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A spring spectacular: part 1 of 3


Downy Yellow Violet (Viola pensylvanica)

Wildflower viewing in north Alabama

Springtime across north Alabama is a joyous season, one of celebrations and festivals heralding the arrival of a new year. As winter begins to loosen its grip, one of the region’s greatest natural splendors gradually unfolds – a kaleidoscope of colors paraded by vibrant displays of wildflowers.

From the waning days of March through May, wildflowers of all shapes, sizes, and colors will vie for attention from those who want to witness their endless glory.

The rich and varied landscape that makes up the northern part of the state is home to a remarkable variety of wildflowers. In fact, the region’s unique mix of geology, topography, and soils has favored some of the most diverse and striking plant life anywhere across North America.

Limestone and soils derived from limestone are abundant, especially along major streams and lower slopes, and can help explain the story behind the profusion of wildflowers that debut every spring.

By its very nature, limestone is softer and can dissolve more quickly than most rock types, allowing greater amounts of nutrients essential for growth to become rapidly available. With this higher influx of nutrients comes a luxuriant and diverse array of wildflowers and other plant life.

In climbing upward to the high slopes and ridge tops of north Alabama’s loftiest elevations, one may detect a difference in the kind and number of wildflowers from those at lower altitudes. Covering the summits of Lookout, Sand, and other mountains in the region is a rock cap largely consisting of sandstone. Unlike limestone, sandstone is more resistant to the forces of nature, able to greatly withstand the rigors of wind and rain.

Such resistance imparts a profound influence on the variety and size of spring wildflower displays, where a slower rate of nutrients available for plant growth makes for smaller, less colorful displays.

The true glory of the region’s mountain summits, however, comes into full view later in the season, the month of May across north Alabama, as a countless extravaganza of flowering shrubs begin to flaunt their grandeur. Mountain laurel, rhododendron, azaleas, fringetree, and farkleberry will not disappoint, gracing rocky ridges, streambanks, and pathways with a palette of color.

North Alabama abounds in numerous opportunities to know and appreciate the region’s wildflower bounty and rich botanical heritage. As spring evolves from the first woodland flowers to the festival of colors exhibited by rhododendron and mountain laurel in May, a multitude of footpaths will beckon the earnest daytime explorer.

A sample of options are offered here. Easily accessible public conservation areas offer trails to bring visitors up close for some of the finest wildflower viewing to be found anywhere in north Alabama.

In visiting the sites highlighted for this article, the visitor should be mindful of staying on trails to avoid trampling plants and most importantly, not to pick flowers so others can enjoy. To get the most from your visit, proper clothing and a camera will be invaluable, and depending on how long you plan to hike, be certain to have sufficient food and water on hand.

Alfred Schotz is a botanist with the Auburn University Museum of Natural History.


North Alabama wildflower trails

Wood Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum)

TVA Nature Trail Complex

How to get there: Accessible from a paved parking area on the south side of the Tennessee River on the eastern outskirts of Muscle Shoals. To reach the parking area, proceed east on Wilson Dam Highway roughly 1.5 miles from Woodward Avenue (U.S. Highway 43) in Muscle Shoals to Thunder Road. Turn left onto Thunder Road and continue 600 feet to the parking area. Three trails showcasing easy wildflower viewing are the Old Fort Trail, Old First Quarters Trail, and the Rockpile Trail.

Trail condition: Trail difficulty is easy, with some uphill walking for trails near the Tennessee River, specifically on return to the parking area.

Best time to visit: Late March – mid-April. Striking wildflower displays can be observed in short walking distances, with the most colorful on lower slopes nearest the Tennessee River.

Thompson Creek Trail – Bankhead National Forest

How to get there: The trailhead is marked by a kiosk at the end of County Road 3 in the western portion of the Sipsey Wilderness, Bankhead National Forest. The parking area can only be reached by driving east on County Road 3 roughly 4 miles from Lawrence County Road 303, south of Mt. Hope.

Trail condition: The trail is rated as moderate, but is relatively level with a small number of gentle inclines and narrow stream crossings generally consisting of step-overs. The trail is roughly 6.5 miles long, returning to the parking area the same way going in.

Best time to visit: Late March – mid-April. A premier sites for spring wildflowers in north Alabama, the trail meanders along Thompson Creek, passing spectacular displays of early spring flora, impressive rock formations, and small waterfalls.

