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Wiregrass Murals at Dothan Alabama Honour the Peanut and More!

Alabama Town Gains Tourism Boom after Mayor launches Murals Project

[Chris McBeath reports in Vancouver Island's Times Colonist October 16, 2004]

A small town in Alabama seems an unlikely place to find a piece of Vancouver Island, but, inspired by the murals of Chemainus, Dothan has taken out a new lease of life. For the last 10 years, city fathers have been creating a new tourism economy in a region that hitherto had been largely dependent on peanuts and call centres. Today, visitors stay longer than an overnight respite, and it's all thanks to Chemainus.


"We stumbled across Chemainus while vacationing in Canada in the summer of 1992 and were enchanted with its murals," says Larry Register, then Mayor of Dothan.

"When we learned their history, and how they have helped attract new industry and develop an almost non-existent tourism business, we realized that we could do the same in Dothan."

Located at the crossroads that take holiday makers to either Panama City or the Florida Coast, Dothan had been a non-descript, drive-through community. With no reason to stay, many thousands of travellers would take the bypass around the town and leave the community in the wake of their exhaust.

So, when the Registers recounted their Chemainus experience to Don Fabiani, then Executive Director of the Dothan Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, and to Wendell Stepp, an official of Dothan's Downtown Group, it wasn't long before local businesses rallied behind the concept and formed the Wiregrass Festival of Murals.

Dr Karl Schutz, the Chemainus visionary, was contacted and agreed to lead a mural project Workshop in Dothan ... and the project was launched. Dothan's vast wallscapes are a museum of the community's history and culture.

The first, painted in 1993 at a cost of $US 48,000, is 45 metres long and nine metres high. Celebrating the humble peanut it features Dr. George Washington Carver who, by persuading farmers to plant soil-enriching peanuts instead of tobacco and cotton, virtually revolutionized agriculture in the U.S. South.

He then went on to develop more than 300 products derived from the peanut ranging from wood filler, washing powder and shampoo to facial cleanser, axle grease and ink.

One mural salutes local resident Sherman Rose who, during the Second World War, trained many of the 450 black fighter pilots in nearby Tuskegee. The Tuskegee Airmen destroyed 261 enemy fighters in the air and on the ground, and never lost a single B-52 bomber under their escort to enemy planes.

Johnny Mack Brown is another Dothanian with his own wall. Once the most recognized cowboy hero on the silver screen, this local icon parlayed his good looks and athletic ability - he was an all-American halfback on the University of Alabama football team - into a 40-year Hollywood career that included roles in 168 movies and televisions series.

Other walls depict scenes from the Steamboat era; the Dothan riot reputed to have been as dramatic as the famous shootout at the OK Corral; nearby Fort Rucker; the Cherry Street African Methodist Episcopal church - the oldest in Alabama - and others.

As always, Murals were the fillip for much more besides

The murals have instilled such enthusiasm in Dothan residents that many other tourism-related projects have been launched.

One example is the 20-hectare Dothan Area Botanical Garden. Supported solely by donations and an army of volunteers, this one-time millet farm has been transformed into several beautifully themed and indigenous gardens.

The Peanut Trail is a more whimsical project. Throughout the downtown core you'll find four-foot-tall peanuts decked out in various personae such as Cheerleader Peanut, Radio Host Peanut and a tour bus. There's even an Elvis look-alike.

For many, Dothan will still be considered a drive-by. But those who choose to stop will be amply rewarded. Indeed, the figures speak for themselves. In 2002, tourism grew by eight per cent, only to surge forward a further 14 per cent in 2003.

Such success is, perhaps, best seen in the murals themselves. Of the 14 completed to date (more are added each year), not one has been vandalized or harmed in any way - not even a stroke of graffiti.

With a pride that's almost palpable, Dothanians themselves have proven to be the community's best custodians. When coupled with their innate southern hospitality, the days of bypassing this township are surely numbered.

Published Date: October 17th 2004

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