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Something to ‘Sea’ in Mobile!

MOBILE_Museum
Photos by Mark Stephenson

Museum highlights Gulf Coast nautical history and heritage

By John Felsher

Heading north on the Mobile Ship Channel, one might spot what looks like a large ship docked at the old cruise terminal – only this “ship” sits on land and contains another “ship” inside of it.

More than a museum, the GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico opened at 155 South Water St. in Mobile in September 2015. Built to look like a ship docked on the Mobile River, the facility highlights the vibrant sea life, culture, maritime history and industry along the entire Gulf of Mexico.

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“The Board of Trustees determined that the museum would have a much larger draw if it was a regional museum rather than just focus on Mobile,” says Tony Zodrow, GulfQuest executive director. “That prompted the board to expand the mission to encompass the entire Gulf of Mexico, not just the United States part. Our mission is to inspire people of all ages and backgrounds to understand and appreciate the Gulf Coast’s rich maritime heritage through exhibits, programs and activities. There’s nothing like this anywhere in the Gulf Region.”

The city of Mobile put up $28 million of the $43 million needed just to build the unique 120,000-square-foot structure, with the rest coming from federal grants to the city. The architecture itself incorporates a maritime image. Hemmed in by the river and railroad, the designers flared the building outward as it rises, just like a ship, to create more space. Even the fire escapes resemble lifeboats.

With the building complete, the museum staff packed it with $20 million worth of interactive exhibits in 90 themes that run the gamut of topics such as nature, exploration and settlement, shipping and shipbuilding and energy exploration, among others. Visitors can explore exhibits on five decks resembling a life-size container ship and three levels inside containers. Each exhibit, with more planned for the future, might contain several hundred parts, offering such varied “hands on” interactive experiences as navigating a ship with a sextant, exploring the depths or loading cargo containers with a crane.

“We’re more than a museum,” says Diana Brewer, GulfQuest director of marketing and public relations. “We’re really an education center. Our exhibits are multi-sensory with a lot of technology. People often learn by doing. When people hear ‘interactive,’ they automatically think ‘children’s museum.’ We’re kid friendly, but we are not a children’s museum. It’s almost like a ‘land of make believe’ for adults.”

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Each interactive exhibit tries to re-create the real experience as completely as possible without actually doing it. For example, in the “bridge,” or pilothouse, of the building, mariners of all ages can drive a tugboat pushing barges, a speedy U.S. Coast Guard patrol vessel or other ships on the Mobile River in the “Take the Helm” exhibit. Just like in a real channel pilot simulator, the helmsman must navigate through traffic, day or night in all kinds of weather. People familiar with the actual river would spot many landmarks in the simulator screens, such as the building housing GulfQuest.

Although children can “pilot” a vessel at the helm simulator, the museum also offers some interactive exhibits just for the little ones. Children can learn while they play. Anna Nameniuk, a school nurse from Mobile, brought her children, ages 11 and 12, to GulfQuest.

“We loved the first-floor exhibits because it has lots of hands-on experiments for the kids to try,” Nameniuk says. “They really enjoyed it. I had them try some of the things having to do with navigating by the stars. We lay in the yard at home and look at the stars at night. We also loved the movie. It was very informational.”

Even “Treasures,” the museum gift shop, reminds people of the sea. For a class project, senior Auburn University industrial design students divided into teams. Each team designed part of Treasures. The museum staff used the students’ designs, complete with a floor resembling an ocean bottom littered with pirate treasure and seashells. Large wooden “ship ribs” hold merchandise shelves.

“We wanted to design a compelling store that people would want to go in and explore,” Zodrow says. “The students designed the store to look and feel like a sunken Spanish galleon. The contractors built it exactly as the students designed it.”

People can enter the gift shop or dine in the Galley, the riverfront restaurant at museum, without paying the admission fee. With a spectacular view of the Mobile River, GulfQuest also hosts weddings, corporate functions and other special events.

Maureen and Frank Bianchi of Detroit, Mich., enjoyed the view on the deck one day. Frank, a retired research engineer, and Maureen, a retired kindergarten teacher, spend their winters in Orange Beach.

“The museum was awesome,” Frank says. “I came because I’m interested in submarines and they have an excellent display on the Hunley, the Confederate submarine that was the first in history to sink a warship. I didn’t realize that Mobile had such a boat-building industry.”

“I think it’s great,” Maureen adds. “The museum exceeded my expectations. I especially liked the interactive displays.”

Don’t leave without watching the multi-media presentation in the GulfQuest Theater. The video documents the nature, maritime history and culture of the Gulf of Mexico and Mobile Bay from its earliest days to the present. The museum opens seven days a week. People can buy various levels of memberships so they can visit frequently. ¢

Admission is $18 for adults, $16 for ages 13-17, $14 for ages 5-12 and $16 for seniors and active military. Children under 5 are free. Groups qualify for discounted prices. For more information, call 251-436-8901 or see www.gulfquest.org.

Horses that heal

Photo by Mark Stephenson
Photo by Mark Stephenson

|View video of Savannah’s ride here|

Therapeutic horseback riding helps many with disabilities

By Alethia Russell

Four-year-old Savannah Dennard has a simple command for her equine friend, Spirit: “Walk on!” she chirps, and off they go as Spirit carries his tiny passenger around the covered arena at Montgomery Area Nontraditional Equestrians, or MANE. Savannah, with the help of her instructors, uses the command to maneuver the horse before being dismounted.

And although she had to be carried into the arena just 30 minutes earlier, Savannah, as volunteers hold her hands, now can use her legs to walk away from the horse.

Therapeutic horseback riding, like that provided at MANE, provides relief for people like Savannah who have cognitive, emotional, and/or physical disabilities. Therapeutic riding centers serve people of all ages and disabilities, including those with attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, post traumatic stress disorders, cerebral palsy, obsessive compulsive disorder, and those on the autism spectrum.

Savannah is the youngest student on the roster at MANE, one of six therapeutic horseback riding centers in Alabama. After having open-heart surgery at five weeks old, Savannah was severely developmentally delayed, but her family remains confident that therapeutic horseback riding will improve her development.

Abby Houchin helps Savannah Dennard walk after her horseback riding session. Photos by Mark Stephenson
Abby Houchin helps Savannah Dennard walk after her horseback riding session.
Photos by. Mark Stephenson

“She’s four and she’s not walking and things like that,” says Rebecca Dennard, Savannah’s mother. “We just do everything we can to help her catch up. MANE is great for that because it’s great for her core strength, and it also gives her some independence. When you have to be carried around, that’s something you don’t always get. It’s hard when you have a child that’s so far developmentally behind, to have her play with other kids because they’re so far ahead. So this has been really great for her to hang out with people other than family.”

Dennard says Savannah has just finished her first session with MANE and is already showing physical and social progress.

Participants sometimes arrive at the center in a wheelchair, says Abby Houchin, volunteer coordinator at MANE, but after riding on the horses, they are able to walk out because the motion of the horse gives them more flexibility.

“There are physical benefits,” Houchin says. “The motion of a horse mimics the walking motion. So often, for people who have lower limb issues, we walk with them after they ride.”

