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Celebrating Independence

Bailey family annual 4th of July fish fry. SUBMITTED BY Jamie Jackson, Opp.
Bailey family annual 4th of July fish fry. SUBMITTED BY Jamie Jackson, Opp.
Abigail Turner, age 10, at the Lake Martin boat parade. SUBMITTED BY Sam Turner, Flomaton.
Abigail Turner, age 10, at the Lake Martin boat parade. SUBMITTED BY Sam Turner, Flomaton.
Michael Marion at Rise 'n Shine Farm. SUBMITTED BY Michelle Traylor, Andalusia.
Michael Marion at Rise ‘n Shine Farm. SUBMITTED BY Michelle Traylor, Andalusia.
Makenzie's first Independence Day, 2015. SUBMITTED BY Jessica Dawson, Town Creek.
Makenzie’s first Independence Day, 2015. SUBMITTED BY Jessica Dawson, Town Creek.

Hooking up with a good charter captain

Anglers fish for red snapper and other reef species with Capt. Sonny Alawine of Summer Breeze Charters in the Gulf of Mexico south of Orange Beach, Ala.

By John N. Felsher

The federal government only allowed Alabama anglers nine days in June to fish for red snapper, but anglers can fish for them until July 31 in state waters, which extend out to nine miles from shore.

“Biologists have assessed the resource in our waters and we feel that there are enough red snapper in Alabama waters to open an additional season to give our citizens the ability to catch more red snapper this year,” says Chris Blankenship, director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division.

Despite the smallest coastline on the Gulf of Mexico, Alabama looms large among fishermen. To enhance fishing, the state placed about 20,000 artificial reefs in coastal waters, many within easy range of small boats running out of Orange Beach, Gulf Shores or Dauphin Island.

Not everyone can afford a boat equipped for fishing offshore, so many people hire professional captains to take them. Considering the cost of buying, equipping, insuring and maintaining a large offshore boat, anglers who only fish a few times a year actually save money by hiring captains. Most charter captains provide all the bait and tackle necessary. Their customers need only show up at the appropriate time and place ready for action, but might want to bring some food and refreshments, a camera and other personal items.

Don’t know how to fish? Don’t worry! Many charter guests have never touched a fishing rod or stepped onto a boat before and may need the most basic instructions. Captains don’t mind teaching people how to fish. Most would probably rather work with a novice who will listen to instructions than a know-it-all who tries to run the boat.

Before booking a trip with any guide or captain, do some research. A little time with a computer can eliminate many problems, save time and may even save money. Many charter captains host their own Internet sites or give fishing reports on other websites.

After surfing the Internet, call some captains and ask questions. Talk to the captain directly, not a booking agent. If possible, visit the boat before deciding to hire a skipper.

Questions customers might ask:

  • How does that captain fish, and is that what the customer really wants to do? If customers want to troll for marlin, they shouldn’t book a party boat heading out for four hours of bottom fishing around a reef. Some people don’t care what they catch. They just want to enjoy a good time.
  • Does this captain fish for the species I want to catch and how I want to catch them?
  • Is that species in season and is this a good time to catch it? For instance, someone shouldn’t try to book a snapper trip in August after the season closes.
  • What does the captain provide and what should I bring? What is included in the price and what costs extra? Customers and captains should agree upon special requests in advance to avoid surprises.
  • Some people also want to know about the captain’s reputation before booking a trip. How does this captain treat the customers? Does the captain find fish? How is the boat and equipment? Since captains rely heavily upon word of mouth for bookings, most gladly answer any questions and might even give potential customers contact information for some people who recently fished with them.

John N. Felsher is a freelance writer and photographer who writes from Semmes, Ala. Contact him through his website at

Alabama Recipes: Peaches

Photo by Michael Cornelison

Passion for Peaches

Peach season is in full swing. There’s no better time to savor one of our state’s favorite fruits.

Between Montgomery and Birmingham, just off I-65, a giant, yellowish-orangey orb pops out at you, radiant against a summer’s bright blue sky. Every time I see it, it warms me through, but it’s not the sun. It’s a giant peach on a stick. Or more accurately, it’s the city of Clanton’s water tower fashioned in the form of the one of the Deep South’s most symbolic fruits, designed to honor the crop that means so much to Chilton County and to also pull drivers off of the interstate, inviting them to stop and take a taste of the area’s sweet heritage.

At just one exit (No. 205) for Clanton, for example, you’ve got several options to indulge your peach passion: fresh-from-the-tree peaches, peach ice cream, peach fried pies, peach jams, peach cider and more.

Chilton County’s hilly terrain and well-drained soils help make it the leader in peach production in Alabama. Farmers grow at least a couple dozen, and often many more, different varieties to ensure a longer harvesting season.

While Georgia may produce a higher quantity of peaches than we do (and South Carolina beats both states), Alabamians know that a just-ripe, semi-soft, blushing-cause-it-knows-its-so-good, golden-fleshed Chilton County peach easily rivals the “peach state’s” peaches in quality.

Right now, this fuzzy favorite is at its peak, and if you can get your hands on Chilton County peaches, good for you. But no matter where your peaches come from, use them to make some of these peachy keen, reader-submitted recipes.

– Jennifer Kornegay

Cook of the Month


Myscha Crouch, Joe Wheeler EMC

You can whip up Myscha Crouch’s easy twist on traditional peach cobbler fast, and since it’s also delicious, it will disappear just as quickly. “I’ve been making it for about two years, and I modified a recipe I’d found to give the topping more flavor and texture,” she says. She was inspired by a homemade granola she makes and drew on that snack’s combo of crunchy, salty and sweet to round out the soft and sweet of the peaches.

“You can use frozen peaches,” she says. “Just thaw them first. But this time of year, you really should use fresh Alabama peaches.” Trust Myscha. She knows her stuff. “I love to cook and experiment with foods,” she says.

She’s even earned our Cook of the Month honor before. And her recipe has an added bonus: For folks watching what they eat or dealing with food allergies, note that this dish doesn’t call for any refined sugars, wheat or dairy.

