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.


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.



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



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.



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


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.



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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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…




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.


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




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


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


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: