Sweet Home (for a time) Alabama

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The Saturday afternoon we arrived at Joe Wheeler State Park was hot and sunny. The park was hopping busy. In fact when we checked in the ranger said the park had been crazy busy for weeks. This park had three campground loops and a large separate section with cabins. It also had a golf course, marina and even a hotel. This is a big park and a favorite destination of Alabamans.

We had driven most of the way from Tupelo on the Natchez Trace. It was a gorgeously green and sylvan drive. We wound through woods, passed fields and over hills through northern Mississippi. We had been on the Trace briefly when we left Natchez. That was its beginning. Now we were seeing it some 300 miles north. It would continue all the way to Nashville and is actually managed by the National Park Service which accounts for its pristine state.

Along the Trace there were places to stop for picnics, nature trails and we even saw three Indian Mounds. We crossed the state line into Alabama and then we crossed the Tennessee River on a very pretty bridge. It is a wide and very beautiful river at this point. Shortly thereafter, we left the Trace for a county highway which led us through Florence and to our park just east of the town.

Almost every site at Joe Wheeler was occupied. Our site backed on a hill over Wheeler Lake which was just visible through the trees. We got unhitched and Dakota and I set off to walk the campground.

Walking the loops is always a good way to get oriented to a new park. It is fun to check out everyone’s rig and see what they are up to. This park was full of families and groups of friends hanging out at their campfires, cooking and chatting. Kids were running and biking on the campground road and Dakota received his usual due. He is always very patient and friendly when little hands thump him on the head and run their fingers through his fur.

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Storms were predicted for the next day but it looked like they would hold off until afternoon. Jim had discovered some paved hiking trails just next to the Wilson Dam and that was our destination. Our site neighbor, from Nashville, had confirmed ticks were prevalent in the park.

The Wilson Dam is in Muscle Shoals. The drive took us about 40 minutes through the countryside. The Wilson Dam site is on the Tennessee Valley Power Reservation. We stopped at the Visitors Center with an overlook to the dam. This is one of the oldest and largest hydroelectric plants in the country.

Before the Tennessee River was dammed, this whole area was impoverished. It was subject to frequent floods making farming a frustrating experience doomed to periodic failure. The flooding also caused much disease, small pox and cholera, in addition to starvation. Poor crop management had depleted the soil adding still more deprivation to the area.

Wilson Dam was built in 1918 by the Army Corps of Engineers to provide power for nitrate production during WWI. Once the war ended, that need no longer existed, but the dam had proven it could improve the quality of life in the area and Wilson Dam became the foundation of what would be the TVA.

It wasn’t clear to us if there was an actual Visitors Center at the dam, but we stopped at several interpretive displays. They gave us a good background about the dam and the history of the TVA. The dam was very impressive up close with water pouring through the 49 spillway gates at a prodigious pace. Inside 21 Francis turbines powered energy production. They are the most efficient in use now and generate 663 megawatts of power each day.

We had intended to walk a loop appropriately called the Energy Trail. We tried unsuccessfully to find one end of the trail by the Visitors Center. We drove a ways up Reservation Road to find another point of entry. Unsuccessful again, we took a path instead which led us to the base of the dam and a series of pretty waterfalls which spilled over a high rocky wall. Dakota waded in the cool water pooling at the base of the cascades.

We strolled back to the truck and decided to head over the O’Neal Bridge back to Florence. The TVA had been a fascinating learning experience, but there didn’t seem to be much else to see in Muscle Shoals.

Muscle Shoals and Florence are sort of sister cities in this area. But locals refer to the entire region as the Shoals. The topography is distinguished by the myriad lakes and rivers. Everywhere you look there is some sort of body of water. It is a paradise for fishermen and boaters.

We drove back through Florence on the same highway we had driven the day before. We continued east past the entrance to Joe Wheeler and on to Rogersville. We were trolling for a Red Box to rent a couple videos to entertain us during the expected storm. We never did come upon a Red Box, but we did find a spot for barbecue. Whitt’s was a drive up restaurant with a front porch for dining. We stopped for lunch.

The sky to our west was dark and heavy with forbidding clouds. We sat on the front porch of the barbecue place and watched the clouds draw closer and closer. Rain began to fall, but we were dry and continued dining. Just then the wind exploded and the storm broke. We grabbed our lunch before it was whipped away by the gusting winds. A siren went off and with concern we asked the restaurant staff if they knew what it was. They seemed equally concerned and uncertain. Fire trucks streamed past on the road and Jim dashed to get the truck.

