Southern Agenda

What’s Happening in the South

Going-ons across the region in December and January

Illustration: Tim Bower

By Larry Bleiberg, Caroline Sanders Clements, Wayne Curtis, Jennifer Kornegay, and Lindsey Liles


Curious by Nature

Large tanks (including a seven-thousand-gallon stingray touch pool) swimming with more than a hundred species from surrounding coastal ecosystems remain focal points of the reopened Alabama Aquarium at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. But some of its newest and tiniest residents are gems, too. “Our baby diamondback terrapins are adorable,” says aquarium educator Mendel Graeber. The nursery tank, where the terrapins grow from the size of bottle caps to coasters, debuted after a two-month renovation that strengthened the aquarium’s connection to the Lab’s research; they’re part of a project to increase the threatened species’ numbers by nurturing hatchlings for a year before releasing them. “They’ve really captured hearts,” Graeber says. (Kids are especially entranced, so a step stool ensures a good look for those on short legs.) The turtles have proved small but mighty ambassadors for the aquarium’s conservation message, and the work extends outdoors. “The animals inside spark wonder and curiosity to learn more, so we also do excursions on the Gulf and into area salt marshes and maritime forest,” Graeber says, “and they’re great experiences in winter; you won’t melt!”


Slice of the Sweet Life

From 1935 until he graduated from high school in 1950, Johnny Cash lived at 4791 W. County Road 924, in the little agrarian community of Dyess, Arkansas, and the holidays would find his mother, Carrie, in the kitchen mixing up two of her son’s favorite pies: chocolate and pineapple. On December 9, the Historic Dyess Colony: Johnny Cash Boyhood Home will honor that tradition by partnering with the chefs at the Grange—an agricultural and culinary venue in the revived small town of Wilson—to put on Baking Pies like Mama Cash. Before a tour of Cash’s home, participants will bake desserts from Mama Cash’s own annotated recipe book. “I’ve tried many of Carrie’s recipes, and I can vouch that this is good, down-home cooking,” says director Penny Toombs. “And we will see the kitchen where she made these pies.” To whip up a Cash pineapple pie closer to home, beat a cup and a half of sugar with a half cup of butter, a cup of crushed pineapple, three tablespoons of flour, one teaspoon of vanilla, and two eggs. Pour it all into a pie shell and bake at 350°F—while listening to “Pickin’ Time” or “Five Feet High and Rising,” two Johnny Cash songs inspired by Dyess—until golden brown.

An illustration of a grey manatee with heads of lettuce

Manatee Victories

Recent winters have cast a pall on Florida’s gentle giants: Major seagrass die-offs due to algal blooms meant food for manatees was scarce, and so many of them were starving that conservation organizations intervened with lettuce feedings to pull the mammals on the east coast through the past two seasons. But scientists are hopeful this year as the water grows cold and the state’s seven thousand surviving manatees move inland to warm waterways. “We haven’t had a serious harmful algal bloom in the Indian River Lagoon, the worst affected area, so the seagrass is returning,” says Andrew Walker, the president and CEO of the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida. The nonprofit has bought some six hundred thousand pounds of emergency lettuce, plus facilitated seven seagrass restoration projects around the state, with another three on the docket, including one in Biscayne Bay. “If we need to feed every year, that’s what we’ll do,” Walker says. “But the key is getting our seagrasses back so we don’t have to.”


Mine Your Own Business

When Freddy Welch’s family bought the Smith House in Dahlonega, in 1970, they had no idea the restaurant and inn would be such a gold mine—literally. Nearly forty years later, during renovations to the basement dining room, the family discovered a mine shaft running along a gold vein, a vestige of the town’s gold rush in the early 1800s. “It has always been the story around town that the Smith House sat on a gold vein, but we didn’t really believe it,” says Welch, who now runs the place with his wife, children, and grandchildren. Today guests can drop in to see the vein, along with bottles and other artifacts pulled from the dirt. The Smith House opened as a restaurant and boardinghouse in 1922, and more than a hundred years later, visitors still pile in for the family’s fried chicken and homemade sides. And although a vintage cash register on-site—owned by the house’s original builder—has a function to accept payment in gold, nowadays they take cards and cash, too.

An illustration with two women in a pool, they are dancing with a disco ball above them

Stayin’ Alive

The Derby City has a flashy side: In the 1970s disco music heyday, Louisville factories were churning out 90 percent of the global supply of disco balls, until demand fizzled and factories shuttered. One factory, though, recently made a comeback as a boutique hotel in the quirky Highlands neighborhood, still sporting original industrial features like concrete floors and exposed steel beams. “As a nod to the space’s history, we named it the Myriad for the myriad reflector, the first patented disco ball from 1917,” explains Craig Pishotti, cofounder of Common Bond, the hospitality group behind the opening. The lobby features hanging disco balls, naturally, along with wood-paneled walls and sculptures by Louisville native J. Cletus Wilcox. At the restaurant Paseo, which backs up to the pool, a wood-fired grill churns out paellas, and cocktails riff on Castle & Key Restoration Rye and port barrel–finished Angel’s Envy. That’s just the start of the merriment—the elevators transform into petite discos with a “party button” that triggers music and spinning lights.


