Wetumpka becomes tourist mecca for fans of Ben and Erin Napier

Wetumpka becomes tourist mecca for fans of Ben and Erin Napier
Ben and Erin Napier, hosts of HGTV's "Home Town Takeover," stand in front of Shellie and Wade Whitfield's home in Wetumpka. The house was in the 2003 Tim Burton film "Big Fish." (HGTV)

After Dave Marrs wore a distressed trucker hat that spelled “WETU” (short for “Wetumpka”) on the first episode of HGTV’s “Home Town Takeover” that aired in May, seemingly everyone who saw the show wanted one. Marrs, who, with his wife, Jenny, hosts “Fixer to Fabulous” on HGTV, had purchased the hat at Market Shoppes, a business on Hill Street in Wetumpka, the scenic town near Montgomery that was the focus of the wildly popular six-episode “Home Town Takeover” series.

Almost immediately, the hats sold out and Market Shoppes had a 20-page waiting list for them. “They have sold more than 2,000 of those hats,” says Shellie Whitfield, the executive director of the Wetumpka Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s so great.”

Market Shoppes opened in downtown Wetumpka four years ago. “We came downtown when no one else was here,” says Pam Martin, who, along with her daughter, Katie Davis, owns the 5,000-square-foot artisan and boutique mall where customers are greeted with a life-size cutout of Ben and Erin Napier.

The hosts of “Home Town” became familiar faces during the filming of the six-episode series in late 2020. And they’re expected to be back soon to see for themselves how things are going in Wetumpka since they left.

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Working alongside other home-improvement experts from other HGTV shows, the Napiers gave their magic touch to 12 renovation projects while they were in Wetumpka, a town chosen from among more than 5,000 entries in a nationwide search for a small town in need of a makeover.

One of the requirements in that search was that the town already have some forward momentum. “It was always a struggle, but thanks to the efforts of Main Street and the Chamber, we already had a plan in motion,” says Martin, who has had to hire more people to work at Market Shoppes – a good indicator that business is booming. “After ‘Home Town Takeover,’ the ball started rolling faster.”

She and Davis have tweaked their offerings a bit, focusing more on Wetumpka memorabilia. “Anything with the bridge on it” – the iconic 1931 Bibb Graves Bridge over the Coosa River – is guaranteed to sell, she says. And anything the Napiers talk about on their show, such as rain chains, will also sell well. “We can’t keep them in stock,” Martin says.

A display in Market Shoppes shows off the popular WETU trucker hat worn by Dave Marrs on the first episode of “Home Town Takeover.” (Michelle Matthews/This is Alabama)

In the Tourist Trap, a colorful container-turned-welcome center where volunteers hand out information about things to do and chat with out-of-towners, a map of the United States is dotted with pins representing the places people have traveled from to get to Wetumpka. Diane Castro, the owner of Sweet Home Books, says she naively predicted that visitors would probably come from nearby Montgomery, Prattville or maybe Birmingham.

“I could not have dreamed that we would meet people from California, Illinois, Alaska, Hawaii and almost every state in between,” she says. “It has been amazing to see.” Many tourists she encounters are hard-core HGTV fans doing a road trip to visit Waco, Texas, home of “Fixer Upper” stars Chip and Joanna Gaines; Laurel, Mississippi, the Napiers’ hometown featured in their show, “Home Town”; and Wetumpka, HGTV’s newest Southern hotspot thanks to the exposure from “Home Town Takeover.”

The Chamber’s Whitfield, who was featured prominently on the show – the Napiers surprised her and her family by choosing their home to renovate – jokes that she has some 150 people per day taking pictures of her house. The historic Victorian home, seen in the 2003 Tim Burton movie “Big Fish,” which was based on the novel by Alabama author Daniel Wallace, sits on a hill overlooking downtown and is easily the most recognizable residence in Wetumpka.

