The Inspirational Transformation of Wetumpka, Alabama

HGTV Home Town Takeover showcases Wetumpka

Known as “The City of Natural Beauty,” Wetumpka, Alabama is located just northeast of Montgomery on the banks of the Coosa River. The name Wetumpka is a Creek Indian word meaning “rumbling waters,” describing the sound of the nearby Coosa River. The Coosa River flows through the middle of the city, dividing the historic business district from its residential counterpart.  Bibb Graves Bridge, a focal point of the City was built in 1937. Designed by state bridge engineer Edward Houk and named after Governor Bibb Graves, it is reputed to be one of two bridges in Alabama to be suspended by reinforced concrete.

Wetumpka © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wetumpka has a population of 8,371 and has been on a bit of a roller coaster ride of late. An ambitious downtown revitalization effort was started about three years ago. Then in January of 2019, a powerful tornado swept through the historic downtown area causing widespread damage but thankfully no deaths. The tornado damaged 35 homes throughout Elmore County and destroyed or damaged multiple buildings in the city’s downtown including the police station and Wetumpka’s celebrated First Presbyterian Church. The city completed the revitalization a year ago to rave reviews.

Bibb Graves Bridge, Wetumpka © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It was 14 months before the tornado ripped through the town that we visited Wetumpka. Proceeding across Bibb Graves Bridge to the largely residential west side, we first stopped on West Bridge Street, across from the First Presbyterian Church organized in 1834. It was the site of the gathering of the Wetumpka Light Guard as they departed their families when they went to do battle in the Civil War on April 16, 1861. We discovered a number of historic and beautiful homes within a five block area mainly on Tuskeena Street (one block north on West Bridge and to the left down Tuskeena). 

First United Methodist Church, Wetumpka © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our next stop was the First United Methodist Church at 306 West Tuskeena Street. The building was completed 1854. In 1845, an historic session of the Alabama Conference delegates voted to become part of the Methodist Episcopal Church South and so it remained until 1939.

Wetumpka L & N Depot© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Directly behind the church we noted the L & N Depot. Established in 1906 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, the station served as a passenger and freight depot until 1973. Used for several years as the first home of the Wetumpka Depot Players, at the time of our visit it was used as a place of worship and for youth activities and owned by First United Methodist Church. Next door to the Methodist Church stands a house built by Benjamin Fitzpatrick, a local attorney and circuit solicitor and son of 9th Governor of Alabama, Benjamin Fitzpatrick.

Bibb Graves Bridge, Wetumpka © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crossing the Bibb Graves Bridge to the largely historic business district east side we wandered this area before proceeding to the Wind Creek Casino. Overlooking the beautiful Coosa River, Wind Creek is the home of a new hotel.

In July 2020, Erin and Ben Napier, stars of HGTV’s Home Town, reported that they were taking over the entire town of Wetumpka for their home-renovation show. As a spinoff of the network’s popular home renovation show “Home Town,” which features Ben and Erin Napier renovating old and sometimes neglected homes for new owners, “Takeover” is also focused on renovations but this time the couple revamps a town. When it airs later this spring, “Home Town Takeover” will showcase 12 renovation and upgrade projects in and around Wetumpka’s downtown and historic district. Viewing dates are yet to be announced.

Wetumpka Historic District © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wetumpka was selected from among 2,600 entries to be the subject of the new HGTV cable TV program called “Home Town Takeover.” The six-part documentary will show Ben and Erin Napier leading a team of renovation pros to breathe new life into Wetumpka including several homes as well as some locally grown businesses and historic treasures unique to the city.

The experience was special for the film crew. Producers, directors, camera operators, audio, and lighting specialists and others spent six months in Wetumpka not just working but living there from August 2020 through January. Months on-site is nothing new for them, but many were surprised by what they found when they arrived in Wetumpka.

Wetumpka Historic District © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“You never know what to expect, but right when I got to town, it was so pretty,” Carissa Sison, line producer for the show, told Alabama Newscenter. “Our offices had the Coosa River right behind them and it was such a tranquil setting. But the best thing was the people. They were so happy to meet us. I’ve never experienced that kind of friendliness in my life and definitely not in my career.”

Liz Kerrigan, the show’s executive producer, agrees, saying the residents’ community spirit added an extra layer of charm to a city that had already impressed her. “Looking at photos, I knew the town was adorable,” she said. “But a city can look one way and then feel different. Not here. The good vibes just make Wetumpka even cuter.”

