Hands-On Alabama History: The Native American Trips.

We’ve still been keeping busy with our Alabama History project and field trips, but I’ve been waiting to catch up on posting about them until I could share some fun news: a dear friend, Carla Jean Whitley, jumped onto our Alabama History bandwagon a couple of weeks after we started. She is an author of books about Alabama history and a journalist for al.com (The Birmingham News.) She and Ali have teamed up to document our year’s journey, through Ali’s eyes, for the news. The first article in the series published last week.


Carla Jean and Ali have bonded over their love for reading, being the oldest child, using Snapchat together, and more. Be sure to keep up with Carla Jean’s exciting and beautifully written series, Sweet Home History, to gain more perspective on what we’re learning.

We had several field trips in a row to appreciate the Native American history in Alabama. Our first was to Russell Cave, Alabama’s only National Monument.


Russell Cave is at the Northern Edge of the state in the small town of Bridgeport, and has an interesting and extremely old history of the Native American people. Cave archaeological finds date people groups using the caves back to 10,000 years ago.


Luke Mason was our guide, and he was a fantastically knowledgeable and animated park ranger. Being Cherokee Indian himself, he was able to add insight and personal experience to our tour.


Although the cave itself is inaccessible to the public because of its status as an important archaeological site (and to protect the bats that live inside),


it was still such a fantastic learning experience as Luke told us how the cave was used by many generations of Native Americans for shelter and life.


To illustrate the richness of the archaeological value of the cave, he stepped across the barrier, dug around in the dirt for about 30 seconds, and unearthed some artifacts. I’m positive he told us exactly what they were, but my mind did not retain those fascinating facts for you.


The kids were given a Nature Scavenger Hunt sheet to fill out while we were on our tour, and they got about 75% of it completed. But they’re serious at Russell Cave – they sent the kids back out until they found everything listed. Then they let them take their National Park Junior Ranger Pledge,


And awarded them with Junior Ranger badges.


I had never heard of Russell Cave before I started researching for this project, and it was such a great find. The museum and the park rangers offered so much fantastic information about early people groups in Alabama, and there were several things that Ali learned there that carried on with her through our next field trip stops.


We waited around a few weeks to do our next trip so that we could go to the Moundville Native American Festival. And although the Moundville grounds and Museum are worthy enough of a trip,


the Native American Festival really made the experience come alive.

There were storytellers, musicians who also told gripping stories to go along with their songs,


demonstration booths,



and vendors.


Noah chose to buy a bow and arrow, but was too shy to get lessons from the man who handcrafted it. Ali and Carla Jean, however, did not pass up the opportunity.


Ali chose a flute, also directly from the man who crafted it. She’s still practicing QUITE regularly.


They loved going up to the top of the highest mound where the Chief of Chiefs would preside over the tribes. It was easy to imagine all of the commotion below when they explained the scene.


While we were on the mound, Noah spied a shooting range. Since we’d gotten in trouble earlier for letting Noah shoot his bow and arrow (oops – I was given a sheet of paper that I assumed had the contact information of the craftsman but actually said that bows would be confiscated immediately if shot on the premises), we decided to go down and see if we were allowed to practice there.

It turned out to be the weapons demonstration area, but since no demonstration was currently happening, the kind gentlemen gave Noah one-on-one shooting lessons.



The lessons worked, too – I was able to capture him getting a bullseye before the safety-tipped arrow bounced off. Never has my son ever been so thrilled with my photographical abilities.


The other gentleman at the weapons demonstration tent, Bill Skinner, decided that Ali needed to learn to throw giant, man-sized darts with an atlatl. After explaining the physics and math behind leverage and velocity then demonstrating how it worked, he presented her with the weapon.



She immediately fell in love with this Wooly-Mammoth-Killing Apparatus and continued her atlatl practice for some time.


She recalled learning about the atlatl from Luke at Russell Cave, which I found pretty cool because I thought I’d never heard of one before. At least someone is listening.



She’s definitely interested in purchasing or building one of her own. Can you open carry an atlatl?

He also gave her club lessons, explaining carefully that these weapons were meant to break bones, not bruise – and exactly where to hit to break those bones (Head, Hip, Knee – in case you were wondering.)



The girl is prepared for anything now.


