As children, John and Jim Denney were captivated by a cousin’s artwork of medieval knights. During youthful summer vacations, the brothers soon began creating their own drawings and paintings of comic book heroes and dinosaurs.
As the boys matured, so did their art and the pair blossomed into first-rate artists who now specialize in wildlife paintings, photography, and commercial graphic art. But even more remarkable, the brothers are identical twins with near identical careers.
John and Jim were born, raised, and still live (five miles apart) in Alexander City, near Lake Martin – a wildlife oasis in south-central Alabama, just north of Montgomery. It remains the setting for much of their art and photography.
“You never seem to run out of subjects to photograph,” says John. “There’s anything from wildlife in the winter and fall, to fireworks on the 4th of July, and concerts at the amphitheater.”
“Many consider Lake Martin one of the most beautiful lakes in the South,” adds Jim. “One end has great tributaries flowing in for moving water photos, while the other has rocky cliffs and vast open bodies of water for stunning sunsets. The water clarity makes it an excellent area for photographs.”
After studying art and graduating from the University of Montevallo, the brothers worked as graphic artists for the Russell Corporation. While it paid the bills, the pair became progressively more involved in painting, which led to an interest in photography.
“After I became a graphic designer, it made sense to take my own photographs rather than buy stock photos,” says John. “It also helped us as painters,” adds Jim. “Finding good reference material to paint from – photos that show animals in detail – was difficult. This is important when submitting work to contests because they are judged on accuracy and detail.
The Denneys have entered and won many art competitions, including the highly competitive Alabama Waterfowl Art Contest. The winning design is used each year for the state waterfowl hunting license stamp. Between them, the brothers have won four of the last seven contests.
“We’re extremely competitive,” says John. “When Jim won (for the 2008-09 hunting season), I was determined to win the following year, which I did. Being so competitive has driven each of us to do better.”
The Denneys sell their work around the country through their websites, but many clients live in the Lake Martin area. “People from all over the region have homes at the lake and want paintings and photos that relate to the area,” says Jim, who is occasionally contacted by locals when they stumble upon interesting fauna.
“I remember a call from a man who found a fox den, so I went up and constructed a blind,” recalls John. “Finding dens is not easy, so this was a great opportunity to photograph these beautiful animals. Over a period of days I photographed them, but some days I’d sit there for six hours and never see one.”
Great photo opportunities are elusive. “One time I was out photographing wood ducks and saw a mink coming out of a creek,” says Jim. “Right in front of me it attacked a snake. The battle only lasted a few seconds, but I had the wrong lens on my camera for a close-up. It would have made a great shot.”
Birds, however, remain the brothers’ favorite subjects. The Lake Martin area is especially rich in waterfowl and raptors, including bald eagles. The majestic birds – symbols of the nation – were nearly wiped out in the 1960s due to the widespread use of agricultural pesticides (DDT), but made a dramatic comeback through aggressive conservation efforts.
“Bald eagles are now found throughout the state, but I photograph mostly at Lake Martin,” says John. “I first started seeing them on the lake around 2002 and they were a very rare sight. These days I see them on a fairly regular basis.”
For amateurs hoping to photograph bald eagles, John says fall is the best viewing time, since they may venture further from their nests in search of food during the breeding season. He recommends early morning or late afternoon surveillance, when they are more active, and using a minimum 300 mm good quality lens and a heavy tripod.
“You also need patience to be a wildlife photographer,” says Jim. “It helps to be a good woodsman and to learn the animals’ habits. For example, ducks will often come to the same area at the same time of the day. Studying animal behavior and their patterns can save a lot of time. And get the best equipment you can afford.”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, John and Jim even use the same camera model. “We both have a Nikon D300,” said Jim. “It just made sense to get the same brand so we can swap lenses back and forth.”
They also both have near-identical websites (www.johndenney.com and www.jimdenneyart.com). “I told John we can’t have them exactly the same, they’ve got to be slightly different,” says Jim. “So mine has a black background and his is white!”
Despite the incredible similarities in their lives and careers, there is one area in which the brothers will never agree. “John is an Alabama fan, and I’m for Auburn,” says Jim. “Our mom went to Alabama and dad graduated from Auburn, so we think it’s only fair to split the loyalties!”
Auburn University at Montgomery professor and freelance writer Nick Thomas has written for more than 300 magazines and newspapers. Contact him at his blog: http://getnickt.blogspot.com.
The idea of ordering bacon, scrambled eggs and a gravy-smothered biscuit for brunch when there are other selections to tempt your taste buds like a chicken biscuit with jalapeno white BBQ sauce, Eggs Benedict with hickory-grilled sirloin (instead of boring ole Canadian bacon), and a lamb omelet served with a side of locally sourced stone-ground grits may seem odd to some. Why choose the simple one, something you could easily whip up at home?
