This Place Made Andrew Jackson Famous

Where: Horseshoe Bend National Military Park

Who: The Whole Clan

When: August 17, 2013

When you get the rare pleasant day during an Alabama August, it’s hard to resist going on a spur-of-the-moment day trip. With cloudy skies and temperatures in the 70s last Saturday, we decided to take a drive to Horseshoe Bend, about 1.5 hours from Montgomery. None of us had ever visited there before, and we ended up having a great time.

Horseshoe Bend is named for a big loop in the Tallapoosa River. 200 years ago, a large settlement of Red Stick (Upper Creek) Indians called Tohopeka was located inside the loop. Horseshoe Bend was the site of the decisive battle of a war between the Red Sticks on one side and the United States, Lower Creek, and Cherokee nations on the other. On March 27, 1814, Andrew Jackson led U.S. army and militia troops along with Creek and Cherokee allies against the Red Sticks in a battle that lasted all day and ended with a major Red Stick defeat.

The Red Sticks had constructed a huge log barricade stretching all the way across the neck of the loop in the Tallapoosa. Jackson had an artillery battery consisting of two cannons, and he ordered a bombardment of the barricade on the morning of March 27. The bombardment lasted for two hours, but the barricade was unaffected.

If you click on the photo, you'll be able to see the white posts that today mark where the Red Stick barricade stood in 1814.

If you click on the photo, you’ll be able to see the white posts that today mark where the Red Stick barricade stood in 1814. Jackson’s cannon stood in the trees on the right.

While the Red Sticks were focused on Jackson’s frontal assault, a handful of Cherokee crossed the Tallapoosa behind Tohopeka, stole some canoes, and crossed back to where the rest of the Cherokee and Lower Creek forces were waiting, along with some U.S. troops. They began ferrying soldiers across the river and soon set the village on fire, causing confusion among the Red Sticks.

When Jackson saw the smoke rising from the village and realized what had happened, he ordered a charge against the barricade. The fighting lasted the rest of the day because the Red Sticks refused to surrender even after it was clear they had been defeated. In the end, 800 of the 1,000 Red Stick warriors were killed. Andrew Jackson became a national hero.

Horseshoe Bend Exhibit

Sons #1-4 examine the model of the storming of the Red Stick barricade in the visitor center.

(You can learn much more about the Horseshoe Bend and the Red Stick War from Frank Owsley’s book Struggle for the Gulf Borderlands. I won’t bore you with more details here.)

This park was well suited to a family outing. It’s relatively small, and we managed to take in everything in about three hours, including the picnic lunch we brought with us.

The visitor center is compact, with just one room of exhibits about Creek culture and the battle. We also enjoyed a short video about the battle, and the older kids were able to do some worksheets for Junior Ranger badges.

We took a self-guided driving tour of the battlefield that had five or six locations where you could stop and walk where the important events took place that day. Vickie stayed in the car with Son #5, but the rest of us got some good exercise walking up and down hills to see the different spots of interest. Sons #1-4 seemed to have a good understanding of the events as I was describing them at each stop. Naturally, they were most excited about seeing a real cannon and climbing all over it.

Tomorrow I’ll let Sons #1-2 share some of their favorite memories of the trip with you. If you’re interested in historical sites, I recommend a visit to Horseshoe Bend as a great half-day if you find yourself in eastern Alabama.

The World’s Largest Mosaic Floor

Where: Butrint, Albania

Who: Oma and Opa

When: August 4, 2013

[Today’s guest post is by Jason’s father, Dr. Fred Jewell a.k.a. “Opa” at our house. Fred and his wife, Alice, are spending a month in Albania teaching English using the Bible. As you will read below, they have also found a little time to do some sightseeing. Enjoy!]

Well off the beaten path of European tourism is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Butrint National Park in southwestern Albania, within sight of the Greek island of Corfu and just a few miles from the Greek border. Not only is this important archeological site off the beaten path because it is in Albania, hardly on Americans’ list of “must visit” countries, but because it is difficult to reach even from within the country. Albania’s transportation infrastructure is still woefully underdeveloped, especially by European standards. Reaching Butrint requires a torturous drive on scenic mountain roads, which frequently offer panoramas of the Adriatic and Ionian coastline, through numerous villages with passages so narrow that cars going in opposite directions cannot pass simultaneously. The highway must also frequently be shared with a horse-drawn cart, an unattended cow, or flock of sheep or goats attended only by a dog. The trip from the capital Tirana is c. 200 miles, but takes about 6 hours. There is no other way to get to Butrint except by automobile.

ButrintRuins.jpgThose who endure the inconvenience of making the trip will be rewarded with a worthwhile cultural/historical experience, although I will admit that if one has visited several Greco-Roman sites, this one may not seem sufficiently large (it takes only an hour to tour the entire site), developed (excavations began only in 1928 and have been sporadically pursued since), or different to justify the difficulty of making the trip.

