Leeds’ quaint downtown scene and gorgeous countryside vistas can be seen and heard. The babbling waters of the Little Cahaba River, the rolling hills and pastures with majestic horses grazing and the ding-ding of the railroad intersection bells as a train crossing brings traffic to a standstill all offer a refreshing change of pace in our culture of constant connectivity and instant online gratification.
To explore this timeless haven is to be transported to a bygone era, where downtown is largely comprised of one “Main Street,” in this case Parkway Drive, a charming, tree-lined street where colorful flower baskets hang from the street lamps and gently sway in the breeze alongside American flags proudly posted along the sidewalk. It’s a tight-knit community, where each Halloween, all the shops along Parkway Drive open their doors to all of Leeds’ giddy kiddos in disguise.
“I like knowing the clerk at City Hall, as well as the owner of the diner next door, the real people making a day-to-day living here. The Monkey’s Uncle and the Green Up Garden Shop by the post office is so ‘Mayberry’ in a way,” says highly accomplished artisinal potter and Leeds native, Tena Payne of Earthborn Pottery. “It’s really nice being part of a community where so many individuals have embraced entrepreneurship. Leeds has a lot of mom-and-pop businesses that contribute to our identity. Hopefully, we’ll continue to grow in that way.”
This is your quintessential small Southern town—a place where biscuits and barbecue are menu staples and Homecoming, fall festivals and the Christmas parade are communitywide affairs. It’s where a hometown potter with a solid work ethic can make world-renowned earthenware and a motorcycle collector with a vision can create an internationally acclaimed museum and race track. Here in Leeds, elderly Southern gentlemen gather on the small porch of a local garden shop for coffee and small talk each morning and Southern charm is rivaled only by a solid work ethic and strong sense of community.
Following completion of the Georgia-Pacific Railroad line between Birmingham and Atlanta, the Southern Railway Depot was built in 1884. It was restored and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. In 1999, the baggage room was converted to a public meeting space, and two museum rooms in the depot feature historical records and artifacts from the railroad’s rich history. The Historic Leeds Depot now serves as a meeting place for the historical preservation and educational outreach efforts of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society’s Mid-South Chapter, a gathering of railroad history buffs and locomotive fans that are proud custodians of Leeds’ railroad history.
One might initially write off this motorsports museum as a guy thing, but you’d be sorely mistaken. Local businessman George Barber, of Barber Dairy, had been building a collection of world-class motorcycles in the original Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Southside in downtown Birmingham when New York’s Guggenheim Museum called in 1997. They invited George to feature 21 of his best motorcycles at the museum’s “The Art of the Motorcycle” exhibit, which subsequently traveled to Chicago and even Spain. This fusion of motorcycles recognized as art across the globe inspired George to create a museum right here in Birmingham.
In September 2003, the 830-acre park, with its world-class, 16-turn, 2.38 mile racetrack opened to the public. The 144,000-square-foot museum houses a collection of more than 1,400 motorcycles, a Guinness Book World Record for the world’s largest motorcycle collection, and an 82,000-square-foot renovation is currently under way. George Barber’s impressive collection is displayed in the museum’s Guggenheim-inspired spiral gallery layout. These motorcycles are breathtaking works of art that offer unique cultural and historical insights.
“Leeds has a lot of history to be proud of and is postured to take on the challenges of new growth. Although Barber is in the city limits of Birmingham, Leeds was quick to realize the opportunities Barber brought to Leeds, and their leaders were instrumental in the development around the Barber project,” says Jeff Ray, executive director of the museum, adding that the best thing about Leeds is “the people and the attitude the leaders have to improve their community—and Rusty’s Bar-B-Q!”
