Huntsville Alabama was founded as the first English-speaking settlement in the state. Known as Rocket City, it has become one of the primary development sites for the country’s space program, playing a key role in developing the Saturn V rocket propulsion system among other key technologies.
Hunsville’s role in space is commemorated at the city’s U.S. Space & Rocket Center. The Center includes space artifacts, movies, and simulators that showcase the space program. Although tempted to visit, we opted out of going inside on this stop since we just visited the Houston’s Johnson Space Center a year ago. Instead, we spent much of our time in Huntsville at the State Black Archives Research Center and Museum, exploring some of its historic districts and taking advantage of two special holiday events.
The Museum was all but closed for renovation during our visit. The exhibits were disassembled and split between two rooms. All we saw were about two dozen panels, not in any particular order, that traced the history of the country from colonial times through the founding of the country, the Civil War, Emancipation and Reconstruction, the fights for civil and women’s rights, and World War I. Perhaps it will be more compelling when the renovation is completed.
Huntsville Historical Districts
Huntsville has several historical districts, each of which provides a unique perspective and architecture on different eras of the city’s past.
- Twickenham Historic District has buildings from the Antebellum era. We found this area to be the most impressive and interesting. While this upscale residential district contains many architectural styles, we particularly admired dozens of its Georgian, Neo-classical, and Greek Revival mansions.
- The Old Town Historic District represents the Victorian era and Craftsmen’s bungalows. Its tree-lined streets are filled with charming cottages, historic churches, and local businesses. The Harrison Brothers hardware store has been in operation since the late 1800s.
- Five Points Historic District showcases the early 20th century.
- The Merrimack Mill Village Historic District features houses built for workers during the late 19th and early 20th century.
The center is a reinvention of an old shoe factory. It houses several dozen artist studios that produce all forms of arts and crafts. Not only do artists produce art for sale, many also teach classes and provide space for individuals to create their own pieces. The complex also consists of several pieces of art that enliven the open and public spaces.
We were in Huntsville during the holiday season and visited two annual Christmas traditions.
Galaxy of Lights
The Galaxy of Lights was a several-mile drive through the city’s Arboretum. It had so many displays that motorists were advised to turn their headlights off. Overall there are close to 100 holiday-lit displays, some of which were quite elaborate and some of which were animated. The sponsored displays are generally displayed in themed groups. These included space (very appropriate given the city’s role in the space program), dinosaurs, children, seasonal items of different religions, farms, village life, sports, the Twelve Days of Christmas, and outlines of decorated houses. It was impressive and worth the roughly hour that it takes to drive through it in spite of the virtually bumper-to-bumper cars.
The annual display of hundreds of sponsored live Christmas Trees (or creative impressions thereof such as one crafted entirely of 2x4s) were displayed around the lovely Big Spring. The large crowds spilled over into the pretty, historic downtown. This free display is a crowd-pleasing stop that is well worth the 30 to 45 minutes required to explore it.
Our one Huntsville restaurant dining experience was located in a lovely, renovated downtown building. We shared three dishes. The appetizer was a disappointingly small, over-breaded cornmeal-crusted Apalachicola oysters with tomato-horseradish remoulade. The entrée was a delicious pan-seared Florida pompano with spinach and parmesan risotto, winter squash relish, and basil butter. Our dessert was a quite good warm skillet apple tart with bourbon butter, pecan ice cream, and caramel. And of course, we had wine without meal. We were pleasantly surprised to find a Shea Vineyard (Willamette County) wine on the list, even if it was only an Estate wine—2019.