What does it mean to be part of a place? To be shaped by the landscape and seascape, to create a sense of community, and to call it home? The men and women profiled here landed in Baldwin County in different ways – one is fifth generation but grew up elsewhere, another is first generation, born more than 80 years ago. One arrived as a child and immediately felt enveloped by the surroundings. For another, a family vacation spot gained a permanent hold. All these who now claim Baldwin as their own come from diverse backgrounds and dissimilar lines of work. What they understand in common, though, is that to be “rooted” can speak to a place in the heart as well as coordinates on a map.
Bill Purvis: A Builder's Gift
When Bill Purvis’ mother, Marion Mastin, was growing up in Mobile, she set off often to Baldwin County, as he tells it, with her own mother and siblings by rowboat, on an all-day excursion to Spanish Fort where the family had property. They had acquired the nine acres in about 1920 in exchange for payment of $300, a milk cow and a set of fishing nets. Marion and husband Homer Purvis moved there permanently when Bill was a little boy. He grew up in the 1940s “on a pig trail off state Highway 31. You couldn’t get back there in a car. All I did was fish and hunt and stay in the water all the time. I loved it.”
These decades later, the look of parts of Baldwin County – beautiful bay houses, in particular, made of cypress and heart pine, with airy rooms and big porches – is thanks to Bill, who designs and builds custom homes, as Bill Purvis Contractor, Inc.
He got his start at age 10 when the urge to build first came over him. “I was always handy with my hands, ” he says. Houses weren’t his first ambition, though. He wanted to make boats. His first one he describes as “a box” made with saw and hammer. He would keep on with boat building as a hobby.
Bill had no formal training in design or construction, but educated himself along the way. For the first 10 years of his career he worked for a glass company where he learned all about construction.
At age 28, he made the move into building on his own. Nearly 50 years later, he is still going strong, working with elements he calls “traditional, ” but also “eclectic.” Is there a name for his style? He laughs, answering: “Early Purvis.”
The first house he ever built was his own – he’s still adding onto it, he admits – on the family property in Spanish Fort. He and wife Betty still live there. They’ve raised four children and have nine grandchildren.
In May, 2013, he completed work on the chapel at Christ the King Church in Daphne, a project that holds great personal meaning for him.
“I’ve spent my whole life looking, and listening, and watching, ” he says of his creative process. “On vacation, I like to go where there are a lot of pretty houses to look at, and boats.” He also tears pictures of houses out of magazines to study. “It might be one minor detail, ” he says, “for example, a cornice.”
Self-taught in his profession, he does not take for granted his abilities, but feels humbled – and thankful – for what he calls “the gift given to me in my hands and eyes.”
Chan West: Nature's Glory at
Early mornings at her house in the woods on the Fort Morgan peninsula, Frances “Chan” West likes to sit on her porch with a cup of coffee, watch the weather and see how the day begins to unfold.
Eighty-four years ago, not far from this spot, she was born to parents who enjoyed having a second home by the Gulf and brought her here often. She remembers rambling the shores with younger brother Richard – “we were turned loose and didn’t come home until dark” – and the wild beauty of the surroundings, even before Fort Morgan Road was opened in 1936. “I’ve been connected here all my life, ” she says.
But her life’s journey took her elsewhere when she married Hugh, who was career military. They had four children, and blissful times. When he retired at age 51, she brought Hugh back South, to build their new place close to the Gulf and the sea oats. When she lost him seven years later, Chan stayed on, immersing herself in nature.
She’d go out in the yard with a book about plants, examine the flora, research the details. “That was my recreation.” She kept on studying, sometimes asking her sons, who were Auburn graduates in marine biology, for advice. She got so knowledgeable about her surroundings that she became a guide for the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge.
“People think when they go to a wildlife refuge it will be like going to a zoo, ” she says. “You may see a gray squirrel, occasionally a coyote, but most of the animals are nocturnal.” They may see some animal tracks. What’s preserved, she explains, is the habitat for the animals – and the birds. “That’s the important thing.”
She lists some of those birds – the bright blue heron, the pelican, the barn laughing gull. Sea oats, the large live oak and the sand live oak – those add to the lushness of the natural surrounds.
Chan has gotten awards from Baldwin County for her work as an environmentalist and is an active member of community groups attuned, as she describes it, to maintaining the natural beauty.
She’s devoted attention to the turtle population, too.
She laughs when asked her occupation. This naturalist, who goes barefoot except to church and offices, described it to a church publication: “Eccentric.”
Now, at 84, Chan finds nature, along with her faith, healing and uplifting.
“The environment makes me feel happy, ” she says. “I’m observing to see what I can see, what’s changed and what’s the same.”
Pud Nelson: My Small-Town Foley
When Alison “Pud” Sanders – now Pud Nelson – was growing up in Foley in the late 1950s and 1960s, two modes of transportation held a special allure.