The physical benefits range from quickening of reflexes, better motor planning, muscle strengthening, and reduction of abnormal movements and spasticity. Gerry Rodgers PT, PCS, a physical therapist at Children’s Rehab Services, says one of the reasons he refers patients to therapeutic riding is because it is beneficial and fun.

“When something is fun, it makes it more therapeutic,” Rodgers says. “You’re more likely to do it and be more engaged. From a therapeutic point of view, if something is more engaging, people are more likely to do it and benefit in the long run. As therapists, we can come up with exercises that may be good for them. You may be doing the same stretching activities and moving activities as in a therapy session, but you’re doing it for a purpose and not just to do it. You do it to stay on the horse, because it’s fun, or because you’re outside and that makes it so much more effective.“

The healing touch of horses

Not only does therapeutic horseback riding benefit the body, but it also benefits the mind. Patricia Thorn owns SpiritHorse Therapeutic Riding Center at the Mercy Seat in Prattville, and she began her work in therapeutic horseback riding after experiencing a death in her family. She says her love of horses helped her through it.

“Horses have such a healing touch,” Thorn says. “I believe people are starting to see the prosperity and possibilities for children to have an outlet in this that they may not have had before. It gives them a sense of pride. It gives them the ability to call something their own that’s a sport, and something to brag about because many of them can’t play a sport or join a team. It gives them a recreation beyond the therapy itself. It’s very unique because you’re developing a bond between the horse with yourself, the volunteers, and staff in multiple ways.”

Each center has unique programs staffed with trained instructors certified by SpiritHorse or Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, International (PATH). The therapeutic horseback riding centers in Alabama are all non-profit organizations, and rely heavily on volunteers, sponsors, grants and donations to operate. Monetary donations, grants and donations of equipment keep the many programs offered at MANE functioning during their three sessions year-round.

“Most of our income does not come from tuition,” Houchin says. “A lot of our riders are on scholarship, so I would say about 88 percent of our funds are from grants or private donations. With 44 acres and two full-time employees, there are not enough of us to do everything that needs to be done every day. We rely heavily on the volunteers that we have. We have almost 60 active volunteers now. That doesn’t even count the special volunteer workdays that a church or big group wants to help with and we’ll have a big project for them to do in one day.”

Beautiful stalls at MANE are home to the horses awaiting their turn to provide a therapeutic ride.
Beautiful stalls at MANE are home to the horses awaiting their turn to provide a therapeutic ride.

Volunteers always needed

Chandalyn Chrzanowski, equine director at MANE, and Thorn say they always need volunteers and can never have too many. Thorn says her center needs more adult volunteers, especially after school when the fall session starts. She hopes her center can serve more people as a year-round facility, with the addition of a new parking lot and a covered arena on her wish list.

The goals of participants like Savannah could become more reachable. For Savannah, “walk on” will one day not just be a command in her riding lesson; it will be something she can do on her own.

“The biggest thing we’ve seen is that she’s asking for what she wants. She’s communicating better,” Dennard said. “Her physical therapist has commented that through the legs and the trunk and torso that she’s really developing those muscles and making them stronger. It’s been really great for her confidence too, that she’s been able to ask for things and she tries to walk more and she doesn’t fight so much when you try to take her up the stairs.”

For more information on therapeutic horseback riding centers in Alabama, visit their websites:

  • Special Equestrians 
    specialequest.org
    1215 Woodward Drive
    Indian Springs, Alabama 35124
    205-987-9462
  • Equines Assisting Special Individuals
    easitrc.org
    242 Summerville Road, Jasper, AL 35504
    205-387-7486
  • Marianna Greene Henry Special Equestrians Program
    mgharena.com
    29401 AL Hwy. 21 South
    Talladega, AL 35160
    256-761-3364
  • Montgomery Area Nontraditional Equestrians (MANE)
    maneweb.org
    3699 Wallahatchie Road
    Pike Road AL 36064
    334-213-0909
  • SpiritHorse Therapeutic Riding Center at the Mercy Seat
    spirithorsetrc.org
    1962 Suncrest Drive
    Prattville, Alabama 36067
    334-531-7019
  • Horses Offering People Encouragement (HOPE)
    hopehorses.org
    1301 Convent Road NE
    Cullman, Alabama 35055
    256-841-6290

Worth the Drive: Jake’s Fish Camp

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While away a summer day at Jake’s Fish Camp

By Jennifer Kornegay

While the name of Jake’s Fish Camp is a little misleading — there is no fish on the small menu, and it’s run by a friendly guy named Frank — the place is pretty straightforward about what you will find there: tasty burgers, barbecue and sandwiches; cold beer; and on most weekends in the spring and summer, live music, all in an environment that gives new meaning to the term “laid back.”

Sitting on a dark muddy slip of Pintlala Creek flowing to and from the Alabama River, Jake’s was once a marina in addition to a restaurant/bar that welcomed all kinds of characters for more than 30 years. When its namesake passed away a decade ago, the place died with him. But Jake’s son Frank re-opened Jake’s two and half years ago, much to the delight of those who’d once frequented the joint as well as its many new fans.

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It’s not much to look at: a small cabin painted the color of the pines around it with a covered side porch boasting a water view and an overhead sprinkler system to cool things down in the heat of summer; a pool room up front; a bar and a few tables in the back room lit by neon beer logos; and an outdoor stage out front. Its proximity to the creek is a constant threat, but one that Jake and now Frank have always taken in stride. It’s all been completely underwater several times (look for the notation above the front door showing how high the water got in 1990), which explains a lot. “Dad never really bothered fixing the place up too much since we flooded so often,” Frank said.

But the food is good, the service is friendly, and Theo the wiener dog — Jake’s unofficial mascot — greets all who come with a tail wag and a loud bark. Frank likes to call his spot “a little Flora-Bama,” and the description is accurate. It’s nothing fancy, but the experience is all about fun.

Frank is particularly proud of the musical acts he’s been bringing in, a slew of the Southeast’s most popular and prolific bar bands, and they’re bringing in the crowds. On a weekend in April, 60s star Billy Joe Royal played at Jake’s. And later in the month, Brandon Self (who’s opened for David Allan Coe) drew more than 200 people with his country music crooning, despite a downpour that pushed the show inside.

Even when there’s no musical act scheduled to perform, visitors find their way to Jake’s (and there’s always a juke box playing good-time tunes). They come by land and they come by boat. The spot is definitely off the beaten path, but the drive through countryside or ride down the creek to get there plus the relaxed vibe courtesy of its semi-hidden spot on a bank lined with silvery moss-draped trees is a large part of the appeal, as is the humble but hearty food.

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It may be simple, but some folks swear that Jake’s hot ham and cheese sandwich is the best they’ve ever had. Frank smokes barbecue out front that’s earned rave reviews from diners, too. But it’s the Jake’s Cheeseburger that is not to be missed. It’s basic and not too big, and the secret to its deliciousness lies in the toppings. Fine chopped onion and shredded lettuce covered in coarse black pepper add crunch and kick that complement the juicy beef patty blanketed in melty American cheese. Enjoy it all with an icy can of Coke or a brew while watching the creek roll by and listening to some grinning guy picking a guitar, and you’re well on your way to a perfect summer day.


