Mermaids, in Marshall?


When I moved to Madison County in 1973, Marshall was a busy place. Three car dealerships, two grocery stores, two hardware stores, the Sunnyside and the Shadyside florists, the library, people lining the counter at Doc Niles's pharmacy waiting for coffee or biscuits and gravy, and an assortment of people attached to the courthouse - lawyers, deputies, criminals, families. Parades were held on Christmas, the 4th of July, and Memorial Day. The town was full and alive and rich with activity. I caught a Greyhound bus in front of the Old Rock Cafe and took it to Knoxville to meet a friend. It was a main route.

By 1983, the town was dying. Businesses were closing and buildings were boarded up. I had opened a studio downtown, Main Street Studios, on the third floor in what is now the Flow Art Gallery and eventually moved into the space. The town would empty by five o'clock, the quiet only punctuated by the regular arrivals of the Norfolk Southern train. As the 1980s passed into the 1990s, Marshall slowed even more, the town abandoned by county residents who now did their shopping, and hanging out, on the Bypass or in Weaverville. The solitary parade at Christmas was attended by fewer people every year. Marshall resembled small, rural Southern towns across the entire region, passed by in a societal rush to modernity.

New people began arriving in the 2000s with money, ideas, and energy. Buildings were purchased and renovated into apartments, offices and galleries. Music, art, weddings and parades brought people into town who hadn't been there for years, or ever. It appears Marshall has been reborn, albeit in ways many long-time residents wouldn't have predicted. Last Friday evening at the Mermaid Parade, there were more people in town than I've seen in many years. Businesses were making money, families were having fun, people visiting, music playing, it was silly and delightful and a precise definition of the word community.

I've heard some born-in-county folk and older newcomers say they just don't like what Marshall has become, what with all the tattoos and dreadlocks and beer. They wish it had stayed like it was and one can sense resentment among certain people. It's too bad, that attitude, and I hate to hear it. The reality is the town was near dead and little effort was being made to revive it. But that's not the point, what is regrettable is that people are missing the opportunity to participate in the rebirth of their town as a destination for something besides court.