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The joys of a boyhood lived outside

Boy Fishing
Adam Morris shows off a fishing rod he made out of a dowel rod, a spool, a bolt, a washer and a nut, a throwback to a simpler time.

By John N. Felsher

As schoolchildren break for the summer, I think back on how I spent my vacation as a boy. Before the Internet and smart phones, children made their own entertainment – and maybe even a little mischief – in that wonderful place called “the outside.”

When my father couldn’t drive me to “real” fishing places, I often bicycled to several canals near home. While fishing a favorite hole, a drainage ditch running under a highway, I crossed the road to explore a patch of woods on the other side.

I quickly found a rustic old home occupied by an elderly widow who loved to care for her flowers. On her property, a long narrow pond with the prettiest black water ran parallel to her boundary fence. Thick shrubs hid what seemed like a wilderness barely yards from the highway. The kindly lady said some boys could fish her pond as long as we didn’t touch her flowers. The pond contained monster bluegills and other species.

On the last day of school one year long ago, a friend and I made a bet to see who could catch the most fish before school started in the fall. Throughout that summer, my friend and I kept track with each other’s piscatorial progress. Sad to admit, he gained a considerable lead over me with just a few days before school began. One blustery day right before school started, I headed to that long pond. With bragging rights at stake, I needed to try.

Unfortunately, the fish didn’t cooperate. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get anything to bite with time running out quickly. Then, I noticed schools of minnows swimming near the surface. The rules of the bet simply stipulated that we could catch any fish species by any legal hook and line gear, but not in nets. Every fish we physically touched scored one point.

I came up with a plan. I tied on the smallest hook I could find and baited it with a sliver of bread from my lunch. I dangled the bread in front of the minnows. When a minnow grabbed the bread, it couldn’t get its mouth over the hook, but it held onto that morsel. I quickly swung it over to the shoreline where I grabbed it, scoring a point, and released it to possibly catch again. In about an hour, I racked up just enough points to win the bet and annual bragging rights!

That same friend got me out of a tight scrape another time. An underground drainpipe ran parallel to the highway and into our fishing hole. One day, we decided to explore the pipe, the closest thing to spelunking in our flat swampy, country. As we followed the tube, it gradually decreased in diameter. My skinny friend could easily navigate the ever-narrowing pipes. I couldn’t.

Before getting stuck, we looked for an exit. Fortunately, we found a side pipe with sunlight shining at the other end of it. My friend suggested I go first. If I could get through, he could also. If not, he could go back the way we came and seek help. I crawled through this pipe, which also decreased in diameter. Finally, barely out of the sunlight and freedom, I could go no farther. Not wanting to do all that backtracking, my friend shoved me as hard as he could from behind. I popped out of the culvert about two miles from where we started. I bet that pipe never looked cleaner.

Another canal connected to our favorite fishing hole and ran through pine forests before it crossed under an interstate. One day, I decided to follow that canal looking for new fishing spots. Before I left home on a sweltering summer day, my dad gave me three very explicit instructions: One, be home at a certain time. Two, don’t cross the interstate. And three, NEVER SWIM ALONE!

The trail along the canal led to a new borrow pit where workers extracted clay to build the interstate. Surrounded by woods, the pit sat far enough from the highway so people in passing vehicles could not see it. My dad was miles away and could not possibly know about this pond, which he could only reach by hiking through the forest. That seemed unlikely on such a hot day.

Worse than a growling bear
At the pond, refreshing water beckoned. If my clothes remained dry, no one would ever know, right? Fish weren’t biting, so I decided to go skinny-dipping. (Someone might more accurately describe my swimming efforts as “fat flopping.”) I piled my clothes on the beach and dove into the cooling waters.

I enjoyed myself so much that I lost track of time. My dad didn’t lose track of time. Several hours after he expected me home, I made one last dive into the refreshing water. When I surfaced, I heard a rather angry growl behind me. Unfortunately, it was not a bear or lion waiting to eat me, but something much more frightening. There, on the beach, stood my dad holding my clothes, looking over the top of his glasses at me and not making a happy face!

I couldn’t think of an excuse for swimming alone in the pond, across the interstate, several hours after my appointed return time. I couldn’t escape without my clothes or stay in the pond indefinitely. Technically, I didn’t “cross” the interstate. I went under it, but at this point, all I could do was take my lumps – and did I ever take them!

I guess that was the price of freedom to a boy who loved the outdoors so long ago and still does.



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

Can you have a Zero Net Energy home?