Some students of the site claim that the earliest period of settlement can be fixed in the late Bronze Age or beginning of the Greek Dark Ages of the 12th century B.C. A more noncontroversial date for the earliest settlement is the 8th century B.C. From the tourists’ viewpoint, it is a moot question since there is no evidence of these earliest settlements. What the visitor sees are primarily the ruins of a late Hellenistic community known as Bouthroton (Buthrotum in Latin after it became a Roman colony in 167 B.C.) featuring an amphitheater, sanctuary to Asclepius, and an agora, and a long section of wall with a Mycenean-style Lion Gate (although much smaller than the original).ButrintAmphitheater.jpg Ironically, much less survives (or has been excavated) from the Roman period than from the Greek period. This may be because under the Romans, Buthrotum was primarily a settlement for veterans of Julius Caesar’s campaign against Pompey and Augustus Caesar’s campaign against Mark Antony. The most impressive survival from the Roman period is the meager ruins of the Forum, a bathhouse, and the a palace of a local official, but the latter dates only from the early 5th century A.D.

Aside from the amphitheater, the most impressive structures on the site are the remains of a 6th century A.D. Byzantine church building in the basilica style and a nearby baptistery featuring the largest intact mosaic floor excavated anywhere. This one structure may be enough to justify the effort involved in getting to Butrint. The other most significant surviving structures at the site come from the Venetian period of occupation (mid-14th to early 18th centuries). A tower and fortress (reconstructed in the 1930s and now housing a museum of artifacts from the site) sit atop the acropolis; a large square blockhouse, and a triangular fortress at the base of the acropolis are visible reminders of the prolonged conflict between the Venetians and the Turks for control of the Adriatic and Ionian seas. All of these structures date from the late 15th– early 16th centuries. Other civilizations which have occupied Butrint, but failed to leave surviving footprints, include the Angevins (13th century), French (briefly during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period), and the Turks (intermittently from the 15th century to 1912 and the achievement of Albanian independence).

ButrintBaptistery.jpgButrint’s successive occupations and rising and falling fortunes are a microcosm of the turbulent history of the Balkan Peninsula from the Greek Archaic period to the early 19th century. It has not only suffered from a succession of human-imposed disasters, but has been plunged into successive periods of decline by earthquakes and invasions of the sea resulting from them. The visitor will be well-rewarded with an overview of this past . . . if only it were easier to get to it.

The Largest Cast Iron Statue in the World

VulcanWhere: Statue of Vulcan (Birmingham, AL)

Who: The Whole Clan

When: March 17, 2013

Nothing says “Irish” like a giant statue of a Roman god, so on St. Patrick’s Day we visited the Vulcan Park and Museum in Birmingham.

I had seen the statue from I-65 dozens of times over the years, but this was my first chance to visit it. Vulcan is situated on a ridge to the south of downtown and looks northward over the city. You have to approach from the south, so it’s difficult to get a decent picture of the front of the statue. This one will have to do.

The statue is more than 50 feet tall (not counting the pedestal) and weighs more than 100,000 pounds. It is the largest statue ever cast in the United States and is the largest cast iron statue in the world.

The city of Birmingham commissioned it for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. After the fair ended, it stood in the Alabama State Fairgrounds for about 30 years. Then the city and the Works Progress Administration built the park where it currently stands and moved it there.

We paid to go up the elevator to the top of the statue’s pedestal and had some nice views of the city. We didn’t have the greatest weather, but you can’t have everything.

The museum next to the statue is actually quite good. Its exhibits tell the history of the coal and iron industry in Birmingham as well as the history of the statue itself. There are displays showing the various kinds of ore mined in the ridge and the foundries that processed the ore. Other displays, like this re-creation of a general store, shed light on the lifestyles of the miners and mill workers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Vulcan Museum

Fortunately for us, the museum and park were fairly kid-friendly. At one point the kids got to work a big wall puzzle of the statue. Notice the grass on Son #1’s back in this photo. That’s the result of multiple rolls down the slope between the statue and the parking lot. Sons #1-4 had several rolling races down the hill before we made them stop.

Building Vulcan

For more info, here’s the official website for the park.

Oak Mountain State Park: The Trails

Where: Oak Mountain State Park (Pelham, AL)

Who: The Whole Clan

When: March 15-18, 2013

Cabin Lake

Oak Mountain State Park is a big place.

According to the official website, it covers nearly 10,000 acres. It also contains about 50 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails. People from all over Alabama go to the park to take advantage of those trails. When we got home and started telling people about our trip, we discovered that practically everyone we know has hiked in the park at one time or another.