Jake’s Fish Camp
125 Jake’s Landing Road
Burkville, Ala.
334-263-1991
Check out Jake’s Facebook page to see upcoming bands and events.


If you’re using your phone or a car navigation system to find Jake’s, you may get thrown off course. If you’re coming from around Montgomery, head away from downtown toward Maxwell AFB on Day Street and go past the Air Force Base entrance. Not far after that, take a left on Old Selma Road. Follow that for eight miles and look for Jake’s Landing Road on your right.

 

Artistic impressions

Photo by Michael Cornelison
Photos by Michael Cornelison

Glassmaker creates stunning pieces of art

|View more photos here|

By Lori Quiller

Perched atop a mountain overlooking Little River Canyon National Preserve and nestled between a thicket of trees and a pond is an unassuming cabin hiding some of Alabama’s most beautiful handcrafted artwork.

Art not borne of pastel-colored paints or carved from stone or etched from steel. The art in this cabin is borne of fire. This art is handmade glassware with clean lines and vibrant colors, some small and some large, all stunning in their perfection.

Master glass artist Cal Breed and his wife, Christy, formally opened Orbix Hot Glass in 2002, but it wasn’t an easy task. Breed, who studied marine biology at Auburn University, became interested in glasswork while still in college after seeing an old photo of stained glass being made. It intrigued him so much that he decided to take a class in the art of stained glass.

“I was fortunate to find Cam Langley in Birmingham, who showed me just how beautiful glasswork can be,” Breed says. “He was a great mentor and friend, and I was able to learn so much from him.” Langley passed away in 2013, but his friendship with Breed and influence can been seen threading through some of the experimental pieces in the Orbix Hot Glass showroom.

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Glass is a unique substance as a medium for art, Breed says. While it’s not the easiest substance to use, that’s the main reason why he’s so drawn to it for his work.

“There’s something about glass,” Breed explained. “The transparency of it, the color. It changes when we work with it, and it changes the light when we look through it. It has a tremendous texture that you only realize after you’ve been working with it for a while. And, you have to work quickly. There’s an amazing amount of concentration that you find yourself in when you’re working with glass. You really get focused on what this object is, or is going to be, when you’re working with hot glass. The question is whether it turns out the way I want it to, or will it go in a different direction?”

Pieces can take from five minutes to a month or more to complete, which is a good reason why Breed has extra hands to help in the studio. Artists Eric Harper and Mark Leputa and student Lori Cummings join Breed in making the Orbix masterpieces.

Each masterpiece begins with a bulb of molten glass on the end of a hollow iron tube. The tip is quickly placed into a furnace in which the temperature averages 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The glass bulb is brought out, and air is blown into the tube. Within seconds, a small bubble can be seen inside the bulb on the other end of the tube, and then it goes back into the furnace. The process is repeated over and over, adding a few flourishes, depending on what the project is going to be. One thing never wavers — the glass never stops moving until the piece is finished.

Drawing inspiration from nature

As with all handcrafted art, no two pieces are alike. Breed draws his inspiration from nature around him, and he and his wife truly believe their piece of heaven lies atop Lookout Mountain. Mountain life affords him the time to spend with his family to rock climb, kayak or hike — all experiences he cherishes and ideas he can bring back to the hot shop, like the time he decided to drop hot glass down a hole to see what would come up. The piece is in the front gallery, and it’s jaw dropping!

Orbix Hot Glass has had visitors from as near as Birmingham and as far away as France, as well as pieces featured in magazines, including Southern Living and O: The Oprah Magazine. Breed recently finished a gallery show in Huntsville, and although he doesn’t have a show planned for 2015, he’s not ruling one out. He’s a regular participant in Southern Makers, an annual gathering of statewide creative artists in Montgomery.

“There have been some pieces that I’ve made and held onto for a while,” Breed says. “Some are harder to let go of than others. But, there’s a lot of craft that goes into these pieces, so I truly enjoy doing those pieces that I know will give joy to someone else. I can see that here in the gallery when someone looks at a piece for a really long time, and then takes it home. You can just see something in a person when a piece catches hold. There’s happiness there, and I’m glad to be able to do that for someone.”

Check out Cal Breed and Orbix Hot Glass online at www.calbreed.com or www.orbixhotglass.com.

Gardening that’s for the birds

American Goldfinch. Photo courtesy Kay Home Products
American Goldfinch. Photo courtesy Kay Home Products

By Kristen Hannum

Gardening with an eye to attracting birds, plus the butterflies and bees that come along with them, means gardening with a completely different mindset than we’re used to. So why do it?

The joy of creating a lively home for a wide variety of colorful, lively birds turns out to be reason enough for most gardeners. But there’s more: Gardeners report that an amazing satisfaction comes with doing something to help threatened birds. The Audubon Society and the U.S. Department of the Interior say there’s been a 70 percent decline in populations of common backyard birds since 1967. If everyone made just a corner of their yard more bird friendly, that could help turn those declines around.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: American Goldfinches. Photo courtesy Kay Home Products; Northern Cardinal male. Photo courtesy Kay Home Products;  Eastern Bluebirds. by Laura Hathcock/Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology;  Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo courtesy Kay Home Products; Carolina Wren. by Laura Frazier/Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Downy Woodpecker. Photo courtesy Kay Home Products.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: American Goldfinches. Photo courtesy Kay Home Products; Northern Cardinal male. Photo courtesy Kay Home Products; Eastern Bluebirds. by Laura Hathcock/Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo courtesy Kay Home Products; Carolina Wren. by Laura Frazier/Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Downy Woodpecker. Photo courtesy Kay Home Products.

“So many problems seem beyond individual action,” says Dr. Stephen Kress, vice president of bird conservation for the Audubon Society. “But we can make a difference for birds.”

The best place to start, says Dr. Kress, is in your own backyard.

It’s not difficult. Simply think in terms of being a good host, making sure that your little guests have refuge, food and water, and that you don’t accidentally poison them with pesticides or herbicides.

Bird’s eye view

A birdfeeder is a good beginning, a first hop toward seeing your property from a bird’s point of view. The busy little birds at the feeders near a window are undeniably entertaining. Birdfeeders can also help wintering birds make it through the coldest days.

Birdfeeders, however, are perhaps a bit more for us than for the birds. Both Dr. Kress and George Adams, author of Gardening for the Birds, How To Create a Bird-Friendly Backyard, say it’s far better to landscape with a variety of native shrubs, trees, flowers and grasses that provide a year-round supply of food for the birds. “Birdfeeders tend to attract the noisiest and bossiest birds, birds that attack or chase away the beautiful, small songbirds,” says Adams.

Birds’ names can be a guide to what to plant for them. Cedar waxwings love the little berries on red cedars; that is, eastern junipers. Pinyon jays will seek out piñon pines for their delicious little nuts. Yellow-rumped warblers used to be called myrtle warblers because of their taste for wax myrtle berries. Adams’ book has a guide to regional plants and birds, with specific advice for different species. Your state Audubon Society can also help with specifics.

