Sunday, October 26, 2008

Florence, Alabama

Friends: As we were closing in on Florence, Alabama it suddenly dawned on us that we might have crossed into the Eastern time zone. Waydell could have checked the local time on her cell phone, as its satellite GPS feature keeps precise track of her location and could have let us know what time zone we were in. But the phone was buried deep in her handlebar bag. She tried rummaging for it as we rode, but couldn't easily dig it out or extract it from its case. We could have stopped, but if we'd lost that hour, we couldn't spare a moment in our race to reach the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in Alabama before its last tour of the day this Saturday afternoon at three p.m. If we missed it, the next one wouldn't be until Tuesday, two days away.

It was a little before two Central time and we were seven miles away. We were having a great day, our best yet, having come 63 miles already. We had been riding since 7:20 that morning after camping behind a Pentecostal church three miles north of Mildgeville, TN. It had been our coldest night of the trip--47 degrees in the tent when we arose at 6:40 and 41 degrees outside the tent. We were forced to put on tights for the first time. It wasn't a bad thing for Waydell, as she has been developing mysterious bruises on her legs. We didn't want to raise anyone's suspicions that I might be urging her on with extra force.

We whipped off a quick 20 miles to Savannah, TN, where we stopped for a hearty breakfast--Waydell an omelet and biscuits and gravy and I a three-stack of pancakes so huge and thick I could only eat half of them and could barely stuff the rest in my Tupperware bowl. It was fuel enough to get me to Florence. It looked as if it was going to be our first meal in two days since Cairo without someone coming over for a friendly chat. The waitress hadn't even expressed any extra cordiality or curiosity in our biking to insure a tip. I learned why when I went to pay our bill--a 20% gratuity was included in the bill, a sign of tough times that even on small bills people couldn't be trusted to leave a worthy tip.

The morning before in Dresden we spent half our breakfast in conversation with a local retired couple. Even before we were served, a woman from a nearby table came over to talk, at first standing over us and then pulling up a chair. She told us about a cyclist on a recumbent they had met two years before who had been traveling from Flagstaff, Arizona to New Hampshire. "He had a pony tail and looked like a hippie, though he said he taught at a small university," she said. She called over to her husband to ask if he could remember his blog. He said he couldn't, but mentioned that the guy had written about meeting them on his blog. "He told us he had been a lawyer in San Francisco," he said. "I couldn't believe it, but there it was on his blog. We bought him lunch and we're going to buy your breakfast. And we'll take care of the tip as well. We only ask that you pass the kindness on to someone else. That's what the other cyclist said he was going to do."

That has been the most extreme case of southern hospitality we have encountered so far, but there have been plenty of other examples. We've had several people offer us accommodations, but it has always been too early in the day for us to stop. Just as we were finishing our interruption-free breakfast in Savannah, we heard a guy, who had just entered the restaurant, tell a waitress, "No we don't want to eat, we just want to talk with those two over there." We looked up as two guys, one elderly and the other much younger, approached us. "We saw your bikes outside and we wanted to talk to you," the younger began. "I ride a bike too. I'm about the only cyclist in this town, but I'm trying to get others to bike too. I once rode from New Jersey to here." He asked what direction we were headed. We told him we were going to Alabama on route 69. He warned us to be careful. "There are so many accidents on that road it is known as Bloody 69," he said. "It has lots of bends and its narrow and there's no shoulder. I live along it and I hate to bike it."

"We've heard about it, " I said, "but we were hoping there wouldn't be too much commercial traffic on a Saturday morning." "Maybe not, but it's still dangerous. If you can survive this road, you can survive any road in the United States." He said he wished he could ride along with us for added protection, but that he and his dad were headed to the local flea market in Crump to look for bikes. We had passed it on the way into town, and were sorry ourselves that we couldn't give it a look. It was huge, strung out for over half a mile along the road. The guy we were talking to said he recently bought ten mountain bikes that were on sale in the Nashbar catalog to sell in town. The only bike shop in town had been driven out of business by Wal-Mart. Now there was no one to repair bikes except for him. It was just a side business, as his main occupation was trimming trees. He tried to be a bicycling ambassador, riding his bike as much as he could, even with a trailer hauling up to 200 pounds. He was another who said he would have offered us a place to stay if it had been later in the day.

