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Hit the road this month for garden visits across Alabama

By Katie Jackson

August is a good month to visit Alabama’s estate gardens, such as Arlington Antebellum Home and Gardens in Birmingham, Jasmine Hill between Montgomery and Wetumpka or Bellingrath Gardens and Home in Theodore.
August is a good month to visit Alabama’s estate gardens, such as Arlington Antebellum Home and Gardens in Birmingham, Jasmine Hill between Montgomery and Wetumpka or Bellingrath Gardens and Home in Theodore.

Summer is drawing to an end and vacation time is running short, but there’s still time for a last-minute garden getaway.

Need a day trip just to get you and the kids out of the house and home garden? Visit one of the many botanical gardens or arboretums that are located throughout the state and are as educational as they are beautiful. Typically, botanical gardens contain a wide range of plants, from trees and shrubs to herbaceous perennials and annuals, while arboretums tend to focus more on trees and shrubs. Both types of gardens are meant to be teaching and research sites, so the plants there will be labeled and admission fees are affordable—sometimes even free.

Another garden-related outing that also provides a glimpse of history is to visit one of Alabama’s gorgeous estate gardens, such as Arlington Antebellum Home and Gardens in Birmingham, Jasmine Hill between Montgomery and Wetumpka or Bellingrath Gardens and Home in Theodore. These and other similar gardens often offer home and museum tours along with garden visits, so you can enjoy them indoors and out.

A more hands-on garden outing is to visit one of Alabama’s many u-pick operations. While some fruits and vegetables are out of season by this time in the summer, many others are at their height and new ones are coming in. In fact, the year’s first apples are available this month at Mountain View Orchards in Chilton County (more on them in the October issue).

If you’re looking for a romantic, grown-up getaway, take a trip along Alabama’s Wine Trail (, which features vineyards and wineries throughout the state offering tours and tastings of everything from blueberry and muscadine wines to pinot noirs and cabernets. (You’ll remember the Wine Trail was the cover story in June’s Alabama Living.)

Even if you don’t want to plan an entire trip around gardens, keep in mind that lovely gardens can be found almost any place you visit, from municipal parks to church grounds to native plantings in state parks, so you can enjoy a garden-related getaway wherever you go.

A great list of Alabama public gardens can be found at or search the Alabama Tourism Department’s site at for garden destinations and events. A map of many Alabama u-pick farms is available at and others can be found with a basic Web search.


Don’t neglect plants while you’re away

As you set out to explore, though, don’t neglect those plants back at home. If you’re going to be gone for several days or longer, protect your turf by mowing the lawn, then deeply watering it and your landscape plants just before you leave.  If you don’t have an automatic sprinkler system, ask or hire a friend or neighbor to water for you every few days.

For container plants—whether they are on the porch and patio or in the house—try using watering globes or water spikes, which are available at most nursery centers. These devices allow you to fill a bottle or the globe reservoir with water that will gradually seep into the soil during your absence. Or set plants on risers in a tray or bathtub filled with an inch or two of water so they can benefit as the water evaporates.

And make sure you harvest any ripe vegetables or arrange for a friend to pick the garden in your absence.


August tips:

*Plant fall vegetables, such as cabbage, collards and broccoli, and fall-bearing beans and peas.

*Plant a winter cover crop in your garden as it finishes its growing season.

*Keep an eye out for insects and disease on all ornamental and vegetable plants and treat for problems before they get out of hand.

*Prune blackberry canes.

*Keep an eye out for seed catalogues, which should be arriving in your mailbox soon.

*Continue to mow and water lawns as needed.

*Divide irises and other perennials that have become overcrowded.

*Keep fresh water in birdbaths.

*Plant seeds of cool-season flowers such as snapdragons, dianthus, pansies, calendulas and other cool-season flowers in flats or in the garden for mid-to-late fall bloom.

*Order fall bulbs.

*Use mosquito repellant and sunscreen when you’re out in the yard or garden.








Busy as a bee: Beekeepers work to get food to the nation’s table


Gerry Whitaker inspects bee boxes at his Coffee County farm.
Gerry Whitaker inspects bee boxes at his Coffee County farm.

By Lori Quiller

Even after more than 20 years as a beekeeper, Gerry Whitaker of New Brockton takes great care when approaching his honey hives. After all, he’s allergic to them.

“Got stung once right through my glove,” he says as he splayed out his hand to show his rough-hewed farm work glove. “You wouldn’t think a little honeybee could sting through a cowhide glove, but that one did. And my eye was pretty swollen before I could get back to the shop.”

He wears protection from head to toe when working with the hives. The familiar white suits that beekeepers wear are durable but hot, topped off with a caged-in helmet that zips onto the neckline of the suit, and the beekeeper is ready to check on the health of his hives.

Whitaker’s white boxes may look innocent enough dotting the landscape of his farmland in rural Coffee County, but they each contain between 30,000 and 60,000 of nature’s little honey makers.

Although the boxes appear to be cabinets with drawers that slide out, they actually come apart from the top, and that’s where Whitaker begins his inspection by easing the lid off the top and being careful not to stand in front of the hive when he does.

“I wouldn’t stand in front of the box when I lift the lid,” he says. “That hole at the bottom is where they come and go from. They might decide to go in a minute.”

This gentle man takes all the care in the world as he lifts the lid of the hive and slides a rack of bees from its resting place. He was correct, too. The bees in the bottom of the hive got the signal that something was amiss…and the escape hatch was filled with angry bees in a split second ready to protect their home, queen and their hard work for the season – honey.

As he raised the rack and the bees slid away, the sealed comb became visible. Each tiny octagon was filled with the golden honey and capped with wax. This is a healthy hive, and Whitaker is taking great care to keep it that way.


Bees are an important link in the food chain

“People naturally think about honey when they think about honeybees,” Whitaker says, “but honeybees are so much more important to our food chain than most people realize. Without them and the work they do, the food we eat wouldn’t make it to our tables. Now that’s even in danger.”

