2. April 2013 22:55
Visitor Center exhibits in former Plains High School
Since so many motorcoaches will travel the I-75 route through Georgia, it is important to know a few stops along the way that will add to your group’s experience. The charming community of Plains, birthplace of our 39th President, is about 36 miles west off I-75 Exits 112 or 109.
This small town where Jimmy Carter grew up still preserves many of the landmarks of Carter’s childhood and early political career at the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site. The former Plains High School, attended by both Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, serves today as the park’s museum and visitor center.
Only two blocks away is the Plains Business District where one can find the Golden Peanut Company (formerly the Carter Warehouse), the Plains 1888 Railroad Depot, which has been restored to its appearance as Carter’s 1976 campaign headquarters, and brother Billy’s Phillips 66 Service Station. Nearby in town are the Plains Baptist Church, which the Carters attended, as well as Public Housing Unit 9-A, where they lived for a year when Jimmy returned from the Navy in 1953.
Groups can also visit the Lebanon Cemetery, site of the Carter family burial plot and the Maranatha Baptist Church, where Jimmy Carter (now at the age of 89) still teaches Sunday School whenever he is in town. Schedules of when the former president will be teaching the class are posted prominently around town, and all are welcome to attend.
No trip to Plains will be complete without touring the lovingly maintained Carter Boyhood Farm and Home as it provides a fascinating look into the president’s formative years.
Even though I am not a religion person myself, I find it impossible not to have the deepest respect for the Carters, who have truly lived their faith, represented the best our country can offer, and transcended politics through tireless commitments to advance human rights and alleviate human suffering. I found a visit to their little town to be not only a trip back to an America that seemingly has all but disappeared, but also an uplifting and joyous experience.
I’ll wager that you and your group members will have similar reactions.
Plains business district
Plains Depot, restored to the appearance of 1976 Carter campaign headquarters
Jimmy Carter Boyhood Home and Farm
1. March 2013 02:38
One of the most interesting cities I encountered during my December tour of the South was Natchitoches (pronounced NACK-a-tish), located in western Louisiana. Guiding my two-day visit here was Markita Hamilton, communications director for the Natchitoches Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, whose family has lived here for generations.
This charming community, the first permanent European settlement in what we now know as the Louisiana Purchase, was founded in 1714 by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis to facilitate trade with the Spanish in Mexico. Needless to say, big plans are currently being developed for the city’s Tricentennial Celebration in 2014.
Furthermore, in addition to exploring the area’s wealth of historic sites and homes (including Cane River Creole National Historical Park) during the daytime, the 86th Annual Christmas Festival of Lights provided me with the opportunity for some additional evening photography.
Situated along the banks of the Cane River, Natchitoches’ National Historic Landmark District includes 33 blocks of magnificent historic homes. I was fortunate to dine here on local specialties at both Lasyone’s Meat Pie Kitchen and the Merci Beaucoup Restaurant. In fact, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has included Natchitoches in its list of the “Top 10 Most Romantic Downtowns” in the country. Surprisingly enough, however, the strikingly modern new home of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, currently nearing completion at the north end of the downtown area and promising another “plus” for potential visitors, is architecturally somewhat incongruent with its surroundings.
Markita also took me out to splendid Melrose Plantation, which dates back to 1796. In addition to the plantation’s well-preserved historic structures, Melrose is the home of numerous fascinating paintings and murals created by renowned folk artist Clementine Hunter, who painted here while employed as a domestic servant. Coupling its history with the region’s vibrant Creole culture, Natchitoches’ is highly recommended as a true “off the beaten track” treasure. Groups planning to patronize the nearby Shreveport-Bossier City casinos are advised to add at least a day trip here in order to create a more fully satisfying, diversified travel experience for their members, while a more extended stay is virtually self-recommending for those more historically and culturally inclined.
Lunch time at Lasyone's Meat Pie Kitchen
Christmas Festival of Lights on the Cane River
1. March 2013 02:33
Brownsville, situated at the southern tip of Texas, is right across the Rio Grande and U.S. border from the city of Matamoros, Mexico. It is a historic area with a pleasing mix of Anglo and Hispanic cultures.
