Stepping back in time

Published 8:16 pm Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I must admit that it has been a long time since I had been to Landmark Park, the Agricultural History Museum of Alabama, located just north of Dothan.

It is a 100-plus-acre facility dedicated to preserving the cultural and natural heritage of the wiregrass region of Southeast Alabama.

It was only when I moved to Georgia 34 years ago that I realized southeast Alabama didn’t have a lock on the term “wiregrass.” In fact, U.S. 84, the four-lane parkway across the south of Georgia is called the “Wiregrass Parkway.”

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There are many commonalities between where I was raised in southeast Alabama and where I have raised my family in southwest Georgia. It is divided by the Chattahoochee River, the Eastern/Central time zone, and the Georgia/Alabama state line.

After three-plus decades in Georgia, it is where I call home.

Laura’s mom, Elizabeth, invited Mary Lou and me to join them in visiting Landmark Park on the occasion of the Wiregrass Heritage Festival last Saturday. It is an opportunity to see how people of this area lived in the 1890s. I was born about halfway between then and now, so I have some childhood memories of some of the things being demonstrated.

Laura was immediately attracted to the sound of the steam engines on display. Small and large, they chugged and churned their way in providing energy to homes and farms that barely survived on the backs of the farmers that tended their land by hand.

We then went into the barn, which was displaying dozens of quilts made by a variety of groups around the area.

“Do not touch” each of the signs said, which seemed to only entice Laura to want to touch each of these heirloom quality pieces.

“It’s OK, let her touch anything she wants,” one of the organizers of the quilt show told me. She touched and pointed to each of the brilliantly colored quilts, an obvious example of their appeal across generations.

We looked at the pigs while I recounted how I used to play chase with pigs in their pens during my own childhood. We looked at the chickens, her eyes wide as the roosters seemed to crow on command as we walked by the cages.

We watched with amazement as the women washed the clothes in the same manner that a farm in the 1890s did; the same years that my own great-grandparents were born. We saw them cooking food on the fireplace and listened to the dulcimer group playing music in the living room.

The men stacked peanuts as they would have done two generations ago, a memory I barely have. Laura was mesmerized by the mule that was doing all the work in the demonstrations. I couldn’t put her on the ground without her running toward the big work animal in front of her. She kept calling it a dog.

We smelled the syrup cooking long before we got to the boiling cauldron. The patient mule that was squeezing the juice out of the cane just stood their waiting for his next command. Even with the pleasant temperatures and a breeze, it was hot inside that shed as the men patiently skimmed the boiling liquid.

We visited the old buildings that had been donated and moved on site; a general store, a one-room schoolhouse, a pharmacy and a Presbyterian church. There is the Waddell House, built in the 1890s and part of the living display. Many a house survives to this day with the same high ceilings, wooden walls and front porches. The park also includes elevated boardwalks, nature trails, wildlife exhibits, a planetarium and a picnic area.

Laura’s eyes were wide as she listened to an elderly gentleman in overalls singing songs of the day on the back porch of the old farm house. The well at the end of the porch was probably more convenient than many of the farmhouses of the day.

Laura and her mom mounted a horse, where I took dozens of pictures. They both seemed like natural riders on this horse that must have had the patience of Job to let the excited children touch and play with him.

We saw a ram, an animal I have no recollection of from my childhood. But the old barns with lofts and bins were straight from my early years. Everything seemed familiar, even the smell of the old wood.

“Momma, Momma, come over here,” one young boy shouted as loud as he could. “Let me show you the poop,” he cried as every parent and grandparent smiled, thankful it wasn’t their own child so excited about one of the everyday facts of a farm.

Laura picked some cotton and carried a stick from the peanut field. How fun it all looked as people watched demonstrations of the harvest of crops of the late 19th century.

We shucked some corn and peeked in a corn crib exactly like one I used to play in at a friend’s house. Life seemed so simple then. I remember just enough to know that no matter how much you romanticize those days, it was very hard work. Father, mother and children, often many children, worked just to survive.

On the way home, we passed by some of the enormous cotton and peanut fields of this area that were being harvested by giant machines doing the work of dozens of men. The changes in the 120 years since Landmark Park seem almost impossible to comprehend.

What hasn’t changed is the joy of watching a small child play. Even as we left, she would reach for my hand to take her back to the exhibits. She wanted to see more.

If you have never been, take the time to visit Landmark Park. It will help you appreciate where we have been and where we came from.