Alabama’s gourd martin house tradition

Posted by | October 19, 2012

If you’re anywhere in the vicinity of Cullman, AL this weekend, get yourself on over to that town’s Civic Center for the 14th Annual Alabama Gourd Show.

This year’s crop of art gourds builds on a grand old Native American tradition of combining beauty with functionality. Alabama gourd artists today often draw inspiration both from Cherokee design sensibilities (classic food vessels of that tribe come to mind), as well as a broader Native American orientation towards using gourds for everyday use. Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes throughout Alabama, for example, mounted gourds on the branches of bare saplings to attract purple martins, a practice that many Alabamians continue in one form or another to this day.

Joey Brackner, the Director of the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, has written of the ‘Gourd Martin House Tradition’ on the Alabama Arts site; his original article follows (reprinted with permission):

For centuries, Alabamians have recognized the gourd martin house for its usefulness and compelling aesthetic qualities. Tens of thousands of gourd martin houses hang throughout Alabama, a testament to a very healthy folk tradition that symbolizes both our cultural heritage and the close relationship between people and the environment in which they live.

The story of the American gourd martin house has its beginnings in Africa, the home of the gourd plant. Gourds came floating across the Atlantic 9,000 years ago. They grew wild in Mesoamerica until Native Americans realized their usefulness and began cultivating them nearly 7,000 years ago. Gourd agriculture spread northward into what is now the southeastern United States where, it is believed, Indians first erected “trees” full of gourds for purple martins to nest.

The Indians apparently recognized the benefits of having these birds as close neighbors because of the martins’ appetite for insects and their aggressiveness toward other birds. Early historical accounts as well as later ethnographic studies of southern Indian groups document a mutually beneficial relationship between the martin colonies and these Native American communities.

As anthropologist Frank Speck wrote, “the artificial nest habits of the martins were deliberately induced in pre-contact times through the discovery by Indian observers that the birds consume insect pests attacking their corn plots and gardens, and, of still more importance, in a growing economy, drove away the crows and ‘blackbirds’ at planting time.”

This custom soon was adopted by the European and African settlers who were eager to learn from the native peoples any advantage to surviving in this new country. If you ask rural Alabamians today about the practice of putting up gourd birdhouses to attract martins the reasons are much the same. Dewey Williams is quick to tell you the importance of martins on a farm. “Martins will run a hawk to death” said the 95-year-old Ozark native, they’re “as watchful as a cat is to a rat.”

Reuben Norrell of Tallassee explained, “I always put up gourds for them (the martins) to fight the hawks, keep them from eating the chickens.” Arlene Crawford, formerly of Coosa county, added that “they protect the early stuff” in the gardens. In the Mt. Olive community of Coosa County, Mr. D. J. Cannon is known for his distinctive, domed-shaped racks hung with martin gourds. He claimed the birds “take their weight in mosquitoes every day.”

Weldon Vickery of Atmore learned about the birds from his grandmother, a Creek Indian, who said the birds were sacred to her people. For years he has grown gourds and given away birdhouses, an effort he estimates has attracted at least 3,000 martins to the area. As an Escambia County Commissioner, he appreciates the fact that the growing martin population has reduced the amount of spraying needed to control mosquitoes.

The custom of attracting purple martins to gourd trees is one of Alabama’s oldest and most widespread folk traditions. Gourd martin houses are unquestionably a part of the lives and seasonal routines of many Alabamians from the Tennessee River south to Mobile Bay. Each year many Alabamians eagerly await the return of the birds as heralds of spring.

Apart from their benefits to agriculture, the birds are a pleasure to watch as they dart after insects and raise their young in the free-swinging gourds. It seems likely that martin scouts that fly up through Alabama in February and March will continue to find nesting sites among many future generations of Alabamians.

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