Photo by Michael Cornelison
Photo by Michael Cornelison

Skillet Peach Cobbler


  • ¼ cup coconut milk
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 2 teaspoons arrowroot or tapioca starch
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 6 peaches, peeled and sliced


  • 1½ cups finely shredded coconut
  • ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons arrowroot or tapioca starch
  • 1/8 cup sunflower seeds
  • 1/8 cup pumpkin seeds
  • ¾ teaspoon cinnamon
  • Pinch of sea salt
  • ¾ cup butter
  • 3 tablespoons maple syrup

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together all of the filling ingredients except the fruit until well combined. Toss the fruit in the mixture to coat well. In a separate mixing bowl, whisk the coconut, arrowroot/tapioca, cinnamon, seeds and salt together until well combined. Mix in the butter and maple syrup until the dry ingredients are incorporated into the wet. Place the fruit filling into a 10-inch cast iron skillet. Then evenly cover the fruit with the topping, leaving the edges of the skillet exposed so you can see some of the fruit and to allow space for bubbling. Bake for 30-45 minutes until the topping is golden brown and the fruit filling is bubbling and the fruit is soft.

Photo by Michael Cornelison
Photo by Michael Cornelison

Drunken Peaches

  • 6 peaches, peeled, seeded, halved
  • ½ cup dark rum
  • ¼ cup brown sugar
  • 1 stick butter
  • ¼ cup pecans, crushed

Grill peaches 5 minutes per side. In saucepan, combine rum, brown sugar, butter and pecans. Cook mixture 5 minutes on low heat. Add peaches to mixture and cook until caramelized, turning often. Serve and enjoy!

Kirk Vantrease, Cullman EC

Peach-Blueberry Pie

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 3 cups fresh peaches, sliced and peeled
  • 1 cup fresh blueberries
  • Pastry for double-crust pie (9 inch)
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon 2 percent milk

Combine sugar, flour, cinnamon and allspice. Add peaches and blueberries in a large bowl. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. On a lightly floured surface, roll one half of dough to a circle; transfer to a 9-inch pie plate. Trim pastry to ½-inch beyond rim of plate. Add filling. Dot with butter. Roll remaining dough to a circle. Cut into ½-inch-wide strips. Arrange over filling in a lattice pattern. Trim and seal strips to edge of bottom pastry. Flute edge. Brush lattice strips with milk; sprinkle with more cinnamon or sugar if desired. Bake 40-45 minutes. Cool before serving.

Robin O’Sullivan, Wiregrass EC

Dried Peaches

(for making fried pies)

  • 15 pounds peaches (do not peel)
  • 5 pounds sugar
  • 1¾cups vinegar (apple cider)
  • Cook over low heat until thick enough for pies. Put in jars and seal.

Betty Brewer, North Alabama EC

Wanda’s Peach Cake

  • 2 sticks sweet cream salted butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 6 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon almond flavoring
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla flavoring
  • 3 cups cake flour
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • 3 cups ripe but firm peaches, diced
  • 1 3-ounce package apricot or peach Jell-O, divided

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray tube pan with cooking spray. Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Add flavorings. Sift flour, baking soda and salt. Add flour mixture alternately with sour cream to the creamed butter mixture. Fold in peaches and ½ of the dry Jell-O. Spoon into pan and bake for 60 minutes or until done.

For glaze:

  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons butter or margarine
  • 1 12-ounce can peach soda (I use Faygo)
  • 2 or 3 peaches, peeled and sliced
  • ½ package of reserved Jell-O package

Put sugar, butter and soda in a sauce pan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add peaches and cook for about 2 minutes. Remove peaches with a slotted spoon and set aside to use for garnish on the cake. Add the Jell-O, stirring to dissolve, and cook two minutes. Leave cake in pan and punch holes in cake with a thin knife. Pour glaze over cake slowly so it will absorb. Save a small amount for the top of the cake. Let stand for about 15 minutes. Invert on a cake plate. Garnish with reserved peaches and remaining glaze.

Wanda Stinson, Pioneer EC

Peach Pie

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup orange juice
  • 1 stick butter or margarine
  • Cook on medium heat until the mixture comes to a boil.
  • 2 peaches, quartered
  • 1 package crescent rolls

Roll one quarter peach in each crescent roll. Put them in a casserole dish and pour the sugar/butter mixture over the peaches and rolls. Bake at 350 degrees until brown. (Recipe is easily doubled.)

Edna Watts, Cullman EC

Peach Ice Cream

  • 16-ounce can sliced peaches
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 can condensed milk
  • Milk
  • ½ pint whipping cream

Drain peaches and reserve juice. Put peach slices in a food processor and blend until smooth. (It’s fine if a few small pieces are left.) Put peaches in a large bowl and add the peach juice, sugar, whipping cream and condensed milk. Stir well to dissolve the sugar. Pour mixture into the freezer bucket and fill with milk to the fill line on the bucket. Freeze according to freezer directions.

Cook’s note: Fresh peaches may be substituted. Just add more sugar.

Cathy Johnson, Marshall-DeKalb EC

Wash the energy waste out of your laundry

Your solar-powered dryer: a clothesline!

By Patrick Keegan and Amy Wheeless

Q: We have two kids, which means we do a lot of laundry—it never ends! What are some ways we can reduce our energy use in the laundry room?

A:The average American family washes about 300 loads of laundry per year—all that laundry uses a lot of energy! However, there are some easy ways to reduce your energy use in the laundry room.

Consider purchasing more efficient appliances

One of the biggest changes you can make is to purchase a new ENERGY STAR-certified washer and dryer. Washers with this certification use about 40 percent less water and 25 percent less energy than standard washers. ENERGY STAR washers can be top-loading or front-loading machines; however, front-loading machines are generally more water and energy efficient, helping offset any additional upfront costs. ENERGY STAR dryers use 20 percent less energy than standard dryers. Visit for more information about estimated water and energy use of all of their certified products.

