Monthly Archives: May 2011

Camp Heaven


Camp Heaven

A wilderness oasis, Camp McDowell offers environmental education, folk arts, and tranquility.


May 26, 2011

For years I’ve seen bumper stickers reading I’d rather be at Camp McDowell on vehicles in the Birmingham area. What is this mysterious place that multitudes apparently prefer, I wondered? Have they been brainwashed? Is it some secret indoctrination facility?

Nah—so much for conspiracy theories—actually, Camp McDowell is a tranquil, lush oasis 15 miles north of Jasper, Alabama, that offers summer camps for youth in addition to an environmental studies program and a folk school that includes instruction in music and folk art crafts. The facility is named after Bishop William G. McDowell, who began early versions of Episcopal retreats at several sites across the state. It’s the official camp and conference center for the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, spanning more than 1,100 acres of woods and creeks.In 1945, the Reverend Scott Eppes was appointed by Bishop C.C.J. Carpenter to build a permanent home for the Episcopal camp that was being held at Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham. [The bishop, who was prominent in Birmingham during the city's civil rights struggles, was one of the pastors Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail."] Bishop Carpenter’s son, the Reverend Doug Carpenter, fondly recalls his teenage years helping Eppes build the facility that would become Camp McDowell in 1948 after 160 acres were secured in Winston County for $600.

“I’d spend the whole summer out there, building the camp or taking care of the cattle, pitching hay, putting fences in,” Carpenter says. “Slave labor pretty much built that camp, because they didn’t pay us anything. The Diocese was pretty poor after the Second World War. Scott Eppes, who built the camp, really knew how to make money go a long way. He found out we could buy barracks from Fort McClellan [in Anniston], which was downsizing. The smaller barracks cost $15 apiece. They came apart in eight-foot sections.”


A taste of the natural beauty on display at Camp McDowell. (Photo: Beth Maynor Young.) (click for larger version)


Eppes also purchased longer barracks for $100 each, Carpenter explains. The first camps were fairly primitive, with no running water. The boys would bathe first in the creek, followed by the girls. Barrels of drinking water were brought in from Jasper.

Doug Carpenter, who retired from Saint Stephens Episcopal Church in Cahaba Heights six years ago, recalls a penny campaign his father waged to raise funds for the camp.

“My dad wanted everybody to have some part in it,” Carpenter explains. “He would visit every Episcopal congregation in the state at least once a year. And two weeks before he went, he’d send everybody these paper peanut bags. They were supposed to save all their pennies for two weeks. And he’d come back from his trips with maybe 50 or 60 pounds of pennies. It’s amazing how far that money went in those days but when you’re buying cabins for $15 apiece and land for around three dollars an acre . . . ”


(click for larger version)


Carpenter also recalls the thrill of using explosives to clear the land for the camp. “I don’t know why a lot of us didn’t get hurt up there—but nobody ever did—because Scott Eppes loved to use dynamite. You could get it for ten cents a stick in those days. You just go into Jasper and get a big ol’ box of dynamite,” Carpenter says, laughing. “We used probably more than we should have. There was one place where the dynamite hadn’t gone off and somebody had forgotten it. And Mr. Eppes was in town one day at the Army surplus store and found out that he could get flamethrowers. We were clearing a lot of brambles out of the fields. So he thought, ‘Oh, that would be a good idea.’ So he got a couple of flamethrowers. We were using those things and blew up a piece of dynamite. Fortunately, nobody got hurt.”

The dynamite is long gone. These days the serenity of Camp McDowell has made it more than a place to hike, swim, and canoe. The camp has become popular with corporations and groups seeking facilities for meeting retreats. Rev. Mark Johnston has been the camp’s executive director for two decades—only the third director in the camp’s 63-year history.

“I went to Camp McDowell when I was in high school. Then I worked at the camp when I was in college,” Johnston says. “The camp is the spiritual center of our church.” Johnston has seen the camp grow into more than a summer retreat during his tenure. “We teach kids how to live their faith in their everyday life. It’s a real powerful place. We’ve had over 100,000 children come to our residential environmental education program. We’re one of the best in the country. We also have over 300 groups come every year to use our conference center. And we started the Alabama Folk School about three years ago.”

Down-home Curriculum
The folk school has become quite a magnet, attracting participants from across the country. Held throughout the year, it offers courses in such traditional folk arts as playing acoustic instruments, Sacred Harp singing, chair caning, quilting, watercolor, and pottery. A visit to the school this April made this writer realize why the facility is so revered. Local stringed-instrument virtuoso Herb Trotman was one of the instructors that day.

“I’ve been trying to learn how to play the banjo for about 50 years,” says Trotman, laughing. “This is the third session that I’ve done at Camp McDowell teaching banjo and fiddle.” When asked to compare the difficulty in learning banjo as opposed to other instruments, he explains: “Well, here’s the thing about banjo. If you take up the guitar and mandolin, you feel this immediate sense of gratification. But when people say they want to play the banjo, they say they want to do this: [Herb plays a simple but familiar banjo lick]. Well, you don’t get there in a week. So it’s hard to get to that level which you think you’re playing. So I’m always working with people trying to get them to realize they’re playing music; they’re just not playing what they hear the banjo do.”

Roland White is the folk school’s most famous music instructor. White played guitar with the late Bill Monroe. (His brother was the late Clarence White, who played with The Byrds.) Having someone of White’s skills teaching mandolin has been an asset to Camp McDowell. The musician participates in similar musical retreats around the country with his wife. “Camp McDowell is a very nice setting,” says White, resting in a rocking chair on a cabin porch, waiting to teach another class. “I have an advanced class this year, which is unusual. Usually I have beginner and intermediate, which is kind of my favorite thing to do because I like to get beginners who are starting but who are doing it wrong. I like to correct that and they become better players. We have a lot of fun.” Asked if he teaches his students any Bill Monroe songs, White quips, “Yeah, I always include one or two, he’s my favorite. Bill Monroe is our father who art in heaven—I hope.”

Danielle Dunbar, director of the folk school, explains that the Alabama State Council on the Arts maintains a list of master artists in Alabama, which is where the Folk School finds many of its instructors. Prices for the school range from $255 to $515, depending on occupancy preferences and length of stay. The music classes are the most popular, Dunbar says.

“Music is just one of those types of activities where it draws community and it builds community, because people are really drawn to coming together and playing music together, whether it’s fiddle or jazz or mandolin.”

The real attraction at this year’s folk school, however, are women representing the famous Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective. Among the dozen or so women attending a recent class were several Californians lured by the opportunity to learn to sew quilts under the tutelage of the Gee’s Bend quilters. A Wall Street Journal reporter who lives in Los Angeles saw the Folk School featured on

“My mother always wanted to quilt,” says Alexandra Berzon, who decided to bring her mother Marsha to Alabama for a “quilting” vacation. “My mother had gone to a Gee’s Bend exhibit, and later I learned about them,” she explains. “I’ve never sewn before, let alone quilted. I’m still kind of messy.” Her mother Marsha adds: “The challenging and interesting part is visualizing how the pieces [of the quilt] fit together. They said we didn’t need to bring anything, so we didn’t bring any fabrics like some did. The Gee’s Bend women and others brought some fabrics so we just kind of scrounged those, but I think that made it better in a way because we didn’t have any visual when we started. We just had to deal with whatever was available.”

Dara McLaughlin, also from Los Angeles, has been quilting for six years. She has wanted to study under the Gee’s Bend women for years. “The Gee’s Bend quilters have a very different style from traditional quilting,” she says. “Their approach is ‘Don’t measure so much. Just kind of do something!’ Normally I do a lot more measuring and trying to line it all up perfect, but not this time.”

Mary Ann and China Pettway of the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective are instructing at the camp for a second year. “My mother taught me how to quilt when I was 11 years old,” says China, who says she’s related to Mary Ann but she is not sure how. “The quilts when I learned wasn’t made from new material, they was made from old clothes that me and my sister and brother had worn out,” she explains. “We didn’t have no money to go to the store to buy material. If we was walking along the road and seen a piece of scrap, we picked it up and took it home and washed it just to get a quilt going.”


