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Finding Treasure in Tuscaloosa

James Peale: George Washington at Yorktown

I recently made my first trip to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that southern city with the funny sounding name. Seems it derives from the Choctaw Indian chief Tuskaloosa and from two Choctaw words, “Tushka”, meaning warrior, and the “Lusa”, meaning black.  Well, now I also know where Tuscaloosa’s river, the Black Warrior, got its name. Much to my surprise, the city, which is home to the University of Alabama,  brims with fantastic museums. But who knew?

The Westervelt Warner Museum of American Art lies in the hilly woodlands off Lake Tuscaloosa. I found masterpieces displayed in a home-like setting: a living and dining room, library and even a tavern room with a bar. Why the ladies restroom is hung with 11 Mary Cassatt’s. The priceless objects range from a Paul Revere engraving to current artists and include sculpture, china and furniture. The poignant collection, amassed by Jack Warner, recalls our nation’s struggles and growth. Jack is both a passionate historian and patriot.

Hopper: Dawn Before Gettysburg

I was surprised to find that he often gives tours, even at age 92. I was lucky enough to meet both Jack and his wife, Susan, and saw firsthand the excitement and fulfillment they get from sharing their treasures. Give yourself a full morning or afternoon to see the famous works you likely thought were elsewhere.

Moundville Archeological Park, owned by the University of Alabama, is an unpretentious 326- acre preserve. Moundville was the center for 10,000 Mississippian Indians over 800 years ago. Her people built  flat-topped mounds as ceremonial structures and homes for their nobles. A stockade once surrounded the settlement, but is long gone. However, twenty-eight hills remain and you can climb them. The tallest, at 58 feet, was used by the chief. I took the steps up to the top and tried to imagine this lost civilization. I could see the symmetrical layout and fortunately I’d toured the museum first, so my visualizations of daily life ran quite colorful.

Inside the Moundeville Museum
Inside the Moundville Museum

The museum underwent a ten year, $5-million renovation and officially reopens on May 15th. I managed a sneak peek. First, I was greeted by symbols of Native American culture like hawks and eagles, which are mounted on wooden heraldic (totem) poles. Then, I entered and found life-size characters dressed for a wedding. Further on, I bumped into a medicine man hiding in a cave or as the curators call it, an earthlodge. He steals the thunder performing a 3-D hologram-like show about a journey into the afterlife. The Disney-type encounter grabs the attention of  kids and adults alike.  Don’t overlook the significant archeological artifacts contained within the interactive display cases throughout the building. To make the park even more family friendly, camping is an option.

Coach Bryant
Coach Bryant

I couldn’t go to Tuscaloosa and miss the University campus. Last year the Crimson Tide once again won the National Football Championship and the Waterford trophy proudly resides within the Bear Bryant Museum. I found some of the art, like the collage in the photo, were painstaking works of devotion. The museum houses memorabilia covering the history of college football and features the famous hound’s-tooth hat wearing coach. Sports fans could spend many hours in this place.

Mercedes-Benz Visitor Center

The luxury German auto manufacturer Mercedes Benz maintains their only US production facility in Tuscaloosa, which greatly benefits the local economy. Car enthusiasts are attracted by factory tours.  Anyone 12 and older can tour on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but by reservation only. You’ll get an up-close look at assembly lines and cars being built by the combined efforts of mechanical robot and human hands. My detailed account of this tour can be found at www.automotivetraveler.com.

Tourism Bureau
Tourism Bureau within the Jemison-Van de Graff Mansion

I also stopped by the Tourism Bureau and picked up a free audio tour of the downtown. The city boasts some unusual architecture and an array of elegant to down-home restaurants. Dreamland BBQ is known far and wide for their oven pit barbequed ribs. My restaurant reviews can be found on my food blog.

Indeed, I found Tuscaloosa a real treat. Her museums bring unexpected delights.

If you go:  Tuscaloosa is in West Alabama, about a two and a half hour drive from Atlanta, Georgia or one hour from Birmingham, Alabama.   www.visittuscaloosa.com