Our transitional stop from Native Americans to early settlers was Fort Toulouse / Fort Jackson in Wetumpka.

Fort Toulouse was actually a French outpost in 1717 – the easternmost point of the French Louisiana Territory. They set it up so that they could trade easier with the Creek Confederacy, especially favoring the Alibamu tribe.

This went along fantastically until the British won the French-Indian War and chased the French away.

In the early 1800’s, Fort Jackson was established by Americans to use in the Creek Indian War. After winning, the American Government took over 20 million acres of land from the Creek Indians, much of which is now Alabama.


(I could only say “I know, right.”)

The reason this particular piece of land has been so valuable over many centuries is because it is in the pie piece of land where the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers converge. So it is beautiful, fertile, and of strategic importance in military terms.


One of the first things that struck us was that every tree was coated in Spanish Moss. We seemed far too west and north for it to be there, and we wondered if it had been transplanted when the fort was originally created.


We didn’t discover the answer, but we did appreciate the elegance it added to the site – we felt as if we had found a wormhole to Savannah or Charleston.



There was a beautiful reproduction of Fort Toulouse – the nice part about visiting a reproduction for is that you’re allowed to climb on and explore it – because you’re not about to ruin some 300 year old piece of history.


And climb my kids did.


They even laid siege to the fort…


And the buildings inside.


We were nearly the only people at the entire historical site, so the kids really enjoyed the opportunity to run around and explore on their own schedule.



I personally appreciated the beautiful metalwork on all of the hinges – whether true to the original or not, I thought it was a nice touch for a French Fort that was meant for peace rather than war – the Fort of Love.


Fort Jackson, the American Fort, still had remnants of its moat and the protections thereof.


(In fact, the satellite imagery of Fort Jackson is pretty cool. They designed moats so very fancily.)

FullSizeRender 54

There wasn’t too much to see at the Fort Jackson site, but by far the favorite place to visit in the kid’s opinions was the reproduction Native American Village.

It included examples of winter houses,


and a summer house.


The beds were made of bamboo and were surprisingly comfortable and cool. Perhaps we should reconsider artisan bamboo beds.

Ali tried out the top bunk,


While the rest of us stayed on the lower levels.



(Really. I did try it out too. But alas, no selfies to prove it.)

The last stop on our self-guided tour was a Native American mound, smaller and more overgrown than Moundville’s, but fun to explore. Dated 1100-1400, it was by far the oldest feature of this historied piece of land.


The unexpected thing about all of these trips is how they’ve woven together in quite the unplanned ways. We learned about the atlatl at Russell Cave, then got to try one at Moundville. We learned about the importance and uses of the mounds at Moundville, then got to see another one at Fort Toulouse. I can only hope that the field trips themselves continue to do a better job of educating my children than I could ever plan for.

If you’ve enjoyed following Ali’s reports, you can flip through all three included in this post here:


The Day The Tide Turned Brown.

The history of Alabama Football is nuanced and deep in its tradition. Why, for instance, would our mascot be an elephant, yet we’re called The Crimson Tide?

It came from a simple phrase used by a journalist.

In 1907, there was a particularly momentous game – the Iron Bowl, in fact – that was played in a sea of red mud which stained the Alabama jerseys, formerly white, into a deep crimson. Hugh Roberts, a sports editor of the Birmingham Age-Herald, used the catchy phrase “Crimson Tide” in his article to capture the imagery, and that was that.

…So it would be fitting if another momentous game caused a shift in the naming of the team.

Such was Saturday’s game.

It was a huge game from the outset – two undefeated teams this late in the season, ranked 1 and 6. College Gameday was there. The entire city was basically standing room only – forget actually trying to walk in the quad. The gameday attire (or lack thereof) was turned up like never before, and that’s saying something – I saw more body parts sticking from the places they’re typically kept covered than I have ever seen in my entire life.

When game time arrived at 2:30, the 101,821 people that were lucky enough to be inside the stadium had been given ample time for tailgating and general celebration of the occasion, which of course included the consumption of many things – both in liquid and solid form.

The game started happily. Alabama scored, the stadium was wild with excitement over such a fantastic match-up. I admit I wasn’t actually in my seat when the game began – we have hospitality tickets, so I was enjoying the food and drinks provided in the cushy indoor seating where you watch the game on TV, you’re not squished into the people on the right, left, north, and south of you, and the bathrooms are pristine.

