Welcome to Wildcat Nation
This little city in north Mobile County has history and charm galore.
Local veterinarian Mike Salmon strolls the town’s famous walking path after a long day at the clinic with his wife Marie, daughter Grace and the family dog, Lacey. The couple also owns and farms land that was homesteaded by Marie’s great-grandparents. The walking path was built on defunct railroad tracks with the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.
THE LAND OF HEALING WATERS // CURRENT POPULATION: 3,905
Ask Citronelle locals for the best way to experience their town, and the answer is usually, “Take a hike.”
The response is meant in a nice way. The suggested hike is through the town’s Walking Trail with two miles of century-old churches, “Norman Rockwell with a Southern accent” style homes and 200 years of history. Almost every able-bodied person in town has walked the trail. “I’m on it every day,” says Al McDonald, former mayor and 50-plus-year Citronelle resident. “It’s a quiet place. Relaxing, just like the city.”
You hear that a lot. Peace and quiet are attractive qualities of the town. “We benefit by virtue of our proximity,” McDonald adds. “Citronelle does not have huge shopping malls and hospitals, but we’re close enough to the cities that do.” To some, that’s a problem. To others, it’s an advantage.
“Our location gives us easy access to Mobile, Saraland, the beaches, and the Florida and Mississippi coasts,” the former mayor adds. “And we have most of what we need right here.” For Citronelle’s almost entire existence, others have found what they need here, too. So, lace up the sneakers and walk a mile in Citronelle shoes. Let’s take a hike.
ABOVE The Hygeia Cottage, built in 1904, once offered overnight accomodations to travelers just off the train. It now houses exhibits as part of the Citronelle Historical Preservation Society’s Depot Museum.
history in brief
In 1777, nationally proclaimed botanist William Bartram set out on a mission and canoed north from Mobile into an Indian village. He met Native Americans who told him tales of a local plant with medicinal properties that allegedly cured malaria. The plant was named “citronella.”
News spread of the curative plant and the community north of Mobile that took on the plant’s name. Later, the railroad came to town, and in 1851, the Mobile & Ohio line changed its train stop station name from “Citronella” to “Citronelle.” The name stuck, as did the community’s reputation as a place of vigor and vitality.
“Citronelle sits on a formation of clay, sand and gravel,” explains town historian Gordon Vernon. “It is a natural aquifer, filtering the water, rendering some the purest available.” By the early 1800s, Citronelle had a national following as “The Land of Healing Waters.” The water was bottled and sold nationwide, and people from all over the country visited, not just for the water but for its very air, which was also believed to heal.
One such man was a dying New Yorker by the name of William Seward Burroughs. Burroughs moved to Citronelle in the late 1800s, hoping the town’s legendary environment would cure his tuberculosis. Sadly, in 1898, the sickly 42-year-old died in Citronelle just six years after inventing the world’s first adding machine, which launched the global conglomerate, the Burroughs Corporation.
The town also played a major role in the final days of the Civil War. On May 4, 1865, the last surrender of the Confederate Army east of the Mississippi River was signed off in Citronelle under a giant oak tree. The massive timber stood until 1906 when the “Surrender Oak” surrendered to a hurricane.
Eventually, Citronelle had another major draw for newcomers. An oil boom hit the town in the mid-1950s. “That changed everything,” recalls Vernon. “‘The Land of Healing Waters’ became the ‘Oil Capital of Alabama.’ At one time, over 400 oil wells pumped in Citronelle.” Some are still there, still pumping.
ABOVE Both the old depot and a train car (below) help house the museum’s extensive collection of historical artifacts.
“Oh, come on,” I said incredulously as curator Jo Nichols explained that there are thousands of exhibits in the Citronelle Depot Museum. And then I toured it. And then I apologized. Do not leave town without seeing this place.
The Citronelle Depot Museum runs parallel to the Walking Trail. Three sisters help run it in conjunction with the Citronelle Historical Preservation Society: Jo Nichols, Debbie Odom and Tweety Miller. “People do not realize what all we have here,” Jo says. “It is chock-full of artifacts covering centuries.” The building itself is an artifact.
Opened in 1903 as a train station, most of the building’s construction material is original. “How old do you think the floor is?” Tweety inquires. I’m guessing by the fresh shine, maybe 10 years old. Wrong. It is the original floor installed in 1903, complete with original grout — a mix of 1903 mud and sawdust.
William Burroughs’ adding machine is here, as is a pair of 1870 wedding shoes signed by President Ulysses S. Grant. A fully restored last-century doctor’s office, a movie theater seat (Citronelle once had a movie theater — you could pay a dime and stay all day) and oil-drilling equipment of bygone days are displayed, too. If that isn’t enough, step outside. Two railcars are loaded with more to see.
“I can’t pick a favorite,” Odom says, acting as tour guide and examining artifacts. “But one would be this old cane made from the Surrender Oak Tree.”
The museum’s hours are Saturday 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., but visits may be scheduled on other days by special request. The admission price is pretty special, too; the museum is free.
Things to Do
Comments from a Google search give Citronelle’s 18-hole Municipal Golf Course a five-star rating, which is no surprise to golf course employee Jackie Lowe. “It is one of the best-kept secrets on the Gulf Coast.”
Lowe explains, “The front nine is long and wide open, but the back nine is tight and wide.” For you non-golfers, that means it’s challenging. And whether you ask a seasoned golf pro or someone a little greener, they all agree that the course is beautiful no matter what.
