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Sacred ground honors faithful companions

Watch a video of Virgil Miles, on location in the Coon Dog Cemetery in Colbert County, Ala., as he demonstrates how to call the dogs in with a vintage cow horn.

By John N. Felsher

A grave at the Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard.
A grave at the Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard.

When one of Key Underwood’s closest friends died of old age, the man decided to give his constant hunting companion of nearly 15 years a proper send-off.

On Labor Day, Sept. 4, 1937, Key grabbed a shovel and headed out to the woods in Colbert County of northwestern Alabama where the two spent so much time together. He selected a spot in a small grassy meadow in a thick forest near his hunting camp where fellow enthusiasts gathered for years to exchange yarns and enjoy each other’s companionship.

“Key used to hunt this area,” recalls Virgil Miles, who hunted raccoons with Underwood for years. “I started hunting with Key in about 1955. He hunted up until the 1970s. He had some good redbone dogs. We had a lot of good hunts together. Key was a gentleman and a good Christian. I never heard him say a bad word.”

Atop a hill overlooking Sugar Creek, Key dug a hole. He wrapped his friend in a cotton sack and buried him. After putting his friend in his resting place, Underwood rolled a stone he pulled from a chimney marking the ruins of an old log house dating back to the 1800s and rolled it over the spot where his faithful companion would remain in eternal honored repose. With a hammer and a screwdriver, the grieving hunter carved a simple inscription: “Troop 4-1-22 9-4-37.”

Troop, a mixed redbone, became well known at the time as one of the best coon dogs in the region. Soon, other hunters laid their coon dogs to rest near Troop, consecrating the ground to honor the furry companions who followed their masters many a night in hot and humid or freezing wet weather through the wilds of northern Alabama. Thus, Underwood unintentionally began the only hollowed memorial sanctuary set aside specifically to pay tribute to dearly departed coon dogs like Troop.

“When Key buried Troop here, others also wanted to bury their dogs in the same area,” explains Miles, who put two of his own dogs to rest in the cemetery. “Coon hunting is an old tradition in this area. The cemetery became well known all over the area. People took a lot of pride in trying to raise a good coon dog. The guys I hunted with were true sportsmen. They always honored their dogs.”

Years later, Underwood remarked, “When I buried Troop, I had no intention of establishing a coon dog cemetery. I merely wanted to do something special for a special coon dog.”

Today, the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard, more commonly known as the coon dog cemetery, honors more than 300 such faithful companions like Troop from all across the nation. Open and free to the public, the only coon dog cemetery in the world sits at the end of a country road on the 31,734-acre Freedom Hills Wildlife Management Area near Cherokee where Troop and Underwood chased those rascally ringtails for 15 years. A granite obelisk near the cemetery entrance depicts a treed coon and two dogs jumping up a tree trunk to honor all the animals who rest here and the tradition they embodied.

Virgil Miles and Susann Hamlin, Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau director, visit the grave of Boone, a coon dog Virgil once owned.
Virgil Miles and Susann Hamlin, Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau director, visit the grave of Boone, a coon dog Virgil once owned.

“Coon hunting has been a sport in Alabama for more than a century,” says Susann Hamlin, the Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau director. “People hunted raccoons for sport and for meat. They sold the pelts to make a living, particularly during the Great Depression. It wasn’t even Underwood’s property. It belonged to the state, but so many people asked him for permission to bury their dogs that Underwood came up with some rules.”

Not any dog can be so honored in this hallowed ground. Visitors won’t find any poodles, cocker spaniels or even such other hunting breeds as beagles, Labrador retrievers or deerhounds. Nothing against those other breeds, but this sacred parcel of wilderness remains set aside strictly for bona fide coon dogs.

Before anyone can bury a dog in the cemetery, the owner must submit three letters of reference to the tourism bureau. First, the owner must certify that the dog is an authentic coonhound of a recognized breed associated with the sport and prove that the dog treed raccoons. A witness must back up the claim, which is then certified through a local coon hunting association before the dog can be buried in the cemetery.

“Coon dogs are specially bred for coon hunting,” Miles says. “They can be one of four breeds, black and tan, blue tick, redbone or walker. With the breeding comes training. Some dogs are easier to train than others. They inherit the genes from their ancestors. Dogs also learn by hunting. I always liked to hunt with someone who had a better dog than me because a dog can learn from another good dog.”

If approved for burial in the sacred ground, officials mark out a spot for the owner to bury the dog. Owners may erect monuments or not. Many owners order very elaborate professionally carved headstones of granite or natural stone to honor their departed companions. Others create homemade wooden crosses or simply chisel the dog’s name on a rock and place it atop the grave.

“We have dogs from many states, including many champion dogs, buried in the cemetery, but each one is a recognized coon dog,” Hamlin says. “We average about six to seven dogs buried in the cemetery each year. Periodically, we hold a public funeral for a special dog. People have requested to be buried here, but it’s not approved for human interment. Some people have poured cremated human remains out in the cemetery. Some people become more attached to their dogs than to other people.”

Some people leave photographs, dog collars, special toys, leashes, dishes or other personal mementos next to the headstones in remembrance of their pets. Some markers carry personal messages such as “A joy to hunt,” or “He wasn’t the best, but he was the best I ever had.”

