Oral History Takes Flight at the Birmingham Audubon Mountain Workshop

J. T. Dabbs during his interview with Keely Smith. Most interviews were conducted on the front porch of one of the original cabins in Camp Alpine.
J. T. Dabbs during his interview with Keely Smith. Most interviews were conducted on the front porch of one of the original cabins in Camp Alpine.

Every Mother’s Day weekend, naturalists, avid birders, academics, and nature-loving families all gather at Alpine Camp near Mentone, Alabama, to celebrate Mother Nature at the annual Birmingham Audubon Society Mountain Ecology Workshop. This year, fellow S.T.O.R.I. researcher Claire Davis and I accompanied retired Samford faculty member and seasoned workshop instructor Dr. Brown to conduct oral histories of those who were essential to the creation and development of the Mountain Workshop. Samford University has close ties to the workshop; many professors such as Dr. Ellen McLaughlin, Dr. Malia Fincher, and Mrs. Larissa Charny have contributed to this special weekend as instructors and participants.

The first interviewee was Mrs. Elberta Reid, one of the workshop founders. As president of the Audubon Society during the workshop’s foundational years, Reid focused on the administrative planning aspect of the highly-anticipated weekend. Fellow founders Mrs. Jeanette Hancock and Dr. Dan Holliman of Birmingham Southern also assisted in making the workshop a success from the start. Thanks to the close friendship the Reids and the Hancocks forged with the O’Ferrall family, owners of Alpine Camp for Boys, the Mountain Workshop has remained at the camp near Mentone since its first year in the mid 1970s. Since its creation, the workshop has diversified classes in subject and number and has added and updated living and bathing quarters. A youth program, called the Young Naturalists, has also added to the overall experience. According to everyone we interviewed, however, the essence of the workshop has remained true to its original aim. Reid recounts the first workshop when she describes:

And we started small; we had just about fifteen or twenty people I think at the first one, but here at Camp Alpine. And we all, we were all taking one class together. So, we spent a half a day, the first half of the day birding, and then the afternoon would be plants, or something else. But the same period of time, though, we always started on Thursday night, and it has grown from there.

The Camp Alpine mailbox serves as a community landmark and gathering spot for the early morning bird walks.
The Camp Alpine mailbox serves as a community landmark and gathering spot for the early morning bird walks.

As time went on and more nature lovers joined the Mountain Workshop family, Dr. Dan Holliman gradually added other instructors such as his former students Jack Johnston and J. T. Dabbs, herpetologist Dr. Ken Marion, and Samford professors Dr. Bob Stiles and Dr. Jim Brown. The camaraderie among all the workshop’s participants is a result of a mutual love of Alabama nature and folklore as well as years of shared memories at the camp. Jimmy Stiles, son of Dr. Bob Stiles and a current reptile and amphibian class instructor at the workshop, grew up attending each year:

As a child, you know, there was fifteen years there or so that, you know, I did not teach any classes. So I got to take them all, which was great. And it is probably what, Audubon Mountain was probably the biggest driver as far as my knowledge of the natural world.

We got a taste of this sense of family that has developed over the past four decades while collecting stories about the early years of the workshop and joining in on the 6:00 AM birding hikes, classes on edible plants and forgotten folk crafts, family-style meals in the dining hall, and the annual Saturday night square dance called by Alabama author and folklore enthusiast Joyce Cauthen. Attending the Mountain Workshop was undoubtedly an experience unlike all other oral history projects. A typical interview might involve meeting someone at his or her home for a couple hours to record special memories or a life story. Because the Birmingham Audubon Society graciously welcomed us to stay for the entire three day workshop, we had the opportunity to personally experience the camp, classes, and community that each interviewee described.

Summarizing this Mountain Workshop experience, J. T. Dabbs, instructor of the Edible Plants class and student of Dr. Dan Holliman, explains:

It is a group of people who care about our state and care about what is going on here. They care about the great resources we have and protecting them, but they also have a lot of fun, and that they make a difference, I think, in our community. . . Anybody can come here, whatever your background is, and, and have fun and learn a lot of great things. . .  But I think the combination of this camp, where we are located in the state of Alabama, and then the people that do it, it, it is a special combination that has allowed it to last forty years. . . It is a unique culture and experience that has been put together that I think is hard to replicate.

The special community that gathers at the Birmingham Audubon Society Mountain Ecology Workshop each year has an unparalleled heart for nature and for one another that is exceptionally clear from the moment one first steps foot on the grounds of Camp Alpine. Newcomers and longtime workshop veterans alike are welcomed with open arms, ensuring the preservation of the Mountain Workshop legacy and the curiosity and wonder of the natural world for future generations.

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