Energy Home
Other than solar panels, a Zero Net Energy Home may not look different from other homes.

By Patrick Keegan and Amy Wheeless

Q: I am considering installing rooftop solar for my home, and a neighbor asked if I was going to have a “Zero Net Energy” home. Can you explain what this means?

A: A Zero Net Energy (ZNE), or Net-Zero, Home is one where all of the energy that is used in the home is completely offset by the production of on-site power, such as through rooftop solar photovoltaic panels. Having a ZNE Home does not mean that you are “off-grid” —your home still uses electricity from your electric co-op for daily needs, especially when the sun isn’t shining. A ZNE Home also means you can supply power back to the electric grid from your solar panels. If you are considering rooftop solar panels for your home, you should talk to your electric co-op first.

Usually, the term ZNE Home describes a newly built home, as it is easier to custom-build an energy efficient home and properly size solar panels that will match the expected energy use. However, existing homes can also be retrofitted to be ZNE. But before you go out and buy a solar panel system that will cover every inch of your roof, remember this mantra: “Reduce before you produce.”

Efficiency options like heat pumps and increased insulation may not seem as exciting as solar panels, but they can produce a better return on your investment. Before you purchase and install solar panels, make all the cost-effective energy efficiency improvements you can. You will likely be able to reduce the number of solar panels you need, while also seeing sustained energy savings over time.

First step: An energy audit
An energy audit is the first step to learning how to make your home as efficient as possible. An energy auditor will walk through your home and perform tests to find out where air is leaking. An energy auditor can also perform energy modeling to tell you how much energy you would save by implementing certain improvements. If you are interested in an energy audit, talk with your electric co-op. They may offer an audit or have names of trusted energy auditors.

Retrofitting a home to be ZNE will likely require investments—large and small. Upgrading your HVAC system to something more efficient is a large investment, but, as heating and cooling usually makes up half of the average home’s energy use, the upgrade will have a substantial impact on your home, especially when combined with insulation improvements. Sealing up air leaks and replacing lightbulbs with LEDs are smaller investments but can also help you reach ZNE. Behavioral changes, such as turning down the heat when you leave for the day, using your solar clothes dryer (a clothes line!) and turning off electronics and lights when you leave a room are also small and easy ways to reduce your energy use.

Once you have reduced your energy use as much as you can, you can now think about producing. Solar photovoltaic panels are the most common residential renewable energy installation, though a small wind energy system could be a good choice if your home is on one of the rare sites that is windy enough.

There are also other ways to harness the power of the sun. For example, solar water heaters can be cost-effective. Or you can use passive solar techniques, like strategic window placement, landscaping and shading, and specific building materials to heat certain areas of your home in the winter or reduce sun and heat exposure in the summer.

You may be able to reduce your energy impact without purchasing your own rooftop solar panels. Many electric co-ops are beginning to offer community solar programs, or “solar gardens,” where co-op members invest in part of a larger solar installation that supplies the co-op’s electric grid. Participating in a community solar program gives you the benefit of solar power without needing to install and maintain your own solar panels.
Remember to talk with your electric co-ops’ energy experts before making any major upgrades, like rooftop solar, to your home.

For more information visit or email Pat Keegan at

A senior prom for seniors

SP_Couple Dancing

By Harvey H. Jackson

Senior prom season is in full swing.
However, in addition to the senior prom that honors the senior class, my daughter’s high school holds another.
The Student Government Association sponsors “Senior Citizens Prom,” for old folks ­– which to the kids is anyone over 50.
The kids (with adult input and supervision) decorate the cafeteria, put together a “play list” of ’50s and ’60s songs, lay out heaps of food (made by mamas and/or donated by local businesses), and get door prizes – also donated. Then they get the word out to senior citizens that for $10 each they can hit the buffet and dance the night away, at least from 6:00 to 9:00, when the elderly need to be heading home.

Although the “theme” was “The 50s,” the seniors did not dress in jeans, white socks and poodle skirts. They came dressed as they would have dressed for a prom – coats, ties, long dresses, one guy in a dinner jacket. They hit the dance floor, and you could see from the way they moved that age slowed them only slightly.  Some of those couples had obviously been partners since the ’50s and could still bop, shag, and shuffle with style and grace.  And when the music slowed, they held on to each other as only old lovers can and do. Time turned back and they were young again.