Quilting is one of the more popular crafts that can be learned at Camp McDowell’s Folk School. (Photo: Rachel Dobson.) (click for larger version)


Mary Ann Pettway also recalls the poverty in which she was raised. “Back then we didn’t have tile or rugs, it was just the naked floor. So we had to make quilts to lay on the floor,” Mary Ann explains of her introduction to quilting as a child. She grew up in a house with 11 brothers and sisters. “We still do all our quilting by hand. There are a lot of people who do them by sewing machines but I always like to do mine by hand because it’s very relaxing and it takes your mind off a lot of stuff. You got to have patience, and if you don’t have patience to do it I wouldn’t suggest that anybody start on a quilt.”

The Environmental Center at Camp McDowell has been there for 18 years. Held during the school year, the environmental program allows teachers from around the country to bring their classes and choose from a list of studies. Maggie Johnston, wife of Camp McDowell director Mark Johnston, formerly taught at the Alabama School for the Deaf in Talladega. She brought her students to the environmental program for years before becoming director of the Environmental Center seven years go. It was her husband’s idea to start the program; Mark Johnston had not only observed cabins being unused nine months out of the year when Summer Camp was not in session, he also saw the opportunity to educate local kids in environmentalism.

“The folk school and the adult groups stay in hotel-style lodging. But there are 14 summer camp cabins down the hill where the school groups stay when they come here,” explains Maggie Johnston. “From Monday to Friday we have school groups here all through the year. Most of them stay three days—Monday to Wednesday or Wednesday to Friday. A few stay the whole week. It depends on the school. We have around 7,000 participants who come through the program [annually].” The kids who attend range from grades four through eight. There are 20 instructors on staff. Among the most popular classes are pond and stream, Native American studies, and geology classes.

Spiritual Nourishment
Doug Carpenter says his favorite thing about going to Camp McDowell as a camper each summer was the opportunity to meet other teens from across the state. The retired priest has a deep love of the uniqueness of the Episcopal Church.

“I’ve always loved the Episcopal Church, and partly because we’ve got such a freedom to question things,” he says. “And that was always true at Camp McDowell, too. It’s not who’s got the right or wrong belief—let’s talk about it and explore it, because if you have all the answers about God, it’s probably not God. He’s too mysterious.”

Some camp alumni say they found a spirituality there that they weren’t able to find in church. Wendy Riggs is a 51-year old Tuscaloosa resident who went to Camp McDowell from age six to 19.

“My mom went to Camp McDowell before I went to Camp McDowell, so part of the reason I always went was tradition. But ever since I was little, we were friends with the Eppes, who used to run the camp. So we kind of went there before I was supposed to go, to be honest,” she says, laughing. “My grandmother used to tell me she was going to hide up in a tree and figure out why I like it so much because she always said, ‘There’s no horses there, there’s nothing there, it’s in the middle of nowhere.’ But I think the biggest thing was that it gave me real positive experiences, religiously, because I could not figure out how to connect with the Episcopal Church. What I’m looking for in church is what I found at camp.”

For Doug Carpenter, Camp McDowell is no doubt the closest thing on earth bearing any resemblance to the Heaven that he believes awaits him when he passes away. He admits he has to temper his enthusiasm for the camp from time to time. “I see stickers all over Birmingham that say I’d Rather Be at Camp McDowell,” he says. “I never put one on my car because I didn’t want people in my parish to think I’d [rather] be at Camp McDowell than in church.” &

Camp McDowell is located at 105 DeLong Road near Nauvoo, Alabama. For information on upcoming programs and lodging availabilities, go to or call 387-1806.

The Alabama Gang in a Fine Art Museum?

The Alabama Gang in a Fine Art Museum?

