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Festival will celebrate Hispanic culture, Bicentennial

Fiesta, Alabama’s largest celebration of Hispanic culture and heritage, will hold its 17th annual festival Saturday, Sept. 28 in Birmingham’s Linn Park from noon to 8 p.m. Everyone is invited to join Fiesta to celebrate the rich and storied history of Alabama’s Hispanic community, as well as its 200 years of statehood, as part of Alabama’s Bicentennial. 

Fiesta provides the opportunity for more than 15,000 patrons to journey through more than 20 represented countries and experience the best of Hispanic art, music, food and dance. The festival gives Alabamians the chance to experience Latin America in their own backyard. Fiesta features two music stages, authentic Latin food vendors, a cultural village, a community village, children’s activities, a health and wellness village and more.

Regular tickets are $10, with children ages 12 and under free with a ticketed adult. To purchase tickets, visit fiestabham.com. 

This Day in History: September 4, 1937

Key Underwood
Photo courtesy of Colbert County Tourism & Convention Bureau

Hunter Key Underwood buried his coon dog Troop at the site of the future Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard in Colbert County. Underwood buried Troop in one of their favorite hunting sites, a pine bluff named “Sugar Creek,” and marked his grave with a large stone engraved with his name and birth and death dates. Today, the cemetery is the final resting place of more than 150 coonhounds with headstones made of wood, granite, and natural stone. The Tennessee Valley Coon Hunters Association maintains the cemetery — which receives nearly 7,000 visitors each year — and hosts a celebration each Labor Day to commemorate the cemetery’s founding. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1425

Team Spirit

Keri Waters and the Excel High School Lady Panthers won the Championship.
SUBMITTED BY Myrtle Waters, Repton.
Houston Academy Junior Varsity cheerleaders. Go Raiders! SUBMITTED BY Laurie Gilmore, Ashford.
Brittany and Kevin’s father/daughter day to watch Auburn take on LSU in 2008. SUBMITTED BY Kevin Hutt, Dothan.
Bentley Wilson and his JoJo (Joey Robinson) supporting the Braves. SUBMITTED BY Joey Robinson, Prattville.
Tristan, Sammy and Albany Holmes ready for the pep rally and kick-off game. Go Bulldogs! SUBMITTED BY Jessica and Jeremy Holmes, Decatur.

Submit Your Images! November Theme: “On the farm”
Deadline for November: September 30

Submit photos online:
www.alabamaliving.coop/submit-photo/
or send color photos with a self-addressed stamped envelope to:
Photos, Alabama Living, P.O. Box 244014 Montgomery, AL 36124

Rules: Alabama Living will pay $10 for photos that best match our theme of the month. Photos may also be published on our website at www.alabamaliving.coop and on our Facebook page. Alabama Living is not responsible for lost or damaged photos.

Mastering the art of observation

You never know what Barry Fleming might be up to — spinning mud into art, slapping a watermelon slice on a homemade biscuit, provoking and inspiring creativity in his art students, fueling his “live music problem” from backstage at Bonnaroo or scanning a Gulf Coast shoreline for marbled godwits. Fleming is a man of diverse talents, from gifted artist and arts educator to world-class birder, and many interests, from nature to culture to human nature. He’s also a firm believer that life’s experiences, especially those lived in the moment, are essential to the artistic process, and he’s a master at immersing himself in an experience and taking note of every detail. Those observational skills are invaluable to Fleming’s birding, art and teaching, but also to another of his talents – storytelling. When Fleming, who now lives in Opelika, bends your ear in his Tennessee twang, you never know where the story might be going, but you can bet it will be entertaining, enlightening and thought-provoking.

– Katie Jackson

You have a deep appreciation for, and knowledge of, plants, animals and the environment. When did that affinity for nature begin for you?  

I was born in Laguna Beach, Calif., but I was transplanted to Tennessee at age 3, first to Inglewood and then to Hendersonville, which was a growing town at the time with lots of woods and creeks all around. I was a mischievous little kid and my parents pretty much let me go, so I got to be a serious fisher and also got into collecting snakes that I’d bring home and keep in my room, along with crawdads and mice and fish for the snakes to eat. My mom is not an animal person — she doesn’t even like a dog or a cat — but she let me have all those varmints, including the snakes that would escape sometimes in her house. It was a great way to grow up.

