Southern Places: Huntsville Alabama’s U.S. Space and Rocket Center remembers the 50th anniversary of the moon landing

Some moments in history take our breath away. Fifty years ago, America’s moon landing millions had millions of Americans holding their breath. The Saturn 5 rocket took off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on July 16. Inside the rocket were three men. Two of the men, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, would make history as the first Americans to walk on the moon, with Armstrong uttering one of the most iconic phrases in our country’s history.  Michael Collins piloted the command module Columbia. Armstrong and Aldrin took the Eagle, the lunar model to the moon, hence the phrase, “The Eagle has landing.” Eight days after blast off the three men would splash down in the Pacific Ocean.

The U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing with an exhibit, “Apollo, When We Went to the Moon.” The exhibit runs until the end of the year so you still have time visit. The Space and Rocket Center also has a permanent exhibit of a Saturn 5 rocket, which is one of only three in the world.

Display at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center

I had not visited the Space and Rocket Center since I was in 6th grade when we took an impromptu visit recently. I have few memories from that trip 40 years ago but the ones I have are unforgettable.  I remember seeing Miss Baker, one of the animals America sent into space. I also remember the G-Force Accelerator, which I got on and got off of for fear I would be sick. I was worried my friends would think I was chicken for getting off but I don’t recall any teasing—at least about that. Miss Baker died in the 1980s and I knew better than to get on the G-Force some 40 years later (my husband, who is normally daring, also declined).

We were there mostly to see the Apollo exhibit, which we found first. The exhibit was more than just displays of memorabilia. Like many of the exhibits at the Space and Rocket Center, the exhibit was interactive with things kids (and big kids) will enjoy. We enjoyed sitting in a ‘moon buggy.’ And I made that ‘one small step for man (or woman) and one giant leap for mankind).

Steve and I try out the “moon buggy”

For me, it was some of the items that some may overlook while enjoying a walk on the moon or time in the buggy. I was moved by a letter from former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who asked that the contributions of her late husband not be forgotten. It was President John F. Kennedy who passionately stated “we choose to go to the moon” in a speech he delivered on Sept. 12, 1962 in Houston Texas’ Rice Stadium. Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963  and never lived to see the moon landing  The speech is part of the display and you can hear at the exhibition which includes the famous words: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”

The exhibit does not gloss over the turbulent times of the 60s. The battle for civil rights was blazing. Martin Luther King Jr. and others were leading marches and peaceful protests. King’s life would end by an assassin’s bullet in April of 1968. An unpopular war was taking place in Vietnam. The moon landing brought all Americans together on July 20th to watch Armstrong make those historical steps.

One of the displays in the Saturn V Hall at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center

The Space and Rocket Center does not stop telling the story of the historic moon landing with the Apollo exhibit. Saturn V Hall has one of only three of the Saturn V’s on display. You can learn more about the science behind our space journeys. Something I found interesting: the three men had to continue living together in a small space even after they returned to Earth. They were quarantined in an Airstream RV until they were medically cleared. You can sign up for a guided tour of the Saturn V Hall or walk through at your own pace. The hall includes some play areas for kids.

Shuttle Park at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center

The main purpose of our visit was to see the Apollo 11 exhibit. But the Space and Rocket Center has several standing and changing exhibits, rides and experiences. Kids can climb the Mars Climbing Wall or take a ride in the Hypership simulator. Two great exhibits are outside.  Rocket Park gives you a sense of just how big the rockets are. A large space shuttle is the centerpiece of Shuttle Park.  Families can find a diverse menu at the Mars Grill that is reasonably priced. I enjoyed a burrito bowl and my husband had a grilled chicken sandwich and fries. You can spend an entire day there and not do everything.

Huntsville also has several other fun places for families to visit including the Huntsville Botanical Gardens and the Earlyworks Children’s Museum. We will be back to learn more about all of Huntsville has to offer!

U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, Ala.

Admission: General Admission is $25 for those 13 and older. Admission is $17 for those ages 5-12 and children 4 and younger are free. Senior and military discounts are available. You can purchase several add-ons including movies in the planetarium and guided tours.

Parking: You can park for free right outside the center.

Directions:  Huntsville is located right off U.S. You know you are getting close when you see the large replica of the Saturn V rocket in the distance. Exact directions from your location can be found here.

Dining: The Mars Grill is located inside the center. The food is reasonably priced and you have a lot of variety. Huntsville has several well-known eateries and local restaurants for everyone’s taste.