Get out of hot water

The easiest source of energy efficiency in the laundry room is to stop using hot water. Almost 90 percent of the energy consumed by your washing machine is used to heat water—but most loads of laundry can be just as easily cleaned with cold water. Using cooler water is also easier on your clothes. If you need to use hot or warm water on a particularly dirty load of laundry, a well-insulated water heater will help decrease the costs of using warmer water.

Do fewer loads!

When possible, wash a full load of clothes. However, when you must do a smaller load of laundry, remember to adjust the water level settings on your machine.
Help your dryer out: One of the best ways to reduce the amount of drying time is to get as much water out of the clothes as possible in the washing machine—use a higher spin setting to wring the extra water out of your laundry. When you are ready to dry, remember not to overfill the dryer so there is enough room for drying air to reach the clothes.
Use your dryer’s features: If your dryer has a moisture sensor, use it rather than guessing how long each load of laundry will need to dry. A dryer’s cool-down cycle uses the residual heat to finish drying your clothes, without using as much energy.

Dry like with like

Heavy fabrics, like towels and blankets, should be dried separately from lighter fabrics, like T-shirts. When using a dryer’s moisture sensor, the dryer will keep running until the wettest (and probably heaviest) item is dry. Rather than one towel extending the drying time for each of your loads of laundry, dry the towels together.

Live lint free

Clean the lint trap on your dryer regularly to help air circulation. Periodically use a vacuum nozzle to clean the area under or behind the lint filter, where lint can also get caught. If you use dryer sheets, scrub the filter clean about once a month—dryer sheets can leave a film on the filter that reduces air flow.

Remember safety

Your laundry room extends from the back of the dryer, down the dryer duct and all the way to the end of your dryer vent. Inspect your outside dryer vent regularly to make sure it is not blocked, and periodically work with a professional to clean your dryer ducts. Making sure the duct and vent are clear not only helps your dryer work more efficiently, but can also prevent a fire—more than 15,000 fires per year are sparked by clogged dryer ducts and vents. If possible, move the dryer closer to an exterior wall to shorten the length of the dryer duct and make sure the duct is as straight as possible—this helps reduce the opportunities for clogging and increases efficiency.

Use your solar-powered dryer

Going “old-fashioned” and air drying your clothes will definitely reduce your energy use! You can also tumble dry clothes until damp, then line dry them until fully dry—taking this step can prevent the “crunchy” feeling that line dried clothes can sometimes have.
There are many ways you can wash the energy waste out of your laundry routine. Try a few of these simple tips, and “load up” on the savings!

This column was co-written by Pat Keegan and Amy Wheeless of Collaborative Efficiency. For more information on how to make your laundry room efficient, please visit:

Making the most of rain

Rain chains can be made from almost anything, such as these decorative metal rings that, linked together, help direct rain drops from the rooftop and gutter to the ground or to a bowl, rain barrel, birdbath or pond below.

My second lesson was in the physics realm. Most rain barrels rely on gravitational flow to empty, which means they either need a motorized pump or must be raised (usually 2 to 3 feet above ground level) to provide sufficient water pressure to irrigate some of my plants. I used cinderblocks to raise my barrels, though if you want a more attractive option, you can buy or build specifically designed rain barrel stands. I also attached soaker hoses, the kinds with small holes along their length that allow water to slowly seep out, to my barrels and use these to drip-irrigate around the bases of my shrubs.

Another problem I’ve had is mosquitoes, which like to breed in my water barrels. I control these pests by draining the barrels frequently and putting either slow-dissolving mosquito “dunk” tablets, a tablespoon of liquid dish soap or a quarter-cup of vegetable oil to the barrels each week or after each rain event. These treatments won’t hurt plants when the water is used for irrigation.
Because I also want to harvest the beauty of rainfall, I have installed a couple of rain chains, too. Rain chains have been used for hundreds of years in Japan (and in other parts of the world) as decorative downspouts to channel rainwater away from the foundation of buildings or into rain barrels, decorative bowls or even birdbaths and garden ponds.

Rain chains are usually attached to gutters in lieu of downspouts and are typically made from decorative metal rings or small pots linked together, but they can also be created using all sorts of repurposed items, such as watering cans and even silverware. While you can purchase rain chains from a variety of retail outlets, they can also be fun do-it-yourself projects. My 5-year-old grandson and I recently made one by linking together colorful zip ties — which was more festive than elegant, but was a perfect project for a summer day.

Much more information on rain barrels, rain chains and other water-saving options is available online and through local Cooperative Extension offices, retail garden centers, public gardens and water agencies, many of which host rain harvesting workshops that can help you — and your plants — better harness and enjoy the rain.

July Tips

  • Plant heat-tolerant annual and perennial flowers.

  • Plant late-season summer vegetables.

  • Begin starting seed for early fall vegetables and start selecting seed for later-season vegetables.

  • Divide over-crowded perennials and irises.

  • Remove (deadhead) faded flowers from annuals, perennials and summer-blooming lilies.

  • Remove fallen fruit from under fruit trees and bushes to avoid attracting pests or promoting disease.

  • Refresh mulch around shrubs, trees and in garden beds to help retain moisture in the soil, keep roots cooler and suppress weeds.

  • Watch out for insect and disease problems in the lawn, landscape, garden beds and on potted plants and treat as needed when they occur.

  • Safely store lawn equipment and chemicals that may be harmful to children and pets.

  • Guard against sunburn and insect bites by using sunscreen and insect repellent and wearing protective clothing, hats and gloves.

JACKSON, KATIE Gardening 2013

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

Worth the drive: Jefferson Country Store


Country store, eatery keeps community’s character alive

By Jennifer Kornegay

|View video here|

On Saturdays, when the weather is fine, a pork-scented smoke signal rises from the gravel parking lot at Jefferson Country Store, hailing members of the surrounding Jefferson community. But the 300 or so residents of this unincorporated area in Marengo County don’t need any help finding their way to the spot (where they know they’ll find far more than barbecue); for many of them, the little white wooden building on Highway 28 is an important part of their lives and has been for more than 50 years.