I visited those pristine bathrooms when we arrived and noticed that the toilets were eterni-running. They had the flush that never ends, and moreover that was a bit too high in pressure so that they also doubled as a bidet.

Not great, but who am I to complain about overzealous toilets.

Right before we left the Stadium Club to head to our actual seats, I visited the little girl’s room one more time – just in case. This time, the bathroom was silent. Too silent, in fact. Gone was the eterni-flushing. Gone were any flushes. I wiggled the handle – not even a wave emanated from the bowl.

Huh. Weird day in the bathrooms.

Then I quickly moved on.

We got to our seats just in time to see a couple of exciting plays, and then there was….

…the announcement.

Attention: the stadium is currently experiencing water pressure issues. We are working to resolve the problems. Until that occurs, there will be no running water. Please do not use the facilities until further notice.

And then the game continued as if nothing catastrophic was afoot.

My mind quickly went into math mode.

101,821 fans.

32% were too drunk to hear the announcement.

Another 45% heard it, but were too filled with liquids to heed it.

10% were in the bathroom during the news and didn’t hear it.

100% of the stadium concessions were still selling fountain drinks.

28% of the people in the stadium smuggled in their own liquids.

And 100% of Rachel Callahans now had to pee since discovering that they weren’t allowed.

I tried to come to grips with my situation by turning to Twitter.


Surely the issue would be quickly remedied. The population of the stadium alone was currently Alabama’s fifth largest city. Every state employee except Nick Saban was surely frantically working on this.

So I sat and watched the game, crossing my legs, suspiciously staring down each and every person who left their seats, wondering if they were on their way to worsening our situation.


We headed back inside during halftime, severely disappointed that no follow-up announcement had been made. There were lines to the regular stadium bathrooms, so maybe we’d just missed the all clear?

That, or truly no one was heeding the gravity of the situation.

When we arrived at the Stadium Club, we were greeted with grave warnings that all of the bathrooms inside were off limits.

In fact, they were being guarded by a wall of workers. Martial Pooping Law had been enacted.

I decided that I’d had enough of the cramped quarters of the stadium, so I stayed in the club while Chris went back out to the game. Plus, I was hopeful that the bathrooms would be opened any minute. My personal situation was feeling more urgent.

But alas. The Palace Guard was not budging.

After a little while, I went back to the normal stadium bathrooms, thinking that the long lines from earlier had to be proof that they were once again working.

I walked in and headed to a stall. And gasped, then promptly choked on the air I had just inadvertently sucked in.

There was a pyramid constructed of moist toilet paper and who-knows-what-else…all the way up to the seat.


I walked into another stall. The same sight greeted me.

Third, fourth, fifth stalls – the pyramid scheme was nonstop.


I couldn’t do it. I turned and walked out. But then the urge was too great and so I turned around and got in the back of the now-formed line. Everyone that came out said “Oh my GOSH ladies it’s TERRIBLE in there.”

I got to the front of the line, looked in one stall, and once again backed out.

I just couldn’t.

10% out of sympathy for whoever the poor soul was that was going to have to DEAL with THAT, and 90% out of complete and utter terror from the contents therein and the closeness they would pose to my own body.

Uh uh. I would internally burst first, thankyouverymuch.

I trudged back up to the Stadium Club to wait it out. I sat down next to a friend and she leaned over and said, “Look what’s going on over there….there’s some sort of…LIQUID…dripping through the ceiling.”


There was zero water running through the pipes of the stadium – I had just confirmed that fact by attempting to scrub the nast of the bathroom off of me – but the sink was bone dry. So the logical conclusion was that whatever that was coming through the ceiling did not originate from the pipes that carried clean water.

And it was dripping steadily into a room that was designed for…and full of…food.

We sat and watched it drip into the trashcans strategically yet subtly placed underneath it.

Needless to say, I lost my appetite for any further consumption, and my bladder insisted that I throw away the rest of my ice water (which, oddly, was still available and flowing from the drink machine.)

Meanwhile, I pondered gravity, and the downward motion of the liquids drip dripping away. And imagined the situation on the field itself.


