FIFTY YEARS AGO LAST SPRING, THE 15,000 residents of Huntsville, Alabama were informed in their Sunday newspaper: “Dr. Von Braun Says Rocket Flights Possible to Moon.”
The front-page story in the Huntsville Times was accompanied by a photo of Wernher Von Braun, his wife, Maria, and their 17-month-old daughter. This was the man who less than a decade earlier had led a team of German scientists in developing the V-2 rockets that plagued England from September 1944 to March 1945.
Huntsvillians could not have fathomed at the time that, through the work of Von Braun and his 117 fellow German scientists, their little north Alabama town was about to be propelled forever from its origins as a cotton-mill town and “Watercress Capital of the World” into new economic and cultural orbits as “Rocket City, USA.”
Today, Huntsville’s population is almost 12 times what it was when the German scientists arrived, its economy is buoyed by Redstone Arsenal, which is home to the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command, the Ordnance Missile and Munitions Center and School, and NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center.
More than 50 Fortune 500 companies have operations in Huntsville, and national business publications describe it as having the sixth-greatest concentration of high-tech workers in the United States. With just one in ten residents as natives and 33 percent African American and other minorities, Huntsville is a diverse city that readily embraces change.
Huntsville has its beginnings in the early 1800s, when John Hunt, a Revolutionary War veteran, built a cabin in 1805 near Big Spring. The spring itself would become the center of Huntsville.
A planter named Leroy Pope bought a large area surrounding Big Spring for a new town and asked that it be named Twickenham after the home of his relative, the English poet Alexander Pope. But because of animosity toward the British following the War of 1812, the legislature changed the town’s name to honor the first settler.
The settlement was named the seat of Madison County, became the largest in the Alabama Territory, and in 1819, was the site of a constitutional convention in which territorial leaders agreed to petition for statehood and adopted a state constitution.
The town flourished as a cotton-trading center for the Tennessee Valley in the 1840s and 1850s and was quickly reestablished after the Civil War as a textile manufacturing center.
Two closed-down cotton mills and the surrounding, still-humble Mill Village residential area on the north side of town are all that remain as a reminder of Huntsville’s King Cotton days.
Downtown however, modern life mixes with local history in the area around what is now Big Spring International Park. The natural spring that attracted Hunt still gushes 27 million gallons of water a day, feeding a lake in the park. The area became the city’s first park in 1843 and was renovated in 1968 into an international park with gifts from various nations decorating it, such as cherry trees from Japan, a rose garden from Switzerland, and a light beacon and fog bell from Norway.