Donnie, Eddie, and Bobby Allison, c. 1960. (Photo: Collection of Bobby Allison Museum, Hueytown.) (click for larger version)



May 26, 2011

Currently on exhibit at the Huntsville Museum of Art is a collection of photographs, trophies, and other racing memorabilia celebrating the careers of three of the finest drivers in auto-racing history. After moving from Miami to Hueytown, Alabama, in 1960, Bobby Allison, his little brother Donnie Allison, and Red Farmer became a feared trio that ruled racing circuits throughout the South. They quickly earned the nickname The Alabama Gang. Among their stomping grounds is the recently renovated Huntsville Speedway, a tiny quarter-mile racetrack at the foot of Green Mountain that featured drivers who would go on to high-octane glory, including Richard Petty, who won the 1962 Rocket City 200 on his way to the NASCAR Grand National Championship that year.

The collection, on display through July 24, includes the number 312 Legends Car, a 3/4-scale replica of Bobby Allison’s 1937 Chevrolet coupe that he drove in the early 1960s. Allison’s induction this year into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina, prompted the exhibit, titled Fast, Loose, and Out of Control: Bobby Allison and The Alabama Gang. On Father’s Day, June 19, the three racing legends will sign autographs from 1 to 3 p.m. at the museum’s Great Hall.

(Photo: Huntsville Museum of Art.) (click for larger version)

Also on display through July 24 is Future Retro: Drawings from the Great Age of American Automobiles. The exhibit features more than 100 works showcasing American automotive design during the decades following World War II, a landmark period in car styling. Works range from preliminary sketches to fully rendered drawings, providing a rare glimpse into the creative process.

Tickets to the autograph signing are $20 adults ages 12+, $10 children 6–11. Huntsville Museum of Art, 300 Church Street SW, Huntsville;; (256) 535-4350, ext. 201. &

To read more about the Alabama Gang, visit:


Ghost Dogs Update

Ghost Dogs Update

The stray dogs who make Oak Hill Cemetery their home are finding more permanent dwellings.



May 12, 2011

It’s been nearly a year since an eight-year-old girl named Mina Oates sent Black & White a story that she had written about the homeless dogs that roam Oak Hill Cemetery downtown where her father, Stuart Oates, is executive director. Her story was included in a July 8, 2010, Black & White feature about what Mina had dubbed the “graveyard dogs.” Last October, self-proclaimed dog lover Ellen Chisholm organized an effort to find homes for the stray and abandoned creatures haunting the grounds of Oak Hill.

“It’s a group of approximately 10 or 15 people. We got together last fall and had a meeting to try and help these particular dogs,” Chisholm says. “We started talking with Stuart Oates to see how we could help. Our group just stays in contact by emails and stuff like that; we don’t have an actual name. All of us are volunteers who are animal lovers.”

Baby Doll serves as the Ghost Dogs’ unofficial mascot. (Photo: David Young.) (click for larger version)



Chisholm’s efforts caught the interest of Birmingham’s Animal Adoption and Rescue Center (BAARC), which has donated time and effort to care for the dogs until homes can be found, as well as having the animals spayed or neutered, usually at the Alabama Spay/Neuter Clinic.

“BAARC Rescue is helping us with housing and socializing some of the dogs, as is a local company called Creative Dog Training,” Chisholm explains. “And there are several vets in the area that have been helping us out, either with medications or with actual visits that the dogs have needed for one medical reason or another.”

The group has rescued five dogs from the cemetery and the surrounding area in the past six months, and found homes for two of them. Three others await adoption. “We’re doing everything we can to give them fresh lives, and try and help with the local stray population as well,” Chisholm says. “It took us a while to get different organizations who would be willing to help. Everybody is basically doing it on a pro bono basis. We’ve found some great organizations. But we’re limited, so we can’t take in too many dogs at one time.” According to Chisholm, their efforts appear to be paying off. “We really have not had a whole lot of dogs come through the cemetery recently,” she says. “Now it’s just an occasional dog that runs through there. So we’re doing pretty good so far, getting things under control. But there are always going to be strays.”

Seger was a homeless dog rescued from the Oak Hill Cemetery. (Photo: David Young.) (click for larger version)



The group catches the strays thanks to a dog trap contributed by local animal-advocacy organization Friends of Cats and Dogs Foundation. “We don’t set the trap up on bad weather days,” Chisholm explains. “During the wintertime . . . we had to be really careful so that we didn’t have a dog trapped in there during a super cold day.” Once a dog is caught, it’s usually taken to BAARC’s no-kill facility in Irondale.

