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.


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.


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


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.)


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


The wind picked up and created an intense leaf storm,


Leaving the water littered with fall.


We finally continued our hike,


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


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.



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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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),


has giant pieces of ore and other minerals to study,


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


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


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

Hands-On Alabama: Archives and History Museum

One of the dozens of benefits of Carla Jean joining us on our project (aside from her fabulous research, entertainment of and by my children, having another adult along for long car trips, and her spectacular articulation of our journeys) is that people have read her articles and emailed her, inviting us to places we didn’t even know existed.

In that manner, we found this unbelievable jewel in our state.


This, y’all, is THE ultimate museum of Alabama History that we didn’t even know existed – and it’s free. The Department of Archives and History in Montgomery is an amazing asset of our state, for both children and adults. They have a research room where you can study family genealogy (including “runners” who will go to the basement and pull ancient archival information for you),


underground archives with fascinating ancient record books,



and a gorgeous chronological museum of Alabama History.


My friend Christen and her two oldest kids, Luke and Aubrey joined us for our journey.


It took the kids five seconds to see the activity sheet in the lobby, and set to work.


Ali brought her camera along, and was fascinated by the ornate ceilings. The fanciness of the surroundings certainly made them feel special – and quite proper.

Ali Pic Alabama Archives IMG_0520

We visited to the museum first. We were at the point of studying Statehood, and museum guide Wesley Garmon gave us an excellent tour of that specific area. Carla Jean did an excellent job of recording what we learned – click here for her article.


We also saw the only medallions known to still be in existence that signified the Treaty of 1790 between George Washington and the Creek Indians:


As mentioned in a previous Alabama History post, this treaty promised the Creek Indians not to take any more of their land. The very next exhibit showed a map and timeline of the Indian Removal that occurred just a few decades later.


The kids learned about the chief early industry of Alabama, cotton,


As well as seeing artifacts illustrating what their life might have looked like if they were a child in the 1800s.


(Ali made me crop the Smallpox arm out of this picture in her report – she was not a fan. I mean seriously. As if cross-stitching for fun wasn’t bad enough…how about cross-stitching with an arm eaten away with smallpox. Be grateful for your iPads and vaccinations, kiddos.)

The museum was vast, but we only covered the early history of Alabama on our first visit.

On our way out of the museum, the kids got to see the state bible – the bible that every governor of Alabama has been sworn in with.


We then went to the interactive room – they have themed Discovery Buckets with hands-on items and activities to teach about Alabama History (similar learning backpacks are also available for loan through the mail for only $10), as well as many activity sheets, genealogical booklets to make, and many more exciting finds.


The girl’s favorite area was Grandma’s Attic, which was a hands-on area with a closet of old clothes, old toys, and a typewriter – all to play with.



Our guided tour moved to the basement where the archives are kept. The kids were in awe of the rows of history.



Keri, an archival specialist, took over our tour. She had already laid out for us the first map of Alabama AND the first constitution of the state.


Written in 1819, the scroll is held together by wax seals and silk ribbons, and hand-written at a level of neatness that I will aspire to for the rest of my life.


This was the moment I was glad I’d left Noah with my mom that day. Just the thought of him sneezing or tripping or grabbing the constitution made my heart skip a beat.


We spent way too long (and too much) in the gift shop, then headed outside to find our favorite Alabama items on the map in front of the building.



The day was a perfect way to introduce the kids to Alabama voices that shaped the state, as well as let them realize that they, too, are important Alabama Voices.


There was so much to see at this brilliant new discovery that, when we arrived at the Civil War section of our studies, we returned for another visit.

This time, a textile specialist, Ryan, took us to the Textiles storage to show us their collection of Confederate Flags, the third largest in the nation (or the world, if you want to get technical – as far as we know, no one in Switzerland is collecting flags from the Confederate States of America.)

This is where we learned that the Confederate Flags were far from uniform.

For instance, this was the first Confederate Flag, but they decided that it looked too similar to their enemy’s flag.