“The epitaphs on the headstones all tell personal stories,” Hamlin says. “They are put up by the dog owners. Some are really fancy and some very simple, but they all mean something to the dog owners. People go to the cemetery for various reasons. Dog lovers visit it. Hunters visit it. Some people just like to see unusual places. Some people have flown here just to see the coon dog cemetery. Although people visit the cemetery from all over, it’s not a tourist attraction. It’s a place of reverence – just the way Mr. Underwood wanted it!”

Hamlin and company periodically cut the grass and pull up weeds in the cemetery to keep it looking nice and respectful. Her group also removes old, weather-beaten flowers and redecorates the graves with new flowers about once a year.

For more information and directions to the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard, contact the Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau at 1-800-344-0783 or 256-383-0783, or visit www.colbertcountytourism.org or http://www.coondogcemetery.com.

Gardening: ‘U-pick’ farms

Fall is perfect time to visit ‘U-pick’ farms

By Katie Jackson

Ava Claire Millard, Steve Wilson, Francesca Millard and Andy Millard of Mountain View Orchard in Chilton County.
Ava Claire Millard, Steve Wilson, Francesca Millard and Andy Millard of Mountain View Orchard in Chilton County.

Summer’s over and the days are getting shorter, which means it’s time to put every one of those dwindling daylight hours to good use, whether at work or at play.

On the work front, use some of that daylight to ready the yard and garden for winter. Remove dead plants, fallen fruits or vegetables, limbs and leaves from gardens, orchard floors and the landscape. While you’re at it, trim off weak or dead limbs from trees and large shrubs, especially those located close to a house or other structure where they might fall and cause damage during winter weather events.

Invest some of those precious daytime hours in preparing your plants for winter as well. Repot any plants that have outgrown their containers and bring in any potted plants that can’t tolerate cold weather, but check to make sure you’re not also bringing in lizards, bugs or any other surprises from the great outdoors.

To prepare landscape plants for winter, mulch tender perennials or newly planted shrubs and trees and deeply water landscape plants, especially new plantings, every week or 10 days until the first hard freeze.

Use some of that daylight to plant annuals such as mums, pansies and ornamental kale and cabbage for immediate beauty and color, or plant spring-blooming bulbs, which won’t be pretty until next year but will be well worth the wait.

All work and no play can be, well, dull, so incorporate some fun in your days.  A walk in the fall woods is always worthwhile, but this time of year there are also some great agri-tourism activities to enjoy.

Among these are corn mazes, U-pick pumpkin patches and fruit orchards and fall food and farm festivals, not to mention those U-cut Christmas tree farms that will be opening their gates as the holidays get closer.

Activities such as these not only are fun, they can reap some truly fresh fall produce, they are educational and participating in them helps support local farmers.

According to www.hobbyfarms.com, U-pick operations are one of the fastest growing sectors of small-farm agriculture, in part because they offer a nostalgic experience for customers.

That’s something that Andy Millard, co-owner of Mountain View Orchard in Chilton County, has seen firsthand.

Mountain View Orchards (www.mountainvieworchards.com) offers U-pick peaches, apples and other tree fruit from summer through early fall (they may still have a few apples left this month and they expect to have a longer season in the years to come). Andy and his partner/father-in-law, Steve Wilson, established the orchard a few years ago as a way to involve their entire family in farming. But the orchard has also been great for other families, an experience that Millard finds very rewarding.

“Having the U-pick allows families to bring out the younger generation to the farm so that they can see exactly where food comes from,” he says, noting that a number of their customers bring their children and grandchildren to the farm so to get out of the city and experience the country. But it also offers some of his older customers a way to reminisce and give their grandchildren a glimpse of what life was like for them back when they worked on family farms.

Millard has also noticed that many of his customers are drawn to the porch at Mountain View’s general store.

“I see older couples approach the general store and, when they spot our chairs, they head straight over and sit and sit…,” he says, adding that many people either don’t have front porches or don’t have the time to sit on their own porches where, as Millard says, “they can sit with a breeze.”

Children also truly enjoy the farm, Millard says, recalling a little girl who chose their farm for her fifth birthday party. And it is the children who really feel invested in the experience.

“I’ll see parents start grabbing the baskets to load into the vehicle after picking and the children will make a stand as to which basket they picked.” The parents may believe that the baskets are all the same but “That doesn’t fly with the kids,” says Millard.  After all, those youngsters spent a precious day themselves getting to the farm and sweating to fill their baskets, so those baskets are very personal. “I’ve seen the kids grab their basket and hold it in their lap instead of putting it in the trunk with all of the rest that are going to the same house.”

In this fast-food, tech-driven world, visiting a farm can be a unique and long-lasting experience that, Millard hopes, also helps create the next generation of customers as today’s youngsters grow up and continue to come to the farm to purchase their food.

To find such an experience in your part of the state visit www.pickyourown.org/AL.htm. This page is worth bookmarking, too, because it offers listings of farms that have spring and summer produce as well as fall and winter items. To see a list of Alabama fall food festivals visit the Alabama Tourism Department’s Year of Alabama Food webpage at www.yearofalabamafood.com/events/.