With the kids in tow, our encounter with the hiking trails was pretty tame, but we did our best to make a respectable showing. On our second evening at the cabin I forced Sons #1 and #2 (ages 10 and 8) to accompany me on a 2-mile hike to get rid of some of the excess energy that had been driving their mother crazy. One of the trails passes right through the cabin area, so it was a simple matter to strike out to the northeast and hike the mile or so to the trailhead. At one point we crossed a tiny bridge over a small stream, and the boys insisted that we stop and play Pooh Sticks. The rest of the time they wanted to run along the trail, and of course that resulted in their getting tired and complaining about how long it was. I think it was a learning experience for both of them. We barely got back to the cabin before sundown.


Where are we again?

On the morning of St. Patrick’s Day, the whole family hit the trail. First we meandered along the lakeside trail until we reached the dam at the end. Our success in the attempt to push Son #5 (age 1) in the stroller was decidedly mixed. Finally we doubled back, ditched the stroller, and went along the trail I had taken Sons #1 and #2 on the previous evening. At one point the trail forked, and we went in the opposite direction from where we had gone the night before. Soon we found a picturesque stream and decided to take a load off.

In case you don’t know, keeping small boys out of running water is a real challenge. They always seem determined to get wet, even on a cool spring morning.

After a suitable interval of grabbing boys a split second before they fell in the water, it was back to the cabin to prepare for more adventures.

Dad with Kids at StreamAll in all, I guess we saw less than 5% of the park’s trails, but that just means there will be plenty to explore on our next trip!

Oak Mountain State Park: The Cabin


Where: Oak Mountain State Park (Pelham, AL)

Who: The Whole Clan

When: March 15-18, 2013

During our recent trip to the Birmingham area, we stayed a pleasant three nights in Cabin 4 at Oak Mountain State Park. Even though it’s still early in the season, we were lucky to get a reservation. This was a spur-of-the-moment trip, and I didn’t call the park until around four days before we planned to go up there. Fortunately for us, someone had canceled a day earlier, so there was one cabin available.

I know, I know, it’s not much to look at from the outside, but the inside was comfortable enough. A big living area included a couch and TV (with satellite network) on one side and kitchen and dining on the other. One bedroom had a king-sized bed, and the other had two doubles. The occupancy limit was six people, but we assumed that Son #5 (age 1) would not count against that. The kids slept three-and-two in the two doubles. The one bathroom proved a bit of an inconvenience, but we made it work.

St-Patrick-feastWe cooked a total of six meals in the cabin: two breakfasts, a lunch, and three suppers. Most of it was fairly simple, like a big chicken pot pie we picked up at Costco Saturday afternoon that gave us enough leftovers for Sunday lunch, too. For me, the highlight was a St. Patrick’s Day supper featuring corned beef brisket and shamrock-shaped ravioli. The meal was a triumph in that everyone except Son #4 (age 3) ate it without hesitation.

The view from the cabin wasn’t too shabby. Each cabin was equipped with several paddles and life jackets for use with boats on the shore. We saw several people take advantage of the good weather to hit the lake, but it wasn’t quite warm enough for us to do it. Here’s Son #4 triumphantly brandishing his pretend sword. As you may well imagine, there was some serious dueling going on lakeside each morning.


We have no cable or satellite TV service at our house. An unexpected benefit for us on this trip was the chance to watch HGTV’s House Hunters and House Hunters International, neither of which I’d ever seen before. One of our dreams is to own a home overseas someday, so it was fun to see what kind of things people were encountering in their searches. We also got to see Duck Dynasty  for the first time. Ordinarily, I never would have thought to watch it, but some of the stars will be making an appearance at my university later this month, so I gave it a try. It is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

I’ve got lots more to share from this trip. See you soon!


Budgeting for a Weekend Trip to Birmingham


Piles Of Money by Talia Felix

Can a family of seven have a weekend getaway to a mid-sized American city without breaking the bank?

We are planning a trip to Birmingham, AL, to take advantage of a three-day weekend Jason has coming up. (There are things to do in Birmingham, really! You’ll see.)

This is not a trip we’ve been saving up for. In fact, we just decided to do it about a week ago. So we have no big pile of cash lying around labeled “Birmingham trip.” Obviously, we’d like to keep our expenses to a minimum.

Here’s my estimate of the damage this trip will do:

Lodging: $400
Gasoline: $60
Food: $75*
Attractions: $200

*Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure we’ll eat more than $75 worth of food, but I’m figuring on this being the difference in price between going on the trip and eating at home over the same period.

So we’re looking at almost $750 for this little jaunt, assuming I’m not leaving anything out.

We’re planning to stay in a cabin at a state park and cook most of our meals in the kitchen there. That’s the main thing keeping the food cost down.

I’ve also budgeted money for four Birmingham-area attractions we’re interested in seeing. We’ll have to pay at least five admission prices at each one. Ouch! We also have a couple of free attractions on our radar that we may end up visiting.

It looks to me that this is about the best we can do unless we sleep in a tent or forego attractions while we’re up there. Anyone out there have any bright ideas? I’m all ears.


Thanks for visiting our new blog about family travel on a budget! We have a trip planned for this weekend, so there will be more information coming very soon.

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