As everyone knows, an all-you-can-eat-buffet is a senior citizen’s natural habitat, and they went at the food like locusts. Then back to dancing. The kids joined in, leading them through “YMCA,” and twisting and shouting to “Twist and Shout.” Senior citizens are into group participation. So are teenagers. It was a perfect match. Conga lines, circle dances, hand jive, one group of oldsters even broke into a modified version of the Electric Slide, and the kids struggled mightily to catch on. I, myself, took a turn with my daughter and quickly “Twist and Shout” became “pause and pant.” I needed to get in better shape. At 9 p.m. the DJ called out “Last Dance,” and the strains of “Goodnight Sweetheart” floated across the room. The dancers, hardwired to go home when that song ended, took one more twirl around and headed for the door.

The kids, worn out and happy, were also ready to call it a night.  As the senior citizens collected their stuff, they thanked us for the good time they had. We thanked them for coming out to support our children.As they left, they vowed to return next year. So did my daughter and her friends. “This was,” one of them said, “more fun than our Senior Prom.” But next year my daughter’s group will be off at college.

Will they come back to dance with the senior citizens? We’ll see. But one thing is for certain. That night the young folks discovered that the old folks know how to have a good time. And why shouldn’t they? They’ve been doing it for years.

Nominate your favorite restaurant for Catfish challenge

Fish skewer and French fries - detail
Fish skewer and French fries – detail

Alabama catfish lovers have the chance to brag about their favorite restaurant that serves this Southern specialty.

Alabama Catfish Producers, a division of the Alabama Farmers Federation, is sponsoring the Catfish Restaurant challenge to recognize delicious dishes. The contest will highlight and reward Alabama restaurants known for serving U.S. farm-raised catfish.
From the nominations, four finalists will be selected for the challenge. A team of judges, including an Alabama catfish farmer, will visit the finalists and present each restaurant owner a plaque. The judges will sample the nominated dish as part of the final round of competition.
The winner will be announced in August, which is National Catfish Month.
The contest offers more than bragging rights about great-tasting food. The winning restaurant will receive a trophy, a cash prize and be featured in Neighbors magazine. The person who nominates the winning restaurant will also receive prizes from the Alabama Catfish Producers.
Visit for a complete list of rules and the nomination form. The deadline for nominations is July 7.

Mosquitoes and ticks and chiggers, oh my!

Don’t let them bug you!

Bug Sprays

Summertime not only provides lots of reasons to work and play in the yard and garden, but it also provides lots of chances to be bitten by ticks, mosquitoes, chiggers and variety of other biting and stinging pests, all of which are annoying, but some of which pose a real threat. Think Lyme disease, West Nile Virus and Zika, for examples.

Concerns about these insect-borne illnesses are legitimate, especially for those at high risk such as expectant women, young children and frail adults. Still, few of us want to be held hostage in our homes all summer, so what can we do? Several things, it turns out, many of which do not require the use of strong chemicals.

The first line of defense is to make our yards less pest-friendly. With mosquitoes, that means eliminating their favorite breeding grounds — areas of stagnant water. Simple actions such as cleaning out clogged rain gutters, discarding refuse such as old tires and cans and making sure outside toys, plant containers and trash cans don’t sit filled with water for too long will go a long way in reducing mosquito breeding sites.

But what about all those water-holding garden features we love, such as birdbaths, small ponds and rain barrels? Birdbaths should be emptied every few days and refilled with fresh water. Larger reservoirs (still ponds, rain barrels and the like) that can be more difficult to clean or empty can be treated with Bti-infused products. These “dunks,” bits or briquettes contain a natural bacterium that kills mosquitoes (as well as fungus gnats and blackflies) but won’t harm other creatures. They do need to be replaced or reapplied every 30 days or so, though.

Another way to keep mosquitoes (as well as ticks and chiggers, which thrive in grassy and brushy landscapes) away is to clean up landscape areas close to the house by trimming grass and shrubs regularly and removing dead leaves or other organic debris that may provide refuge or breeding areas for these pests.

Other methods touted to help control insect pests include inviting bug-eating wildlife into the yard and garden and using mosquito-repellent plants, bug zappers, over-the-counter foggers and sprays and citronella products. While there’s nothing wrong with recruiting birds, bats, lizards and toads to help out or planting flowers, herbs and other pretty plants that may repel bugs, research has shown that these methods aren’t highly effective. Citronella candles and torches, bug zappers and homeowner-applied foggers/sprays, some of which can be expensive, are also nominally effective, so they may be a waste of money.

No matter how hard we try to keep pesky bugs at bay, though, it’s impossible to completely eliminate them from our environs, so in addition to doing all we can to bug-proof the yard, we also need to bug-proof ourselves.