Point Rock Trail – Bucks Pocket State Park

How to get there: Bucks Pocket State Park straddles the Jackson-DeKalb county line, and is easily reached by driving northeast from Guntersville or northwest from Geraldine on State Highway 227 following signs to the park entrance. The trail has two access points, one within the camping area (currently closed) and the other off County Road 556.

Trail condition: Trail difficulty is easy to moderate, becoming steeper near the summit of Sand Mountain at Point Rock. A trailhead also exists at the summit of Sand Mountain off County Road 556, allowing easy walking to the Point Rock overlook.

Best time to visit: Late March – mid-May. The portion of the trail nearest the camping area is situated in a sheltered valley, and is a favorite viewing spot for early spring wildflowers from late March to mid-April.

During early to mid-May, mountain laurel and purple rhododendron can be observed along the uppermost section at the summit of Sand Mountain in the vicinity of Point Rock, a scenic overlook off County Road 556.

Little River Canyon National Preserve

How to get there: Preserve is on the summit of Lookout Mountain, roughly 7 miles east of Fort Payne off State Highway 35. Along Highway 176 between State Highway 35 in the north and the Canyon Mouth Picnic Area at the south, several options exist, either as short walks or quick stops at overlooks, for viewing some of the most stunning wildflower displays in the northern part of the state.

Trail condition: The Eberhart Point Trail into Little River Canyon is rated as moderate difficulty and upon returning to the canyon rim, will be the most strenuous of the trails suggested for viewing wildflowers in the Preserve.

Best time to visit: Mid-April – late May. Mountain laurel, azalea, rhododendron, and fringetree are in full splendor throughout May with Eberhart Point Overlook, and the Beaver Pond and Little Falls Trails having some of the finest displays. Pageants of wildflowers can be viewed at several places along Highway 176, with some of the best and easily accessed being the Lynn Overlook, the Beaver Pond Trail, and the Eberhart Point Trail.

A barrel of laughs


Alabama rodeo clown brings his national act back home

As a professional rodeo clown and barrel man, Hope Hull’s Trent McFarland lives a vagabond lifestyle, traveling across the country to entertain thousands of fans.
A second-generation rodeo entertainer, McFarland was able to hone the skills that would launch his career while growing up in Cody, Wyoming, the Rodeo Capital of the World. Instead of teaching McFarland how to play sports, his father, Sid, trained him to break conventional rules, parlaying his knack for “clowning around” into a successful career entertaining audiences near and far.

Trent McFarland entertains the crowd during bull rider transitions. PHOTO BY DAVID ROSENFIELD

“My father was a rodeo clown, and we had a really close relationship,” McFarland says. “I was a few weeks old when I went to my first rodeo, and my father helped me jump in rather quickly. Instead of teaching me how to throw a football, he was teaching me how to put on makeup and taught me the ins and outs of the profession so that I was able to skip straight to the good life. He taught me how to be a professional in and out of the arena. Once I was able to book my own rodeos, everything took off like wildfire.”
McFarland’s job requires that he entertain audiences as the bull riders transition between competitions, heckling the crowd with jokes or putting on elaborate skits to get the crowd roaring.

But his job is also to help the cowboys who are thrown off during bull riding. He jokingly says, “As the backup bullfighter, I back up another 10 feet if things get bad.”
In reality, he does just the opposite. If things in the arena get out of control, McFarland steps up in his “clown-dominium” (the barrel) and gives the bulls something to focus their attention on.
His in-your-face comedy is recognized nationwide, and his success continues to skyrocket. By the end of last year, McFarland, who travels with his family, navigated more than 40,000 miles as he performed more than 100 times at different arenas around the nation.
Presenting a special brand of entertainment, McFarland beckons children and adults to engage, laugh and enjoy a performance that is unique among his peers.
“I include a wide variety of ways to interact with the crowd,” McFarland says. “Some rodeo clowns stick with one act and that’s it. They might want to strictly dance or tell jokes, but I incorporate multiple acts and a wide variety of ways to interact with the audience. There are acts I can do to entertain a crowd in one part of a country that would differ from what I would do in another. You have to switch it up, and that has been a key to my success.”