“It opened in 1957, at the same time the highway right out front was finished, and some members of my extended family has operated it pretty much ever since. My aunt owns it now,” says Betsy Compton, who runs the store and eatery with business partner and boyfriend Tony Luker. Sitting at one of just a few tiny tables crammed between shelves stacked with candy, chips, glass-bottle Cokes and Moon Pies and under a low ceiling hidden behind Alabama and Auburn flags and soft-drink promotional posters, she explains how the country store fell into her hands.

When Betsy’s aunt announced she was retiring and closing the doors in 2012, Betsy instantly began looking for someone who would keep it open; she knew that folks depended on it. The closest other places to get staples like bread, milk and toilet paper are Linden, which is 10 miles away, and Demopolis, which is 12 miles in the other direction. “The community needs and wants us here,” she says.

After searching for a few months with no luck, Betsy decided to do it herself and got Tony on board; they reopened in 2013. “We didn’t know what we didn’t know about doing this, but we’ve done pretty good,” she says. “Tony’s background in beverage sales has helped a lot, and we do know our community. That’s the most important thing, I think.”

Many in the area are in their golden years, and Tony is always happy to load their cars. For those who don’t have cars, he makes front-door deliveries. “We do what is needed,” he says.

Tony Luker and girlfriend Betsy Compton are keeping the tradition of good food and good service alive at Jefferson Country Store.
Tony Luker and girlfriend Betsy Compton are keeping the tradition of good food and good service alive at Jefferson Country Store.

Now, in addition to offering the basics that folks nearby need, Jefferson Country Store has expanded to include Tony’s Munch Box, a tiny restaurant inside the store that offers some of the South’s favorite foods, made fresh, in house by Tony. His chicken salad, pimento cheese, hot ham ‘n cheese sandwiches, Brunswick stew, burgers and more keep the small space packed around noon every day. “There are plenty of days when we have 50 people come in here at lunch,” Betsy says. “It gets pretty crowded! Sometimes people end up eating standing up.”

Regulars and locals know to ask about daily specials and the secret menu. “They come in and say, ‘What you got?’ and I know they want something other than what’s on the board,” Tony says. Sometimes, “what he’s got” is the Firecracker Burger, a hefty beef patty topped with sliced “red hots” (sausages) and embellished with a thick slab of hoop cheese and jalapeno slices for an extra kick.

A chance to have real conversations

But the store is providing more than necessary items and a tasty, filling mid-day meal. It’s also become a specialty store, stocking things you can’t find other places, cherished oldies like souse and rag bologna from Alabama’s Zeigler meats (which reside in a small glass-front fridge by the register that Tony calls the “treasure chest”), plus hoop cheese and ribbon cane syrup. And it emphasizes selling local products like honey from down the road, melons and tomatoes from down the road the other way, Milo’s tea and more.

It’s a gathering place too, where people come to chat and share community news. “We don’t have much cell service here, and we haven’t put in wi-fi on purpose,” Betsy says. “Our customers don’t care and some tell us they don’t want it. They want a break from their phones, a chance to have real conversations.”

Despite their home’s small size and its rural location, Jefferson residents fiercely hold onto their community pride. The store and its loyal customers are both proof of this and a contributing factor. It may not be a “real” town, but it is a definable place, one whose identity Betsy mourns as she sees it slowly eroding. Jefferson used to have its own post office and its own zip code. Now, the country store houses what the Postal Service calls a “village post office,” and it offers the basics. “Worse than losing the bigger post office was getting lumped in with Demopolis and their zip code. That was kinda sad,” Betsy says.


But this latest version of the store with its focus on serving its surroundings is helping to keep the community’s character alive while also introducing it to some new people. As are Tony’s Saturday specials, when ‘cue is cooking low or catfish is frying up hot and crisp out in the parking lot. The events are highly anticipated in the area and beyond, easily drawing up to 100 people in the summers and during hunting season.

“People call ahead and pre-order to make sure they get a pig tail when I’m doing those,” Tony said. He slow-smokes the pork tailbones, which look like a large pork rib, and then wets them with his spicy vinegar sauce. “It’s not sweet,” Tony says. “It’s an eye-opener,” Betsy adds.

These sought-after eats, as well as Tony’s pimento cheese and chicken salad, have made Jefferson’s famous. Groups that travel to the area for a few days of storied Black Belt hunting (some of the country’s best) have come to expect some of Tony’s cooking as part of the experience. The country store has built up a pretty big business catering to the hunting lodges that dot the region.

But in the end, Jefferson will always be what its name says it is: a country store and a community store, serving its patrons what they need and going even further to give them the tasty things that they – and plenty of others – want.

Spot the Store Dog

When Betsy Compton and Tony Luker reopened the Jefferson Country Store in 2013, a stray dog was hanging around, so they fed him and he stayed. Everyone started calling him “store dog,” and the friendly black and white pooch has become the store mascot, appearing on the sign and now, also on Jefferson County Store T-shirts. Folks who’ve bought a shirt often post photos of themselves wearing it on social media (and tag the store), and so store dog has popped up all over the country, like in Times Square in New York City, and even beyond U.S. borders, in places like Costa Rica. The store gives a portion of the T-shirt proceeds to the area Humane Society.

Jefferson Country Store
26120 Alabama Highway 28
Jefferson, AL • 334-289-0040
Store Hours: 7 a.m. – 5:30 p.m., M-Sat
Tony’s Munch Box Hours: Serving biscuits and breakfast sandwiches (until they’re gone) as well as a full lunch menu from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. daily (except Sundays)
Check the store’s Facebook page for upcoming special events like fish fries and barbecues.

A Dog’s Life

DL_Rheta Hosue
Johnson’s home in Iuka, Miss.

Writer’s beloved companions are metaphors for love and loss 

By Jennifer Crossley Howard

In a culture of oversharing, online and otherwise, readers crave columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson’s eloquent insights into a complicated and beautiful South.
Her fourth memoir, The Dogs Buried Over the Bridge, (John F. Blair, publisher, $26.95) debuted this spring.