Well, because I feel fairly comfortable proclaiming that while you can certainly make this meal at home, you probably can’t make it as well as what you’ll find at SpringHouse in Alexander City. I know I can’t. (I also doubt your breakfast nook boasts the warm, rustically elegant ambiance that fills every corner — as well as the outdoor areas — of this stone and timber, lodge-looking restaurant crowning a hilltop in the Russell Crossroads development at Lake Martin.)
But back to that brunch plate: Pale yellow clouds of scrambled eggs play with crisped fatty bacon (with zero chew) like a soft and salty symphony. A light biscuit is topped with peppery gravy that strikes just the right consistency note: not too thick and not too thin. If you order coffee, it comes to the table in your own French press. This music-to-your mouth meal begins with quality ingredients: farm-fresh eggs, house-cured bacon (which you might even see smoking in front of the massive stacked-stone fireplace in the main dining room), specialty-roasted coffee with raw sugar (if you take it sweet).
I hear you saying, “I can go buy all that if I want.” Sure you can. Thanks to a renewed emphasis on real food and a farm-to-fork philosophy reviving our support of area producers, today it’s not too hard (and really never was if you knew where to look) to get your hands on any of the above.
But it’s not just what you start with; it’s what you do with it. And more importantly for my argument, who “you” are. In the kitchen at SpringHouse, the “you” is Chef Rob McDaniel. This Alabama native has reaped praise since the restaurant opened in 2009; he was just nominated, for the second year in a row, as the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in the South.
And it’s simple stuff like the eggs, bacon and biscuit of a SpringHouse brunch that has pushed McDaniel into the upper echelon of chefs in our area. It’s easy to shine when pulling off a complex ballet of exotic flavors and textures; it’s tougher to do basic better than anyone else. And a commitment to using what’s in season and what’s nearby lends his dishes a pure, pellucid quality that’s refreshing. (It also means the menu changes constantly.)
But that’s not to suggest McDaniel’s dishes are plain, that there’s nothing special about his cooking or that he lacks skill. His talent and innovation are obvious in twists on regional favorites like pork loin with black pepper dumplings in ham-hock broth with collard greens and fresh herbs, his version of a Southern Sunday dinner staple. His SpringHouse S’mores alone are worth any drive you have to make to get to this place. The artful take on the classic campfire treat is playful and delicious with homemade graham crackers buried under warm dark-chocolate cake (complete with a gooey center), fluffy marshmallow cream and homemade marshmallows.
So I’ll confidently make another proclamation: Brunch at SpringHouse, no matter what you order, will leave you in a sunny, satisfied mood, and the only thing that could make you ornery is the thought of what you’ll be missing when you’re having breakfast at home the next day (so don’t think about that ‘til later).
P.S. Dinner at SpringHouse is wonderful too, so don’t fret if you can’t make it there for brunch.
Brunch of Champions
12 Benson Mill Road, Alexander City, AL
Open Wednesday – Saturday for dinner, 5:30-10 p.m. and Sundays for brunch, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. (Hours vary by season.)
Once upon a time I could work in my yard for hours and, while I might get sweaty and be sore the next day (or two or three), the physical effort was relatively easy and always improved my outlook on life.
These days, now that I have reached the age of 50-plus, many gardening tasks seem harder to perform and can leave me hurting more, and for longer periods of time, than in my younger days. Truth is, I am not as young as I used to be and I am beginning to realize that I may not always be able to garden at the level to which I have become accustomed.
And I am not alone in facing this reality. Change in our gardening lives is inevitable and can take many forms. For some folks, a life change of moving to an apartment, retirement or assisted living community or any place that has little or no yard may make it difficult to garden. For others, physical limitations brought about by aging or illness can make gardening harder.
Regardless of the gardening challenges we may face, though, there are ways to keep our hands and souls in the garden. It’s just a matter of modifying our approach and, luckily, there are lots of resources to help us adapt.
Resources are available to help
Among those resources are such organizations as AARP, the Arthritis Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One resource that I particularly like is Thrive, a United Kingdom-based charity that focuses specifically on helping gardeners. It has a great website (www.carryongardening.org.uk/top-tips-for-disabled-gardeners.aspx) with detailed how-to information that can make gardening easier.
As is often the case, planning is vital for a user-friendly garden and the first step in making a plan is to evaluate the pros and cons of any available gardening space. If there is little or no room to garden outdoors, figure out where inside or on a patio or balcony plants might best grow and set up that area with tables or plant stands that are easy to access for watering and maintaining.
If the available gardening area is larger, but difficult to navigate or manage, identify areas that are the hardest to maintain and figure out strategies to reduce their need for upkeep, such as decreasing the amount of lawn that needs to be mowed, making flower beds smaller and less labor-intensive or replacing high-maintenance plants with more easy-care species. Consider also developing paths or walkways that are easy to negotiate with a wheelchair or walker, installing ramps or handrails at steps or steep spots in the landscape, and adding extra seating in the garden area so you can take a rest or work from a seated position rather than having to stoop or kneel.
Once you have an idea of where to concentrate your gardening efforts with more ease, then it’s time to employ some planting strategies. For example, if limited space is the problem, one of the easiest solutions is to garden in containers. Pots, window boxes, hanging baskets or any other kind of plant-friendly container can be used indoors or out—in kitchens or on patios, for example—to grow everything from houseplants and other ornamentals to fruits, vegetables and herbs. Be sure to choose containers that are easy to move or place them where they are easy to access.
Raised beds are another great solution for space or physical limitations. These compact little growing spaces can be installed almost anywhere and can be customized to varying heights and widths so they are easy to access from a seated or standing position. And growing fruiting or flowering vines on trellises or adding an espaliered fruit or ornamental tree can also be a beautiful and functional addition to a user-friendly garden.
Not only can spaces be adapted to our needs, but so can tools. There is an entire market for what are known as “assistive” or “adaptive” garden tools, such as specially designed clippers, rakes, shovels and other hand tools and easier to maneuver garden carts and wheelbarrows. There is even a new item called Garden On Wheelz (www.lifecyclegardens.com/), which is a portable garden that can be used indoors or out for small-space gardening and to aid folks with physical limitations.
If you or a loved one are facing gardening challenges or simply want to make a garden easier to use, check out ideas online or in your local library. Your county extension office may also have information, and there are books that can help. Three of my favorites are Gardening for Seniors—Joyous Activities for Elderly Gardeners with Tips for Reduced Mobility by Andrea Kalli, Accessible Gardening by Joann Woy and Square Foot Gardening: A New Way to Garden in Less Space with Less Work by Mel Bartholomew, which offers ideas for small-space gardening for folks of all ages and abilities.
No matter our circumstances, it’s nice to remember that gardening does not have to be a struggle and can actually be a health benefit for us all. Not only is it good for the body—an hour of low-impact gardening can burn 150 calories and just 2 or 3 hours of gentle gardening each week can help reduce the aches and pains associated with arthritis and other physical problems—it is a great way to relieve stress and nurture the mind and soul.
*Plant peas and Irish potatoes.
*Sow seeds for beans, corn, squash, melons and other summer vegetable crops.
*Begin to plant tomatoes, peppers and eggplants once the threat of a hard freeze has passed.
*Plant strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries.
*Fertilize warm-season lawns and plant new lawns.
*Plant summer annual flowers and summer-blooming bulbs.
*Prune spring-flowering shrubs such as spirea, flowering quince, azalea, jasmine and forsythia after they have bloomed.
*Move houseplants outside and clean dust from the leaves of indoor plants.
*Plant container-grown roses and keep an eye out for insect and disease problems on all roses.
*Assess any winter damage on trees and shrubs and decide if any need to be replaced or pruned.
*Visit farmers markets, many of which will reopen this month for the spring and summer season.
In the early 19th century, millions of wild turkeys populated the vast, unbroken forests of eastern North America, but fewer than 100,000 remained by 1900.
From after the Civil War until the early 20th century, timber companies rapidly slashed through virgin swamps and old-growth forests. The prevalent “cut out and get out” philosophy of the time turned once-verdant turkey habitat into little more than scarred clear cuts. Seeing fewer turkeys in remaining habitat, sportsmen demanded stringent hunting regulations to protect the bird that Benjamin Franklin wanted to make our national symbol. In addition, state and federal governments began enforcing more environmental laws to preserve remaining forests. By the 1940s, turkey populations slowly rebounded.
“In 1940, we only had about 11,000 turkeys in Alabama,” says Jeff Macemson of the Alabama Wildlife & Freshwater Fisheries Division in Tuscaloosa. “Now, we have about 500,000. In 1963, we had 44,942 turkey hunters in the state. Now, we have about 55,000 hunters who harvest more than twice as many birds as they did in 1963. During the 2013 season, hunters harvested about 45,300 turkeys.”
About 40 years ago, just seeing a turkey track practically made the evening news. Growing up hunting ducks and small game, we didn’t know much about wild turkeys. For his first car, my brother bought a beat-up 1964 Ford Falcon. Built like a Sherman tank, it could go anywhere, making it an excellent hunting vehicle. Being the ONLY vehicle available to us also made it an excellent hunting vehicle!
With that car, we frequently cruised rough logging roads, crisscrossing forests to look for game in the early 1970s. That old Falcon squeaked and rattled terribly. However, it apparently emitted a certain squeak that turkeys liked, or at least found interesting. Whenever we drove the Falcon through the timber company lands, turkeys appeared. When the squeaky car rattled up a bird, we stopped, grabbed our shotguns and began running through the woods after the very surprised fowl.