Besides managing behind-the-scenes duties, Trent’s wife Wendy is an experienced rodeo competitor who dons a blonde wig and costume to join him during his performances. PHOTO BY DAVID ROSENFIELD

In addition to his father, McFarland credits his wife, Wendy, for his continued success. She is not only behind the scenes, managing and marketing McFarland’s products, but she joins him during his performances, donning a blonde wig and getting in on the fun. McFarland and his wife are a duo, not only inside the home, parenting their two sons, but as a family when they cross over state lines from venue to venue, to and from Hope Hull.
While McFarland realizes their way of life could be considered unconventional, he notes they wouldn’t have it any other way. He praises his wife for her ability to charm audiences and be the backbone for what McFarland is able to do.
“Lots of people think we’re crazy to travel the miles we do, but we love it,” McFarland says. “It can be a tough job, but my wife is amazing. She’s also an absolutely amazing showman, plays a major part in the acts, and she’s got great showmanship skills. She is by far my biggest support system with what we do. Being married to a rodeo clown isn’t the easiest, but she’s not afraid to ham it up and be in the spotlight.”

A nurse in his “other life”

When he’s not living out his alter ego in the arena, he is busy working as a nurse at Baptist Medical Center South in Montgomery, a job he has had since 2003. He notes that his work at the hospital often transfers nicely into his work within the ring.
“It crosses over really well. When patients come in the operating room, they’re scared, and I can tell them jokes to help them forget their worries. By the same token, when cowboys get hurt, I’m the first one to them, and I can make an assessment of how serious the injury is,” McFarland says.
Behind the yellow wig and face paint, McFarland is truly at ease as a performer. The rodeo scene is one where McFarland is at home, and for him, being a rodeo clown and barrel man is a blessing as well as an addiction.

Wendy and Trent McFarland love pursuing their rodeo lifestyle together, along with their two sons, Ryder, 1, and Cody, 2 and ½.

“Being a rodeo clown allows me to have the opportunity to travel with my family and see the country, meet friends all over America and make a good living. My family and I have fun together,” McFarland says.
“Rodeo is family-friendly, and I am able to provide audiences with an opportunity to laugh. The thrill of the crowd and the response I get from them makes my job addicting. It’s where the blessing is for me, that I get to provide entertainment for families where now, especially in modern America, it’s hard to find true entertainment that everyone enjoys.”
McFarland is scheduled to perform at Montgomery’s Garrett Coliseum during its SLE Rodeo March 16-18. Of his appearance in his home state, he notes the show is a dream come true.
“Getting a hometown show is a feat that most entertainers will probably never obtain. Now that I’ve become a success in the rodeo world, they’ve asked me to be in Montgomery where I can perform in front of my family and friends, and they can see us perform. We’re very excited,” McFarland says.
For more information, visit or find him on Facebook


The annual SLE Rodeo, set for March 16-18 at Garrett Coliseum in Montgomery, will feature some of the country’s best cowboys and cowgirls and stock provided by Frontier Rodeo Company, the 2016 PRCA Stock Contractor of the Year.

The rodeo is a family-friendly event, with several events just for children,  including a stick horse rodeo for young ones under 8.

The championship events begin at 7 p.m. March 16, 17 and 18, with SLE team roping beginning at 8 a.m. March 19.

For the full lineup of activities, visit

Tickets are available by calling 888-2RODEO2; by visiting the Alabama Cattlemen’s building or Garrett Coliseum; online at Ticketmaster; or at local Publix stores.

True grits

Depression-era grain mill preserves a bygone way of life

The wooden floor shakes beneath your feet, and the air seems a bit heavy, thanks to the dust kicked up from the fresh-ground corn. The rhythmic metallic clinks of the machinery, which turn hundreds of pounds of dried corn into mounds of fluffy, earthy meal, ring in your mind, even after you leave.

This practice of milling grain, a technology that dates to the ancient mills that came to this country with immigrants, continues today, relatively unchanged for hundreds of years.

Members of the Fink family in southeast Alabama see themselves as protectors of this old-fashioned practice, and have operated this mill, built in 1932, since their parents bought it in the mid-1950s.

“I see this as a historical site that needs to continue to be maintained,” says Darell Fink, taking a break from running the mill on an autumn Saturday.

Finks Mill is just a half-mile north of the Florida line, a few miles east of Florala and west of Samson and a member of Wiregrass Electric Cooperative. Farmers start coming in the early morning hours and continue into the afternoon, hauling big, heavy sacks of corn (and occasionally wheat and rice) to be ground.