“My greatest relief is that we haven’t really had to have animal control come in to deal with situations, so far,” says the cemetery’s director Stuart Oates. “The only time we would have animal control come in is if we get an aggressive animal that was imposing a danger on other animals or people in here.”

Oates says he has noticed fewer stray dogs at the cemetery in recent months. “I can’t really say what accounts for that because, generally, what I would observe is when you’ve dealt with one pack of animals that would come in and you got rid of them, another pack would move in within a short time. And we really haven’t seen that. Our only constant out here has been Baby Doll, who is also called Wrinkles or whatever . . . she’s got a million names. I think she should be the poster child of this whole thing.”

Lump was the name given to this water-loving Ghost Dog. (Photo: Melanie Tumlin.) (click for larger version)

Oates says he has been impressed with Chisholm’s dedication in spearheading the effort to find homes for the “ghost dogs.”

“She’s doing a magnificent job of communicating and getting other people organized. That’s what it takes. You’ve got something to inspire somebody to take a step in a certain direction. That’s the beautiful thing—you never know what the consequence of any of your actions is going to be. It can sometimes be a casual comment or a little essay by an eight-year-old girl that inspires people.” &

For information on adopting one of the Ghost Dogs, go to or contact

Flying First Class

Flying First Class

Piloting private planes, volunteers deliver precious live cargo in the form of pets.


May 12, 2011

Since February 2008, dogs and cats in desperate need of homes have received aid from Pilots N Paws, a nonprofit organization that is a network of pilots who donate their time and resources to flying abandoned pets—often doomed to euthanasia in animal shelters—to new homes across the United States. Based in South Carolina, the association has participated in the rescue of hundreds of animals through the efforts of volunteers, via the Pilots N Paws website, It is described as “a meeting place for those who rescue, shelter or foster animals, and pilots and plane owners willing to assist with the transportation of animals.”

Debi Boies, a retired nurse living in South Carolina, is the co-founder of Pilots N Paws. “I’ve been doing Doberman rescue for a number of years. And when we lost our 12-year-old Dobie to cancer, I adopted a rescue dog that was in Florida,” says Boies. “You have to kind of search for a rescue dog that might fit your home, and rescue [organizations] are very good about doing that. The problem always is that if they are a fair distance away from you, how do you get them? Either you have to drive there or meet someone (volunteer couriers involved in dog transport). I put a little e-mail out to several of our friends who travel in [RV-style] motor coaches and asked, ‘Hey! If any of you are coming through Florida and heading to the Carolinas, would you think about bringing my rescue dog on board with you?’ Jon Wehrenberg, my cofounder, said, ‘How about if I pick up your [rescue dog] by flying down there?’ So I said, ‘Wow! That is so extremely generous!’ And he said, ‘Oh Debi, pilots love to fly. Just let me do this for you.’”

After Boies shared with Wehrenberg that thousands of animals face euthanasia in regions of the country where spay and neuter laws and practices are often lax, the pair started Pilots N Paws.

Angel is one of the thousands of animals flown by pilots donating their time to transport them to adoptive homes around the country. (click for larger version)


“We started a [website] place where general aviation and volunteer pilots could connect with [animal] shelters and help each other out. We basically just created a meeting place for them [online],” Boies explains. Dog rescuers post requests for homeless pets in need of transportation on the online bulletin boards. Pilots available to fly a dog or cat contact the person seeking help. “Everything is in their hands, the pilot has control over the date, the time, the location, and the rescues do their best to abide by that because pilots are controlled by weather and distance,” Boies says. Those piloting volunteer flights cannot accept money for their efforts, as FAA regulations forbid noncommercial pilots from receiving compensation. However, because Pilots N Paws is a 501(c)(3) organization, pilots can write flight expenses off on their income taxes.

