Demopolis, the largest city in Marengo County, Alabama and
known as the "City of the People", was founded by a group
of French expatriates, many of whom came to the United States
after fleeing a slave rebellion on the sugar plantations of
Haiti. Arriving first in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, they
petitioned the U.S. Congress to sell them property and received
permission to buy four townships at $2 per acre with the provision
that they cultivate grape vines and olive trees.
Following advice obtained from experienced Western pioneers, they determined that Alabama would provide a good climate for cultivating these crops. By July 14, 1817, a small party of pioneers had settled at White Bluff on the Tombigbee River, at the present site of Demopolis, founding the Vine and Olive Colony.
Due to a variety of adversities, including fever, their pioneering efforts were not the great success for which they had hoped. Within a few months they were to find that their new homes did not fall under the territories encompassed by the congressional approval, and the Vine and Olive Colony was soon forced to move. Olive tree remnants, reflecting their efforts, still survive in Demopolis along with the name (Greek for "City of the People") they gave their settlement.
Demopolis is a living museum. A typical representation of the town's history is the Laird Cottage/Geneva Mercer Museum. Restored 1870, this Greek revival and Italianate style house currently serves as the headquarters of the Marengo County Historical Society. This museum houses history exhibits and works of Geneva Mercer, a native artist and sculptor.
Other historic sites in Demopolis include White Bluff, the Demopolis Historic Business District, Demopolis Town Square, Gaineswood, Lyon Hall, Ash Cottage, the Curtis House, the Glover Mausoleum, and the Foscue-Whitfield House.
The 1949 John Wayne movie "The Fighting Kentuckian" is set in Demopolis and tells a story about an interaction with the original French settlers. Given its noble beginnings, Demopolis has always been a proud city with an aristocratic social culture.
According to a historical marker on the town square, Demopolis society was the inspiration for The Little Foxes, a Broadway play. A melodrama by Lillian Hellman, it was first performed in 1939, with Alabama-born actress Tallulah Bankhead giving a legendary performance in the lead role of Regina. This hit production ran a year on Broadway. The 1941 film version was directed by William Wyler and starred Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall and Teresa Wright, plus original Broadway cast members Patricia Collinge (Birdie), Charles Dingle (Ben), Dan Duryea (Leo), John Marriott (Cal) and Carl Benton Reid (Oscar). It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1941. In 1949 the play was adapted into an opera by Marc Blitzstein, under the title Regina.
Today, Demopolis is home to the Christmas on the River, a week-long annual Christmas festival filled with events culminating with a nighttime parade of boats lighted with Christmas-themed decorations on the Tombigbee River.
I think I am starting to sound like a broken record with what I am about to say. I have traveled up and down US Highway 43 for years without giving Demopolis a second look until last year. Mostly what I had remembered was going through the outskirts of town, passing the high school football field on each trip. Last year, my job with the US Census Bureau took me to downtown Demopolis. What a great surprise. I honestly thought it was one of the prettiest "small" towns I have seen. So much history and a great deal of it well preserved.
I was excited about going back on this trip. I did some research and discovered that it would take days to soak in everything there. Lucky for me, while I was out wondering the streets, I happened upon one of the residents of the historic district walking his dog. I asked Dennis a question and about four hours later we shook hands goodbye.
Dennis' dog had health problems caused by being overweight. From what I could tell, the "dog walking" is a daily ritual for those two. The dog cannot be in too bad of health, he managed to out walk me-not sure if that is good or bad.
Anyway, I got a grand tour of this magnificent city from the view of a resident that grew up there. He knew the history and families that I had been researching. What luck! Thanks Dennis, it was great!