Plan a garden that will produce seeds and berries for the birds year round.

Caterpillar baby food

Native shrubs area also important because they host native insects. We’ve all become accustomed to thinking that insects need to be wiped out, but that’s completely wrong from a bird’s point of view. Caterpillars are the major source of protein for many nestlings, making the native plants that host caterpillars especially important for baby birds. (Not to mention butterflies!)

Those native plants are the ones that birds depend upon for food, refuge, and homemaking. Again, says Adams, the birds’ names sometimes tell you what to plant. The little cactus wren depends on cactus thorns to discourage predators from reaching its nest. Pine warblers usually build their nest in pines, binding pine needles together to make a cup-shaped nest.

When native trees aren’t available, birds are forced to live in exotic trees. That makes them and their nests more vulnerable to predators.

Birds do not thrive amidst endless acres of chemically treated lawns, which are dangerous, unprotected food deserts that provide neither food or shelter.

Location, location, location

Suitable nest boxes can be one of the simplest things you can do to increase the variety of birds on your property, although just putting out a nest box and forgetting about it isn’t helpful. Just like teenagers’ bedrooms, nest boxes need to be thoroughly cleaned out at least once a year.

Don’t choose a birdhouse by its cuteness scale. That darling Victorian may be completely wrong for the birds you’re hoping to attract. Bluebirds, for instance, need doors that are one and a half inches in diameter. That discourages larger birds, namely aggressive starlings, from moving in and taking over.

Another feature to look for in a birdhouse is a hinged roof. Once you’ve tried to clean out a birdhouse that doesn’t have a hinged roof, you’ll find yourself a convert to that type.

Dr. Kress says that just as in the human real estate market, location is key to successful birdhouses. For bluebirds, that means out in open habitat, so that pushy little house sparrows don’t take it over.

Gardeners in rural areas, like so many of Alabama Living’s readers, are especially well equipped to help birds because so many of them also favor rural life.

Nestwatch.org gives great advice on birdhouses, and the Audubon Birdhouse Book: Building, Placing, and Maintaining Great Homes for Great Birds is another excellent resource.

Bird-size puddles

Birdbaths really are for bathing. Cleanliness is key to staying warm, cooling off and flying right if you’re a bird. A birdbath is an easy and often beautiful addition to the garden. Buy a pedestal type and put it near protective shrubbery to keep the birds safer from cats. Birdbaths are especially important in arid areas, but even if you live near a lake a puddle-sized birdbath will attract visitors. “Puddles are more their size,” Dr. Kress says.

Water with a dripping action is especially popular.

Adams urges gardeners to take on the difficult challenge of providing thawed water for birds in the winter. Winter sun may do the trick, but he advises going for guaranteed results by installing a stock tank de-icer or heating element especially designed for birdbaths.

The magic of doing good

Keeping fresh water in birdbaths and putting in native plants may sound like work, but it’s satisfying work.

“I know a lot of people who started out with sterile backyards and transformed them into great bird habitats,” says Dr. Kress. “They talk about how much fun it is.”

One of Adams’ readers reported how easy it was to change their boring backyard into a bird haven. “The result was almost magical,” that gardener wrote in a review on Amazon. “The more things I planted the more birds showed up.”

Sweet Shoals Music

Legends look back on their place in music history

| Watch Spooner Oldham’s acceptance speech at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame |

Interviews by Michael Cornelison

“I am music and all I thought about was music, starting when I was 15,” says bass guitarist Donnie Fritts.  Photo by Michael Cornelison
“I am music and all I thought about was music, starting when I was 15,” says bass guitarist Donnie Fritts. Photo by Michael Cornelison

The Shoals area of northwest Alabama, with the broad Tennessee River flowing through its rolling hills, has been a fertile ground for soul-filled rock ‘n’ roll since the early 1960s, producing an array of outstanding music that retains its magic, even today.

Contemporary music legends – Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding and Lynyrd Skynyrd, just to name a few – ventured to this remote part of the state to try to capture its Southern magic in sound, provided in part by the songwriters, session musicians and production technicians who worked not for fame or fortune, but for the love of the craft.

While its golden era may have faded, the music studios of the Shoals continue to draw tourists and musicians alike today, buoyed by the success of the recent documentary “Muscle Shoals.”

Today, Southern rock ‘n’ soul is alive and well, and the last 50-plus years of music history still echoes within the walls of the legendary FAME Studios, started by music industry powerhouse (and rural Franklin County native) Rick Hall.

The competing Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, founded by the “Swampers” (FAME’s second house rhythm section) at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield, was immortalized by the 1969 Cher album of the same name. After the “Muscle Shoals” documentary was released in 2013, Beats Electronics offered a project in partnership with the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation to preserve the rich history and culture of the iconic Muscle Shoals Sound. (The Muscle Shoals Music Foundation purchased 3614 Jackson Highway last year.)

Alabama Living art director Michael Cornelison drew upon his ties to the area (his father, Reuel Cornelison, is also a Shoals musician) to interview three of the many veterans of era; he sat down with Donnie Fritts, Mickey Buckins and Spooner Oldham, all natives of the area, to reflect on their life as Shoals musicians.

What follows is an edited transcript of the interviews with Fritts, Buckins and Oldham, each conducted separately in the Muscle Shoals area in 2014.

AL: How did you get started playing music?

Spooner Oldham: My dad had a band and they played around these parts. A lot of people still remember the old-timers, you know. I don’t know if they had a name to the band, I never have known that. I just remember being a toddler and all of them would get together. Dad played violin and sang tenor. The three sort of sang together, you know, harmonies.

AL: Was it country? Bluegrass?

Oldham: Well, it was all that. It’s hard to describe even today, because they did sort of Appalachian, a little Western Swing, a little of the Louvin Brothers, Delmore Brothers songs, so it was a little odd mix they had going on. But I remember, as a toddler, hearing them practice in the yard in the summer and in my grandmother’s living room when it wasn’t warm enough to go outside. So my ears got full of music pretty young and I didn’t realize, most of my life, that everybody didn’t have a band in their house. I think that kind of helped my consciousness to keep staying around music. I guess being around it so much, I felt I needed to continue doing that.

Donnie Fritts: I was already starting to play music when I was about 15. Different little bands, playing drums back then; and I met Tom Stafford (one of the founders of FAME Publishing) right there at the Shoals Theater. He was the assistant manager – I go to movies all the time, I mean every movie that comes out – and I talked to ol’ Tom and we got to be good friends. We kept talking about starting a publishing company, and I’m only 15 years old, but that was his dream, you know, to get a publishing company and a studio. What those talks that he and I had, that was kind of like the seeds of what would become the studio right down here on the corner above the city drug store.

A young Bo Bice, center, got encouragement at a Songwriter’s Showcase from Mickey Buckins, left, and showcase organizer and musician Jerry McGee. Bice later went on to become runner-up on “American Idol,” finishing behind winner Carrie Underwood, in 2005.
A young Bo Bice, center, got encouragement at a Songwriter’s Showcase from Mickey Buckins, left, and showcase organizer and musician Jerry McGee. Bice later went on to become runner-up on “American Idol,” finishing behind winner Carrie Underwood, in 2005.