Today’s families and restaurant owners are more conscious about farm-to-table food and keeping produce as fresh and as organic as possible for purchase. However, it all starts with a single bloom fertilized with the pollen scattered on the legs of the humble honeybee.

“Pollination is responsible for $15 billion a year in the U.S. when it comes to agricultural production. There is not a fruit that doesn’t require pollination. A healthy hive has between 30,000 and 60,000 bees. To pollinate one acre of apple trees, you’ll need one hive of healthy bees. When we pollinate a watermelon field, we take 3-4 hives for about 7 acres, and we don’t get any honey back from that. The issue there is that we need the pollen. The important part is the pollination, but everyone focuses on the honey,” Whitaker says.

Whitaker offers a cautionary note for consumers trying to eat primarily organic produce. If you see a bottle of honey with a certified organic or organic label attached to it, be suspicious.

“It’s difficult to say that this honey is from this crop because the bees can travel up to 2.5 miles away from the hive to forage. I may not use pesticides on my fields, but I don’t know what’s being used on anyone else’s fields where those bees have been. There’s no way to certify honey as organic even though it is a purely natural food,” he says.

While honeybees are the best pollinators for the produce that we eat, they are under attack by a mysterious disease called Colony Collapse Disorder. The disease, which remains a mystery, is being investigated at the state and federal levels. The Agricultural Research Service, the USDA’s internal research agency, is leading several efforts into possible CCD causes of the disease that has proven to be an international phenomenon.

According to Whitaker, who is also president of the Southeast Alabama Beekeepers Association, he lost about 70 percent of his bee colonies last October due to Colony Collapse Disorder and the national loss is projected to be 50-90 percent for this year.

“Because we can’t predict CCD, we inspect the hives closely. There are signs of an unhealthy hive, so close inspection is very important,” Whitaker says.

Beekeeping is a process and some look at it as farming as with cows or pigs. With farming comes education, and the Southeast Alabama Beekeepers Association and the Alabama Beekeepers Association provide educational programs for those interested in learning how to keep honeybees and harvest the honey during the two harvesting seasons. There are levels of education from apprentice, journeyman, master, to master craftsman beekeeper with the master beekeeper program taking four years to complete.

Those just starting out are expected to register their honeybee colonies with the Alabama Department of Agriculture, pursuant to state law, and state societies can assist with the registration. To contact the associations for more information, visit,, and Whitaker’s company, Beeginnings, at

Worth the Drive

Huggin’ Molly’s embraces visitors with great food, warm service

By Jennifer Kornegay

The cheese biscuits at Huggin' Molly's are served with cinnamon butter.
The cheese biscuits at Huggin’ Molly’s are served with cinnamon butter.

If you’re anything like me, you love food. But has your food ever loved you back? More specifically, have you ever gotten a big ole hug from your food? If not, stop into Huggin’ Molly’s the next time you’re any where near Abbeville.

The tree-lined main street in Abbeville’s downtown area is bustling with life. Almost every storefront is filled with an office or shop or eatery of some sort. An awning pushing its way between branches announces the entrance to Huggin’ Molly’s. While the restaurant was opened in 2006, it lives up to the motto on its menus: “frozen in the fifties.”

The restaurant’s old-fashioned soda fountain — complete with a marble top and red vinyl stool seats that spin on polished chrome stalks — was plucked out of an early-20th century drug store in Pennsylvania and has been perfectly preserved; it is so authentic, a Hollywood set dresser preparing the site for a period film would have very little work to do. Glass cases display antique pharmacy items and penny-candy promotions, and vintage signs, mostly marketing Coca Cola, adorn the walls. Through the fountain area and to the left is the dining room, a space decorated with old movie posters and a few bits of “yella fella” marketing materials, alluding to Huggin’ Molly’s owner and Abbeville native Jimmy Ranes.

Owner of Great Southern Wood Preserving, which is headquartered in Abbeville, Ranes made selling pressure-treated wood fun when he adopted the “yella fella” persona. The oversized cowboy clothed completely in yellow is the spokesman for the company’s YellaWood brand pressure-treated products, and despite his strong resemblance to a big banana, “yella fella” works. Great Southern Wood has been successful, maintaining 15 stand-alone treating and distribution facilities servicing markets across the country and distributing YellaWood all over the world.

Patrons at Huggin' Molly's sit in front of the authentic soda fountain.
Patrons at Huggin’ Molly’s sit in front of the authentic soda fountain.

While donning his yella hat and running a huge business no doubt keeps Ranes busy, he added one more thing to his “to-do” list, when, following in his grandfather Anthony’s footsteps (who worked in food all his life) he opened Huggin’ Molly’s. Ranes took the name from a ghost that he’d heard tales of as a kid. Local legend says that a seven-foot-tall woman who is as “big around as a bale of hay” roams the streets of Abbeville at night, searching for victims to sweep up and squeeze tight. The story was most often used by parents hoping to scare their kids home well before dark.

But the hug I mentioned before has nothing to do with an overly affectionate specter; at Huggin’ Molly’s, the entire dining experience can be compared to an embrace.

Exhibit A: Hugs are welcoming. (What’s more welcoming than open arms beckoning you in?) So, too, is Huggin’ Molly’s. You’re greeted with a smile right inside the door as the hostess smiles hello. The friendly servers threaten to put you in a sugar coma, routinely dropping “sweetie,” “hon” and “darling” at the end of basic wait staff inquiries like “need more tea?” or “everything all right?”

Exhibit B: Hugs are warm and comforting. So is Huggin’ Molly’s food. Diner classics like club sandwiches, French dips, burgers and chicken fingers (at lunch) or steaks, chicken pot pie and pork chops (at dinner) are done right (homemade with fresh ingredients) and deliver exactly what your taste buds are expecting and anticipating. That’s not to say the fare is ordinary. Special touches like a spiced-up kick in the “comeback sauce” served with hand-battered chicken fingers, plus a few unexpected items like crisp and chewy fried cheese biscuits served with cinnamon butter keep things plenty interesting.