Of course, that never worked. However, I did almost get a shot at one gobbler that flew up into a tree. Focusing on the bird and racing to get into range, I didn’t notice the briar patch looming rapidly in my direction until I made a rather abrupt stop in its thorny vines. I never got a shot at that bird – or any other — but I think it fell out of the tree laughing!
A conservation success story
Today, Alabama sportsmen don’t need to try as hard to find birds. The state, in conjunction with private organizations such as the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Alabama Wildlife Federation and landowners with suitable turkey habitat, restocked turkeys. Decades ago, biologists captured wild birds by shooting nets from cannons over the flocks and released the birds into unoccupied habitat.
“The restoration of the wild turkey in Alabama and across the nation is one of the greatest conservation success stories,” Macemson says. “Many local NWTF chapters and other very supportive conservation groups helped us tremendously. Now, we have turkeys in all 67 counties. It’s a great time to be a turkey hunter in Alabama.”
While most Alabama sportsmen hunt private lands, many public areas offer excellent opportunities. Established in 1937, Oakmulgee Wildlife Management Area stretches across 44,500 acres of Bibb, Hale, Perry and Tuscaloosa counties. Choccolocco WMA in Cleburne County covers 56,858 acres and dates to 1940. In northwest Alabama, Freedom Hills WMA covers 31,828 acres of Colbert County. All of these areas hold good turkey populations.
“At the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains, Oakmulgee is one of the most scenic areas in the state,” Macemson says. “It’s primarily longleaf pines on the ridges, hardwoods in the bottoms and a mix of pine and hardwoods in transitional areas. In the Appalachians of east-central Alabama, Choccolocco is mostly hilly pine stands with some mature hardwoods in the bottoms. Freedom Hills WMA has diverse habitat with a lot of mature hardwoods and some pine thickets.”
The Black Belt Region, a well-watered fertile swath, extends across 23 central Alabama counties. Several Black Belt areas provide good turkey hunting. Barbour WMA includes 28,199 acres in Barbour and Bullock counties.
“Black belt soil is rich, dark soil that creates good habitat to support an abundance of wildlife,” says Pam Swanner, project director for Black Belt Adventures in Montgomery. “The Black Belt consistently produces some of the best hunting in Alabama. Deer is the most popular game animal, but the best turkey hunting in the state also occurs in the Black Belt region. Alabama has more eastern wild turkeys per square mile than any other state.”
In southern Alabama, Blue Springs WMA includes 24,783 acres in Covington County. Near Mobile, the Upper Delta WMA spreads across 42,341 acres of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. It holds turkeys, but high water in the spring can make hunting the swamp difficult at times.
Sportsmen may bag one gobbler per day and five per season. Turkey season opens March 15 and runs through April 30 across most of Alabama, but differs in some counties. In addition, seasons and regulations may vary on some public properties, so check the regulations before hunting.
For more information on turkey hunting in Alabama, see www.outdooralabama.com.
The gentle rolling hills and quiet countryside on the borders of Sylacauga are no real surprise; our state is rife with similar rural scenery. But the luxury of Pursell Farms, the 3,500-acre resort sprawling across this landscape, comes as a revelation. There’s nothing opulent or over the top at this family owned and operated escape, but by making its guests feel almost instantly and continually at home and relaxed, it lives up to the definition of luxurious nonetheless. From the professional, yet friendly service and the world-class golf to the chef-driven cuisine and rustic elegance of the accommodations, a weekend (or longer) at Pursell Farms is a getaway in every sense of the word.
Pursell Farms began not as a resort, but as a marketing tool to sell Pursell Technologies Inc.’s controlled-release fertilizer process. It was a “If you show them, they will buy it,” kind of idea.
“Most of our competitors were well entrenched, better known and outselling us by a large margin. Their marketing strategy was pretty institutional, just using outside salesmen and trade advertising to try to get their story out. Our strategy was totally relational,” CEO and co-founder David Pursell explains. Pursell Technologies flew their target market — golf course superintendents and ornamental nursery growers — in for a show and tell called “The Experience at FarmLinks.”
The mostly male groups spent three nights and two days learning about the somewhat complicated product and having fun, eating fabulous food, sleeping in beautiful rooms and playing golf on what’s been hailed one of the finest courses in the Southeast. Using the golf course as an outdoor classroom to demonstrate their product usually sealed the deal.
“Each golf hole had our products used in a real-world working environment. Some holes had our products side by side versus our competitors,” Pursell said. “By the end of their visit, most of these prospects would make up their minds to give our products a try on their course, which was our main objective. The product’s performance would do the rest of the selling.”