Where to stay: Huntsville has several brand-name hotels near the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. We booked an apartment through Airbnb that was reasonably priced and had a kitchen just in case we wanted to save money and cook for ourselves.

For more information:

U.S. Space and Rocket Center website

Huntsville/Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau website

Southern Places: The Noccalula Falls Experience is a must see for the summer

At the top of Noccalula Falls in Gadsden, Ala. is a statue of the Native American princess named for the stunning waterfall. The story of the young woman who jumped into the ravine to avoid marrying a man she did not love has been told thousands of times. This summer, Brian Clowdus has brought Noccalula’s story alive with an immersive theater experience set where the events unfolded.

The Noccalula Experience features classically trained actors who not only act but sing and climb on the Gorge Trail that leads to the bottom of the falls. The audience can walk down the slope to the play’s setting or be assisted by park staff in a Gator.

Sarah Elaine as Noccalula

Once the audience is assembled, music begins and Noccalula appears. Portrayed passionately by Atlanta actor Sarah Elaine, we quickly learn the princess is in love with Wa-ya, portrayed by Jonathan Varillas. The actors expertly portray the joy of two young people in love.

But their joy is short lived as Noccalula is told by her father, portrayed by Pedro Ka’awaloa, that she must marry Tsu-la to broker peace with another tribe. Woven throughout the story is the voice of Noccalula’s mother, who guides her daughter to her fateful decision.  Irene Bedard, known as the voice of Pocahontas in the 1995 Disney movie, provides the voice of Noccalula’s mother.  

Theater lovers will revel in seeing the story told on the path where the Native American legend was born. Once at the play’s first setting, the walk through the journey is an easy one for adults and children. Benches are provided in some of the areas for those who need them but the audience should be prepared to stand for about an hour during the performance.

A scene from the Nocculala Falls Experience

After the play, the audience can take the rocky hike down to the gorge or return to the trailhead. Park admission is included with the theater ticket. Noccalula Falls has beautiful winding trails filled with historic cabins and beautiful foliage. My favorites are the covered bridge and old-fashioned post office. Everyone will enjoy seeing the animals in the petting zoo. And if you get tired, just catch a ride on the train that winds through the park. A miniature golf course is adjacent to the park. Adults can play for $5 and $4 for children and seniors.

Here’s what you need to know about the Noccalula Falls Experience

When: Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday through July 7. Shows are performed at 2 p.m., 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Where: Noccalula Falls Park, 1500 Noccalula Road, Gadsden, Ala.

Admission: For 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. shows: $15 for adults. $10 for seniors, military and kids

For the 6 p.m. show: $25 for adults. $15 for seniors, military and kids.

You can purchase tickets and get more information here.

Other information: You do need to walk down a steep incline to get to where the play begins. A driver in a Gator is there to assist you if you don’t feel comfortable walking down. The play is performed on the trail but relatively easy to walk.

Southern Places: Explore aviation history in Warner Robins, Georgia

Steve is an Air Force veteran so when we visited the Macon area last fall, we had to go to the Museum of Aviation. Steve tied together some of the stories in this blog post. —Kim

The Musuem of Aviation

Deep in the heart of Georgia, there is a historic military installation that houses aircraft memorabilia from bygone days. The Museum of Aviation is located adjacent to the Warner Robins Air Force base south of Macon. All theaters of war in the 20th and 21st centuries are represented in the museum. Admission is free and you will find a lot of exhibits for kids.

As an Air Force veteran, I took interest not only in the stories of war heroes and flying aces but in the story of the base itself and its role in some of history’s biggest stories. Robins AFB has been and is still today one of the most utilized and mission ready military bases in the world. It has a history that is replete with many accomplishments both overseas and on the domestic front. As well as participating in our nation’s defense in a major way for over three-quarters of a century, Robins AFB has been a major corporate citizen to the middle Georgia community.

Beginning with the era of the Great Depression, the U.S. Army was in need of a site to perform aircraft maintenance and store needed supplies at a strategic location. The War Department (later the Department of Defense) selected a site near Wellston, Ga. (later named Warner Robins). Local leaders in the Macon area were ecstatic at the soon to be the reality of a large industrial complex in the area to be serviced by local dairy farms and pecan orchards, as well as other supplies. The base was originally called the Georgia Air Depot, and construction of the facilities began in August 1941.

