An Artist, A Cowboy & A Very Big Fish (Part One)

On the first episode of HomeTown Takeover, Erin and Ben began their six-episode revitalization series with Shellie and Wade Whitfield, local Wetumpkians and owners of the famous Big Fish House. Shellie serves as the Director of the Chamber of Commerce and works as a full-time artist in Wetumpka. Although the house was Tim Burton's movie-set, it became an answered prayer to a family looking for a place to call home. Shellie tells the story best. 


Our story starts on the eastern plains of Colorado. Not the pretty part with the snow-capped mountains, but rather the miles and miles of flat windy prairie on the way to Kansas. It’s pretty in its own “amber waves of grain” sort of way sometimes, but flat, brown and windy most of the time. Wade spent his days growing wheat and corn and owned a trucking company that hauled eggs from the farms to the large grocery stores in the area. I taught art at the small country school our boys attended at the intersection of a corn field and a sunflower field where crop dusters flew overhead. It all seemed picturesque from the outside. 

Unfortunately for our family, everything was changing in the state where we lived.  The cost of living was rising so quickly it would make your head spin, and Wade’s little trucking company couldn’t compete with the bigger companies. Crime was on the rise, and even in the country where we lived, I worried about our family’s safety all of the time. With the boys heading to high school, we knew we had to do something. We just didn’t know what that next step looked like. We prayed and waited and prayed and waited.

We finally made a list of what was important to us — good schools, low crime, population size, short distance to the beach, diversity — the list went on and on. I researched town after town for months. Mama’s Bible and an old road atlas were my guidance. When we finally had a list of ten towns that could potentially be a good fit for our family, we flew to Atlanta and rented a car. With my mom’s Bible in my lap, we started driving. In our hearts we were waiting for some sort of sign or some glimmer of hope that there was a better life for us somewhere. There just had to be. 

By the end of the second day of our drive around and try to figure out our new life trip, we felt discouraged. Each place we visited felt foreign. I began to think we were we out of our minds. What exactly did we expect to happen on this desperate, wild goose chase? Did we expect to pull into a town, where we didn’t know a soul, and have someone invite us to move there? I just held on to Mama’s Bible and kept driving. 

On the third day, we got up early and drove to the last place on our list. My hope was all but gone, but there was a little town on the Coosa River with a strange name that we had yet to visit.

Wetumpka, Alabama. 

We drove over the Bibbs Graves Bridge into the historic downtown where most of its building were boarded up. While most people would have turned around and run for cover, my artist heart nearly burst with joy. It had so much potential!

We drove down Company Street, past Stoddard’s Bait Shop and Coosa River Adventures, and the fall-colored trees were canopied over the little street. It felt like Wade and I had stepped back into a more peaceful time. Maybe, this could be the place?

Sun-faded “For Sale” or “For Rent” signs hung in the windows of countless abandoned buildings in downtown. We decided to call one of the phone numbers on the signs, and two locals arrived in just a few minutes.  They shot out of their car, shook our hands and emphatically said, “Welcome to Wetumpka!” They showed us the run-down building as they talked about how much they loved the town and their dreams for its future. We told them our story about how hard it had been out West. There on the dirty, second floor of a run-down building in downtown Wetumpka, the woman said, “Y’all should just move here!”

Just like that. A miracle.   

We spent the rest of the day driving around and looking at the area. We met the Mayor who owned the barber shop. We met Johnny who owns the coffee shop and makes milk shakes with entire pieces of pie in them. Everywhere we went, people welcomed us and shared their sweet, quirky stories about this wonderful little town. 

We drove back to Atlanta and caught our flight back to Colorado. We sat on the plane perplexed. Were we crazy? We had one good day in a little Alabama town where we didn’t know a soul.  Was that enough to pack up the family and move there? 

We began our hunt for the perfect house in Wetumpka, but nothing seemed right.  We called the Mayor and asked about the old, white house that stood above downtown. He told us it was The Big Fish House, where Tim Burton filmed a movie and was now owned by a man in California. Wade called this mysterious homeowner that we didn’t know, and the conversation went a little something like this.

 Wade —“We were just in Wetumpka and my wife is an artist and likes the look of your house.  Would you be interested in selling it?”
California Guy — “I have an appointment with a realtor to list it this afternoon, but if you’re interested, I will cancel the appointment until you’ve seen it.”
Wade — “How much are you asking for it?” 

His response shocked us. It was the exact number we had been praying for. 

We booked airline tickets the next day to fly back to Wetumpka and see the house. We were giddy with excitement. This must be our answered prayer! 

But what we’d discover next would be our worst nightmare. 

Find out what happens next here.