67-County Alabama Garden Party: DeKalb County

The Alabama honeysuckle border was inspired by an 18th century, Southern applique quilt. (left) DeKalb County “Shut Your Mouth” Sweet Potato Pie with Orange Bourbon Whipped Cream (right)

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.

DeKalb County

Imagine yourself in a DeKalb County party barn sittin’ on a hay bale with someone you hold dear, and the country, Southern rock and gospel music is provided by the world-renowned band, who proudly named itself for its beloved home state, Alabama.

These local boys done good. Randy Owens and his cousin, Teddy Gentry, and another cousin, Jeff Cook, hail from this rocky top of Alabama, where they started their band in Ft. Payne in 1969.

The band Alabama has so many no. 1 hits and Grammy-winning songs that it was a challenge to gather just a handful for our DeKalb County barn party as we look at all the fun, friendly and beautiful places where PLANTS + PEOPLE come together in the northeast corner of the state. Now, let’s…

*TAKE A LITTLE TRIP- “If we could leave this big ole city and head for the cabin we love…take a little trip up to heaven tonight…take a little time to leave it all behind.” After the forced removal of Native Americans in this area, the eager white settlers uprooted to leave almost everything behind in North Carolina and across the line in Tennessee to live upland in the piney woods of DeKalb County, which was established by the Alabama Legislature in 1836.

*MOUNTAIN MUSIC- “Oh play me some mountain music like Grandma and Grandpa used to play…swim across the river…just bein’ nature’s friend…climb a long, tall hickory.” The musical cousins could have been singing about Little River Canyon National Preserve on top of Lookout Mountain near their family homesteads. This 15,288-acre preserve surrounds the Little River, which is one of the cleanest and prettiest, and maybe the longest, mountaintop rivers in America. Over eons, Little River has carved out one of the Southeast’s deepest canyons, now heavily forested. There is a day-use campground near the mouth of the canyon which is perfect for picnics and some pickin’-and-grinnin’ mountain music.

*HIGH COTTON- “We didn’t know the times were lean, round our house the grass was green…I bet we walked a thousand miles, choppin’ cotton and pushin’ plows…we were walkin’ in high cotton, old times there are not forgotten…Leavin’ home was the hardest thing we ever faced.” DeKalb County has grown cotton since the early days, but the rocky soil made this area more appealing to hardscrabble farmers who were happy living up in the green hills providing for their families. The major agricultural crop harvested in this part of Alabama today is soybeans. The county is also a top producer of poultry and eggs in the state. And, DeKalb is regularly ranked among the top counties for cattle farming.

*MY HOME’S IN ALABAMA- “No matter where I lay my head. My home’s in Alabama, Southern born and Southern bred…I’ll speak my Southern English, just as natural as I please.” The band Alabama has played packed arenas around the globe, but it always comes home to the state that gave it its name.  Its home’s in Alabama. As for the natural language of the locals, when you hear a Pine Ridge gardener “go on” about her “maters” or a Chigger Ridge farmer all braggish about his “taters” you’re hearing a bona fide, DeKalb County accent not nuthin’ nobody around these parts ever heard tell of on that “Hee Haw” television show.

*BORN COUNTRY- “Clear creeks and cool mountain mornings. Honest work out in the field. Cornbread in Mama’s kitchen…I was born country and that’s what I’ll always be. Like the rivers and the woodlands, wild and free.” The DeKalb County source for farm feed, garden plants, seed and even cornmeal is Ft. Payne Feed and Garden Supply, 1954 Gault Ave. N, Ft. Payne, AL 35967, 256-845-5946. Here’s what a couple of locals had to say about this community hub where PLANTS + PEOPLE come regularly connect: “My foster dogs eat A LOT, so the lower prices are very important.” And, “I’ll forever remember the cornmeal.”

*DIXIELAND DELIGHT- “Spend my dollar, parked in a holler ‘neath the mountain moonlight…whitetail buck deer munchin’ on clover, red-tailed hawk sitting on a limb…chubby ol’ groundhog, croakin’ bullfrog, free as a feelin’ in the wind.” That captures the feelin’ of being at DeSoto State Park, a public recreation area created in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The 3,502 acres of forest, rivers, waterfalls and mountain terrain were named for the 16th century Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, who was the first European to hike DeKalb County. Today, there are 25 miles of hiking trails and 11 miles that allow mountain biking. CCC-built lodge and cabins are available as rentals and all can enjoy the nature center.

*ANGELS AMONG US- “Sent down to us from somewhere up above. They come to you and me in our darkest hour to show us how to live, to teach us how to give, to guide us with a light of love.” The Church with a Rock in It is how most people know of the Sallie Howard Memorial Chapel. It was imagined by a loving widower in 1935 and is built around a giant boulder at one end. Stones from Little River were used to construct the altar. This active church in Mentone was deeded to the DeKalb Baptist Association in 1974.

*DANCIN’ ON THE BOULEVARD- It harkens back to the early days of the band Alabama when it drew crowds at honky-tonks and music festivals on the Carolina coast. These entertaining DeKalb County boys don’t claim to be gifted dancers, but the ladies who follow them have on occasion pulled them onto a dance floor. Though a cover song on their hit album “Southern Star” celebrates “Barefootin’,” the band members generally wore boots and growing up they wore socks woven in Ft. Payne, which at one time was “The Sock Capital of the World.” Today, DeKalb County environmentalist and entrepreneur Gina Locklear has revived the sock-making legacy at Zkano Socks Mill, which makes colorful, creatively-designed socks and stockings from organic cotton. On the 27th of this month, Gina and her family and team at Zkano will celebrate the 10th anniversary for this Alabama visionary company. Check their website or better yet, go visit them at Zkano Socks Mill, 1715 Airport Road, Ft. Payne, AL 35968, 256-845-9801.