Mickey Buckins: I was in the high school band. I was a trumpet player, and was piddling around with some rock ‘n’ roll bands. Just trying to get my musical thing going, I stayed in the high school band through the ninth grade. I got a chance to get involved in the studio. … Man, you know, that was it for me as soon as I got in that studio and saw what was going on. I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I got the job with (Rick Hall at FAME Studios), just starting out as an assistant. Doing anything and everything that needed to be done. I just worked my way up the ladder to assistant engineer and then I became chief engineer. I managed a publishing company, I was the production coordinator, production manager years later, staff songwriter and session player.

AL: Are there people you have worked with who really stand out?

Oldham: Not really. They were all wonderful. … You know, each recording had its special moment for me. … (Singer/songwriter) J.J. Cale, I loved him. He’s dead now, but I got to work with him while on three or four albums. I went on tour with him. … I think my first tour I did, I didn’t really want to do a tour, but in the ‘70s, I think it was, things changed. Record labels were signing bands who wrote their own songs … and studio work as a session player, like me, basically there was lesser work. So what do you do next? If you want to stay in it you keep going. I got offered a gig, and I tried touring. I did a Linda Ronstadt tour, and then the next one Richard Betts, the next one was Joe Cocker, next was Bob Dylan, next was Neil Young and I finally adapted to the scenario.

Fritts: I have been very lucky, very blessed to have songs cut by my very (favorite) artists: Ray Charles, Bobby “Blue” Bland, The Stones, (Bob) Dylan cut one of my songs. All these great artists. Dusty Springfield cut (“Breakfast in Bed”).

Buckins: Well, that’s a long long list. Being in the studio with Otis Redding, and that was very short lived … I was singing all these Otis Redding songs, and all these great R&B songs and here I am in the studio with Otis. Just to be in a room with Otis Redding was just more than I could hardly stand, it was just an unbelievable experience.

AL: What’s it like, having people you look up to recording your songs?

Fritts: I can’t even describe. I mean, ‘cause Ray Charles was my idol; still is. He was the guy that always said – well, ‘cause there’s no way in hell I could be even a million miles close to this guy in talent, but I always said, “I want to do the same thing this guy is doing somehow, you know.” I mean even at an early age. Then in 1978, he cut a song that I had a part of. To this day, it was like the best thing that ever happened to me as a songwriter; and still is the best thing that’s ever happened to me as a songwriter.

AL: What song was it?

Fritts: It was a song called “We Had It All,” but that’s the one that Keith, with The Stones, when The Stones cut the song he sang it. It just came out about two years ago. He cut it back in ’78 … ’79, I think, but for some reason they didn’t put it on the record they recorded. I don’t know Keith Richards, but we exchanged ideas with one another through friends and stuff, but he’s always said that’s his favorite song and it meant a lot to him at the time. When he cut it, he was going through divorce or separation or whatever, but a lot a lot of people cut that song. … I wrote a lot of songs, got a lot of songs cut by really great people which is a great honor that I’ll never take for granted.

AL: I’m sure you come across things that come over the radio that you’ve played on, or been a part of. What goes through your mind? Does it take you back?

Oldham: I’m such a sound-oriented person, I think. The music, the sound, sort of can rejuvenate my spirit or bring it down, whatever the mood is. If I hear something on the car radio that I did 30 years (ago) and it sounds good to me still, I still enjoy it. I’m just all about sound. It’s not really ego or personality so much. I like what I’m hearing in its entirety. Fortunately, a lot of the stuff recorded on tape still sounds really good.

AL: What’s your reaction when you hear those songs?

Buckins: Aw man, I remember so well. When I hear a song that I’ve played on, I can pretty much just see the scene in my mind. I can see the studio, I can see the artist, I can see the players, circumstances and just kind of how it felt. You know, and most of it is real good, positive, great feelings. Just very few of them were not real pleasant experiences, I must say, and that says a lot. You really go through a lot as a session player; you play very long, especially if you play a long time for a lot of years, you’re going to go through all ups and downs, the goods and the bad. You just go in and do your job. You’re paid to like what you’re doing, you’re paid to play. For the most part it was all wonderful.

AL: What do you think it is about this area that has produced so many talented musicians? Why not somewhere else?
Spooner Oldham, songwriter and keyboardist, after being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. Photo courtesy Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
Spooner Oldham, songwriter and keyboardist, after being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. Photo courtesy Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

Oldham: Well, it’s hard for me to evaluate that. My experience is I know what happened to me. I was just around a lot of great musicians, a lot of great recording engineers, a great recording studio and all motivated to do the same thing. Let’s get this thing off the ground, you know, let’s fly this sucker. There were a lot of musicians, I mean as a youngster. There was Terry Thompson, he’s one of the most heroed guitar players ever here. Any guitarist that ever heard him will tell you the same. He died at 27. So, you know, I’m saying people got started early and they played great.

I was fortunate enough to be around all those great players that I could find, if they could find me. So it was just a family situation. We all knew each other, all wanting to do something similar — play. A few of us wanted to write songs, but not many. You’d just get in bands, or play on recordings if you had the opportunity, you know, The studio and Rick Hall, he had a lot to do with it and forming a studio and place to go, so that helped. If you hadn’t had that back in those days, it would’ve taken a lot longer. And a good facility too. Not only a place, but it was a wonderful recording facility. It had top grade microphones and speakers, it was the best.

Buckins: I think it’s a spiritual thing. It goes way back to the Native Americans, the singing river. It’s the land. It’s the mud. It’s the river. It’s the people. It’s where we’re located. There’s great music all around us, you know, from the Mississippi Delta and Memphis to Georgia up into Tennessee.

As far as the players go, we all were so eclectic. I mean, we all loved every kind of music and the mixture of ability of all the players from around here were not limited to any one style.

Fritts: I’ve been asked that all over the world. I’ve yet to come up with a good answer. I don’t know how we got that many talented people in this little bitty area. It ain’t like we’re in New York, this is a very small area; but you came up with a bunch of really talented people who are committed to doing it. … You’ve got to be totally committed to it. So, that’s the way we were. I didn’t go out and play, I never did that s***. I was music and all I thought about was music starting when I was 15.

AL: What advice would you give to kids who say, “I want to be there someday”?

Oldham: Come on down. It’s where your heart is, it’s not where you live. If your heart is in the right place, you can do well here. If your heart’s not in the right place then stay where you are, because you won’t be welcomed. Yeah, like I said, the elements are here for anybody to do well. Good studios, good players and good songwriters. Or if you want to write your own song, you can find a place to do that around here with no problem. Maybe even somebody will write with you if you have that missing in your life.


WANT TO GO?

The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, known as the 3614 Jackson Highway Studio in Sheffield, is open for tours from 10 a.m.-2 p.m Monday-Thursday and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Call Bonnie at 256-394-3562 for more information, or log on to www.msmusicfoundation.org.