It was impossible to run two feet through the deluge without getting completely soaked. Poor Dakota and the entire interior of the truck were soaked as well since we had left the windows cracked open for him. There was almost no visibility as we drove through the torrents back to the park. We were soaked and nervous.

The park had emptied during our absence. Families had headed home to start the work week or perhaps to avoid the storm. We were now almost completely alone. We switched on the tv to get the weather report. There were tornado warnings throughout the area and it was clear from the map that the front had hit us while we were at the barbecue place.

We watched the news reports and finished our interrupted lunch. It was really good barbecue, way too good to waste. The weather bulletins were interrupting one of the NCAA tournament broadcasts and the weathermen were repeatedly apologizing as they updated the deadly storm’s progress. They were getting slammed on social media for co-opting the game. We could hear the storm hitting the station’s roof with rain and hail as they broadcast. We continued to monitor the weather until the danger was past.

The rest of the evening was quiet and uneventful. We opened the trailer windows and enjoyed the cool air. The smoke from a distant campfire drifted through the open windows. We watched a local PBS broadcast on Alabama’s privately-owned forests. Seventy percent of Alabama is covered in privately-owned forest. Only 7% of the state’s land is government owned. Forestry is obviously a significant economic factor. Property taxes have historically been kept quite low to encourage landowners to hold their land and manage the forests. This provides timber, recreational areas, supports wildlife and controls pests. It all sounded quite wonderful and we were sorry we wouldn’t be seeing more of Alabama.

The next morning the sky was sparkling clear, but the temperature was quite cool and the wind fairly strong. We wanted to spend some time exploring Florence and kicked it off with a visit to the Visitor’s Center.

A charming woman greeted us at the Visitor’s Center. She armed us with a brochure offering a walking tour of historic Florence. We had a nice chat and I picked up another brochure detailing “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama.” Sadly, I would leave 99 uneaten, but the one we enjoyed made it all worthwhile.

Much of historic Florence is clustered around the campus of the University of North Alabama. Designed by the sons of Frederic Law Olmsted, who designed the campus of Smith, UNA’s roots go back to 1830 and the founding of LaGrange College. It was later relocated and renamed Florence Wesleyan University. The campus had recently been restored with landscaping and trees in keeping with its original design.

We parked the truck on Walnut Street near the campus and walked the three blocks consisting of the Walnut Street Historic District. The houses ranged from Victorian to Arts and Crafts bungalows. The street was quiet and tree-lined.

We turned on to Tuscaloosa Street and walked the block past the Wood Avenue Church of Christ and right again on to Wood Avenue.

This street was quite a bit busier with traffic. The houses were impressive as well, but less attractive due to the rushing traffic. The architecture ranged again from massive Victorians to more modern bungalows.

After walking both Walnut Street and Wood Avenue and admiring the pretty homes, we headed back to the shopping district and a stop at Trowbridges for our must-eat Alabama treat. Little did we know Trowbridge’s itself was quite a treat.

Seated in a booth, we ordered Trowbridge’s renowned Orange-Pineapple Ice Cream from a very friendly young waitress with a delightfully thick accent. It was an incentive to chat with her just to hear her speak. The ice cream was completely delicious. The color was magnificent and little bits of pineapple speckled the lovely orange color. We savored our ice cream as we savored the ambiance at Trowbridge’s.

It was late afternoon when we headed back to Joe Wheeler and our Airstream. We had had two really fun days exploring Muscle Shoals and Florence. We had a thrilling encounter with a deadly storm, learned about the Tennessee Valley Authority and visited the Wilson Dam and perambulated through Florence’s lovely streets. It was a successful and all too short visit to Alabama

A Pretty Dry and Dusty Town Full of History

I would not want to malign anyone’s hometown, but there didn’t seem to be a lot to Fort Stockton. It seems today and yesterday to be mostly a stopping off point. Today Interstate 10 runs through it so it is an east/west artery. The town is clustered on both sides of the interstate. Otherwise, Fort Stockton is pretty much in the middle of nowhere.  The land is flat. It is hot and dry and dusty. For the most part the town seems unremarkable except for the history which had been respectfully and passionately preserved by its inhabitants.