William Cullen Bryant once said of fall: “Autumn…the year’s last, loveliest smile.” Whatever you do with your days this fall, find ways to make you smile.

 

October Gardening Tips

Plant a winter cover crop (ryegrass, etc.) in your garden to protect and enrich soil.

Clean and oil garden tools for winter storage.

Continue mowing lawns until no sign of new growth is evident.

Plant shrubs and trees.

Apply compost to gardens and turn compost piles.

Keep bird feeders and birdbaths filled to attract migrating and local birds.

Test soil and add amendments as needed.

Dry and save seed.

Take cuttings of tender perennials.

Harvest and dry or freeze herbs for winter use.

Clean and store empty pots, garden tools and equipment for the winter.

Plant lettuces, spinach, turnips, radishes and onion sets.

 

Worth the Drive: Mossy Grove School House Restaurant

Learn all about the tasty eats at Mossy Grove School House

By Jennifer Kornegay

Spanish moss drips from the trees at (appropriately named) Mossy Grove School House Restaurant.
Spanish moss drips from the trees at (appropriately named) Mossy Grove School House Restaurant.

School is back in session, and no matter your age or current education level, I’d like to suggest that you get on back to school, too, with a visit to Mossy Grove School House Restaurant in Troy, celebrating its 30th anniversary this December. You won’t need to bring books or pencils with you, just your appetite.

Founded in 1856, Mossy Grove School was the first thing to occupy the original one-room structure that sits beneath two mammoth trees, their branches dripping with silver-gray curls of Spanish moss. The large dining room, now hosting hungry tummies instead of hungry minds, was built onto the side in 1917. Only three years later, in 1920, area schools consolidated and Mossy Grove School closed. Over the next few years, the building was used as a community center for special events like town meetings and church functions. In the ‘30s, the land and building reverted back to the original estate (the family who’d deeded the land over to the school), and a Mr. William Bradley lived in the school house until World War II. For three decades afterwards, it was rented out as a house. In its long lifetime, the space has been a hay barn and a funeral home, too.

For the last 29 years though, it has been a restaurant, welcoming folks from all over the Southeast with the charm of its country-living atmosphere and the deliciousness of its simple, down-home food. Much of the schoolhouse look is still intact, including the stage from which Mossy Grove’s teachers once instructed their students.

Current owner Katie Romero has run Mossy Grove for six years; she bought it from her aunt, who owned it for 15 years, and according to her, most of the regulars at Mossy Grove have been coming in to eat for years.

They come and come back for the fluffy, crispy hushpuppies waiting for them warm on the table. A bowl of white beans to be shared family style is there too, as is a chunky, spicy-sweet pepper relish. The relish’s rich burgundy hue splashed atop a plate of milky pale beans looks as good as it tastes. It tastes so good, in fact, that Romero has started making extra and selling it in pints at the register.

Sweet potato fries and smoked pork chop compliment each other.
Sweet potato fries and smoked pork chop compliment each other.

Mossy Grove is best known for its Southern farm-raised catfish, which you can get fried (whole or in filets) or lemon-broiled. Romero loves the well-seasoned but delicate flavor of the lemon-broiled fish but also favors the charbroiled chicken fingers and the steaks. “We cut the steaks fresh in house every day,” she says. And the accompanying steak sauce is wildly popular. The thin, tangy, black-as-night condiment is homemade from a secret recipe that Romero refused to discuss, even if only to rule out guesses on ingredients. “Worcestershire sauce?” “Balsamic vinegar?” Peppered with these questions, the friendly proprietor’s face goes as blank as a schoolhouse slate.

I went with the smoked pork chop and sweet potato fries. Thick and juicy, the chop boasts deep smoke flavor. A little cup of brown sugar cinnamon butter intended for fry dipping goes equally well with the pork, its sweetness cutting the chop’s saltiness.

The restaurant is also famous for a confectionary creation called Mossy Grove Dessert. It’s a frosty combination of whipped cream, graham cracker crust and either chocolate, caramel or butterscotch (or all three) that I didn’t have the pleasure of tasting, since by 6:30 p.m. (dinner starts at 5), there wasn’t a bite left on the premises. Romero said that’s not unusual; on the days they make it, it always sells out early, and some people are so disappointed, they can’t even enjoy their dinner. “I have had people come in to eat and ask if we have any Mossy Grove Dessert left,” Romero says. “If I say ‘no,’ they leave!”

One obvious reason Mossy Grove has repeat business is the food, but another draw may be Sylvia Hughes, a waitress at Mossy Grove who’s been there since the beginning. With a quick smile and quicker moves dashing around delivering dishes to waiting customers, she’s obviously a favorite fixture at the establishment, swapping jokes with diners and even quieting fussy babies. “She’s not a waitress,” Romero says. “She’s the waitress.” And “the waitress” could certainly teach some of the staff in other Alabama restaurants the true definition of service.

If you’re not above learning new lessons either, grab a seat by the big blackboard at Mossy Grove, and let them teach you a thing or two about an enjoyable evening eating out.

