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OWA is open for business

The Twister, one of 21 park rides

OWA entertainment complex offers another option for Baldwin County visitors

OWA, the 520-acre entertainment complex in Foley, minutes from Gulf Shores, is appropriately named. Pronounced “oh-wah,” the word inspired from the Muscogee Creek language means “big water.” But OWA could also also mean oh-wow, as today’s visitors are about to find out.

It is a late summer’s day in the 14-acre amusement ride midway, known as The Park of OWA. Giddy thrill seekers scurry for seating in a roller coaster with more twists and turns than a water moccasin on a pancake griddle. Riders are about to discover the winding-weaving tracks of what OWA employees call “The Big One.” Like the park, Rollin’ Thunder is also well named.

Alabama’s newest tourist mecca is coming in phases. Phase 1 premiered with much fanfare and a packed park on July 21. Early features include the amusement park, 150-room Marriott TownePlace Suites, a 14-acre man-made lake complete with a 1.5-acre man-made island, and a 44,000-square-foot shopping district set to start a few weeks later.

Nine months earlier, OWA was little more than a good idea on paper.

But the park’s history dates back many years before a spade of dirt was turned and ice cream scooped. Originally, OWA was “Oh No.”

The 10113 Foley Beach Express address was to have been the Blue Collar Country Entertainment Complex, which never took off.  After numerous setbacks – including the pullout of investor Jeff Foxworthy – Blue Collar met Blue Monday.

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians acquired total control of the property in April 2015. OWA’s construction began in November 2016, at the speed of Rollin’ Thunder.

“It was something to see,” says Kristin Hellmich, OWA’s director of marketing and public relations, describing the early days. During the fast-track construction, up to 1,000 workers were on site, daily, almost around the clock. And Baldwin EMC, the electrical utility serving the site, started its planning as well (see related story on Page 14).

Six contractors and dozens of subcontractors turned fields into a tourist attraction, building everything from the ground up. The Foley site received 21 amusement park rides – some assembly required.

“Prior to purchasing decisions, we got to try the rides out in different parks across the U.S.,” Hellmich says, acknowledging just how cool product research can be. “Specialists and designers built the rides onsite.”

Larsen Lien knows the midway’s features well. “I’ve ridden every one of them,” OWA’s digital marketing specialist says while giving an impromptu tour. “I think it is cool how we can stand under Rollin’ Thunder as it zips over us,” she says, pointing at the roller coaster racing through gravity defying loops. It sounds like rolling thunder, hence the name.

Larsen critiques other attractions: “My favorite – and I love them all – is the Wave Runner,” the ocean-like ride simulating wave motion. “It is so dynamic, personal. There is nothing like it.”

Park rides are not just for thrill seekers. Family-friendly features abound. Employees say a favorite for youngsters is the Southern Express, a roller coaster but smaller, for little people. It’s also a saving grace for fraidy-cat parents, who may be too chicken to ride Rollin’ Thunder.

Other adventures include the Flying Carousel, like a typical carousel, except not necessarily confined to earth. There is AeroZoom, a simulated hang gliding experience; Rockin’ Raft, a whitewater gauntlet without getting wet; and Sky Balloons, adrift over the park for a pelican’s-eye view.

‘Think of OWA as many parks’

OWA on opening day.

More rides await and more are planned. By design, the amusement park is surrounded by additional land for expansion. It has space to double in size. OWA is already researching new ride possibilities.

“Think of OWA as many parks,” Hellmich says. “It has components, the park has rides from kiddie to thriller. But in addition, there are the Downtown and Warehouse Districts, with shopping, restaurants and other venues.” At press time, most Downtown District restaurants and shops were set to open in late September. Additional phases will follow, in a 5-year plan budgeted at $500 million.

Future phases call for a luxury RV resort, four hotels, a resort level condominium and outdoor waterpark. OWA is in active negotiations for leasing agreements and estimates 50 businesses will populate the Downtown and Warehouse Districts of the complex. About 60 percent will be restaurants.

Announced tenants include Wahlburgers (a restaurant featuring customized crafted hamburgers), Sunglass World, Fairhope Soap Company, Hershey’s Ice Cream Shop, and the Groovy Goat, a sports bar with 80 TV monitors set to open Sept. 30. Eatery cuisine will range from fine dining to “did I hear that right?” There are rumors of fried chicken donuts.

“We strive to appeal to all ages and interests,” Hellmich says. Older guests may not want to ride a white-knuckle thriller with their children or grandchildren. But they can opt for a good meal and time with family and friends in the Downtown District.

Only the amusement park ride section requires an admission fee. You can shop till you drop in Downtown OWA or eat in its restaurant row with no ticket required. The amusement park has same day re-entry too. Go and come back as you please. And parking is free for everything. Try that at Disney World.

OWA works in conjunction with the City of Foley’s $45 million Sports Tourism Complex, which offers 16 state-of-the-art sports fields and an indoor event center. “We coordinate to extend hospitality here at OWA,” Hellmich says. “We want Foley – OWA to be a complete destination experience. Visiting sports teams can conduct their games, stay in our hotel, and play in OWA in the evenings and nights.”

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians has holdings across the U.S., including hotels, gaming, and entertainment venues. OWA does not have gambling or gaming facilities. Park officials say they have no plans for gaming at OWA.

‘No destination like it in the U.S.’

OWA entrance.

The Baldwin County entertainment complex is one of the latest of the Poarch Creek tribal holdings. “There is no destination quite like it in the U.S.,” Hellmich says. “We have all of the amenities in one property – sports fields, hotels, shopping, dining, and amusement park, all in one place.” And OWA just won a big accolade – it was named the Alabama Attraction of the Year at the Alabama Governor’s Conference on Tourism in August.

As of press time, ticket prices are $34.99 for adults and $27.99 for juniors (under 42 inches tall), seniors over age 60, and military members. Children under age of 3 are free. An annual pass may be purchased for $89.99. The park also works with groups for special packages and group discounts.

OWA is open year-round but hours may vary. Check its website, http://visitowa.com/, for current information.

Before OWA, visiting Gulf Shores meant driving to the beach, driving for something to eat, driving to shopping, and driving back to the hotel. Not now.

Though OWA doesn’t have Gulf beaches, it is 30 minutes away. A saltwater plunge is within a half-hour. Then use your re-entry pass for that OWA ride you missed. Rollin’ Thunder is waiting.


Baldwin EMC added a new substation to meet OWA’s power needs.

Meeting OWA’s power needs started early for co-op

Although the OWA amusement park officially opened to the public in July 2017, planning for the attraction’s electricity needs began as far back as 2013.

Four years ago, Baldwin EMC knew an entertainment venue of some type was possibly coming to Foley, Ala., and it would likely be larger than any other attraction the cooperative had ever served.

In order to meet the needs of the up-and-coming site, which covers 500 acres on the Foley Beach Express, Baldwin EMC began evaluating the existing demand for electricity in the south Foley area and how it might increase with the new development.

After an initial analysis, Baldwin EMC determined that adding a new substation to the area was the best plan. The co-op developed a presentation for PowerSouth Energy Cooperative, Baldwin EMC’s power supplier, explaining the need.

“Our justification for the new substation was based on reliability in south Foley along with the needs of the potential amusement park and any other future developments in the area,” says Brian Seals, Baldwin EMC’s manager of engineering.

PowerSouth’s board of trustees approved the new substation in the fall of 2014. As PowerSouth finished its construction toward the end of 2016, Baldwin EMC began the process of raising poles and running lines to tie the new substation into the co-op’s existing infrastructure.

In the meantime, the city of Foley and the state of Alabama began a project that would improve County Road 20, now called Pride Drive, in order to accommodate traffic flow to the new attraction site. “That project affected our system as well,” says Seals. “We worked with the city of Foley to enhance the area by shifting our power lines to accommodate the widening of the road.”

In February 2016, Baldwin EMC’s engineering department had its first meeting with project managers for OWA. “As they gave us the layouts of their roads, buildings and amusement park rides, we started putting together a design for an electrical infrastructure that would best serve their needs,” Seals says.

Baldwin EMC’s crews worked simultaneously with OWA’s construction crews, installing lines and electrical equipment as the site’s development moved forward.

OWA officially opened its doors on July 21, 2017. However, additions to the attraction are still in progress, and meeting their electricity needs is an ongoing process for Baldwin EMC.

“It’s a new type of load for us,” Seals says. “We’ve never served an amusement park of this size. So as OWA was testing rides, we put equipment in place to monitor the electrical load and we changed out equipment when necessary.”

Seals says Baldwin EMC will continue to maintain contact with OWA’s developers and monitor their power use. “We all know the impact of this project on our area and we all want it to be successful.” – Michelle Geans

Keeping the bees

What do Aristotle, Sylvia Plath, Jon Bon Jovi, Morgan Freeman, “Sherlock Holmes” and Thomas Jefferson have in common with one another?

They are just a few of the many people (and a few fictional characters) from across the world and centuries who have nurtured and harnessed the sweet, essential power of one of nature’s busiest and most useful creatures, the honey bee. They are apiculturists — more commonly known as beekeepers.

Humankind has been harvesting honey and other honey bee byproducts, such as royal jelly, beeswax and propolis (bee glue), for possibly tens of thousands of years, first from the wild, then later from bees “kept” in hollowed-out trees, baskets and mud and pottery containers. Through the millennia, humans found better ways to keep bees (the current style of hives used in beekeeping has been around since the mid 1800s) and also discovered that bees offer us much more than the riches of their hives. They are critical to our lives.

Geoff Williams’ research aims to look into the threats to honeybees and to the bee industry in Alabama.
Auburn University photo

That’s because honeybees are members of a vital group of insects (and other animals such as hummingbirds and bats) that pollinate the plants that we and other animal species rely on for survival. Pollinators are the primary reasons that we humans have many fruits and vegetables on our plates, clothing on our backs and clovers and other forages in our pastures and fields. They also ensure that other animals have seeds, berries and other plant-derived sources of food in the wild.

According to 2010 statistics, these diverse pollinators are responsible for the production of $19 billion or more worth of agricultural crops in the United States, or about one-third of our nation’s food supply. Honeybees alone are essential in the production of at least eight commercial crops in the U.S. and they also help boost yields for a variety of other crops.

In Alabama, we rely on honeybees to pollinate melons, cotton and kiwifruit and to contribute to the pollination of many other agronomically important plants. In fact, they are so important to our state’s agricultural well-being that the Alabama Legislature passed a bill in 2015 designating the queen honey bee as Alabama’s official agricultural insect (the Monarch butterfly is the state’s official insect).

Though beekeeping has been around for millennia, it has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years thanks in part to an increased interest among consumers in eating healthy, local foods. Perhaps a growing appreciation for the many flavors that derive from various pollen sources and the opportunity to help protect this vital little pollinator have driven that, too. For whatever reason, more and more part-time “hobbyist” beekeepers, as well as a growing number of commercial beekeepers, are taking up their smokers (those cans that produce bee-calming vapors) and are tending to the bees.

Geoff Williams is working with several beekeeping groups in Alabama to study pollinator issues that are important to Alabama’s bee industry.
Auburn University photo

Help from an expert

It is that trend that helped bring Geoff Williams to Alabama. Williams is an assistant professor in Auburn University’s Department Entomology and Plant Pathology who studies honeybee and pollinator health issues. Though Auburn has had faculty in the past whose work focused part-time on honeybees, Williams is the first-ever faculty member to give honeybees this kind of full-time attention, and he has been as busy as, yes, a bee, since he arrived here in November 2016.