And this was an example of the very intricate Confederate Flags that the women would make for soldiers to carry – there was a bit of womanly competition over who could make the best.


(That’s a cotton plant, and the Latin, loosely translated, says “get your grubby hands off our cotton.”)

Later, Wesley took us back to the museum to the Civil War section, and explained how soldiers lived, ate, and documented their existence.


Their meals would often consist of Hardtack, which looked like a fillingless Pop Tart made out of petrified cork board and often had meal worms in it. But since there weren’t any better options, nor did the corner gas station sell overpriced legitimate Pop Tarts, they ate it anyway.


We were again amazed at the beauty and thoroughness of the museum, and enjoyed walking chronologically through the history of the state.


Since there weren’t going to be any 200 year old constitutions brought out this time around, I did bring Noah, who was very excited to see Grandma’s Attic for himself. The kid is a bit of a fashionista, so he immediately found himself a uniform, and wore it quite well, if I may say so.



(Carla Jean didn’t mind our revisiting Grandma’s Attic, either.)


Noah was also very excited about the gift shop, and he and his friend Levi chose Confederate hats, while Luke decided to go Union. There was quite the animosity between our soldiers from then on out.


A blog reader, Ashley, had offered to take us through the “Secret Tunnel” that connects the Capitol and State House, and also contains statues of famous Alabama soldiers.


The kids were impressed, and despite the size of our group and preponderance of male children (yes I’m sexist), no statues were harmed in our visit. (You’re welcome, Ashley.)


On the way home from Montgomery, we stopped off in Marbury, Alabama to visit the Confederate Memorial Park and Grounds. Situated on the grounds of the only Confederate Soldier’s Home, it told the fascinating story of the veterans of the Civil War from the losing side. Only Union Soldiers received a pension from the government, and so there was very little to help those many southern soldiers that were permanently scarred from the war. The museum told touching stories such as of three soldiers, all missing their left legs, who would hobble arm in arm through the compound with giant smiles on their faces.


The museum didn’t allow photos, but I did manage to snag this very early version of an Essential Oil.


I mean, I might even buy Mystic Oil of Joy if it were available now.

After the last soldier died, the compound became a place to care for Civil War widows. After the last widow died in the 1930s, they tore down most of the structures and used the supplies to build schools. There were a few structures left and a lot of foundations with informational signs, so we explored and learned.



Noah found this to be the perfect place to put his new Confederate hat to good use.


There were several trails on the property that led to fascinating finds, like the Spring House and the still-functioning water reservoir house.



After Noah managed to literally get stuck on a sign (and I took a few minutes to laugh at him and take photographs),


We ended our long day’s journey and headed home, with a much great understanding of the devastating impact of the Civil War, but also of the love and care that was given in this tiny, unknown Alabama town.

Here are Ali’s reports:

First Visit:


Second Visit and Confederate Memorial:


To Bake or Not To Bake.

In my B.K. era (Before Kids, or Before Kaos, or Before Konstant Losing Of My Mind, but that, I suppose, would be B.K.L.O.M.M.), I enjoyed taking on Extreme Holiday Baking.

I reveled in making lists of the various homemade treats I would create, then keeping a tally of the number of each I created (often doing double and triple batches to maximize my output.) They would be gifts for my co-workers, my husband’s co-workers, neighbors, and of course, gifts to myself. Baking was a delightful, introverted activity in which I could pour 100% of my focus.

I attempted it A.K. in 2009, (while my one kid was at my parent’s house), and then again in 2012, (but requiring my mom to entertain my then two-year-old.)

So although most years I see the logic that I can no longer, at the life stage I am in, bake and actually enjoy it, I do still get the wistful, annual urge to bake every December.

This year was especially strong as we’d picked up an Alabama cookie cutter on one of our field trips, and it just seemed right – we needed to do some baking in celebration of our Alabama History project in addition to Christmas.

So I chose one single item: Gingerbread Cookies.

It seemed simple enough, except that Gingerbread Cookies have more steps than Forrest Gump’s FitBit on a Long Run day.

1. Make the dough.

2. Let the dough refrigerate.

3. Roll the dough.

4. Cut out the cookies.

5. Bake the cookies.

6. Make the icing.

7. Color the icing.

8. Decorate the cookies with icing and toppings.

9. Let the icing dry.

10. De-ice the kitchen, paying special attention to the splattered, hardened icing on the grout.

11. Give up on the grout icing and resign yourself to having a new hue of kitchen floor cracks.

12. Wash 5 baking pans and 8 icing bowls, all with glue-like icing now coating their every surface (and your every surface, as well.)

But my holiday spirit of optimism outweighed the risks, and so I set out to do the impossible. Bake with children.

And not only bake while in the ownership of children, but actually bake with children.

(Not bake with children as the ingredients, although I might’ve been tempted a time or two, but bake with the assistance* of children.)

* The equation of helpfulness when baking with the assistance of children is scientifically proven to be:

((.034 x child’s age) + (.034 x child’s age)) / number of children

So my personal level of efficiency equals out to be:

.306 + .17 / 2 = .238, meaning I am running at approximately 23.8% of my normal efficiency when allowing my children to help me.

I hedged my bets by making the dough when the children were busy playing Lego with their father, then let it refrigerate overnight.

But the next day, it was time for helpers.


(Why yes, that is, as Noah calls it, his ShadeStache. It’s pretty spectacular. And definitely aids his baking game, along with his game with the ladies.)


The kids each took turns rolling out the dough (or, more appropriately, patting the dough lightly with the roller while getting flour all over their clothes),


Then took turns cutting out cookies. Which, with the exception of a lobotomized Gingerbread Man here and a mirror image Alabama there, went fairly well.


My friend and History Cohort Carla Jean was coming over to help decorate, and I’d already put her off once due to the time it took to make it this far in the process, so I had asked Chris to preheat the oven to receive my states and men.

…But when I arrived at the oven with my first and second tray…it was cold.

And no, it wasn’t a faulty husband. Of course the oven would break. Because it has recently decided to panic in high-pressure moments…like Thanksgiving Day.

(It worked just fine the day after Thanksgiving and the day after that and so on…until I was ready to bake cookies.)

So after turning it off and on and off and on and unplugging and replugging it and deciding it was truly not going to perform that day, I did what anyone would do in that situation: I filled my trunk with raw men and land masses and drove around the block to Not-Crazy-Renee’s house.


(But not before texting Carla Jean and backing up our décor date by 15 more minutes.)

Renee and her family welcomed me in, graciously loaned me their oven, and happily took their tip of warm cookies.

Then I rushed back home, trunk filled with Gingerbread goodness, and began making the icing just as the kids were about to jump out of their skins with the NEED to decorate cookies.


Chris got all the toppings out for me, and then we began the coating of my kitchen with sugary magic.


Noah was immediately into it.


Well, both kids were,


But Ali was more studious and processed,


while Noah simply glowed.


After the first few cookies, I told myself “There’s no way we’ll finish decorating all these. There are twelvety-thousand, and I know my children – they will get bored at cookie number 6.”

But they didn’t. And in fact, they kept exclaiming how amazing this was and how very unbelievably much they were enjoying themselves.


And, in a complete life plot twist, we finished decorating every single one of those cookies – in a fraction of the time it would’ve taken me to do it alone. My efficiency formula was completely turned on its head.






Now I realize that a good citizen of the internet would have staged these cookies on a lovely holiday platter with perhaps a tiny pile of ginger in one corner and a loopy line of icing outlining the opposite corner to really stress their achievements and in hopes that you would add their artistry to your Pinterest board,

But I am not that person.

I’m more of the Rusty Scarred Cookie Sheet Chic type.


p.s. – I’m sending out a few Christmas-ish cards this year to blog readers. If you’d like one, email me your snail mail address at rachel@graspingforobjectivity.com.