 

(INFO BOX)

Get Schooled

Mossy Grove School House Restaurant

1841 Elba Highway, Troy

334-566-4921

Open Tuesday – Saturday, 5 p.m. – 9 p.m.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Legend of Talladega: A sleeping giant roars to life on race days

By Marilyn Jones

More than 100,000 spectators enjoy the excitement of race day.
More than 100,000 spectators enjoy the excitement of race day. Photo courtesy Talladega Superspeedway

The giant sleeps.

The stands are empty, pit area silent; the 220-acre infield is deserted. The only vehicle on the 2.66-mile track is a minibus filled with tourists wanting to get a closer look at the world of speed, danger and racing legends.

But Talladega Superspeedway will come roaring to life when, for five race days a year, it becomes a force to be reckoned with.

The legend of Talladega includes the men and women who dare face its wide tri-oval track and its 33-degree banking curves. Buddy Baker was the first driver to test at a speed more than 200 mph, with a 200.447 mph lap on March 24, 1970. The late Benny Parsons was the first driver to qualify at more than 200 mph in 1982 with a speed of 200.176 mph.

The superspeedway holds the record for the fastest recorded time by a NASCAR stock car in a closed oval course — 212.809 mph — held by Bill Elliott set in 1987. Rusty Wallace recorded a speed of 216.309 mph, but doesn’t replace the record because it was a radio test and not a NASCAR-sanctioned event.

At these speeds, the giant had become too powerful. In 1987, Bobby Allison’s car went airborne while going through the tri-oval portion of the track. Because of the fear of more cars going airborne, NASCAR imposed a 1988 rule requiring cars running here and at Daytona International Speedway to use carbonator restrictor plates. The plates limit the amount of air and fuel entering the intake manifolds of the engine, greatly reducing the power of the cars and their speed. This change led to a very competitive style of racing at Talladega and Daytona.

Pit crews work to get cars back in the race.
Pit crews work to get cars back in the race. Photo courtesy Talladega Superspeedway

Standing at the very top of the grandstands which seats 100,000 race fans, International Motorsports Hall of Fame Operations Manager Bruce Ramey talks about the sheer size of Talladega. “This is a 3,000-acre property,” he says gesturing toward the horizon. “And, the world’s largest campground. We can accommodate 50,000 campers in six campgrounds plus the infield. On race days the energy is unbelievable.”

It was during the 1960s that Bill France decided to build a track that was faster and longer than Daytona. The track, first named Alabama International Motor Speedway, was built on an old airfield and opened September 13, 1969 at a cost of $4 million.

Although drivers were leery of the track, after Richard Brickhouse won the exciting first race, Talladega would go on to host five races a year — three in May, two in October.

“For some people, coming to the races is their annual vacation,” says Ramey. “They camp here; trams transport them from the campgrounds to the track. It’s a family event.”

The tour bus is tiny from this vantage point; like a toy on a child’s racetrack. It slows at a patch of black and white squares; the winner’s circle, Ramey says. And then it starts a lap around the race course. “Of course it can’t get up on those high banks,” he says. “But we can. Want to take a drive?”

“Yes,” I say. The giant may be sleeping, but it is still a thrilling prospect to be able to take a lap or two before the giant wakes again.

Races for October are:

  • Oct. 19: Fred’s 250 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race
  • Oct. 20: Camping World RV Sales 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race

Races in May 2014 for the Aaron’s Dream Weekend are:

  • ARCA International Motorsports Hall of Fame 250 for the ARCA Series
  • Aaron’s 312 NASCAR Nationwide Series race
  • Aaron’s 499 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race

For tickets, call 1-877-Go2-DEGA.

Daily bus tours of Talladega are offered 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day with the exception of race week, the week following race week, New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Tours start from the International Motorsports Hall of Fame adjacent to the superspeedway.

The Talladega complex is located just south of I-20: exit 168 eastbound or exit 173 westbound; follow the signs.

For more information visit www.talladegasuperspeedway.com.

 

Motorsports Hall of Fame houses racing vehicles, memorabilia

Race cars from all eras are on display at IMHOF. Photo by Marilyn Jones
Race cars from all eras are on display at IMHOF. Photo by Marilyn Jones

Located next to the Talladega Superspeedway is a racing fan’s paradise, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.

Earlier this year, four men were inducted into the 2013 Class of the Hall of Fame:

  • Dale Inman, best known as Richard Petty’s crew chief for three decades;
  • Rusty Wallace, one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers with 55 career wins;
  • Rick Hendrick, the current owner of the NASCAR team Hendrick Motorsports;
  • Don Schumacher, winner of 11 NHRA drag racing championships and 196 event-winning titles.

Since 1990, when 20 of the greatest legends in the world of motorsports were enshrined into the IMHOF, dozens more have been honored by being asked to join this elite group. To visit the Hall of Fame is to honor the men and women who are racers, innovators, financers, designers, engineers and builders; each shaping the world of motorsports on land, water and in the air.

Today, the brick and mortar Hall of Fame is also a motorsport museum spanning three buildings and an enclosed courtyard. The collection of racing vehicles and memorabilia spans from 1902 to the present and includes race cars, a boat, plane and motorcycles. As motorsports history continues to grow, so will the facility.

