- Florence, Alabama and the Muscle Shoals Region
Florence, Alabama welcomes you to the 75th annual meeting of the Southeastern Division of the American Association of Geographers (SEDAAG)! The conference will take place from November 22–23, 20201 at the Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa (which you can see, with its distinctive Renaissance Tower, on the left of the cover photo), and will be hosted by the Department of Geography at the University of North Alabama. Florence is located on the Tennessee River in the far northwest corner of Alabama, and together with the three neighboring cities of Tuscumbia, Sheffield, and Muscle Shoals, it comprises the Shoals Region, also known as the Muscle Shoals Region or the Quad Cities. The combined population of these four cities is about 80,000. Muscle Shoals has a small airport with commercial propeller plane service from Atlanta, but most locals fly in and out of Huntsville, which is about one hour away. Nashville and Birmingham airports are both about two hours away.
Evidence of Native American inhabitation of the region goes back to at least 500 BCE, when the Florence Indian Mound, also known as Wawamanona, was constructed (Steen n.d.). The mound is still standing and can be visited along with the Florence Indian Mound Museum. Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Yuchi were among the Indigenous Peoples of the region. Many were removed to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears from 1830–50, but many remained, and some have returned. The Wall, built by Tom Hendrix as a memorial to his Yuchi great-great grandmother, Te-lah-ney, commemorates her harrowing and arduous return home from exile. A hand-built rock wall, it is the largest monument to a Native American woman, and can be visited on a short trip outside Florence.
The city of Florence was founded in 1818 and served as the transshipment point for traffic between the upper and lower parts of the Tennessee River. The Muscle Shoals were an obstacle to river traffic, a problem ultimately solved in the early twentieth century by the construction of Wilson Dam (1918–24), which raised the water level and replaced an earlier, less successful canal detour (Davidson 1946). Wilson Dam (which you can see on the right of the cover photo), the first of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) dams, also provides hydropower and attracted the aluminum processing industry to the area. Today Lauderdale County, where Florence is located, and neighboring Colbert County, have both an agricultural (corn, cotton, soybeans, chickens) base as well as an industrial one.
During and preceding the Civil War, Florence was a temporary home to Dred Scott, Nathan Bedford Forrest, John Bell Hood, and William T. Sherman, who used the current Geography building, Wesleyan Hall (built in 1855, Figure 1), as his headquarters, and his journals written there contain the famous phrase “War is hell” (McDonald 1991). [End Page 193]
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Florence’s fame today largely rests on its outstanding music heritage. W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues,” was born and raised in Florence, and his house is now a museum. Several recording studios opened in the Shoals Region beginning with FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Recording Studios (Figure 2) in 1959 (Ells 2015). Within the next two decades other studios opened, including Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and [End Page 194] Cypress Moon Studios (Whitley 2014). Artists who recorded at these studios include Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Little Richard, Cher, Jimmy Buffett, Bob Seger, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, The Commodores, George Jones, the Oak Ridge Boys, Duane Allman, and many others. These studios are still very much in business and can be visited on guided tours. The music empresario Sam Phillips—who discovered and produced Elvis Presley, Howlin’ Wolf, and Johnny Cash—was born in Florence and had a close connection to the city. The region’s musical tradition is continued by Jason Isbell/Drive By Truckers, John Paul White/The Civil Wars, the Alabama Shakes, and...