FAME Music Group, 603 E. Avalon Ave. in Muscle Shoals, is open for tours at 9 a.m., 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., Monday-Friday. No reservations needed. Call 256-381-0801 or log on to www.fame2.com.

If you’re planning a music-themed trip to northwest Alabama, be sure and make another stop.

The Alabama Music Hall of Fame, 617 Highway 72 in West Tuscumbia, is open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. For information, call 256-381-4417 or log on to www.alamhof.org.

Jason Isbell

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A Shoals native son stays close to his rural roots

Critically acclaimed singer/songwriter Jason Isbell now lives in Nashville, but his lyrics and his heart are never far from the Shoals area of northwest Alabama, an area steeped in music history. Isbell grew up in tiny Green Hill, not far from the Tennessee line in Lauderdale County.

He’s a huge fan of and knows personally some of the legendary musicians of the Shoals. It was those longtime session players and songwriters, like Spooner Oldham, Donnie Fritts and Mickey Buckins (see story, Page 14), who helped shape Isbell’s musicianship.

With lyrics that are raw and reflective, Isbell has built a career and reputation as one of the country’s up-and-coming Americana acts; he cleaned up at the 2014 Americana Honors and Awards on the strength of his fourth album, 2013’s “Southeastern.”

Despite his success, he remains close to his rural Shoals roots. A song he recorded with the Drive-By Truckers, his former band, pairs a tender family memory with a story that recalls the hardscrabble way of life that was once predominant in the South.

The lyrics of “TVA,” in part:

My granddaddy told me when he was just seven or so,
His daddy lost work and they didn’t have a row to hoe …
He helped build the dam, gave power to most of the South
So I thank God for the TVA …
When Roosevelt let us all work for an honest day’s pay,
Thank God for the TVA.

“That’s one of those stories where it’s a lot of different sides to that, but that’s the one that came from family experience,” Isbell said in a 2014 telephone interview with Alabama Living’s Michael Cornelison.

Below is an edited transcript of that interview, in which Isbell reflects on his early years in and around Muscle Shoals and on the attention the area has received thanks to the recent documentary of the same name:

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Q: A lot of people don’t know what’s going on in Muscle Shoals, what has gone on and the history.

A: You know, I think the movie helped and the documentary that came out (in 2013), but it’s been a lot of really great music made there over the years. I think part of the nature of what they were doing was that they weren’t the stars, you know, they were more the people behind the scenes. So that made it a little more difficult to get the word out as to who was actually creating those hits.

Q: There’s still a lot of good things coming out of that area now, and even into the future.

A: Yeah, I see that for sure. John Paul White (formerly of the folk-rock duo The Civil Wars) has a lot of good things going. He’s not touring and he’s not doing the Civil Wars thing anymore, but he’s still making a whole lot of music. He’s got a studio with Ben Tanner, and that venue on Mobile Street. Ben, who’s also from Florence, plays with the Alabama Shakes from Athens. …

But you know, it’s the kind of thing where all those years ago it was the kind of studio focus. Most of the people who were working in Muscle Shoals were session players, and producers, and engineers and songwriters and those kinds of things. Nowadays, I think you see more of the independent recording artists. People who are actually going out and making their own records under their own name.

Like myself, I grew up around (FAME Studios session bassist) David Hood and Spooner and folks like that, and Rick Hall (founder of FAME Studios). I started working for FAME when I was like 21. You know, so I grew up around those folks. Honestly, I knew people like David and Spooner before I knew Mickey and Donnie, and before I was really aware of the work they had done. When I was a teenager I would go out and see them play, and since you can’t really have bars in Muscle Shoals, everything was a restaurant. That was great for me at that age because you didn’t have to be 21 to get in.

So I could go in, get dropped off by my parents and stay there for three to four hours to watch those folks play. You know, that was a great thing for me, and I had been playing, then, for a few years. Over time, they would start getting me up there to play with the band and they were always really helpful. They gave me good advice and kind of took me under their wing, even though that’s not something they were supposed to do. You know they don’t have to, they were still trying to get work themselves.

Q: What do you think is so special about Muscle Shoals?

A: Well, it’s just a special group of people. You know, I think Rick Hall was really the catalyst behind all that, because he had so much drive and so much ambition. Because he had been through a lot of difficult things in life. … I think a lot of that led him to be more ambitious than a lot of people were in those days. He was lucky enough to get the right people in the room, and to have people around that area who were interested in what everyone else called “black music” at the time.

You know, they were interested enough to learn how to re-create it really, really well. It still kind of surprises me. I think it was just sort of luck of the draw, as with anything else. It comes down to the people who were there when it all got started.

Q: The story we’re looking to write probably won’t be out until March. … It’s a little ahead of time, but that’s the way we kind of work here.

A: Right, right. That’s me too, usually. I’m a few months ahead of time. I have to be to keep up with everything. I’m guessing that around the time this issue is out, we’ll be going back into the studio to make another album. We made an album right at a year ago. It was a year ago this week, and it’s been real successful compared to anything else I’ve done in the past. So, we’ve been touring really steadily behind that but I think it’s time. I’m going home in August, so I’ll spend the fall and winter trying to write, and I bet by springtime we’ll be back in the studio again.

Editor’s note: Isbell and his wife, musician Amanda Shires, released a two-song recording, “Sea Songs,” in early February, available on iTunes. Isbell will be busy touring from mid-April through May.

A bridge between past and present

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to a large crowd in Selma in March 1965 as they prepare to begin a march to Montgomery.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to a large crowd in Selma in March 1965 as they prepare to begin a march to Montgomery.

Full slate of activities to mark 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”

By Miriam Davis

The year 2015 marks the anniversary of two momentous events in Alabama’s – and the nation’s – history. It marks the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march and the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott, two crucial events of the civil rights movement. While plans for remembering the Montgomery bus boycott are still in the early stages, plans for the Selma march are well under way.

In fact, there were actually three Selma marches. On March 7, 1965, the first, inspired by the death of an African-American civil rights worker, ended in “Bloody Sunday,” when state troopers and sheriffs’ deputies beat and gassed marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Not until the third attempt was the 54-mile journey to Montgomery completed. Leaving Selma on March 21, civil rights activists arrived in Montgomery on March 24 and marched on the state Capitol the following day.

The historic Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River in Selma will again be in the national eye during the upcoming Selma-to-Montgomery march commemoration. Photo by Art Meripol
The historic Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River in Selma will again be in the national eye during the upcoming Selma-to-Montgomery march commemoration. Photo by Art Meripol

Selma began its commemorations with the start of talent auditions in December. Thirty acts will be eventually selected to compete in the Selma Starz Talent Show on Feb. 27. The following night, the winners will open a concert for what organizers hope will be a big name main act. “This is a way to get young people involved and to showcase local talent,” said Ashly Mason, tourism director for Selma and Dallas County.

The main activities, of course, will be in March. Since 1993, Selma has remembered the march every year with the Bridge Crossing Jubilee. This year will be no different. Beginning March 5, more than 40 events, many of them free, will be held over a four-day period. They include a unity breakfast, a hip-hop, gospel and blues festival, civil and human rights workshops, and a film festival featuring short films about human rights or social justice. A children’s sojourn will use songs, dances, and skits to tell the story of the civil rights movement to elementary school-age children. Events will culminate in a re-creation of the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Sunday, March 8.