Wetumpka Historic District © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kerrigan was taken aback by leaders’ open arms and residents’ desire to pitch in. “I just didn’t expect people to be so grateful and so willing to help,” she said. “It was actually an emotional experience. Everyone was thrilled to work with us.”

Sison stressed that the city’s reaction inspired her and the rest of the show’s team to get more invested than normal. “Their outpouring of love motivated us to really want to help this town,” she said. “We’re always passionate about our work but this was different. I don’t think I speak for just myself when I say we felt like we were a part of Wetumpka.”

Wetumpka Historic District © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kerrigan and Sison hope the emotion evoked in the show’s creation comes through TV screens and that viewers get a sense of the Wetumpka they came to know and that interest in the city keeps rising. “It’s going to be great when the show airs. I hope even more people fall in love with Wetumpka, Sison added.”

But it’s also part of the show’s wider vision, Kerrigan said. “The entire intention behind this series was to create forward momentum for change, to be a catalyst for an even bigger transition,” she said. “The desire was that the city would take this ball and run with it. What’s so awesome is after being there we know that Wetumpka will do just that. They will build on this and take it 1 million steps farther. Seeing what we imagined fulfilled is really rewarding.”

Wetumpka © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And if watching Wetumpka’s journey on “Home Town Takeover” spurs other small towns to pursue their own progress, that’s the ultimate prize. “We’re showing how positive change in small towns everywhere is possible,” Kerrigan said. “We hope this causes a national movement for small towns across America to come together and do the same thing, even if it’s on a smaller scale.”

But this spring, eyes will be focused on one specific small town and while Wetumpka leaders and residents have made their enthusiasm obvious, the show’s team seems every bit as excited as the city.

“We just feel so lucky to be able to shine a light on the people and the places of Wetumpka,” Kerrigan said. “We want a huge spotlight on them.”

Coosa River, Wetumpka © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the summer, you can visit the city’s River and Blues Music & Arts Festival. In the winter, bundle up and gawk at its New Year’s Eve “Asteroid Drop” (via The City of Wetumpka). If you have a thing for golf clubs, granaries, barbecue places, nature trails, and botanical gardens—or if you need to visit the place that the Hollywood epics Big Fish and The Rosa Parks Story were filmed—Wetumpka, Alabama is your place. And it’s exactly this small-town magic that drew the Napiers to Wetumpka in the first place.

Wind Creek Casino Hotel, Wetumpka © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Surely it is the right wish that draws us to the right place.
Nothing of importance happens accidentally in our life.

—Lama Anagarika Govinda, The Way of the White Clouds

Spotlight on Alabama: Most Beautiful Places to Visit

Known for its beautiful southern Appalachian Mountains, meandering blackwater rivers, and pristine white Gulf beaches, Alabama has become a popular vacation destination

This Southeastern state bordered by Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida is often overlooked as a travel destination in favor of its more crowd-pleasing neighbors but that’s what makes it so special. It has a raw and authentic edge which lacking in some states and is also home to some gorgeous scenery too. Known as “Heart of Dixie” and being synonymous with the American Civil Rights movement, Alabama packs a punch with its collection of proud historic buildings, Franco-Caribbean architecture, stunning forests, and lakes, and jaw-dropping beautiful coastlines and beaches.

There isn’t a single amazing thing about Alabama. There are about ten zillion. So start poking around and figure out what to put at the top of your list.

Mobile Bay at Meaher State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mobile Bay

Along the northern perimeter of Mobile Bay, a network of rivers forms a wildlife-rich delta that beckons canoeists and nature-lovers. The Mobile Delta consists of approximately 20,323 acres of water and Meaher State Park is a perfect access point to this massive natural wonder. Formed by the confluence of the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers, the Mobile Delta is a complex network of tidally influenced rivers, creeks, bays, lakes, wetlands, and bayous. For more outdoor adventures, the nearby Mobile-Tensaw, W.L. Holland, and Upper Delta Wildlife Management Areas offer hunting and wildlife viewing opportunities for those visiting the Delta.

Coastal Connection Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Coastal Connection Scenic Byway

Everyone loves a good long drive and there is nothing like a spellbinding and coastal route. For these reasons the Alabama Coastal Connection is one of the treasured places to tour not just in Alabama but in the whole of the US. A National Scenic Byway the Coastal Connection connects the places and people of the Baldwin and coastal Mobile counties. It is also a true testimony to the diverse and rich culture of the state’s Gulf Coast region.