“Some people take a couple hours to visit the museum,” says IMHOF Operations Manager Bruce Ramey. “And there are diehard fans that spend an entire week here, coming back every day to continue their tour. There is a lot to see.”

In addition to the history-making vehicles, there are display cases with personal effects of motorsports’ greatest achievers; everything from helmets and coveralls to trophies, photographs and news clippings.

For more information call (256) 362-5002 or visit motorsportshalloffame.com.

 

Is Sloss Furnaces haunted? You be the judge

Story and photos by Marilyn Jones

Sloss Furnaces, a labyrinth of industry, turns into “Fright Furnace” every October.
Sloss Furnaces, a labyrinth of industry, turns into
“Fright Furnace” every October.

Sloss Furnaces, Birmingham pig iron-producing blast furnaces from 1882 to 1971, is a designated National Historic Landmark. It also has a reputation as being one of the most haunted locations in Alabama and is listed as one of the top 100 places in the world for paranormal activity.

As I waited for the museum to open on a recent Sunday, I met a couple from Ohio. The husband said he enjoyed learning about industry and how different factories worked. Nearby several young adults congregated along with a man and two young boys.

At noon, Shirley Bevels opened the gate and we all filed in. There is no admission for self-guided tours, so everyone picked up a map and started to explore.

I had watched “Ghost Hunters” and “Ghost Adventures” as they investigated the furnaces from the comfort of my living room, and listened to the electronic voice phenomena (EVP) they collected and watched video evidence of spirits lingering among the metal and abandoned buildings, but this was broad daylight and there were others touring the site along with me. What was there to be afraid of?

 

Sloss Furnace and its role in Birmingham history

Sloss Furnaces, a National Historic Landmark, has the reputation for being one of the most haunted places in Alabama.
Sloss Furnaces, a National
Historic Landmark, has
the reputation for being
one of the most haunted places in Alabama.

Birmingham was born following the Civil War when men of industry decided to take advantage of the area’s rich mineral resources — iron ore, coal, limestone — all the ingredients needed to make iron.

A reported 19 furnaces were built, including two by Col. James Withers Sloss, a north Alabama merchant and railroad man. After its first year of operations, his furnace had sold 24,000 tons of iron. At the 1883 Louisville Exposition, the company won a bronze medal for “best pig iron.”

Before starting out, I read on the map the process of making iron so that I could understand what I was looking at while, ahem, looking for previous employees.

“The heart of Sloss operation was a pair of large blast furnaces,” the guide read. “A blast furnace is a cylindrical steel vessel, lined with heat-resistant brick. Iron ore, limestone and coke (which is made from coal) are charged into the top of the furnace, while super-hot air is blasted upward from the bottom of the furnace.

“The blast of air burns the coke, releasing gases that react with the iron ore. The limestone acts as a…cleaning agent, removing impurities from the ore. Free of impurities, the molten iron collects in the bottom of the furnace, where it can be drawn off…

“In addition to the furnaces [there were] blowers to pump the blast of air; stoves to heat the air; boilers to produce steam to drive equipment; and a network of pipes that carried steam, water and gas,” it concluded.

Over the course of its history, thousands of workers lost their lives here due to accidents. I could understand why there might be spirits still lingering in this maze of metal.

The tour

The first stop is the Spray Pond. Sloss continuously used five million gallons of water to cool each furnace, every day, to create steam, power machinery and cool molten iron and slag (impurities removed from iron ore). Here the water was cooled before going through the plant again.

As I turned around, the facility lay out before me. Following the map, I walked between buildings and down into the stock tunnel where raw materials were weighed, transferred by rail to skip buckets that took it to the top of the furnace by steam- powered pulleys. As for ghost hunting … well, I could certainly imagine a presence lurking here, even though there were several visitors touring the tunnel along with me.

Back up the stairway, I followed the map past the boilers and around the end of the complex. All at once it was quiet. I found this odd, given the number of men, women, children and ghost hunters I had encountered moments before, but I was selfishly grateful.

The only sounds were my footfalls on crushed gravel pathways that wove their ways around this labyrinth of brick buildings, massive pipes and valves, stack pipes and stairways — an unusual maze of red and orange painted metal, trimmed in rust and bits of plant life taking a foothold.

Past the blower building and hot blast stoves I found myself at No. 1 furnace and cast shed. There are two furnaces at Sloss, but No. 2 is home to the Sloss Metal Arts Program and not part of the tour.

The cast shed is where the liquid iron came out and flowed into floor castings with a long trench called the sow and smaller trenches off the sow called piglets, which is where the term pig iron originated.

With the exception of taking a few more photos, this was the end of my tour. And no, I didn’t encounter any spirits and I haven’t found any lurking in my photographs. What I found instead was a new appreciation for the men who worked in this grueling industry; maybe that’s the true spirit of Sloss.

 

If you go:

Sloss Furnace turns into Fright Furnace every October. For more information, check the website at frightfurnace.com.

To view television shows and other videos featuring Sloss Furnace, go to frightfurnace.com/hauntings.

Sloss Furnace is located at 20 32nd Street North in Birmingham. For more information about touring Sloss Furnace or special events, call 205-324-1911 or check the website at slossfurnaces.com.

