Sunday, March 19, 2017

Naming the Shoals


Cities and towns are like cats; they usually have an official name and a nickname. Say the “Big Apple” or the “Second City,” and everyone knows which town is being discussed. That’s also true of Shoals towns, or at least most of them.

Look at Sheffield; it now seems to have two nicknames. Last year, PNS published an article about a Sheffield city council candidate who had a recent local arrest. When one editor used the term “City on the Bluff,” the candidate took great issue with it, stating the public wouldn’t understand the arrest was in Sheffield. The other editor agreed with her, stating “City on the Bluff” was an old name for the town. Is it?

The first record of that name found on the Internet is from an early 1980s Sheffield High School pep rally. In 1985, the Sheffield Library published the history of the town on the eve of its 100th anniversary. The book was called Sheffield, City on the Bluff – 1885-1985.


In this century, local filmmaker Steve Wiggins has produced Sheffield: City on the Bluff. Even current Sheffield police patches give a nod to the name, displaying it prominently at the top of the insignias officers wear daily.
Yet Sheffield does have a new nickname. Will it displace “City on the Bluff?”



An Internet search shows early 2014 as the first date “Center of the Shoals” was used to describe the small Colbert County town. At that time, a refurbished neon sign was placed at the juncture of Muscle Shoals and Sheffield on East Second Street.

Since that time, the city has begun to use the moniker on its website and in other blurbs. Yet there has been much discussion on local forums as to how accurate a description this new name really is. Exactly how does one define the center of the Shoals area when not everyone can decide its geographical boundaries? Or is “center” merely a relative term?

Which name will win the battle of the nicknames? Perhaps the City of Florence can tell us; we’ll visit it next.

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We last visited the City on the Bluff; now we’ll visit the Queen City. Not familiar with that appellation? That makes you under the age of 40.

The term Queen City is used for towns in almost all the states. Once Alabama had two Queen Cities: Tuscaloosa and Florence. In the 1960s and 1970s, it wasn’t unusual to see vehicles sporting the bumper sticker “Florence – the Queen City.”

The last official reference to Florence as the Queen City was found online in a 1972 newspaper article by the TimesDaily editor Louis Eckl who predicted a strong future for Lauderdale’s county seat. It would seem the Vietnam era daily wasn’t that much different from the one of today.

Did the name Queen City fall out of favor because it was confusing? Or did the rising era of gay rights tarnish the term in the eyes of some?

Florence seemed to languish for at least a decade without a nickname; however, by the late 1980s, the annual Renaissance Faire had arrived. Florence, Italy, and Florence, Alabama, had been proclaimed sister cities. What better way to cement that relationship than by dubbing the Alabama town the Renaissance City?


Over the years, signage has sprung up bearing the image of the Italian town’s signature giglio, sometimes known as the lily or fleur-de-lis. Even the marble floor in the back lobby of the public library sports the floral logo.

Arguments have sprung up over the presence or absence of stamen in the signature flower and what makes it a true giglio. While it may have convoluted origins, it looks like the name Renaissance City is here to stay.

One Colbert County town didn’t have quite such a circuitous path to its nickname. Next: Muscle Shoals.

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It was 1921 when Henry Ford visited Muscle Shoals. He proposed purchasing Wilson Dam for five million dollars and turning the miniscule plat on the map into what he called “the Detroit of the South.” Congress refused Ford’s offer based on the construction price of the dam having been at least eight times what Ford offered, but the nickname Detroit of the South stuck for years, possibly as much in derision as in apt description.

At least four decades passed before things changed appreciably in Muscle Shoals, but change they did. The small town of Sheffield refused to consider U.S. Highway 43 passing through its city limits, and Muscle Shoals became the next logical choice for the major traffic artery. The Detroit of the South was about to boom, if in only a small way.


Since the town had nothing to do with the automotive industry at this point, a new nickname was needed to convey what the town represented, and the success of Fame Studios provided it. Muscle Shoals was officially dubbed “the Hit Recording Capital of the World.”

Signs designating the town as a hit recording capital have waned over the years, but recent interest in the small Colbert County town’s musical history has again brought the name to the forefront 40 years after it first appeared. It just may be a keeper.

Next we’ll visit Tuscumbia…

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The city of Tuscumbia is one of the oldest communities in the Shoals. It’s either the same age as Florence or two years younger, depending upon one’s point of view. From the official town history:

The town incorporated as Ococoposa in 1820. The name was soon changed to Big Spring. This name, however, still did not seem to do the town justice. In 1822, a vote was taken to change the name to either Anniston, after the first white child born in Big Spring, or Tuscumbia, in honor of the Chickasaw Indian chief living here. Tuscumbia won by one vote.

Should we consider Ococoposa a nickname? Probably not. How about Big Spring? Ditto.

So what is Tuscumbia’s nickname? If Florence, Sheffield, and Muscle Shoals each have two sobriquets, doesn’t Tuscumbia have at least one? Those we’ve asked have uniformly replied in the negative.

In the interest of fairness, it’s incumbent upon PNS to dub the city of Tuscumbia with an appellation it can be proud to display on billboards leading into the town. A historian residing in legendary Limestone County has come to the town’s rescue and coined a brilliant nickname for the Colbert County town. From this point on, the picturesque municipality shall be designated:

Tuscumbia – Gateway to Barton.