Final Exhibit: Hugs are sweet. Serving yesterday’s soda-fountain favorites like Brown and Black Cows (root beer and Coke floats), milkshakes, malts, sundaes and cherry or vanilla Cokes with the syrup added in, as well as a dessert menu boasting huge brownies, blondies and the pie of the day, Huggin’ Molly’s draws plenty of folks who come in for the sweet stuff alone.

I encourage you to make a trip to Abbeville when you find some extra time; you can enjoy the delicious food, plus get something extra for your drive over. At Huggin’ Molly’s, a little nuzzle and some nostalgia are always on the menu.


Need a Hug?

Visit Huggin’ Molly’s for breakfast, lunch, dinner or just a sweet treat at 129 Kirkland St., Abbeville, Ala. 334-585-7000. www.hugginmollys

Whole Kids Garden grows in state’s Black Belt

Young students establish ‘four seasons garden’ at University of West Alabama 

In the state’s Black Belt region, young students are learning how a garden grows as well as good eating habits with the help of gardening and nutrition experts.
In the state’s Black Belt region, young
students are learning how a garden grows
as well as good eating habits with the help of gardening and nutrition experts.

The youngest students at the University of West Alabama in Livingston are getting a firsthand education on the unique agriculture of Alabama through a garden project with the Center for the Study of the Black Belt. The first installment of their “four seasons garden” was planted in early summer, and the students are reaping quite a harvest.

Students at the UWA Campus School have dubbed the summer installation of their year-round garden “The Pizza Garden” because it’s filled with the tomatoes, peppers, onions, and herbs they like on their pizza. The project gives children ages 5 to 11 firsthand knowledge of how a garden grows and how a community can thrive on its natural resources to grow its own food.

Through a garden grant, Whole Kids Foundation has provided the seeds, literally and figuratively, to grow healthy children and communities in rural west Alabama. The year-round garden is intended to jump start a supplemental science curriculum for students and to promote a healthy lifestyle among the community by reaching children first in an area plagued by high rates of obesity and poverty.

Project coordinator Annie Upchurch, director of the UWA Campus School, says having the assistance of gardening and nutrition experts has been essential in demonstrating to the children the connection between planting a garden and a healthy lifestyle through better nutrition.

“Our students have shown so much enthusiasm in every aspect of the process from learning about agriculture and the skills of tending a garden to the importance of nutritious foods and how to plan healthy meals,” Upchurch explained.

The garden, which is located at the Campbell Environmental Education Center at UWA and is connected to the UWA Campus School by a stretch of one of the campus’s nature trails, has served as an outdoor classroom for the young students. Here, horticulturist Sam Ledbetter of the Black Belt Garden teaches them about the planting and care for the garden.

“It’s where they’ve learned about life cycles of plants and have seen firsthand the stages of plant growth. By putting their hands in the dirt and growing vegetables they know they’ll eat at harvest time, they’ve come to understand and appreciate the process,” Upchurch said.

In their regular classrooms, students learn each week from Debra Clark of the Health and Wellness Education Center for Sumter County about the nutritional value and benefits of eating the vegetables they grow in the garden. The classes help re-associate “fast food” from being a drive-thru meal to fresh vegetables from the backyard. HWEC is the community partner for the project.

Other community groups and organizations take part in the program. Alfa Women’s Organization assisted with the installation and planting of the garden, and Livingston’s Primrose Club, a ladies group founded in 1901 as a study club, provides recipes and will help the students cook for the harvest time pizza party.

As with any Alabama garden, aesthetic appeal and an element of style are priorities. In classroom craft projects the children have constructed and decorated their own watering cans using recycled containers. They have decorated the wash area with tile mosaics they created with the assistance of artists who also teach the technique in continuing education classes.

The garden shares its home with a community orchard established in 2012. All the plant life in the garden offers an agricultural history lesson to the community, which Educational Outreach Dean Tina N. Jones says keeps with the mission of UWA’s Center for the Study of the Black Belt and the University as a whole.

“The flora in the garden and orchard is native to Alabama’s Black Belt. These are the plants, vegetables, and fruits that would have grown in Alabama on homesteads like the Campbell Center’s original site more than 100 years ago,” Jones explained. “These fruits and vegetables thrive in the rich, dark soil for which the Black Belt region is named, and they have worked their way into our culture over the years both by the tradition of working to grow a crop and through the experiences we share while enjoying the harvest.”

The double-dog trot house that is the Campbell Environmental Education Center was moved to the UWA campus in 2010 and has been renovated to offer classroom and meeting space. The structure sits in close proximity to the Alamuchee Covered Bridge and historic Cedarwood. Plans are in place to relocate an historic chapel to the same area on the UWA campus.

The Center for the Study of the Black Belt was established in 2005 on the belief that people develop a shared sense of pride and stewardship of their homeland if they understand its history, culture, and natural environment. The Center encourages scholars and citizens to address the region’s challenges by promoting its abundant and unique natural, historical, and cultural resources.









Alabama Outdoors

For summer crappie, think like a spider!

By John N. Felsher

Mike Baker, a professional crappie angler, shows off a couple crappie he caught while fishing a spider rig.  Photo by John N. Felsher
Mike Baker, a professional crappie angler, shows off a couple crappie he caught while fishing a spider rig. Photo by John N. Felsher

As the late summer Alabama sun bakes down on the Heart of Dixie, many anglers forget about chasing crappie, one of the most abundant and delicious fish anywhere. Many Alabama anglers consider crappie “cold weather species” and only target them during winter or early spring, but the fish must eat all year long.

“A lot of people think crappie fishing is seasonal, but I fish 52 weeks of the year and catch fish each time,” says Mike Baker, a professional crappie angler. “After they spawn, crappie scatter and are just harder to find, but they still have to eat.”

Frequently, the higher and hotter the sun goes, the deeper and cooler crappie go. To find crappie in deep water, first check the electronics. Modern depth finders can provide extremely detailed information. Not as subject to capricious weather variations, deep water remains relatively stable all year long and can provide cooling comfort even on blistering hot days. In addition, deep water does not suffer as much turbulence from boat wakes or other activities like shoreline shallows. Once anglers find the fish, they can usually catch a bunch rapidly.