After Texas fought for its independence from Mexico in 1836, and the annexation of Texas by the U.S. in 1845, General Zachary Taylor established an army base (later Fort Brown) here in early 1846 to help establish claim to the disputed territory. The Battle of Palo Alto marked the initial major conflict between opposing forces in the Mexican-American War, a U.S. victory which eventually led to Brownsville and the surrounding countryside being confirmed as American territory.
Today the battlefield is preserved by the National Park Service as a national historic site, which I visited after my exploration of the city itself. My tour guide was the genial and extremely knowledgeable Felix Espinosa, administrative manager of the Brownsville Convention & Visitors Bureau, who appeared to know just about everyone in this city of over 175,000!
Felix led me on a whirlwind adventure including virtually every significant attraction that Brownsville has to offer, all in just a few short hours. We began on foot with the Heritage Trail Tour and downtown historic district, including the authentic Mexican Market, the Heritage Complex and Stillman House Museum, the Old City Hall and Market Square, Immaculate Conception Cathedral, plus numerous other historic buildings. Next we wandered through the historic brick buildings of Fort Brown, now occupied by the University of Texas at Brownsville.
Our tour continued with visits to the Historic Brownsville Museum Depot, the Old Brownsville City Cemetery, Dean Porter Park and finally, the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art. Whew! I though that I was an expert at seeing a lot within a short period of time, but I can’t hold a candle to Felix! I’d suggest that when you are planning your group’s visit here, you allow a couple of full days to include everything. And there is indeed much of interest to see and experience! That will also allow you an opportunity to include meals at a variety of fine Southwestern, Tex-Mex and Mexican eateries. The unspoiled beaches, visitor attractions and resort hotels of South Padre Island are a scant 25 miles away, so you may likely want to diversify your trip to this most visitor-friendly area with an extended stay.
Stillman House Museum, Brownsville Historical Society
Immaculate Conception Cathedral
Gladys Porter Zoo
1. March 2013 02:26
My recent tour of the South had three smaller towns stand out, including Biloxi, Mississippi.
Virtually everyone is aware of the massive destruction which Hurricanes Camille and, more recently, Katrina wreaked upon the Biloxi resort community when they tore through the community in 1969 and 2005, respectively. However, I am happy to report that both Biloxi and its residents have proven time and again to be strong-willed and highly resilient, and, after the expenditure of much money and effort, the city is yet again ready for memorable vacations. Yes, many of the lovely antebellum mansions which previously lined Beach Boulevard are now gone, but other historic structures like Mary Mahoney’s Old French House Restaurant, nearby boutiques further north on Magnolia Street, and the 1847 Magnolia Hotel are still alive and well.
Beauvoir, the 1852 estate of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, has undergone a major restoration, and the adjacent Jefferson Davis Presidential Library and Museum is nearing completion. Biloxi also now boasts the finest municipal visitors’ center I have ever encountered. And, needless to say, there are nine bustling casinos and thousands of quality rooms awaiting travelers.
The area’s premier natural attraction also continues to attract countless visitors with its beauty and cleanliness. Biloxi is the gateway to Gulf Islands National Seashore for boating excursions to Southern Mississippi’s five barrier islands, Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island, and the splendid Davis Bayou Area just east of town. Hopefully it will be many, many years before another hurricane bears down upon the area, but the time is definitely now to include Biloxi in your travel plans.
Biloxi Lighthouse and Visitors' Center
Beauvoir - Jefferson Davis Home
Magnificent beaches, Beau Rivage Casino Resort
8. January 2013 22:50
Although one might associate many national parks with the arrival of icy roads and mountain snows in December, there are many Southern parks that are still suitable for a late-year group visit. Just south of Natchitoches, Louisiana, is Cane River Creole National Historical Park, which protects two great cotton plantations: Magnolia and Oakland.
In 1753, Jean Baptiste LeComte obtained the land grant that became Magnolia Plantation, while in 1789, Jean Pierre Emmanuel Prud’homme also received a land grant which became the core of Bermuda Plantation, later renamed Oakland. Even though well-managed plantations like Magnolia and Oakland survived the war, low prices, boll weevils, and the departure of former slaves from the region brought hard times.
