You can learn your way around Mobile behind the steering wheel, but to truly learn about Mobile requires a slower pace.
Todd Duren thinks Secret History Tours is a perfect way to feed your head and rack up some pedometer clicks at once. The arrival of his walking explorations through downtown seems opportune for one of the nation’s most historic locales.
“We just took a haunted tour in New Orleans last weekend. I think Mobile deserves to have the same kind of experience here,” tour guide Duren said.
An art and design teacher by vocation, Duren fell in love with the Azalea City when his family relocated here from Knoxville in 2010. The town’s history holds unique allure, not all of it easily obvious.
Take the legendary Joe Cain, patron saint of modern Mobile Mardi Gras. Everyone knows his gravesite but how many know that was his third burial plot? Same with his wives, as Duren counts three.
“And there would have never been an Ol’ Slac without his fire hall membership and it still stands,” Duren said. It’s one in a handful of historic firehouses downtown, some located on the tour routes.
Duren began the enterprise in January, amid Mardi Gras. Across social media, he trumpeted a free inaugural stroll. It shot past expectations and almost beyond manageable scale.
“It was monstrously huge. I had close to 200 people and split it into two tours. We looked like a parade walking through Church Street East,” Duren chuckled.
Now Duren has a website — secrethistorytours.com — where visitors can select from various offerings, all at $15 a head. Pre-payment is available on the site. A few tours focus on Mardi Gras. Others cover Mobile’s various historical eras or architecture, even true crime.
“The Local Color Tour is in the entertainment district so you can bring your beer with you,” Duren quipped.
Duren is preparing haunted tours for later in the year. During research, fortune shone when a library employee described a grisly incident to him.
Other discoveries add to the social interaction of each tour. Sometimes homeowners listen in and add their own touches to the tales about their buildings. One of those interactions explained curious architectural flourishes.
“I’d noticed all these cool secret symbols on the house but just thought they were cool decorations. The homeowner came out and said there was a member of a Masonic society that lived here and that’s why the house has these symbols on it,” Duren said.
It took a tour guest to spot something else on a pre-Civil War house in the Church Street East district. It was a little twist on the historic plaque Duren had seen a dozen times or more.
“Someone had painted a rainbow flag where the Confederate flag belongs,” Duren said. He hasn’t seen the homeowners since to ask about it.
A jaunt into Oakleigh brought another surprise. A visit to Joe Cain’s house grew even more academic when the group was invited to look at an archaeological dig in the backyard.
He divides downtown tours into areas and eras. Closer to the river is the oldest, Colonial part of the city. The west end closer to Broad Street brings with it the early 19th century, the antebellum period.
Starting points are at Serda’s Coffee (3 S. Royal St.) and Serda Brewing (600 Government St.). Tours last about 90 minutes. A two-hour variation includes a midpoint break to cool down at the brewery.
A conversational tangent reveals Duren’s natural curiosity for history. He runs through the centuries and early Colonial powers like he’s relaying family yarns about feuding cousins.
Average tour size is usually a handful. He tries to set a limit of about 15 guests per tour.
He said locals have outnumbered tourists thus far but there’s a good mix. He has booked parties for corporate gatherings, for post-dinner activities. He’s played host to wedding guests.
“You have a big wedding and everybody comes in early; what are the people not in the ceremony going to do that day? Take a tour,” Duren said.
For the next few months, the biggest consideration is the temperature. A new 9:30 a.m. Monday slot has been added to the usual two Sunday tours in order to evade the heat.
“We do manage to find the shade when we’re out, I assure you,” Duren said. “I’ve even done a few of these in the rain.”
So unpack those Mardi Gras umbrellas. They might be handy for more than good spirits.