When did birds become part of that mix? 

It was one bird on one day that did it. When I was in high school, I was fishing out in the headwaters of Drake’s Creek and up on a tree limb right above my head was a black-crowned night heron sitting there in full breeding plumage. I thought, “That’s something I need to know about. I bet you there’s a book that has this stuff in it.” So, I eased myself up to the Hendersonville public library, got me a bird book and started learning all the herons. Once I had those down, I thought I shouldn’t discriminate, so I started learning the other birds. 

You admit to having a “live music problem,” an obsession with hearing really good music performed live, and you’re an expert on several musical genres. How did this music thing get started? 

A lot of Nashville musicians lived in Hendersonville, so they were always around. I played ball against Conway Twitty, and Barbara Mandrell would show up at church and cry — I don’t know why she cried so much. We’d see Johnny Cash at the drugstore a lot, too. One of the original Oak Ridge Boys, who also sang backup for the Carol Lee Singers at the Grand Ole Opry, lived down the street from us and his son was one of my buddies. He’d take us with him when he sang at the Opry and we would hang out backstage and listen. We knew it wasn’t “cool” music, but we knew some of it was good and we’d show up at the junior high and tell people “Grandpa Jones is just as good as Jimi Hendrix.” They would say “NO WAY!” 

Even when you were quite young, I understand you showed a real talent for drawing, but during grade school you were more interested in sports than art. What brought you back to art as a career? 

When I got out of high school, I was working construction and didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I enrolled in the local community college. I took a drawing class there and during the final critique at the end of the semester the teacher asked us, “Why does someone become an artist?” Someone answered, “To make money.” “No,” she said. “For fortune and fame?” “No.” “To hang out with good looking people?” “No! You become an artist because you have to.” I was sitting there having a religious experience. I thought, “Yeah, I’ve got to do this.” So, I transferred to Western Kentucky University, where I got a BFA (in painting and ceramics, 1985), and then got my MFA (in painting, 1988) from the University of Tennessee. 

During the three decades you taught art at Auburn University (1988-2017), you developed a reputation as an easy-going, supportive professor, but also one who challenged students to think and work harder. What was the most important lesson you wanted your students to learn? 

I think my main job is to flip my students’ minds and teach them to be observant and remain open to new things. I think inspiration often comes from life experiences, so I tell them, “If you open yourself up to different kinds of art, or music or ideas, you’ll enrich your life and your art even more.”

Mighty Oaks: Trees of beauty, function and diversity

By Katie Jackson

To fully admire a mighty oak, you may need to look up. To fully appreciate the might of oaks, however, just look all around. You’ll see oaks and their many contributions to our lives everywhere.

Oaks are native to the Northern Hemisphere (primarily Asia, North Africa, Europe and the Americas) and are members of the genus Quercus, which includes 500-600 diverse species worldwide. Approximately 90 oak species are native to the U.S., and 40 of those — more than any other state in the nation — are found right here in Alabama. 

The diversity and abundance of Quercus in our state means we have lots of different kinds of oaks for use in our home landscapes, but it also means that our woodlands and other wild landscapes are stronger. That’s because oaks act as keystone species — dominant species in an ecosystem that support other plants and animals sharing their natural community. Keystone species are so important to their ecosystems that removing them will drastically change, perhaps even destroy, natural habitats. 

Oaks are also vital to our species. Like other trees, oaks provide vital functions that support humankind such as turning carbon dioxide into oxygen, filtering and cleaning air and water and holding soils in place. Their strong, beautiful wood is used to construct many of the buildings that shelter us (not to mention boats that move us around, furniture, flooring and so much more) and their bark has medicinal qualities and is also used for inks and dyes. 

In addition to meeting many of our basic needs, oaks also provide us with such luxuries as barrel-aged wines and whiskies, earthy-flavored truffles and even the subtle nuttiness of acorns (yes, we can eat them, though they may require a bit of preparation and some are tastier than others). And for eons, oaks have been a source of something of inestimable value to human society — inspiration, from which has sprung art, literature, mythology, symbolism and many other spiritual and cultural touchstones. 

Of course, oaks can also beautify our landscapes, and the choices are vast. Oaks are segregated into one of two categories, white oaks and red oaks, based on distinct leaf and acorn characteristics. Both categories, however, offer a wide range of options for tree size (towering giants to petite shrubs) and shape (spreading, towering, rounded and more), as well as diverse leaf types (deciduous to evergreen; lance-like, oval, many-lobed, palmate and many other shapes) and acorn characteristics (large to small, pale to dark and bitter to sweet).  

Among these two groups are many long-lived (surviving 200 years or more; the Seven Sisters Oak in Louisiana is believed to be more than 1,000 years old) species but also some with shorter lifespans. Most oaks tolerate a wide range of growing conditions, including droughty conditions once they are established, and oaks typically require only minimal pruning and fertilizer.

Despite all those fine attributes, however, oaks are often snubbed for home and urban landscapes, mainly because they have reputations for being either slow-growing or for overgrowing their space and because their leaves and acorns can make a bit of a mess. But those issues can be overcome if we pick the right oak for the right spot. 

Begin by assessing the site (or sites) where you’d like to plant an oak. Determine how much space you have for the tree to grow (both in height and width) and how close the area is to buildings, driveways, parking areas, patios, utility lines and other structures that may cause problems with tree size and maintenance. Also assess the site’s nutrient, sunlight and moisture characteristics. 

Now take some time to study up on the many oak species that thrive in Alabama and match your needs to their qualities. An abundance of oak tree information, including specific species traits, is available in books and publications both online and in print. (See a sample list of several free resources in the sidebar). Finally, start looking everywhere for and at oaks — in neighbors’ yards, along streets, in public parks and gardens and in the wild. Seeing them at work will help you pick the perfect mighty oak, even if it’s a mighty small one.

Free Oak Resources

Auburn University’s Donald E. Davis Arboretum houses a nationally accredited oak collection featuring 39 of Alabama’s 40 native oaks; open 365 days a year from dawn till dusk; admission is free.   

Field Guide of Native Oak Species of Eastern North America is a U.S. Forest Service publication filled with detailed information and illustrations representing 50 eastern U.S. oak species. 

100 Forest Trees of Alabama is an Alabama Forestry Commission and the Alabama Department of Education publication that includes an extensive list of Alabama trees including at least 20 oaks.  

A Key to Common Trees of Alabama is a brief guide for identifying 66 Alabama trees by their leaf structure and characteristics.

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

Not all fried chicken and sweet tea

Book looks at how Alabama’s food traditions shape our culture

By Jennifer Kornegay

Alabama is known for its geographic variety and biodiversity, and these differing landscapes and the life they hold (along with other factors) have created a vast cultural diversity too. 

Author Emily Blejwas.

In the new book The Story of Alabama in Fourteen Foods, author Emily Blejwas uses 14 foods, dishes and beverages as a lens to examine what this mixture means and why it’s important. The book explores and celebrates the assortment of places and personalities that prove with their distinct food traditions and foodways that our state is not one single flavor but a delicious multi-layered stew. We are not all fried chicken and sweet tea. 

In fact, Blejwas admits that Alabama’s full identity can’t truly be encompassed in the 14 foods (including the two above) that she highlights. But she had to start somewhere, so we asked her to share why she wrote the book, how she decided on her list of dishes and to elaborate on how serving up stories centered on food is such a palatable and powerful way to tell much broader tales.

When did you first get interested in exploring food culture?

It really goes back to me getting my master’s in rural sociology at Auburn in 2005 and 2006. I did my thesis on the Black Belt region. It got me thinking about how to boost economic development in those areas. I was looking at heritage and cultural tourism and was focused on civil rights at first and thought about a book. 

When I began talking to the people at The University of Alabama Press (the book’s publisher), it was clear that so much had been done on that topic, and they mentioned food. So, I started thinking about food as a way to stimulate economic growth. The idea for this book grew out of those discussions. I really wanted to use food as a gateway to explore other parts of our history and our state’s story.

Why use food to explore Alabama’s history?

Food is so relatable, no matter where you are from. As Southerners, we put a lot of emphasis on food, but you don’t have to be Southern to understand huge role of food in our daily lives. It is so ingrained in our personal cultures, in our own family traditions. I haven’t met anyone yet who doesn’t have some real connection to food above and beyond eating it to live. 

And it evolves alongside our history. Food is also unifier; we’ve gathered around food throughout history. We gather around food still today.

Roasting and eating corn at the Poarch Creek Thanksgiving Pow Wow.
Photos by Emily Blejwas

How hard was it to choose only 14 foods?

I knew in the beginning I wasn’t interested in restaurant food, but I started with a long list. I probably had almost 50 items to begin with, and it was difficult to narrow it down. I do have some regrets. I wish I had included Golden Flake chips so I could have talked about football. I wish I had included oysters. But I narrowed it down by choosing foods with the strongest Alabama connection and story. 

I felt like catfish had a stronger tie to Mississippi. I felt like the connection to peaches was stronger in Georgia, even though both of those foods are important here. I also tried to spread things out around the state. I didn’t want any one region to dominate the book. I also really wanted the foods to showcase Alabama’s diversity. We are such a broad state. Many people who don’t really know Alabama think mostly of cotton, the Civil War and civil rights, but there’s so much more here too, so many distinct regions and heritages: the Gulf coast, the Wiregrass, the Black Belt, northwest and northeast Alabama.

Emma Rylander Lane is credited with making the first Lane Cake in 1898 in Clayton, Alabama. The four-layer white cake was made with flour, baking powder, butter, sugar, egg whites and vanilla, and spread with a heated mixture of egg yolks, butter, sugar, raisins, whiskey and vanilla. Over the years, the recipe underwent various modifications, and in 2016 it was named the official state cake of Alabama. photo by Meredith Bell Foltynowicz

What was your favorite discovery as you worked on the book?

I went turkey hunting a few times for the book. I was so struck by all of the hunters’ vast knowledge of nature; they knew so much about everything outside and are real naturalists and conservationists. I don’t think I would have known that if had not gone hunting with them, so the experience helped me discover the strong connection between hunting and conservation.

Were there any major surprises that you uncovered during your research?

There were lots of little surprises along the way, but one that stands out is in Alabama’s Native American history. I interviewed some of the Poarch Creek cultural educators and learned that for a long time, many people didn’t think there were any Native Americans left in the state, so it was a real struggle for those who were left to learn their own culture and their food culture. That connection had been broken. They relearned much of it from Creeks who’d been relocated to Oklahoma. 

What is your personal favorite out of the dishes and foods in your book? 

I would have to say, out of the 14, boiled peanuts. I interviewed a farmer in Macon County for that chapter. He gave me some that had come straight from the kettle and been soaking with jalapeños. I have a really nice memory of stopping for a Coke and eating them on the way home. 

And he is also a great example of how open everyone I talked to was; they were all so willing and even eager to share their time and lives with me so easily. A talk about food and food traditions can get pretty personal pretty quickly, and everyone I reached out to and met with was so happy to go there with me.ν

For more information, visit uapress.ua.edu

Insulating for comfort and energy savings

By Pat Keegan and Brad Thiessen

Q: We’re dreading winter. It feels like every year, no matter what we do, our home still feels cold and our heating bills go through the roof. We think our home may need more insulation. Any advice before winter hits?

There’s a good chance you are right about the problem. Most older homes, and many newer ones, are not properly insulated, and adding insulation can be a good investment year-round since it can help keep out the summer heat as well. 

There are many types of insulation, but I’ll focus on the three most common types in residential buildings: batt, loose-fill and rigid. 

Batt insulation can be made with several kinds of fibers including fiberglass and wool. It’s cut to fit between the framing in your ceilings, walls or floors. Loose-fill insulation is made with small pellets or particles. It can be added by hand or blown in by machine into attic floors or exterior wall cavities. Rigid insulation comes in light sheets and is installed against a solid surface like an exterior wall or foundation. 

All insulation is measured by its R-value. A higher R-value is more effective. The amount of R-value you need depends on your climate and where the insulation is being added in your home.

If your heating costs are too high, there’s a good chance the attic is part of the problem. Finished attics are usually under-insulated and correcting the problem can be a challenge. If your attic is unfinished, solutions will be simpler and more cost-effective.

You can inspect your unfinished attic, but be cautious. Loose-fill insulation in older homes may have harmful asbestos that you absolutely do not want to disturb. It’s probably best to just poke your head in enough to look around, since it’s easy to damage wiring or ducts, or step through the ceiling.

Loose-fill insulation is a good approach for insulating your attic floor.
Courtesy Department of Energy

The attic will likely have loose-fill insulation or batts on the floor. Look carefully to see if the insulation is spread evenly with no gaps or voids. To determine whether there is enough insulation, you can start by researching the recommended amount for your climate. The Department of Energy publishes that information, which you can find at energy.gov/energysaver/weatherize/insulation. After measuring the depth of the insulation, you can calculate the R-value. Different types of insulation have different R-values per inch. If your attic insulation is far short of the recommended levels, you will likely see major energy savings by having a professional add enough to reach that level.

The next place to check is the walls. Many homes built before 1980 have little or no wall insulation, and even newer homes may lack proper insulation. You might be able to see if the walls are insulated by carefully removing an outlet cover. 

The most common technique for adding insulation to walls is to have it blown in through holes drilled from inside or outside the home. These holes can be easily patched. An alternative, if the house is being re-sided, is to add rigid insulation to the exterior, underneath the new siding. 

Batt insulation is commonly used between floor joists, wall studs or on attic floors. Photo by Jesus Rodrigue

Finally, if your floor gets cold in winter, and you have a crawl space, you can install batt insulation between the floor joists. If your home is built on a concrete slab, rigid foam can be installed around the perimeter.  

Insulation works great if you choose the right approach and the work is done carefully. Contact the energy experts at your electric co-op for more information about insulation solutions.ν

This column was co-written by Pat Keegan and Brad Thiessen of Collaborative Efficiency. For more information on home insulation, please visit: www.collaborativeefficiency.com/energytips.

Patrick Keegan writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives. Write to energytips@collaborativeefficiency.com for more information.

WTD: The Waverly Local

Waverly eatery serves up clean food, Southern style

Story by Allison Law, photos by Brooke Echols

Driving into Waverly, Ala. – population 185, give or take – is a throwback to a slower, simpler time, with its tiny post office and historic homes along the main thoroughfare that’s still a two-lane street (thankfully, U.S. 280 was routed around the town).

The structure that houses the Waverly Local, a former Ford dealership, has been attractively repurposed.

Careful, or you’ll drive right by The Waverly Local, the Southern-cuisine eatery opened by executive chef Christian Watson and Andy Anderson, a partner in the Wickles Pickles company. Watson and Anderson revived an old commercial space that was originally the home of one of the first Ford dealerships in Alabama.

Over the years, the space housed two restaurants — Peyton’s Place and then the Yellowhammer Cafe. When that restaurant closed, it sat vacant for five years, but Anderson, who lives across the street, kept his eye on the building. When the timing was right, the childhood friends decided to open their own restaurant.

It needed a good cleaning and some repairs, but they took care not to compromise the building’s historic integrity. The result is an atmosphere that is understated, but clean and comfortable. The booths and banquettes are custom-made, and the copper tables, bar and host stand are hand-made by a local metalworks artisan. The floors were cleaned a bit and sealed, but the imperfections that add character remain.

“We really just wanted to accentuate what was already here, not mask it and cover it up, but kind of revitalize it,” Watson says. 

Inspiration

It was the rich history of the building that inspired Watson to start reading old cookbooks, some dating to the late 19th century. These cookbooks featured foods that were clean and real, and recipes that were simple and Southern — which is exactly what Watson and Anderson wanted their restaurant to be. “You’ll never see microgreens or coconut foam here,” Watson says. 

The daily Gulf offering changes frequently based on availability. This barrelfish is served with asparagus, potatoes and caramelized mushrooms.

The menu is small, by design. Watson wants the focus to be on the execution of the cooking.

“This isn’t a fine dining restaurant, but we serve fine dining food. Our service is fine dining style without the pretentiousness. We’re Waverly; there’s no pretentiousness here,” Watson laughs. 