“It’s crazy how many tourists we have,” says Whitfield, one of the town’s biggest cheerleaders. “It’s awesome. Like, I freaking love it. It starts at 6:30 in the morning. I’m sure lots of people have pictures of me in my pajama pants drinking coffee, and I just wave.”

Downtown Wetumpka’s Tourist Trap offers maps and information for visitors. (Michelle Matthews/This is Alabama)

Fish tale

The story of how the Whitfields ended up moving from Colorado to Wetumpka is a long but interesting one that Shellie Whitfield shared in two parts in the Journal section of the Laurel Mercantile website in June. According to “An Artist, A Cowboy & A Very Big Fish,” the family – Shellie, her husband Wade and their two teenage sons – were looking for a new place to establish roots before the boys started high school. They flew into Atlanta, rented a car and set out to visit 10 towns. The last one was “a little town on the Coosa River with a strange name.” It was the first week of October, and the colors were “breathtaking,” she remembers.

“Being from Colorado, out in the plain where it’s brown, [Wetumpka was] like being inside of a painting. It is so beautiful,” Whitfield says.

The Whitfields fell in love with the beautiful but long-neglected Big Fish House, which happened to be for sale. Inside, it was “horrific” after being vacant for 16 years, but they took a leap of faith and moved to Wetumpka with plans to renovate the home.

Meanwhile, Whitfield, an artist, had opened a studio near her house. “I sold 77 paintings my first year,” she says. She also taught art in nearby elementary schools. When she was asked if she might be interested in becoming the Chamber director, she jokes that she had to ask Siri what a Chamber director does.

She was part of the team that lured HGTV to Wetumpka in hopes that being chosen for a whole-town makeover would give the town a much-needed boost. Little did she know that her own beloved but unfinished Big Fish House would be one of the homes chosen for renovation. As it turns out, Erin Napier is a huge fan of the movie “Big Fish,” and she took special pains to reproduce the wallpaper and sconces that hung in the dining room.

When Whitfield and her family returned to see what had been done to their home, they were visibly moved. Erin Napier told Whitfield that her kitchen – which was transformed in cheerful colors to reflect Whitfield’s sunny personality – is second only to her own on her list of personal favorites.

The six episodes of the show depict Wetumpka as a warm, inviting, diverse place. And that’s exactly what Whitfield has found it to be. “My children aren’t white,” she says of the adopted boys. “And so it was very important to me that we live in an area that’s culturally diverse and socioeconomically diverse.”

In Wetumpka, they have found a “kind of utopia,” she says. “It’s kind of Mayberry-esque. And my kids will tell you they’ve never experienced less racism than they have in Wetumpka, Alabama. The show was a good cross-section, a good picture of who we really are. Most of our downtown businesses are minority-owned. Very few white men own businesses, and some of the white men who own businesses are married to one another. Everyone’s just cool, just very accepting. I do love it.”

Shellie and Wade Whitfield, left, with Ben and Erin Napier, right, react to seeing the renovated interior of their “Big Fish House” in Wetumpka. (HGTV)

Sweet Home

Whitfield’s home makeover is featured in the episode entitled “The Mayor is Also the Barber.” The title refers to a storyline in which the Napiers renovate the barber shop where Mayor Jerry Willis cuts hair before going to his office at City Hall. The formerly bland space with ancient carpet is transformed, with exposed brick walls and a stained concrete floor.

Some visitors to Wetumpka have been disappointed to find that, since the show aired, the 78-year-old mayor has retired from his side gig at the barber shop. But many others are delighted to learn that the town has an independent bookstore, Sweet Home Books, in its place, with bookshelves instead of barber chairs.

For owner Diane Castro, the bookstore was a long time coming. The Montgomery native and her husband, Tim, have lived in Wetumpka for the past 15 years. She has a lifelong love of books and bookstores. “Every vacation I go on, I drag my family into indie bookstores because I feel so much life and hope in the stack of books,” she says. “We always come home and wish we had something like that here.”

