67-County Alabama Garden Party: Blount County

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The Alabama honeysuckle border was inspired by an 18th century, Southern applique quilt.

The Cullman Tribune is celebrating the Alabama Bicentennial (1819-2019) with statewide field reporting by Alabama Master Gardener/Botanical Artist Ben Johnson South. This year-long feature, "The 67-County Alabama Garden Party," will spotlight different counties each week. Each county will get its own "quilt block," along with a historical profile, and we'll share a recipe specific to the area. At the end of the year, all 67 counties will be put in a book to commemorate the Bicentennial.

Blount County

Grand opera scenery is how Blount County was sumptuously designed by nature. The soaring mountains and plunging gorges have a jaw-dropping grandeur and are exhilarating to explore on foot or on the tree-skirted roads which have been carefully carved into the landscape. Even though we Alabamians have a lot more experience with the Grand Ole Opry than grand opera, it is easy to imagine a full-chested Luciano Pavarotti, Maria Callas or Dolly Parton filling and trilling this thrilling panorama with their arias. By the way, aria means “air” and if you’re in need of the good stuff, the plant-cleansed, fresh air in Blount County could be just what your lung doctor ordered.

Blount Countians regularly defy the challenges of planting on a hillside; you’ll spot a tidy farm with a well-tended garden resplendent with bountiful vegetables and, just for the heaven of it, some colorful flowers. The Blount County hills are alive with the joy of gardening.

This could seem like an embarrassment of visual riches, but to this sweeping terrain, picture-perfect farmland and charming gardens, add the most covered bridges of any county in Alabama. If you’re an Alabama landscape painter or photographer, just go ahead and get in your car and GPS it to Blount County.

The bridges of Blount County have their own compelling stories and deserve a best-selling romance novel and a film of their own. Most were built to cross rushing streams. Wood for the timber trusses, roofs, decking and siding all came from the nearby forest. When you visit, notice how the longitudinal timber-trusses are engineered as backbones and how the latticework is pretty but is really designed to light safe passage. These bridges are picturesque, but they were also practical. A covered bridge can endure rain and sun for a hundred years, while a typical uncovered wooden bridge would last 20.

Like the high-profile example of the covered bridges, picturesque, practical preservation is a hallmark of Blount County and has been from the earliest days of the settlers. The Alabama Territory Legislature established Blount County on Saturday, Feb. 7, 1818. You could imagine the locals hearing that news a few Saturdays later when they came into town to trade for the few supplies they couldn’t produce on their mostly self-sufficient farms.

Traditional preservation techniques like canning, sun-drying and freezing locally-grown produce are still common here, the knowledge and skills often passed down from one generation to the next. And, if somebody outgrows a shirt or dress and there isn’t someone waiting for the hand-me-downs, the garment is repurposed into a quilt. The land sustains the people of Blount County and the people preserve the place.

Here are other positive and pleasurable ways PEOPLE + PLANTS come together in Blount County:

*BLOUNT COUNTY FARMERS MARKET—Blount County-Oneonta Agri-Business Center, 500 New Street, Oneonta, AL 35121; Saturdays in May, then from June-October every Tues./Thurs./Saturday, 7 a.m.-1 p.m.

*BLOUNT COUNTY U-PICK FARMS—Baty Farms (Cleveland) blueberries; Daniel Allman (Oneonta) tomatoes, green beans, sweet corn, watermelons, honeydew melons, cantaloupes; Jerry Marsh Farm (Cleveland) strawberries, peas, tomatoes, beans, peppers, melons, corn, cucumbers, squash, potatoes; Kenneth Witt Farm (Hayden) strawberries, cantaloupes, blackberries, peaches, squash, cucumbers; Moody’s Blueberries (Oneonta); Tumblin Farms (Cleveland) muscadines, scuppernongs

*BLOUNT COUNTY COOPERATIVE EXTENSION OFFICE—Dan Porch, Blount County coordinator for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, suggested these PLANTS + PEOPLE places to explore also: The Great Pumpkin Patch (Hayden); Graves Family Market (Altoona) and Mann’s Produce (Hayden); check the Facebook page of each for best time of year to enjoy.

*BLOUNT COUNTY LOCAL NURSERIES—Triple J Nursery (Hayden), Blackwood Crossing Nursery (Cleveland), T.J.’s Nursery (Blountsville)

*DUNN’S BLOOM-N-PIE DAYS —(2 weekends in June, check their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Dunns-Angus-and-Daylilies-917771511577249/); daylilies and pies, what’s not to love?

*BEST PLACE FOR A LANDSCAPE PAINTER/PHOTOGRAPHER IN BLOUNT COUNTY—remember this entire county is loaded with grand operatic scenery, but one all-time favorite vista is high on the refurbished fire tower on Ebell Mountain; this is located in the 145-acre public Palisades Park, created and managed by Blount County.

*BLOUNT COUNTY COVERED BRIDGES—Take your picnic blanket and a camera, each of these is a lovely backdrop for a memorably delightful visit: Easley Covered Bridge, Swann Covered Bridge and the Horton Mill Covered Bridge.

*BANGOR CAVE—It has gone from Prohibition-era “speakeasy” to the spelunkers of today; the natural cave in this neck of the piney woods in Blount County once housed the infamous Bangor Café Club where visitors could be dropped off at the entrance by the L&N Railroad and welcomed by poker cards and “painted ladies.”

*BLOUNT SPRINGS RESORT—It was popular in the early part of the 20th century for natural mineral springs, and a cool, leafy respite for Southern city folks to escape the sultry hot summers. Lillian Russell, the biggest star of the day, vacationed at Blount Springs accompanied by famous NYC restaurateur, Diamond Jim Brady; the tabloids reported Miss Russell got so many chigger bites while sunbathing it took all the butter in Blount County and a number of willing hands to soothe her.

*BLOUNT COUNTY “JUST A BOWL OF BUTTER BEANS” BOB CAIN—Pay your respects to one of Alabama’s most popular entertainers, Robert Lyle “Bob” Cain, buried in the Clear Springs Cemetery (Allgood). In my salad days, Bob Cain owned the funniest, “live music” supper club in Birmingham, The Cane Break, and performed when Bob Cain and The Canebreakers weren’t playing Las Vegas. Top stars Bob Hope, Ray Charles and Johnny Cash would pop in and join the rest of us while Bob Cain led a happy sing-along of “Just a Bowl of Butter Beans” to the tune of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” a hymn he knew from his Alabama childhood. You’ll want to YouTube Bob Cain performing this classic while you cook up the recipe for BLOUNT COUNTY BUTTER BEAN SOYBEAN SUCCOTASH—song lyrics provided.

PLANTING AN IDEA: Saluting the self-reliance and creativity of Blount Countians and 200 years of hand sewn clothing and quilts, Blount County-grown cotton could be creatively dyed using traditional plant dyes such as indigo (blues), safflower petals (yellows) and black walnut hulls (rich browns). Classes could be taught by the North Alabama Agriplex, which serves the area.

Y’ALL COME to Blount County on your Alabama Garden Party tour. This is a particularly stunning place to celebrate the positive and pleasurable ways PLANTS + PEOPLE have come together for more than 200 years.

Many thanks to Dan Porch, Blount County coordinator, Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

BLOUNT COUNTY BUTTER BEAN SOYBEAN SUCCOTASH

This healthy, 1800s basic recipe highlights Blount County produce and brings it into Alabama’s third century by adding fresh, green soybeans (which fancy grocers like Whole Foods call edamame) and herbed corn. It’s so easy to cook you’ll be singing “Just a Bowl of Butter Beans” to the tune of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” as Blount County’s Bob Cain popularized. Here are your lyrics: “Just a bowl of butter beans. Pass the cornbread, if you please. I don’t want no collard greens. Just give me a bowl of them good ole butter beans.”

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 cup fresh, Blount County butter beans
  • ½ cup fresh, Blount County edamame (aka edible soybeans)
  • 1 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • ½ cup chopped, Blount County red bell pepper
  • ½ cup chopped, Blount Count onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cups fresh, Blount County sweet corn kernels
  • 3 tbsp. water or chicken broth
  • 2 tbsp. rice vinegar
  • 2 tbsp. fresh, chopped basil or 1 tbsp. dried basil
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • Fresh, ground black pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS

  1. Cook butter beans and soybeans in a large saucepan of lightly salted water, about 4 minutes until tender. Drain well.
  2. Heat vegetable oil in a large, nonstick skillet over medium heat.
  3. Add bell pepper and onion, cook, stirring often until the onion is translucent (about 2 minutes).
  4. Add garlic and stir 30 seconds to allow it to sweat.
  5. Stir in corn, water or chicken broth, butter beans and soybeans.
  6. Cook, stirring frequently for 4 minutes.
  7. Remove from heat. Stir in vinegar, basil, salt and black pepper.
  8. Serve immediately.

NOTES: 6 servings; can make ahead and refrigerate up to two days. Healthy meat lovers could top this succulent succotash with their favorite Blount County grilled poultry or fish. For those who like a little spice, a dash of red pepper will add a little pop to this new, classic dish.

Also, check out Alabama Bicentennial: 200 ways to save Alabama for the next 200 years.

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