DEET-based insect repellents that contain at least 15 percent (but no more than 50 percent) DEET are highly effective, but so are plant-based repellents that use a lemon-eucalyptus or soy blend. These “natural” repellents, though, typically don’t last as long as the DEET-based options, so they need to be reapplied frequently. And, regardless of which repellent you use, make sure to follow the label instructions!

In addition to using repellents, wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts that fit snugly at the wrist whenever possible. To better protect from ticks, tuck your pants legs into your socks. Clothing can also be treated with a permethrin-based repellent, but this kind of repellent should never be used on the skin or on pets. If you’re relaxing outside and don’t want to be dressed in layers of hot clothing, using a fan (especially an oscillating fan) can help keep mosquitoes away.

These are just a few of the options, so to learn more about protecting yourself from mosquitoes, ticks and other bugs, check out the websites of the American Mosquito Control Association (, Alabama Department of Public Health ( and Alabama Cooperative Extension System ( Information on the best repellents can be found at the Consumer Reports website (

June Tips


      • Thin the number of fruits on apple, pear, peach and other fruit trees.
      • “ Pinch back leggy annuals or tender perennials and deadhead flowers (gently pinch off spent flowers).
      • “ Check roses for signs of disease or insect damage and immediately treat any problems.
      • “ Divide and thin daffodil bulbs and irises.
      • “ Sow seeds for beans, field peas, melons, pumpkins, squash and corn.
      • “ Plant tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and sweet potatoes.
      • “ Keep an eye out for insect and disease problems on landscape, vegetable garden and house plants and treat outbreaks immediately.
      • “ Visit farmers markets for the freshest of summer produce.
      • “ Treat lawn weeds as they emerge.


JACKSON, KATIE Gardening 2013

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

Alabama’s long trails:

A section of the Pinhoti Trail in the Talladega National Forest. Photo from Creative Commons
A section of the Pinhoti Trail in the Talladega National Forest. Photo from Creative Commons

Scenery, history, adventure

By Skye Borden
Every year in April, thousands of hikers cram onto Georgia’s Springer Mountain, hoping to through-hike the entire Appalachian Trail to Maine. Now, with film adaptations of “Wild” and “A Walk in the Woods” inspiring viewers, a whole new generation of would-be hikers is starting to catch a serious case of wanderlust.

Although the Appalachian Trail is lovely, you don’t need to travel that far away to get off the radar. Alabama’s five long trails connect many of the state’s best historical spots and rural scenery. Whether you’re out for a day or a month, they’re guaranteed to satisfy your need for adventure.

TRAILS_Chief Lodge
Alabama’s Chief Ladiga Trail. Photo by Rebecca Burylo

Chief Ladiga and Silver Comet Trails

At just 95 miles, these trails make up the shortest trip on the list, but they’re actually the longest paved rail trail in the United States. Alabama’s Chief Ladiga Trail follows an abandoned railroad bed through northeast Alabama towns from Anniston to the Georgia state line. There, the Silver Comet begins, and the trail continues all the way to Atlanta.

These multi-use trails are great for biking, running or walking. They’re also the most family-friendly trails on the list. Start a day trip with parking access points at Warren Road in Weaver, Jacksonville State University, or the Piedmont Civic Center. If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can stay at the Chief Ladiga Campground in Piedmont to create a multiday trip. Visit

The author with her son, Roan, on the Pinhoti Trail in 2015. Photo by James Walter
The author with her son, Roan, on the Pinhoti Trail in 2015. Photo by James Walter

Pinhoti Trail

The Pinhoti is the granddaddy of all Alabama hiking trails. It follows the spine of the southernmost Appalachians for 335 miles from Flagg Mountain in Weogufka, Ala., to Blue Ridge, Ga. Along the way it passes through tight tunnels of rhododendrons, across scenic rocky outcroppings, and over clear mountain streams.

When the Appalachian Trail was initially proposed in the 1920s, many thought it should extend into Alabama along the Pinhoti’s path. Although the final plan stopped in Georgia, advocates are still pushing to make Weogufka the official southern end of the Appalachian Trail.

If you aren’t up for a through-hike, Talladega National Forest offers a number of opportunities to get onto the trail for a weekend trip or day hike. My favorite loop connects the Pinhoti to Lake Chinnabee and a streamside shelter out of Adam’s Gap trailhead.

Maps can be purchased online from the US Forest Service or in person at any of the forest service’s Alabama ranger districts.

