The love of storytelling fosters a lifetime of sharing the tales of Alabama’s people

Fred Hunter had a love of baseball from a young age, passed down to him from his grandfather

I hear the question often: “Which came first, an abiding affection for your native state, or the desire to tell the stories of a place and a people?” The answer is simply that one grew out of the other — but first came a love for storytelling itself.

It most likely began at the Clayton Public Library in Barbour County, the Southeast Alabama part of the storied Black Belt region. It’s so named for the fertile crescent of rich soil that stretches across the center of the state, originating in East Mississippi and stretching into West Georgia. A common misconception contends it is so named because a majority of the inhabitants are, in fact, the descendants of African slaves; but it is the soil from which the name originates.

It has long been prime farmland, and so remains today. But the region has also provided inspiration for American literary lions: Harper Lee and Truman Capote come to mind. It is the birthplace of the still-regarded King of Country Music, Hiram “Hank” Williams, a writer himself of some note and whose work has been acknowledged by no less than The Beatles’ John Lennon as a primary musical influence.

So, a trip to the library was the opening of a door which has never closed. It was here my mother suggested books called Treasure Island, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Fred Hunter with his mother a sister

“Tom! No answer. Tom! No Answer.” I believe my first crush may have been on Becky Thatcher.

Thus began a love for storytelling from the masters Robert Louis Stevenson, James Fenimore Cooper, and, of course, Mark Twain.

And so was launched a wanderlust fostered by my family’s relocation from town to town across the state. At the time, it was hardly a pleasant experience for a young boy. Anything but. Still, it provided an appreciation of life beyond the borders of my birthplace town of Fort Payne to Jasper, half a state removed, then to Clayton, a place my mother described as “the other end of the earth.” By third grade, we had moved even further south to Opp, most notably known as the Home of the Annual Rattlesnake Rodeo. Yes, they still catch Easter Diamondbacks in the woods of the Conecuh National Forest with no sign of stopping in sight.

From Opp, my family relocated to Attalla, a town adjacent to Gadsden in Northeast Alabama. This was more to my mother’s liking, but soon my dad was transferred to a new store in Pensacola, Florida, by his company, Elmore’s. The store was known then as a variety store, and a forerunner to the Walmart’s of the world (which would soon crush the small-time family-owned chains like Elmore’s).

Fred Hunter with two sisters

The time we spent in Pensacola, my 7th-grade year, may have been the best nine months of my young life. I attended Bellview Junior High, became starting quarterback on the 7th-grade team, and learned to speak rudimentary Spanish.

It was not to last. By January, my father had left his job, taken a job with a similar company, and relocated the family to Alex City, a textile town still controlled in large part by the Russell Family, founders of Russell Souther, which enjoyed a successful run prior to the collapse of the textile industry in the South.

Generally, there were two classes of people in Alex City — those associated in some way with Russell Souther, and those who were not. Ours was not.

For whatever reason, my grades in school were not the best, nor did I make many friends, although the six months we lived there were not entirely without merit. I learned to wrestle in PE classes at the local high school and was partially the state champion in the sport. I was also occasionally invited to my mother’s great aunt Juluia’s cabin on nearby Lake Martin. The cabin was adjacent to the one where Hank Williams had his romantic liaison with Bobbie Jett. The offspring of that romance was Hank’s daughter, Jett. We met years later, and Jett appreciated that our paths had unknowingly crossed long before. The not altogether brief tenure in Tallapoosa County was then more than welcome when my father announced that he had been offered a job back in Opp. It seemed at the time like going home. It wasn’t.

Fred Hunter enjoys a visit with Innkeeper Cynthia Stinson at the Mentone Inn Bed & Breakfast

Maybe you can never go home again. Opp had not changed much, but my elementary school friends and I had. The world had turned. Children had grown. Puberty was in full swing. It wasn’t all bad, of course. There were new friends, new teammates, and a new Opp High School. Still, after a few years, it was time for a final family move back to our ancestral home — back to DeKalb County.

In the late 1960s, my dad bought one of the old variety stores, Fyffe 5 & 10 in the small town atop Sand Mountain. For years, the business was very successful. Old-time customers still tell me about coming to the store for everything from candy to artificial flowers for the Decoration Day traditions, which date back more than a century.

In Fyffe I had more friends and teammates and relationships which last until this day. Sadly, some, including my friend Danny Ridgeway, extended to the grave. Number 12 is still remembered for his playing days at Fyffe and the University of Alabama. Danny died young, of brain cancer, a sad reminder of our own mortality.

As much as I loved Fyffe, there was life after leaving town. For me, this life led to Huntingdon College and an altogether too-short tenure in college baseball, followed by journeys into journalism at the University of Alabama. Eventually, journalism led to broadcasting and a trail to Texas, the circuitous birthplace of a TV series called Absolutely Alabama.

Which brings us back to the question: “Was it the stories or the people?” The answer is “both,” built from a young life spent spanning the state and knowing the people. Finally, I had the opportunity to tell their stories — stories which were and are Absolutely Alabama.