Fort Stockton was a garrison during much of the mid to late 1800’s. It had originally grown up around Commanche Springs which was the major source of water in the area and what drew those who chose to settle nearby. The fort had boom and bust times. During the Civil War the fort was all but abandoned and then later reclaimed and re-settled. Ultimately, the fort was de-commissioned in the late 1880’s.

Only a little of the original fort survives, but local forces are working to restore it and to create a museum on the site. We wandered around the fort buildings which have been restored to date and it was possible to get a sense of life on this outpost.

The soldier’s barracks and officer’s quarters were not open to the public, but the jail had been restored and was open to visitors. Our footsteps made satisfying clopping sounds as we walked the boards of the porch. The limestone walls were cool to our touch and impenetrable. Manacles hung from the walls and the lone solitary cell looked dark and frightening. Even Dakota seemed to peer into the building with cautious interest.

Out on the parade grounds stood a lone wagon. Despite its exposure to the elements, it was a famous wagon having appeared in two films with the Duke.

There was also the local episcopal church and next to it an old one room schoolhouse. Living near the fort and the soldiers was probably a fairly safe place to be in more troubled times. Citizens had probably as much reason to fear local outlaws as any stray wandering tribes.

Being stationed at this fort out in the middle of nowhere had to be a fairly tough life. Riding patrol in the heat and storms of west Texas didn’t leave a lot of room for creature comforts.

Over in another part of town we found the “historic district.” A clutch of buildings formed what must have been the center of town long ago. The courthouse stood on a small rise. The building we see today is a newer courthouse, the former one burned down about a hundred years ago.

Kitty corner to the courthouse was the Grey Mule Saloon. Run by a notorious man who moved his family to Fort Stockton in the wake of a murder, he established a ranch and later was elected Sheriff proving how thin the line between lawless and lawman was back then. Today the saloon is a tasting room.

Along with his deputy, the Sheriff intimidated and terrorized the town until both ended up murdered. His deputy was a fellow by the name of Barney Riggs. Riggs was the second husband of Annie Riggs, a mother of ten. In the wake of her second husband’s murder, she seemed to have thrown in the towel on matrimony and at the turn of the 1900’s bought a hotel situated across the street from the Grey Mule Saloon and the courthouse.

This former hotel is now the Annie Riggs Memorial Museum. The hotel sits up high in town and has wide porches front and back. Once guests at the hotel would relax on those porches catching the breezes to counter the west Texas heat. Visitors to the hotel would also enjoy the cool waters of Commanche Springs.

Entering the hotel through the front door there is a reception area. To the right of the reception area is the front parlor complete with piano. Today the parlor features a simply produced but compelling video on the history of Fort Stockton and Commanche Springs.

A guest would continue through the reception area to reach the dining room where guests would take their meals. The dining room has two doorways, one leads to the kitchen and a door to the right leads to an inner courtyard.

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Mrs. Riggs was known for her cooking. Looking at the kitchen today with its period pieces, it is hard to imagine the ceaseless hard work which must have gone into preparing three meals a day for her guests. In the height of the summer heat it must have been very uncomfortable to toil over the woodstove. As soon as one meal was prepared and served, it would be time to get started on the next. Biscuits and bread would be left to rise as pies were prepared and a roast cooked in the oven. I was tired just contemplating the toil and thought how much Annie Riggs would have loved to order out for pizza or chinese. That didn’t happen back then.

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The interior courtyard reached from the right of the dining room was the access point for the guest rooms. The guest rooms today feature exhibits of local historical items: collections of arrowheads, a safe, old typewriter and desk and pictures of local personages. The rooms are cool and dark and must have been a welcome respite from the hot sun and wind.

The courtyard today features a collection of old branding irons hung from the walls. Above each iron the mark has been burned into the wooden beam. It is an attractive and fascinating display. An old carriage sits in a corner of the courtyard.

Fort Stockton itself seems to suffer boom and bust cycles. Sheep and cattle ranching took hold in the early 1900’s. Those occupations were followed by the addition of oil and agriculture. Today the economy is focused on the chief west Texas occupations of oil and ranching. The vital life force that was Commanche Springs, which had been the reason the area was originally settled, is no more. In the 1950’s, despite local opposition, use of the springs for irrigation managed to dry the aquifer forever leaving only the dust, heat and west Texas wind as its legacy.

We enjoyed poking around the town, but we were ready to head west on Interstate 10 and our next adventure.

 

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