In 2006, Pursell Technologies was sold, but the Pursell family couldn’t bear to part with the property. They still run the research and education arm of FarmLinks and teach course superintendents the latest in agronomics, course care and more. But today, they’re also in the process of recreating the experience at Pursell Farms, transforming it into a pastoral playground that caters to the leisure traveler. “Planned expansion in 2014 will add new amenities that will help us attract more guests, including females and couples, to come spend a few days here,” Pursell said.
True Southern living
While it is a work in progress, there is already a lot to love at Pursell Farms, most notably beautiful natural surroundings and, no matter the weather, warmth in the form of welcome. It begins with your drive in. A picture-postcard-perfect scene, a sea of grass dotted with plump, round hay bales and resting longhorn cattle, greets you when you turn off the county road. You’ve only driven two miles into the property when you arrive at check in, but you’re 1,000 miles away from whatever stresses, worries or responsibilities were occupying your thoughts mere moments ago.
Whether you’re staying in a cottage, a cabin, the lovely Hamilton Place (built in 1854 and listed on the National Register of Historical Places) or the handsome Parker Lodge, you won’t be disappointed. “Everything we’ve built to date has been very high quality and memorable. We didn’t cut many corners. Since we live out here and work here every day, everything is a reflection of our family,” Pursell said. “Our staff here is also an extension of the Pursell family. They care a lot about everyone’s experience here.”
This commitment to service and quality is proven by Pursell Farms’ inclusion in the Southern Living Hotel Collection; the resort is a charter member. And if you happen to be a man, Pursell Farms is practically nirvana. In addition to the world-renowned golf course, activities at the resort include fishing in stocked, sparkling lakes; hunting turkey or quail; or clay target shooting using a state-of-the-art five stand.
The cottages and cabins are set around a private putting green and are specifically designed for a golf foursome, with four bedrooms and four private baths in each clustered around a den with a large flat-screen TV and a full kitchen (cottages) or kitchenette (cabins). The den in the cottages is complete with a massive stone fireplace. Each is named for famous names in golf like Jones, Hogan and Snead and includes personal Clubcar golf carts for use on the course and for driving around the property.
The main draw at Pursell Farms is undoubtedly its 7,444-yard championship golf course, FarmLinks. Once used primarily for research and demonstration purposes, it’s now the No. 1 public golf course in Alabama according to GolfWeek and is consistently ranked among Golf Digest’s top courses in the nation, two designations that speak volumes. “We are very proud of that,” Pursell said.
The course is wide open, with scenic vistas that can prove distracting to even a seasoned player. The tee box on hole No. 5 sits high atop a hill overlooking one of the area’s marble quarries, and a historic marker explains how a member of General Andrew Jackson’s militia actually discovered the deep vein of milky white marble while on their way to the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. This rare stone was used in the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and many other significant structures and is still prized today. Markers at other holes tell bits and pieces of the Pursell family’s story and point to the golf course’s environmentally friendly design.
Pursell bragged on the course’s par-3 holes. “Most say that we have the most incredible collection of par-3 holes of any golf course they have ever played,” he said. “They are all very picturesque and very fun to play. For instance, hole No. 5 plays over 200 yards from the tips, but due to the elevation drop, I’ve seen some people hit no more than a 9 iron.”
He also praised his personal favorite, the par-5 No. 18. “It sits alone in a field of over 250 acres of land. Some entire 18-hole golf courses are built on less than that!” he said. “The hole is 615 yards long, and the fairway is comprised of Zorro Zoysia Grass. It plays a little uphill and is very hard to get to the green in two shots. The two giant oak trees have to be considered when one hits their tee shot.”
Many players call it a “magnificent finish to a challenging but fun round of golf.”
A Feast for the Senses
As a full-service resort, Pursell Farms has put as much thought into feeding its guests as it has everything else and recently brought in classically trained Chef Andrea Griffith to head up its dining options. She was awarded the distinction of Certified Chef de Cuisine, the third level of achievement at the American Culinary Federation, among other honors, and has put her passion for food to good use at the resort. The result is an ever-changing menu focused on hearty, Southern foods prepared with the freshest, best ingredients she can find. “I believe in trying to use as much as I can from as close as possible and work all that into an approach to classic tradition and tastes,” she said. Using local, in-season products and produce from the onsite garden and other area farmers, Griffith lets the flavors of the ingredients speak for themselves.
The DogLeg sandwich is a tasty example of her approach to regional classics: Grilled Conecuh sausage is smothered in creamy, sharp pimento cheese on a crusty roll and served with a side of house-made potato chips and tangy homemade ketchup. The chef’s choice is the shrimp and grits, a bounty of big Gulf shrimp and bites of spicy Conecuh sausage resting in rich cheese grits and finished with a few drop of hot sauce made from peppers picked straight out of resort’s garden. “Others seem to like it too,” she said. “I’ve had folks from Louisiana tell me they are the best shrimp and grits they’ve ever had.”
Griffith considers this praise a huge compliment, especially since she didn’t know what a grit was until a few years ago. “I was born in Philadelphia, but I married a Southern boy and learned real quick,” she said. She gets her grits from McEwin Grits in Wilsonville (about 20 minutes away) and cooks them low and slow for about four and a half hours.
To enjoy her creations, you can grab a table at The Grille, which boasts an appetite-enhancing view of the 18th green, or guests of the cottages, Parker Lodge or the Hamilton House can arrange to have a gourmet meal cooked to order in their kitchen. Cabin guests have access to full-service catering from The Grille.
Pursell Farms has long been a haven for men, but the plan to increase its appeal to women and families while polishing its current offerings is in its finishing stages, according to Pursell. More guest rooms, a full-service spa, a new dining experience, a pool, tennis facilities and more meeting space are just a few of the additions on the horizon. “Our goal is to attract a much wider demographic of resort guests, beyond golfers,” he said. “But the golf here is some of the best in the state.”
As the word spreads about the resort, Pursell offered his thoughts on what makes the place special. “Most people that come here tell us that there is just a different feeling one gets when they stay here versus when they go to most other resort hotels. We just try to exceed everyone’s expectations,” he said. “I think when we are done here with the next phase of expansion, this place is really going to become the go-to place in the Southeast for a quality resort experience.”
You don’t have to travel far to find a great getaway. Our state is full of escapes to the country as well as a golf trail that continues to earn national acclaim. Check out these other options for relaxing amid a rural landscape and for playing some world-class golf.
Five Star Plantation, Kellyton, Ala.
This historic retreat sits on 5,000 acres dotted with stands of mature trees and five stocked lakes. It first opened as a hunting preserve in 1919, and many of its structures, including the charming lodge, date back to the early 1900s. Enjoy dining, fishing, horseback riding and sporting clays in classic Southern comfort. www.fivestarplantation.com
The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail boasts 11 sites around the state with a total of 468 holes of amazing golf on courses that consistently garner spots on Golf Digest’s “best golf” lists as well as the praise of players who visit from around the country and the world. The resorts accompanying several of these courses are also hailed for their service, food and their award-winning spas. The Marriott Grand Hotel in Point Clear, sitting on the shores of Mobile Bay, is just one of the gems in this collection. www.rtjgolf.com
For 20 years the 1880-era Bliss Block building and the Perry Cotton Exchange building sat vacant and deteriorating on a prime commercial corner in downtown Florence. The windows and doors were concealed by plywood and siding and much of the ornate Victorian architectural details were missing or damaged.
Still, there was something intriguing about the attached buildings that attracted the attention of local realtor and developer Jimmy Neese. When he pried back one of the panels of siding covering the street-level façade, Neese exposed the original elaborate cast iron columns. “I knew then it had potential,” he says.
Neese consulted with the late Harvey P. Jones, a prominent restoration architect in Huntsville, who recognized the historical significance of the building. “Jimmy, this was once a beautiful building and one of the most important in the community. If you restore it, you need to do it right,” Neese recalls him saying.
Three years later, and after extensive cooperation with Alabama preservationists, historians and architects, Neese had fulfilled Jones’ wish and had returned the building to its original condition in accordance with National Park Service guidelines. Missing pieces had been custom-made to match the missing ornate trim which was painted with historically accurate colors to highlight the intricate detail on the facade.
“It wasn’t a renovation project, it was a total restoration,” he says.
In fact Neese had rescued a superior example of what is known as a “Mesker” building. While the street-level columns and ornamentation are cast iron of the Bliss building, the window hoods and elaborate cornice with rows of medallions and draped wreaths under a pediment are very thin pressed sheet steel. On the Cotton Exchange building the stamped veneer forms a row of decorated Greek columns supporting another very imposing cornice supported by large brackets over the top of stained glass windows.
“Many people have thought the façade must be stone or wood,” Neese says.
That is exactly the perception the original owners of Mesker buildings desired. “America was still rebuilding after the Civil War, and merchants wanted their businesses to have an imposing and fashionable front to attract customers,” says Darius Bryjka, a national expert on the unique facades. “Meskers could be custom-ordered to fit any size building, and they were easily installed with local labor in just a few days.”
Only 39 Meskers are presently known to remain in Alabama. In addition to the two in Florence, they can be found in Anniston (2), Carrollton, Columbiana, Cullman (2) Demopolis, Eutaw (2), Florala, Gadsden (2), Georgiana (2), Goodwater, Greensboro (3 plus 1 demolished), Greenville (4), Hayneville, Monroeville, New Hope, Pineapple, Selma (3), Springville, Talladega, Uniontown, and Wetumpka (5).
More than 3,400 Mesker buildings in 49 states have been identified and more are reported and verified by Bryjka each month. At one time it is estimated 50,000 structures throughout the United States were once adorned with Mesker facades, but most have disappeared due to redevelopment, fire, or neglect.