Dauphin Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dauphin Island

A stunning place to visit, Dauphin Island provides a getaway atmosphere with attractions aimed at the family.Dauphin Island Park and Campground offers an abundance of recreation offerings and natural beauty. The campground is uniquely positioned so that guests have access to a secluded beach, public boat launches, Fort Gaines, and Audubon Bird Sanctuary. The Estuarium at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab allows visitors the opportunity to explore the four ecosystems of coastal Alabama—the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, Mobile Bay, the barrier islands, and Gulf of Mexico.

Orange Beach © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Orange Beach

Orange Beach is a small and stunning coastal city located on the Gulf. Nicknamed as the water sports hub, it has a huge fishing pier and several picnic areas. The scenic coastal city has a museum named Orange Beach Indian and Sea Museum and you can explore the history of Native Americans and fishing. A mesmerizing vacation is on your cards, if you choose this stellar place. Some other places if you wish to look around Orange Beach are Backcountry Trails, Canoe Trail, Waterfront Park, Public Boat Launches, and Disc Golf Course Park.

Mobile © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mobile

Mobile is more than 300 years old and from that fact alone there must be a lot of history associated with a city of that age. The many museums and historical homes help tell Mobile’s story. Eight National Register Historic Districts make up what is known as downtown and midtown Mobile. Explore the mighty WWII battleship USS Alabama, winner of nine battle stars, and the submarine USS Drum. Both are National Historic Landmarks. Mobile is the home to the oldest carnival or Mardi Gras in the United States.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf State Park

Gulf State Park is home to miles of pristine white-sand beaches along the Coastal Connection Scenic Byway. Use the in-park camping and full hookup RV sites as your base camp for hiking, biking, fishing, kayaking, and canoeing. Or stay in one of the cottages or cabins found around the park. With more than 3.5 miles of white sand beaches and 28 miles of paved trails or boardwalks, there’s plenty of space to spread out and enjoy.

Fairhope © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fairhope

Shangri-La may be a fantasy but you can find a real-life utopia on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. The village was created by a group of hardy souls seeking adventure and being practical, also wanted a “fair hope of success”. This experimental community has come a long way from those “old days”. It’s still entirely unique and keeps a small town ambience with a large and active arts community. If you love the Gulf Coast, there are few places more scenic with antebellum homes, streets lined with live oaks, and a charming, walkable downtown. With a population of about 17,000, Fairhope sits on bluffs that overlook Mobile Bay, so you’re never far from a view of the water.

Gulf Shores © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf Shores

As it goes by the obvious name, the city is located on Alabama’s Gulf Coast and all you beach lovers, this is your chance. Gulf Shores Museum features several permanent exhibits including “Portrait of a Fishing Village”, “Drawing a Line in the Sand”, and “Hurricanes: What You Need to Know”. Rotating special exhibits are also on display. Butterfly enthusiasts will love the museum’s butterfly garden. Benches and tables are nearby so visitors can rest their feet while they observe the colorful butterflies.

Wetumpka © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wetumpka

In 1776 William Bartram, the legendary naturalist, when visiting Wetumpka proclaimed, “This is perhaps one of the most eligible situations for a city in the world, a level plain between the conflux of two majestic rivers.” The strategic location (just minutes from the State Capitol), natural resources, and hospitable atmosphere continue to attract residents and tourists today.
Wetumpka has played a significant role in the history of Alabama. As the Bibb Graves Bridge quickly identifies Wetumpka, the Coosa River flowing beneath offers limitless opportunities for recreation and tourism. Additional attractions at Fort Toulouse/Jackson State Park, the eroded remains of a pre-historic meteorite crater, and the Poarch Band of Creek Indian reservation gaming facility increase the daily traffic flow. Would Bartram be disappointed? Never!

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge

The Jeff Friend Loop Trail at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge is one of the best places in the area for bird-watching and observing other critters. Park in the refuge’s parking lot and be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring bottled water, binoculars, and camera. The trail, a mix of crushed limestone and a boardwalk, is a relatively flat 0.9 miles. Allow 2 hours to explore this sliver of paradise. You’ll love the colorful birds that frequent the area.

Worth Pondering…

Sweet home Alabama
Where the skies are so blue
Sweet home Alabama
Lord, I’m coming home to you