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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The Scandalous Side of Botany.

Parental Guidance Suggested.

I love our Botany book. I struggle with finding history and science books that I like, but this one – it’s just perfect. The organization of the chapters is clear and succinct, the writing is beautiful, and the experiments are easy enough that even this severely un-experimenty mom can make them happen.

I love it so much that we’re in week 9 of school and I haven’t abandoned reading it aloud.

(Reading aloud is hard work. And also requires a modicum of non-laziness and non-boredom. By now I’ve usually jettisoned a subject or two for Ali to read to herself because I just can’t take it anymore. But not this year!)

Last week, we were on the porch enjoying our brand new fall weather, and I was reading aloud to my children. There was an Alabama Power crew lounging in the corner of our yard, taking their lunch break from messing with the power pole next to our driveway.

I wasn’t sure if the crew was in earshot or not, but I didn’t really care. They could join us for our educational pursuits if they liked.

So we started with Botany. We were studying the seed chapter, and were learning about the five methods of seed dispersal.

(Human, animal, wind, water, and mechanical. Now you can’t say this blog isn’t educational.)

We were reading about the last method, mechanical dispersal – more specifically, the last example of a plant that uses mechanical dispersal.

The power guys were enjoying their sandwiches by the mailbox, and the kids were intently listening. Ali was taking notes in her workbook as I read the last paragraph in my amplified, sing-songy botany voice.

Another fruit that uses mechanical dispersal is the squirting cucumber.

Um, the what?

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Its small, two-inch cucumbers are filled with slimy juice that contains the seeds.

I glanced over at the power guys, trying to determine if they were listening to the lesson and praying that my read-aloud voice didn’t carry to the mailbox.

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As they ripen, the pressure causes the cucumber to burst off its stalk and explosively shoot slimy liquid up to 20 feet away! The seeds spew out of the liquid, and voila! Seeds are sent to a new plot of land.

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These would be a fun plant to grow. Their scientific name is Ecballium elaterium. If you grow these plants, wait until the cucumber is nice and fat. To make the cucumber squirt, gently shake the vine, but stand back right away so you don’t get slimed!

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By the time I got to this part, I was shocked that I’d been able to read with a straight face.

(I. AM. AMAZING.)

And I was also a tiny bit surprised that one of the Alabama Power guys hadn’t choked on his pickle spear.

I mean sure. The study of botany has had its moments before – talking about seeds and ovaries and whatnot. But this? This was BEYOND. Let’s read it aloud, all together, and just bask in its beauty.

Another fruit that uses mechanical dispersal is the squirting cucumber.

GUYS. I said read it OUT LOUD. I don’t care if you’re at work! Kids in the room? IT’S A TEXTBOOK forcryin’outloud. Let’s start over.

Another fruit that uses mechanical dispersal is the squirting cucumber. Its small, two-inch cucumbers are filled with slimy juice that contains the seeds. As they ripen, the pressure causes the cucumber to burst off its stalk and explosively shoot slimy liquid up to 20 feet away! The seeds spew out of the liquid, and voila! Seeds are sent to a new plot of land. These would be a fun plant to grow. Their scientific name is Ecballium elaterium. If you grow these plants, wait until the cucumber is nice and fat. To make the cucumber squirt, gently shake the vine, but stand back right away so you don’t get slimed!

And THIS is why we homeschool, people. For quality moments like these.

(Additionally, I expect to get an Alabama Power Certificate of Commendation for my efforts in lifting spirits and boosting morale.)


Editor’s Note: I *carefully* searched YouTube for this anomaly. I needed to see it for myself, and it really helped solidify for the children that the squirting cucumber was a plant they should tell EVERYONE about. You’re welcome.

The Dangers of Avocado.

There are certain foods that God created for the purpose of letting us eat toppings. Because toppings are a life blessing.

Potatoes, for instance. On their own, they’re not that exciting. But when you add butter and sour cream and cheese and bacon and maybe some bar-b-que while you’re at it, they’re the sparkling unicorn of food.

Tacos. Tacos are nothing BUT toppings. Which is why they’re never a bad idea. Especially when served in soft corn tortillas. Which is the ultimate topping wrapper.

Chili. Chili is an extra special topping food, because it calls for toppings and bottomings.

I use rice for my bottoming. Chris uses Fritos. Some people use crackers, or so I hear.

And for toppings, I’ve always used sour cream and cheese, but have recently discovered the splendor of adding an avocado to my chili topping repertoire. Because Avocado is kind of like my bacon – it’s perfect with everything.

I made a giant vat of chili last Monday night. We had a lovely family dinner, to which I invited my parents. Or I thought I did. I texted my Mom – I would have scrolled to find the text stream where I text both of them at once, but I had onion juice on my hands and really wanted Siri to handle my texting for me.

But mom never answered.

Later that night, I texted Dad.

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I felt bad for my text-only ways (a normal human being would have called her parents when not receiving a response to a dinner invitation), but we still had a vat and a half of chili left over (that’s the thing about toppings – they somehow multiply your main dish leftovers because you use so many toppings that you use very little of the actual product), so I told my parents to just come over the next night.

Tuesday night.

I rewarmed the chili, got out the voluminous options of toppings and bottomings, warmed up the cornbread, and prepared for another large family dinner.