The small number of remaining Meskers known to exist were all built between 1880 and 1910 and were all purchased out of a catalog, just as people at the time were shopping in the Sears and Roebuck catalog. At their height more than 500,000 Mesker catalogs were being mailed each year, but only to small town merchants.
Other firms produced pressed-metal façade storefronts, but the Mesker family was by far the largest supplier producing a wide variety of motifs on an unprecedented scale. The business origin can be traced to about 1844 when German immigrant John Bernard Mesker settled in Cincinnati and trained as a “tinner” working with tinplate.
Eventually the sons of John Mesker began their own iron works, concentrating on the production of storefronts. George continued the family business in Evansville, Ind., while Bernard and Frank Mesker opened the competing Mesker Brothers Iron Works in St. Louis.
Few Mesker buildings anywhere in the nation remain in such remarkable shape as the two Neese restored, and he has been presented with numerous state and local awards.
Billy Ray Warren, President of the Historic Preservation Inc., a community based organization in Florence, recalled recently that the corner where the Neese buildings are located had been described locally as “the most visible in the Quad Cities area. Before Jimmy got involved the buildings were an embarrassment. He brought them back to life.”
Chloe Mercer with the Alabama Historical Commission in Montgomery notes the project spurred additional façade improvements in downtown Florence and that Neese paid particular attention to maintaining the historic qualities of the two buildings, including the pressed and cast metal ornamentation on the facade and the wood and plaster finishes on the interior.”
“Every day someone comes in to tell us what beautiful buildings these are,” Neese says. “We are very conscious of their historic value and proud to have saved them for the community.”
More on Meskers
For more information on Mesker storefronts:
The Gotmesker.com website has links to a variety of Mesker resources including copies of original Mesker catalogs.
Mesker Brothers blog and facebook page
Darius Bryjka adds a new story to his Mesker Brothers blog each month. The site also adds Meskers to the national database on the stie as they are discovered.
Tornado season is here, and Alabamians have the chance right now to take some simple steps that can save lives if our state is threatened by a storm this year.
“By preparing together for tornadoes, we can make our families safer and our communities stronger,” says Mark Beddingfield, chief executive of the Alabama Red Cross. “We urge you and your family to create a tornado preparedness plan now, before our community is threatened by severe weather.”
As with any disaster, preparation can be the difference between life and death. The Red Cross recommends that individuals and families prepare for tornadoes by:
Creating and practicing a Home Tornado Plan: Pick a “safe room” or uncluttered area without windows where family members and pets could seek shelter on the lowest floor possible: a basement, a center hallway, a bathroom or a closet. Putting as many walls between you and the outside provides additional protection.
Assembling a Emergency Preparedness Kit: Kits should contain a first aid kit and essential medications, foods that don’t require cooking or refrigeration and manual can opener, bottled water, flashlights and a battery-powered radio with extra batteries and other emergency items for the whole family.
Heeding Storm Warnings: Listen to your local radio and TV stations for updated storm information. A tornado WATCH means a tornado is possible in your area. When a tornado WARNING is issued, go to the safe room you picked to protect yourself from glass and other flying objects. If you are outside, hurry to the basement of a nearby sturdy building. If you are in a car or mobile home, get out immediately and head to the nearest building for safety. If you are outside and there are no buildings, lie flat in a low lying area or ditch and cover your head with your arms and hands.
Preparing for High Winds: Make trees more wind resistant by removing diseased and damaged limbs, and then strategically removing branches so that wind can blow through. Install permanent shutters on your windows and add protection to the outside areas of sliding glass doors. Strengthen garage doors and unreinforced masonry. Move or secure lawn furniture, outdoor decorations or ornaments, trash cans, hanging plants and anything else that can be picked up by wind and become a projectile.
Downloading the Free Red Cross Tornado App for Mobile Devices: You can help get your family and home ready for severe weather with the official Tornado App from the American Red Cross. The FREE Tornado app puts everything you need to know prepare for a tornado – and all that comes with it – in the palm of your hand. Download it directly from the iTunes or Google Play app stores.
More safety information and checklists can be found at www.redcross.org/prepare. For more information about your local American Red Cross visit www.redcross.org/alabama.
The Red Cross responds to nearly 70,000 disasters a year in this country, providing shelter, food, emotional support and other necessities to those affected. It provides 24-hour support to members of the military, veterans and their families – in war zones, military hospitals and on military installations around the world; collects and distributes more than 40 percent of the nation’s blood supply and trains more than 9 million people in first aid, water safety and other life-saving skills every year.
The Red Cross is not a government agency and relies on donations of time, money and blood to do its work. An average of 91 cents of every dollar given to the Red Cross is invested in helping the people the Red Cross services.