These events and others – including the release of the major motion picture “Selma,” which was filmed in Montgomery and Selma – will bring a welcome attention to the state.

“An important historical event like this is a unique opportunity to commemorate the leaders and foot soldiers of an important milestone in the nation’s history,” said Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department. “It’s also a great opportunity to measure how far our country has come in that time.”

The commemorations continue throughout the month. From March 21-25, participants can re-enact the entire march from Selma to Montgomery. The National Park Service will sponsor a “Walking Classroom” for 150 selected college students from around the country who will walk the entire route.

When marchers finally arrived in Montgomery on March 24, 1965, the only accessible shelter they found was the City of St. Jude, a Catholic social service organization. St. Jude is planning its own commemoration of the events of 50 years ago. On the night before the march on the Capitol in 1965, such entertainers as Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., and Peter, Paul, and Mary performed a “Stars for Freedom Rally” on the grounds. On March 24, St. Jude will stage a re-enactment of the concert, but instead of Hollywood stars, it will feature young local talent.

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Several events in Montgomery will mark the date of Bloody Sunday. On March 6, the Imani Winds quartet and baritone soloist Sidney Outlaw will perform the world premier of composer Mohammed Fairouz’s “Deep Rivers,” a set of songs specially commissioned for the occasion. On March 7, Patti Labelle will appear in concert at Alabama State University.

St. Jude and the city of Montgomery are partnering to re-enact the last leg of the march, the one made by some 25,000 people on the state Capitol on March 25. A ceremony on the steps of the Capitol will feature an address by Bernice King, youngest child of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. That morning the city of Montgomery will sponsor a heroes’ breakfast for some of the original marchers.

Because the Montgomery public schools will be out for spring break March 23-27, educational tours will take eighth through 12th-graders to historical sites in Tuskegee, Selma and Montgomery.

The commemorations are important to the city of Montgomery, said Anita Archie, chief of staff for Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange. “We want to show the world that the city of Montgomery has changed a great deal,” Archie says. “But the city of Montgomery also remembers. We remember, we honor, and we want to continue working for change. There’s still work to be done.”

Events are accurate as of press time, but are subject to change. For a complete list of commemoration events and the latest information, visit dreammarcheson.com and www.selmajubilee.com.

Stars fell on Alabama

60 years later

By Emmett Burnett

Sculpted by Don Lawler, the “Falling Star” monument, standing in front of the Sylacauga Municipal Complex, is the only known statue dedicated to a meteorite striking a human. Photo by Emmett Burnett
Sculpted by Don Lawler, the “Falling Star” monument, standing in front of the Sylacauga Municipal Complex, is the only known statue dedicated to a meteorite striking a human.
Photo by Emmett Burnett

Ann Hodges was napping in her living room when the meteorite hit. With an estimated speed exceeding 200 mph, the grapefruit-sized intergalactic rock punctured her roof, bounced off a radio console, and hit the Sylacauga woman in the thigh and hand. She recovered from the injury but never overcame the visitor from outer space. Sixty years have passed since Sylacauga’s collision course. On Nov. 30, 1954, around lunchtime, townspeople heard a massive explosion. Many thought it was a nearby factory. Some believed it was the Russians. No one expected an incoming meteor, until they looked up. Former Alabama Natural History Museum Assistant Director (retired) Dr. John C. Hall was the curator of the rock. He has lectured frequently about Sylacauga’s close encounter. “People actually witnessed the space phenomenon in the middle of day, broad daylight,” he recalled. “It was visible in Tuscaloosa, well over 100 miles away.” The Birmingham News reported a heavenly fireball almost in unison with the explosion, witnessed in three states. Scientists theorized it was a sonic boom created by a meteorite’s traveling faster than the speed of sound: destination, Sylacauga.

Thirty-one-year-old Ann Hodges had a different perspective. “I thought my time had come,” she told the media. In a way, she was right.

Randy McCready, Director of the Alabama Museum of Natural History, Tuscaloosa, holds “The Hodges Meteorite.” He is standing by the radio console the meteorite hit before striking Ann Hodges on Nov. 30, 1954. Photo by Emmett Burnett
Randy McCready, Director of the Alabama Museum of Natural History, Tuscaloosa, holds “The Hodges Meteorite.” He is standing by the radio console the meteorite hit before striking Ann Hodges on Nov. 30, 1954. Photo by Emmett Burnett

“Mrs. Hodges was a small town, country girl,” says Hall. “There was no one more unqualified to handle the media onslaught than she was.” Life Magazine featured her as did National Geographic. She was flown to New York City to appear on the nationally televised game show, I’ve Got a Secret. The Hodges meteorite not only invaded her home, it invaded her life.

“You have to remember, this was 1954,” Hall continued. “There was no text messaging or internet. News was slow. Back then most people’s knowledge of outer space was from science fiction movies. Add to that we were in the middle of the Cold War with Russia and UFO sightings.” People assumed the worst, and so did the United States Air Force.

Hours after the meteorite hit, a military helicopter landed at a nearby high school campus. Officers demanded Hodges surrender her piece of the rock. She did.

It was transported to Ohio’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for analysis. After careful study, military scientists concluded it was a meteorite. Meanwhile, Hodges and husband Hewlett realized the potential to make money from their new found fame. The meteorite could be worth a fortune. Hodges’ landlady, Birdie Guy, agreed, but felt the stone belonged to her. Everyone hired lawyers.

Guy claimed that since the object crashed through her property she was the rightful owner. After many expensive legal battles, the court agreed. But by then, interest waned and both parties had strained savings for legal fees. The landlady sold the meteorite back to Hodges in 1955 for $500. Sylacauga’s extraterrestrial, which one year earlier caused a local panic, was seized by the military and received worldwide press coverage, was now the Hodges’ home doorstop. An Indiana attorney representing Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution visited. He unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a selling price for the meteorite with Hewlett Hodges. “But Hewlett felt the Yankee attorney was trying to take advantage of him with a low price offer,” says Hall. “The two had words and the attorney left.” But not quite.

