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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Hands-On History: Brierfield Ironworks

After a few false starts, we finally got back into the groove of history field trips after the holidays. It’s harder now, because our dear friend and adventure comrade Carla Jean has moved to Colorado, and nothing is as much fun when you lose your buddy.

We set out to Brierfield Ironworks, a furnace built in 1862, used for a minute to make iron for farm implements until the owners were strong-armed into selling it to the confederate army, then used to forge iron to make cannons, then promptly destroyed by the union army and never truly resurrected, despite a few attempts. I’d heard it was a less impressive Tannehill, but we often like the “little guy” places, so we wanted to check it out for ourselves. It was also the only furnace actually owned by the confederate army, so it definitely fit into our history studies.

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We arrived and found that we seemed to be the only people at the historic state park. There were log cabins and historical buildings scattered about the grounds, sitting peacefully and quietly.

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We found the one titled “Information Office”, and opened the creaking door to find a kind lady who gave us a trail map and sent us on our way. We first walked over to what was left of the furnace, covered by an oversized carport to protect further decay.

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Unlike Tannehill’s furnace, which is made of giant stones and is still in beautiful condition, Bibb Furnace was made of bricks, and many of its bricks were pillaged for other projects during World War II. As such, there’s not as much left.

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Noah liked the mining cart, though. Mining carts make everything better.

There was a lovely hiking trail above and around the furnace, where we found the old reservoir and several other interesting artifacts.

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We used the opportunity to spot seedless vascular plants, the chapter we were reading in botany at the time.

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We adored the covered bridges scattered throughout the park, acting as bridges in some places and covered picnic pavilions in others.

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It was an easy 1.5 mile circular hike, which was just about the right amount, since Ali was rather overdressed for the hot February day and Noah can always find something to whine about.

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The most fascinating feature that Brierfield possesses are the bright and dark green rocks all over the park – we at first assumed that they were some of the very minerals that drew people to create a furnace here (Tannehill was created around the red ore mineral line – could this be green ore?)

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The pieces ranged from tiny to small boulder size, and we compared and contrasted color and features. Ali noticed that they had many holes, so surmised that they were like sandstone – on the softer end of the rock spectrum.

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We also talked about how cool it would be to come upon a mineral line like this long ago – and what if it had been gold? We had just read about the Alabama Gold Rush the day before, so we daydreamed about happening upon a whole area of golden nuggets the size and quantity of these curious green rocks.

After we finished our hike, we went back into the welcome center and asked the kind lady about the green rocks. She informed us that they are actually slag, left over from the years of furnace operation. Slag is stony waste matter separated from metals during the smelting or refining of ore. This made the finds more exciting – we had found byproduct from the Civil War era.

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While she explained this to us and I examined the beautiful pieces of slag she had in the gift shop, Noah shopped, itching to spend his allowance.

“Can I buy this, mom? How about this? And this?”

Without ever really looking up, I agreed to his purchases. He slowly counted his dollars while the nice lady giggled – I assumed she was pleased with his independent economic prowess. It wasn’t until we got to the car and he proudly showed me his new possessions that I questioned my hands-off parenting strategy.

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And that, dear readers, is how a family ends up with a confederate flag shot glass that says “Heritage not Hate.”

Geez.

I’m the best.

After our hike, we visited the playground, where the kids fawned over the vintage playsets,

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while I enjoyed creating super creeptastic “Dementors Are In The Neighborhood” footage.

On the way home, I slid through KFC to get the kids some food.

As we were pulling around, Noah said, “Hey Mom, can you roll down my window?”

“Sure…”

“Thanks! I want to show them my new little cup that I got at the gift shop!”

“NOOOOOOO!!!”

Geez.

I’m the best.

Here’s Ali’s report on this trip and another stop we made on the same day – but I will write about that fascinating place next time.

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