Marengo County History and Archive Museum Located in the East Gulf Coastal Plain physiographic section at the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior rivers in west-central Alabama, Demopolis is the largest city in Marengo County. It lies within a region of the state known as the Canebrake for its formerly vast stands of cane. The first settlement, known popularly as the Vine and Olive Colony, was established on the site in 1817 by French colonial expatriates. The name is Greek for “city of the people.” The city was an important center of the regional cotton economy throughout much of the nineteenth century because of its location amid the rich soils of the Black Belt. Demopolis has a mayor-council form of government. Businessman and entrepreneur A. G. Gaston was born in Demopolis in 1892. The city is also the setting for Lillian Hellman’s famous play, and later film, The Little Foxes and is based on her family there.
Vine and Olive Colony Demopolis was first settled in 1817 by a group of French immigrants who sought refuge in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from a slave rebellion in Haiti. The federal government provided them with 92,000 acres in Marengo County with the stipulation that they cultivate grapes and olives, thus earning it the name Vine and Olive Colony. The initial 40 settlers arrived in spring 1817, and in August of that year, Charles Lefebvre-Desnouetttes, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, led a second party of settlers. Famed poet and silversmith Jean-Simon Chaudron was among the early settlers of the colony. By 1818, however, only 69 people remained, as many of the residents had found the land ill-suited to grape or olive production; the remote location also made supplies expensive and difficult to acquire. Thus many residents sold their land, which was purchased by Charles Lallemand and other local merchants.
Fones McCarthy Cotton Gin Given its location in the Black Belt, Demopolis became an important center of the cotton economy in the mid-nineteenth century. More settlers moved to the area during the period known as Alabama Fever after numerous Indian land cessions in the late 1820s and early 1830s to establish cotton plantations. Indeed, the expanding cotton economy spurred inventor Fones McCarthy to settle in the city in 1838 and establish the Demopolis Manufacturing Company to produce his innovative cotton gin. Cattle raising also was a significant portion of the area’s agricultural economy and gained in importance into the twentieth century. The Alabama Cattleman’s Association was founded in Demopolis in 1944. The timber industry is now a major component of the city’s economy. Demopolis lies on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, which opened in 1985 and provides a transfer point for river traffic between the Midwest and the Gulf of Mexico.
According to 2020 Census estimates, Demopolis recorded a population of 6,724. Of that population, 50.5 percent reported themselves as white, 46.9 percent as African American, 5.2 percent as Hispanic, 1.7 percent as two or more races, 0.2 percent as American Indian, and 0.1 percent as Asian. The city’s median household income was $32,743, and per capita income was $26,433.
According to 2020 Census estimates, the workforce in Demopolis was divided among the following industrial categories:
- Educational services, and health care and social assistance (31.1 percent)
- Manufacturing (12.6 percent)
- Other services, except public administration (8.5 percent)
- Construction (7.2 percent)
- Retail trade (6.9 percent)
- Professional, scientific, management, and administrative and waste management services (6.7 percent)
- Transportation and warehousing and utilities (6.0 percent)
- Arts, entertainment, recreation, and accommodation and food services (5.5 percent)
- Public administration (3.9 percent)
- Information (3.5 percent)
- Finance, insurance, and real estate, rental, and leasing (3.3 percent)
- Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and extractive (3.1 percent)
- Wholesale trade (1.6 percent)
The Demopolis City School System has two elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. The University of West Alabama oversees the Demopolis Higher Education Center, and Wallace Community College maintains a campus in Demopolis.
Demopolis is located at the intersection of U.S. Highway 43, which runs north-south through the city, and U.S. Highway 80, which runs east-west. Demopolis Municipal Airport serves general aviation. West Alabama Public Transportation is a privately owned bus company that provides service in the area. Demopolis lies on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, which provides transport for river cargo.
Events and Places of Interest
Rooster Hall Once a major cultural and economic center of the Black Belt, Demopolis has many historically notable structures. The oldest historic residence, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the Federal-style Bluff Hall, constructed in 1832. Also on the register are Gaineswood, a Greek Revival plantation home built between 1843 and 1861, and Lyon Hall, built between 1850 and 1853. The Marengo County Historical Society is housed in the 1870 Laird Cottage, which also houses the Geneva Mercer Museum, named for Demopolis native Geneva Mercer, a sculptor who worked closely with Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti, creator of the Vulcan statue in Birmingham. The historic Foscue House, built in 1840, is now a restaurant. Both the town square and the business district in Demopolis have been declared historic sites. Rooster Hall, located on the public square, is one of the oldest buildings in the city and was originally built in 1843 as part of the Presbyterian Church of Demopolis. The Marengo County History and Archive Museum is located in the historic Rosenbush building, a former furniture store. For its connections to Lillian Hellman, the city is a stop on the Southern Literary Trail.
Chickasaw State Park Outdoor recreation opportunities are available at Foscue Creek Park, which offers 54 campsites, a boat launch, picnic areas, and a hiking trail. More extensive fishing and boating activities can be found at Demopolis Lake, which extends for some 50 miles up both the Black Warrior and Tombigbee rivers. A full-service marina is located in the city and hosts an annual Bassmaster Classic fishing competition. The area around the lake offers more than 7,800 acres of hunting land. The public Ravine Golf Course is an 18-hole facility located in the 300-acre Demopolis Sportsplex that includes a driving range, putting green, and pro shop. There is also a course at the private Demopolis Country Club. The Sportsplex also provides playing fields for various sports, a hiking trail, River Bluff Park, Whitfield Park, and the Kiwanis Playground. Chickasaw State Park is located just south of the city.
Each year in December, Demopolis hosts its Christmas on the River celebration, which features lighted displays that float on the water, candlelight tours of homes, and a BBQ cookoff. The annual July Fourth Freedom on the River Festival features a parade and fireworks. The Sax in the City concert series, sponsored by the Two Rivers Arts Council, takes place each spring and fall and offers attendees a wide variety of free music, from gospel to bluegrass to jazz. The organization also offers numerous live performances throughout the year.
- Blaufarb, Rafe. Bonapartists in the Borderlands: French Exiles and Refugees on the Gulf Coast, 1815-1835. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006.
- The Heritage of Marengo County, Alabama. Clanton, Ala.: Heritage Publishing Consultants, 2000.
- Smith, Winston. The People’s Citiy: The Glory and Grief of an Alabama Town, 1850-1874. Demopolis, Ala.: Marengo County Historical Society, 2003.