“In the summer, crappie normally move from the creeks back out to deeper water,” says Janette Carter, a professional crappie angler. “We look for them 15 to 25 feet deep in open water. When it gets really hot, fish seek shady cover. Shade is more important than water temperature.”

Electronics can give information on bottom cover, but anglers still need to probe the depths to locate fish and determine what they want to eat. For finding crappie in deep water, many anglers fish several rods simultaneously in a spider rig. With eight 12- to 16-foot long rods arrayed in holders off the bow, anglers can plow a huge swath through the water. The angler looks like prey trapped in a web, but this technique can find fish and put a lot of them in the boat quickly.

“With eight rods up front, it looks like a spider web,” says Phil Rambo, a professional crappie angler. “It’s a really slow type of fishing, almost vertical. The line is at about a 40-degree angle with the bait dangling in a crappie’s face until it can’t resist.”

Many anglers bait their rods with multiple combinations of soft-plastic jigs or live minnows. Some anglers tip their jigs with minnows for double the temptation. With multiple rods holding various baits, anglers can zero in on what fish want to bite. With the rods arrayed off the bow, push forward slowly with an electric motor to locate feeding fish. After finding fish, keep circling a hot honey hole.

“Finding one fish is the tough part,” says Don Collins, a professional crappie angler. “Once we find good fish, we go over the same area several times. When I’m searching for fish, I look for rises, ledges or creek channels, anything different on the bottom contour. A creek or river channel coming into a lake is just like a highway to fish. We use several different bait colors until we determine what the fish want. If we start catching more fish on one color, we change most of the baits to that color. That allows us to continue to catch fish while still looking for other colors that fish might like better.”

With a spider rig, anglers can simultaneously fish just off the bottom or way up the water column to precisely locate where fish want to suspend at any given time. Always dangle a bait slightly above the depth where crappie suspend. Crappie usually look up to spot baitfish silhouetted against surface glare. Crappie might rise three or four feet to hit a jig or minnow, but might not even see a bait dangling just below them.

“In the summer, crappie hang around the river ledges, points and deep ditches,” says Cody Young, a crappie guide from Eufaula (334-687-3200, 334-370-3450). “In the summer, once we establish the pattern on how to find fish, we can catch a bunch of crappie all summer long. In August at Lake Eufaula, crappie are in the brush piles in 15 to 19 feet of water.”

Young frequently supplements natural cover by building his own fish-attracting artificial reefs. The guide drills holes in large wooden cable spools. He then sticks bamboo stalks in the holes and wraps wires around the bottom of the spool to secure the stalks. Finally, he fills the center of each spool with concrete to make it sink and stand up vertically in the water column. As a result, it creates a brush pile that provides cover from the bottom up about 15 to 20 feet.

More like hunting than fishing, searching for deep crappie normally takes effort and patience, but anglers could load the boat in a good spot – even on the hottest summer days.

A conversation with Alabama’s school superintendent

Alabama schools must realign their limited resources more strategically to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population, Bice says. Photos courtesy Alabama State Department of Education
Alabama schools must realign their limited resources more
strategically to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population, Bice says.
Photos courtesy Alabama State Department of Education

Creating lifelong learners

Schools + parents + business + industry = Success

Later this month, school doors will reopen in Alabama for more than 700,000 students. Alabama Living editor Lenore Vickrey sat down with Alabama School Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice recently to talk about the state of our public schools. Following is an edited portion of that interview. For more information about Alabama’s schools, visit

Alabama Living: We hear a lot about the bad things in our public schools, but we want our readers to know about the good things. Tell us about some of those good things.

Bice: I think the most exciting thing at the moment is that we’ve redefined the “high school graduate” for the state of Alabama. As part of that, we set a goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020. We took a baseline last year and we were at 72 percent, which to some may not sound like a positive thing. It’s actually higher than it’s ever been since records have been kept in Alabama. And we set a trajectory through 2020 of increasing it by 2 percent each year to make that goal. But in the first year we increased about 3 percent which again, doesn’t sound like a huge amount. If we continue on that trajectory, we’ll get to 90 percent even before 2020.

And the significance of that is two-fold. Number one, what it means for those individuals that are actually now high school graduates rather than high school dropouts and their options for future choices of continuing their education or certain jobs they would have not been eligible for. But as a state, it also means people (graduates) have greater income. And if you have greater income, you spend more. So for our economy, it’s a huge boost. What we’re trying to get across to our legislature is the two main funding sources that fund public education, which are income tax and sales tax. If we are able to get them behind us on some of the things that we are trying to do and actually get to this 90 percent graduation rate, we can be our own solution to our funding problem for the education budget, because we’ll have a greater number of people with higher income and spending more. Which, obviously, will enhance the education trust fund. So it helps the individual and it helps the state.


Alabama Living: What specifically are we doing inside the schools to keep students in the classroom?

Bice:  The Department of Education is a huge bureaucracy and bureaucracies tend to treat whoever they serve as if they’re all the same. And we’ve done that for a long time in public education. We’ve reorganized the department, we changed a lot of our rules and regulations so that we’re actually rewarding and supporting innovation. And removing some of the rules and regulations that have held people back from doing things that could create more opportunities for children to be more engaged.

There’s a school in rural Talladega County, Winterboro, that was having issues with dropouts and [they] visited schools around the nation looking for a new solution. They had tried a lot of things and they weren’t working. They came up on Project-Based Learning and they partnered with business and industry to come in and look at teaching math, science, social studies and English around solving real world problems provided by business and industry. One of the first things they did was tear down walls between classrooms, so that teachers…


Alabama Living: The physical walls?

Bice: Physical walls, and they created learning suites. Where groups of students come in and work with teachers who have planned their lessons around solving that problem. And it’s remarkable. Since they have done that for the last three years, they have had one student to drop out of school, their graduation rate is at 98 percent and their discipline referrals are almost nonexistent. Because they are providing education in a different sort of environment from the way we traditionally provided education.


Teachers are encouraged to come up with ideas outside of what has typically taken place inside Alabama classrooms.
Teachers are encouraged to come up with ideas outside of what has typically taken place inside Alabama classrooms.

