Alabama Road Trip No. 10
Monroeville: The "To Kill a Mockingbird" Experience
by Edith Parten
As the home of Nelle Harper Lee and her neighbor and childhood friend Truman Capote, Mark Childress – the acclaimed author of the novel Crazy in Alabama – and other distinguished writers, Monroeville is considered the “Literary Capital of Alabama.”
Each spring, in addition to performances of To Kill a Mockingbird, Monroeville hosts the Alabama Writers Symposium at Alabama Southern Community College (AL Hwy. 21 S.; 251-575-8226). This literary festival brings together some of the state’s most distinguished writers and scholars for a weekend of lectures, readings and discussion, with the highlight of the symposium being the presentation the Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Year.
While experiencing the history and heritage of Monroeville, be sure and take notice of the clock tower on the historic Monroe County Courthouse on the town square. Inextricably woven into the fiction of Lee and Capote, the clock not only symbolizes the passing of time, but is a symbol of the town’s proud literary heritage.
Tour the Old Courthouse Museum
Your visit to Monroeville should begin on the courthouse square with a tour of the Old Courthouse Museum (31 N. Alabama Ave., Monroeville; 251-575-7433). Through photos and exhibits, you will discover personal stories about Harper Lee, known to her friends as Nelle, and others surrounding her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. You will also get a glimpse into the life of Truman Capote, the famed author of the 1966 book In Cold Blood. Capote spent much of his childhood in Monroeville and was not only Lee’s neighbor, but the two also became close friends. Photographs of Capote and Lee can be seen in the second floor exhibit.
To Kill a Mockingbird, which has been performed in Monroeville for more than 22 years, will take you back in time.
Visit the gift shop where you will find unique items related to Lee’s novel as well as crafts and other items from the local area, such as stone-ground grits from Rikard’s Mill in nearby Beatrice. While in the historic courthouse, walk up the steps to see the courtroom made world famous by the novel and movie. You can feel free to move throughout the courtroom. Walk up to the balcony area to imagine scenes from the famous trial. See the witness chair, judge’s bench and tables used by the prosecutor and defense attorney during the trial. Throughout her childhood, Harper Lee, herself, often sat in the balcony as she watched her father practice law in the very same courtroom.
The Annual Performances of To Kill a Mockingbird
Plan your visit to Monroeville to coincide with the annual performances of To Kill a Mockingbird (251-575-7433; map), from mid-April through mid-May. This play, which has been performed here for more than 22 years, will take you back in time.
Set in the 1930s in the fictional town of Maycomb, Ala., the novel tells the story of a black man named Tom Robinson who is accused of attacking a white woman and goes to trial during a time when racial discrimination was legal and culturally accepted in the South. It is also a coming-of-age story of a young girl named Scout and the imaginations of her brother Jem and her childhood friend, Dill. Locals say that the character of Dill is based upon Truman Capote.
While watching the all-local cast perform, you will develop a fondness for Robinson as well as his lawyer Atticus Finch, the father of Scout and Jem. And, you will meet characters like Arthur “Boo” Radley, a recluse and one of the novel’s “mockingbirds,” described by critics as “a good person injured by the evil of mankind.”
The first act of the two-act play takes place at the amphitheatre on the lawn of the Courthouse Museum. Act II takes place inside the historic courtroom. Once inside the courtroom, you will see the trial unfold as Finch makes a passionate plea in Robinson’s defense. The members of the jury are always selected from the audience, so you might get a shot at sitting on the jury during the second act.
A prerequisite for your visit to Monroeville is to purchase your tickets early. This is a very popular event and tickets sell fast. In addition to the main performances, which feature a VIP reception on certain nights, special performances are held for various groups, including young audiences. Group tickets (10 or more) and tickets for museum members go on sale in January. General public ticket sales begin the first of March. Tickets may be purchased by phone (251-575-7433) or in person.
The Birdhouse Trail
Continue your tour of Monroeville with a stroll through the downtown area to see some of the fascinating custom-designed birdhouses along the Birdhouse Trail (251-743-2879). The trail includes 25 uniquely crafted structures located throughout Monroe County. Highlighted in different scenes, the wooden birdhouses are the handiwork of area residents who designed, constructed and painted them. Many of the birdhouse designs depict scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird. Taking a picture standing by one of the birdhouses will make for a fun photo to remember your trip.
While experiencing downtown Monroeville, you will also see the themed To Kill a Mockingbird mural on the side of the building at the intersection of North Alabama and Claiborne. Next to the mural is a historic marker highlighting Monroeville’s past.
More to See and Do in Monroeville
Art galleries are also popular in Monroeville. As you stroll along the square, be sure to stop and explore some of the quaint shops. A good stop is Pottery by Williams (173 N. Mount Pleasant; 251-282-0844 or 251-743-3563), a working studio where you will discover unique art made from clay, including a wonderful collection of Sam Williams’ folk pottery. His displays include popular face jugs featuring the likes of President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and others. At the pottery shop, you can purchase bottles, vases and face jugs, or have something custom made.
Be sure to make your way to The Art Room (50 N. Alabama Ave.; 251-743-2190) where you can discover your own artistic talent by signing up for art lessons and creating your own painting. You can also enjoy the unique gifts and paintings offered by the owner. Across the street at 36 E. Claiborne, you will find another art studio, the Purple Papaya (251-593-7449). This has become an interesting studio/gallery, specializing in art classes that include a variety of mediums – from paintings and drawings to printmaking and pottery throwing.
Stop in for books about Monroeville, the Black Belt region and Alabama at Beehive Coffee and Books (11 W. Claiborne St.; 251-575-4193). Housed in a former warehouse, the shop has original brick walls with a comfortable sofa where you can sit and enjoy a book and a cup of coffee or a cool beverage.
You can end your tour in downtown Monroeville with a stop at the Katherine Lee Rose Garden & War Memorial Gazebo. Located at Monroe County’s new courthouse (65 N. Alabama Ave.; 251-743-2879), the garden features more than 90 different roses maintained by the garden club. The gazebo is used for weddings and other functions.
Where To Eat
Got a sweet tooth? Have a cool treat at Mel’s Dairy Dream (216 S. Alabama Ave.; 251-743-2483), located on the site of Harper Lee’s former house. Additional dining options include the Mockingbird Grill(305 N. Mount Pleasant Ave.; 251-575-2568), Sweet Tooth Bakery (5 W. Claiborne St.; 251-575-7040), Courthouse Cafe (27 W. Claiborne St.; 251-743-3663) and Radley’s Fountain Grille (1559 S. Alabama Ave.; 251-743-2345). You will find Radley’s BLT Supreme, featured in the “100 Dishes To Eat in Alabama Before You Die” brochure, to be an excellent menu choice. For a complete list of area restaurants, visit www.monroecountyal.com.
Where To Stay
Monroeville has several affordable hotels available for overnight lodging. Holiday Inn Express (120 Hwy. 21 S.; 251-743-3333), Days Inn (4389 S. Alabama Ave.; 251-743-3297), and Best Western Inn (4419 S. Alabama Ave.; 251-575-9999) are all located just minutes from downtown. Bed and breakfast options, such as The Loft (1594 Mexboro Road, Frisco City) in the Mexia community and the Mary Elizabeth Stallworth House in Beatrice (1197 Main Street), are short drives away. For a complete list of area accommodations, visit www.monroecountyal.com.
While in the Monroeville area, you may also want to visit Rikard’s Mill Historical Park (4116 Highway 265 N; Beatrice; 251-789-2781) in Beatrice. The mill site is a nod to the folk traditions of grist-milling, blacksmithing and cane syrup making. Settled among pine trees alongside Flat Creek, the park reopens each spring during the same time frame as the To Kill a Mockingbird performances, making it an excellent enhancement to your road trip experience.
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