By the fourth quarter, the game was well in hand and my husband, being the type that likes to take mercy on his wife and beat the traffic, decided we should leave early. As we walked down the street by the Health-Hazard of a Stadium, there was a small river running in the gutter… even though our state is currently in a Level Three drought.

That there was not water.

That was the Brownish Yellow Tide.

Roll Tide, y’all. And pass the toilet paper.

Crimson Tide Turns Brown

40 Spectacular Spots for Birmingham Photo Shoots

Best Photo Backdrops in Birmingham

It’s getting to be the season for family photos, and I often have photographers message me for new ideas on Birmingham backdrops for family or commercial photo shoots. We all know that the Botanical Gardens and Morris Avenue and Railroad Park are great, but people want new ideas.

And I like to give the people what they want.

As I tend to get around a bit as a Birmingham photographer, I have a few suggestions for you who are looking for unique backdrops to take photos in Birmingham. I’m sure you’ve heard of some of them, but maybe I’ll surprise you with a few. Some are seasonal and some take longer walks than others, so be sure and read the details for any disclaimers that you might want to know about. And feel free to ask follow-up questions in the comments or by email – I’m always willing (albeit sometimes a little slow) to help!

Also, if you just like shooting cool places in Birmingham, this is the list for you. As you can see, I don’t usually clog up my pictures with people, either.

But first, a disclaimer: Please use common sense. Just because I list a place here does not mean you can have a full two hour photo shoot there without permission. If in doubt, get prior approval.

Now. Let’s begin.

1. Urban/Artsy: The Blank Space Mural Projects near the Alabama Theatre. These are beautiful, bold, colorful works of art that can be found on the north side of 3rd Avenue South and 18th Street.



Details: They’re both in the backs of parking lots used by Alabama Theatre visitors and workday cars, so attempt to time your visits when the parking lots aren’t full for best access.

2. Urban/Graffiti: The “Graffiti building” on 1st Ave S by the Jones Valley Trail between 28th St S and 32nd St S – It’s a giant warehouse building at least two blocks long covered from one end to the other with Graffiti tags.

161014z Graffiti Building Panorama

If this is your thing, this is the place to find it. It’s currently uncovered because of construction going on next to it. There are some really fun, colorful, and unique tags on the building.






Details: There isn’t public parking right next to it, but you should be able to park fairly close by and walk down the walking trail to the graffiti wall.

3. City View: Crest Road, off of Aberdeen Road. The ultimate city view, this street has a spectacular rock wall overlooking the city. The sunset is best here during the summer, but it’s a great place for family photos year-round.



Details: Park on Aberdeen and walk up Crest – there’s no parking on Crest. It is gated after 7pm, but it’s still a public road – you are not trespassing to walk around the gate.

4. Floral Gate: During Crepe Myrtle Season (July), the gate at the east end of the above mentioned Crest Road is like a fairytale.


…Even when boys photobomb you.


5. City View: An alternate to Crest Road is Stratford Road – but the nice big yard that is city-facing is private property, so stay on the sidewalk or obtain proper permission before scheduling a photo shoot.

150430 Rose-Colored Glasses

6. Pastoral View: Tip Top Grill’s parking lot in Bluff Park. With their great gate and the unobstructed view of Oxmoor Valley, this is a spectacular place for a photo – of sunsets or people or both.



7. Night Funk: You’re not going to get fantastic detail of your subjects if you wait until dusk and go to the Light Rails, but hey – you’ll get some cool shots. And if you’re shooting somewhere close by, this might be a fun way to end the photo shoot.










…But even during they daytime, they’re cool tunnels.

130627 Birmingham's Tunnels

Details: There are three sets of light tunnels that run between north and south Birmingham – at 14th, 18th, 19th, and 20th Streets. I currently recommend 18th Street because the others have construction around them right now.

8. Rotary Trail: The Rotary Trail is a fun place to photograph, with or without people. There are so many fun angles, interesting benches and signs, underpasses and fences.






9. Morning Light: If you actually convince a client to meet you at sunrise, the Argyle Road area (near Stratford Road) has stunning sunbeams that provide an ethereal glow to the already lovely street. You could visit this road in conjunction with Stratford or Crest.

160710z Morning Beams

10. Manicured Lawns and Gardens: Samford University is a charming college with many superb buildings, yards, flowers, and stairs.

160618z Samford

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