Less than four months later, Pearl Harbor Naval Base and Hickam Field in Hawaii were attacked by the Japanese in a pre-dawn surprise attack which killed over 4,000 American military personnel and civilians. President Franklin D. Roosevelt immediately called a joint session of Congress and asked for a declaration of war, saying, “…this date, December 7, 1941, is a date which shall live in infamy!”

War was declared on Japan by Congress, and later Germany, who was an Axis Alliance partner of Japan along with Italy, declared war on the United States. Our country was at war, and the wheels of mobilization began to turn. We needed that base in Georgia!

The rest was history.

The depot was completed in 1942 and was named Warner Robins Army Air Depot at Robins Field. It was dedicated on April 26, 1943, and named after the late Brig. Gen. Augustine Warner Robins. The name of the town of Wellston had been already changed to Warner Robins the previous year in anticipation of the upcoming dedication of the newly constructed depot and airstrip. Macon mayor Charles L. Bowden officially presented the deeds to the depot property to the U.S. Army Air Corps on the day of dedication.

The musuem has a section dedicated to a movie about aviation in World War II. “God is My Co-Pilot” starred Dane Clark, Dennis Morgan and Raymond Massey and is an autobiography of Robert Lee Scott, Jr. , who flew with the Flying Tigers.

As we all know from our history classes, the war ended in 1945 in both Europe and the Pacific. Another World War had ended with a victory for the Allies, which meant a lot of rebuilding had to be done to repair all the damage the war had caused. This created the need to continue supplying our former enemies’ efforts to rebuild their cities and the lives of their surviving populations, while the Allied nations of the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France occupied them for the next several years. This mission became known as the Marshall Plan, named after former General of the Army and Secretary of State George C. Marshall.

The Berlin Airlift, a.k.a. “Operation Vittles”, was also a place where Robins AFB (as it was then named after it was assigned to the newly created Department of the Air Force to go along with the new Department of Defense in 1947) stood out in its mission to supply the people of West Berlin during the 1948 Soviet blockade. The Berliners hardly missed a meal, and the Soviets suspended the blockade.

Robins AFB at Warner Robins, Ga. became a vital corporate citizen in Middle Georgia as it continued to increase its mission status during both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, as well as Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom.

In 1981, the U.S. Air Force created and built the Museum of Aviation at Robins AFB to become its second largest aerospace museum. It is situated on 43 acres of land adjacent to the city limits of Warner Robins. It houses aircraft indoors in four separate hangars with exhibits on multiple floors. There are many permanently grounded aircraft outside on the museum grounds. There is an old Air Force One which flew the President of the United States. There are Korean War-era fighter jets, the first jet fighters ever used in warfare by the United States.

The indoor exhibits are in a climate-controlled environment in each of the four hangars for the year-round comfort and enjoyment of the museum’s thousands of visitors each year. The museum in total has 93 military aircraft, including helicopters and missiles. It displays equipment used by aircraft personnel and pilots. It even has a gift shop.

Another feature of the Museum of Aviation at Robins AFB is the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame, which was created by Georgia Gov. Joe Frank Harris in 1989. Many brave pilots from Georgia or people who are otherwise connected to Georgia in an honored status concerning aviation are remembered here. They include men like World War I ace and Medal of Honor recipient Edward “Eddie” Rickenbacker.

The contributions to our nation’s security made by the men and women of Robins AFB are innumerable. During the early 1960s the Cuban Missile Crisis was also handled in part by the staging of aircraft and weapons at Robins in the event of a call from President John F. Kennedy to launch an attack on Soviet offensive nuclear missiles staged in Cuba. This was a tense time for our country as our president encouraged us that we would be safe. Robins AFB was one base among many in the region under the Strategic Air Command (SAC) at the time, and President Kennedy was ready to give the attack order while at the same time working along with the State Department to negotiate with the Kremlin under Nikita Khrushchev to “stand down.”

The Russians blinked, and the crisis was over. The readiness of our forces was a key to the success of the operation, and the willingness of our president to “fight fire with fire” was crucial.

These are just a few of the stories you can experience at the Museum of Aviation. The kids will love some of the interactive exhibits. And again, admission is free.

Southern Faces: A shootout, a famous actress and a Cornbread Festival–Exploring South Pittsburg, Tenn.

