Archive for January, 2010

Encyclopedia of Alabama: Jerry “Boogie” McCain

January 3, 2010


Listen to Steady:


Legends of the Kaffeeklatsch

January 2, 2010

This podcast from WLRH’s Writer’s Corner about the 30th anniversary of the Kaffeeklatsch started out as a column in the Huntsville Times.  At the end of the podcast WLRH producer Judy Watters has added music Microwave Dave Gallaher recorded live at the Kaffeeklatsch.

Huntsville’s Big Spring and the Cave Under the Courthouse (print version)

January 2, 2010

Huntsville’s Big Spring and the Cave under the Courthouse
Valley Planet December 29, 2005
Janie DeNeefe

Have you ever drunk water directly from a natural spring in the woods? Many of you have, though it might be a distant memory. So many natural springs have been tainted by now that most of us buy our “spring water” in plastic bottles.

Until recently, you followed old trails to find the best spring water. John Hunt found Big Spring by following such a trail. Before John Hunt, before cotton and rockets, people came here for the drinking water.

There are hundreds of natural springs in the Huntsville area, but few rival Big Spring in output of water. According to data from the Geological Survey of Alabama, Big Spring yields more than one thousand gallons of water per minute.

Take another look at Huntsville’s Big Spring. The water flows from a gap in the massive bluff, some of it spraying from a pipe in a mossy boulder. Try to picture one thousand gallons of water flowing out of that gap in one minute.

You know what a one gallon jug of water looks like. Can you see one thousand jugs of drinking water tumbling out of the limestone wall every single minute? Imagine gathering those jugs of water into cases and loading them onto semi trucks.

In one working day, how many truckloads of drinking water might we have sent to the thirsty people stranded after recent hurricanes? How many gallons would be available to each of our own citizens, if our power grid went out and our water treatment plants shut down?

Of course, the idea of drinking from Big Spring is strictly hypothetical now. I guess it was from lack of foresight that collectively, we fouled our own drinking water. We violated the rules of ecological camping. We built privies, stables, and eventually, sewer lines, directly over a natural resource so crucial to our collective well-being that, of all the springs in the area, this is the one we named the “Big Spring.”

Even though we no longer drink from the Big Spring, it remains a central player in Huntsville’s psyche. Rumors abounded, when I was a teenager, about the cave under downtown Huntsville, possibly under the courthouse itself, out of which Big Spring’s water flowed. Supposedly you could get to it through a manhole cover on Green Street, but that seemed farfetched.

A delightful new book called Tales of Huntsville Caves confirms this rumor as true.

The Huntsville Grotto of the National Speleological Society published Tales of Huntsville Caves this year to celebrate Huntsville’s Bicentennial and the Grotto’s fiftieth birthday. Maps and stories bring seventeen Huntsville caves to light. You can buy this book at your local independent book store, or at the NSS office on Cave Street.

If you have never seen cave maps, prepare yourself to think about the underground in three dimensions. If this book is your first opportunity to see cave maps related to familiar surface features such as roads, realize that our rocky earth will never again seem as solid and unshakable as you previously thought.

Now that I have seen the maps that relate Big Spring Cave to Huntsville’s courthouse square, I am amazed that the square isn’t a giant sinkhole. Fortunately, the courthouse we built in 1964 was engineered with the cave in mind. By then the city had wisely abandoned the use of Big Spring as a potable water supply. Concrete pillars placed within the cave reinforce the cave roof to support our current courthouse.

I wasn’t there, but a friend said the old George Steele courthouse was so dank that “they had no choice but to tear it down.”

Nowadays we take it for granted that we can’t drink from Huntsville’s Big Spring. If we prefer spring water to other forms of drinking water, we tend to buy it in bottles trucked in from someone else’s spring. Big Spring is a park now.

I realize it would be farfetched to rearrange downtown Huntsville to restore Big Spring as a drinkable water source. Visit Big Spring to stroll. Read the historic marker, ponder the massive limestone bluff… but don’t drink the water!

