Hands-On Alabama History: DeSoto Caverns

DeSoto Caverns was not on my all-encompassing spreadsheet of Alabama History. In fact, after studying Alabama History and reading one very detailed story about how Hernando De Soto came to Alabama with the sole purpose of stealing from and brutally slaughtering as many Native Americans as possible, I felt a bit queasy from the happy signs for “DeSoto Caverns Family Fun Park!!”

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But then, I happened upon a Facebook ad for a half price “Homeschool Day”, and I was feeling especially adventurous. Three days later, I found myself enjoying a laser light show underground with two other families that I dragged down with me. So congrats, DeSoto, your Facebook Ad was successful.

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But I quickly learned that DeSoto Caverns, despite its poor choice in names, should have been on my spreadsheet from the beginning. Our hour-long tour of the cave provided some extremely fantastic pieces of history.

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We learned about Mr. Wright, who happened upon the cave in 1723, carved his name and date in this rock, then lay down to take a nap.

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Poor guy. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He didn’t know that the cave was a sacred Indian burial ground and that they had someone to bury that very day. The Indians happened upon his happy little nap on their way down, and went ahead and killed him and left his bones beside his name. Mr. Wright had carved his own tombstone.

But on the plus side, it’s the oldest graffiti to be found in any US cave, so way to carve your way into history. Moist would be proud.

We also got to learn about how Civil War gunpowder was made in the cave, using its secrecy and noise-cancelling abilities to hide the production.

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But my favorite piece of history was about The Cavern Tavern.

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A 1920’s prohibition bootlegger had been using the cave to make moonshine. But he got tired of having to drag his large clay vessels up a mudslide to get out of the cave, so instead, he decided to open a secret speakeasy in the cave itself. And, well…I’ll let Ali tell the rest of the story.

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That jewel is by far my favorite report from our entire study of Alabama history. If we’ve learned nothing else, it’s the all-important lesson of “Don’t go to an illegal bar in a cave with no way out except to climb up a mudslide. Especially if it’s named ‘The Bloody Bucket’.”

The caves, despite the stalagtites damaged for the long six-week tenure of The Bloody Bucket, were just magnificent.

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As we toured the cave, they pointed out all of the pieces of cave that looked like something else. This was the unanimous favorite – Yoda.

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After the cave, we enjoyed the “Family Fun” part of the park. They had at least a dozen attractions to pick from – Mini Golf, a gold panning, gem searching, a maze, and a few fair-like rides.

I was kind of obsessed with finding gems in the giant sandbox,

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And we all enjoyed the maze. Mainly because Holland, one of the kids with us, taught us the trick to all mazes: never take your left hand off the wall and it’ll lead you out.

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Totally works, guys.

Some of the rides were more kid-powered than usual, which made it highly entertaining for the grown-ups to watch as the kids worked their hardest to peddle the “go-karts” up and down small hills.

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(Red faces are always a good sign of time well spent.)

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Overall I was extremely pleased with the park – the cave was bigger and more educational than I expected, and the kids had a fantastic time – both in the cave and out.

But I still think they could do for a name change.

Here was 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: 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.