The Alabama Tour: Clarkson Covered Bridge

I have an affinity for covered bridges. My school bus drove through one every day. Now my niece rides the same bus and goes through the same bridge. Here’s a restored one near Cullman, which I saw on my Alabama Tour.

The park has lovely picnic spots and a working mill. If it hadn’t been raining, I’d have stopped for a longer stay.

 And as a bonus, there is a small Civil War museum just a few miles away, located on the sight of the Hogg Mountain battlefield. While the museum doesn’t have a lot outside of the location, the owner is quite a character. Come just for him.And this was just for fun. Notice the mail box. 

The Alabama Tour: Ave Maria Grotto

This stop on the Alabama Tour is a must for anyone coming through the area. It was also the place that inspired my Alabama tour. The miniatures are well done and the path is an easy, handicapped accessible one. It was pouring rain when I arrived, but the lovely ladies at the desk lent me a colorful umbrella for the walk. (I also received my first senior citizen discount to get in! Hey, a dollar is a dollar!)Saint Bernard Abbey, located near Cullman, Alabama, houses the Ave Maria Grotto.

There are also many other buildings at the complex, including a church and private school. According to Roadside Attractions:

Brother Joseph (formerly Michael Zoettl) was a Benedictine monk born in Bavaria, who spent decades turning cement and junk into a miniature city in Alabama. He was a little guy, less than five feet tall and under 100 pounds. At an early age he was injured in an accident that left him slightly hunchbacked, but luckily didn’t hurt his ability to bend over and build tiny things.

In 1911 he was put in charge of the powerhouse at Alabama’s Saint Bernard Abbey. He spent 17 hours a day, 7 days a week, pumping oil and watching gauges. It was lonely, mind-numbing work, even for a monk. So to pass the time, Brother Joseph built little rock grottoes around tiny religious statues. His superiors at the Abbey noticed, and began selling the grottos in the gift shop. Brother Joseph later said that he made over 5,000 of them before he quit counting.
He also made miniature replicas of simple Holy Land structures, and soon had enough for an outdoor village he called “Little Jerusalem.” Again his superiors noticed, and again they had bigger ideas. “I told Abbot Bernard I was getting old and could hardly do much any more,” Brother Joseph recalled in the official Ave Maria Grotto guidebook. “But he would not listen. So I started work and had plenty to do.”

The project this time was the Ave Maria Grotto, begun in 1932 in a four-acre abandoned quarry on the Abbey grounds. Brother Joseph, despite his acknowledged age and fatigue, would eventually fill it with tons of decorative rock and around 150 elaborate structures. The Grotto is not some holy shrine that got out of control. From the start, it was conceived as an over-the-top public attraction.
Brother Joseph was shy and could not travel, so he designed his buildings mostly from pictures on tourist post cards (We were once given a rare glimpse of his well-worn post card scrapbooks). Sometimes all he had was a front view, so those buildings resemble false-front saloons in a Wild West town. He worked on his little buildings in the powerhouse during the day, then set them in the Grotto in the evening or early morning, so he wouldn’t have to interact with people.
Using only basic hand tools, Brother Joseph would shape cement into a replica building, then give it some zing with marbles, seashells, cracked dinner plates, or bicycle reflectors. Tiny-but-majestic domes were fashioned from old birdcages and toilet tank floats. Biblical sights and Roman Catholic buildings came first — the Tower of Babel, St. Peter’s in Rome — but Brother Joseph later added secular curiosities such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa and even the Mysterious Viking Tower of Rhode Island, which, according to an accompanying sign in the Grotto, was built by wayward 14th century Irish missionaries.

The little monk’s busy hands eventually turned the quarry walls into a solid architectural mass, as if a miniature biblical flood had picked up most of the world’s recognizable itty-bitty buildings and dumped them in the same hillside subdivision.
Ave Maria Grotto is one of those attractions where it’s difficult to take a bad picture. Visitors follow a winding trail down to the quarry floor and then a less forgiving path up and out to the gift shop. The elderly and the overweight don’t realize that they’re in for a real workout on a hot Alabama afternoon. Strung along the trail are some of Brother Joseph’s less-religious creations, such as a “Castle of the Fairies” with a subterranean dragon, a memorial to Abbey school graduates killed in World War II, and even a miniature reproduction of the infamous Saint Bernard powerhouse. On the way out, Brother Joseph’s work is augmented by additions from long-serving (1963-2014) Grotto handyman Leo Schwaiger, whose creations include a miniature Great Wall of China and a crosswalk for chipmunks.
Brother Joseph died in 1961, although he remains in the Grotto as a life-size bronze statue dedicated in 2009 (He stands next to one of his miniature buildings to show how tiny he was). Despite a lifetime of labor and frail health, Brother Joseph worked on Ave Maria Grotto until he was 80. As he says in the official guidebook, in what sounds like weary amazement, “I never dreamed I would get so old.”

