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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Tinglewood at Orr Park – Faces in the Trees.

A study pops up in my orbit semi-regularly that makes the case that neurotic people are more likely to see faces in random objects.

If this idea scares you with regards to your own mental health, do not – I repeat DO NOT go to Orr Park in Montevallo.

If it doesn’t, though, you need to go right away.

We had some time left over after our Brierfield Ironworks field trip, and since we were in Montevallo already, I decided we would visit the park – a fascinating place that I’d only heard about. I hadn’t told the kids anything about it, so as we started down the walking trail, I told them,

“Be on the lookout for wooden faces!!”

“What?”

“Wooden faces!”

“What in the world do you mean, mom? I don’t see any — OH!”

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We began seeing faces everywhere.

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The park is filled with old cedar trees, many of which are dead. A local coal miner, Tim Tingle, got permission from the city to turn the trees into works of art and, over the span of more than a decade, he has sculpted over 40 trees – many are faces, some are entire bodies, and others are animals and fantasy creatures.

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It’s really the best walk you could ever want to take with children – and totally worth the drive to Montevallo. There’s a walking circle that’s over a mile long, but the part of the park with the carvings is probably half a mile or less, so it is completely walkable for any age.

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I especially bonded with this 360 degree carving – a mom with a kid clinging to her legs,

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And a giant sack of groceries on her back, right above another kid hiding behind her.

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I feel you, tired mom. I feel you.

There were sad faces,

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perplexed faces,

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Shocked faces,

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Irritated faces,

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And hungry faces.

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There is also a Native American,

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A War Memorial,

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And one of my favorites, a fantastic dragon.

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It makes for a fantastic Scavenger Hunt location, because there are tiny and subtle carvings intermingled into the more obvious ones. If I’d been more prepared, I would have had clues ready to send my kids off on a glorious hunt. Next time, next time.

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This park is absolutely a must-visit if you live anywhere in Alabama, as it is as rare as seeing a unicorn eating a rattlesnake.

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