Readers know her as a forthright writer who loves Paris and Hank Williams almost as much as her adopted state of Mississippi. Born in Colquitt, Ga., and educated at Auburn University, she made a name nationally writing columns at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis and then at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her latest book chronicles her life alongside her dogs — those that were simply there and the one that broke her heart.

The book follows her 2012 title, Hank Hung the Moon and Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts (featured in the August 2012 Alabama Living).

“I wanted to write about things in life that are constant,” Johnson says, sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Florence, Ala. “One is my love of music and that I covered in the Hank book, and this involves the idea of living a simple life. Any life of mine has involved dogs.”

Writing about such a subject meant breaking a cardinal rule her editor at the Commercial Appeal gave her in 1982. Back then, she was the paper’s first female columnist, save the society pages.

“Don’t write about your dogs or your kids,” he told her.

She read between the lines that he was saying don’t write like a woman. Lose the sentimentality at the typewriter. This was more than 20 years before journalist John Grogan published his memoir, Marley & Me, about a rambunctious and devoted Labrador retriever.

“I guess I’ve always felt cheated that I should be able to write about my dogs if I want to,” Johnson says. “It’s sort of a feminist tract in a way because men always get to write about their dogs.”

DL_Dogs Book
Johnson’s latest work, a memoir that tells her life story through the lives of her canine companions.

Many of her column datelines are from Fishtrap Hollow, a crook of Pickwick Lake in Iuka, Miss., where Johnson resides. The cozy home with plenty of decks, antique roses and acres for dog roaming tends to pique the curiosity of her readers. The book is as much a recount of what her dogs taught her as it is a love letter to Fishtrap Hollow and its zany cast of characters.

“Whenever I would write about dogs I would get all these heartfelt letters, and people wanted to hear about my dog because they knew what I was saying,” Johnson says. “This, then, is about the place. The people and the animals and kind of ties it all up nicely, I hope, and maybe satisfies people who want to know more about this place.”

Johnson bought her home at Fishtrap Hollow as a hideaway to clear her mind and find some sort of peace and identity during a looming divorce. It became her permanent home, one that made her heart ache while she sat in Atlanta traffic.

“I was miserable in Atlanta, not because of the paper but because of the city,” Johnson says. “Once you’ve been out, it’s hard to get back to the city.”

She intends for Dogs to be her last book, and she wrote it as such, with a frankness that daily newspapers don’t always allow.

The raw writing is reminiscent of Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming, published in 2010. In that memoir, Johnson covered the suicide of her boyfriend, the recent death of her second husband, Don Grierson, and the life of a young reporter trying and thriving in the heyday of newspapers.

“That was the closest to the bone I had ever written,” Johnson says. “Don had just died, and I didn’t care what people thought about me. It was probably the most honest writing I ever did.”

She wrote Dogs at her home and during travels to Montgomery and Colorado. It took longer to write than others because her parents were ill, and both soon died. The convergence of family during that time brought plenty of grief, surprises and humor she plans to mine on paper.

A view of Pike’s Peak and the absence of friends and neighbors allowed her to write without interruption while her husband, Hines Hall, taught a history class at Colorado College. A puppy portrait hung above her desk in Colorado, a dog that could have passed for Mabel, pronounced “May-belle.” She is the dog, the blond Labrador, who broke Johnson’s heart. Before Mabel, dogs were just dogs — they lived outside, and made nice companions. They were kept at a comfortable distance. Johnson describes Mabel as the child she never had. Her black-rimmed Cleopatra eyes even inspired Johnson to get permanent eyeliner. In this interview, Johnson laughed and shared plenty of her trademark wit, but she spoke softer, quieter about her Mabel.

“There’s always one,” Johnson says. “It’s like the people in your life. You love a lot of people but there’s got to be one.”

Rheta Grimsley Johnson during an interview in Florence, Ala.

Though Johnson’s ties to Alabama are many, having grown up in Montgomery, she landed in Mississippi in 1979, and has lived there part time or full-time ever since. “Kathryn (Tucker) Windham used to give me a hard time. All the time she’d say, ‘You’re an Alabama girl,’ ” Johnson says. “ ‘When are you going to move back?’ ”

Mississippi is a bit softer around the edges, she added, but one prominent Alabamian proved most influential to her.

“The person I learned the most about writing from and am still learning from every day is Hank Williams,” Johnson says. “If you can learn to tell love story in three minutes and forty-three seconds, which is how long ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ is, that’s good writing. That’s profound.”

Her love for Hank led to the book about his life, and a play about him that debuted this year in Pell City, written with John M. Williams. Their bond made a great substitute for the newsroom camaraderie Johnson missed being on the road scouting columns for most of her career.

She plans to start writing another play this summer. She finds the changeable medium refreshing after a career of 550-word columns.

“When a book comes out or a newspaper article or column, it’s too late,” Johnson says. “This is a living thing.”

Filling the grocery gap

West Alabama town’s abandoned gym has new life, thanks to supermarket

Dave’s Market offers the community fresh produce throughout the year.

By Jim Plott

You can’t toss a basketball inside the Marengo County High School gym anymore, but you can find the ingredients for a tossed salad – and a steak and potato to go along with it if you like.

Although the refurbished basketball goals remain positioned on each wall as vivid reminders of the glory years of the green and white Marengo County Tigers, these days the gym is known as Dave’s Market, a full-fledged supermarket. And that, as far as everyone in the town of Thomaston is concerned, is a victory of its own.

Before the grocery opened in February, the Marengo County town had gone 20 years without a grocery store, requiring residents to drive 15 to 20 miles to pick up fresh produce or a jumbo size box of laundry detergent.

“It’s like having a refrigerator in your backyard,” said local resident Dorothy Murray on the store’s opening day.
It all spells good news for a town with a large elderly population and where golf carts are one of the main modes of transportation; they make up much of the town’s Christmas parade.