For more information about visiting Birmingham, call 800-458-8085 or visit birminghamal.org.

 

Cheaha State Park: ‘The closest thing to heaven in the state of Alabama’

Dating to the 1930s, Cheaha State Park is Alabama’s oldest continuing operating park and home to the state’s highest point

By John N. Felsher

Cheaha State Park sits in the middle of the 392,567-acre Talladega National Forest and overlooks a beautiful valley. Visitors can hike through many mountain trails throughout the park. Much of it looks like it did centuries ago.
Cheaha State Park sits in the middle of the 392,567-acre Talladega National Forest and overlooks a beautiful valley. Visitors can hike through many mountain trails throughout the park. Much of it looks like it did centuries ago.

In the valley below, lush green vegetation indicates a land still wrapped in summer splendor, but foliage thins as the elevation increases. At mid-level, leaves begin to change, but at the crests, foliage glows with a rainbow of fall colors. When heading up something like Mount Cheaha in the foothills of the Appalachians, visitors can go through multiple seasons after travelling just a few miles.

In the forest

The 392,567-acre national forest at the southern edge of the Appalachian Mountains preserves a wilderness that looks very similar to when Native Americans hunted these hills 200 years ago. Now, only names on maps, undiscovered relics in the ground and items in the Indian Relic Museum recall these once thriving native cultures. Some map designations, like Shinbone Valley and Chinnabee Trail, recall great chiefs of the Creek Nation. Even the word “cheaha” comes from the Creek word “chaha,” meaning “highest point.” The name fits; Cheaha Mountain rises 2,407 feet above sea level and marks the highest point in Alabama.

“Long before Europeans settled here, Creek Indians lived here,” says Tammy Power, the Cheaha State Park lodge manager who grew up in the area and traces her lineage to Chief Shinbone. “The Creeks called the mountain ‘the sleeping giant.’ It’s as close to Heaven as anyone can get in Alabama.”

 

To the mountaintop

On the Cheaha Mountain summit, Cheaha State Park covers 2,799 acres in Clay and Cleburne counties near Delta, Ala. The oldest continuously operating park in the state dates to the 1930s. With the country gripped by the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps and chartered it to build parks and other public facilities throughout the nation. The state acquired the property in 1933 and the CCC established a quasi-military camp atop Cheaha Mountain to build roads, structures and trails. The completed park officially opened in 1939, but the state added the 30-room hotel, adjacent restaurant and five chalets in 1973.

“These young men in the CCC, most in their late teens or early 20s, left home to come here and work,” Power says. “Many were supporting their families during the Great Depression. They learned trades and a way of life. They made Alabama a better state. These are also the same young men who won World War II.”

The CCC teams used rocks they found in the area to build 16 stone cabins, the Bald Rock Lodge, the Bunker Observation Tower and many other structures. Most of these structures still exist today, albeit upgraded with modern facilities. Guests may pick from four cabin types including some that face into the setting sun and overlook a thousand-foot drop to the valley below.

 

Pets welcome

Cabins offer views of the valley below.
Cabins offer views of the valley below.

Guests selecting Cabin 16, one of the oldest stone cottages in the park, can take a step back in time. Dubbed “the museum cabin,” it offers rustic comfort reminiscent of the 1930s. People can bring their pets into Cabin 16.

Most cabins can accommodate two people. Chalets can sleep four or more people in two bedrooms, each with a queen-sized bed. Chalets feature everything cabins offer. Some allow pets.

Visitors may also camp in the park. The park offers recreational vehicle spaces with water, electric and sewer hook-ups, plus semi-primitive and primitive campsites. The primitive campground sits on the original CCC encampment.

 

The highest point

Built of available local stone like most other park buildings, the Bunker Tower opened in 1934 and originally housed the park gift shop. It also provided lodging to people watching for forest fires. Atop the tower, the old Forest Service observation deck provides a spectacular 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside.

The CCC also built the original Bald Rock Group Lodge from stone found on the mountain. No longer used as the main hotel, the lodge can accommodate wedding parties, business conferences, family reunions, scouting events, church groups and others who want to remain close to each other, but somewhat separate from other park guests. The lodge offers 12 modernized rooms that can accommodate up to 32 people.

The Bald Rock Group Lodge no longer operates a restaurant, but guests can use the full-service kitchen to prepare their own meals. Large groups can also arrange for the park restaurant to cater events at the lodge or elsewhere in the park.

 

Saying ‘I do’

Many wedding parties book the Bald Rock for lodging, the ceremony or reception. Wedding parties can also hold ceremonies in the Wedding Chapel or hold the reception on the restaurant deck overlooking the valley. The chapel can accommodate up to 75 guests and offers pew seating, a dressing or storage room, a piano, an organ and a fireplace.

“Many people come here to get married, hold family reunions or to enjoy the hiking and biking trails,” Powers says. “Many weddings take place on the restaurant deck because it overlooks the Talladega National Forest. The restaurant deck can accommodate up to 200 people and is the number one requested wedding spot in the park because it offers such a breathtaking view.”

