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.

Briarfield_MG_3642_7392s“The sun is so bright, Mommy!! I need away from the sun!!”

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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Hands-On History: Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum.

Birmingham was founded on the iron industry, and the iron industry required some heavy transportation to succeed. Therefore, trains are a vital part of our history, too. The Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum is our favorite place to experience that piece of our past.

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The HODRRM can be found in Calera, about 45 minutes outside of Birmingham (depending on which end of the city you reside.) In the past, we’ve come for Thomas the Train’s visits, and stayed to play on the other exhibits. Way more than a museum, they have five rows of old engines, train cars, flatbeds, and more.

161208-HOD-RRM_MG_9708_3687We might or might not be allowed to climb in these, but there weren’t signs on most of them…

Each one seems to have its own hidden secrets, to be found by peeking in the doors, climbing up the stairs, or reading its graffiti.

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And also, it’s kind of a photographer’s dream.

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The kids spent about half an hour building something out of scrap pieces they found – carrying items from one end of the flatbed to the other.

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Carla Jean and I just watched and enjoyed the imaginations at work.

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Speaking of Carla Jean, she had meetings after our visit and dressed accordingly, which made chasing the children around a sight to behold. But as any southern lady journalist can do, she carried out her duties with grace and poise.

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After ample time exploring the old engines, we walked across the street to the museum. They have a wonderful signals display outside, complete with a button you can push to make them all work and signs that explain how they were operated.

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The kids enjoyed playing on the hand train, and wished it weren’t chained down so that they could take off on a long journey.

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I think they would’ve made it, too. For at least ten feet.

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The museum lives inside the depot. It was an actual depot from a small Alabama town that was moved to the museum. They have the lobby set up with original train depot benches, and a ticketing office staged to see how it all worked before computers, printers, and Ticketmaster.

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As we learned at our Tannehill visit (and many others), the minerals found in Alabama were the catalyst to development and growth. This map showed the Alabama Mineral train route, along with pictures from many of the sites.

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There was a working dispatch table, with real-time audio of current-day train engineers discussing their journeys through Alabama. Above the antique switchboard was a computer monitor that showed the current day track switches.

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Both were fascinating, but the thought of controlling train tracks with these switches was downright literary.

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In continuing with experiencing the romance of the train era, they had many artifacts from a Pullman car. Flasks and menus and towels and dishes…

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The entire museum made you want to pack up your suitcases, be Anne Shirley, and board a train to meet your new parents on Prince Edward Island.

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The kids made one more stop at the train yard – this time to ring the bell on Train #38,

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And then begged for one more walk through the old train yard.

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If you’re looking to get a yearning for a life lived long ago, this is the place to find it.

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Hands-On History: Tannehill

We go to Tannehill Ironworks Historic State Park fairly often. It’s not close to our end of Birmingham, but it’s a beautiful place to hike, get outdoors, explore pretty places, and to photograph. Plus, my family camped there often when I was a kid, so I have very fond memories.

I do not, however, remember studying the history of the place as a kid. Which means that we probably totally did and I just tuned it out. It’s tragic how little I remember of my education – and that includes college. Thankfully, Ali seems more interested than I ever was.

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I hadn’t planned on going on a field trip this particular Monday, but a friend who knows my adoration for Fall texted me that morning and said “This is it! Leaves are blowing everywhere and it’s gorgeous outside. It’s the quintessential fall day. You need to go somewhere amazing.”

So I texted Carla Jean and my Last Minute Network O’ Adventure and we headed to Tannehill. Both Carla Jean and a set of friends dropped everything to join us – the call of fall is strong around here.

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It was just lovely. The perfect temperature for exploring without getting hot, and also never getting cold. Our little crew soaked in the majesty.

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We did our usual hike, which is a 4 mile loop that goes along the river, to the furnace, through the woods, and to the water wheel, but this time, we paid careful attention to read the signs, understand its part in history, and pretend that we were a part of it (including crawling into the furnace where they made molten iron. Maybe not the best part to pretend.)

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We delayed our hike to play in and around the creek because the weather was just delightful.

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The wind picked up and created an intense leaf storm,

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Leaving the water littered with fall.

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We finally continued our hike,

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Taking breaks every now and then to attempt to catch falling leaves.

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My favorite hike at Tannehill is the trail from the Furnace to the Water Wheel. It’s a beautiful trail, and there’s a treat on each end. The kids took turns opening the dam to allow more water to travel in the chute to the water wheel, finding all of it great fun.

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We had to use some hiking games to encourage everyone to make it this far, so I pulled out my trusty “Super Bonus Power-Up” game, where you touch trees to get power-ups, and the bigger the tree, the more energy you derive from it. It’s amazing how efficiently video game theatrics can improve real life.

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Noah decided to improve on my game and add firearms to the mix – he decided that you could shoot the trees to more efficiently collect your power-ups. Then declared himself the winner of the game by 20,000 points.

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His method was so convincing that he managed to recruit Carla Jean.

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He made it clear to her that she wasn’t quite as good as he was, but she wasn’t bad – for a newbie and a pacifist.

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The hike from the Water Wheel back to the entrance is always the most exhausting part. The last legs of journeys often are, especially on tiny legs.

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So I made up one last game for everyone to survive with gusto: each person had to find a yellow, orange, red, green, and purple leaf. If you got all five, you could start swapping them out for higher quality leaves of the same color. If you found another color, you got bonus points. The game enabled everyone to get back to the parking lot – some just barely.

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We dumped all our leaves in a pile and ooohed and aahed at the colors.

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It really was amazing how vibrant everyone’s finds were when put all together. Sometimes late fall looks all brown, until you really start searching for it.

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After the 4 mile hike, we went to the museum – for the first time ever for my kids, and for the first time in at least 25 years for me.

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Tannehill was built in the early 1800s to capitalize on the brown ore found nearby. It was an ironmaking operation until 1865, when union troops burned it, right before marching to The University of Alabama and also burning it down.

The museum offers beautiful timelines of the iron industry and how it led to the founding of Birmingham (post-war),

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has giant pieces of ore and other minerals to study,

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And demonstrations of the giant industrial equipment used to turn the ore into iron.

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The kids enjoyed all the pulleys and wheels, and maybe learned a little in the midst of all their playing.

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Carla Jean’s article about Tannehill can be found here.