“Dr. Henry Lyons, who preached Hank’s funeral, said that as long as we have America, we will have Hank Williams’ music to inspire us. That was a pretty strong statement that has turned out be true,” said Beth Petty, manager of The Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery.
Visitors from more than a dozen states and as far away as Germany, Sweden, Scotland and Australia passed through the museum within one week earlier this month.
The 6,000-square-foot facility is advertised as the largest known collection of Hank Williams memorabilia.
The many personal artifacts on display include the entertainer’s suits, ties, boots, hats, records and awards as well as several pieces of furniture and two life-sized portraits from the home that Williams shared with his wife, Audrey.
Petty said the crown jewel of the museum is the 1952 powder-blue Cadillac that Williams died in while being driven to a concert on New Year’s Day 1953.
The museum also houses the suit that Williams was wearing when he passed away and color footage of his funeral, the largest that the South had ever seen.
Petty’s late father, Cecil Jackson, spent years collecting many of the items that became part of the museum when it opened in 1999.
Jackson was 8 years old in 1944 when Williams bought him a bottle of Coca-Cola at a small gas station just north of Montgomery.
At that time, Williams had been a star on local radio for several years but had not yet made his move to Nashville.
“Daddy went over to see who was in that big, shiny car that drove up, and Hank gave him a Coke. That left a big impression on a little country boy,” Petty said.
Petty said her father long dreamed of donating his numerous newspaper clippings and other memorabilia to a museum dedicated to Williams’ life and career, but none existed.
A statue of Hank Williams was dedicated in downtown Montgomery in 1991. However, Jackson thought the city where Williams won his first talent contest and gave his last public performance should do more.
Jackson started the Hank Williams Memorial Foundation in 1993 and opened the museum six years later with his own vast collection and additional pieces donated by members of the Williams family.
Petty said the museum continues to receive items from Williams’ many other fans and their descendants.
“The people who knew him and collected things are beginning to pass on. So their children and grandchildren are starting to get into trunks and attics, and they’re finding things. I think we get something every week,” Petty said.
The museum is one of the highlights on the Hank Williams Trail that the Alabama Tourism Department unveiled in 2007.
The trail begins in Mount Olive, where Hiram “Hank” Williams was born on Sept. 17, 1923.
Georgiana, just down the road, is where the Williams family was living when young Hank got his first guitar. A black street performer named Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne taught him to play.
A Hank Williams festival is held each June on the grounds of Williams’ boyhood home in Georgiana.
In 1944, 19-year-old Williams married Audrey Sheppard in a garage in Andalusia.
Less than a decade later, Williams was spending his weekends with girlfriend Bobbie Jett at Kowaliga on Lake Martin. The cabin where he wrote “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is located there and can be reserved for an overnight stay.
Fans can also book a room at Birmingham’s Redmont Hotel, where Williams stayed the night before leaving for the fateful New Year’s Day show.
Perhaps no other city has more traces of Williams than Montgomery.
In addition to the museum and statue, other must-see sites include Chris’ Hot Dogs, Williams’ favorite place to eat; Nobles (formerly the Elite Cafe), where he gave his final public performance; the City Auditorium, where more than 25,000 people flocked for his funeral in January 1953; and Oakwood Cemetery, his final resting place.
“I hope when people think of Montgomery, they think of Hank Williams just as they associate Elvis with Memphis,” Petty said.
Other options for Alabama history buffs this summer:
Monroeville is known as the “Literary Capital of Alabama” because it has been home to such acclaimed authors as Harper Lee, Truman Capote and Mark Childress.
It was also the inspiration for the deceptively sleepy town of Maycomb, the setting of Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The Old Courthouse Museum is filled with information about Lee, known to locals as Nelle, as well as her childhood friend and neighbor, Capote.
Performances of “To Kill a Mockingbird” have been held in Monroeville each spring for more than two decades.
The town also has a “Mockingbird”-themed mural and a Birdhouse Trail, which features many birdhouse designs depicting scenes from the famous novel and movie.
This city on the banks of the Alabama River played an important role in the nation’s history during two tumultuous periods — the Civil War and civil rights movement.
The Selma Welcome Center has brochures on the city’s museums and five self-guided tours.
Important sites to see include Old Live Oak Cemetery, the St. James Hotel, the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute.