Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Tuscaloosa’s small town charm survives

Stately oaks, with their knotted trunks and sweeping branches, have offered shady hospitality along the avenues of Tuscaloosa’s historic district for over a century. These trees are gracefully reminiscent of another era in time, when this thriving metropolis was a lazy Southern town known as “The City of Oaks.”

Druid is the Celtic word for “oak,” according to an ancient myth that says the Druids were teacher-priests of a religion that worshipped oak trees. According to “Tuscaloosa” by Johnnie Aycock and Joe O’Dowell, a citizen named Thomas Maxwell first gave Tuscaloosa its famous nickname when he planted a central row of towering oak trees down a street. Street authorities followed Maxwell’s lead and eventually planted three rows of oaks along each street in the city.

Tuscaloosa came to be known as “The City of Oaks,” and later simply “Druid City,” as a tribute to the beautiful landscaping that made the grand Antebellum mansions just a little more timeless.

“I think the best way to get an idea of what downtown Tuscaloosa looked like in the past is to look at the front of the Battle-Friedman House that was built around 1835,” Katherine Mauter, executive director of the Tuscaloosa Preservation Society, said. “If you look at a picture of it in the 1890‘s and early 1900‘s, these are the same trees that were originally in front of the house.”

Mauter said she imagines other homes similar to the Battle-Friedman House on every single block to get an idea of what Greensboro Avenue used to look like.

“There were columned antebellum-style homes that went up and down both sides of the street,” Mauter said.  “At one time it was referred to as ‘Millionaire’s             Way,’ because there were so many nice houses right next to each other.”

University Boulevard used to be Broad Street, and Mauter said that was the main thoroughfare that housed all of the restaurants and businesses in town in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, like the modern-day Strip.

“Other than that, it was just homes,” she said. “The historic districts you see today are where people lived if you came to town around the turn of the century. It’s a very different time today, to say the least.”

Ellen Tendley, a financial specialist with the University’s history department, has lived in Tuscaloosa for 48 years, and in her lifetime alone, she has seen the city undergo some major changes.

“When I was growing up, my family did not travel on Skyland Boulevard very often because it was so wooded,” Tendley said. “My mother didn’t feel safe on that road in the evenings.”

Tendley said McFarland Boulevard did not have any traffic lights on it and was often referred to as the “bypass.”

“Tuscaloosa used to end at the river,” Tendley said. “Northport was on one side of the water and Tuscaloosa was on the other, and we had a drawbridge connecting the two. Greensboro was the main road going through.”

Tendley vividly remembers shopping in downtown Tuscaloosa as a child, when selection was limited.

“If you wanted shoes, you bought them at Stein’s,” Tendley said. “There was a JC Penney’s and four or five men’s clothing shops. Where you would go to Midtown or the mall now— that was downtown.”

Before Yogurt Lab or Yogurt Mountain had even been imagined, Tendley said she would buy scoops of ice cream where the radiator building sits now on Jack Warner Parkway.

“On River Road, there was a little green building. We used to go in one side and buy scoops of ice cream from the freezers there.”

She remembers the river would flood near that building frequently. Every time the meteorologists predicted heavy rains, she said the nearby Chevrolet place was forced to move their cars up the hill to avoid flooding.

Despite the renovations and inventions through the decades, however, the heart of Tuscaloosa hasn’t changed a bit, according to Tendley.

“As big as we’ve gotten, I think we still feel like a small town,” she said.

And walking beneath the outstretched limbs of the magnificent oak trees interspersed throughout the streets of the Historic District, one might have to agree that an acorn of old Tuscaloosa charm still endures.

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