Equestrians, rejoice. Rock Bridge Canyon Equestrian Park in Hodges has opened to the public, and features some 27 miles of trails winding through acres of woodlands, canyons and waterfalls. The Franklin County park is the result of a 2011 economic development study that concluded that an equestrian park would be a good addition to the area, highlighting its natural beauty and resources. It’s also proving to be a boon for tourism.
“We have had a very positive impact in tourism for Franklin County. We have campers from as far away as Indiana, Missouri, Florida and New Mexico,” says Tina Lawler, the park’s activities director.
Trails of varying skill levels are located throughout the park, and each rider is provided with a color-coded trail map that coordinates with the signs, flags and markers used to designate each trails.
Hiking trails are also available for all age groups and skill levels that twist and turn through the Rock Bridge Canyon with picturesque sights and rock formations. Visitors can swim in pools at the bottom of the many waterfalls or eat lunch underneath the shelter of the Rock Bridge.
The park offers 34 campsites ranging from full hook up to primitive as well a camp store that offers toiletries, arts and crafts created by local artisans, Rock Bridge Canyon merchandise and a small selection of tack. The park offers a full bathhouse, a pavilion, restrooms and a day use area.
RBC also features a professional-sized outdoor arena with scheduled events throughout the year, including the 3rd Annual Rock Bridge Canyon Pro Rodeo on June 20 and 21.
Grants from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, the Resource, Conservation and Development Council, Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, and Sen. Roger Bedford helped make the project a reality. Local farmers and landowners donated land to build the trails.
How I love a great freezer meal! Getting home after a long day of work and being able to pull something from the freezer to pop in the oven for dinner is a lifesaver. Down here in the South, our love language is food. It is so nice to remember people in need by providing a quick meal. I remember when we brought our second baby girl home from the hospital and sweet friends stacked our freezer with casseroles and desserts. It was so nice to be able to enjoy quick and easy foods while enjoying our baby. Whenever I make a casserole, I usually buy double the ingredients, and make a pan to freeze and eat later or to give to someone else. What are some timesaving tips you use in the kitchen? Email me at email@example.com.
–Mary Tyler Spivey
Cook of the Month
Blue Cheese Meat Loaves
Cathie Donaldson, Covington EC
2 pounds ground beef
1 14.5-ounce can of diced tomatoes with basil, garlic and oregano, well drained
1 cup soft bread crumbs
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
3 tablespoons crumbled blue cheese
Combine all ingredients, except blue cheese; mix lightly. Shape into 6 individual loaves, making a small hollow on top of each one for cheese. Wrap each, label, date and freeze. About 1. hours before serving time, remove loaves from freezer and unwrap; place in a pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour; spoon 1 teaspoon blue cheese into hollow in each loaf. Bake 15 minutes longer, or until cheese is melted and loaves are richly browned. Serves 6. Great served with a salad and garlic bread.
1 pound ground lean beef
1 package onion soup mix
1 package of baby peeled carrots
2 cups potatoes (peeled and cut into bite- sized pieces)
1 can cream of mushroom or cream of onion soup
Mix the uncooked ground beef and onion soup mix together. Label bag with “Hobo Dinner” and the date. Place potatoes, carrots and cream of mushroom soup in the bottom of freezer bag . Add meat mixture. Seal and freeze. Freeze for up to 3 months. Feeds family of 4. To cook: Place frozen meal out to thaw overnight. Put thawed meal (meat on the bottom) in crockpot on low for 5 – 6 hours. It is done when meat is cooked thoroughly.
Amy Harvel, Joe Wheeler EMC
4 cups cornbread, crumbled
2 cups diced squash
1 small diced onion
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 cup sour cream
1 can cream of chicken soup
Boil the squash and onions until tender. Add all ingredients in a bowl and mix until moist. Place in a casserole dish and freeze. When ready to eat, cook on 375 for 30 to 35 minutes. Top will be golden brown.
Karen Norwood, Joe Wheeler EMC
Freezer Apple Coffee Cake
1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1/2 cup butter or margarine
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup milk
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large apples, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup golden raisins, optional
2⁄3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 cup melted butter or margarine
Soften yeast in 1/4 cup warm water. Cream butter or margarine with 1/2 cup sugar. Add eggs and beat until light. Stir in softened yeast, milk, and fl our mixed with salt. Beat by hand until mixture is well-blended. Line a 13x9x2-inch pan with heavy duty aluminum foil. Pour in batter. Arrange apple slices in even rows on batter, then sprinkle with raisins if desired. Combine sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle over apples. Sprinkle on melted butter. Cover and let rise in warm place until doubled. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes, till golden. Lift out of pan to cool. Re-wrap in aluminum foil and freeze. When ready to thaw and heat, place fully wrapped frozen coffee cake in a 325-degree oven for 20 minutes. Cook’s note: I like this recipe because I’ll always have a treat with coffee in the morning or dessert when company arrives.