Those who seek out small old downtowns for the heritage, nostalgia or unique shopping and dining experiences will love Hartselle’s Main Street
Only 31 miles from the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, the colorful Hartselle Downtown Commercial Historic District should be on your north Alabama destination checklist. A sidewalk tour of less than a mile allows you to take in all the streetscapes pictured here.
Enjoy adorable storefronts under covered sidewalks
You’ll find covered sidewalks for three big blocks on the north side of Main and two blocks on the south side. This gives the sidewalks a porch-like look and feel, especially if you are walking under the mostly metal awnings.
You can window shop for hours, rain or shine.
Main Street is narrow in the heart of town, and there’s a lot of traffic even on Sunday mornings when most downtowns are quiet. According to Alabama Department of Transportation traffic stats, an average of 12,000-14,000 vehicles per day use the busiest portion of Main, which is also Alabama Hwy. 36.
The Hartselle Main Street does not have any structures remaining from the 1800s due primarily to a couple of early 20th century fires. The 100- to 110-year-old commercial buildings are not as fancy as some of the 130- to 140-year-old buildings you will see in similar cities. But, take to the sidewalks of Hartselle and you’ll find yourself walking in the middle of a charming historic downtown.
Main Street Hartselle: A dining and shopping destination
Currently, there are five restaurants, a bakery and a coffee shop in the Hartselle historic downtown. There are also three antique shops, some knick-knack places and a wide variety of other businesses. You’ll find very few, or zero, empty storefronts.
Most businesses are open either four, five or five and a half days a week. Two popular restaurants in historic buildings are open seven days a week. Those are the Freight House Restaurant and Moe’s Original BBQ.
I liked Hartselle so much on my recent visit that I moved it up a few spots on my rankings: The top 25 downtowns in North Alabama for heritage tourism.
Hartselle originally grew out from a train depot that was built a few years after the War Between the States, and Railroad Street should be a point-of-interest for those who enjoy historic sidewalk tours. The two depots and the buildings that face what used to be the passenger depot provide streetscapes that are as good as what you see on Main.
The Freight House Restaurant is in the depot with the track pictured in the first photo above.
Today, a few trains pass through downtown each day at speed of about 30-40 MPH. It’s quite the thunderous experience for those dining at the Freight House or working at the chamber of commerce, which has occupied the passenger depot for the past few decades.
Both depots were built in 1917 by Northern & Southern Railroad which later became Louisville & Nashville Railroad.
The other side of the tracks
Two blocks east of the passenger depot you will find a big, historic house and an interesting c. 1922 rock church building:
Hartselle itinerary ideas
Downtown Hartselle is easy to get to for just about anyone in Morgan, Lawrence, Limestone, Madison or Cullman County. Alabama Hwy. 31 is on the west side of the historic downtown. I-65 is on the eastern edge of the Hartselle city limits, 1.9 miles from the train depots.
For tourists, it’s easy to combine a visit with a trip to nearby Decatur, Cullman, the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge, the Bankhead National Forest or Smith Lake.
This city of 15,400 people is the hometown of William Bradford Huie (1910-1986), the famous mid-20th century writer. Hartselle is the only place in north Alabama on the Southern Literary Trail which celebrates the 27 greatest writers from Mississipi, Alabama and Georgia. The city library is named in his honor. He’s buried in the city cemetery.
Hartselle is also the hometown of Senator John Sparkman (1899-1985) who served as a U.S. Senator for over 30 years after serving as a U.S. Representative for 10 years.
The Hartselle Downtown Commercial Historic District’s 1999 application to the National Register of Historic Places gives a good account of how the city came about starting in the 1870s:
Named after George Hartsell (e was added later to the town name), an early pioneer of the area, Hartselle rose up from rather modest beginnings and assumed a preeminent position in the county. The first depot was nothing more than a converted boxcar, which was later replaced by a wood frame building with a loading dock. Capitalizing on the railroad’s presence, two men. Dr.Rountree and Colonel Stewart, purchased land adjacent to the depot and laid the groundwork for the development of a thriving community. Rountree secured 160 acres east of the train depot and Stewart acquired a large parcel on the opposite side of the tracks. Rountree initially met with more success than Stewart as his land gave rise to a village replete with general stores, livery stables, saloons, hotels, office buildings, and dwellings while Stewart’s was slow to develop with only a few stores coming to fruition; however, the commercial center gravitated toward the western side of the depot by the end of the century.
In 1901, conflagration (a very destructive fire) destroyed all the commercial buildings on the east side of the railroad.
[In 1916,] fire leveled the downtown, destroying twenty-one buildings including the train and freight depots.
The buildings on the east side of the tracks were not rebuilt. However, those on the west side were replaced during a massive rebuilding campaign that occurred in 1916-1917. Thirty-three of the seventy-four resources in the historic district were erected at this time, [including both depots].
In response to the fires, the buildings were built of brick instead of wood.
Not all the edifices in downtown Hartselle succumbed to the 1916 fire. Nine of the commercial blocks in the historic district date between 1910 and 1915. They feature brick construction.
Just over four dozen buildings are considered to be contributing structures of the Hartselle Downtown Commercial Historic District.
The gallery found on the Hartselle Historical Society’s business and industry webpage features some great pictures showing the town before the fires. Many of the buildings looked like what you see in old westerns.
A big bank robbery took place in Hartselle in 1926. The robbers cut the phone lines so nobody could phone for help. They set off eight explosions at the Bank of Hartselle before getting away with almost $15,000 in silver, gold and paper money. The 15 bandits involved in the heist were never identified or captured. (Source: hartselle.org)
In the 1920s, $15,000 was a great deal of loot. I wonder if they will do a reenactment in 2026 to commemorate the robbery’s 100th anniversary.