Carnival Season Kickoff

Mardi Gras falls on February 13, but Carnival season officially begins on January 6, or Twelfth Night. New Orleanians know that the early edge of Carnival is more intimate and family friendly than the raucous final day that closes it out. Seemingly endless neighborhood parades keep the streets hopping—including Joan of Arc (January 6), Chewbacchus (January 20), and Krewe du Vieux (assuredly not family friendly, January 27). January 6 also kicks off king cake season, and Louisiana bakeries engage in a sort of one-upmanship in decadence. In New Orleans, try the delightful Chantilly king cake at Bywater Bakery, or the delicate, traditional French galette des rois at La Boulangerie. “How is the galette des rois different?” asks Maggie Scales, executive pastry chef at that Uptown establishment. “In every possible way. It’s flaky and not overly sweet. It has no color besides the golden shine of baked puff pastry. And it’s well-loved because of the French influence of the city.”


Top of the Class

Even if you don’t know the billionaire Mitch Rales and his wife, Emily, you can still enjoy their collection of modern art. Their nearly three-hundred-acre Glenstone Museum, built on the grounds of a former Potomac fox hunting club, displays the works of such artists as Jeff Koons, Mark Rothko, and Louise Bourgeois. “We want to give people an intimate experience,” says assistant curator Yuri Stone. Although signage is minimal, the museum’s gray-tunicked guides field questions: “Everything from What year was that made? to Why is that art?” Stone says. Since opening in 2006, Glenstone has quietly become one of the nation’s wealthiest arts institutions—its $4.6 billion endowment rivals that of New York’s Metropolitan Museum. The museum’s newest exhibit, Iconoclasts, highlights artists who once shook up the art world, like Willem de Kooning, Alexander Calder, and Jackson Pollock. Today Pollock’s splattered paintings hardly raise an eyebrow, Stone says. “But I promise you, in the 1950s, people thought he was crazy.”


Mansion Reborn

The New Orleans–based Rizzuto’s Ristorante & Chop House amassed an almost cult-like following in the Crescent City’s Lakeview neighborhood after it opened in 2017. The Sicilian-inflected menu was inspired by meals prepared for restaurateurs and brothers Jack Rizzuto and Phil Rizzuto by their grandmother Lena. It first featured popular dishes like eggplant Valentina, seafood manicotti, and what’s essentially a sizable but surprisingly refined meatball. The brothers soon expanded across the river to Gretna. And now they’re making a longer leap, opening an outpost in downtown Biloxi, Mississippi. They acquired the historic Redding House, a 1908 Colonial Revival mansion that one might mistake for a wedding cake on the outside but on the inside is all chocolatey, dark mahogany and cypress. Expect traditional Italian fare, along with their noted crab cakes and house-aged steaks.

North Carolina

Life in a Snow Globe

Once Hawksnest Snow Tubing’s season opens in late November, each day up to two thousand people will sit in inner tubes, scoot to the starting point, and swoosh down one of thirty snow-slicked runs, cold air turning their squeals into smoke. Now the area’s largest, the park in Seven Devils opened as ski slopes in 1964, adding tubing in 2008. “Everyone loved it, so we stopped skiing,” says Ashley Jones, general manager. Tubing took off, but she cautions tubers against a similar trajectory. “The goal is to not catch air.” And while the trip down the longest run (a thousand feet) lasts twenty seconds, a ticket affords you almost two hours of repeat rides—if you can stand it. “Some people spin the whole way down,” says Clint Byrd, the park’s tubing operations manager. “At the bottom, as they move to go again, they walk sideways or fall over. But they’re laughing.”

South Carolina

True Original

“When you think of the Charleston Renaissance, you think of artists like Alice Ravenel Huger Smith or Anna Heyward Taylor,” says Chase Quinn, a curator at the city’s Gibbes Museum of Art, of the movement that flourished there between the World Wars. “Their works are floral, romantic visions of Charleston, inspired by French impressionism or Japanese woodblocks.” So when Quinn studied one of their contemporaries, Edward “Ned” I. R. Jennings, he immediately noticed the difference in Jennings’s bold and stylized figures. Quinn deduced that Jennings was pulling inspiration instead from the British illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, as well as British Aestheticism, a movement in the late 1800s that emerged in response to the Industrial Revolution. In Something Terrible May Happen (through March 10), the Gibbes displays some forty works by Beardsley and Jennings. In Costume Design for the Princess’ Slip, Jennings caricatured a robed woman with fiery hair, glancing coquettishly over her shoulder, which, Quinn says, “embodies the themes of the exhibit like eroticism, decadence, and humor.”