South Pittsburg, Tennessee has the charm of a 1950s town with the modern-day convenience of good WIFI and a nice Italian restaurant on the corner. The town also has a history museum where you can talk to the locals on Saturday morning. If you are lucky, you will get to talk to Bob Sherrill. He’s been the voice of the South Pittsburg Pirates—football, not baseball—for 60 years. I won’t tell you how old he was when he started but he is still going strong. And he is still promoting the town he calls home that hosts one of the most unique festivals in the Southeast.  

Bob Sherill, voice of the South Pittsburg Pirates

How do you like your cornbread?

Hosting a festival celebrating the South’s second favorite bread (biscuits have to be first, right?) was a natural fit for South Pittsburg. Lodge Manufacturing Company set up shop in the town back in 1896 and is still there more than 100 years later. If you are from the South, your mama or your grandmother probably had a cast iron skillet from there. While the skillets are good for frying bacon, many dedicate them to making cornbread. My Lodge skillet has made cornbread that turned into the holiday dressing for the past five years. No one but me has ever cooked in it and certainly nothing has ever been fried in it. A woman’s cast iron skillet is special.

A quilt honoring the Cornbread Festival hangs in the South Pittsburg Heritage Museum

It was in 1996 that South Pittsburg leaders decided to create an entire festival dedicated to cornbread. It was a natural fit with Lodge occupying the town for the past 100 years to create and entire festival for cornbread. It’s always held the last week of April and besides cornbread, arts and crafts and tours of the Lodge Company, the town officials managed to share some good entertainment. Country singer Billy Dean is performing on Saturday night and gospel music singer Jason Crabbe is performing on Sunday. Admission is just $7 and that includes the concerts.

Revisit South Pittsburg history

1942 South Pittsburg High School letter sweater

History lovers will enjoy visiting the South Pittsburg Heritage Museum. You will first notice a large bell. This is the old chapel bell from Primitive Baptist Church (more on the church later). Also in the museum are mementos from the town’s sports history. Many of the items showcase the South Pittsburg High School football team. You will also see a 1942 letter sweater from the school’s basketball team.

The museum pays homage to the town’s iron-forged history and its love for cornbread. A quilt celebrating the festival is displayed toward the back of the museum—make sure you see it because it is beautiful. While the museum is small, there are too many artifacts to list so you will just have to go and see it for yourself!

Historical sites

Primitive Baptist Church

Primitive Baptist Church, also known as the Chapel on the Hill, is located just at the edge of town at the intersection of Elm Avenue and Eighth Street. The first services in the church were held in 1889. The church has stood at the same location despite nearly being destroyed by fire in 1954. South Pittsburg received ownership of the church and has worked to preserve it. Primitive Baptist Church is in the South Pittsburg Historic District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

A historical marker in downtown is a remembrance of a bloody shootout that killed six law enforcement officers, including Sheriff G. Washington Coppinger and Police Chief James Connor and injured several others. The gunfight happened in 1927 at the intersection of Third Street and Cedar Avenue. The National Guard was called into the city by then Gov. Henry H. Horton because of the violence.

Marker describing the Christmas night shootout in 1927

Another downtown historical marker honors the life of actress Jobyna Lancaster Ralston-Arlen. Born in South Pittsburg in 1899, Jobyna moved to Hollywood and made several silent movies. Jobyna was in the first picture to ever win an Academy Award, “Wing.” She married actor Richard Arlen and retired from the movies in 1932.

The Princess Theater

The restored Princess Theater

While Jobyna never starred in a live production at South Pittsburg’s Princess Theater, her movie was the first one shown there. It was known then as the Imperial Theater and it opened its doors on July 29, 1921. The name was changed to “Palace Theater” three years later and renamed Princes Theater in July 1934. While a movie has not played there since the 1980s, local theater groups still use the renovated facility for plays.

Need another reason to visit South Pittsburg?

Harvey’s Pirate Restaurant

We always look for a local restaurant wherever we go. I already knew I wanted to go to Harvey’s Pirate Restaurant before our visit. I loved the older look of the place but I loved the service and food even more. You will be greeted warmly and your tea glass will never be empty. Try the hamburger steak! Next time, we plan to try the Italian restaurant.

If you can’t get out the to Cornbread Festival, get off I-24 and spend some time in South Pittsburg. And if you see Bob Sherill, tell him we said “hello!”

Planning your travel season on a budget

Many mark spring as the official beginning of travel season. We feel like we travel all the time but we actually spend most nights in our own beds. That’s because we believe in exploring our own area and saving money. There is so much to see within driving distance of our home we will probably never get to it all!