Besides catering, the Cheaha Mountain Restaurant staff prepares three meals per day for park guests and day visitors. Many bikers ride up the mountain just to eat in the restaurant and enjoy the panoramic view. The restaurant serves outstanding steaks, desserts, sandwiches and other country cuisine. Don’t forget to sample the fried green tomatoes!

 

Take a hike

Behind the Bald Rock Group Lodge, the ADA Bald Rock Boardwalk Trail runs less than half a mile. Accessible to people in wheelchairs or with difficulty walking, the elevated trail terminates at one of the most scenic overlooks in Alabama. Along the way, hikers can stop to read signs describing the area flora and fauna.

Several other trails wander through the park, offering various degrees of difficulty. The most difficult trail in the park, the Lake Trail eventually leads to Cheaha Lake after making a thousand-foot descent off the mountain. People wishing to make a longer hike may explore the Pinhoti Trail, which connects to the Appalachian Trail.

“We are the southern connection to the Appalachian Trail,” Power says. “From here, people can hike all the way to Maine. The total length is approximately 2,200 miles. We get people come through here who have been on the trail for months. They just want a room, a bath, a nice meal and to talk to someone.”

 

Fishing anyone?

The CCC dug the six-acre Cheaha Lake by hand using shovels in the 1930s. Anglers can rent johnboats or paddleboats to fish the lake. In the forest a few miles from the park, anglers may fish in the 17-acre Lake Chinnabee. The park does not allow hunting, but many sportsmen camp in the park or rent a cabin to hunt the adjacent national forest.

“Many local people drive up for the day and spend time swimming, fishing or picnicking at the lake,” Power says. “In the fall, many people come up just to see the leaves. During race season at Talladega Superspeedway, about 25 miles from the park, we’re wrapped up with people. Many race fans stay here because they like the quiet and serenity of the park after the hubbub at the track. Some people pass their tickets and annual reservations here to their children in their wills.”

 

On the road

Within a short drive of the park, area visitors may also wish to tour the White Oak Vineyards where the park restaurant buys many wines. The Anniston Museum of Natural History displays prehistoric artifacts including dinosaur bones and Egyptian mummies. The Berman Museum exhibits various artifacts from World War II and earlier times.

“I grew up in this area,” Power says. “It gets in your blood. My first memory of this park was coming here on a field trip to hike Bald Rock Trail. We sat out on Bald Rock and looked at the view. It made an impact. Now, I’ve worked in the park 31 years.”

For more information on Cheaha State Park, call 256-488-5115 or 800-846-2654. Online, visit www.alapark.com/CheahaResort.

Outdoors: Running with the hounds

Running with the hounds in a sport dating back centuries

By John N. Felsher

Like the sportsmen who love them, hunting runs strong in the blood and genes of coon dogs. Good dogs inherently track raccoons because of their breeding.
Like the sportsmen who love them, hunting
runs strong in the blood and genes of
coon dogs. Good dogs inherently track raccoons because of their breeding.

Nearly a mile deep into the woods, dogs started barking excitedly.

“He’s got one treed! Let’s go,” says Sam Hatton, one of the dog owners.

With help from GPS systems on the dog collars telling us their exact location, we rushed off into the night as heavy fog dripping with humidity seemingly oozed up from any watery patch punctuating this wilderness south of Tuscumbia, Ala. Armed only with headlights, my son Daniel and I joined Sam, his brother Franky, and Wesley Coan to seek raccoons lurking in the darkness. As we crashed through thickets to reach the frenzied dogs, Sam and Wesley argued over whose dog first sounded the alert in a friendly, yet spirited competition between longtime friends who would do anything for the other – except let him get to a raccoon first!

“Coon hunting is all about the dogs and who has the best dog,” Franky says. “Owners know the sound of their dogs and can tell what the dog is doing by how it sounds. To me, listening to dogs is no different than talking to someone on the phone. If someone I know calls me, I hear the voice and know immediately who it is. Each dog also has its own voice.”

As we approached the fray, the barking and howling grew much more intense – and not just from Sam and Wesley! At the base of a tall oak tree, the leaping dogs bayed with agitated cadence to tell us that a raccoon hid somewhere in the spreading canopy and gnarled branches pockmarked with holes. We each shined our lights up the tree to spot the masked bandits.

“It’s hard to see a smart old coon in a tree like this,” Sam says. “He can be anywhere looking down at us in all those leaves and branches. The dogs know he’s here somewhere. He might have slipped into one of those holes. Sometimes, coons close their eyes when the light hits them so we can’t see their eyes shining.”

After scrutinizing the tree for a while, Sam and Wesley recalled their dogs to put them back on the trail of other raccoons. During the next few hours, we slogged through the swamps and forests following the dogs as they treed several other cleaver ring-tailed raiders.

“We seldom kill coons,” Franky says. “It’s about the chase and training the hounds. Hides used to bring $30 to $40 apiece, but hides don’t bring nearly as much money any more. Raccoons can live anywhere. There are more coons today than ever. More people kill coons now to get rid of them than by actually going coon hunting. Many deer hunters kill coons that get into their food plots.”

The Hatton Brothers, Wesley and others who so passionately follow this sport maintain traditions dating back centuries. Most raccoon hunters started because their fathers, grandfathers and many other generations ran with the hounds.