Branching Out

“Most people either had a tree house as a kid or wanted one,” says Treetop Hideaways owner Enoch Elwell. The company recently opened three luxury tree-house lodges at Ruby Falls in Chattanooga (in addition to its original cluster just below Rock City), and Elwell insists that winter visits are wonderful. “The tree houses are elevated in the forest, and with branches bare, you get incredible views,” he says, including a vista of the Tennessee River snaking toward downtown framed by a floor-to-ceiling window reclaimed from a Mississippi general store. Other antique details, like a working 1920s Silvertone phonograph with records, boost the nostalgia. And the rooms’ rustic wood construction, with tree trunks rising through, wraps guests’ inner children in warm, fuzzy feelings, while full climate-control systems ensure physical comfort. “It’s so cozy,” says Elwell, who nonetheless encourages venturing outside. “Ruby Falls is always a treat to explore,” he says. “A trail wrapping around Lookout Mountain is right out the tree-house doors; I prefer cold-weather hiking—no bugs.”

An illustration of four musicians coming out of a Texas shape; in the middle is an illustration of a town and rows of shops
Dallas, Texas

Deep Ellum’s 150 Years of Grooves

For a glimpse into Deep Ellum’s 150-year-old personality, look no further than the vibrant murals painted stories high along the Dallas neighborhood’s streets and alleyways. You’ll find depictions of such local legends as the late guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, former Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki, and bluesman Robert Johnson, along with weird and wonderful images of colorful elephants, a T. rex playing guitar, and E.T. raising his iconic glowing finger for Instagrammers to touch. Settled along Elm (sometimes pronounced “Ellum” by early residents) Street in 1873 after the Civil War, Deep Ellum became a commercial and residential hub for African Americans and new immigrants, boasting a cotton gin factory, a Ford plant, and a hungry art and music scene. “Deep Ellum was founded by people with bigger dreams than their surroundings,” says Breonny Lee, a Dallas native and president of the Deep Ellum Community Association. “And when do-it-yourself, creative people get together, they tend to flourish.” In the case of Deep Ellum, flourishing involved incubating icons of jazz and blues—and later rock, punk, and country—including Blind Lemon Jefferson, Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, T-Bone Walker, and Bessie Smith. Today music remains the main pull; on any given weekend, you might find rock group the Fall of Troy at the beloved venue Trees, the local alternative band King Clam at Three Links, or Patterson Hood at the historic Sons of Hermann Hall. As the neighborhood marks its birthday, it also celebrates the opening of a new community center, with a permanent exhibition on the area’s history, a music listening room, a functional 1930s recording studio, and a gallery to showcase the work of artists continuing to evolve Deep Ellum’s culture. “All in space run by and for the community,” Lee says. “Because as with anything that’s really special, the place is only as good as the people.”


For the Commonwealth Good

The Virginia Museum of History & Culture could be hard to love. Since its 1831 founding, it has gone through multiple moves and renovations, creating a rabbit warren of galleries, research wings, and storage areas. “It was a Frankenstein of a building,” says president and CEO Jamie O. Bosket. But thanks to a recent $30 million makeover, the Richmond museum, which predates the Smithsonian, has seen record crowds in its streamlined space. It has a new immersive theater and updated displays featuring a fraction of the museum’s more than nine million artifacts, including a duck decoy made by famed Chincoteague carver Miles Hancock (1887–1974) and a piece of limestone from the Pentagon damaged in the 9/11 attack. In 2024, the museum welcomes exhibits on Rosenwald Schools, which Black communities built across the South a century ago, and the Vietnam War, featuring oral histories from soldiers, immigrants, and protesters. As Bosket puts it, “History is personal.”

West Virginia

Restoration Done Right

When the Tygart Hotel opened in the railroad hub of Elkins in 1907, it stood at the center of civic life, hosting banquets and welcoming governors. But after the building was converted to apartments fifty years ago, it began a long slide into neglect. “It was pretty horrible housing, but structurally still sound,” says Dave Clark of Woodlands Development and Lending, a nonprofit group that helped save the building. This winter, the six-story Tygart reopens as a boutique hotel with a restaurant and lobby bar. The $16 million project, supported by historic restoration tax credits, returns the property to its former glory, says Michael Mills, whose architecture firm designed the reboot. “When you walk in that front door, it has the aura and feel of a 1920s grand hotel.” Workers have restored the lobby’s tin ceilings and mosaic tile floor, while commissioned art honors the region’s timber ghost towns. The Tygart expects to serve growing tourist traffic drawn by nearby Monongahela National Forest, ski resorts, and an excursion train. Already it has kicked off a downtown revival, Clark says. “This is a tipping point project, and it’s all happening more quickly than we expected.”