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Bizarre Landmarks in Every Southern State

by Caroline Eubanks

On my travels and during my research for writing my book, This Is My South: The Essential Travel Guide to the Southern States, I found so many unique and often bizarre landmarks I hadn’t read about in other books. These are the offbeat attractions that make the region such a great place for road trips. Here are a few of my favorites from every state.

Ave Maria Grotto, Cullman, Alabama

Called “Jerusalem in Miniature,” Ave Maria Grotto in northern Alabama has more than 100 model versions of famous buildings from the Holy Land. Created by Brother Joseph Zoettl, a Benedictine monk of St. Bernard Abbey, it started as a hobby in 1918 but quickly became a tourist attraction. Travelers can see the grotto before learning more about Alabama’s only Benedictine abbey.

Arkansas Tuberculosis Sanitorium, Booneville, Arkansas

There are so many unique attractions in this state (a museum devoted entirely to purses, a state park where you can mine for your own diamonds), but this former tuberculosis hospital ran chills down my spine. Built in 1909, it was once home to 70,000 patients, considered to be one of the best places in the country for treatment of the disease. It ceased operations in 1973 but continues as a treatment center for adults with disabilities. A museum and tours educate visitors about the buildings.

Babyland General Hospital, Cleveland, Georgia

Did you know that the Cabbage Patch Kids originated in North Georgia? Cleveland native and founder Xavier Roberts opened the “hospital” in an old clinic, where the dolls would come from the namesake cabbage patch. While now in a much larger building, Babyland General Hospital is where visitors can learn about the dolls and experience the nostalgia, buying one for themselves.

Angola Museum, Angola, Louisiana

Louisiana State Penitentiary, known better as Angola, is home to the Angola Museum, perhaps the only such facility within an active prison. The free museum has exhibits and videos on the history of the site and its residents, as well as docent tours. They have a gift shop and cafe, called the Big House Cafe, and support the upkeep of historic buildings around the prison, including a 1940s prison tower and cell room.

International Museum of Islamic Cultures, Mississippi

You might not think of Jackson, Mississippi, as a center for Islamic cultures, but the ties run deep. A large percentage of the African slaves brought to Mississippi were Muslim, and their calls to prayer influenced the slave spiritual songs we know today. The International Museum of Islamic Cultures tells this story and many others, including the legacies of Timbuktu and Moorish Spain.

Presidential Culinary Museum, Grover, North Carolina

This award-winning museum, in a town named for Grover Cleveland, details the culinary legacies connected with each American president, including dishes, artifacts and antiques. The Presidential Culinary Museum has special exhibits featuring the personal items of First Lady Sarah Childress Polk and the annual Easter Egg Roll. The museum is located within an inn with its own restaurant and spa.

Rice Museum, Georgetown, South Carolina

Set in an 1800s market building, the Rice Museum details the legacy of the area’s biggest crop. Since the town is located on five rivers, Georgetown was responsible for nearly half of the nation’s rice during this time, mostly with fields worked by slaves from Africa. The museum includes maps, paintings, artifacts and dioramas.

Manhattan Project National Historical Park, Oak Ridge, Tennessee
East Tennessee was the site of uranium enrichment and experimental plutonium production in 1942 for the Manhattan Project, which created the first atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project National Historical Park (pictured above) tells this story with tours of a nuclear reactor and can be booked from March to December through the American Museum of Science and Industry.

Rosemary Clooney House, Augusta, Kentucky

Did you know that the famous actress from “White Christmas” (also known as the aunt of George Clooney) called this town in Kentucky home? Fans can visit the Ohio River house where she lived from 1980 until her death, which has been turned into a museum. It has a large collection of memorabilia from her life and career, run by Augusta locals, including a former state lieutenant governor and former Miss America.

Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, Charlottesville, Virginia

Why is there an Aboriginal art museum in a college town in Virginia? The collection started as the private works of John W. Kluge and Edward L. Ruhe, collectors who visited Australia and purchased directly from the artists and dealers. Kluge later acquired Ruhe’s collection and donated it to the university in 1997, making it one of the largest collections of Aboriginal and indigenous works in the world.

Caroline Eubanks is the author of This Is My South: The Essential Travel Guide to the Southern States and founder of the website of the same name that inspired it. A lifelong Southerner, her work has been featured by BBC Travel, Afar, and National Geographic Traveler. 

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  • Jon T / December 4, 2018

    You guys left out Kentucky. If Tennessee is called the mid south what does that make Kentucky? Kentucky is the top of the south . The head of the south’s body if you will. Anyway you guys left out a state.

    • Erin Z. Bass / December 4, 2018

      It was just an oversight and not intentional. We have now added a spot for Kentucky!