Don’t get me wrong. We love hotels, cabins and vacation homes. But we are on a tight budget like most people. So here are some tips for planning your travel season at home and on the road  without going broke.

Plan a staycation just like you do any other vacation.

Set a budget and create an itinerary. Since you don’t have to worry about traveling time, you can set aside seven days or even just a single day if you have a small budget. The internet is full of blogs about any location, even your own hometown. When you plan it, I think it feels more like a “vacation.”

New Echota, Calhoun, Ga. One of our “staycation” destinations

Contact your local visitors bureau for information.

Local convention and visitors bureaus have a wealth of information about what to do in your area. You may find some money-saving coupons there as well.

Try to include something for everyone.

Our teenager likes to eat and shop. We also had to accommodate my schedule as a freelance writer and our budget so we chose our activities carefully. Our three-day staycation last year began with a tour of my hometown of Rome, Ga. On the second day we went to Atlanta to visit Lenox Square Mall, then it was off to the World of Coca-Cola.  On the third day, we went to see the Atlanta Braves and some of the sites near SunTrust Park in Cobb County.

World of Coca-Cola

Discover your local parks.

Some of my favorite childhood memories are going to the local playground. Some parks offer more than swing sets and slides today. Manning Mill Park in Adairsville, Ga has a beautiful lake, playground and picnic areas. If you are more outdoorsy, find a park with campgrounds and a fishing area. Lock and Dam Park just outside of Rome has a campground and fishing area.

State parks also offer outdoor family fun without breaking the bank. In our area, Red Top Mountain State Park has a beach area and great places to hike. You could spend an entire day there and not do it all!Check out some history.

Our family has made it a priority to learn all we can about our area. Recently we visited New Echota State Park in Calhoun, Ga. This state-funded site does charge less than $10 to get in but it’s worth the money. You can also take advantage of a great deal from Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites. An annual pass that allows you to see all of the historic sites for one low price.

Take me out to the ballgame.

We live in Braves Country and we love to take in a game. We watch for special deals for the team. We have good seats and never pay more than $20 per ticket. But the best deals are at the minor league parks. We live near three. We love the names of some of the teams. Last year, we watched the Chattanooga Lookouts play the Montgomery Biscuits. You will not only see future All-Stars but you may also see some current stars. Often major league players will do rehab assignments with a minor league team and you can see a superstar!

Check out the small towns in your area.

These tiny hamlets are often ignored but are rich in history and fun! In Northwest Georgia, we head over to Cave Spring. There’s a large spring-fed pool that is guaranteed to cool you off during these hot days. You can soak in some local history at the Historic Vann Cabin. Take a picnic and eat at one of many spots near the pool or dine at one of the downtown eateries.

Historic Vann Cabin

Finding the best places to spend the night

Everyone has different standards about where they want to stay. Some people won’t stay at a roadside motel but insist on a 4-star hotel in a metropolitan area. Others love camping or cabins in remote locations. And that is ok. You can find great deals no matter what you like.

We have stayed at many budget hotels and the majority of them were great. The managers and staff of these hotels want your business so if something is wrong, they are likely going to make it right. No one wants to have a negative review on TripAdvisor.

Maples Motor Inn

We also look for locally-owned motels. Our favorite destination is the Smoky Mountains and our favorite place to say is Maples Motor Inn. I thought this was our secret until TripAdvisor named it one of the best in America. The rates are reasonable and our rooms are always spotless. I have been staying here for decades and I have not had one bad experience.

Airbnb and other companies offer private homes and unique places to stay. We stayed at this great home offered by Evolve when we visited Highland, N.C. The big plus was the kitchen. We saved a lot of money cooking our own meals rather than eating out restaurants. And because it was a private home, we were so comfortable we didn’t want to leave.

Saving on meals

Eating is one of the best parts of travelling for our family. But you can blow a lot of your vacation budget if you are not careful. We have several rules:

  1. If we are staying in a place with a kitchen or microwave, we try to eat some of our meals “in.” That way we don’t fee bad when we drop a lot of money on an upscale restaurant.
  2. We do our best only to eat at local eateries but sometimes, it’s in our budget’s best interest to grab a cheap meal at a fast food establishment.
  3. The Smoky Mountains and other sites that attract a lot of tourist have coupon books that can save you a lot of money.
  4. Again, plan ahead. And stick to your plan. I am terrible about changing my mind but my husband will tell you that every time I do, it costs us extra money.

So how do you plan for your vacations and adventures? I would love to hear your tips!