Alabama Living: And just that one simple change has made that much difference?

Bice: Absolutely. One of the biggest changes that occurred… most of the faculty that had taught there many years chose to leave because they weren’t willing to make the shift. And that’s another area of work that we are being very strategic on. If the adults that are teaching our children aren’t willing to shift to a 21st century sort of learning environment for children, then we’re helping them find other ways to earn a living. Because we need people that are connected to our students.


Alabama Living: You were telling me earlier that another classroom was involved in a garden.

Bice:  I was just there this morning. To kick off an initiative that we’re calling “Ending Childhood Hunger in Alabama,” an area that we are focusing on is to begin to teach children how to have a garden. So that they can learn about sustainability, building their own gardens at home and making sure that as they become adults, they understand that they can have control over their hunger needs. It was just remarkable. And they are again teaching science, math, social studies, and English through this work in the garden.

After the formal press conference, they turned the children loose and they immediately got engaged telling everybody about their plants and what’s going on. One of the neatest stories was from a first-grader. I asked her, I said “What are some of your challenges?” She says,  “You know, we’re just so challenged right now because we have cabbage worms that are attacking our cabbage.

And I’m thinking, OK, a first-grader talking about cabbage worms. So I say, “How are you handling this?” and she says, “We come out every morning and pick off the cabbage worms because if we don’t, they are going to eat up our cabbages. But we’ve also left a few, so we could see what happens to the cabbage worms after they eat the cabbage. They actually build a chrysalis, become a chrysalis and hatch into Cabbage Butterflies that are just as bad as the worms, but they trick you because they’re pretty. So we go after those as well.”


Alabama Living: How often do you get out?

Bice: I purposely go once a week to a school and spend time with students and just see what’s going on. I’m amazed at what’s going on. You know, do we have some schools that are underperforming? Absolutely we do, but those are by far the minority. And we are dealing very aggressively with those right now, to turn them around so that those students have options just like other students. But, by far, the majority of our students, once we’ve removed some of those rules and regulations that have kind of held them captive for years, the innovation that’s coming out of these schools is just remarkable.


Alabama Living: And who’s really to be credited for that? Teachers there, parents or…..?

Bice: It’s a combination in these schools where it’s really taking off. It’s where the school community has partnered with business and industry and with parents. It’s really a collective community effort. Sometimes schools try to do their own thing aside from the community and especially aside from the business and industry. And where we’re seeing the greatest move forward is where business and industry have paired with education. Because as I have shared openly, ultimately business and industry are our customers of public education. Whether it’s straight out of high school, two years later after a technical degree, four years later a B.S. degree, or ten years later. Those people go into the work force, so we want to make sure that we are partnered with them along the way, so there is a connection between what we do and what they’re expecting.


Alabama Living: Any other positive stories that you’ve encountered in junior high or high schools?

Bice:  Our Torchbearer Schools are those that are defying the myth about some of the things people say that prevent children from learning. These are schools that have over 80 percent free or reduced lunch population, which means most of their children live in some level of poverty.

We have a group of schools now that seven or eight years ago were some of our lowest performing schools in the state. And because of great leadership being brought in and giving them flexibility to do things that they knew they needed to do, they are now some of our highest performing schools in the state. The analogy I use is eight years the children were poor, lived in public housing, many of them lived in single parent homes where their parents were under-educated because we didn’t do a good job with them either. Black, Hispanic, speaking a different language — all the reasons we sometimes use as excuses as to why the children can’t learn. Eight years later, after a lot of work, the children are still poor, they still live in inner city housing, and all those variables are still exactly the same. But those children are performing at levels comparable to any of our highest performing schools in the state. Which are models for us to take away from those best practices to share with all of our schools.


Alabama Living: You mentioned flexibility as a factor.

Bice: Yes. For teachers and others to be able to come together and develop curriculum, outside of things we have typically done in education.


Alabama Living: [To] think outside the box.

Bice:  [Yes,] to think outside the box. I don’t own a box, I burned all that a long time ago because boxes don’t serve well to serve the diverse population of students we currently serve in Alabama. It’s more diverse than it’s ever been with poverty being our biggest challenge. We have to be able to realign what we do and our limited resources more strategically to meet the needs of those children.


Alabama Living: What can the people of Alabama do best to support our schools? You know, we’re not real fond of tax increases in our state.

Bice: Sure and I understand that. You know, I’ve been on this job now for 15 months and this will be my first budget that I’ve really been able to work with. I was very upfront with the legislature when I came with my request. Many of the things that I asked for in our budget, that were the priorities or our state Board of Education, were actually not requests for new money but to take money that had previously been spent for something else and move to things that we had, through research and best practice, determined would have a greater return on investment.

One of the areas that we know is just crucial in our state is so many kids come to school hungry, without the clothes they need, without their basics having been met. We asked to take money that had been spent, for years, on the graduation exam remediation and we’re doing away with the graduation exam and replacing it with the ACT. Which gives people something to work towards that’s meaningful. But there was a pot of money set aside for remediation of that, take that and help us. Some people say that’s not the schools’ responsibility, well if we want them to learn, it absolutely is. In partnership with other state agencies and other private industries that want to come together and create these organizations of service to families and children.

You know, I’ve worked in some of the poorest counties in the state. I worked in Coosa County for a while; it’s very rural, great place, wonderful people and very little economic growth there at this point. And many of those parents have lived there forever and have needs for those children. I look at these big white buildings here in Montgomery that are filled with bureaucracy, ours being one of them, and think, “How does that parent that may not even have the capacity to even know where to start to get the services their children need, how do they ever get there?” So it’s our responsibility to break down that bureaucracy to the level that it can be accessed at the local level.

Alabama Living: The Common Core came under some attack during the last legislative session. Is there anything the public needs to know about this that hasn’t already been said?

Bice: I was involved with this when it first was set up in 2007. It was a time when a group of governors and a group of educators thought, “We’ve got 50 states that are working every so often to redo their standards for math and the English, language arts and algebra can’t be that different in 50 different states. We’re spending enormous amounts of money and time for different states to be doing what they could do collectively, possibly learn from each other and come up with something that’s even better than what they could’ve done individually. To me, that was, for lack of a better term, a no-brainer.