Natchez Trace Parkway Scenic Trail

This national parkway travels an old American Indian trade route for 444 miles from Natchez, Miss., to Nashville, Tenn. Along the way it crosses through 30 miles of rolling farmland and forests in the Tennessee River Valley of northwest Alabama.

Although the entire parkway can be driven by car, the slow pace of a road bike is the best way to really take in the gorgeous scenery. For a good workout, start your day trip at the Bear Creek Indian Mound site on the Alabama state line and pedal uphill nine miles to panorama views at the Freedom Hills Overlook.

For maps and route info, visit the National Park Service’s website at

Another section of Georgia’s Silver Comet. Photo by Rebecca Burylo
Another section of Georgia’s Silver Comet. Photo by Rebecca Burylo

Underground Railroad Trail

The Underground Railroad Trail is a 2,006-mile road-bike trek through the heart of some of America’s most historic places. It begins in the 1800s slave port of Mobile, and then follows the North Star to weave through historic churches, state parks, and museums along the Tensaw, Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers in west Alabama.

Only serious bikers should attempt to do the entire trip, but even novices can enjoy the trail’s Mobile Bay section. This day trip includes stops at two historic churches and a cruise through Africatown, where freed slaves once created their own settlement, complete with native African tribal customs and language.

Route information and maps can be found at the Adventure Cycling Association’s website,

A section of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, which is part of the Alabama Scenic Rivers Trail. Photo from Creative Commons
A section of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, which is part of the Alabama Scenic Rivers Trail. Photo from Creative Commons

Alabama Scenic River Trail

Although nearly 5,000 miles of Alabama’s waterways are now part of the scenic river system, the core trail flows 631 miles from the Coosa River into the Alabama River and the Mobile Bay. Along the way, it flows past some of the state’s best whitewater and a number of important historic points, including Fort Toulouse, Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge and Gee’s Bend.

Weekend warriors in need of an adrenaline fix can tackle the trail’s Class III rapids on the Coosa River south of Lake Jordan Dam. Or, if you’re in the mood for a more relaxed trip, head to the Five Rivers Resource Center in Spanish Fort for canoe rentals or a guided tour of the Mobile-Tensaw delta.

For more information, visit

Ready to hit the trail?
If you’re unsure of what to pack for your trip, reach out to your local outdoor outfitter for gear advice and travel tips. And as always, remember to practice Leave No Trace principles while you’re out – take only pictures, and leave only footprints.′

Social Security supports National Cancer Survivors Day

In 2016, more than a million people will be diagnosed with cancer around the world. This alarming statistic affects people and families everywhere. On June 5, 2016, we observe National Cancer Survivors Day in the United States. In support of this day, Social Security encourages getting checkups to provide early detection, raise awareness through education, and recognize the survivors who have gone through this battle or are still living with the disease.

Social Security stands strong in our support of the fight against cancer. We offer services to patients dealing with this disease through our disability program and our Compassionate Allowances program. Compassionate Allowances are cases with medical conditions so severe they obviously meet Social Security’s disability standards, allowing us to process the cases quickly with minimal medical information. Many cancers are on our Compassionate Allowance list.

There’s no special application or form you need to submit for Compassionate Allowances. Simply apply for disability benefits using the standard Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) application. Once we identify you as having a Compassionate Allowances condition, we’ll expedite your disability application.

Social Security establishes new Compassionate Allowances conditions using information received at public outreach hearings, from the Social Security and Disability Determination Services communities, from medical and scientific experts, and from data based on our research. For more information about Compassionate Allowances, including the list of eligible conditions, visit

If you think you qualify for disability benefits based on a Compassionate Allowances condition, please visit to apply for benefits.′

Kylle’ McKinney, SSA Public Affairs Specialist, can be reached by email at

Scientific Alabama

SCI_Rocket Center
Future astronauts and rocket scientists dream of their future at the US Space and Rocket Center. Photo courtesy US Space and Rocket Center

Science centers combine education with fun

By Marilyn Jones

Anyone who thinks science is only for grad students and university professors has never been to a science center and watched children — toddlers to teens — completely immerse themselves in the fun of scientific exploration.

Just ask John Hall. Well, he can only say “moo” to the pretend cow in Itty Bitty Magic City at the McWane Science Center in Birmingham, but if the 17-month-old could say more, I’m sure he’d talk all about the firetruck, water features and library area.

“He loves the cow and firetruck,” says his grandmother, Bonnie Higgins, as she and John’s grandfather Tom Higgins watch the toddler dart from one area to another.

That’s what a science center does; It sparks learning, and fuels curiosity and achievement even in children as young as John.

