Hands-On History: Sloss Furnaces

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Sloss Furnaces, part of the reason for Birmingham’s existence, has always fascinated me – especially photographically. I’ve taken pictures of it for years, but have never truly explored it. I have left it so unexplored that I didn’t even realize they had a gorgeous visitor’s center, gift shop, and museum.

But naturally it was on our list of field trips for our history project, so when we made it to that point in history, I emailed to inquire about a tour. They have a premium tour which includes the opportunity to create an iron mold and watch iron being poured, so I quickly chose that option. Molten hot metal poured with children watching? For sure – we’re absolutely doing that.

We arrived on a gorgeous day – a perfect backdrop for the exciting photos I knew I’d get to take.

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Sloss Furnaces was a thriving pig iron producer opened in 1882, perfectly situated in the only place in the United States where all the ingredients needed to make iron lay within a thirty-mile radius.

The tour began, and despite our tour guide’s fantastic mannerisms, I might’ve gotten distracted by all the fabulous angles inside of Sloss to fully pay attention.

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I definitely caught some snippets about the terrible working conditions (deafness and death being side effects of employment), but the angles…

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We descended down some crazy narrow metal steps to the underground.

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I remember clearly that he explained what they used to cart back and forth in this tunnel, but … photographs.

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Obviously I need to redo this tour and not be allowed to take my camera along because everything he said was so very interesting and I don’t remember a single word of it.

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I am not fit to be a homeschool mom. I am the worst. And I have the photographs to prove it.

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(This is also Carla Jean’s fault for moving to Colorado because I can’t cheat off of her notes. Which makes me wonder how very much I cheated off her notes last semester…I am really not fit to be a teacher.)

After the riveting tour during which I learned so very much, we went inside the museum and watched a short film about turning Sloss into a National Historic Landmark. Most of Ali’s report (at the bottom) was gleaned from the video. So maybe she was distracted during the tour as well.

Then it was time for the mold making. They gave each of us pressed sand molds and tools for creating our designs.

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This was SO MUCH FUN. And made me wish I had more artistic abilities.

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After we all finished our molds, they were loaded onto a trolley and carted off to these workers, who were casually maintaining the fire as red-hot iron slag dripped out of their container, as it’s supposed to.

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Never have caution signs had such a justified existence.

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The best part of my entire month was when they took the vat of liquid iron and began pouring it into the molds. Watching and photographing the splashing fire made me beyond ecstatic.

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…And totally creeped Noah out. But did I comfort my kid? No. I was too busy watching volcano being poured.

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While we waited for our iron castings to cool a degree or two, we studied the forge’s various collectibles.

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Clearly people had been having fun.

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My kind of fun.

Sloss Furnaces170308f-Sloss-FurnacessThose eyes…so turquoise. That skull…so melted.

The cart arrived with our creations, and the kids enjoyed trying to find their pieces. (Except one of our kids, who refused to claim his piece, insisting that his would NOT have looked like that.)

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Ali, who had worked hard to write mirror-image letters in her mold, was quite proud of how her piece came out. And amazed at how heavy it was.

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It was a most fantastic field trip, even though I totally failed at knowledge retention. I’ll be sure my report card reflects such.

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Here’s Ali’s report:

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Hands-On Alabama History: DeSoto Caverns

DeSoto Caverns was not on my all-encompassing spreadsheet of Alabama History. In fact, after studying Alabama History and reading one very detailed story about how Hernando De Soto came to Alabama with the sole purpose of stealing from and brutally slaughtering as many Native Americans as possible, I felt a bit queasy from the happy signs for “DeSoto Caverns Family Fun Park!!”

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But then, I happened upon a Facebook ad for a half price “Homeschool Day”, and I was feeling especially adventurous. Three days later, I found myself enjoying a laser light show underground with two other families that I dragged down with me. So congrats, DeSoto, your Facebook Ad was successful.

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But I quickly learned that DeSoto Caverns, despite its poor choice in names, should have been on my spreadsheet from the beginning. Our hour-long tour of the cave provided some extremely fantastic pieces of history.

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We learned about Mr. Wright, who happened upon the cave in 1723, carved his name and date in this rock, then lay down to take a nap.

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Poor guy. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He didn’t know that the cave was a sacred Indian burial ground and that they had someone to bury that very day. The Indians happened upon his happy little nap on their way down, and went ahead and killed him and left his bones beside his name. Mr. Wright had carved his own tombstone.

But on the plus side, it’s the oldest graffiti to be found in any US cave, so way to carve your way into history. Moist would be proud.

We also got to learn about how Civil War gunpowder was made in the cave, using its secrecy and noise-cancelling abilities to hide the production.

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But my favorite piece of history was about The Cavern Tavern.