Actual size, at 7 by 5 inches and weighing 7.5 pounds, the Hodges meteorite is estimated to be billions of years old. It once traveled faster than the speed of light. Photo by Emmett Burnett
Actual size, at 7 by 5 inches and weighing 7.5 pounds, the Hodges meteorite is estimated to be billions of years old.
Photo by Emmett Burnett

Julius K. McKinney, an African-American sharecropper, lived nearby. Shortly after the Hodges meteorite crashed, McKinney was driving his mule wagon down a dirt road when suddenly the animals stopped. Shaken, jittery, and nervous, the mules refused to pass a small black stone in the road. McKinney took the mysterious rock to the only federal employee he trusted, his mailman. The two concluded the acquisition must be related to the Hodges meteorite and might be worth a lot of money. McKinney lawyered up. After the rock was authenticated, he sold it for an undisclosed sum but enough to buy a new house, new car, and property. “McKinney was the only one to ever profit from the meteorite,” Hall says. And the McKinney meteorite remains in the Smithsonian Institution to this day. Estimated to be as old as recorded time, the Hodges meteorite is still displayed at the Alabama Museum of Natural History in Tuscaloosa. “It is our wow factor,” said the museum’s director, Randy McCready, about the mysterious black object that traveled millions of miles before stopping in Alabama. “Even six decades later we receive inquiries from around the world.” The 7 by 5-inch oblong other-worldly rock has an almost eerie presence, resting by the Hodges radio with its 1954 damage marks clearly visible. “Ann thought it was cursed,” says McCready. Maybe it was. In 1967 Ann and Hewlett Hodges divorced, due in part to stress caused by the incident, publicity and litigation. Both agreed they wished the rendezvous with space never happened. She died in 1972 at age 49. Hewlett Hodges died in 2011. Ann Hodges is the only authenticated person ever struck by a meteorite. Her Decatur physician, Dr. Moody Jacobs, is the only known medical responder to treat a meteorite injury. The Hodges home, featured in press coverage around the world because of something outside the world, has long been demolished. Ironically, the home stood near the Comet Drive-In Movie Theater. But a statue, ‘Falling Star,’ stands on the grounds of the Sylacauga Municipal Complex. Sculpted from the area’s fine marble by artist Don Lawler, it is the only known monument in the world dedicated to a meteorite strike, the day stars fell on Alabama.

Iron Chef

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By Jennifer Kornegay

Cast iron cookware: the must-have tool for your Southern kitchen

|Click here to view video of Eddie Brandon in his kitchen|

I cook a lot, and a quick inventory of my kitchen equipment proves it. I’ve got expensive pots and pans, a fabulous immersion blender, several sizes of food processors, a fancy peppermill and more. But if a meteor struck my kitchen and destroyed it all, there’s only one thing I’d truly miss: my grandmother’s 10-inch cast iron skillet.

I love the weight of it in my hand, and the memories it evokes each and every time I pull it from its resting place in a bottom cabinet. It’s a time machine that transports me back to my grandmother’s aproned side, helping her whip up whatever deliciousness she was making.

But in truth, if a meteor did hit my home, that skillet is the one thing that would probably withstand the blast. Cast iron is almost indestructible, and that’s one reason cast-iron skillets are handed down through generations. The other reason? They are must-have tools for creating several staples of Southern cuisine.

Eddie Brandon cooking with his cast iron collection in front.
Eddie Brandon cooking with his cast iron collection in front.
Why cook with cast iron?

Your grandmother knew what she was doing. Cast iron is the original non-stick cookware, meaning you can use far less oil or fat when preparing everything from chicken thighs to veggies in your skillet, but that’s only one of its health benefits. The other two are the lack of chemicals often found in modern non-stick pans, and the fact that cast iron is just that: iron. Your skillet will leach a small amount of the mineral into whatever you’re cooking, adding a little extra iron to your nutritional intake.

The real reason to cook with cast iron is taste. Iron is an excellent conductor, and since it heats evenly and consistently, it’s far easier to get a good sear on meat and keep those flavorful juices in. It’s also better at browning cornbread and crisping the crust on fried chicken.

Eddie Brandon, a staking engineer for the North Alabama Electric Co-op in Stevenson, Ala., knows this well. An avid cook, he’s also a cast-iron skillet collector. His cornbread has become famous among his co-workers, a treat they beg him to bring to the office over and over again. And he couldn’t do it without cast iron.

“I started using cast iron because my mom and grandmother did,” he says, “but I keep using it because for cornbread, there’s just no other pan or skillet that will do it right.” He stresses that only cast iron can bake cornbread evenly, and only cast iron delivers that beloved tawny brown crust. “That’s the best part,” he says.

But he cooks far more than cornbread in his many cast iron containers. His collection has grown to include close to 40 pieces of varying sizes and shapes. Other favorite dishes he makes in cast iron are fried catfish (in a Dutch oven), creamed corn and fried potatoes (both in a skillet). “They all get a better flavor in cast iron,” he says.

How to care for cast iron

It’s hard to argue with all the reasons to use cast iron, yet some people still shy away from it, probably due to concerns over its care. But that’s a mistake. Once you know the basics, cast iron is as easy, if not easier, to clean and keep as any other tool in your culinary arsenal.

First, you can wash it, and yes, you can even use soap, although Eddie Brandon doesn’t recommend it. The best way to clean cast iron is to run hot water on it while it’s still warm (but cool enough to handle) and wipe it out with a dry dishcloth.

You can use a bit of mild dish soap, but you really don’t need it. Most food bits should come off clean with the water, and if you need to give them a little nudge, use a soft brush or make a paste with Kosher salt and give it a rub.

There are a few don’ts: Don’t soak or submerge your cast iron in water and don’t put it in the dishwasher. And a few do’s: Do feel free to use metal utensils with your cast iron cookware (one more way it’s better than non-stick pans), and do dry it completely before putting it away to stave off rust, and wipe a little more oil on the inside.

But your cast iron skillet is already rusty you say? No problem. You can revive it quick with a bit of fine steel wool and another quick rinse.

“But I’ve tried using my handed-down skillet, and things stick!” you insist. Again, no big deal. That means it’s time to re-season, which is simple. Give it a good rinse and dry it. Add some vegetable oil or shortening, spreading it around the inside with a paper towel, and bake upside down in a 350-degree oven for about an hour. Place a sheet pan with aluminum foil on the rack below your skillet to catch any drips, and let the skillet cool in the oven once the hour is up.

“Well, I got a new cast-iron skillet, so how can I tell if it is seasoned already?” If it came from Lodge, the most popular and prolific maker of cast iron in the country, it has been seasoned. If not, follow the same steps for re-seasoning to get it ready for cooking.

What to cook in cast iron
(other than corn bread)

Join Eddie and break out of your corn bread box. You can cook almost anything in cast iron: steak (the skillet stays screaming hot so it sears meat perfectly), grilled cheese sandwiches (thanks to even heating), the dishes Eddie is so fond of, and even desserts. Try this easy recipe that pairs butter with sugar and fall’s favorite fruit to create a topping for pound cake, ice cream, cardboard, whatever.

Eddie’s Can’t Fail Corn Bread

1 cup Martha White Enriched Cornmeal
(NOTE: Not cornmeal mix)
1 egg
1½ cups buttermilk

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Put enough oil to cover the bottom of your skillet. Eddie recommends bacon grease. Put the skillet and fat in the oven and let it get hot. Mix the cornmeal, egg and buttermilk in a bowl. Pour the batter into the hot grease and place back in the oven for 20-25 minutes or until the top is thoroughly browned.

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Skillet Sugared Apples

3-4 large apples, any variety
3 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg

Core the apples and slice them into thin wedges, approximately ¼ inch wide. Heat your cast iron skillet over medium heat and add the butter. Cook the apples in the melted butter for 6 to 7 minutes or until fork tender. Add the sugar and spices and stir. Cook for another 4 to 5 minutes or until the sugar creates a thick syrup. Remove from heat and let cool.