So we came back and asked our board if they would be interested in us working on that, to which they said yes. We began working on the process of working with 48 other states and a multitude of other entities, pulling together the best of all the states’ standards. We actually started with all the states’ standards and looked at those internationally because many of our graduates now are going to be competing, not just within the United States but for jobs internationally. What can we do to make sure the standards get them there? We came up with, throughout that process, input from every state that was participating before anything was finalized and finally came up with a set of standards. Alabama, unlike some other states, took the Common Core standards that were developed through that collaborative and brought it back to Alabama. Alabama educators, teachers, principals, university faculty and laypersons, which is the way we’ve always done it, took those and Alabama standards to look at the two and compare them. They took the best of both and combined them into what we refer to as Alabama’s College and Career Ready Standards for Math and English Language Arts. We don’t report our work to anyone outside of the state of Alabama.

When people ask me what’s the big difference between our previous standards and our new standards, this sounds awfully simple, but it’s really a change in the verb. In our old standards it would say, “Compute three digit numbers to come up with the correct sum.” In our new standards in the same grade it would say, “Given this real world situation, based on what you’ve learned, determine the mathematics that is required to solve the problem. Work with three or four of your peers to come up with as many solutions to it as you can. Choose the one that you feel best answers the question and explain to the rest of your class why you chose that solution.” The arithmetic is still the same.


Alabama Living: Right.

Bice: Still adding three digit numbers. But what we’re asking students and teachers to do differently is to think, work together and to solve problems. Which is, when you talk with business and industry and higher education, the skill set that has been missing. Under the previous way we have been teaching, for almost a decade now, to pass a test. Now we want them to take what they’ve learned and apply it to something they may have never even seen before. That is what’s exciting. It changes the role of the learner and it changes the role of the teacher. It also equips children to take on situations and issues that they may have never had the ability to do before.


Alabama Living: So this is what you were talking about when we started this interview. You’re changing what a high school graduate will be.

Bice: Exactly. You know, I spent probably the first six months on the job meeting with business and industry and higher education; which, I realized immediately on being hired that there was a disconnect between us and them. The whole purpose of that time was to ask them that question. What is it about Alabama high school graduates that is missing when you get them? Interestingly and somewhat unexpected, the response from business and industry and higher education was identical. That they have some of the basic math, English, science and those sorts of skills that you would expect them to have, but they don’t appear to know what to do with them. And they are so programmed to take the test and move on, they don’t want to continue to learn. Just give me the answer, tell me what you want me to do with it and let me go.

So we want to create a graduate that is a lifelong learner, that has intellectual curiosity, that isn’t afraid to experiment what they’ve learned and work with their peers to come up with solutions. Which is what the real world looks like. So that’s what we are trying to prepare them for.


Alabama Living:  Ten years from now, what are our schools in Alabama going to look like?

Bice: I challenge people to think about that very question. I actually met, about a week or so ago, with all the plant managers from all the school systems in the state.


Alabama Living: The physical plant?

Bice: The physical plant managers, because they are an intricate part of what we do as well. And I challenged them to think ten years from now about what their job might look like that is different. We get real caught up in building these big places to public education, but with technology and some of the examples I’ve given you, learning can occur in a lot of different places and a lot of different times. We’ve got to begin to look at education through that lens rather than it being a place. It really could be, with technology, a 24/7 anywhere and anytime experience for students. Not for all, but for those that can handle that sort of thing.

We have distance learning now where we offer hundreds of courses so that students, no matter where they live, can take courses. That doesn’t have to happen during the school day. That can happen in the evenings and that can happen on the weekends. I have a son that took a Latin course from a teacher at another school because they didn’t offer it at his school and it couldn’t be worked into his school day. So he took it at night on his own in a blended model with his teacher from another school system. It worked out beautifully and more efficiently. Rather than building something, there are a lot of empty buildings in the world today. If we opened up, and they’ve done a lot of this in the urban areas, go to the empty storefronts in local neighborhoods and open up “schools”. They might be Twilight Schools, it means it’s after hours, so that kids who have had to drop out of schools and support their families could actually have an opportunity to return to school, be successful and be this higher wage earner to supports their families. But it takes us rethinking how we deliver education.

Bice: Probably the question that I am asked the most, that drives people crazy when I say, “Ask for flexibility.” They say, “What can we ask flexibility from?” I refuse to give them the list, because the minute I give them the list I have now, again, taken over the thinking process. What might be thought of and created within a faculty in Dekalb County verses what might be thought of in Wilcox County could be totally different and of equal value. So, we have a 134 school systems and 1,500 schools. So we could have 1,500 different ways this looks.


Alabama Living: It doesn’t look like the school you and I went to.

Bice: Exactly, it doesn’t need to.




Marveling at Mims: The trouble in paradise

By John Brightman Brock

A reenactment is planned for the bicentennial Aug. 30-Sept. 1.  Photo by John Nelson
A reenactment is planned for the bicentennial Aug. 30-Sept. 1.
Photo by John Nelson

One day, in the year 1813, fear changed everything.

Cries of “Indians in the fort!” resounded inside hastily constructed timber walls in the Tensaw region of Alabama. Those gathered on the Samuel Mims Plantation, near Stockton, had screamed in disbelief and later in horror as 250 of the 400 inhabitants were slaughtered in a fiery clash of cultures.

The settlers, protected by 100 Mississippi Territorial Volunteers, had gathered after reports of Red Stick Creek Indians procuring guns, possibly from the British or Spanish. This was followed by a report that the militia had failed to intercept them at a place called Burnt Corn Creek. Now the Red Sticks, known for their red-tipped war clubs, turned their fears of an encroaching white culture onto the fort, including nationalized Creeks and African slaves.

