Secret History Tours offer a special glimpse into Mobile history and culture

Secret History Tours offer a special glimpse into Mobile history and culture
Todd Duren's Secret History Tours unpack Mobile's rich 315-year history and culture, from the spooky to the illegal -- and, of course, the birth of Mardi Gras. Duren holds a rake with bells in honor of the city's first mystic society, the Cowbellion de Rakin Society. (Michael Tomberlin/Alabama NewsCenter)

With a city as old and storied as Mobile, the places and landmarks seem to be begging to tell their tales.

Thankfully, they have Todd Duren to do it for them.

Duren is tour guide and owner of Secret History Tours, a company that offers a variety of walking tours in and around downtown Mobile.

“I guarantee everybody, even old Mobilians, will learn something that they did not know,” Duren said.

Mobile’s ghosts, speakeasies and mystic traditions come alive on Secret History Tours from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

This being Mardi Gras season, Duren’s most popular tour is Masks & Moon Pies. You can tell you’re on the right tour if Duren is carrying a rake with cowbells dangling from the business end. As you might expect, the prop has a historic connection to Mardi Gras in Mobile.

“Some people call (Mobile) ‘the birthplace of Mardi Gras.’ I call it the ‘mother of mystics,’” Duren said.

That’s because the first mystic society – those secret organizations that are now built all around Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile and beyond – started in Mobile with the Cowbellion de Rakin Society.

As Duren tells it, some revelers on New Year’s Eve in 1835, led by Michael Kraft, broke into a hardware store and used rakes and cowbells to continue their raucous partying into the morning.

“The next day when someone would say, ‘What was the name of that organization that kept us awake all night?’ He said, ‘We are the Cowbellion de Rakin Society,” Duren said.

Some of Secret History Tours’ Mardi Gras tours end with access to balconies for parade watching.

There is also the Prohibition Cocktails tour that visits some of the city’s speakeasy locations and includes handcrafted cocktails. Three Centuries focuses on the rich history of the 315-year-old city. Automotive Alley has connections to industry and civil rights. Dark Secrets is full of ghost stories and spooky tales.

Each tour has its own meet-up spot where the journey begins.

Duren decided to start Secret History Tours after taking similar tours of cities like New Orleans.

“Our city has as much interesting things to talk about and show people as those other places do,” Duren said. “We have such a beautiful, charming, walkable downtown.”

This is Duren’s third year of doing the tours and he is pleased to see them growing in popularity.

“I’m having a good time and I seem to be getting a good audience,” he said.

As one might expect, Duren had to do a lot of research early on to learn all of the interesting history and put it together into a cohesive tour. Now, he can’t just casually walk downtown without stopping to note some interesting fact.

“A walking tour is different from a bus tour,” Duren said. “You have to put everything in a fairly contained, short amount of space and then you have to have interesting stories to tell. It’s more than just facts and dates. I always try to make it interesting and engaging for the audience. And so, I try to turn things into a sort of narrative that’s interesting for the guests.”

Customers can find and book tour dates on the Secret History Tours website. The company is also on Facebook.

“There’s something for everybody in our tours,” Duren said. “We usually offer two different tours at a time.”

Duren said Secret History Tours will in March offer Dark Secrets and Prohibition Cocktails.

He said around 75% of tourgoers are from in and around Mobile. Duren hopes the remaining 25% leave with a lasting, positive impression of Mobile.

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