“We have an older population that depends on somebody else to take them to a grocery store and this gives them a new sense of independence,” says Mayor Jeff Laduron. “It’s also going to be a tremendous lifesaver for this small town. We needed desperately to have some revenue to operate the town and provide services and this is going to help.”

GG_Market Inside Overgrown
The interior of the Thomaston gym as cleanup gets under way.

Closed since the 1980s
A few years before, the gym was destined to be dismantled, leaving only a pile of rubble and a heap of memories. Closed along with the school in the 1980s, the gym over the decades had fallen in decay and more resembled a greenhouse with vegetation and trees growing inside.

It was so dilapidated that it was not even considered when Laduron and Brenda Tuck, director of the Marengo County Economic Development Authority, began meeting more than two years ago with David Oliver, owner of Dave’s Market in Valley Grande in Dallas County, to encourage him to locate a second Dave’s Market in Thomaston. The main school building, although with lesser structural deficiencies, did not fit the layout needs for a grocery store. Both buildings are owned by the town.

That changed when a land deal fell through.

“I brought a contractor with me and he said it could be done,” says Oliver, who started in the grocery business 50 years ago bagging groceries and mopping floors.

As fortune would have it, the roots of the brush and trees had not penetrated the concrete floor and they were easily removable.

The town, as part of the agreement, turned the deed to the gym over to Oliver, who began the nearly year-long process of converting it into a grocery store. The town was able to obtain grants, assistance and guidance from the USDA Rural Development, the Delta Regional Authority, the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, the Alabama Tombigbee Regional Commission, and the Marengo County Commission. The town also brought its industrial development board out of hibernation to help fulfill the project.

“Patience and partnerships are what it takes in rural communities to be able to move forward,” Tuck says. “(Oliver) saw potential there and the town was willing to step up and do a lot of things to make this happen. Everybody has been willing to do their part to make this come together.”

A variety of meats and an on-staff butcher are offered by Dave’s Market.

From food desert to food oasis
With the store’s opening the town went from being a rural food desert to a food oasis that has attracted shoppers from outlying communities in all directions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a rural food desert as an area in which residents have to travel 10 or more miles to obtain to fresh fruits and other healthy foods.

Clifton McKnight, who lives in nearby Dayton and attended Thomaston High School, said the combination of obtaining a super market and saving the gym was a double win.
“I am just glad to see it saved,” McKnight says. “I am also glad that it’s being used for something that is so beneficial to the community. It will benefit the area in so many ways.”
The town, not to be confused the much larger Thomasville just down the highway, was settled as early as 1830, but did not become a city until 1901. The school was built eight years later and the gym was constructed in 1954.

“I was still in high school when (the gym) was built,” recalls McKnight’s older brother, William, who also played sports at the school. “I know we had some good basketball games there.”

In recent years the school grounds are host to the town’s annual Pepper Jelly Festival. The festival is a byproduct of the Alabama Rural Heritage Center, which is housed in the school’s former home economics building and features an art gallery and now a small restaurant.

Laduron, meanwhile, says the town isn’t finished. The town recently received a $192,000 grant from the Alabama Department of Transportation to revitalize its downtown area, and Laduron said there may be another retail store in the making.

Dave’s Market, meanwhile, also seems to be going full throttle. The store recently put in an order for another 50 grocery carts, doubling the number its currently has.

“We celebrate this grocery store like some other places would celebrate getting a Super Walmart or something like that,” Laduron says. “Everywhere I go – either in town or just out of town – people tell me how excited they are about having this (grocery store) in town.”

Head in the clouds

Voss logged more than nine hours of EVA, or spacewalk, time in both U.S. and Russian space suits during Expedition 2 in 2001.
Voss logged more than nine hours of EVA, or spacewalk, time in both U.S. and Russian space suits during Expedition 2 in 2001.

Astronaut’s dreams began in his Alabama youth

By Lindsay Miles

Growing up in rural Alabama, Jim Voss dreamed of space travel, exploration and life beyond our planet. The prolific reader would immerse himself in science fiction novels, captivated by the idea of one day reaching space.

Raised by his grandparents in Opelika, Voss came from humble beginnings, and would go on to be one of the few astronauts from the state, dedicating 10 years to shuttle space flights and conducting an eight-hour and 56-minute spacewalk, the longest to date in 2001 on board the Space Shuttle Discovery.

“I think that my love for reading really shaped what I did later on in my life, because as a kid, I thought being an astronaut would be a wonderful thing to do in life. However, we didn’t have astronauts at that time or a real space program,” Voss says. “I kept these ideas in the back of my mind, and when we did establish a space program, I thought again, ‘what a neat thing to do.’”

Voss went on to receive an Army ROTC scholarship from Auburn University, which he happily accepted. While at Auburn, he was a part of the wrestling team and a member of Theta Xi fraternity, which led to his first date with his future wife, Suzan.

“We were picking sweethearts for our fraternity, and I was assigned to Suzan,” Voss says. “I picked her up for our dinners and social events. She didn’t like me at first, and I understood that completely. I asked her out again after our ‘required’ dating came to an end, and to my surprise, she said ‘yes.’ We went on to date throughout college and got married after she graduated.”

Voss, with another year left to complete his aerospace engineering degree, remained a student at Auburn during their first year of marriage.

“Aerospace engineering was always a good fit for me,” he says. “I enjoyed what I was doing. I wanted to be an astronaut, but when we started producing astronauts, they only used test pilots, and I couldn’t be one because I didn’t have good eyes.”

After graduating from Auburn in 1972, Voss was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He spent the first two years after entry into active duty attending the University of Colorado where he received his master’s degree in aerospace engineering in 1974. He then attended U.S. Army Airborne and Ranger schools and was stationed with the 2nd Battalion, 48th Infantry Regiment in West Germany, serving as a platoon leader, intelligence staff officer and company commander. He returned to the United States and attended the Infantry Officer Advanced Course where he taught in the Department of Mechanics at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.

“In 1978, they started the space shuttle program and selected different kinds of astronauts, including scientists and engineers, who could do more than just fly,” Voss says. “They loosened the eye requirements, and I began applying. I thought they’d created it just for me.”

