October 2015
Homeplace & Community

Living History

Museum Director Kerry Dunaway and Grove Hill Chamber Director Cheryl Horton participate in the festivities.  

Excitement mounts in Grove Hill as Pioneer Day approaches.

Excitement is mounting as time draws near for the 18th annual Pioneer Day. October 31, thousands from all over Alabama and surrounding states will converge on the small town of Grove Hill to participate in the yearly living-history festival. Sponsored by the Clarke County Historical Museum, the event grew out of a desire to preserve the heritage and old ways of the early settlers of Clarke County. The festival seeks to pass on these traditions and lifestyles to younger generations.

All festival events are held on the grounds of the Clarke County Museum, located at 116 Cobb Street. The Museum itself is housed in the old Alston-Cobb Home, an 1854 plantation plain-type home that was saved from demolition and restored by the Clarke County Historical Society. Another point of interest is an 1830 two-pen log cabin, known as the Mathews Cabin. Nearby is an early 1900s corncrib restored with wood that came from Fort Turner, a fort used in the 1813 Creek War. Also, the Creagh Law Office is nearby. This facility, now used by the Grove Hill Chamber of Commerce, was built in 1834 and used as an attorney’s office.

In 1998, Clarke County Museum Director Kerry Dunaway was looking for a means to keep the area’s old-timey ways alive. With help from the Clarke County Historical Society, Dunaway came up with an idea to teach living history that people could participate in. The group decided to sponsor a festival that they termed "Pioneer Day." The first event drew about 200 people, but it has grown each year and now attracts thousands.

  Blue Herron, left, has been educating visitors on Creek Indian hunting practices since 1998.

The free event is unlike any other in Southwest Alabama. Costumed re-enactors demonstrate early life in Southwest Alabama with hands-on exhibits for both adults and children. The festival’s participants are professionals who do this for a living. They set up camps on the Museum’s grounds, making each area look like the early 1800s. The costumes are authentic, and the demonstrations are interactive. Visitors can actually sit in an area and become part of that re-enactment.

Demonstrations run simultaneously throughout the day from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Some of the demonstrations include soapmaking, blacksmithing and forging, bow and arrow making, candlemaking, flint knapping, basketweaving, butter churning, wool spinning, chair caning, ropemaking, dough-bowl making, quilting, rug hooking, primitive fire building, corn shelling, clothes washing, Native American finger weaving, old-fashioned oak shingle making and Indian pottery making.

One demonstration, unique to Clarke County, is saltmaking. Clarke County sits on a salt dome, but unlike other areas, where salt must be mined, the salt flows freely from artesian wells. The water from these wells has more salinity than the Gulf of Mexico. Three gallons of water from these wells would produce one gallon of salt. Since salt was necessary for preserving meat, people came from all over the Southeast to make their salt. In the 1860s, this area was one of the top sources for salt. At one time, over 7,000 men worked at three different salt works in the Jackson area. Although the Museum has a permanent salt exhibit set up at all times, visitors to the festival will be able make their own salt from water extracted from the local wells.

A big draw at the festival is the cooking demonstration. Re-enactors set up chuck wagons and cook over campfires, like people did in the 1850s and ’60s. Homemade campfire pies are the biggest draw here, but many other foods are cooked and sold on site. Seats are available in this venue, and some visitors stay at this event all day.

One popular event returning this year is the Creek Indian Hunting Camp exhibit. Blue Heron will show how Indians lived and the clothing these early inhabitants wore. He will demonstrate how to throw tomahawks, tan different animal hides, build fires and make weapons.

Huhsosah Tallahassee Traditional Creek Stomp Dancing will again be taught on the premises. The teachers will explain each step and what the movement means in their culture. Then they will teach the dance to willing participants.

Winky Hicks and Frontier Bluegrass will be on hand to provide live music.  

The Museum always plans a special new exhibit each year. This year, they will showcase the "Dead Towns of Clarke County." On display will be artifacts from towns that no longer exist. Some of these towns include Alameda, Nealton, Choctaw Corner and Suggsville, at one time was the largest town in Clarke County and had the first newspaper in this area.

Two other popular attractions are the antique tractor show and the hit-and-miss engines exhibit. Dunaway says there is still time for participants to register for these events.

There will be many events designed just for kids. A Barnyard Petting Zoo will be open, with many farm animals for the kids to enjoy. Both kids and adults can participate in an assortment of old-fashioned games, free of charge.

Local musician and instrument maker, Winky Hicks, and Frontier Bluegrass will again be on hand to provide live music. Some of the best local cooks in the area will have homemade baked goods for sale. In addition, the Grove Hill Lions Club will have general concessions for those who want something other than period food. Hot chocolate, coffee and water will be available throughout the venues. There will be plenty of seating for everyone. Also, ample parking is easily accessible for all visitors.

Dunaway is proud of the festival and what it now means to this area.

"When we began this event in 1998, we had no idea it would grow to become what it has," Dunaway said. "Not only have we saved old-fashioned skills from extinction through apprenticeships but also both adults and children leave the event with a first-hand, personal experience. We are taking history out of books and bringing it to life."

The Clarke County Museum invites everyone to come to Pioneer Day and experience living history at its best. There is definitely something for everyone!

For information about the festival, contact the Clarke County Museum at 251-275-8684 or by email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; visit their website at www.clarkecountymuseum.com; or find them on Facebook. Their address is P.O. Box 388 or 116 W. Cobb Street; Grove Hill, AL 36451. You can also call the bookstore at 251-275-2014. 

For information about places to stay in and around Grove Hill, call the Museum or the Grove Hill Chamber of Commerce at 251-275-4188.

Carolyn Drinkard is a freelance writer from Thomasville.