First off, there was her push-pedal bike with its cushy fat tires. “We lived in the ideal neighborhood where you could ride your bike to town, ” she recalls, thinking back to the village where she knew all the neighbors, a future Crimson Tide football legend lived on the corner (Kenny Stabler), and her childhood Foley was “a world of swimming holes” where “a dollar would go a long way.”
The other vehicle had a lot more horsepower – a Chevy Blazer that belonged to her beau, David Nelson. The young couple had much in common. Pud’s daddy, in real estate, owned two shrimp boats, the Charity and Black Beard, and David’s family owned numerous ones as owners of Bon Secour Fisheries. But it was that Chevy Blazer that showed them Baldwin County in a way all their own. They’d go out on the beach and drive, stopping to get out and enjoy a glass of wine.
“Nothing was there, ” she recalls of the area in the 1970s. “I could name every person who had a house. Not a condo there until 1981.”
These years later, long married to David, with a career behind her as a travel agent and absorbed in civic and charitable affairs – she’s on the board of Impact 100 Baldwin County – Pud still thinks of her upbringing in Baldwin County as idyllic. “I would not trade it for anything in the world.”
She’s got Baldwin County roots, all right – a forebear was a Zundel, a name that’s synonymous with old Point Clear, right down to the former Zundel’s Wharf that was once an important loading dock.
And, with two children who’ve grown up at their residence on Fish River, near the community of Marlow, she and David have given rise to a new generation of Baldwinites, too.
She’s accepted her fate, a happy one.
Of her younger years, she admits, “If anybody had told me I’d live on County Road 9, on Fish River, I’d have laughed them out of town.”
Now she relishes every single day.
“On a clear afternoon when the water is crystal clear and you go down to the wharf, it’s a spectacular sight, ” she says.
And the sunsets on nearby Weeks Bay? “Certain times of the year, they rival anything on Key West.”
Aubury Fuller: A Father's Lessons in Marlow
In 1948, when James and Auzie Fuller were settled into the Marlow community, not far from Fish River, James opened a mechanic shop, Dixie Road Garage, Inc. That same year, the couple had their fourth child, a son – Aubury.
“I grew up around the garage, ” says Aubury Fuller, who, as the generations turned over, eventually took over the business. The years of his coming of age – and all his father taught him about cars and people – were deeply valuable ones.
There were the particulars about engines, of course – “a lot simpler in those days, ” he says – and not just cars. His father, a self-taught mechanic who started with “little more than a dream … worked on farm machinery, tractors, lawn mowers, whatever people had that was mechanical.”
Then there were the lessons his father taught him about people and community.
Neighbors were greatly supportive, Aubury says. If there was something his father didn’t yet know about an engine in the early days, others would help him out. When his father’s old vehicle couldn’t make it dependably to Robertsdale or Foley to fetch garage supplies, a nearby shopkeeper loaned him a durable pickup truck. In turn, Aubury’s father used his expertise to do excellent work.
Customer relationships that began in the 1940s deepened into the ’50s and beyond, a second generation soon loyal to Summerdale’s Dixie Road Garage.
“Believe it or not, ” says Aubury, “the majority of my current customers are family members of the original group of customers who patronized my Dad. It’s about doing something I love, satisfying that need to take things apart and put them together again.
But it’s also a matter of allegiance, of giving back to the people who have given so much to my family.”
Aubury and his wife, Clarissa, have two daughters and three grandchildren, and he has been active in civic affairs in south Alabama while maintaining a full schedule at his garage.
He has served on the South Baldwin Regional Medical Center Board, been president of the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce, and is now chairman of the USS Alabama Battleship Commission.
Although he and Clarissa have traveled far and wide, he still refers to himself as “small town Aubury, ” who has “an appreciation for the slower things.” They like to visit with family and friends; their hobby is cultivating flowers.
In a changing world, Aubury observes, the sense of community endures where he lives and works. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s those kinds of connections that cause me to do what I do.”
Alison Knight: Fairhope of the Heart
No matter that Alison Knight grew up 1, 200 miles from Fairhope in Darien, Conn. In her home, Fairhope was vivid in family lore. Her mother, Bonnie Holt, “talked about it all the time, ” says Alison, and with good reason. Alison’s great-great-grandfather, Shuah Strait Mann, and her great-grandfather, T.E. Mann, were two of the 12 founders of the original Single Tax Colony. And for more than a century, Alison’s family lived part of each year by the shores of Mobile Bay.
“It made an impression on me, ” says Alison, recalling how, as a teenager, “I felt more connection to here than to Connecticut.” By here, she means her Fairhope residence, where she and husband Chris and their son, Owen, eventually located for good.
Through visits growing up, she had already established a network of close friends – she had worked summer jobs at the Grand Hotel, went boating with buddies, enjoyed seafood. By the time she made that permanent move to Fairhope – more like a return than a relocation – she had developed a special mission.