Although World War I initially increased cotton demand, it wasn’t long before depressed prices and lean times returned. And as modernization and mechanization increased, from the 1930s to the 1960s, many plantations like Magnolia and Oakland were gradually abandoned. Nevertheless, descendants of families and workers who have farmed the region for over two centuries have been able to successfully adapt to social, agricultural and economic change, carrying on many traditions and an enduring Creole culture into the 21st century.
Today, visitors to the two plantations can explore a varied collection of carriage houses, overseer’s houses, slave quarters, plantation stores, a doctor’s cottage, and other facilities, including the country’s last remaining mule-powered cotton press. The main house at Oakland, fully furnished with period and some original pieces, is open for guided tours, while the main house at Magnolia, burned during the Civil War, was rebuilt in 1896 and is still in private ownership outside the park boundary. There is no charge for admission to either park site.
Oakland Plantation - Counter and shelves in Plantation Store
Magnolia Plantation - Old steam-powered cotton press
Magnolia Plantation - Slave/tenant quarters
8. January 2013 22:47
Spread out through the countryside of East Texas north of Beaumont are the 15 separate units that make up Big Thicket National Preserve. Called the “biological crossroads of North America,” Big Thicket was established to protect an amazing diversity of plant and animal species that thrive in the confluence of forests and central plains.
With the arrival of white settlers during the 1850s, harvesting of native timbers was soon followed by sawmills, railroads, farming and eventually oil strikes, so designation as a national preserve by the National Park Service created a new management concept to shelter remaining portions of the original ecology. To further environmental impact studies, the United Nations also named Big Thicket an International Biosphere Reserve in 1981.
Here travelers can explore this extraordinary landscape on easy hiking trails, birding, canoeing, fishing and ranger-led activities. With the splendid weather that accompanied my December visit, hiking several Big Thicket trails became a truly inspiring experience. I was particularly fascinated by the variety of mushrooms that I encountered, including the oyster mushrooms which grow in rows on tree trunks, as shown in the accompanying photograph.
Groups should begin their visits at the excellent Big Thicket Visitor Center. From here it’s only a short distance to the outstanding Kirby Nature Trail, at the entrance to which fine picnic facilities can be found. Other interesting (and easy) hikes in the area include the Sundew and Pitcher Plant Trails, the latter offering a unique opportunity to explore a bog of the renowned insect-eating plant species. There is no charge to visit Big Thicket.
Cypress knees in the swamp
Carnivorous pitcher plants
Reflections in Turkey Creek
8. January 2013 22:31
Not all parks are freezing in December. Parks like the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Mississippi can be a perfect way to get outdoors during the winter.
The Gulf Islands National Seashore created in 1971 to protect the long, narrow barrier islands along the Gulf of Mexico. These islands contain salt marshes, wildlife, historic forts and archaeological sites. Most this National Park Service is offshore, and over 80% of the park is actually submerged lands.
Although the islands in the Florida District are always accessible, the pristine beaches, maritime ecology and old Fort Massachusetts found on the islands about 10 miles off the Mississippi Coast are only available to travelers who have their own boats, or wish to charter one locally (a good option for tour groups), or, from Gulfport to West Ship Island during the public tour boat season, from late March through late October.
However, a hidden gem of the Seashore is the unspoiled Davis Bayou Area, in Ocean Springs. Davis Bayou offers exhibits and video presentations in the William M. Colmer Visitor Center, extensive picnic facilities, plus easy-to-negotiate nature trails and boardwalks along the bayou. These trails offer wonderful opportunities to experience the fascinating plants, animals and birds that have adapted to life in this sometimes harsh, yet beautiful subtropical landscape.
Don’t fail to save some time (but no money, as admission is free) to include this nearby showcase of Southern Mississippi’s natural beauty during your group’s next trip to the Biloxi casinos!
Hundreds of winged sumac berries
Mama heron and her young ones
They don't call this the "Gator Pond" for nothing!
4. December 2012 00:45
Unfortunately, some extraordinary sites administered by our National Park Service are not very accessible. Among these is surely Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in northwestern Nebraska, even though it is not all that distant from South Dakota’s popular Black Hills resort region.
The Monument was once part of the Agate Springs Ranch, purchased by James and Kate Cook from her parents in 1887. Strange “Devil’s Corkscrew” formations were first studied here by scientists soon thereafter, which were eventually identified as fossilized burrows of a prehistoric beaver-like creature that lived more like a prairie dog.
