade. The Bob-A-Lu indoor skating rink; the Westgate Tennis Center (one of the South’s best); and Water World, with its Great White Slide and giant wave pool, offer more options for getting rid of the pent-up energy youngsters store when traveling.
The very best time for anyone of any age to visit Dothan is when something special is going on. Though Southern hospitality is served up anytime, it’s especially evident when lots of visitors come to town.
Folks who enjoy old-time celebrations will plan their visits to coincide with special events at Landmark Park, a delightful 100-acre open space on the north edge of town that was formerly a working farm. The park buzzes with activity during Spring Farm Day, held in March. Sheep shearing in the barn, a plowing contest in the back field, and hay gathering with a mule-powered hay baler provide visual proof that life was hard in the good old days. Spring Farm Day’s autumnal counterpart, The Wiregrass Heritage Day, takes place in October. Other events at the park throughout the year include an old-fashioned ice cream social in June and a Victorian Christmas in December.
Anytime the park is open, visitors can step inside the farm buildings, church, and houses on the grounds. The highlight, however, is the replica of Martin’s Drugstore, which opened in Enterprise, Alabama, in 1905. Patent medicines, perfumes, pharmaceutical devices, Coca-Cola memorabilia, stationery, and baseball cards on display once were part of the store’s inventory. Soda fountain orders are filled on weekends only.
The StarLab Planetarium, located in Landmark Park’s interpretive center, is the place to go for weekend shows that reveal the heavens. You also can see Phase I of the Alabama Agricultural Museum at the park.
Dothan’s big claim to fame, the peanut, is celebrated each year at the National Peanut Festival, to be held October 27 through November 4, 2006. More than 50 different activities are held at the fairgrounds and various other venues around town, including karate, tennis, and bowling tournaments; cake decorating and marching band competitions; clown classes; a choral festival; and dozens of livestock events. One of the first in the marathon of events is the crowning of Miss National Peanut Festival. On the final day of the event, a 2-1/2-mile parade heads down Main Street, presided over by town and state dignitaries, as well as Miss Peanut and her court.
Whenever you visit Dothan, you will thank yourself for leaving the fast lane and enjoying a delicious piece of the everyday South. Peanut-flavored, of course.
Dothan Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
3311 Ross Clark Circle N.W.
P.O. Box 8765
Dothan, AL 36304
The following is not a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or the FMCA Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com.
Clean Park RV Park
4100 S. Oates St.
Dothan, AL 36301
Houston County Farm Center
1701 E. Cottonwood Road
Dothan, AL 36303
The Willows RV Park
2932 Ross Clark Circle
Dothan, AL 36301-1160