One of the four units at the Finks Mill that grinds the grains. This one, as well as another of the units, is powered by a diesel tractor engine; another is powered by water, and another by electricity.

The mill’s four stone units can produce 2,000 pounds of corn meal each day that it operates. On this particular Saturday, there won’t be quite that much meal ground; customers may be distracted by the football games today, or perhaps the crisp fall weather.

No matter. Those who show up are here to take part in a centuries-old tradition and enjoy the camaraderie of friends and neighbors. There’s a mix of old folks and younger ones, some who’ve been coming here for decades and others who are first-timers. Some drive from out of state just to have fresh ground corn meal to take home.

“Usually every Saturday, you’ll have at least one person who’s never been here,” says Quin Fink, Darell’s younger brother who’s a mechanic by trade and maintains the mill. “It’s just a place that time hasn’t messed with much.”

Taking part in the process

The customers bring in their husked, dried corn, and upon arrival their corn is weighed on a scale that has to be almost as old as the mill itself. (And it’s still accurate; a visitor hops on the scale and proclaims that it’s the same as what he weighed at home that morning.)

A ticket is written up with the customer’s name, the amount of corn and the type of grind preferred (the mills can grind course meal, medium, fine, extra fine and grits.) The corn is then put through a sifting machine that separates out any trash, dirt or matter leftover from the harvesting process. The sifted corn is put in line for milling; on a busy day, dozens of buckets can wait to be milled.

One worker lifts a bucket of corn overhead to pour it into a large hopper, which funnels the corn into the stones for grinding. As their corn is milled, customers can scoop and bag their own fluffy meal as it falls down the chute and through a screen into the waiting wooden bin below.

This meal, unlike the stuff sold in stores, is perishable, because it retains the corn oil; modern processing strips out the oil, which is a precious commodity. But that oil gives a nutty, earthy taste to the fresh ground meal, which Darell says is a superior flavor to anything you can buy commercially.

“There’s just something about raising your own corn, knowing what’s in there, seeing it ground and bagging it yourself,” Darell says. He thinks folks today are developing an appreciation for fresh, homegrown foods. “We’re seeing a return to where people are growing their own gardens, and milling is a component of it.”

Family tradition

From left, Michele Mitchem, Macy Fink, Quin Fink, Dolly Fink, Darell Fink and Jeff Pendleton at the Finks Mill, which has been in continuous operation since it opened in 1932.

Quin and Darell Fink continue to operate the mill with Quin’s wife, Dolly, and their family friend Jeff Pendleton. All live close by and have dedicated most of their spare time to keeping the mill operational.

It’s no small task. “This thing is so old, it really should not work every day,” Darell says. Everything here has to be handmade – bearings, shafts, all the working parts of the stone units. For the Finks, running the mill is a matter of balance: they want it to run enough to keep all the moving parts going, but not so much that they wear out.

For those reasons, they usually run the mill only on Saturdays, beginning Labor Day weekend and on through the winter. The other six months of the year, they’re constantly doing maintenance work: Disassembling the stone units, doing woodwork, inspecting the bearings and the belts, doing maintenance to the gates that hold back the water. “Whatever little money we get, we basically just spend it on the mill to keep it going,” Darell says.

Old ways

Today, farmers drive pickup trucks, not wagons, to the mill to have their grains ground. But beyond the transportation involved, the rest of the experience is much the same as it was 80 years ago.

A trip to the mill was both a necessity as well as an opportunity for social networking, says Gregory Jeane, Ph.D., who has extensively studied Southern grist mills. The heyday of milling in Alabama, and much of the eastern U.S., was from 1850 to 1910, Jeane says; in 1880, more than 800 flouring and grist mills were widely scattered in the state, meaning most families lived in close proximity to a mill.

Mills were often selected to be post offices, and larger mills often had ancillary operations, such as a lumber mill, a blacksmith shop, a general store and would serve as a voting location, Jeane says.

Such activities meant the mill was a social center for rural communities, a place for adult men to discuss crops, livestock and politics. (“Going to the mill” was fundamentally a male outing, though sometimes the whole family would go along.)

The number of working mills in Alabama today has dwindled to a handful, but at Finks Mill, the activity is much the same. The customers place their orders and spend the time waiting in conversation with neighbors and strangers. The camaraderie, as much as the cornmeal, is the draw.