Here, around ancient waterholes, animals had apparently congregated and eventually died when supplies of the nearby grasses that they foraged, already drastically reduced by drought, were exhausted. The bones of hundreds and even thousands of several species were eventually covered under several feet of sediment. Mostly between 1904 and 1923, paleontologists from several renowned Eastern institutions worked these fossil beds, uncovering bones that are now found in outstanding museum collections around the globe.
Today, in addition to displays explaining and exhibiting some of the fossilized bones, as well as complete replica skeletons, the Monument’s excellent visitor center also contains a video theatre and the Cook Collection of Indian Artifacts. Even by itself, the Cook family’s magnificent collection of Plains Indian cultural artifacts makes a trip to the Monument worthwhile. However two interpretive trails, the 2.7-mile round-trip Fossil Hill Trail to the University and Carnegie Hill dig sites, and the one-mile Daemonelix Trail, all contribute to a memorable visitor experience.
Red Cloud's ceremonial shirt in the Cook Collection of Indian Artifacts
Daemonelix in the "phone booth"
Mule deer viewed from the Daemonelix Trail
4. December 2012 00:43
The Missouri, North America’s longest river, meanders from its headwaters in Montana and through the Dakotas, borders Nebraska and Kansas to the east, and Iowa and Missouri to the west, before crossing the “Show Me” State and joining the Mississippi just north of St. Louis. Although it became an important commercial waterway as the U.S. expanded westward during the second half of the 19th century, the river remained treacherous going for steamboats of the era.
However, after a series of particularly devastating floods in the early 1940s, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1944, a provision of which eventually resulted in six dams being built, massive reservoirs being filled and the end of regular seasonal flood destruction. But there are still two historic, free-flowing stretches of the Missouri along the Nebraska/South Dakota border that were preserved by Congress in 1978 and 1991 as the Missouri National Recreational River. The 39-Mile-District, downstream from Fort Randall Dam as far as Running Water (SD), offers visitor centers at both the dam itself and Niobrara State Park (NE), while the 59-Mile District, downstream from the Gavins Point Dam to Ponca State Park (NE), has a visitor center in the state park, as well as the major Lewis and Clark Visitor Center at the dam.
In addition to splendid views of the river and Gavins Point Dam, the latter facility has numerous exhibits, a video theatre and a bookstore. Both districts offer a wealth of opportunities for water sports, fishing, hiking and picnicking.
Park facilities along the Missouri River
Lewis and Clark Visitor Center
Missouri River model in the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center
4. December 2012 00:38
A unit of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge makes a wonderful tour stop for groups traveling in Nebraska. Only about five miles off of I-29, DeSoto is one of over 500 refuges protected and managed nationally. However, DeSoto is much more than just a place to view spectacular flights of ducks, geese and bald eagles along a traditional flyway route. The refuge also offers beautiful indoor galleries overlooking DeSoto Lake during the spring and fall months.
The visitor center not only houses the galleries, but it is also the home of one of the most unusual historic collections in the country, the Steamboat Bertrand Collection. Due to the numerous perils of traveling the Missouri, the river’s hazards exacted a heavy toll on early ships, with over 400 steamboats sunk or stranded between St. Louis and Fort Benton, Montana. Among these was the Bertrand, which sank here in April, 1865 and was quickly covered completely by thick river mud.
This time capsule of Civil War-era goods destined for the Montana Territory rested undiscovered for over a century, finally being unearthed in 1969. Unfortunately, during the summer of 2011, the rising waters of a major Missouri River flood threatened both the fabulous Steamboat Bertrand Collection as well as the DeSoto Visitor Center itself. As a result, the entire collection of artifacts was quickly shipped to a warehouse in Omaha as a precautionary measure. A complete cataloging and re-cleaning of all items is now being completed in the Omaha facility.
Happily, the collection will gradually be returned to and reinstalled at DeSoto beginning in early 2013, and the entire move is expected to be completed by next fall. If you plan a visit, which I highly recommend, make sure to say ‘hello’ to Ken Block, the amiable, highly experienced and knowledgeable USFWS (and former NPS) ranger who helped make my visit in early November (I had last been here in 1984) a particular pleasure.
Historic artifacts from the Steamboat Bertrand Collection
Ranger Ken Block assists visitors