It was 22 miles to Alabama and they were 22 of the most enjoyable miles we have ridden on this trip. "Bloody 69" gave us not a single fright or pause. There was hardly any traffic and the road was accompanied by a very ample 12-inch shoulder most of the way. Waydell even set a record for her fastest descent of the trip, nearly 40 miles per hour. She flew past me, as she is much more aerodynamic without front panniers. Aerodynamics trumps weight, as I weigh at least 20 pounds more than Waydell and am carrying perhaps 30 pounds more gear--our tent, tools, food, maps, books and other sundries.

We also had a tail wind for the first time since our first day out of St. Louis. We were having a glorious, rollicking, rural ride, until we were struck by the fear that we might have lost an hour thanks to the time zones. As we reached Florence, Waydell called out that we should have turned left rather than following the road towards the Tennessee River. We stopped to study our map. Before we could pull it out, a police officer on a motorcycle materialized. He gave us directions to the Frank Lloyd Wright House, less than half a mile away, and also the great news that it was 2:30, not 3:30.

We arrived shortly with twenty minutes to spare before the day's last tour. There was a note on the door saying "Tour in progress" and another that read, "Next tour at three p.m." We sat and munched on nuts and dried apricots, figuring we might have a private tour. But we were soon joined by two other couples and a young Asian man with a big camera around his neck who prowled the grounds taking pictures of this modest, one-story, L-shaped house and its spacious grounds .

Our tour guide, an older well-dressed and heavily made-up woman, a SWAG (Southern Woman Aging Gracefully), asked if any of us had visited any other Wright houses. All of us had. She said this was one of the first examples of Wright's Usonian houses, a more affordable version of his prairie homes. It was built in 1940 and was occupied by the original owners, the Rosenbaums, for 59 years, the last 16 years by the widow. When she needed to move into an assisted care facility in 1998 she sold the house to Florence for $75,000. The city spent $750,000 repairing it. As with most of Wright's flat-roofed homes, there had been extreme water leakage. Rather than repairing the leaks, Mrs. Rosenbaum simply put out another pail or bucket to catch the water. The house has averaged 5,000 visitors a year since it was opened to the public six years ago.

On a piano in the living room was a photo of the Rosenbaums, husband and wife and four young sons. When I asked the guide what had become of the sons, she said, "One is a social worker in Europe, another works for the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservatory Society touring the country giving lectures and wrote a book, another son is a movie critic in Chicago for some newspaper and the fourth passed away. He was an important lawyer. He really made something of himself." After the tour was over I told her we were from Chicago and read the movie reviews of the son there and wondered if she could identify him in the family photo. She couldn't. I also told her that he had recently turned 65 and had retired from the newspaper he worked for and that he was quite well known and had written several books. She said, "I didn't know that. I always learn something new on every tour I give. But its usually about Frank Lloyd Wright, as there are lots of people who come who have been to many of his houses."

The house cost $14,000 to build. Wright never visited the site, but sent one of his chief young assistants, a Mr. Goodrich, to oversee its construction. He was there for all eight months of the job. It was such an event, it drew crowds as it was built. The parents of Mr. Rosenbaum owned a handful of movie theaters throughout the South. He graduated from Harvard with honors and wished to become an English professor at the local college, Florence State Teacher College, but it didn't hire Jews, so he worked in the family business until 1960 when the university reversed its policy of not hiring Jews. The College was renamed the University of North Alabama in 1974.

In 1938 Mr. Rosenbaum married a model from New York City who had appeared in Vogue and brought her to Florence. By 1948 their three-bedroom house was too small for a family of six. They expanded it at a cost of $48,000, also designed by Wright. The chief improvements were a large kitchen and a bunk room for the boys called The Dorm. A single bunk bed was built into the wall and was of a double length so two boys could sleep at each level feet to feet. Wright didn't like ladders, so the two boys on top had to climb up the side. They each had their own storage locker which also served as a long bench under a window looking out on a courtyard. The house had four fire places and much of the original furniture, including eleven Ames chairs. Most of the furniture was constructed of plywood, a favorite material of Wright's. There were extensive bookshelves with many of the original books, some in Hebrew. Many had been lost due to water and flea damage. One of the three original bedrooms was Mrs. Rosenbaum's weaving room. It still contained her loom, strung with thread. On the wall was a glamorous photo of her from 1935, the year she met her husband-to-be.

In Mrs. Rosenbaum's later years before she moved out many visitors would drop by and ring her bell asking to see the house. She welcomed them all. She wouldn't show them around, but would plop them down in the living room and answer any of their questions. When she ushered them out, she would stick out her hand and say, "Five dollars please."

Later, George

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