Before going to culinary school, Watson lived and worked on a farm for three years, an experience that gave him a deep appreciation for small farming operations and fresh, healthy food.

He uses as much locally sourced food as possible, preferring to use local farmers and purveyors to keep money in the community while still using quality ingredients. The eggs, dairy products and the majority of the vegetables are local, and they only serve domestic Gulf seafood (with the exception of a smoked salmon BLT at Sunday brunch, which is wild Alaskan).

“The food we put on the plate is what we’d feed our family,” Watson says. “It’s clean. No antibiotics, no growth hormones, organic as much as we possibly can.”

The menu is seasonal and updated frequently, to reflect the availability of the local and regional products. A mainstay is the best-selling ribeye, served with horseradish cream; coming in a close second is the daily Gulf offering (barrelfish, on one recent day), served over caramelized mushrooms, peas, potatoes and asparagus with an orange rum vinaigrette.

The double stack hamburger is dressed with an herb mayo and Wickles Pickles.

But the menu is not all upscale entrees. The tasty burger is a double stack, served with all the trimmings and an herb mayo (and of course, Wickles Pickles). 

The bar menu is seasonal as well – Watson and manager Spencer Bradley collaborate on the specialty cocktails and wine lists. 

The restaurant was at first dinner service only, but Sunday brunch was added earlier this year; in late July, they added Saturday lunch. 

“We’ve done things at our own pace and our own comfort level, so we do it right and we don’t compromise our integrity,” Watson says.

WTD – The Waverly Local from AREA on Vimeo.


The Waverly Local

1465 Patrick St. Waverly, AL 36879
334-539-6077

Hours:
4 to 10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday;
11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday;
10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday for brunch

www.thewaverlylocal.com

Visit The Waverly Local on Facebook for specials and live music lineups.

Social Security is here for you

By Kylle’ McKinney
Social Security turns 84 this year. With more than eight decades of service, we’ve provided benefits to one of the most diverse populations in history. Regardless of background, we cover retirees, wounded warriors, chronically ill children, and people who have lost loved ones. 

Knowing that we cover so many different people, we’ve created People Like Me webpages that speak to specific audiences. Sharing these pages could make a positive impact on someone’s life. Here are a few that might speak to you.

Do you know someone who needs to start saving for retirement? No matter where they are in their careers, Social Security can help. It’s never too late to start planning. We offer two pages, one for people early in their career at socialsecurity.gov/people/earlycareer and one for people who have been working for a while, socialsecurity.gov/people/midcareer.

Social Security plays an important role in providing economic security for women. Nearly 55 percent of the people receiving Social Security benefits are women. Women face greater economic challenges in retirement. First, women tend to live longer than men do, so they are more likely to exhaust their retirement savings. A woman who is 65 years old today can expect to live, on average, until about 87, while a 65-year-old man can expect to live, on average, until about 84. Second, women often have lower lifetime earnings than men, which usually means they receive lower benefits. And, third, women may reach retirement with smaller pensions and other assets than men. Share this page with someone who needs this information and may need help planning socialsecurity.gov/people/women.

We proudly serve wounded warriors and veterans. They endure sacrifices to preserve the freedoms Americans treasure. Many of them do not know they might be entitled to benefits. Share our resources with them to make sure they are getting the benefits they deserve. socialsecurity.gov/people/veterans.

If you didn’t see a page that is important to you here, check out our general People Like Me page at socialsecurity.gov/people.

Kylle’ McKinney, SSA Public Affairs Specialist, can be reached by email at kylle.mckinney@ssa.gov.

Cook Museum of Natural Science educates and entertains all ages

By Aaron Tanner

The inviting entrance to Cook Museum of Natural Science. Photo courtesy Cook Museum
The inviting entrance to Cook Museum of Natural Science. Photo courtesy Cook Museum

Fifty years ago, it was a humble bug collection. Today, it’s a multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art, hands-on, fully immersive museum, with more than 62,000 square feet of space dedicated to the study of all aspects of nature.

