Standing just north of US-80 on a bluff at the confluence of the Black Warrior and Tombigbee Rivers, Demopolis (pop. 6,724) has an interesting history to explain its unusual name—which means “City of the People” in Greek. In 1817, a band of French aristocrats in exile for their allegiance to Napoleon arrived here after the U.S. Congress granted them the land to found a colony based on growing grapes and olives. Not surprisingly, the colonists, a group of soldiers and courtiers whom the WPA Guide to Alabama described as “cultured people…from the glittering drawing rooms of the French aristocracy…none of whom had ever set foot in a plowed field,” failed miserably; they survived thanks only to the local Choctaw people, who gave them food and taught them to grow viable crops.
By the 1820s the last of the French had quit and the lands were swiftly taken over by slave-owning American cotton planters, whose mansions still stand in and around town. Although it’s not overly imposing from the outside, the biggest and best of these is Gaineswood (805 S. Cedar St., 334/289-4846, 10am-4pm Tues.-Sat., $7), just north of US-80. The finest antebellum mansion in Alabama, and one of the top three in the country according to the Smithsonian Guide to Historic America, Gaineswood began as a rough cabin in 1821 and over the next 40 years grew into a classic Greek Revival manor, built by enslaved laborers according to pattern-book designs. Most unusually, it is still decorated with the original furniture, fixtures, and fittings. Today it is a national historic landmark owned and operated by the Alabama Historical Commission.
The other well-maintained plantation home still standing in Demopolis is Bluff Hall (407 N. Commissioners Ave., 334/289-9644, Tues.-Sun., free), overlooking the river at the west edge of town. Smaller than Gaineswood but more attractively situated, Bluff Hall contains a wider array of furniture, with pieces dating from throughout the 19th century; the kitchen in particular is packed with Victorian-era gadgets.
Demopolis’s franchise-free downtown fills four blocks of Washington Street east from Bluff Hall and the river. It’s centered upon one of the South’s oldest public squares, with a cast-iron fountain and many comfy benches.
The most enjoyable place to eat near Demopolis is about 16 miles east of town in tiny Faunsdale (pop. 92), on the south side of US-80. Though little more than a speck on the map, Faunsdale is worth a stop to enjoy the good food and frequent live music at the Ca-John’s Faunsdale Bar and Grill (334/628-3240, 5pm-9:30pm Thurs.-Sat.) in the block-long center of town.