The Alabama Tour: Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament

This was not on my original itinerary. I simply saw a sign on the road and followed it–about 20 miles off the main highway. I make it a rule when on a roadtrip: If I see something interesting, I just pull over. Besides, I had the extreme luxury of an open schedule and no rush. The compound is huge and nestled in the farmlands of central Alabama. The Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament was nearly deserted, but arriving at dusk gave me some lovely photos.Though all the information indicates it is open to all faiths, it is clearly for all Christian faiths. Roadside Attractions says:

The Most Blessed Sacrament is a large Catholic shrine in the middle of the Alabama countryside. Newly built to model much older churches in Europe, the shrine is beautiful but tends to feel like a religious Epcot. Also has a Shroud of Turin exhibit, a replica of the Lourdes grotto in France, and a gift shop inside a castle.

The Alabama Tour: Africa in America

During my roadtrip in central Alabama, I made a stop at Africa in America. Honestly, I don’t know what to say about this site. Is the man nuts? Is he a modern day prophet? Does he just like junk? Who can say?

According to Roadside America:

“This ain’t nothing but God’s blueprint here,” said Joe Minter, sweeping his hand across his yard on the southwest tip of Birmingham. “There ain’t no way that a man could put all this down here together without instructions from God.”
Joe’s been following the Divine Road Map since 1989, when he started packing the lawn and yard around his house with shrines and totems. He called it African Village in America, and its theme is African-American history, with occasional diversions. Joe’s used whatever he could get his hands on to build it: old sports equipment, baking pans, footwear, Christmas lawn decorations, hubcaps, lots of toys and dolls. “God said, ‘Pick up what’s thrown away and put it together,’ Joe said. “Whatever God gives me, that’s what I work with.”

With a firm grasp on his jingly keychain decorated “talking stick,” Joe led us into the dense alleys and pathways of African Village. Barbecue grill lids and floor fans are painted like African masks; wicker rakes double as feather headdresses; aluminum crutches on poles — dozens of them — as warrior spears. Huge placards made of plywood and pickup truck tailgates are filled with Joe’s bold painted lettering of historical facts, Biblical passages, and pleas for heavenly mercy.
A tower of five satellite dishes spells “JESUS” and stands at a back corner of the yard, perhaps relaying messages from On High. Just beyond them are headstones, stretching to the horizon (Joe’s land overlooks two immense African American cemeteries). “This is like woven into the ancestral burial ground, like it’s a natural part of it,” said Joe of his lawn. “There’s over 100,000 Africans buried here. I’m standing on their shoulders.” Including those of his father, who’s buried just outside the property line.

Joe led us to his disaster memorials. Two rusty sheets of corrugated iron unmistakably represent the World Trade Center towers, with small plastic jetliners wired onto the impact positions. On one side are mailboxes on poles; one is labeled, “Pipe Bomb U.S.A.,” another, “USA Anthrax,” with its little raised flag painted “God Save Us.” On the other side is an old iron boiler that’s been turned into a nuclear missile: “USA The End.”
Most of Joe’s creations are meant to be morally or politically instructive. He patiently tried to explain them to us, but we were often distracted by his ingenious recycling of local cast-offs at every turn. “African Warrior” has rubber gloves for hands, wooden boards for arms, and eyes made of goggly metal kitchen sink drains. Lynching is represented by a shirt that’s been filled out with stuffing, which is lying on the ground, wrapped in rusty chains, a noose around its collar.

His elaborate “Death Penalty” sculpture interweaves a homemade electric chair, lethal injection table, and two phones for the governor’s reprieve.
A jumble of toy cars, plastic horsemen, baby heads, and empty shoes conveys the chaos and terror of the Pettus Bridge police attack of 1965. A “Slave Ship” is made of old railroad cross-ties, while scattered around it are rubber sharks and toy “Hulk Smash!” fists with shackled wrists. “The Native American had the Trail of Tears,” Joe explained. “The African had the Trail of Chains and Sharks.”
Despite his sometimes grim material, Joe is quick to laugh and seems delighted to show people around his yard. His neighbors have had no problem with his African Village, and while Joe has had thoughts about his eventual retirement (he was born in 1943), he shows no sign of slowing down for now.
“Whenever I said I’m ready to give up, my wife would pat me on the back and say, ‘No, somebody cares, just keep on working,'” Joe told us. “I got a calling. So I got to keep on.”


Alabama Tour: Wagons Ho!

I found the remains of this statue near Moody, Alabama. Better known across America are the “muffler man” large, stiff-looking metal statues. But more interesting, to me at least, are the human depictions, remainders of long dead roadside restaurant chains. They are called “pioneer giants.” Usually it’s old “Big Boy” statues, but this particular one is from a chain I don’t remember: Wagons Ho.

According to Roadside America:

“This is one of the rare sitting versions of the Pioneer Giants whose standing cousins are mostly found in North Carolina and Tennessee.
Back in the ’60s he lived at the Eastwood Mall in Birmingham, AL. He was seated on the covered wagon at a Wagon Ho restaurant, a short-lived fast food chain in the mid-1960s. He held a whip in one hand and reins in the other. After Wagon Ho shut down the business became Kelly’s Hamburgers and he continued at his post until Kelly’s closed down. Sometime after that he was moved to the country outside Moody, where he currently sits at the abandoned Cherry Construction company lot. He is missing his left hand.”