The hand of fate seemed cruel that Aug. 30, as rain-hardened sand held open the fort’s eastern gate allowing 700 Indians to enter at noon, fight and hours later destroy by fire Fort Mims, located in present-day Baldwin County. The blaze grew hot enough to melt cast iron, ravaging many of the fort’s wooden structures and fences, and horridly illuminating the scalpings of hundreds of settlers before the Red Sticks left with their captives.

A burial party would not arrive until three weeks later, constructing mass graves that remain in memorial to the beginnings of the Creek Indian War.

A struggling young America, already at war with the British, would later avenge the deaths of those killed that day. News of “Massacre at Fort Mims!” would sound the death knell for these Red Stick Creek Indians, who had attacked the fort in civil war action against Creeks who had settled with the whites.

A shocked nation dispatched an angry Gen. Andrew Jackson and his army, which devastated the Red Sticks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend on March 27, 1814. Remaining Creeks were taken from the land and more than 20 million acres were ceded to the United States, signaling an end to Creek Indian traditional hunting grounds where they had hunted deer for many years.


A volatile clash of cultures

The enraged Red Stick Creeks had actually “raised the red stick of war” against their own National Council, says Kathryn E. Holland Braund of Auburn University, who edited a book of essays on the war, Tohopeka: Rethinking the Creek War and the War of 1812.

“The War of 1812 was going on,” says Braund. “There had been tremendous Creek opposition to the Federal Road. The people in what is now South Alabama were expecting an Indian war and perhaps even wanted it as an excuse to claim more territory and dislodge the Spanish and even the Indians. And on the Creek side, there were divisions. When the Creek National Council sent warriors to execute other Creeks for crimes committed against Americans, it resulted in a civil war among the Creeks.”

The Red Sticks saw American demands for things like roads as an encroachment on their sovereignty. “They feared the increasing settlements of whites all around them and resented the demands for land by Americans. And they opposed the accommodation the Creek National Council represented. Many of these members of the National Council were profiting from the accommodation with Americans while most Creeks weren’t,” Braund says.

The tipping point came when the Creek National Council began to take unprecedented powers and usurp clan authority by executing people, she says.

“A sizeable portion of the Creek people raised the red stick of war against their own leaders and laid siege to Tuckabatchee (where the Creek National Council convened in current day Elmore County). A contingent went to Pensacola for supplies to use against their own people; and the Mississippi Territorial Militia thought a preemptive strike would prevent an attack on the Tensaw settlements by destroying the arms the insurgents possessed.

“It backfired, and the Red Sticks changed their target to Fort Mims as an act of revenge,” Braund says. “The ensuing fierceness of the attack on the fort shocked Americans … especially the size of the death toll. News of the attack transformed a Creek civil war into an American war against the Creeks.”


Artifact trail

Excavations have unearthed evidence of several buildings in the fort, including the Mims house, the kitchen, a blacksmith shop and a cabin. Archaeologists collected artifacts, among them a large cast iron kettle as evidence of the fire set that day, with a chunk of the iron kettle completely melted.

After years of random excavation diluted the site’s remains, however, archeologists like Bonnie Gums, with the University of South Alabama in Mobile, have been able to further piece together the massacre. Gums, who works with archeologist Dr. Gregory A. Waselkov, published their official chronology in 2007 as “Archaeology at Fort Mims: Excavation, Contexts and Artifact Catalogue.”

Sometimes digging, sometimes using ground penetrating equipment, their onsite work discovered stark evidence of the disastrous turmoil inside the fence, says Gums. They found that two months before the massacre, settlers had built the fort fence in about a day around a 200- by 200-foot land area, then laying timbers side by side, possibly as a fence.

But previous researchers in 1953 “took a bulldozer to it to find the walls … not the best way to do it,” Gums says. The five acres that holds the fort had been deeded to the state with the stipulation that they make it into a park in 10 years, and “after nine and a half years, the state had done nothing.” She said those researchers went in there in a hurry to find any evidence the fort had existed. Those findings were inconclusive.

A decade later, the Department of Conservation excavated the site, this time discovering two wells inside the fort area and artifacts. After digging out the wells, they found an ax head in the bottom of one well, bearing the initials ZM, believed to belong to Zachariah McGirth, a survivor, Gums says.

So, in 2000, when the Alabama Historical Commission asked Waselkov and Gums “to gather everything that’s ever been done at Fort Mims,” they took more than five years, including 25 days on site, before publishing their findings. They determined that “walls” found in 1953 were actually burned trees from the massacre; so they decided to look for themselves – to find the walls.

They discovered real evidence of west, north and east walls of the fort, after evidence of the south wall had been discovered in a 1970s excavation. The key to finding the remains of walls, actually, was defining a “darker stain in the ground,” Gums says. “They (settlers) had built a trench … it’s easier to build a trench than to build a post hole. The trench was only a couple of inches deep, less than a foot; it wasn’t very stable. They would have stuck timbers in there, and packed the timbers in place, to stay in place.”

The Mims plantation actually existed from the late 1790s, and had been a plantation for about 15 years prior to the fort and the massacre. “It was really a fort for only about two months. So many artifacts we found were in the ground prior to the battle, meaning they were plantation artifacts,” Gums says. The ones found from the battle were burned, melted bottle glass, burned ceramics, burned and melted lead … we can pretty much say were from the battle that day.”

Bicentennial will feature battle reenactment

Descendants of the survivors of the Fort Mims massacre will make their way to Baldwin County for a bicentennial reenactment Aug. 30-Sept. 1, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Activities each day will start with a reenactment of the Battle of Burnt Corn Creek in the mornings, and the Battle of Fort Mims in the afternoons. Re-enactors will be there with tents, blacksmithing, period music, booths and will provide covered wagon rides led by mules.

Claudia Slaughter Campbell, president of the Fort Mims Restoration Association, expects a large turnout. It will be portrayed on the actual anniversary date and time, 200 years later, she says. “Descendants of Fort Mims from all over the nation will be making their pilgrimages to this site in north Baldwin County to honor their ancestors who were in some way a part of this day in early American history.”

Directions to Fort Mims: (45 miles from Mobile) 12 miles north of Stockton on Highway 59, turning west on County Road 80 for three miles until you see the signs.