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A 1920’s prohibition bootlegger had been using the cave to make moonshine. But he got tired of having to drag his large clay vessels up a mudslide to get out of the cave, so instead, he decided to open a secret speakeasy in the cave itself. And, well…I’ll let Ali tell the rest of the story.

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That jewel is by far my favorite report from our entire study of Alabama history. If we’ve learned nothing else, it’s the all-important lesson of “Don’t go to an illegal bar in a cave with no way out except to climb up a mudslide. Especially if it’s named ‘The Bloody Bucket’.”

The caves, despite the stalagtites damaged for the long six-week tenure of The Bloody Bucket, were just magnificent.

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As we toured the cave, they pointed out all of the pieces of cave that looked like something else. This was the unanimous favorite – Yoda.

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After the cave, we enjoyed the “Family Fun” part of the park. They had at least a dozen attractions to pick from – Mini Golf, a gold panning, gem searching, a maze, and a few fair-like rides.

I was kind of obsessed with finding gems in the giant sandbox,

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And we all enjoyed the maze. Mainly because Holland, one of the kids with us, taught us the trick to all mazes: never take your left hand off the wall and it’ll lead you out.

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Totally works, guys.

Some of the rides were more kid-powered than usual, which made it highly entertaining for the grown-ups to watch as the kids worked their hardest to peddle the “go-karts” up and down small hills.

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(Red faces are always a good sign of time well spent.)

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Overall I was extremely pleased with the park – the cave was bigger and more educational than I expected, and the kids had a fantastic time – both in the cave and out.

But I still think they could do for a name change.

Here was Ali’s report:

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Hands-On Alabama History: Helen Keller

So I think I missed a couple things in my own Alabama education.

I missed that Helen Keller was an international superstar, and I missed that she lived until the late 1960s – she died only 13 years before I was born.

The first fact I believe I missed precisely because I’m from Alabama. Sure, we studied her – but I didn’t fully realize that all of y’all did as well – and probably half the world (there were gifts from dozens of countries on the grounds of her birthplace, the subject of this field trip. Also, Helen Keller’s statue is one of very few women in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the Capitol, hanging out with Ronald Reagan, Sam Adams, and George Washington.)

(But, just in case you too weren’t aware of how great Helen was, she was the first deaf and blind woman to go to college, wrote multiple books, had an insanely high IQ, and traveled the world promoting women’s rights and rights for the blind.)

And as for the second fact – she was born in 1880, y’all. That was like an entirely different existence. How could she have been still alive when my Mom learned about her in school? And do our parents remember when she died like one of those moments where you’re all like “I remember where I was when…”?

So many questions that I pondered on our field trip last week.

We drove two hours northwest with our friends Christen, Luke, Aubrey, and Levi to visit Helen Keller’s birthplace, Ivy Green, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Tuscumbia is a small town in Northwest Alabama that is neighbors with Florence, Muscle Shoals, and Sheffield. I don’t remember going there before, as Northwest Alabama is vastly unexplored by me, despite its unbelievable beauty.

We traveled with some friends, which is highly recommended – two hour car trips with kids entertained by their friends is significantly better than two hour car trips with bored and lonely children.

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Ivy Green was remarkably tiny looking on the outside, but had lovely grounds (10 acres of the original 640 that her grandparents built upon.) The surrounding neighborhood is full of far grander houses that resemble perfectly outfitted Victorian dollhouses.

The tour of the house is guided, pointing out photos of Helen and her family, along with tidbits from Helen’s life.

These were her actual dresses, again blowing my mind that she was still alive when my parents were kids. Or maybe my parents are just older than I realize.

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Each room was cordoned off to prevent tiny hands from ruining artifacts – something that greatly decreases the amount of Mommy Anxiety wasted on a field trip.

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Our tour guide told delightful stories about her family, her upbringing, and the house.

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Upstairs held three very low-ceilinged rooms, and this one was the one shared by Helen and Anne Sullivan, her lifelong friend and teacher.

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They also had one room open as a museum, including a replica of Helen’s statue at the capitol.

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The house was built in 1820, so to prevent fires, the kitchen was actually in a shed out back.

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The grounds included all sorts of unique and curious finds that helped the kids run off their two-hour-car-ride bundle of energy.

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And of course, the grounds tour included the pump at which Helen and Anne were able to first communicate.

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The kids learned a little, bonded a lot, and got to see another part of our state.

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Before we left, we visited Tuscumbia’s stunning Spring Park, where we enjoyed a playground and gorgeous waterfall,

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Water wheels and a pond,

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And a very impressive fountain that made the kids scream every time it reached its highest point.

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And of course, we moms enjoyed the long miles of Alabama backroad and its ever-present curiosities, including one very special town, which may become a primary entry into my personal dictionary.

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Alabama is awesome, y’all.

Here’s Ali’s report:

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