This humble hole-in-the-wall is darn-tootin’ delicious. It’s no wonder every local mentions Rusty’s as the best eatery in town, because this joint gets barbeque right. Proprietor Jonathan “Rusty” Tucker started cooking when he was 6 years old and entered the restaurant industry at age 15. He met his wife, Beth, at culinary school at Johnson & Wales University. “Knowing that I wanted to own a restaurant and learning that I did not want to be in the high-pressure fine dining world, I decided to open Rusty’s Bar-B-Q,” says Rusty. “We are very traditional in our preparations: We smoke low and slow over hickory in an open-brick pit. Many larger Bar-B-Q restaurants have gone to using large gas-fired smokers, and I believe that takes the character and skill out of cooking true Bar-B-Q.” The pulled pork is the most popular dish on the menu, but Rusty believes that the ribs are his best offering. And the Huffington Post agrees, recently listing them as the best ribs in the state. Beth puts her baking and pastry degree to good use, making all of the restaurant’s award-winning desserts.
“Our art teacher in high school invited Dr. Lowell Vann from Samford University to demonstrate throwing on the potter’s wheel. The moment I saw the clay move in his hands, I was forever hooked. I checked books out of the library and mimicked the way they held their hands in the photos, and taught myself how to throw,” recalls Tena Payne, master potter and owner of Earthborn Pottery, who admits she was a bit of a troublemaker and might have skipped class that day, adding, “I can’t imagine what or where my life would be had that event never happened.”
Tena’s love for pottery was unparalleled. She even begged to borrow the potter’s wheel over Christmas break during high school, and she continued to hone her craft through the years on the side. Her passion turned into a full-time career after Birmingham Chef Chris Hastings of Hot and Hot Fish Club was buying shiitake mushrooms from the Payne family, and inquired about Tena’s other endeavors. Once she mentioned her pottery, he commissioned a batch, and the rest, as they say, is history. Now, Earthborn Pottery is sold all over the world, and Tena’s pottery is a popular choice for many restaurants across the nation. “I love making beautiful, functional things. We need more beauty in our lives,” says Tena. “And I love working with chefs. They are artists, too. Their medium is the food. My art is the frame for their art. It all works together so well.”
The Sonnet House was originally built in 1918 and was the McLaughlin Farm. The current Sonnet House owners purchased the property at auction in 2003, with the intention of transforming it into a wedding venue, which opened after renovations in 2007. Ellen Morgan of the Sonnet House says that as an old farmhouse, they have a casual, laid-back atmosphere and attract equally laid-back clients. “Leeds certainly has that small-town feel. We absolutely love being a part of the neighborhood,” says Ellen. “When we have bands for receptions, it isn’t uncommon to get a Facebook message or two from our neighbors telling us that they’re having dinner on their porch, enjoying the tunes. Not every city gets to experience things like that.”
And the Sonnet House staff is invested in its people. “When you work with families for a year, sometimes longer, you grow attached to them and are just as happy to celebrate their big day as they are,” says Ellen. “Our couples are a constant reminder of why we do what we do. The reward of knowing that you’ve helped someone make their dream a reality is the best feeling in the world.”
“My grandfather, Taylor Gee, was a pants wholesaler who opened the warehouse here in Leeds in 1950, and the public started coming to him direct. So, people started calling it the Pants Store, hence the name,” says Michael Gee, current owner of the Pants Store, who began sorting hangers as a boy. Several employees have worked at the Pants Store for over 40 years each, and one was a fifth-generation employee. These days, the Pants Store sells much more than just pants. From Yeti coolers and mugs, sunglasses, jewelry, Hunter boots and other fashionable shoes, gameday apparel and more, the Pants Store is a versatile shop with fashion-forward clothing and other items of interest to Alabama customers in Leeds, Trussville, Crestline, Tuscaloosa and Huntsville. Michael’s favorite thing about Leeds is the small-town feel, and he loves that he is part of one of Leeds’ long-standing family businesses. “I enjoyed working with my father everyday and I enjoy working with my brother. The people I work with are like family, too,” says Michael. “I enjoy what I do.”
