MOLINO, Fla. — If you get in your car in Piedmont and meander south as far as you can go on Alabama 21, you will end up here. At the intersection of Florida 97 and U.S. 29.
There isn’t much here, save for humidity and gnats. If you turn right, you wind up in Pensacola. If you turn left, you head toward Flomaton. If you pull into the intersection’s Tom Thumb gas station, you find air conditioning.
Glorious, soothing air conditioning.
On this Sunday afternoon, Tom Thumb is overrun with customers. It’s the type place where a hairy-chested dude wearing swim trunks and nothing else stands in line with a woman in her church-day best, an odd mixture of exposed skin and high heels. One of them is buying beer, the other a soft drink.
Technically, this place isn’t on Alabama 21 — that road, the one Calhoun County equally adores and abhors, officially ends about 25 miles to the north in Atmore, home to a casino and an execution chamber. But the only things that keep it from being part of Alabama 21 — our Alabama 21 — are a state line and a “Welcome to Florida” sign.
Plus, as former Auburn University history professor Wayne Flynt says, “Culturally, (this part of Florida) is still Auburn U. and Southern Baptist Florida, the only part of the state like that.” These Floridians, Flynt goes on, have more in common with their northern neighbors than they do the sun-drenched Floridians to the south.
So, call Florida 97 an unofficial southern spur of our Alabama 21.
Visually, it’s a mixture of all things quintessentially Southern: acres upon acres of farmland, crops of blueberries and beans and tomatoes and the like, small churches, a few large farm houses, collections of water towers and animals, and towns so minuscule they don’t even enjoy a single stoplight. Size-wise, Ohatchee would envelop them.
Molino, the largest of these places, isn’t really a town. It just has a name, a water tower, acres of farmland, a school (Molino Park Elementary) and 1,200 residents, more or less. One of its largest churches, Aldersgate United Methodist, sits a stone’s throw from the 97-29 intersection. It is pastored by the same preacher who also pastors another Methodist church in a town south of here. Molino also has a historical society that rightly points out that the Louisville and Nashville Railroad — the L&N — was key to the place’s turn-of-the-century “growth.” And, yes, that’s the same L&N that ran through west Anniston and whose historic station burned down several years ago.
In a sense, Molino has a White Plains feel without the White Plains views of Mount Cheaha; if it’s a contest, White Plains wins. But Molino does have a singular claim to fame that is marked with sign after sign around this small place.
Don Sutton, the Clio, Ala.-born baseball Hall of Famer, grew up here. (His dad, a logger and construction worker, moved to Molino looking for work.) Signs honoring Sutton are on U.S. 29 and Florida 97. A half-mile behind the Tom Thumb is the Don Sutton Ball Park, Molino’s five-field youth baseball complex.
If you visit Sutton Park (you can’t get in; it’s locked tight), on the left as you leave is a farm. Next to the house is a small pen, holding a goat and a sheep.
The final 20 miles or so until you reach Alabama and the official southern terminus of Alabama 21 is part Hee Haw, part Green Acres and part Southern Living. Nothing separates them. Snaking along this Florida two-lane road toward Alabama you pass massive rows of crops, rusty barns and run-down homes, church after church after church — a Church of Christ, a Baptist church, a Mennonite church — and a handful of pseudo-plantations, some of which are for sale.
Pine Ridge Farm, in north Molino, is one such place. If you picked it up and put it on Alabama 9, on the western side so it faced east, it would be darn-near perfect. Nevertheless, it sits on the so-called southern spur of Alabama 21, an 84-acre working ranch with a 3,300-square foot home, a guest house, two barns and a $1.2 million price tag.
Just up the road from Pine Ridge is Molino’s feed store. On its marquee is an advertisement: “We have flavored deer corn.”
Between Molino and Atmore are two more pin-pricks on the map, Walnut Hill and Davisville. Walnut Hill is more developed; it has a water tower and the Mennonite church. Davisville is easy to miss, which is saying something in these parts.
Along the way north through Walnut Hill, a country vegetable stand sits unmanned on a corner. Featured are blueberries, tomatoes, “new” potatoes and eggs. A handwritten cardboard sign warns customers not to try any funny business. “Honor system — cameras recording.”
Behind the stand, down an adjacent road, is a driveway with a crimson marker. “Bama Drive,” it reads.
The last vestiges of Florida as you come within spitting distance of Alabama 21’s true starting point is a fine collection of Sunshine State commercialism: The Discount Liquors Lounge, a Piggly Wiggly, a Family Dollar, the State Line Gift Shop and Lotto, the O’Yeah Lotto, another lottery store (they’re proud of their state lottery in Florida), a Mission of Christ church and a day care.
Situated on the state line, as if it were built straddling the boundary on purpose, is DG’s Finest Cuts barber shop. The Alabama state line sign is practically in its parking lot. DG’s rules are posted by the door:
“Please control your kids.
“(This is not a daycare.)”
As you leave DG’s and begin the trek on Alabama 21 north, you can’t see the Appalachian foothills of Calhoun County. But they are beckoning, even so.