This is the Cook Museum of Natural Science in Decatur, which opened in June after being closed for three years while the new location was being planned and built. The non-profit museum allows visitors to learn about nature through a vast array of exhibits and interactive experiences, designed to captivate kids of all ages.

In the late 1960s, John Cook Sr. of Cook’s Pest Control started opening his private collection of insects – which until then had been used primarily for employee training – by appointment to various groups in North Alabama. The collection grew to include mounted wildlife, and the original museum opened in 1980 with additional displays of rocks, minerals, fossils and insects.

Photo courtesy Cook Museum

Children and adults alike enjoy the wonders and mysteries of cave exploring.

In its more than 30 years of existence, what was the Cook’s Natural Science Museum welcomed more than 750,000 visitors. But in 2012, the Cook family was at a crossroads about the future of the old museum after John Cook Sr. died in 2009.

“The Cook family had the museum for so long that they did not want to close it, but they were not sure what to do,” marketing and public relations manager Mike Taylor says.

After extensive market research, in 2015 the decision was made to build a new museum. After closing the old museum in 2016, the Cook family began moving their existing collection into the new museum while acquiring additional artifacts for the new location.

The biggest challenge the new attraction faces is describing the number of new features to those familiar with the original Cook Museum. “It is hard to put the museum into words,” Taylor explains. “You have to come see it.”

All about nature

There are eleven different themed galleries dedicated to the diverse habitats of Alabama, the Southeast, and North America, including a life-size replica of a cave and a mesmerizing collection of rocks and minerals on display from different parts of the world.

North Alabama’s space industry is represented at the new museum with a meteorite from the original location. Visitors can learn about the whooping crane, common at the nearby Wheeler Wildlife Refuge, in the Rivers and Streams Gallery. Meanwhile, the Arctic and Desert Gallery helps the visitor compare and contrast wildlife from those particular regions. 

An insect-themed playground allows children to burn off extra energy.
Photo by Aaron Tanner

Mr. Cook’s original insect collection, along with hundreds of new species of insects, is available for viewing in the Wonderful World of Insects.

Giant aquariums hold different types of jellyfish and saltwater fish in the Oceans Gallery, while a large beehive stores as many as 60,000 live Italian honey bees. There are even live baby alligators acquired from an alligator reservation in south Alabama along with displays of other various reptiles from North America. 

Trained staff members, including an on-site veterinarian, are tasked with treating the live animals humanely. Once the animals outgrow their space in the museum, the museum will release them back into their appropriate habitats.

Keeping kids interested

The museum’s different hands-on exhibits, which include a virtual game that involves balancing the Earth’s atmospheric conditions and a station where you can digitally design a seashell, allow visitors to discover the planet through various ways of learning. 

Everyone enjoys getting their hands in the sand in this display.

Photo courtesy Cook Museum

“We put a lot of thought and money into the different types of learning showcased in the different types of exhibits,” says Kara Long, manager of collections and gallery experience. Children can burn off energy by peering inside a life-size beaver lodge, walking on a rope bridge above a replica of a Southeastern forest, or crawling around in the museum’s insect-themed playground.

To get students interested in nature, different classrooms inside the museum will hold various programs to encourage future careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. “Using a child’s internal motivation to explore and learn, we can help them develop an early appreciation, sense of wonder, love, and respect for the natural world that is so awe-inspiring,” Taylor says. 

The museum will also host field trips, birthday parties, and sleepovers to encourage children and young students to visit the attraction. “There is already interest from across Alabama who want to take their students on a field trip to our museum,” Taylor says.

The museum also serves as a community center for Decatur, with a cafe and meeting space for events. It will also serve as a regional attraction for north Alabama and the Southeast. 

“This museum is a rising tide for North Alabama,” president and board chairman Brian Cook says. “We see this museum as being a significant part of regionalism and are thankful for the many sponsors in North Alabama and beyond who made this museum possible.”

Cook is thankful that his grandfather’s legacy will live on with the new museum. “I recently asked my grandmother if she ever imagined that opening the doors to a few small school groups or Boy Scouts back in 1968 would lead to this,” Cook explains. “She laughed and said, ‘no, I never saw this happening.’”

For more information on the museum, visit  www.cookmuseum.org.