The course is embedded in piney woods beside the 100-acre Mill Creek Lake. “During your game, water comes into play,” warns Lowe. The golf lake is fishable, stocked with bass, catfish and little white balls. A pro shop, cafe and other amenities cater to local golfers, visitors from Mobile and Baldwin counties, and across the nation.
ABOVE Mobilian Beth Majure stops at The Iron Skillet Restaurant every time she comes to town for work. Their country cooking buffet lunch is a must.
ABOVE LEFT Linda Tyler paints the foils in Doris’s Beauty Shop, a local mainstay that has been in business for more than 45 years.
ABOVE RIGHT Shoppers browse the aisles of Andrews Ace Hardware on Highway 45. It originally opened in the 1890s as Pick Hardware downtown and was purchased by the Andrews family in 1923. It is now run by Bruce and Jeanie Andrews and their two sons, who are fifth-generation owners.
Where to Shop and Eat
“One of the assets of small-town living is our shopping,” notes Citronelle’s Jeanna Martin, owner of Jeanna’s Flower Shop. “Unlike big-box stores, hometown shopping doesn’t overwhelm you. The store’s staff members know you and probably know what you need before you do.” Martin’s shop, where she’s been arranging and selling florals in town for 32 years, sits on 3rd Street just waiting for you to pay a visit.
Also on 3rd Street is the Iron Skillet Restaurant, which residents generally visit three times a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The lunch buffet includes roast beef, pork chops, vegetables, cobblers and genuine server friendliness. I had not heard, “Hi, sweetheart,” or “More coffee, baby?’’ this much since my honeymoon, which did not include all-you-can-eat fried catfish.
who you oughta know
William Gray is a fourth-generation native of Citronelle and president of the Citronelle Youth Baseball Softball Association. “If you want to see a beautiful sight, be here during ball season,” he says, referring to the town’s sports fields. “This town rocks Friday nights. Thousands of youngsters are playing ball.”
Gray and his wife, Jessie, have two children, a 9-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy. As lifelong Citronelle residents, they’ve never considered living anywhere else. His explanation is simple: “I stay because I love it. I want to give back to the community that has given me so much.”
Locals often joke about how the town is so familiar. Out of 3,905 residents, about 3,500 know each other. Gray adds, “Some call us a bedroom community, and I guess that is true to some extent. But my children go to school here. Their teachers are the same people I grew up with. If I need to talk with a teacher, I already know them. It’s that personal connection we have.”
ABOVE A ferocious wildcat medallion greets visitors as they enter the airy main foyer.
Pride of Place
This past May, 17-year-old Katherine Thompson earned her place in local history. She is the first valedictorian of the new Citronelle High School, which opened in August 2016. “It hasn’t hit me yet,” the honor student shares. “I feel like I don’t deserve it. All of my classmates are hardworking. But certainly, to be the first valedictorian in the new school is an honor.”
The $25-million campus replaced the one across the street, which began as a log house education center in 1886. You heard me: 1886. Grover Cleveland was president.
“There are so many traditions at Citronelle High,” head principal Randy Campbell claims, pointing at the previous high school building that was built in 1913 and is currently being dismantled. “It is hard to comprehend the stories and experiences of those who graduated from that building.”
Almost everyone in town went to school here, as did their parents, their parents before and their parents before that. “Few communities are as loyal to its schools as Citronelle,” the principal adds, smiling with pride. “This is Wildcat Nation.”
Alma Johnson is a proud member of Wildcat Nation, too. Though, she points out, “I am not originally from Citronelle. I came here at the age of 5.” Today, she is 94.
“My goodness, look at the changes,” she says, referencing her alma mater, Citronelle High School. She graduated with the class of 1940. “The school is strong and survived just like the town did. Many thought our close bonds would change when oil was discovered, but they didn’t,” she explains. “Citronelle has always been a family place. The oil boom didn’t change that. It just brought in more families.”
The Citronelle School System has the largest attendance zone in Mobile County. It covers a 25-mile radius, spanning from Interstate 65 in Creola to the Mississippi state line.
As for the new facility, Thompson has mixed feelings. “I liked the old school. It was like home to me, but the new building is state-of-the-art and has electrical outlets that don’t blow up your cell phone.” Always moving forward, as they say.
On the first Saturday of May, thousands pour into town for the Surrender Oak Festival. The highlight of the day is an annual reenactment of May 4, 1865, one of Dixie’s last stands in the Civil War. But it has evolved into a celebration of all things Citronelle, its people and its heritage.
On that fateful day of defeat, 9,000 troops were in town for the sign-off. But yesterday’s loss in war is today’s victory in funnel cakes. The Surrender Oak Festival features museum tours, historical readings, musical performances, great food, and arts and crafts. The all-day event is an opportunity for the town to shine, and its light shines bright.
Citronelle is a town that is proud of its history but celebrates its present. “We have a lot of natural beauty,” says resident Freda McDonald, wife of Al McDonald. “Citronelle has done a good job of blending natural beauty with functionality. For example, our community center is not just lovely; it is booked well in advance.”
Long-time resident Kathy Richardson notes, “We are small but not a country town. For some it is a bedroom community, but you can get almost everything you need right here.”
Citronelle is a good place to be, in the Land of Healing Waters, Alabama’s oil capital and America’s former health spa. Residents and visitors alike take it all in stride, every day, on a walking trail through an incredible town.