Talk of the Town

“I haven’t experienced this personally, but rumor has it …” We love juicy stories beginning with ‘rumor has it’ – and our legends have more juice than a squashed beetle. So let’s examine some coastal tales to determine if they’re true or false. Because, like the great philosopher Minnie Pearl said, “I don’t repeat gossip, so listen close the first time.”

CLAIM: Walt Disney considered Mobile for Walt Disney World.

False. “I’ve examined thousands of Walt Disney’s documents, ” says Chad Denver Emerson, author of “Project Future: The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World.” “I’ve never seen references to Mobile.” The author continues, “Walt had three criteria for selecting his park site: One, no beachfront competition; two, minimal hurricane threat; and three, consistently warm temperatures.” That’s why he chose central Florida.

But according to Emerson, Mr. Disney was well traveled. “We know he visited Huntsville and Dothan, ” he says. “Perhaps Walt was spotted in Mobile,  and that started the rumor.”

CLAIM: A Mobile woman was bitten by a king cobra snake coiled under a bolt of cloth in a fabric store. 

Probably False. “We receive ‘cobra sighting’ calls all the time, ” says University of South Alabama’s herpetologist, Dr. David Nelson. “What they are probably seeing is a hognose snake.”

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He explains, “When frightened, the hognose snake flares its neck and back of head, resembling a cobra.” Fortunately, our serpent is all hiss and no action. “It’s harmless, never bites and does its ‘cobra neck flare performance’ to frighten people, ” the professor adds. “And it works.”

Dr. Nelson doesn’t rule out cobras in Mobile, but notes, “They are from the other side of the world. It would be difficult for one to survive a journey here.”

CLAIM: A Confederate soldier was decapitated by cannon fire.

True. But it wasn’t in battle. On April 30, 1863, Fort Morgan Lt. Col. Charles Stewart was standing by a canon when it exploded. So did Stewart.

The soldier’s head blew off and possibly rolled down flights of stairs. His body parts rained on fellow soldiers. So how’s your day? I digress.

“People see our stairway stains and think it’s Stewart’s blood, ” says Fort
Morgan historian, Mike Bailey. “It’s not. Blood will not discolor concrete, especially for this length of time.”

Claim: A sea monster was spotted in the waters of Mobile Bay.

True. “Snake-shaped Sea Monster Seen 30 Miles Off Mobile, ” screamed newspaper headlines on May 14, 1937. The press chronicled the tale of tugboat captain Willie Conway. “The weather was calm and smooth, ” he told the press. “Suddenly we passed a large living thing swimming in the water. It resembled a large snake in shape and movement.”

Conway claimed the creature was about 3 feet in diameter and 50 feet long. “In 38 years at sea, I’ve never seen anything like it, ” he noted. “If any mariner has, I would appreciate enlightenment.” Enlightened mariners were unavailable for comment.

Claim: There are human bones buried all over town.

True. Mobile may not have skeletons in the closet, but it’s got them everywhere else. Take Government Street for example. In May 1903, a sewer project halted when workers excavated the remains of three human frames from underneath Downtown’s main street.

A 1903 newspaper story cautioned Mobilians not to worry, as “human bones are always unearthed when Government Street is dug up.” I feel better now.

Claim: North Mobile County once had a close encounter of the third kind. 

True. From the 1950s to 1970, residents of then rural Kali Oka Road, in North Mobile County, witnessed a soft-glowing globe hovering about 30 feet above ground. The official, though never proven, explanation was “swamp gas.” But many insisted it was an intergalactic invasion, because somewhere in the universe alien beings were adamant about conquering Saraland.

The phenomenon vanished in 1970, perhaps to seek out new worlds, such as Neptune or Chickasaw. About the only reminder of the Kali Oka community’s UFO experience is a street named for it: Spaceview Drive.

Claim: Hollywood golden boy Brad Pitt visited Fairhope.

False. Brad was never here. But, in April 2008, the Eastern Shore threw a Pitt fit.

Responding to community phone calls, news reporters searched for the famous actor and came away empty-handed. They never found Big Foot either.

Fairhope business broker, William Bruce, remembers the Pitt probe. “What probably happened, ” he theorizes, “Is someone in town saw a good-looking guy resembling the actor and thought he was Brad Pitt.”

The explanation of someone being mistaken for Brad Pitt is plausible – happens to me all the time.

Claim: Elvis Presley was asked to leave a local restaurant.

True. In the 1950s, well before his sequined jumpsuit days, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll was king of the road. One evening while he was in the Port City, he stopped traffic at Johnny’s Drive-In as teenage girls swooned.

Owner Johnny Vallas never meant to step on his blue suede shoes, however, “I ran him out of the parking lot, because there were too many people out of their cars.”

Claim: Fire ants infiltrated the United States by way of Mobile.

True. Fire ants really did enter America through the Port of Mobile. In the 1930s, a South American cargo ship berthed at the docks, and stowaway fire ants unloaded with shipped goods. Not good.

Today, the creepy-crawlies occupy every Southern state and are moving north. But, Mobile is where the ants came marching in.

text by Emmett Burnett • illustrations by Marie Katz

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