With a cache of family letters and memorabilia from the past, she set out to write about a family tree entwined with a town’s history. In 2013, she published “Salubrious Climates: Five Generations and their Relationship with the Fairhope Single Tax Colony.” (Available at Page & Palette and History Museum of Fairhope.)
Alison, happily, is the fifth generation. In “Salubrious Climate, ” the reader discovers many reasons why. When Alison describes Fairhope as “utopia, ” she echoes Mann, who wrote to a relative in Iowa in 1927, “We are living down here under a spell of enchantment.”
Alison’s grandmother, Floy, was a professional actress who performed in Fairhope. In 1927, the Fairhope Courier praised her “remarkable gifts of enunciation” and “winsome personality.” When Alison walks along the bluff today, she likes to imagine Floy acting in a Shakespearean play, there in the open air.
In “Salubrious Climate, ” many of the stories are about a family long connected to a place that’s a state of mind as well as spot on the map.
Will there be another move for this fifth generation, as years go by? Alison says she’s home for good. “I know we’re not going to go anywhere else.”
Andy Bertolla: Bounty of the Land
For the Bertolla clan, who emigrated from Trentino, Austria, in the late 1800s (the region would later become a part of Italy), Baldwin County meant opportunities for land.
Andy Bertolla, part of the third generation to farm this land in the Daphne-Loxley area, tells how his grandfather, Alessandro, journeyed from Europe to Minnesota, then by train to Mobile and boat to Daphne, making a new life for his wife and 12 children.
Andy speaks of the varying backgrounds of the early settlers – in addition to the Austrians/Italians, there were Greek newcomers in Malbis, and other nationalities settling throughout the county.
For the Bertollas – and kin through marriage, the Corte family, another prominent name in farming and cattle – the possibilities in the rich, Baldwin soil seemed limitless. Sweet potatoes, cucumbers, Irish potatoes, sweet corn – Andy lists the produce that came from that soil over the generations. Cotton, peanuts, pecans – the bounty goes on. And then there was beef cattle.
Andy spent part of his youth at produce sheds, working with his dad and other relatives, continuing the family tradition, now joined by a fourth generation.
As Andy came of age and took the reins of Bertolla Farm Supply, headquartered in Robertsdale, he also came to realize the larger appeal of the place where his forebears settled. “I like the farmland, good timberland, the climate, the diversity of our natural resources, the Gulf of Mexico, Mobile Bay and our rivers. We have a lot of natural beauty.”
Baldwin County endures as home for Andy, wife Franci Herndon and their young sons.
There are fewer farms than in the past, he explains, and big machines have long displaced mules and plows. Crops have evolved over the years, too. Peanuts, cotton, and soybeans are among those that dominate now.
When Andy sits down for a meal and eats certain foods, he relishes more than just their rich flavor. They speak to him of his youth, and family, and place in an immediate way.
“I love Irish potatoes and sweet corn, ” he says. “In the summertime, when it’s in season here, it’s the best to me.”
Morgan Henderson: Sunrise Shrimping
When customers at Fisherman’s Discount in the Barnwell community ask owner Morgan Henderson if he’s ever going to retire, he sometimes answers by telling them how he begins many workdays – on a boat, on Mobile Bay, catching shrimp to sell as live bait at his store perched on U.S. Highway 98 in Fairhope.
“I get to watch the sun come up 200 to 250 days a year on Mobile Bay, ” he says of his pre-dawn shrimping runs. No matter that it’s the start of what sometimes becomes a 17-hour workday, as he drives back to his shop, greets customers and sells bait, crab traps, mullet nets and all manner of fishing supplies.
“It’s a beautiful place, ” he says of his stretch of Baldwin County.
While he frets about there being “a future” for business people trying to run a small shop like his, he enjoys what he does and where he’s long lived near the store with wife Rose Mary, a school teacher, raising two children and having his mom, Mary, close by.
Morgan learned his craft as a teenager at a store in Foley – “we hung gill nets, sewed shrimp nets, built crab traps” – and later, on his own in Barnwell, found that he soon built a sense of community.
“All walks of people come in here, ” he says.
He hears their fishing needs and their life stories, too.
“Some people move and then come back and say, ‘How can you not be blessed living here in Baldwin County?’”
”In an hour’s time you can be anywhere in Mobile Bay, ” he says, “You can be at Gulf Shores laying on the beach, you can be fishing on the Gulf State pier. You’ve got the Mobile Delta, you’ve got the Gulf of Mexico. If it wasn’t for a nasty hurricane or two, ” he adds, “it’d be perfect.”
Roy Hoffman, who lives in Fairhope, is the author of five books, including “Alabama Afternoons, ” and “Chicken Dreaming Corn.” His new novel, “Come Landfall” (University of Alabama Press, 2014), follows three women on the contemporary Gulf Coast whose lives, and loves, are impacted by far-off wars brought home. Contact: Rhoff179@aol.com, or Facebook.com/RoyHoffmanWriter
text by Roy Hoffman • photos by MATTHEW COUGHLIN