According to McWane Science Center President and CEO Amy Templeton, STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math disciplines) education helps children explore and understand the world around them.

“(They) ask questions leading to new and innovative answers to issues we face today and will face in the future,” Templeton explains. “Asking ‘why’ and ‘how and ‘what if’ teaches them to use their imagination and creativity, and encourages curiosity and exploration.

“When these traits are nurtured in our children, there is no end to the things they can learn and accomplish,” she says.

McWane Science Center

At the Giant Lever, a tug of war ensues. Photo courtesy McWane Science Center

Every exhibit is child-friendly and guides are available to answer questions. Throughout the day at Demonstration Station, educational programs and shows are presented, a different one every hour.

McWane’s Sea Monsters and Alabama Dinosaurs allow visitors to come face to face with the creatures that once lived in Alabama, including a 15-foot sea turtle, the Alabama tyrannosaur and dromaeosaur.

Shark & Ray Touch Tank is one of the center’s most popular exhibits. Visitors are invited to get up close and personal with white spotted bamboo sharks, bonnethead sharks, cownose stingray and southern stingrays; the tank is a great opportunity to learn more about sharks and rays. The World of Water Aquariums offers a look at several different underwater environmental areas.

At the Giant Lever a tug of war ensues. Children learn the advantage to good leverage, realizing that leverage influences who wins the tug-of-war. Dynamometers on each side of the lever allow visitors to see the force exerted, while a victory signal reveals the mechanical advantage of this simple machine.

Next to it is the Pulley Chair Lift where children scramble to be next to pull themselves up into the air using a pulley.

Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center

SCI_Gulf Coast
Children get up close and personal with natural science at the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center. Photo courtesy Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center

The Exploreum offers more than 150 interactive exhibits and hands-on exploration for its guests. The Mobile science center’s original exhibit gallery Hand on Hall allows children the opportunity to push, pull and tinker with exhibits dedicated to unraveling the basics of electricity, simple mechanics and magnetism.

My BodyWorks helps children — and adults — learn about nutrition, healthy living and how the body works. The fun interactive exhibit hall features more than 50 custom-designed exhibits as well as a 12-foot-tall beating heart and other amazing displays designed to inspire curiosity and fun.

iHealthy Life Science Lab allows visitors to learn what body tissues look like under the microscope, how the skeletal system works, how nutrients in food actually affect the body and what germs look like.

US Space and Rocket Center

Huntsville is where America’s space program was born, where rockets were developed that put the first U.S. satellite into orbit and sent men to the moon, where the power for the space shuttle was developed, where the modules for the International Space Station were designed and built and where the next generation of spacecraft are currently being designed.

That’s a lot, plus it’s home to the US Space and Rocket Center, the world’s largest space attraction that features dozens of interactive exhibits surrounding Apollo, Mercury and Space Shuttle spacecraft.

A highlight is the Davidson Center for Space Exploration. Lined with exhibitions along each wall, the centerpiece, suspended 10 feet above the floor, is a national historic treasure, the mighty Saturn V, restored to its Apollo era readiness.

For any aspiring rocket scientists or just curious child, the space center is a great place to visit.

Whether you or your child is interested in natural science, rocket science or anything in between, Alabama has a lot to offer!

If you go:

  • McWane Science Center: 200 19th Street North, Birmingham. 205-714-8300;
  • Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center: 65 Government Street, Mobile; 251-208-6893;
  • US Space and Rocket Center: 1 Tranquility Base, Huntsville; 800-637-7223;
  • Cook Museum of Natural Science in Decatur will be closing this month and reopening in mid-2017 after a $17 million renovation.
    “The museum will be an interactive immersion into North American biomes, from deserts to oceans to arctic tundra to hardwood forests. Instead of isolated exhibits, each exhibit will be part of a narrative explaining how the natural world works,” museum director Schelly Corry says.The 57,000-square-foot museum will feature interactive exhibits, live animals and aquariums; mounted wildlife from across North America; and collections of rocks, minerals, fossils, shells and coral.

The last of its kind

The ‘new’ ferry boat at Davis Ferry, taken from the north side of the river.

Rural Monroe County ferry is a reminder of travel of days gone by

**Editor’s note: As of June 20, 2016, the Davis Ferry has ceased operation. After the high waters from the winter receded, a large portion of the river bank began to slide into the river, according to Monroe County engineer Jeff Griffin. After reviewing the failure with the Army Corps of Engineers, it was their recommendation that the ferry discontinue operations for the foreseeable future.

Story and photos by David Haynes

The U.S. Highway 84 bridge is the only bridge that spans the Alabama River in rural Monroe County, where residents of the Packers Bend community north of the river are faced with a 50-plus-mile drive each way to reach the county seat in Monroeville.

For a half century, Davis Ferry on County Road 40, a dirt road, at Haines Island Park offered an alternate route, which cut that distance by half until the diminutive, two-vehicle ferry ceased operation in 2012 when the aging vessel was deemed unsafe.

This presented a major inconvenience for regular users of Davis Ferry, particularly teachers and employees at Monroe Intermediate School, a kindergarten through 8th-grade school located a few miles from the ferry, as well as others who use the ferry for commuting.

But in July 2015, after other logistical complications, the ferry resumed operations with a newer and larger ferry boat that can safely cross the 300-yard-wide river in less time.

Photo of the Gee’s Bend Ferry, taken in 2012. This ferry has been in operation since fall 2006.

Davis Ferry, which operates free of charge year-round on weekdays from 6:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (closed 11-1 for lunch), is the last of its kind in the entire state. Only two other ferries – one connecting Dauphin Island and Fort Morgan at the mouth of Mobile Bay and the other in Wilcox County on the Alabama, connecting Gee’s Bend with Camden – are each much larger and require a toll to ride.

The new Davis Ferry actually looks like a scaled down version of the Mobile Bay or Gee’s Bend ferry boats. It can transport up to three cars instead of two, and the crossing time is cut by about half thanks to the more powerful twin diesels that push it from one side of the river to the other.

The old ferry boat, powered by a six-cylinder pickup truck engine that turned a paddle wheel on one side of the craft, was tethered to a cable for its crossings and had no provision or ability to steer on its own.

The new boat, which was given to Monroe County by Etowah County in northeast Alabama, is powered by two diesel engines forward and aft and can be steered by either of two wheels in an elevated wheelhouse that towers high above the plate steel flooring. This ferry had been at Hokes Bluff on the Coosa River just upstream of Gadsden and was refurbished a few years ago with the aid of a federal grant. But after being refurbished, officials decided the county could not afford the operating expenses and never put it into service on the Coosa, where it sat idle for years.

After the old side-wheeler ferry in Monroe County aged to the point of being unusable, officials from that county and Etowah County made an agreement to give the newer ferry to Monroe County as a replacement. So in March 2013 the Hokes Bluff ferry boat was moved to the Davis Ferry location, but delays in adapting the landings and other complications delayed its resuming operations until July 2015.

County Engineer Jeff Griffin said they originally planned to steer the new boat freely from one bank to the other, but later abandoned that option and decided to make use again of the cable used to guide the older side-wheeler. He noted that because the new ferry boat is longer and heavier, a larger diameter cable was installed to safely tether this vessel against the forces of the Alabama River’s sometimes swift currents.

That cable stretches between two large towers on either bank and is connected to the ferry by pulleys and cables attached near its bow and stern. However, unlike the old ferry, if the new boat were to ever break free of its tether, it does have the ability to be steered safely to the landing ramps without the cables.

This very situation played out in 2011 when a military helicopter on a training mission out of Fort Rucker accidentally struck and severed the long cable that spans the river, killing the Dutch pilot instructor and setting the old ferry adrift. Fortunately, the Dutch student pilot was able to land the chopper nearby and a nearby fisherman towed the ferry back to safety.

Bobby Tuberville, who still operates Davis Ferry, was there the day the helicopter severed the cable. “I remember seeing him come in low and saying ‘he’s going to hit that cable’ and before I could say another word he did!” He said there were several tense minutes as the ferry was set adrift with no way to steer before the fisherman came to their aid and got them back to the safety of shore.

Tuberville, who has operated Davis Ferry for years along with now-retired Davis Ferry operator J.C. Stabler, noted that one thing he doesn’t miss about the old ferry is cranking the ramps up and down on each crossing manually, using what appeared to be a somewhat larger version of a boat trailer crank winch. The new boat boasts huge hydraulic cylinders that have eliminated that chore.

Old ferry boat is on display

The old ferry boat was removed from the river in late June 2012 and moved just up the bank to a grassy area on the Monroeville side, where it sat for several months before being moved again to the end of County Road 40 at its intersection with County Road 17. It was finally transported back to Wilcox County, which had given it to Monroe County back in the 1960s. That ferry boat had previously operated near the present-day Highway 10 bridge in Wilcox County.