Alabama is haunted by the mean spirit that created the Constitution of 1901.

January 2, 2010

First ran in the Huntsville Times in October 2006, then re-ran in the statewide constitution reform newsletter (where an ellipsis turned into a character I've never seen.)

Biodiversity/ E.O. Wilson

January 2, 2010

Please let me know if this is not legible.

Thirteen Alabama Essays (2006)

January 2, 2010

Thirteen Alabama Essays


1. Huntsville’s Big Spring and the cave under the courthouse
Have you ever drunk water from a natural spring in the woods?
December 29, 2005 Valley Planet, with cave map
January 6, 2006 Writer’s Corner on WLRH public radio, Huntsville

2. Scientist, band help city in struggle for civil rights
The 1960s were turbulent in Alabama.
January 29, 2006 Huntsville Times

3. Bringing History Back to Television
In February 2005 I participated in a nationwide grassroots movement called
“Eyes on the Screen.”
February 19, 2006 Huntsville Times

4. Positive Chi
Someone we know has gone into the feng shui business.
March 26, 2006 Huntsville Times
June 27, 2006 WLRH Writer’s Corner

5. Lessons taught by ancestor still relevant to citizens today
On an easy drive down Interstate 65 I thought about how hard it was to get to
the capital in the days of the Mississippi Territory.
April 30, 2006 Huntsville Times

6. City coffee bar keeps history a-brewing
The green gargoyles of the Terry-Hutchens building were icons to my sister’s kids.
May 21, 2006 Huntsville Times
May 25, 2006 WLRH Writer’s Corner

7. Its okay to be sassy about cultural ties
Would you know a conga line if you saw one? Have you ever eaten fried chicken?
African influences like these permeate American culture.
June 19, 2006 Huntsville Times

8. Ex-hometown takes civic responsibility seriously
After eight summers in Vermont, I celebrated July 4th in Alabama this year.
July 30, 2006 Huntsville Times

9. Alabama: a true gem for naturalists
For a budding naturalist, growing up in Alabama is good fortune. Few places
on Earth offer the variety of ecosystems contained within our borders.
August 20, 2006 Huntsville Times

10. Geologists have a field day with Alabama history
I’ve always wondered why Alabama is like it is… How far back in time do you have
to go to understand how things got this way?
September 17, 2006 Huntsville Times
July 27, 2006 WLRH Writer’s Corner

11. This document frightens folks who care about state’s future
Alabama is haunted… by the mean spirit that created the Constitution of 1901.
October 29, 2006 Huntsville Times
December 4, 2006 The Voice of Alabama, newsletter of Alabama Citizens for
Constitutional Reform

12. A hidden picture of a medical miracle
When I heard that the painting “Medical Giants of Alabama” had been
removed from public view, I wanted to see it for myself.
November 19, 2006 Huntsville Times

13. Dave Gallaher and his band take the blues to far corners
In a wooden chair at Shaver’s bookstore, with eyes closed and head tilted back in the
streaming sunlight, Dave Gallaher plays guitar.
December 31, 2006 Huntsville Times
May 18, 2007 WLRH Writer’s Corner

BONUS: Please don’t throw me in the kudzu patch
I may seem yankified now, but no one in Vermont ever mistook me for a New Englander.
February 22, 2007, Valley Planet
April 20, 2007 WLRH Writer’s Corner

Related sources


Kelly Ingram Park

January 1, 2010

Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham Alabama.

Coauthor of Alabama’s Civil Rights Trail: An Illustrated Guide to the Cradle of Freedom.

January 1, 2010

Title page of

Microwave Dave Gallaher takes the blues to far corners

January 1, 2010

Dave Gallaher playing cigarbox guitar at Lewter's Hardware Store, photo by Ellen DeNeefe

Listen to the story here:

For the longer print version look here:

“Why is Alabama like it is? And how far back do you have to go to understand how things got this way?”

January 1, 2010

Listen here:

Fossil of a tree fern stalk in Little River Canyon.