Heritage Center still a best kept secret in the county

Published 8:06 pm Friday, October 10, 2008

It’s a strange thing about human nature that we often take for granted those things that are closest to us. That especially holds true with area attractions.

There are millions of New Yorkers who have never visited the Statue of Liberty, or Washington DC residents who’ve never toured the Capitol building. The same can be said right here in Marengo County.

The Alabama Rural Heritage Center in Thomaston has been gaining statewide and regional attention as a top tourism attraction for the past few years, especially since 2005.

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That was when a project by the University of Auburn renovated the center and constructed a new 5,000 square foot facility.

“It still amazes me the number of Thomaston residents we have who come here for the first time,” said Barbara Akins, gift shop manager and tour guide at the center. “We need to get more local people to see what we have. This is something they can be very proud of.”

Earlier this year the center was highlighted in Southern Living Magazine and several regional publications. It has also been featured in the New York Times.

Housed in the former Marengo County High School – the oldest standing high school building in the state – the center displays and sells traditional folk art and crafts made by 107 rural Alabama artisans. It also includes an indoor and outdoor theater, football field converted into a garden, and restaurant — Mama Nem’s Bistro.

“We have a mixture of one-of-a-kind art items,” said Akin. “We have handmade quilts, pottery, folk art paintings, painted egg gourds, candles, soaps, music boxes and wooden toys, food, and so much more. Each item has an interesting story to tell about the artisan who created it.”

One prime example is a chapel music box. Made by local artisan Joe Lightsey, each of the large chapels features two music boxes, a Christmas carol and a hymn. The tin he uses for his structures comes from the roof of an 1890’s Marion Junction, Ala. home.

“Even though they may have been here before, visitors always seem excited at the prospect of finding something new and the stories behind the items and artisans,” said Akin.

The Center’s theater is home to some of the area’s funniest southwest Alabama humor. It’s next offering will be a one-act comedy by Alabama playwright Randy Marsh, “It’s Perfectly True!” set for Nov. 12. Lunch will be held at 12:30 p.m. followed by the show at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased from the Center by calling 334-627-3388.

Of course, the Heritage Center is famous for its line of pepper jellies, which is made from produce grown in the Center’s garden and prepared on-site.

Labeled as Mama Nem’s Pepper Jelly, a unique “pepper jelly wall” display case filled with red and green jars of their signature product welcomes visitors into the gift shop.

Akins said the ladies from the Center’s foundation board of directors has been using a recipe handed down to them from students at Auburn University. They meet once a month to prepare the ingredients and make the sweet and spicy concoction.

“We also have homemade strawberry and blackberry jams and jellies, plus exotic flavors such as green tomato-blueberry and kudzu blossom,” she said. “They also make squash and watermelon rind pickles.”

These crazy, but delicious creations have earned the Center a spot on the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel’s “100 Alabama Dishes to Eat before You Die” list.

The most recent addition to the center opened two years ago, the Mama Nem’s Bistro.

The bistro features a unique Southern menu – including some of the center’s original recipes – with offerings like Black Belt Eggs Benedict, Thomaston barbecue on a cheese biscuit, and the pepper jelly omelet, all prepared by executive chef Dodd Orton.

The bistro is open on Friday and Saturday nights from 6 to 9 p.m. and on Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“Chef Dodd also uses the bistro to hold etiquette classes for area schools and 4-H members,” said Akin. The Center can also accommodate receptions, class reunions, meetings and special events.

“Even if you have been to the Center recently, there is always something new to discover,” said Akin. “We are always excited and ready to show off our rural heritage.”

The Alabama Rural Heritage Center is located at 133 Sixth Avenue in Thomaston. It is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday – Friday and Saturday from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. For more information, go to www.craftsofalabama.com or call (334) 627-3388.