As the sun rises over Mobile Bay, Mike Bishop and Gary Gardner begin unloading the latest catch from Bishop’s shrimp boat at Fly Creek Marina. Bishop left out mid-afternoon the day before. Twenty hours later, he has returned with 400 pounds of succulent shrimp.
“Some people like to run, play tennis or golf,” Bishop said. “I like to go out on my shrimp boat, in the middle of the Bay, surrounded by wind and rain, where there’s nothing to protect me but God.”
Bishop bought his boat when he retired after decades as a sheet metal worker. Gardner, a Colorado native, moved to Fairhope about the same time, looking for a fresh start with a half-brother he’d recently located. He’s still adjusting. “Coming from altitude to humidity takes a little getting used to,” Gardner said.
It’s a sunny winter morning in Fairhope, Alabama, our latest Good Town, and the temperature is already a balmy 60 degrees and climbing. The waters of the expansive bay are calm. But there are other days where Mother Nature dictates – days when Bishop finds true peace.
“If you’re not happy, life isn’t worth living,” he said.
About a league south, Richard Burton walks the Fairhope Municipal Pier with his daughter, Courtney. The pier juts out a quarter mile, offering a relaxing stroll as seagulls and lapping waves provide a gentle background chorus. If the walk makes you hungry, there’s also a restaurant halfway out.
A few years ago, the Burtons moved to Pensacola, Florida, from Connecticut, where Richard worked on submarines for an engineering company. They like the Gulf Coast because it reminds them of their seafaring former home, although Richard still prefers New England seafood to local fare. While they’ve adjusted to life just across the Florida border, they make regular trips to Fairhope to escape the hustle and bustle.
“It’s so quiet here,” Richard said. “Look around. Do you see any business or traffic? This place is so peaceful. And if I really want to be left alone, I go down there.” He points to a tiny peninsula in the distance. “That’s Mullet Point Park. It’s really peaceful.”
Fairhope: A Place for Dreamers
Twenty miles from Mobile, Alabama’s oldest city, Fairhope is located on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay. Today, it’s an enclave for artists, well-heeled retirees and young families who love access to the city but prefer the Spanish moss and oak trees that shade homes and undulating expanses of pecan groves and small farms to the east.
Fairhope is a nice place to visit. And a hard place to leave. Maybe because it started as a late 19th Century Utopia.
Established as a single tax colony in 1894, Fairhope was founded by an eclectic population of dreamers.
Lured by affordable land and sub-tropical surroundings, it evolved into a resort town, then into an affluent community. Downtown Fairhope, a few blocks off the water, lures shoppers and wanderers on a daily sojourn — there’s something for everyone.
Page and Palette is a renowned, third-generation, family-owned bookstore with offerings from bestselling authors to local wordsmiths — although some of the latter are as well-known as anyone, anywhere. The late Winston Groom, creator of “Forrest Gump,” lived in nearby Magnolia Springs. Business is so brisk that they’ve added The Book Cellar, an event venue and bar, and the Latte Da, a boutique coffee shop that offers pastries and Blue Bell ice cream to accompany your morning java.
A block away, Aubergine Culinary Antiques & Oriental Rugs is the second of three establishments founded by Peter and Ann Fargason, who fell in love with the furniture they found on trips to Europe and decided to offer some of their discoveries along the Alabama coast. Aubergine’s merchandise is high end, and so are clients, many of whom put in orders from California and New York. Their first venture, Crown & Colony Antiques, opened in 1992. Aubergine followed a decade later.
“When they started Crown & Colony, it was strictly French antiques,” said Linda Houck, Aubergine’s manager. “They gradually added English, Dutch, Italian and Swiss pieces, but found the need for big dining and keeping room antiques. That’s how Aubergine came to be.
“I’ll order 100 tables, in all different sizes, and they go like swish,” she added, with a delightful sound effect.
Inside Aubergine, Ali Alday surveys the Old-World furniture that reminds him of home. A native of Istanbul, he discovered Fairhope on a business trip when he was invited to meet friends for brunch at The Grand Hotel in nearby Point Clear.
“As I drove into Fairhope, the road opened to the bay framed by mossy oaks,” Alday said. “I was hooked. It’s my second home now.”
A Haven for Artists and Castles
Nall the Artist hails from Troy, Alabama. After graduation from the University of Alabama, he headed to Europe, where he studied art under Salvador Dali, befriended the author James Baldwin and, as he gained acclaim for his own work, ran in social circles with Prince Albert II of Monaco and actress Catherine Deneuve.