A native of Canada who came to Alabama by way of a position in Switzerland, Williams has been setting up his research and teaching program on the Auburn campus, including a bee yard at his laboratory, with a focus on a variety of pollinator issues important to Alabama, but also to help Alabama’s bees and beekeeping industry.

To accomplish this, Williams is working closely with the Alabama Beekeepers Association and other local beekeeping groups throughout the state, the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Bee and Honey Producers Division, the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industry’s Apiary Health Unit and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

While the number of people interested in beekeeping is large and growing, the number of bees in the state is unknowable — honeybees are not domesticated, so beekeepers don’t directly control them or their populations. Instead, apiculturists try to provide bees with clean, safe artificial shelters where the bees can set up colonies and then go about their business.

Going about their business, however, has become harder for honeybees in the last decade because of a variety of threats, which Williams is addressing through his research.

Eddie Strickland was in high school when he and his father started Eddie BeeS Honey from their farm in south Montgomery County. Alabama Farmers Federation photo

Probably the single greatest threat to honeybees, Williams says, is the Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that feeds off the body fluids of honeybees, weakening them and also transmitting viruses to them. This mite is found virtually worldwide (except in Australia and a few other isolated islands across the globe), and while control measures have been developed to lessen its impact, much work still needs to be done to protect honeybees from the Varroa mite and other possibly emerging pests.

Another significant threat to honeybees (and other pollinators), and an important facet of Williams’ research, is how human activity, including land and chemical use and loss of habitat, affects honey bees and other pollinators. Through his research program, Williams will examine a range of issues while also taking into account the delicate balancing act needed to support both bees and society.

More interest in beekeeping

Though human activity contributes to honey bee threats, it is also a source of exceptional support for honeybees, something Williams is seeing over and over again as he gets to know Alabama’s beekeeping community.

There are currently more than 600 registered beekeepers and an estimated 7,000 honey-producing colonies in Alabama, a number that has increased in the last ten years and is expected to continue to grow as more and more people become interested in beekeeping and in consuming honey and other bee products.

Research associates collect data from a hive in Auburn University’s new bee yard. The results will help Alabama’s beekeepers and other agriculturalists in the state who rely on honeybees and other pollinators to produce their crops. The bees may also soon be the source of some Auburn-branded honey. Photo by Katie Jackson

“There is a huge interest in bees here in Alabama,” said Williams, noting that last year’s Alabama Beekeeping Symposium, held annually each February for more than 20 years, drew more than 700 participants, the single largest such event ever.  A similar turnout is expected for the 2018 symposium, to be held Feb. 9-10 at the Clanton, Ala., Performing Arts Center.

“And the people interested in bees are so diverse. They come from all walks of life,” he continued, noting that one of his lab volunteers at Auburn, an accomplished beekeeper, is also a 911 call center operator.

Another example is Melissa Heigl of Salem, Ala., a member of the east-central Alabama area Saugahatchee Beekeepers Association, a stay-at-home mother of five (a sixth one is on the way) who owns a home-based soap making business.

“This is my first year keeping bees and I do it for lots of reasons,” she says. “Sure, I love honey. I love helping save the bees. I love raising my own food. In addition to those reasons, I have to have an outlet for learning or I get really grumpy. I love to be challenged and bees certainly provide that!”

Yet another member of the Saugahatchee Beekeepers Association, Mary Ann Taylor-Simms, started keeping bees seven years ago for health reasons.

“I became a beekeeper primarily because I wanted to ‘grow’ my own honey for medicinal purposes,” says Taylor-Simms, a student support professional at Auburn University. “I suffered from seasonal allergies and would get a severe sinus infection about twice a year. I read that eating local honey may help with the allergy problem.”

Since she began consuming her “homegrown” honey, Taylor-Simms said her allergy problem has “virtually disappeared,” and she has also gained a greater appreciation for bees.

A beekeeper uses a smoker to help calm bees before checking their hives for honey. Alabama Farmers Federation photo

“As I got more involved in beekeeping, I began to learn about the importance of bees as pollinators and how vital they are to our food supply,” she says. “After a brief hiatus from beekeeping, I’m back to learning from the bees — they teach me something each time I open their hives for inspection. I still take my daily dose of ‘nectar from the gods,’ but now I also have a great respect for them, knowing how important they are to my own survival.”

Among the products that honey bees make is bee bread, a fermented mixture of pollen, nectar and bee saliva that is created in the comb. Worker bees use it to feed larvae and young bees use to produce royal jelly. Humans have also learned to use bee bread, which is high in nutritional value, as a dietary supplement. Auburn University photo

Regardless of their reasons for keeping bees, apiculturists seem to have one thing in common — a deep commitment to working together to keep bees safe — and Williams is looking forward to connecting with more and more of those beekeepers as his program matures. He also hopes to help new beekeepers get involved.

“We are working with Extension and other groups in the state to set up an extensive network for bee information so that there will be a base of knowledge about beekeeping in each part of the state,” he says.

Until that network is fully functional, however, anyone interested in learning more about bees and beekeeping — and possibly joining the ranks of famous apiculturists — can contact the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, state and local beekeeper associations and other bee and honey organizations (see list in below).


Want to learn more about bees and beekeeping in Alabama?  Check out one or all of the following resources.

The Alabama Beekeepers Association, an organization of beekeepers and bee enthusiasts from Alabama and surrounding states, offers information for advanced beekeepers and for those just starting out. Contact them at www.alabamabeekeepers.com.

There are also 27 known beekeeping organizations in the state to help local beekeepers. Find a list of them at bit.ly/2x4SjAc.

Alabama Cooperative Extension System offices throughout the state can provide a wealth of information on beekeeping and protecting pollinator populations in the state. They also offer a publication, Backyard Beekeeping www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-0135/ANR-0135.pdf that will soon be turned into an interactive iBook. For more information on Extension resources contact your county Extension office or www.aces.edu.


Honeybees are amazing social creatures who produce a variety of products and provide a number of services. 

Here are a few bee facts.

Alabama Honey: this comes in a variety of flavors and colors depending on the plants that bees have visited. Alabama cotton honey is lightly colored and delicately flavored.

Beeswax: this bee byproduct has many well-known uses, candles and cosmetics to name a couple, and has also been used to create art and help clean up oil spills.

Propolis: bees produce this resinous substance, sometimes called “bee glue,” from the plant saps and resins they pick up in their foraging and use it to seal small gaps in the hive structure; it is used by humans as a nutritional and medical supplement.

Royal Jelly: this bee byproduct is the gelatinous, opaque substance that worker bees secrete and feed to the queen and her larvae and is also used as a nutritional and health supplement by humans.

Pollen: pollen residues that collect in hives as bees come and go can be collected and used to research the foraging activities of bees or can be stored and fed to “kept” bees when other sources of pollen are depleted.

Colonies: a bee colony contains a queen, hundreds of male drones, 20,000 to 80,000 female worker bees and the eggs, larvae and pupae of the queen’s offspring.

Establishing a hive: though fall is a good time to plan, the best time to establish a new colony (hive) is in the spring, preferably late March and early April when fruit trees and other plants begin to bloom.


Alabama People: Jason Wilson

When the “Free the Hops” bill passed the Alabama Legislature in 2009, it removed some of the major hurdles restricting beer production and ushered in a new era of Alabama brewing.

Fast forward to 2017, and there are currently almost 30 craft breweries here, and they’ve all tapped into the energy and interest created by industry trailblazers like Back Forty Beer and its founder, Jason Wilson.

Started in 2009 and based in Gadsden, Ala., Back Forty has been a major player in Alabama’s beer boom from the beginning and is now the state’s largest craft brewery in terms of production volume, turning out the equivalent of approximately 350,000 bottles of beer about every two weeks.

Wilson shares his company’s story and stresses why even non-beer drinkers should be excited by the fact that for Alabama breweries, business is hopping. – Jennifer Kornegay

What does “craft beer” mean?

It means a commitment to quality and process over profits and efficiency. Craft beers – and the rise of their popularity – prove that there is so much more to experience in beer than just the classic American light lager. That beer has its time and place, but I really encourage people to branch out.

When did you discover “craft beer”?

I had just turned 21. (laughs) No, I promise. I’m not saying I’d never had a beer before that, but I was visiting my brother in Colorado in 2001, and we went to this small, local brewery and started sampling their stuff. I had this great beer and said, “Man, this is amazing!” A guy popped up from behind the bar and said, “Thanks.” He was the brewer. I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning talking to him; we were sitting on kegs, and he was telling me all about the beer he made.

How did Back Forty get started?

When I left Colorado, I came back to Alabama, went back to college at Auburn, graduated and ended up working in logistics for Georgia Pacific, which meant I traveled a lot. Everywhere I went I sought out the local craft brewery. In 2005, I met Jamie Ray, the brewer behind The Montgomery Brew Pub, and we became friends.

By 2008, I had developed a full-fledged passion for craft beer, and my boss at GP could tell. He actually encouraged me to pursue it. Breweries were uncharted territory in Alabama at that time, and I didn’t think a bank would loan me money for a facility, but I raised money from friends and family, and reached out to Lazy Magnolia brewery in Mississippi. The timing was right; they had just expanded and had room to brew and package my beer, so we did a contract brewing arrangement. With Jamie’s help, I got my recipe down, and in 2009, we put out our first beer and Back Forty was born. We operated that way for 18 months. In 2011, we started brewing in our own place in downtown Gadsden.

Where does the name come from?

Back Forty is an old agriculture term. The “back forty” acres on a farm are the furthest from the barn, the hardest to irrigate and work. They’re under appreciated. But if you ever take the time to clear that land and nurture it, you get a great yield. It’s virgin ground. That’s how I saw the brewing industry in Alabama. I felt like the phrase just fit what I hoped we were going to do.

Why base Back Forty Beer in Gadsden instead of a larger city?

I’m a fifth-generation Gadsden native. But, like most kids, when I left for college, I said I was never coming back. When the steel plant shut down in the city, it hit the area hard, and there just wasn’t much to come back to. But by 2007, I sensed a renewed energy in my hometown. I saw other young people coming back.

Downtown was revitalizing, with new businesses opening up down there. I realized that from a logistics standpoint, with a major interstate (I-59) right beside it, it made plenty of sense. And I saw an opportunity to make a positive difference there, to be a part of the change that was needed.

Why should people who don’t even drink beer care about the craft beer boom in our state?

Jobs and tax revenue. Craft breweries generate both. We now have more than 350 people directly working in the industry in the state, and Alabama breweries have an annual economic impact in the billions of dollars. Plus, we bump up the state’s image to visitors, and tourism is crucial in the state.

Alabama co-ops help restore power in hurricane-ravaged Florida

Crews from Central Alabama EC work to restore power to members of Clay EC in Florida
Cullman EC assists Clay EC in Keystone Heights, Fla.

Crews from 19 of Alabama’s rural electric cooperatives were sent to help five Florida electric cooperatives with power restoration in the wake of Hurricane Irma in September. More than 210 men joined forces with their fellow cooperatives in areas affected by the hurricane, which left more than 75 percent of Floridians without electricity.

Alabama’s crews are part of a nationwide effort by 5,000 electric cooperative workers  mobilized to restore power to an estimated 1 million cooperative members left in the dark as Hurricane Irma left a path of destruction through the Southeast.

Confronting the aftermath of high winds and heavy rain, mutual aid linemen from more than 25 states were at work at co-ops in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Peak outage estimates indicated there were 760,000 co-op outages in Florida, 535,000 in Georgia and 100,000 in South Carolina.

Black Warrior EMC helps Central Florida EC.

“Alabama’s cooperatives are always willing to help our fellow cooperatives when there is a need,” said Fred Braswell, president and CEO of the Alabama Rural Electric Association, which represents Alabama’s 22 electric cooperatives. AREA coordinated the statewide response to the massive power outage.

Alabama’s cooperatives were mobilized to assist Clay, Suwanee Valley, Central Florida, Tri-County and Okefenokee electric cooperatives. Cooperatives helping in the effort were Covington, Baldwin EMC, Marshall-DeKalb, Joe Wheeler EMC, Pioneer, South Alabama, Central Alabama, Cullman, Dixie, Cherokee, North Alabama, Black Warrior EMC, Coosa Valley, Sand Mountain, Wiregrass, Clarke-Washington EMC, Tombigbee, Pea River and Southern Pine.

Alabama’s 22 rural electric cooperatives deliver power to more than 1 million people, or a quarter of the state’s population, and they maintain more than 71,000 miles of power line.ν

Gardens: Fun fall fruits

A matter of minding your Ps and Ks

Left to right: Paw paw, persimmon, kiwi, pomegranate and kumquat.

Need a local source of fun, fresh fruit this fall and winter? It’s as easy as minding your Ps and Ks — as in persimmons, pomegranates, pawpaws, kiwifruit and kumquats.

These often lesser known, or a least lesser grown, fruits are now, or soon will be, in season, and they are all easy to grow additions to the home garden and landscape.

Many of us grew up eating (or at least attempting to eat) the fruit of the American persimmon, a native tree that produces golden-orange, muscadine-size fruits which, when they fully ripen in the fall, are morsels of sweetness (some say they taste like dates) enjoyed by humans and wildlife alike.

The problem with native persimmons is that unripe persimmons are high in the astringent, pucker-producing compound tannic acid. But ripe ones are soft, delicious and, according to folklore, predictors of winter weather. Slice their seeds in half and take a gander at the shape therein: a spoon shape indicates snow to shovel, a knife shape warns of cutting winter winds and a fork shape predicts a mild winter with good eating.

Though ripe American persimmons make fine eating whether consumed out-of-hand or in puddings, preserves and other dishes, their small size can make preparing them a bit of a bother. However, there are now a number of larger-fruited Asian (sometimes called oriental) persimmons available to us. These persimmons produce gorgeous orange to reddish, baseball-sized fruits that ripen more readily and reliably than their native cousins.

Another fruit that comes from our own native woods is the pawpaw, an understory tree that produces large greenish-black mango-like fruits with a custardy texture and sweet, sometimes nutty, tropical flavor. Pawpaws reportedly helped sustain the Lewis and Clark expeditioners in the early 1800s and these days they are used in puddings, ice creams and sorbets and to flavor breads, smoothies and even craft beer.

Pomegranates, which are not native to the Alabama but have been here so long many of us consider them ours, provide a whole different taste experience. These gorgeous shrubs to small trees produce a handsome leathery fruit filled with sweet-tart arils (the flesh covering the seed) that are delicious to munch on, sprinkle on salads and desserts, press for juice or cook down into a syrup.

Kumquats, another nonnative plant that’s been grown in the South for generations, are citrus shrubs that produce small (about the size of a shooter-type marble) orange-colored fruits. They are delicious simply peeled and popped into your mouth, but also are fabulous candied or used in jellies. While they are more common in the Gulf Coast area of Alabama, cold-hardy cultivars can be grown as far north as Huntsville if they are shielded from winter winds and cold by planting them in pots or on a protected southern wall.

And then there is the kiwifruit, another import that grows well in much of Alabama, especially in the central part of the state. This woody vine, which has variegated foliage that starts out green and develops attractive mottled white spots and sometimes a pink tip as it matures, produces egg-sized fuzzy fruits with greenish-yellow flesh that tastes somewhere between berries and bananas.

The thing about all of these plants is that, while you’re waiting for them to produce fruit (and for some that may take up to six years), they can be attractive flowering additions to the landscape in areas of full to partial sun. And this fall and on into early winter are great times to plant them. Make sure you choose a variety or cultivar that is best suited for your area of the state and keep in mind that for some, such as pawpaws and persimmons, you may need to purchase two plants to ensure cross pollination for proper fruit production.

To learn more about these Ps and Ks, check with your local experts, including the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Master Gardener groups, plant nurseries and fellow gardeners. And keep your eyes peeled for educational events, such as an oriental persimmon tour that will be held Oct. 15 at 2 p.m. at Petals from the Past nursery in Jemison, that feature these and other fun fruit options.

Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at katielamarjackson@gmail.com.

Alabama Bookshelf

In this periodic feature, we highlight books either about Alabama people or events or written by Alabama authors. Summaries are not reviews or endorsements. We also occasionally highlight book-related events. Email submissions to bookshelf@alabamaliving.coop Due to the volume of submissions, we are unable to feature all the books we receive.


Game of My Life: Alabama Crimson Tide, by Tommy Hicks, Sports Publishing, $24.99 (sports). Longtime sportswriter Hicks has updated his memorable stories of Alabama football, from Harry Gilmer and his play in the 1946 Rose Bowl to Mark Ingram becoming the Tide’s first Heisman Trophy winner in 2009. Several former players share their memories of the Tide’s most memorable games.


Keep Your Airspeed Up: The Story of a Tuskegee Airman, by Harold H. Brown and Marsha S. Bordner, University of Alabama Press, $29.95 (memoir). Brown rose from the despair of racial segregation to become a noted military aviator and educator. Col. Brown fought as a combat pilot with the 332nd Fighter Group during World War II; after the war, he joined the Strategic Air Command before earning his Ph.D. and serving as an administrator at what is now Columbus State Community College.


North Alabama Beer: An Intoxicating History, by Sarah Belanger and Kamara Bowling Davis, Arcadia Publishing, $21.99 (local history). The authors trace the history of beer in north Alabama from the early saloon days before Prohibition to the craft beer explosion that’s occurred just in the last decade. The book features many historical and current photos that help tell the story.


Earline’s Pink Party: The Social Rituals and Domestic Relics of a Southern Woman, by Elizabeth Findley Shores, University of Alabama Press, $29.95 (Southern culture/memoir). The author sifts through her family’s scattered artifacts to understand her grandmother’s life in relation to the troubled racial history of Tuscaloosa. The book is an analysis of the life of a small-city matron in the Deep South that offers a new way of thinking about white racial attitudes.


The Grumpy Gardener: An A to Z Guide from the Country’s Most Irritable Green Thumb, by Steve Bender, Time Inc., $25.99 (gardening/humor). Gardeners everywhere have turned to Bender, Southern Living’s senior garden editor, for his keen knowledge and gardening know-how delivered with equal doses of sarcasm and humor for nearly 35 years. The book also features his rules for gardening, Q&As and his favorite reader responses.


The Best of Alabama Living: Favorite Recipes from Alabama’s Largest Lifestyle Magazine, published by the Alabama Rural Electric Association, $19.95. Alabama Living’s most popular feature is its recipes, and last year we collected some of the best ones from the last few years and published our own spiral-bound cookbook. The book includes a forward from Patricia “Sister Schubert” Barnes, profiles of some of the featured cooks and beautiful photography. Order your copy online at alabamaliving.coop, or send a check to Alabama Living Cookbook, P.O. Box 244014, Montgomery, AL 36124.

Worth the Drive: The Bright Star

The Bright Star continues to shine in Bessemer

Jimmy Koikos believes in downtown Bessemer so much that he insists his family heirloom of a restaurant, The Bright Star, stay in this town sandwiched between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, continuing to beckon the 3,500 patrons that visit each week.

To walk through downtown Bessemer in 2017 is to take a walk through a faded Pleasantville, filled with the occasional bicyclist and city bus. Old neon block-letter signs for jewelers and furniture stores anchor streets filled with empty storefronts, many of which left in a mass exodus in the 1980s.

But build a star, and they will come — in droves — for lunch.

“There are a few empty spaces,” said longtime owner Koikos, “but we feel real good about the future of Bessemer. If you moved it, it wouldn’t be the same.”

The Bright Star claims it is “America’s oldest family owned experience,” dating back to 1907. Back then, the chicken noodle soup cost a nickel at this meat-and-three, and 110 years later, regulars drive 40 miles to eat here every day. Fresh fish including snapper, delivered twice a week from Panama City, and aged steaks made the menu famous. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner and closes an hour in the afternoon to shift to heavier dinner fare.

Fresh fish and aged steaks are trademarks at The Bright Star. Photo by Lenore Vickrey

The establishment’s bestselling dishes are the snapper and the Greek-style beef tenderloin, which won the honor of “best steak” in the state from the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association in 2012.

For lunch, diners’ top requests include the Fried Snapper Almondine and Fried Snapper Throats.

Lemon icebox pie, strawberry shortcake and bread pudding top reviews and palettes for dessert.

Nick Saban has a sweet spot for the pies, as he wrote in a framed letter on one of the many walls of newspaper clips, photos and celebrities singing The Bright Star’s praises. Sandra Bullock takes her father, Jimmy, here. There’s a special Alabama football room dedicated to Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, and in sincere sportsmanship, an Auburn table sits under a photo of a grinning Cam Newton.

Koikos is a diehard Alabama football fan, from his crimson tie to his red plaid button-down shirt, embellished with a small elephant.

The decor, mostly green and brass with dark wood booths and marble tabletops, could pass for a dining car in an old train. Guests of honor, including Bullock, are honored with nameplates.

Wall-size murals from the main dining room, formerly layered with sticky, brown muck from decades of cigarette smoke and grease, are clearing to their early 1900s glory. A European artist traveling through Alabama offered to paint the Mediterranean scenes in exchange for food and board. It’s taken three years for the renovation.

In further respect to The Bright Star’s storied past, its sign that has hung outside on 19th Street North since 1947 is also being refurbished.

The Bright Star owner Jimmy Koikos and his second cousin, Andreas Anastassakis, who oversees daily operations at the restaurant. Both men place a top priority on customer service, which has no doubt been a key to the restaurant’s longevity. Photo by Jennifer Crossley Howard

“This is a museum with food,” one new guest observed to Koikos.

He has been prepping his family’s legacy with Andreas Anastassakis, who oversees daily operation and occasionally cooks. Anastassakis came from Toronto seven years ago to run the place. They are second cousins and connected though their familial Greek Orthodox faith. Years ago, Anastassakis baptized Koikos’ sister’s daughter’s son.

“We are blessed to have someone in the family take over The Bright Star,” Koikos says.

“It’s really a dream come true at the end of the day,” Anastassakis says.

As in any sustaining business, food is far from the only ingredient to longevity.

Koikos and Anastassakis prize customer service in combining their Greek heritage with a bit of southern hospitality.

“We try to touch each table,” Anastassakis says. “That’s not something you see at most restaurants.”

Koikos also believes in investing in his restaurant. The Bright Star saw a $350,000 kitchen expansion in 2012 and remodeling and periodical restoration to original tiles and ceilings.

This year, Anastassakis added catering to the menu.

“I wanted to leave my footprint,” he says. “I also wanted to take the opportunity and expand on it as well.”

Ductless heat pumps

Heat and cool your home without blowing your budget

Q: My husband and I are tired of paying such high electric bills during the winter. We think our winter bills are high because of our baseboard heaters, and our summer bills are high because of our window AC units. Our neighbor just installed a ductless heat pump system in their home. Do you think that would work for us?

A: Mini-split ductless heat pumps are becoming more popular for good reason. They can heat efficiently even when winter temperatures drop below the freezing point, and they are an economical and energy efficient replacement for window AC units.

This graphic displays a typical ductless heat pump setup. Collaborative Efficiency

Ductless heat pumps are often installed as the primary heating source and paired with a backup system that kicks in when outside temperatures are extremely cold.Baseboard heaters are an electric resistance system, and use much more energy than a heat pump, which is just moving heat in or out of the home. If you make this change, you should reduce your heating costs considerably. Heat pumps work harder as the outside air temperature drops, but combining the heat pump with a backup heating system solves that problem. 

The exterior compressor can be set on a foundation or mounted on the wall.
Photo by Scott Gibson

 

I recently spoke with Joe Hull, an Energy Services Advisor with Midstate Electric Cooperative in Oregon. Members there have found that ductless systems with a backup heating system can work effectively to as low as -28 Fahrenheit.

Ductless heat pump systems could be an ideal solution if your home doesn’t have a duct system. If your existing ductwork is in poor condition, installing a ductless heat pump may be more practical or less expensive than repairing, sealing and insulating ducts.

A ductless heat pump has two main components: the outdoor compressor and the indoor air handler. Coolant and electrical lines run through a conduit from the compressor outside the home through the wall to the inside air handler(s).

Ductless heat pumps can be configured in different ways. A common approach that could deliver the most value is to provide heating and cooling to one large zone in the home by using a single compressor and a single air handler. Or you could use one compressor to power as many as four inside air handlers, each with its own thermostat. A home could even have more than one outside compressor.

A large or small blower can be installed depending on the size of the room.
NW Energy Efficiency Alliance

Scott Mayfield, an expert from Kootenai Electric Cooperative in Idaho, said installing a ductless system in his home had benefits beyond cost savings. “With baseboard heaters, the heat used to rise along the walls, but with the new ductless system, it flows throughout the rooms evenly. It would have been worth switching to ductless for the comfort alone.”

In some parts of the country, ductless mini-splits are becoming more popular in new home construction as well. In fact, a friend of mine in Hood River, Oregon had a ductless system installed in her new home.

Ductless heat pumps are often a great solution, but as you explore this option it would be wise to consider:

  • What are the other investments you could make to reduce your energy costs or improve comfort? Is the ductless heat pump the best option? A thorough energy audit of your home will help answer these questions.
  • Are rebates offered by your electric co-op?
  • What is the best size and efficiency level for a ductless heat pump in your situation?
  • Are there contractors in your area with experience installing ductless heat pumps?

Contact your local electric co-op for a list of recommended contractors, and visit www.energystar.gov for tips on hiring contractors.ν

Still chasing the bobwhite

James H. “Goat” Hollis and Tommy Russell after a successful hunt.

“Goat” Hollis began hunting the bobwhite 77 years ago, and hasn’t stopped since

Seventy-seven years ago, 9-year-old James H. Hollis held his 20-gauge Sears and Roebuck single-barrel shotgun close to his chest as he inched past the English pointer locked up on point, just behind a covey of wild bobwhites. As the young hunter passed the dog, an eruption of bobwhites filled the sky in front of him.

Briefly startled, but recovering quickly, young Hollis swung the barrel toward his target and pulled the trigger. A direct hit tumbled the bird as feathers floated down on a gentle breeze. “Goat” Hollis, as he is known locally, had just bagged his first bobwhite and sealed his fate as a quail hunter for life. 

Today, at 86, he is still chasing the bobwhite across the hills and hollows of Crenshaw County.

Hollis enjoys telling new acquaintances how he got his nickname, “Goat.”

“When I was 6 years old, my uncle bought me a billy goat and a little red wagon with a harness so I could hitch my goat to the wagon. I would ride my wagon, pulled by my goat, all over Brantley. People would meet me on the sidewalk and say ‘Hello, Goat.’ This continued for some time until I got rid of my goat and people kept saying ‘Hello, Goat.’ All that time I thought they were telling the goat hello, but it was really me they were talking to,” Hollis laughs.

After killing that first bobwhite, Hollis says he got his first bird dog at age 10. “My first dog was an English pointer, but over the years I have had many different breeds. I’ve hunted with English pointers, English and Irish setters, and Brittany spaniels. The best birddog I ever had was a ‘drop,’ which is a cross between a pointer and setter. You don’t see many drops today, but they were fairly common when we had a lot of wild quail.”

Bobwhite quail were abundant through the 1950s and ’60s, but began a decline in the ’70s. By the 1980s, it was hardly worth a hunter’s trouble to hunt wild birds exclusively.

“My hunting buddy and birddog trainer, Tommy Russell of Luverne, Ala., and I stock our hunting land with flight-conditioned, pen-raised bobwhite today, but we both remember the good old days of wild quail hunting. Back when Tommy and I could hold out to walk all day, we found plenty of wild birds up until the early ’80s. Tommy is still just a youngster at 84 and can still outwalk me,” says Hollis with a grin.

Both Hollis and Russell agree that the major decline in wild quail populations was due to habitat change.