For the Finks, the customers become like family. “You get to where you’re attached to these people,” says Dolly Fink, Quin’s wife.

Some of these folks have been coming here for decades, and some even remember the mill when it was new, Quin says. And the family plans to keep it going as long as they can.

Small town life through a lens

In this photo, which might be referred to today as a “selfie,” Draffus Lamar Hightower is seen with one of his many cameras.

In the early 1930s, Draffus Lamar Hightower purchased a camera. The rest, as they say, is history. For the next several decades, Hightower chronicled on film the essence of everyday life in a small but vibrant southern town and the surrounding rural southeast Alabama landscape.

Those thousands of negatives, many of which are now archived at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, chronicle a world and a way of life that no longer exist, and to many cannot be comprehended.

“He traveled across the county, knew everybody and was never without his cameras,” says former USA history professor and archivist Michael V.R. Thomason, who extensively studied Hightower’s works and wrote a book To Remember a Vanishing World: D.L. Hightower’s Photographs of Barbour County, Alabama, c 1930-1965.

In his time, Hightower photographed both the good and the struggles of everyday life in a period from the Great Depression, World War II and the postwar decline of small towns.

In capturing a variation of lifestyles, Hightower proved to be adept at crossing over socio-economic levels and allowing his subjects to be themselves.

“He admired the poor tenant farmers for their ability to endure the hardships they faced as much as he respected the prominent leaders of the community,” Thomason says. “His photographs of poor people, whether black or white, are sympathetic to their humanity.”

This photograph of a farm couple is somewhat similar to Grant Wood’s famous painting, American Gothic, and is evidence that Hightower followed the works of other artists. Hightower was well read, and studied the photographs and paintings of others of his time.

His own farming background – although far removed from that of the poor tenant farmer or sharecropper, yet still involving the toils of agricultural life – may have added to his understanding. He was one of six children reared on 240-acre farm in adjacent Bullock County.

His fascination with technology, which involved a short course in mechanics, led him to Clayton, where he took a job at a Ford automobile dealership and later started a Chevrolet dealership. During that same time he met and married Marie Turner whose character contrasted greatly with the quiet unassuming Hightower.

State Sen. Billy Beasley, who as a child recalls seeing “Mr. Draffus” around town, described him as being pleasant, but reserved.

“Growing up I didn’t realize he was a photographer,” Beasley says. “I knew him as a Chevrolet dealer and I know he was also very active in the (Clayton) Methodist Church.”

In fact, a lot of people were unaware of his works until 1983 when Hightower, who by then had long hung up his army of cameras, donated much of his work to the town of Clayton. The Hightower Collection Committee organized as a result of the donation and sought to obtain identities in the photographs first by approaching a frail Hightower and later by inviting residents to a showing at the Clayton Library.

Clayton Mayor Rebecca Beasley holds a picture Hightower took of her when she was a baby.

Clayton Mayor Rebecca Beasley, editor of The Clayton Record newspaper and spouse of Senator Beasley, had been familiar with Hightower’s photography since childhood, but it wasn’t until the town acquired the photograph collection that she really appreciated his work.

“As a child we would see him taking pictures, but we didn’t really think anything about it,” Rebecca Beasley said. “Looking back you think I would never have thought of taking that picture because at the time it was just the way life was. Now it’s not common. He was photographing history.”

While he never personally met Hightower, Thomason believes the photographer was too well calculated and deliberate to have recorded his times by coincidence.

“He was a historian with a photographer’s eye,” Thomason says. “He was not a snapshot photographer. He took pictures of weddings and football games and things like that, but he was clearly a documentary photographer.”

Ordinary scenes captured the eye of Hightower, like these men gathered outside a Clayton business.

Hightower’s photographs came to light in the early 1990s with the publication of the book by the Historic Chattahoochee Commission and Hightower was able to see his works displayed publicly at an exhibit in Huntsville and perhaps even one in Columbus, Ga.

Hightower died on Sept. 2, 1993 at a nursing home in Troy.

The city of Clayton hopes to permanently provide an exhibit of the photographs somewhere in the city, but has thus far been fiscally unable to devote funds to adequately display them.

Anyone interested in learning more about the D.L. Hightower collection can contact Clayton City Hall at 334-775-9176.