*DOWN HOME- “Where they know you by name and treat you like family…kids drivin’ ‘round the old town square” is where you’ll find eateries that celebrate DeKalb County-grown fruits and vegetables. Three to savor are: Vintage 1889, Wildflower Café and Green Leaf Grill. Voted “The Best Catfish in Alabama,” the Green Leaf Grill has sides that deserve an award, too.

*SONG OF THE SOUTH- “Song, song of the South, sweet potato pie and I shut my mouth. Gone, gone with the wind, ain’t nobody lookin’ back again.” We’ll end our DeKalb County barn party with this hit from the band Alabama and some sweet dessert. As the song reminds us, life here was not always easy, but the natural beauty of forests and grand vistas is easy to love.

Dekalb County gardeners and farmers grow a variety of edible and ornamental plants. Here are places to find them: DeKalb County Farmers’ Market (Ft. Payne), Ft. Payne Family Farmers’ Market (Ft. Payne), Ft. Payne Main Street Farmers’ Market (Ft. Payne), Henagar City Park Market (Henagar), Mentone Farmers’ Market (Mentone).

The Mentone Rhododendron Festival is held annually in mid-May and is a lovely time to come celebrate these native beauties that thrive in the cooler temperatures of Lookout Mountain. There are lots of hiking trails to entice you in the area, so bring your boots and buy some DeKalb County-made socks. Google for bed-and-breakfast places in the area and plan to make it a weekend of fun, great food, rest and regeneration.

PLANTING AN IDEA: How about IDER CIDER from Ider, Alabama? According to the latest census, Ider, Alabama in DeKalb County has 723 residents. It could take a number of those folks to grow apples and press cider but could be a great opportunity for PLANTS + PEOPLE to come together in this part of the world. Also, IDER CIDER could be bottled in vessels designed by the award-winning Ft. Payne, Alabama glass artisans, Cal and Christy Breed at www.orbixhotglass.com.

Y’ALL COME enjoy the lively, toe-tapping pleasures of northeast Alabama in DeKalb County on your 67-County Alabama Garden Party tour! It’ll make your heart sing.

Many thanks for the words I referenced from the great band Alabama and the other gifted songwriters who wrote the timeless lyrics quoted in this salute to their part of the state. Also, thanks to Lori Wheeler, coordinator of the DeKalb County office of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, for her many suggestions, insights and ideas. And, thank you to Laurie Johnson for the “Shut Your Mouth” Sweet Potato Pie” recipe.


DeKalb County “Shut Your Mouth” Sweet Potato Pie with Orange Bourbon Whipped Cream

As a child, “Song of the South” was a cool Uncle Remus, Disney movie.  In my 20s, “Song of the South” was entirely different: a hit song by the band, Alabama, featuring “Sweet potato pie and I shut my mouth” in its earworm chorus. I hate to admit that I was in my 40s before tasting sweet potato pie as a gift from a friend.  It is only now that I’ve baked my first sweet potato pie, twisted up with multiple orange flavors plus cayenne to shake up the traditional “sugar, spice and everything nice.” Garnished with crust leaves and topped with orange bourbon whipped cream, this pie is a sweet, spicy surprise that will leave you…. speechless. 


  • Cooked (peeled) pulp from 3 large Alabama sweet potatoes
  • 1 cup evaporated milk
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 beaten eggs
  • 2 tbsp. fresh-squeezed orange juice and the zest from the orange
  • 1 tsp. orange extract and 1 – 2 tbsp. orange liquor, like Grand Marnier (optional)
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. cayenne pepper (to taste) and 1 tbsp. pumpkin pie spice
  • Pie crust for a 9-inch deep dish pie pan, plus additional crust for leaf cutouts
  • A bit of extra melted butter and some turbinado sugar or coarse granulated sugar
  • For the orange bourbon whipped cream:
    • One small carton of heavy whipping cream, 1/8 cup sugar, 1/2 tsp. orange extract and 1 tsp. vanilla bourbon


  1. Preheat oven to 350F and spray pie plate with cooking spray.
  2. Roll pie crust to fit, press into pan and flute the edge.  Cut leaf shapes from additional pie crust and place onto small parchment paper-lined cooking sheet.
  3. In a large bowl, mash the sweet potato pulp and add evaporated milk, beaten eggs, melted butter, sugar, baking powder, juice, salt, extracts, liquor and spices.  Stir to combine and then beat with a mixer until smooth.  Taste and adjust flavors to your liking/loving!
  4. Pour filling into crust and bake for ~ 30 minutes.  Concurrently, bake leaf crusts with the pie.
  5. After the first 30 minutes, place partially cooked leaves onto the pie, brush them and the pie with melted butter and sprinkle all with turbinado sugar.  Bake another ~ 20 minutes until set.  Cover crust with foil or silicone shield if getting too brown before the filling is firm.
  6. Prepare whipped cream: Chill a large bowl and beaters.  Start beating at medium speed until cream starts to thicken and add the sugar and flavorings gradually.  Once incorporated, taste, adjust and then beat on high for another 2-3 minutes until soft peaks form.  Don’t overbeat or you will end up with a butter-like consistency.  Should keep in the refrigerator for up to a day.
  7. Serve this sweet, yet spicy, Southern tradition dolloped with orange bourbon whipped cream that will leave you and your guests speechless.


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

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Ben South