The last thing I needed to do was to slice an avocado. I knew my Mom and I would be the only ones taking advantage of the world’s best topping, so I only grabbed one avocado out of the fridge and began slicing it open while talking to my mom.

I did my usual of cutting around the middle, and then opening up the avocado. But instead of my usual THWACK approach to remove the pit (the THWACK approach being where you THWACK the pit with the knife and then twist and pull it out), I did more of a THWACK-saw.

I do not recommend the THWACK-saw approach.

Because the avocado was softer than I had assumed and catapulted loose from the avocado mid-saw…but the sawing didn’t quit. And I was sawing in the direction of my hand.

And, as I was holding the avocado in my right hand, the sawing continued into my thumb. To the point where I definitely heard and felt sawing taking place on my thumb bone.

Sometimes physics is a real turd.

As one does when sawing one’s thumb bone, I screamed and dropped the avocado. I ran to get a paper towel to sop up my outwardly flowing life force and surveyed the damage.

The cut was long, thick, and vomiting blood. But oddly didn’t hurt…at all.

It’s gonna start hurting real soon. Just you wait.

I asked mom if I needed stitches. She took a look and told me to go let my father see it while she hunted down a butterfly bandage. He looked at it and was also uncertain.

…But it still didn’t hurt.

Mom bandaged me thoroughly, causing me no pain whatsoever. I decided to table the matter of my thumb because it wasn’t hurting and I needed to slice my avocado and then there was chili to eat.

Priorities, you know?

Chris wasn’t quite home from work, so I sent him a quick text to help him adjust to the possibilities that lay ahead.

“Just to mentally prepare, we may need to go to the ER later. I cut my hand de-pitting an avocado.”

He answered back, “Sorry. You did that last night, too.”

I pondered what he said.

HAD I cut my hand two nights in a row while de-pitting my avocado? This did seem vaguely familiar. Then I remembered that I had a bothersome cut on my index finger and I didn’t remember how I’d gotten it.

I had cut my hand the night before!

Do I cut my hand every time I de-pit an avocado?

This seemed oddly familiar as well.

Clearly I needed a new strategy for de-pitting avocados.

I prepared my bowl of chili and gave myself an extra serving of avocado. I deserved it, after all.

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But then I looked over at my mom’s bowl and she had not gotten any avocado.

Perhaps the adrenaline from the injury made me more frantic than usual. Or perhaps I’m just an insubordinate daughter. But I demanded of her, “Why aren’t you getting any Avocado? EAT THE BLOODY AVOCADO! …Err, I mean that “bloody” in the British sense. Not the literal one. Maybe.”

She quickly spooned herself some avocado onto her chili.

We ate, my hand continued not to hurt or throb or anything remotely uncomfortable, and I actually felt quite energized. Adrenaline really is magical – why haven’t they figured out how to make adrenaline pills yet?

After dinner, I drove up to my neighbor’s house whose husband is a doctor. He’d just walked in from a long hospital shift that I’m sure was delightfully fun, and I accosted him in the basement before he even got to go upstairs and kiss his family.

I brought a fresh tube of superglue with me, because I knew that in the past, when their kid fell and busted her head, they just superglued her back together, because superglue is the same thing as liquid stitches. Who knew?

(Also I love the idea of fixing a broken kid the same way you fix the broken kid’s broken toys.)

I peeled off the bandage for him to assess the damage. He opened up the cut a bit to take a look, and asked me again if it didn’t hurt at all? No, it didn’t.

He didn’t know why I wasn’t hurting, but because of where the cut was (going up my thumb right where it bends), he said that superglue wouldn’t hold it long enough to heal – I really needed a couple old-fashioned stitches.

I drove back home with my feeling-quite-fine hand, and we decided that Dad would drive me to the ER. After all, it might not be as easy to drive after a numbing shot or three in the hand.

Dad and I sat in the ER lobby and people-watched, communicating our terribly judgmental thoughts back and forth with our eyes. Who knew the ER was such a fascinating place? Probably everyone.

It was finally my turn, and the nurse asked me all the questions he was supposed to like, “Have you ever thought about self-harm? Are you sure you didn’t do this on purpose?”

“No. I just really wanted avocado to top my chili. Have you ever tried it? It’s delicious.”

“When did this happen?”

“Around 6pm. But I ate the chili before coming in. Because I worked hard for that avocado.”

He happily dumped me into a room, where a nice ER doctor came in and asked if I’d ever had stitches before.

“Oh yes. On my hand even! From sleepwalking.”

He then wanted to hear all of my various sleepwalking stories as he shot me up and tied three nice little stitches in my hand.

There was the time I broke my nose

And the time I got lost in the funeral home…

And that time I fought Captain Hook

I apologized that my current injury was so boring.

He ran out of the room to get something and I snapped a quick picture of his handiwork. (Click here if you’d like to see it. You’re welcome for the opt-out, queasy people.)

Then he finished stitching me up and told me he’d see me soon, then sent me on my way. And no, he had no idea why I wasn’t hurting, either.

But the moral of this story is, although there are countless useless kitchen gadgets that do various overly-specific tasks, this brand new tool that I bought this week will pay for itself in one use. Because ER co-pays are expensive.

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