With a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, Castro homeschooled her teenagers. That’s when she became “a little obsessed with book blogs and bookish podcasts,” she says. Listening to Annie Jones, who owns The Bookshelf in Thomasville, Georgia, inspired her to research what it takes to open a bookstore. “The dream of owning a bookstore really became more persistent when I saw what Main Street was doing to improve downtown Wetumpka,” she says.

Jerry’s Barber Shop, which was renovated on “Home Town Takeover,” is now the home of Sweet Home Books, a cozy independent bookstore on Bridge Street in downtown Wetumpka. (Michelle Matthews/This is Alabama)

While taking an online class on bookstore ownership, Castro happened to see a post from Main Street Wetumpka with the heading, “Who is ready to bring a bookstore to Wetumpka?” Castro was ready. She took it as a sign that it was time for her to plunge in head first. In February 2020, she went to a “bookseller bootcamp” in Amelia Island, Florida – but then COVID-19 hit.

“I thought we would just push pause on the dream,” she says.

Last summer, Castro experienced debilitating health problems that turned out to be a blocked bile duct. For most of the time HGTV was in town filming “Home Town Takeover,” she was in bed thinking her bookstore dream wasn’t meant to be after all.

But when she started feeling better, she talked to Whitfield at the Chamber about the bookstore idea. Whitfield told her she wanted to show her a place that wouldn’t need any renovating – the former Jerry’s Barber Shop. “We were in love with the space right away,” Castro says. “There is so much character and charm in the exposed brick, large open windows and even the bullet hole.” (As the episode explains, the Napiers preserved an old bullet hole in the door to the shop.)

Finally, Castro opened Sweet Home Books on May 22. “The response was so overwhelming that I cried happy tears all the way home,” she says. “There were several times in the first two weeks that we had to close for a few days in order to restock because we ran out of most of our inventory.”

Castro has enjoyed getting to know her customers, both locals and visitors. “Getting to know our local readers might be my favorite part of the store,” she says. “I love the kids who pull their parents into the store to see if their favorite book is on the shelf. I also get so excited about the young adults who are reading complex books on their own, and then coming back to discuss what they thought of them.”

Cheesy, in a good way

Provisions Cheese and Wine Shoppe also wasn’t featured on “Home Town Takeover,” but it’s another example of a downtown Wetumpka business that is flourishing thanks to the influx of tourists. Housed in the historic former Fain Theater, Provisions pays homage to the building’s days as a movie theater with the marquee and box office. Its owners also play old movies on the back wall of the cavernous space.

The owners are two couples, April and Jeremy Hunt and Lucky and Kate Lawrence, who have been best friends for 18 years. They met when Jeremy and Lucky were serving in the U.S. Air Force, living in houses that were connected. “We’re inseparable,” April Hunt explains.

Only one vacant storefront remains for rent on Wetumpka’s Company Street. (Michelle Matthews/This is Alabama)

After they met in Washington state, the Hunts went to Texas while the Lawrences went to New Mexico, then Florida. The couples were reunited in Germany, where April Hunt says they “got used to a slower pace of living” and sampled gourmet cheeses and wines together.

The Hunts then returned to Washington, while the Lawrences ended up in Alabama. When Kate Lawrence got sick and had emergency surgery, “It was an ‘a-ha’ moment of what to do with our lives,” Hunt explains. “Then they called and said, ‘Do you want to open a wine and cheese shop?’”

In February, the Hunts visited their friends in Wetumpka. “We fell in love with the people and the town,” she says. They sold their house near Seattle, moved to Alabama and invested in Provisions.

The Chamber’s Whitfield tells a funny story about how Provisions came to be in the old Fain Theater space. She was talking to the owner of the building who had started renovating it but wasn’t sure what it would become. He told her he thought it would make a great place to offer gourmet cheese. That same day, Whitfield was working in her office when the Lawrences stopped by to talk to her about their “crazy idea”: an international cheese shop.

“I got goosebumps from head to toe and told them, ‘I know exactly where it’s supposed to be,’” she says. “It has just been like serendipity. We have meetings in there. If it’s four in the afternoon, having a meeting, we take off our shoes and have a bottle of wine. I love it!”

Now reunited, the two couples are business partners and, really, family. “We wouldn’t have moved across the country for anyone else,” Hunt says.

The building was just a shell with four walls, no plumbing, no electrical, no restrooms. Today, the retail store offers 400 wines and 100 cheeses, plus local honey, art and other goods. Customers are invited to order a custom cheese plate and sit high up in the newly built loft areas with views of the nearby Coosa River.

“We weren’t even a thought with the show,” says April. “But they did a lot of amazing things for this town. I definitely say we are blessed. We’re seeing people come from all over. It’s amazing to see the foot traffic.”

The Wetumpka Farmers Market is among the improvements the Napiers left for natives and visitors to enjoy. (contributed)

Magic in the air

Business owners say over and over that Wetumpka is special – and not just because HGTV invested so much in the town.

“I believe the reason our town was able to come together successfully was not just because of the work HGTV did,” Castro says. “That was amazing, but it was the icing on top of the foundation that started years ago. All of the hard work that HGTV put into Wetumpka would fall apart if the business owners were in it for their own individual success. Instead, what you find here is a group of people who genuinely pull for each other to succeed.”

Wetumpka’s Bibb Graves Bridge has become recognizable to people across the country through “Home Town Takeover.” (contributed)

Hunt agrees. “Everybody helps everybody around here,” she says. “It’s one big family. Communities usually are not like this.”

“We do have a really loving culture in Wetumpka that’s rare and beautiful,” Whitfield says. “It’s not like that everywhere.”

There’s just one spot left for rent on Company Street, says Whitfield, who points out that quirky businesses are the ones that fit right in in a place like Wetumpka – like B&B Health Boutique, where customers can find holistic products, have bra fittings and even experience a Himalayan salt cave; Scent Wizards, a candle shop with a second location in the works; and Frios gourmet popsicles.

“Everyone who comes by my house has a popsicle,” Whitfield says.

Second only to her own house, Whitfield’s next favorite “Home Town Takeover” project is the Farmers Market across the bridge from downtown. When she found out Wetumpka was getting a new pavilion and parking area there, with a striking view of the Coosa River, she says she sat on the floor and cried.

“I believe that all children should have access to art, music and good nutrition,” she says. “And they put that farmers market on the west side, and it’s walkable for everybody to have access to good food. When you go over and there’s live music every Thursday and there’s food trucks and just people and goat cheese, it’s just so great. It’s like our backyard. It is such a powerful community place, and everybody loves it.”

To Whitfield, “Home Town Takeover” was about much more than renovation; it’s about building community. The show was filmed during the coronavirus pandemic, when people were tired of feeling isolated and were “craving community and connection,” she says.

A map in Wetumpka’s Tourist Trap shows how far some people have traveled to visit the town. (Michelle Matthews/This is Alabama)

“Ben and Erin don’t want everyone to move to Laurel, and we don’t want everyone to move to Wetumpka,” she says. “We need people to come together and build community where they’re at.”

She has a theory about why Wetumpka has an almost magical quality. “I’ve lived other places, and I know that not everywhere is like this, and so I just have such a grateful heart for where I get to live,” she says. “We think it’s because we got hit by a meteor that there’s a little space dust that makes you fall in love with it.”

She’s not kidding. Some 85 million years ago, the area was hit by a meteorite large enough to fill the bowl of Auburn University’s Jordan-Hare Stadium. According to the website of the Wetumpka Impact Crater Commission, “the hills just east of downtown are the eroded remains of a five-mile-wide meteor crater that was blasted into the bedrock of Elmore County.”

“It’s pretty funny,” Whitfield says, “but we do think there’s probably a little something magic in the air.”

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