Today the retired red ferry is on display inside a chain-link fence at the Boykin Nutrition Site at Gee’s Bend, its bow and stern ramps boasting freshly-installed boards. From where it sits in retirement, it’s only a minute’s drive to the on-ramp for the new Gee’s Bend Ferry.

Griffin said the ferry has averaged transporting 16-20 vehicles and around 25-30 people a day since resuming operations. He noted that funding for the free ferry is included in the county’s regular annual budget and there are no plans for a toll.

This unique reminder of travel as it was for previous generations offers riders a chance to have the full experience of crossing a great river by actually being on the river and not just speeding across on a ribbon of concrete spans. And Davis Ferry is one of the last places in the South where the experience is available.

Adventurous travelers might even choose to make a long loop drive crossing the Alabama on both ferries in the same day, provided it’s a weekday and not during lunchtime from 11-1 when they arrive at Davis Ferry.

Also, if planning to take the Gee’s Bend Ferry, travelers are advised to check its website for any schedule changes or interruptions of service at

Worth the drive: The Freight House

The dining room has an inset fireplace and glass French doors where guests may watch CSX trains pass by.

Homemade foods fill historic train depot

By Jennifer Crossley Howard

The walls of The Freight House in Hartselle are thick — 13 inches — creating an oven of sorts in July and August. But customers would rather fan themselves than alter their beloved historic restaurant, says owner Sandra Sowder.

The 101-year-old former L & N loading depot once held cotton, a staple of Southern livelihood, and these days it produces another hallmark of southern culture: hearty food. The steel, brick and wood building downtown thrives as a meeting place for soon-to-be brides, Rotarians, families and reunions. Chicken poulet, steaks, seafood, four-layered nine-inch Italian cream cakes and house croutons lure a devoted clientele, as does lighter fare. Chicken salad of the walnut, grape and Granny apple variety is on the menu along with plenty of panini.

“We have a large panini following,” Sowder says. “Everything’s homemade. I can’t think of very many things that aren’t made with our hands.”

A baked, savory smell, usually reserved in most kitchens for the holidays, greets customers. It’s enough to make mouths water that just ate.

Besides a holding depot, the building has been a gift emporium and another restaurant. Sowder bought it seven years ago, undoing much of the changes from previous owners to allow the structure’s rugged origins to shine. Trains once pulled into arched, brick loading stations, now filled in with wood, and original floor scales sit in the dining room. Inset fireplaces burned on a cool, spring afternoon, and CSX trains passed by glass French doors in the dining room to the delight of a toddler.

“It’s a great place for train buffs, especially kids,” says Marcia Sutton, an elementary school principal in Huntsville who helps at the restaurant.

The Freight House honors free-spirited train passengers with its hobo plate. It includes pinto beans, sliced tomato and onion, turnip greens and cornbread. There’s no meat in the dish, and that’s the point, as Sowder sometimes must explain to diners. Hobos ate what they could find, usually simple vegetables and legumes.

Because Hartselle is a dry city, The Freight House has thrived without serving alcohol.

“That’s an advantage in a lot of ways,” Sowder says.

Freight House owner Sandra Sowder sells homemade, 4-layered cakes.
Freight House owner Sandra Sowder sells homemade, 4-layered cakes.

Still, she added, running a restaurant — she also owns The Shak in Somerville — requires long hours.

“It’s a tough business,” Sowder says. “It’s a lot of time dealing with the public and their appetite.”

The tradeoff is being part of many customers’ milestones.

“You make memories,” Sutton says. “We’re part of their lives.”

Newly engaged women typically eat lunch on weekends with their mothers while shopping at the nearby bridal boutique Something Blue. Proposals in the dining room are common, which often lead to rehearsal dinners or receptions in a private event room. The Freight House tends to attract college kids who worked there in high school back to work during college breaks. Sowder’s own children earned money there.

“Your children working is not a bad thing,” she adds. “It’s built a lot of character, and it wont hurt them.”

Hartselle’s former passenger depot, built in 1914, sits perhaps 100 feet away from the restaurant, and it houses the chamber of commerce. Both buildings are included on the Hartselle Downtown Commercial Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

With history came uninvited guests.

“Supposedly we have ghosts,” Sowder says.

Employees have witnessed blue lights, and there’s been talk of a ghost train conductor, but Sowder says she has never seen a haint.

But she welcomes their help.

“They’ve never swept the floor or wiped down anything,” she says, laughing.

The Freight House Restaurant and Catering

200 Railroad St.
Hartselle, AL 35640
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday and 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday.