Maybe you’ll first feel it on top of a hill called Monte Sano. There’s a park there, site of a mansion, a reconstructed village, picnic grounds, and woods thick with underbrush and ivy. Part the leaves and you can look out at the entire city of Huntsville, the airport, a golf course, the university.
Or maybe you’ll catch the feeling at Constitution Hall Park, a square right in the downtown area where history is reenacted next door to office buildings and city traffic. Blacksmiths and carpenters, candlemakers and weavers, practice their crafts just as they did back in the 1800s. Visit at the right time of day, and someone will guide you through the building where, in 1819, Alabama’s first constitution was drafted as a prerequisite to statehood.
While you’re downtown, stroll along Church Street to the railroad depot, where graffiti penciled by Civil War soldiers is still preserved under glass. Or wander through the Twickenham Historic District where mansions line the streets. Or chase the ducks at Big Spring Park and throw a pebble in the Indian Creek Canal, once used by plantation owners to float their cotton to the Tennessee River. Maybe you’ll catch the feeling there.
Or you might catch it when you take a simulated space flight at the Alabama Space and Rocket Center, “earth’s most massive space museum,” or when you’re reminded that this is Rocket City, the town where Dr. Werner von Braun and his colleagues conducted their early experiments, the site today of one of the U.S. space program’s largest complexes.
Or maybe the feeling will sneak up on you when you’re standing in a cotton patch or a sweet potato field. Or when you’re chasing crawfish up the creek and accidentally find an authentic Indian arrowhead. Or maybe when you’re all alone out on the swamp, just you and your boat, wondering what creatures might lurk nearby and hoping that only the fish are biting.
The feeling might best be described as the spirit of Huntsville. It’s a spirit that stretches back for its roots, but yearns to leap into a bright, progressive future. It’s a spirit that appreciates heritage but isn’t tethered by tradition, that loves city life but isn’t afraid to relax in the country. It’s a spirit that says, “This is a great place to live, and I’m proud to be part of it,” the same sort of spirit that makes you feel you can achieve anything if you work at it.
In the center of Huntsville, where the old highway meets the state road, there’s a billboard meant to promote the local aerospace industry. But its message also defines the spirit of the city.
“The sky’s not the limit,” the billboard says. It’s a motto that could well be adopted by the youth of the Huntsville Second Ward.
Consider Gene Walker, for example. Gene’s a 17-year-old, first assistant to the president of the priests quorum. He likes to make ceramics, set up model trains, write, paint landscapes, study horticulture, and, in his own words, “to serve others.” He’s the sort of guy who takes time to try to reactivate people, who prays about sharing the gospel with friends at school.
Gene spends his spare time helping his family restore an elegant old home. “It’s not always easy to live here and work here at the same time,” he says. “But when we get it done, it will be beautiful.”
Gene has learned a lot about aiming high by following the example of his mother.
“When she was 16 she contracted polio. Doctors said she’d never walk again, or that if she did walk, she’d never have children. But she worked her way from braces to crutches to a cane. And she went ahead and had four sons. I’m the youngest.”
Even though his mom is currently confined to a wheelchair, the doctors are now saying she should be able to walk again.
Or, for another example, take the Second Ward girls who go to Monrovia Jr. High. A couple of years ago, Monya Baker, now 13, was the first Latter-day Saint ever to attend the school. She and Cay Parry, 14, the Mia Maid president, recalled the early days at Monrovia.
“At first it seemed like everybody was watching, judging the Church by me,” Monya said.
There were questions. “You can’t drink iced tea? Oh, you poor thing.” “Why are you dancing? Mormons can’t dance.” “Aren’t you the ones that don’t believe in Christ?” “Are you the religion that kisses snakes?”
But slowly, just by being themselves and holding to what’s right, Monya and Cay let people know they’re normal.
“I was telling a friend of mine that I come from a big family,” Cay said. “I told her about standing in line at the airport when my dad came back from a business trip, how people’s chins dropped when they saw five kids waiting for the same dad. My friend laughed and said, ‘They must have thought y’all were Mormons.’
“I turned to my other friend and said, ‘Should I tell her? Should I tell her?’
“And the first friend said, ‘Tell me what?’
“Then I said, ‘I am Mormon.’ I think she was bright red with embarrassment for the rest of the day.”
Some time after Monya broke the ice at Monrovia, several other Latter-day Saint families moved into the area. Now there are eleven Latter-day Saints attending the school, and it seems just about everybody knows who they are. This year, eight of eleven students in the school’s gifted program are LDS. Four of the members of the school’s math team are LDS. Several of the LDS students have advanced so far in their studies that they go over to the high school for some of their classes. Others have acted in community theater productions. There are LDS kids on the softball and volleyball teams. There’s one on the football team. Church members have been president of the student council, have won spelling bees and county science fairs, and, in short, have made themselves familiar to the student body.
“And no,” Cay laughed, “we’re not the ones who kiss snakes.”
Talk with the young Latter-day Saints of Huntsville, and the conversation is definitely upbeat. They love life, they love living in the South. They love the gospel and the joy it brings. Their talk is of victories, small and large, of life Southern style, of the joys of nature and the responsibilities of the priesthood, of the challenges of the future, which are really only opportunities in disguise.
“My mom and dad have a Western accent,” Gene said. “But I was born here in Huntsville. Then we moved to Hawaii for four years, so I learned how to speak in Hawaii, then I learned a Southern accent. So now you understand why I talk so funny. Anyway, I enjoy the South and I’ve been able to go out west. I’ve been able to go north. To me, it’s like most people say, the place where they grew up is the most beautiful place, and that’s why Huntsville is the most beautiful place to me.”
“I’ve lived in California, Utah, Virginia, Missouri, and the Marshall Islands,” Cay said.
“But when they say the South is friendly, they mean it’s friendly. You can ask a question to a store clerk and expect to be answered. And they smile at you. They don’t say, ‘Have a nice day—this is a recording.’ They say, ‘Have a nice day!’ It’s really unusual if somebody doesn’t smile and wave at you.”
“It’s the people that make Huntsville so nice,” said 14-year-old Christy McLemore, who, because her father’s work involves a lot of transfers, is living in the city for the fourth time. “And Church members are especially friendly. They all talk to me and make me feel welcome. And that’s important when you’re new. I try to be nice and friendly in return.”
“People in the Church should help new people,” Anne Hammons, 14, agreed. “You need to show them around, talk to them, and help them get involved. It helps to have friends at church as well as friends at school.”
Jimmy Prickett, 13, the first counselor in the deacons quorum, talked about his desire to serve a full-time mission when he turns 19.
“I want to be able to help others be in the Church,” he said. “People not in the Church don’t know the ways of the gospel. They need to hear about things like the Word of Wisdom.”
He talked with Eric Collingwood, 14, and Chris Lay, 12, about what it must have been like to be a missionary in the South in the early days of the Church.
“I bet it was stuffy and hot,” Jimmy said. “They didn’t have short sleeves back then. I bet it was hard when they were first starting out. It’s easier for missionaries now.”
David Worthington, 14, like a lot of young men his age in Huntsville, lives and breathes for football. He’s a halfback and linebacker for Buckhorn High. He talked about missions, about the example set by his older brothers who wrote to him regularly while they were serving and instilled in him the desire to do the same.
But mostly David talked about teamwork, a factor as important in the Church as it is on the gridiron.
“Everybody’s got to work together. You all have different skills. Some can teach; others might do better in service. A quarterback can’t score if nobody blocks for him. A priesthood leader can’t home teach the whole quorum by himself.”
Jared Hammons, 14, the president of the teachers quorum, echoed the same idea.
“You’ve got to keep everybody involved, help your quorum members to be friends, too. You can’t afford to leave anybody out. That’s why we try to plan good activities and invite anyone who’s inactive or who’s interested in the Church to come along.”
Jared knows what can happen when people talk to their neighbors about the Church.
“My parents joined the Church in Virginia because some people down the street sent the missionaries over. I’m really grateful that they did. I started thinking the other day about what I’d be like if I wasn’t a member. I think I’m pretty well off in the Church. I do have a testimony. I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet, that the priesthood has been restored to the earth, and that that power is here today.”
Noe Parry, 13, also knew the value of sharing the gospel. “I’m glad I’m a member,” she said. “I’ve always gone to church on Sundays. I’m happy when other people talk to me about the Church because I know people whose testimony got started that way.”
Melissa Prickett and Kathy Lau, both 15, spent a lot of time talking about rural life that is so much a part of Huntsville’s spirit.
“I enjoy the quiet when I’m out riding a horse,” Kathy said. “I can think about things, sort out problems. It helps me to feel closer to my Heavenly Father.”
Melissa loves to go fishing for the same reasons. “It’s peaceful out in nature. It helps to get away from hassles and see them from a distance.”
Both girls talked about their goal of temple marriage, and of their desire to live modest, clean lives to achieve that goal. They also spoke of their responsibility to younger girls, like 11-year-old Brandy Hammons, who will enter the Young Women program in three months.
“I’m so excited,” Brandy said. “I’m counting the days till I can start coming.”
Of course, there’s some fun involved in the spirit of Huntsville. You might observe it best by joining the Second Warders for a good old-fashioned barbecue. The meat is slow smoked in a hickory pit. And besides the pork, chicken, or beef, there’s cracklin’ cornbread, black-eyed peas, catfish, hushpuppies, maybe even some pickled pig’s feet.
“We have hearty appetites down here,” Gene explains.
While you eat, Gene and Cay will instruct you in the fine art of speaking Southern.
“I want to splain you some Southern,” Gene says in his most dignified voice.
“It’s not a creek here, it’s a crick. And when you pound a stake in the ground, you call it a stawve. You use a hosepipe to water your garden, and you always say howdy to the widderwoman who lives down the street.”
“You don’t carry something,” Cay continues; “you tote it. When you give someone a ride, that’s when you carry them—‘C’mon y’all, I’ll carry you down to church.’ And when you’re done, you fetch them back.”
Monya’s little sister, 12-year-old Claudia, then talks about street names she’s noticed in her neighborhood: Plumber Herman Road, Butter ’N Eggs Road, and the family favorite, Ticklebelly Hill, which is actually a nickname for Jeff Road, the street that leads to Monrovia.
Claudia also explains another time when it’s impossible not to feel the spirit of Huntsville.
“Once a year, all the girls in the city dress up like Southern belles, in fancy dresses with hoop skirts. The boys dress up like Rebel soldiers or Southern gentlemen. They light candles all around town as a reminder of all the cities that were burned during the Civil War, as the Northerners marched to the sea.”
Huntsville, though, was spared.
“The general who was supposed to burn the city fell in love with a young woman who lived here, so he spared the town. After the war, he came back and married her, and they lived in Huntsville.”
Their former home is still a landmark.
There are a lot of other facts you could learn about Huntsville. It was the first capital of Alabama. For two months, it was the capital of the Confederacy. Huntsville had the first municipal water system in the United States. Before the space program came, Huntsville was known as the watercress capital of the world.
Now Huntsville is a city that’s caught up in engineering, industry, and progress. A city with citizens who’ve lived here all their lives, and a city with citizens who’ve come from India, France, Nigeria, all over the United States, and everywhere else.
People who visit Huntsville do speak of the spirit here. They describe its friendliness, its ties to history, its cosmopolitan flavor, its surrounding cotton fields, woods, and streams.
But to truly understand all that Huntsville can be, young Latter-day Saints look at their city from a gospel point of view.
“I’m the only member of the Church in my school,” Gene explained. “Sometimes it seems like I’m the only one there that’s even trying to live the gospel. But then I think of all the marvelous things the gospel means. I have wonderful friends in the Church, people who believe in me, leaders who work with me. I know the Lord lives, and I know the Church is true. With that understanding, there’s no limit to the righteous things we can do.”