“My grandparents had a small farm in the bend of the Little Tallapoosa River,” says Green Up Garden Shop owner Lisa Herren. “They were excellent gardeners and planted most everything by the moon signs. My brother and I learned so much from them. My grandmother had lots of beautiful flowers, which my grandfather found very unnecessary. He liked growing stuff that you could eat. I guess that started my love of gardening.” After years in the marketing world, followed by the offer of an out-of-state transfer, Lisa decided it was time to return to her roots. So she went back to school to study horticulture and landscape design, and worked in the green industry for about five years, never quite finding the perfect fit.
“I do believe that fate led me to the empty lot with the big, awesome pecan tree,” says Lisa. “I knew the nice man, James Moore, that owned the property. He liked the idea of a garden shop. With the help of my boyfriend, Luke Doege, Green Up came to life in 2012.” Green Up Garden Shop offers annual color, perennials, native plants and uncommon plants, as well as landscape design and planting of pots and small annual or perennial beds. And the garden lot has become a popular gathering spot. Several garden clubs have meetings at the shop, and a group of gentlemen gather on the porch of the Green Up shack, underneath the shade of the towering pecan tree, for coffee each morning. “The gentlemen agree that the tree is over 100 years old,“ says Lisa of the lot’s dramatic and rather romantic centerpiece.
“The best thing about Green Up Garden Shop is the welcome and relaxed feeling. When you enter, you are reminded that sometimes you just need to chill out. I think that’s why it’s a favorite hangout in town,” says Linda of her lovely lot.
The Monkey’s Uncle, The Monkey’s Uncle Christmas Store and The Sassy Monkey Boutique
The Monkey’s Uncle is a well-known gift store on Parkway Drive that opened in 2003, after owners Michael Dyer and Tim Jennings, both wholesale gift sales representatives, decided to open their own retail shop in Leeds. The Monkey’s Uncle offers fragrances, jewelry, home decor, collegiate gifts, birthday and anniversary gifts, baby clothing and accessories, cookbooks, Tervis tumblers, tableware and other sundry items. In 2008, The Monkey’s Uncle Christmas Store opened its doors during the holiday shopping season, from September to January. This specialty shop exclusively features Christmas gifts and decor, with more than 20 trees and countless decorations, including Mark Roberts fairies, Old World ornaments, Department 56, Jim Shore and others. And just last year, Michael and Tim opened The Sassy Monkey Boutique, a women’s clothing shop where “the clothing, jewelry and handbags are sassy, indeed,” says Tim.
Higher Ground Roasters is an award-winning coffee roaster in the heart of downtown Leeds. This ecofriendly and socially conscious company exclusively roasts 100 percent certified organic, fair trade, and shade-grown coffees. “We make the sustainable choice, because it speaks to our commitment to quality coffee with a conscience. Profits earned from Fair Trade Coffee ensure our growers are able to keep their family-owned farms and benefit from economic and educational programs. Every cup of Higher Ground is a vote for the rights of small-scale, independent farmers who grow their coffee organically under the forest canopy,” reads the Higher Ground manifesto. They are also committed to our local land, partnering with nonprofit organizations dedicated to the preservation and protection of our rivers and lands. Leeds-based Higher Ground Roasters’ high-quality coffee beans can be found across the country, from North Dakota to New York.
Ginny Smith and her mother, Frances Stanford, co-owners of Maison de France, travel to France three or four times a year to hand select one-of-a-kind European antiques for their 9,000-square-foot showroom in downtown Leeds. They have been open for 15 years, and are one of Greater Birmingham’s premier direct importers of French and English antique furniture and unique home decor items, such as confit pots, altar sticks, fish plates, mirrors and architectural fragments. Ginny and Frances always have their eye trained to spot what’s authentic, interesting and beautiful—much like the neighborhood surrounding their shop. “We love Leeds,” says Ginny of their chosen storefront location. “It is a small town that has a lot to offer. The people are nice, and the streets are always clean and decorated for the season with hanging baskets of flowers in the spring and twinkle lights and holiday decor around Christmas. It’s a great atmosphere.”
Take a day trip to Leeds for some delicious barbecue, fun shopping, a little history and a healthy dose of small-town charm. And when you stop by, make sure to tell them StyleBlueprint sent you!