Jim Voss was awarded Auburn University’s Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year. Voss joined the faculty of the University of Colorado as a full-time scholar in residence in 2009. Photos by Jon Cook, High 5 Productions
Jim Voss was awarded Auburn University’s Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year. Voss joined the faculty of the University of Colorado as a full-time scholar in residence in 2009. Photos by Jon Cook, High 5 Productions

Determination and a dream

His determination to become an astronaut and fulfill his childhood dream was unwavering. Five applications and nine years later, Voss was selected to become a NASA astronaut in 1987. He began training for space shuttle flights as well as training in Russia as a backup crew member to the Mir Space Station. In 1991, Voss began his 10 years of shuttle space flights, including five separate space flights and 163 days as a member of the Expedition 2 crew on the International Space Station.

“You train so much that you really are ready and prepared to go into space,” he says. “NASA does a great job of training, so you have a picture of what it will be like. We spent a lot of time in simulators, did weightless training and experiments. It’s like training for a sporting event. A basketball team will do a lot of dribbling practice, then passing practice, then piece it all together.”

Of all of his flights, Voss says his very first ascent into space was the most exciting.

“You’re anticipating so many things and they’re all happening so fast that you don’t have time to savor the moment,” Voss said. “In later flights, you have more appreciation for the finer parts of it. There are things that you truly can’t simulate until you’re in space. The view out the window cannot be simulated. Pictures or movies can’t do it justice.”

Since his retirement from NASA in 2003, Voss has been a professor and associate dean of engineering at Auburn, vice president for space exploration systems at the Transformational Space Corporation, vice president of engineering for SpaceDev and director of advanced programs at Sierra Nevada Corporation.

In 2009, Voss joined the faculty at the University of Colorado as a full-time scholar in residence. He was inducted into the Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame in 2001.

Although semi-retired, Voss continues to teach classes on human spaceflight and mentor graduate students at the University of Colorado.

“I find teaching and sharing my experiences with young people to be very satisfying,” said Voss. “All of my experiences have been interesting and rewarding in their own way. I really liked being a solider. It mattered to me that I was serving my country. Being an astronaut was just fantastic. How wonderfully rewarding to be a part of something so exciting that you dream about and work hard to be able to do.”

As for the future of space flight, Voss, a member of the NASA advisory council, says next stop: Mars.

“The long-term goal is to go to Mars and explore a different world in our solar system,” he says. “We’re working on a big rocket to get to Mars, and a lot of that work is being done at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. There are so many exciting things in the works, and we’ll see our nation’s space program go even deeper into space in the next 10 years.”

Alabama’s proud space heritage

Alabama has a proud tradition of being both a birthplace and training ground for astronauts. Among them:

AN_Clifton Williams

Clifton Williams (1932 – 1967), of Mobile, was a naval aviator, test pilot, mechanical engineer, major in the United States Marine Corps and NASA astronaut. Although he did not travel to space, he served as backup pilot for the mission Gemini 10, which took flight in 1966. He attended Auburn University where he received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1954.

AN_Mae Jemison

Dr. Mae Jemison (1956 – present), originally of Decatur, became the first African-American woman to travel in space while aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992. She served six years as a NASA astronaut and has since founded and leads the 100 Year Starship, an initiative of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, to assure the capability for human interstellar space travel. Among her many honors and awards, Jemison is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Peace Corps Medical Officer for Sierra Leone and Liberia, and professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University and went on to receive her medical degree at Cornell University.

AN_Hank Hartsfield

Henry W. “Hank” Hartsfield (1933 – 2014) was born in Birmingham, in 1933. He graduated from Auburn University in 1954 where he was a part of the Reserved Officer Training Corps (ROTC). He began graduate school at Duke University but was called into active duty a year later by the Air Force. While stationed in North Carolina, Hartsfield met and married Judy Frances Massey.

Following a tour in Bitburg, Germany, Hartsfield was selected for the USAF Test Pilot School. He graduated in 1965 and remained as an instructor until October 1966 when he was selected as a military astronaut on the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) Program. The program was canceled in 1969 and Hartsfield was assigned to NASA as an astronaut.

Hartsfield held various positions with the Astronaut Office, most significantly providing the pilot’s input on the development of the space shuttle entry flight control system. He piloted Space Shuttle Columbia’s fourth and final orbital flight test in June 1982, commanded the first flight of Space Shuttle Discovery in August 1984 and commanded Space Shuttle Challenger on the German D-1 Space lab mission in October 1985.

Hartsfield retired from NASA in 1997 and joined Raytheon, serving as vice president for aerospace engineering services in Houston. He retired from Raytheon in April 2005.

AN_Jan Davis

Jan Davis (1953 – present), a veteran of three space flights, began working for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center as an aerospace engineer in 1979 and was soon selected as an astronaut. Davis has logged more than 673 hours in space. The Huntsville native retired from NASA in 2005 and began working with Jacobs Technology as vice president and general manager. She has been inducted in the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame, the Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame and the Presidential Rank Award of Meritorious Executive. Davis received a bachelor’s degree in applied biology from the Georgia Institute of Technology, another bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Auburn University, and master’s and doctorate degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Alabama at Huntsville.

AN_Jim Kelly

Jim Kelly (1964 – present) is a NASA Astronaut and retired colonel with the United States Air Force. Selected by NASA in April 1996, Kelly reported to the Johnson Space Center where he completed two years of training and evaluation. He served as pilot on two shuttle missions. Initially, Kelly was assigned to the Astronaut Office Flight Support Branch where he served as a member of the Astronaut Support Personnel team responsible for shuttle launch preparation. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in astronautical engineering from the United States Air Force Academy, and received his master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Alabama in 1996.