“To coon hunt, someone must have a love for the sport and love for the dogs,” Franky says. “That’s just how I was raised. It gets in the blood. I started coon hunting with my father when I was four years old. His father taught him. My son now hunts with me. He’ll pass this tradition down to the next generation.”

Like the sportsmen who love them, hunting runs strong in the blood and genes of coon dogs. Good dogs inherently track raccoons because of their breeding. A great dog with superior bloodlines could cost more than most cars. Dog trainers need only hone those natural instincts, instill discipline and break dogs from chasing deer, rabbits or other game.

“These dogs are bred for this,” says David Crosby, a raccoon hunter from Sulligent. “All coon hunters have their own preference for dogs. Every dog is a little different. I love listening to the dogs running the coons and watching the dogs work. Coon hunting is about being with others hunters and seeing whose dog can strike the coon first and tree it.”

Most hunters train their own dogs. Some hunters pay more than $20,000 for others to train their dogs. Dogs can also learn from other dogs. Coon hunters often pair young dogs with experienced hounds.

“I always liked to hunt with someone who had a better dog than me because my dog would learn from another good dog,” says Virgil Miles, an 82-year-old hunter from Lauderdale County. “On a typical hunt, we’d have two or three dogs and three or four people. We’d put all the dogs out at once and listen. We’d hunt all night. Sometimes, we’d shoot squirrels in the morning and cook them for breakfast. It’s a great sport hunting with a good coon dog. I wish a lot more young people would get out into nature more.”

On private land, Alabama sportsmen can chase raccoons all year long without killing them. Sportsmen can kill raccoons from early September through the end of February each year on private lands, but seasons may vary on public properties.

This yellow dot can save your life

By Ben Norman

Luverne Police Chief Paul Allen retrieves a Yellow Dot information folder from a glove compartment.
Luverne Police Chief Paul Allen retrieves a Yellow Dot information folder from a glove compartment.

A small yellow dot on your rear vehicle window provides lifesaving information to emergency first responders.

As the ambulance topped the hill, the first thing the EMT saw was a car beside the road with an elderly, unconscious man lying on the ground by the driver’s door. The second thing he saw was a bright yellow dot on the vehicle’s left rear window.

The EMT immediately began administering first aid to the victim and instructed the ambulance driver to get the yellow folder from the glove compartment that would give him lifesaving information about the unconscious man.  The information in the folder told the EMT the victim had a diabetic condition.

After a quick radio call to the emergency room physician, the victim was given an insulin shot and recovered. The Alabama Yellow dot program had just helped save another life.

The lifesaving Yellow Dot Program consists of placing a yellow dot decal in the lower left rear window of a vehicle, completing the information sheet and inserting it and a photo in the yellow folder provided, and placing the yellow folder in the glove compartment.  First responders will know to immediately look in the glove compartment when they see the yellow dot on the rear window.  Information contained in the personal and medical history section of the form will enable medical personnel to get a “jump start” on diagnosing a victim’s problem.  The form also lists phone numbers of who should be contacted if there is a medical emergency.

Alabama’s Yellow Dot program is modeled after the one that was initiated in Shelton, CT., in 2002.  Lora Weaver, who heads up the program for the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADEC) Highway Safety Office, heard about the Yellow Dot program and helped secure a small grant to get it started.  Other agencies including sheriff’s departments, police departments, Alabama Emergency Management Agency, rescue squads, fire departments and others became interested and an initiative began to go statewide.

Dr. Pat Walker holds the Yellow Dot decal and packet that contains vital patient information.
Dr. Pat Walker holds the Yellow Dot decal and packet that contains vital patient information.

Jennifer Knighten administers the Yellow Dot program in Crenshaw County under the supervision of Sheriff Charles West.  “We have had the Yellow Dot program for about two years and are well pleased with the results. We have had several cases where the Yellow Dot Program expedited emergency treatment,” says Knighten.

Sheriff West agrees. “This program is a godsend to first responders.  It is not just for the elderly, as any age can become involved in an accident or have a debilitating illness. I encourage anyone to sign up for the Yellow Dot Program.”

Emergency room physicians also strongly support the Yellow Dot Program.  Dr. Pat Walker is a specialist in internal medicine and a well-respected emergency room physician at Crenshaw County Hospital in Luverne. He has also been the medical director for ambulance services in the county for 37 years.

Dr. Walker knows firsthand how valuable it is for first responders and emergency room personnel to obtain a patient’s medical history immediately.  “The Yellow Dot program will be helpful in any emergency, but especially in cases such as a diabetic with low blood sugar, stroke victims can be administered the “clot buster” shot, and any heart related problems where it may be necessary to give an aspirin or nitroglycerin which can be life saving on the spot. I highly recommend the Yellow Dot Program in conjunction with a medical alert bracelet,” said Dr. Walker.

To find out where to sign up for the Yellow Dot Program in your area, ask your local law enforcement officer, EMA office, or rescue squad or go on line at www.adeca.alabama.gov/yellowdot. A listing by Alabama electric cooperative area is also available here.You may also contact Lora Weaver at (256) 549-8142 for sign-up locations.

 

Ben Norman is a writer from Highland Home, Ala.