“Back when I started hunting quail there were a lot of small farms with corn and peanuts and a large family garden,” Hollis says. “This situation was ideal for quail. Also, people allowed their fence rows to grow up and they burned the woods off every year or two. Again, this created ideal habitat for quail. Also, predators were controlled better back then. The disappearance of these things worked to the detriment of the wild bobwhite. By the early ’80s we began to put out pen-raised birds. Today, that’s all we hunt because wild quail are just not there in huntable numbers.”

Hollis has spent most of his life in Brantley, except for the time he spent in the army during the latter months of the Korean War. He began working at Brantley Bank and Trust in 1956 and became president in 1975. He still puts in a full day’s work most days, unless Tommy Russell calls and suggests a quail hunting trip. When this happens, he often slips out the back door, loads the dogs and heads to the field.

Hollis and Russell like to tell first-time hunting guests about the five-star tailgate meal they have planned for them. They are quite surprised when their hosts break out the bologna, sardines, potted meat and Vienna sausage with vintage Pepsi Cola to wash it down.

Today, Hollis and his guests hunt from modified golf carts or utility vehicles. Rather than “walking the birds up,” they now use a flushing English cocker spaniel, Winnie, named after Hollis’ beloved mother and owned by Hollis’ grandson, Stuart Mash Jr.

While the years have slowed their pace a bit, “Goat” Hollis and Tommy Russell won’t let a few aches and pains associated with the senior years get in the way of a good quail hunt. When Winnie flushes a bobwhite, Hollis leads the bird with his old briar-scratched double barrel and fires. When the bobwhite falls, he once again becomes that excited 9-year-old boy of 77 years ago.ν

Ben Norman writes from Highland Home, Alabama.

Game wardens have long been a part of Alabama’s law enforcement

With hunting seasons in progress or starting soon, hundreds of thousands of sportsmen will take to the fields, forests and wetlands all across Alabama to pursue everything from doves to deer. Most of them will obey all the laws and participate in a tradition as old as mankind.

But not everyone judiciously obeys every game law. Some make honest mistakes, while others just don’t care or think the laws don’t apply to them. For those people, heed this warning: Someone highly trained and armed may be watching.

By the late 19th century, many conservationists became alarmed by disappearing wildlife populations. For instance, fewer than 500,000 whitetail deer roamed the entire United States around 1900. Few game laws existed in the nation. Where laws existed, states did little enforcement.

About 110 years ago, in November 1907, Rep. Henry Steagall of Dale County introduced legislation to create a professional conservation department named the Alabama Department of Game and Fisheries. In 1971, it was renamed the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

“Steagall authored legislation to create a government agency with authority to protect the dwindling wildlife and fisheries resources of Alabama,” says Kevin Dodd, the executive director of the Alabama Conservation Enforcement Officers Association. “The timing of his actions might seem radical to us, as they occurred when much of the Alabama population lived in rural settings near poverty standards where any game, bird or fish was pursued mainly to supplement the table or family income.”

Officer Vance Wood demonstrates the ease of the game check app on his smart phone to a group of hunters..
Photo by Billy Pope

According to Dodd, who spent 32 years as a conservation enforcement officer and retired earlier this year as the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries chief of law enforcement, Steagall didn’t invent the idea of passing laws to protect wildlife. But he believed many previous laws failed because individual legislators could exempt their districts from the laws – or the local sheriff simply refused to enforce them.

“The legislation introduced by Steagall and supported by many others had been encouraged by outgoing Gov. William Jelks,” Dodd says. “By forming a new government agency to oversee the wise use of wildlife resources, the entire state would be affected rather than selected regions. The bill was a comprehensive package that addressed landowner rights and the use of public waters, established seasons and limits, defined game birds and animals, restricted several activities and mandated penalties for violations.”

The new governor, Braxton Comer, signed the bill into law and appointed Rep. John Wallace of Madison County to serve as the first Department of Game and Fisheries commissioner. Wallace promoted the concept of  “conservation through education” to teach people about the laws and why they existed. He also appointed H.M. Henderson and W.F. Sirmon as the first conservation law enforcement officers, or game wardens. More appointments soon followed.

Wallace charged the wardens with enforcing all state game and fish laws. As incentive, the officers could keep a small portion of any fines collected from violators they caught.

“The logic of a state law enforcement officer, who answered to the commissioner rather than local voters, would prove to be the cornerstone that made the legislation successful,” Dodd says. “Turnover in warden ranks was frequent for the first few decades as the law and its enforcers were slow to gain public acceptance. Some of the 1908 convictions for violations of the new game law included a state senator, a sheriff and a county solicitor. Such prosecution would likely never have occurred when local sheriffs were solely responsible for enforcement.”

The new laws and the enforcement of them gradually became accepted as animal populations began to recover. During the Great Depression, the governor at the time decided to cut the game warden program to save money. Sportsmen across the state vociferously objected to that idea. The governor backed down and the game wardens stayed on the job.

Who would have known that guy in camo wasn’t just another hunter?

“These citizens recognized that any progress gained over decades would be quickly lost if the enforcement arm of the game and fish program were diminished or removed, a fact that remains especially relevant today,” Dodd says. “The idea of a state law enforcement officer pledged to enforce laws protecting public wildlife resources was an idea born in North America and since copied around the world.”

Today, sportsmen contribute more than $2 billion annually to the Alabama economy and the populations of many game and fish species flourish. Twice as many whitetail deer live in Alabama now than existed in the entire nation a century ago. Sportsmen enjoy long seasons and liberal limits that allow everyone to participate in the great outdoors all year long if they wish.

However, new generations of highly trained professional “Wallace’s Wardens” are still watching. They continue to make sure everyone obeys the rules or suffers the consequences.

 

John N. Felsher lives in Semmes, Ala. He’s a professional freelance writer and photographer with more than 2,500 articles published in more than 150 different magazines. Contact him through Facebook.