AN_Joe Edwards

Joe Edwards (1958 – present), a Lineville native, is an aerospace engineer, former naval officer and aviator, test pilot and NASA astronaut. He has flown 4,000 hours in more than 25 different aircrafts and logged more than 650 carrier-arrested landings. In October 1991, while serving as maintenance officer of VF-142, he was flying over the Persian Gulf when the radome separated from his airplane and destroyed his canopy. Edwards sustained a collapsed lung and broken arm, but managed to land aboard the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his airmanship. Edwards received his bachelor’s degree from the United States Naval Academy and his master’s degree from the University of Tennessee.

AN_Kathryn Hire

Kathryn “Kay” Hire (1959 – present) is a Mobile native, NASA astronaut, and captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve. Hire has flown aboard two space missions including the Space Shuttle Columbia. She received her bachelor’s degree in engineering and management from the United States Naval Academy and her master’s degree in space technology from the Florida Institute of Technology. Her most recent space flight was in 2010 when she journeyed to the International Space Station as a Mission Specialist for Space Shuttle mission STS-130. Her many awards and honors include a NASA Space Flight Medal, War on Terrorism Service Medal and Defense Superior Service Medal, to name a few.


Kathryn Thornton (1952 – present) was the second woman to walk in space, setting a record for the number of spacewalks and total time spent on spacewalks. The Montgomery native logged more than 16 million miles in orbit and was the first woman to participate in a classified U.S. Government space mission. She was a member of the first crew to return to orbit following the 1986 Challenger disaster. Thornton went on to complete three more shuttle flights during her time with NASA. She graduated from Auburn University in 1974 and then went on to receive her master’s and doctorate degrees in physics from the University of Virginia, where she is currently a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

AN_Ken Mattingly

Ken Mattingly (1936 – present) is a former naval officer and aviator, flag officer, aeronautical engineer, test pilot, rear admiral in the United States Navy and NASA astronaut who flew on the Apollo 16, STS-4 and STS-51-C missions. He was scheduled to fly on Apollo 13, but was held back due to concerns about a potential illness. He later flew as Command Module Pilot for Apollo 16, making him one of only 24 people to have flown to the Moon. He attended Auburn University where he received his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering in 1958.

Cyber counter-attack

How co-ops keep hackers away from the electric grid

By Paul Wesslund

About 3:30 in the afternoon last December 23, operators at three electric utilities halfway around the world in western Ukraine found themselves not to be solely in control of their computer terminals. Someone from outside the utilities had taken over the controls and started opening circuit breakers at more than 27 substations, cutting power to more than 200,000 customers. Thousands of fake calls clogged utility switchboards, preventing people from phoning in to get information about the outage. Utility workers switched to manual operations, and it took three hours to restore power.

That’s not a movie plot. And if you missed or forgot about that news report from last year, people who run electric utilities have not. Attention to cyber security at electric utilities has been growing fast in the past few years, and the Ukraine attack pushed that trend into overdrive.

“It’s garnered a lot of attention from the federal government and throughout the industry,” says Barry Lawson, associate director of power delivery and reliability for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA).

A big part of Lawson’s job is helping the nearly 1,000 electric co-ops in the country understand digital-age dangers, and ensuring that they know how to protect and secure the power supply, electric grid, and co-op members and employees from Internet mischief.

Electric co-ops are showing they do understand the importance of cyber security, says Cynthia Hsu, cyber security program manager for business and technology strategies at NRECA.
“Electric co-ops were the first utilities to test and use the U.S. Department of Energy’s cyber security self-assessment tool,” says Hsu. “They are often on the cutting edge of implementing best practices to improve their cyber security capabilities.”

While the Ukraine cyber attack has been studied in-depth by U.S. utilities and the federal Department of Homeland Security, most analysts see a large-scale attack by hackers as unlikely to succeed in this country. The reports characterize the Ukraine attack as extremely well planned and coordinated, but not technically sophisticated.

The Ukraine incident actually started as early as March of last year, when utility workers received e-mails with Microsoft Office documents, such as an Excel spreadsheet, from the Ukrainian parliament. But the emails were not from the Ukrainian parliament. When workers followed the email instructions asking them to click on a link to “enable macros,” malicious malware embedded in the documents––called BlackEnergy 3––secretly infected the system. Among other capabilities, BlackEnergy 3 can enable an adversary to observe and copy all the keystrokes made on the infected computers, giving hackers passwords and other login information needed to access the utility’s operations control systems.

Upgrading training and security
Defenses against that kind of attack are pretty basic, and you’ve probably even heard the warnings yourself—don’t click on any links or attachments unless you were expecting the message to be sent to you. Utilities are increasing their efforts to enhance and formalize their security plans, processes and controls. New cyber security standards require upgraded levels of training for utility operators, multiple layers of security to shield operational and control systems from the Internet and even stricter procedures for visitor access (physical and electronic) to control rooms. These utilities are regularly audited for cyber security compliance, and regulators, such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), can levy strict penalties for not following standards.

NRECA’s Lawson describes an example of one type of security technology, a security token—a physical device an operator would carry with them that changes their password every 30 seconds.

NRECA has also worked with the Department of Energy to develop software called Essence, which constantly monitors a utility’s system for even a microsecond of irregularity that might indicate some kind of hacking attempt or malware is interfering with the system.

With all that attention to keeping the electricity flowing, Lawson says there’s another major cyber-threat receiving high-priority attention from electric co-ops—protecting data and critical utility information to avoid identity theft of members’ information. He says some co-ops hire firms to periodically try to hack into their computer systems, so the co-op can identify and fix the holes in their security.

Lawson describes a scary world of cyber terrorists, organized crime, issue-oriented groups or just kids in their basement seeing what kind of trouble they can cause on the Internet. At the same time, he compares those high-tech threats to risks posed by hurricanes or the everyday need for paying attention to safety at the electric cooperative. Co-ops regularly use risk assessment and management practices to balance a wide range of threats to their systems.

“Physical security and cyber security are becoming just another cost of doing business,” says Lawson. “You’ll never be 100 percent secure, and all you can do is try your best to keep up with the bad guys. It’s a fact of life in these days and times we’re living in.”

Paul Wesslund writes on cooperative issues 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.