Origins of the Alabama Renaissance Faire
By Billy Warren
Florence City Historian
No one ever said that a Renaissance Faire could not be set in motion after only three months of planning. At least, no one had ever said such a thing to the small group of intrepid educators, and other community leaders who met in July 1987. Sure enough, the first edition of the Renaissance faire in downtown Florence's Wilson Park took place the fourth Saturday and Sunday of that same year. Of course, it was a rather small affair attended by a few hundred people who came to enjoy the limited collection of performers and vendors who had gathered. Unbeknownst to those in charge, Dee Colvett, a thoughtful patron filmed the first faire on a VHS tape. Upon his death several years later, his wife presented the tape to the coordinators of the Faire. Watch the video here:
So, what was the driving force behind the Faire's origin? It began with an educator's two-fold dream. A) to create a festival that would occur during the school year since most local festivals in the 1980s took place during the summer months; and B) to make sure that the event would include as many subjects within the area schools' curricular offerings as possible.
Voila! Because the historical period known as the Renaissance witnessed the rebirth of learning in literature, art, architecture, philosophy, music, mathematics, etc., a Renaissance Faire was the hands-down choice for such an event. Additionally, according to oral tradition, Signor Ferdinand Sannoner, a young Italian surveyor and one of the three planners commissioned to design the city of Florence, in 1818, was allowed to name the new city in honor of Florence, Italy - the birthplace of the historical Renaissance. It was as if the stars were aligned - a Renaissance Faire must occur in Florence, Alabama, a town located on the banks of the mighty Tennessee River, just as Florence, Italy, sits on the banks of the Arno.
Coming off the success of the first year's faire, the planning group began to examine ways to formalize the process. It began by searching for a name to call itself. The search didn't take long because "Roundtable" - a nod to the fabled King Arthur - was the overwhelming choice. This initial Roundtable was comprised of educators, office workers, leaders of local non-profits, UNA staff members, and local fans. There were no rules regarding who might join the Roundtable, and that is still true today. If a person wishes to join and is willing to work, he or she is welcomed. There has never been a single paid employee; the Roundtable remains an all-volunteer group.
Early on, the Roundtable wanted the Faire to be recognized as the official Renaissance Faire for the State of Alabama. Through the leadership of local legislative delegation at the time - the Honorable Bobby Denton and Nelson Starkey - a resolution passed the Alabama House and Senate and was signed by the governor in 1988.
Since it's humble beginning in October 1987, the Alabama Renaissance Faire has grown into a much-anticipated annual event that attracts thousands to Fountain-on the-Green (aka Wilson Park) on the fourth weekend of October. Expanding its offerings over time, the Roundtable now sponsors a free costume-making workshop on the second Saturday in October; a Renaissance Feast on the evening of the third Saturday, and a series of medieval/Renaissance-related lectures at the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library on the first three Sunday afternoons. To maintain and promote its ties to schools, the Roundtable sponsors medieval/Renaissance related visual art contest for students in grades K-6, and a sonnet writing contest for students in grades 7-12. A chess tournament for local schools is also done, with the winners squaring off at the Faire itself on that Saturday morning. October is definitely Renaissance Month in Florence, AL!
Billy Ray Warren, a Florence native, loves his city and was one of the Renaissance Faire founders in 1987. He taught high school history and English in Florence city schools and retired as curriculum director. In 2016, he was appointed city historian.