Historic town opens its arms to visitors
By John N. Felsher
In April 1865, 4,000 Union Army soldiers under Gen. Benjamin H. Grierson approached Eufaula, a port town on the Chattahoochee River. Many southern cities had already burned down during the Civil War. The people of Eufaula, relatively untouched by the war so far, braced for the worst. Generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph Johnson had both recently surrendered the two largest Confederate armies, ending the war and sparing the town.
Consequently, many historic mansions and other buildings in the town built on high bluffs along the Chattahoochee remain intact. With the largest historic district in eastern Alabama and second largest in the state, Eufaula has more than 700 buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Six former Alabama governors plus Admiral Thomas Moorer, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had all lived in the town named for the Creek word describing high bluffs.
Each year in April, the people of Eufaula celebrate how they escaped the devastation suffered by so many other Southern communities by opening their historic homes to visitors during the Eufaula Pilgrimage. Presented by the Eufaula Heritage Association, the 54th annual Eufaula Pilgrimage will run April 5-7.
“The great tradition continues as we prepare for another Eufaula Pilgrimage,” proclaims Jack Tibbs, mayor of Eufaula. “We’re excited to see old friends and make new ones as visitors come to enjoy our beautiful city. This year, the Pilgrimage should be better than ever with great shopping opportunities, restaurants, antique shows and much more. We look forward to seeing you this spring in beautiful Eufaula.”
Each year, approximately 7,000 visitors head to the town of about 13,000 residents to tour the participating historic homes and experience other events. In 2019, the Pilgrimage will open 12 homes to the public, some during daylight hours and some for nighttime tours.
“In 1965, 100 years after the Civil War ended, the Eufaula Heritage Association was formed to prevent the loss and destruction of the town’s historic treasures,” says Pam Snead, the association executive director. “The association purchased the Shorter Mansion and started the Eufaula Pilgrimage as a way to raise funds to maintain the mansion. We held the first Eufaula Pilgrimage in 1966. This is the longest running home tour in the state. Besides the Shorter Mansion, all the other homes open to the public this year are privately owned except for Fendall Hall, which is owned by the state.”
Many Pilgrimage events occur at the Shorter Mansion at 340 N. Eufaula Ave., one of the main roads through town. The mansion dates back to 1884 when Eli Sims Shorter of Macon, Ga., built it as a more humble home than the elegant mansion that stands today. In the early 1900s, an extensive renovation turned it into a Greek Revival mansion. The mansion appeared in several movies, most prominently, the 2002 film “Sweet Home Alabama” with Reese Witherspoon. Besides the hosting location for the Pilgrimage, the mansion also serves as a museum.
Construction on Fendall Hall began in 1856. During the Pilgrimage, evening visitors to the antebellum mansion can watch local citizens dressed in period clothing talking about the families that owned Fendall Hall during a candlelight tour. Among the other characters, re-enactors play Anna Beall Young Dent, the second owner of Fendall Hall, and her husband, Capt. S.H. Dent, a Confederate war hero during the Civil War.
“It takes the entire town to put on the Eufaula Pilgrimage each year,” Snead says. “Besides the people who open up their homes to the public, we have about 700 volunteers. Many young ladies wear antebellum dresses. Everyone puts in a lot of time and effort to get everything just right. In some homes, the architecture is the most important thing. In other homes, it might be the antique furnishings or the history of the building, but they all have great histories.”
During home tours and other events, musicians play instruments such as fiddles, flutes or dulcimers. At the library, children dress up like historical figures and talk about their characters. People can also enjoy the outdoor art show on the Randolph Street median, which runs parallel to Eufaula Avenue. Visitors can also participate in afternoon teas at the mansion, an antiques show, photo exhibits and other activities.
“We always invite a featured speaker to make a presentation at the Eufaula Pilgrimage luncheon,” Snead says. “This year, Megan Larussa, a stylist from Birmingham, will be teaching the women different ways to dress with ease. The luncheon takes place on April 6 at the Eufaula Country Club. On the Sunday of the Pilgrimage, we always hold a brunch at the Shorter Mansion to give our visitors something good to eat before they head home. It’s a wonderful meal.”
Another point of interest
Many people stay at Lakepoint Resort State Park just outside of town. People could stay at the park lodge, which offers hotel-style rooms, a first-class restaurant and many other amenities. Some visitors prefer to rent a cabin or lakeside cottage. Others like staying in recreational vehicles parked in the campground. For state park information, see alapark.com/lakepoint-state-park.
The park sits on Lake Eufaula, one of the best fishing lakes in the nation. Created by a dam on the Chattahoochee River, Lake Eufaula spreads across 45,181 acres spanning part of the Alabama-Georgia border. Officially called Walter F. George Reservoir, the impoundment provides outstanding fishing for largemouth bass, crappie, catfish, bream and other species. Some bass exceed 10 pounds.
People who can’t make the spring Pilgrimage might consider visiting Eufaula on Dec. 7. Each year since 2005, the town has held a one-day Christmas Tour of Homes. This year, it will feature six historic homes.
“It’s absolutely beautiful!” Snead says. “It’s been a huge success for us. Besides the home tours, we’ll have a wonderful lunch at the Shorter Mansion. Everything will be beautifully decorated for the holidays.”
People can purchase tickets for the various events and activities. For complete schedules and other information, call 1-888-EUFAULA (888-383-2852) or visit eufaulapilgrimage.com.