Alabama Recipes

Ice Cream

In the summertime, who doesn’t love a great big heaping bowl of homemade ice cream? Why do we like it so much? It’s comfort food. You can add any ingredients you like such as fruit, candies, and toppings galore to fix it exactly like you want it. One of my earliest memories with my grandmother is when a storm rolled through one night. She had the ingredients to make homemade vanilla ice cream with a manual ice cream maker. We churned that ice cream by candlelight in the dark and I think we ate the whole tub by the time the lights came back on! – Mary Tyler Spivey


Cook of the Month


Peach Ice Cream

Ann K. Covington, Cherokee EC

3 cups ripe peaches, chopped and sweetened
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 large can evaporated milk
1/2 cup sugar
1 package vanilla instant pudding mix
1/2 pint of half and half
1/2 pint whipping cream
1 can apricot or peach nectar
1 teaspoon almond flavoring
8 ounce carton Cool Whip
Extra milk
3 pounds crushed ice
1 box ice cream salt

Set aside peaches after chopping. Mix other ingredients, folding in Cool Whip last. Pour into one-gallon freezer tub. Add peaches and stir. Add extra milk to the fill line, if needed. Close and begin to turn tub. Add crushed ice and salt (3 cups of ice, then 1 cup of salt) until ice covers top of tub. Freeze until freezer strains or stops running. Unplug freezer. Remove ice and salt from top of tub. Serve immediately for soft serve ice cream. For firmer ice cream, add more ice and salt; cover freezer with newspapers, aluminum foil and towels and let ripen 30 minutes to 1 hour. This also can be used for vanilla ice cream by omitting the peaches. It can be made with less fat by using the fat-free versions of the ingredients. Makes one gallon.


Homemade Butter Pecan Ice Cream

5 eggs, well beaten
1/2 cup, white granulated sugar
1 box dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups butter-toasted pecans, chopped
1 pint half and half
1/2 pint whipping cream
1 gallon whole regular milk

Coat pecans in butter, place in greased pan and bake at 250 for about 15 minutes. You must check them and stir often to prevent them from burning. Beat eggs, white sugar and brown sugar together until well mixed. Add pecans and half and half with the whipping cream. Beat until frothy. Place in ice cream freezer. Use regular milk to fill the freezer tank to the “fill” line. Pack ice and sprinkle ice cream salt around freezer tank. Freeze according to ice cream maker instructions.

Kathy Pittman, Wiregrass EC


Chocolate Cheesecake Ice Cream

1/2 pint heavy cream
1/2 pint sour cream
6 ounces cream cheese
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ounces grated milk chocolate

Melt chocolate over double boiler or in microwave. Let cool at room temperature. Place the cream cheese into a mixing bowl and beat until soft and smooth. Slowly add the sugar and then beat in the sour cream and chocolate followed by the double (heavy) cream. Add the vanilla extract and lemon juice and mix until thick and smooth. Cover and chill in the refrigerator for 2-3 hours. Take the chilled mixture and beat until creamy, then transfer the complete mixture into an ice cream maker and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Pamela Parker, Arab EC


Ice Cream Layer Cake


Ice cream sandwiches (amount varies depending on size)
Cool Whip
Hershey’s syrup or chocolate sauce
Butterfinger candy bars (2-3) crumbled, for topping (optional)

The first thing you want to do is determine how many sandwiches you’ll need and the layout for your 9×13 Dish. Arrange them, wrapped. You’ll need two layers. The one sticking out on the side will be broken in half and stacked to fit the small spot in the corner. It doesn’t matter if the sandwiches don’t touch the edges of the dish. Unwrap and place the first layer of sandwiches in your dish, and then cover with Cool Whip and drizzled chocolate syrup. Repeat the layers of ice cream sandwiches, whipped cream, and chocolate sauce. Finish the dish by adding the crushed candy bar on top.

Carmen Bishop, Wiregrass EC



Pop Rouge Ice Cream

In a 4-quart ice cream maker, combine two cans of sweetened condensed milk and two liters of red pop. Stir well and turn on. Enjoy.

Liz Nichols Spicer, Covington EC


‘Handmade’ Ice Cream

1 cup half and half cream
1/4 cup sugar
1-2 teaspoons of real vanilla extract
1 cup salt
4-6 cups crushed ice
A gallon-size ziplock bag
A quart-size ziplock bag

In the quart-size bag combine cream, sugar and vanilla. Try to get the air out carefully and seal. Place the salt and ice in the gallon bag. Then place the quart size bag inside the gallon bag, seal and allow to sit for three minutes. Then begin to shake and knead for 5-10 minutes until cream mix is thick. Eat immediately or freeze. Only enough for one person. My son enjoys making this Ice cream. Good for little ones.

Laura Symonds, Joe Wheeler EMC


Orange Sherbet

1 can Eagle Brand condensed milk
1 can crushed pineapple (20 oz)
1-2 liter Sunkist orange drink
16 oz Cool Whip (thawed)

Combine all ingredients, stir well. Pour into the canister of an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer’s directions.

Ruth Clements, Cherokee EC


Ice Cream Cake

2 1/2 cups Oreo cookies
1/4 cup melted butter
1 8-ounce carton Cool Whip
1 jar chocolate fudge
1/2 gallon vanilla ice cream

Crush cookies to a fine consistency. Mix cookie crumbs with melted butter. Press into a 13Å~9 pan or a spring form pan. Divide slightly softened vanilla ice cream into sections and press into cookie crust. Spread fudge over the ice cream; it is a little easier to work with if it is slightly warm. Top with Cool Whip. Freeze at least 3 to 4 hours before serving.

Rene’ R. Mason, Dixie EC



Peanut Butter Ice Cream

1 quart half and half
2 cans of Carnation evaporated milk
1 sweetened condensed milk
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 small tub Cool Whip
15 ounces crunchy peanut butter

Heat peanut butter on stove top with approximately 1 1/2 cups of the milk, stirring continually. Mix with remaining ingredients. Freeze in electric freezer and enjoy.

Brenda Gunnells, Marshall DeKalb EC