Studying under Dali, at age 22, not only offered him a chance to apprentice under a master, but the chance to expose his work to the elites of Europe.
“You’re painting in the studio, and dukes and duchesses come in and say, ‘I want to see more of your work.’”
He eventually left Paris, returning to the U.S. For the last 22 years, he’s been a resident of Fairhope.
“This is my studio, my gallery, my home,” he said from a couch at his gallery. “This was the closest thing to France I’ve ever seen.”
A few blocks away, at the Fairhope Museum of History, docent Michael Titford enlightens visitors about the town’s eccentric history. Housed in the old town hall, where the original jail cells remain open for temporary visitors, Titford explains his connection to this Good Town.
“I’m also from the South – South London,” Titford offered. “People have been coming here from all over forever. Back in the early 20th Century, they’d travel from Chicago by train to Mobile, take the boat to Fairhope, and spend three months vacationing here.”
There are artifacts and interactive touchpoints that tell the town’s history. But he’s quick to point outside to a statue of a man that, Titford said, poured his heart and soul into Fairhope for half a century.
“Craig Sheldon escaped from a work camp in Georgia, where he was wrongfully incarcerated as a teenager, ended up in Alaska, joined the Marines to fight in the Pacific during World War II,” Titford said. “He eventually came back home, to Fairhope, and created magic as an artist and woodcrafter.
“Have you seen the Fairhope Castles?” Titford asked, before offering directions. “You must.”
North From Alaska
A block from the Eastern Shore Art Center, a small driveway leads into three storybook castles. If you’re polite, and you take your photos quietly at a safe distance, you’re welcome. And, if you’re lucky, Dean Mosher will greet you.
Mosher was a collaborator of Craig Sheldon and stayed long enough to fall in love with Sheldon’s daughter, Pagan. They met when Pagan, a professional dancer, came home for a visit.
Dean turned a wing of the original Storybook Castle, where Pagan grew up, into Alabama’s most popular Airbnb. He’s currently working on a stained-glass studio. Also on the property: two newer Fairhope Castles, including the one Dean and Pagan live in.
Dean is a renowned artist in his own right, with works on display at museums, universities and national parks, as well as The Naval and Coast Guard Academies and Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum.
“The original [Storybook Castle] home was started in 1946 by my wife’s dad, based on an Alaskan Sourdough cabin,” Dean explained. Alaska, it seemed, not only inspired Craig Sheldon as an artist but exposed him to other worldly adventures. “He once dated Mae West and he met Will Rogers just before his final, fatal flight.”
From there, he traveled to Florida, where he met and married Annie “Butch” Sheldon. Because they were both children of The Great Depression they decided to move to Fairhope, where Craig had lived for a time as a child. He remembered the abundance of seafood available from the bay, and knew the Single Tax made property affordable.
The original structure was built with stone from Mobile Bay, which made it labor intensive. The shingles come in an array of colors, because Sheldon took what was available as he expanded the home.
Dean and Pagan started on the newer castle in 1983. “We bought the adjacent lot and built a little house and began expanding on it,” Pagan said. “It’s still not finished.”
They’ve been married 43 years and seem as content as newlyweds. But it’s that initial connection that continues to make the biggest difference of all.
“Dad taught Dean castle building, politics, woodwork,” Pagan said. “And I found the perfect match.”
A Sunset to Take Your Breath Away
No trip to Fairhope is complete without viewing the incredible sunset.
To prepare for God’s creation, we swung back by Fly Creek Marina, where Sunset Pointe offers delectable seafood with a gorgeous view of the water.
Owner “Panini” Pete Blohme grew up in Ft. Lauderdale, trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and, after 20 years in the industry, opened business in Fairhope 15 years ago.
“It’s just a great town,” Blohme said. “It’s vibrant, diverse, creative, artistic and close to agriculture. It’s a unique community.”
His longtime friend and vice president of Operations, Nick DiMario, is a Philadelphia native who came South to play football at the University of Alabama.
“Our heavy focus is on helping the next generation of restaurateurs,” DiMario said. “We focus on people, product, progress and profit by planting and growing restaurants.”
After a scrumptious meal, we set up a stone’s throw from the municipal pier in a park on a bluff overlooking the Mobile Bay — just as the sun slowly descended, its glow growing with each minute until disappearing in the Gulf of Mexico’s horizon. It’s a moment that’s easy to take for granted until you experience this natural wonder in awe.
Our day is done. Do we really have to go home?