The average distance for a Pilots N Paws rescue flight is 300 nautical (straight-line) miles. It’s not unusual for airplanes to relay an animal to a destination where another volunteer then continues the creature’s journey to a new home. The organization has transported thousands of animals over the past three years. There are more than 1,500 pilots currently signed on for rescue flights, as well as more than 4,000 animal shelters and other volunteers registered with the program. The group also transports cats and kittens, and some flights have carried snakes and lizards to wildlife rescue habitats. One pilot flew a pot-bellied pig and a baby chick on the same plane (in separate crates). Navy SEALs rescued an Afghan eagle during the war there and brought it back to the United States, where Pilots N Paws volunteers flew it on to a rehab center, the Berkshire Bird Sanctuary in New York. There, the rescued bird chose an American eagle as its companion.

“We did a huge rescue out of New Orleans where we transported 171 dogs. There were 54 planes, and the pilots involved in that rescue flew out in three different directions,” explains Boies. “Many of these animals had been displaced from the oil spill—their owners could no longer afford them—and the shelters are still overrun. I was on a plane that had 31 dogs on the way to Washington, D.C., and they all fell asleep, [we] didn’t hear a peep out of them.”

Pilots N Paws depends on the generosity of sponsors for funding. The organization’s primary partners are Subaru and the pet products company Petmate, which designed the first pet carrier approved for air travel in 1964. Petmate supplies the crates for all Pilots N Paws transports. For the recent New Orleans rescue effort, Subaru arranged for ground transportation, and provided hotel rooms and meals for volunteers.

Pilots N Paws has assisted with dogs that U.S. soldiers have adopted and brought back from Afghanistan or Iraq. “When they get back to the States . . . then our pilots step up and offer to fly them on to the soldiers’ homes,” Boies says. The families of soldiers are the official adopters, as it is against the military’s policy for soldiers to take in dogs while serving. “There have been cases where some of these dogs have been honored because they have saved soldiers’ lives,” Boies says. “One story that was in the news was about five dogs within a base camp in Afghanistan that soldiers had befriended, and a suicide bomber was sneaking up to the camp and the dogs alerted the soldiers. I think there were only about five injuries, none life-threatening. One dog lost her life doing it and the rest of the dogs were brought back to this country. . . . The dogs are usually mixed breeds, but there are also Afghan hounds and a couple of other breeds that are specific to Afghanistan and Iraq.” Dogs are reportedly very mistreated in those countries, often stoned or burned to death, with feral dogs running amuck, according to Boies.

Another war dog story involves a canine named Molly who appeared one day at an American army base in Afghanistan. Since military personnel are not allowed to keep pets, Molly was given to a child in a nearby village. However, the dog preferred the soldiers’ company and walked back to the base, some 20 miles from the village. A Pilots N Paws rescue volunteer, Joanne Kubacki, arranged for foster homes and flights for Molly so that she could come to Kentucky, where she was adopted by the parents of a soldier who doted on Molly while she hung around the army base in Afghanistan.

Don Hull is a 62-year-old aerospace engineer who lives in Decatur, Alabama, where he and his wife have a pecan- selling business. After undergoing heart surgery, Hull eventually regained medical clearance from the FAA to fly again (all pilots, commercial and private, are required to pass medical exams, according to FAA regulations). A dog lover who has a terrier that loves to fly, Hull was so grateful for the opportunity to once again pilot a plane that he felt compelled to get involved in charitable flights.

“I noticed on the Internet that there were people from north Alabama—a couple of them that I knew—that were flying with Pilots N Paws,” Hull says. “My first flight was to Kentucky to pick up a Boston terrier that somebody decided they didn’t want any more and that the shelter there was going to put to sleep. That’s what I really like to do, to help dogs that are going to be put down, to give them another chance. It’s a very rewarding experience.” Hull began to get pilot friends involved in the rescue program. “It’s amazing, this network of people that gets together to make Pilots N Paws work.”

Hull always transports dogs in a crate, though he has seen pilots who allow dogs to either be tethered in the rear seat or to lie in a pilot’s lap. “The dogs put their heads in their laps and go to sleep while they are flying,” he says, laughing. “I could comfortably put five dogs in my plane. I fly dogs in crates in my plane’s backseat, and we attach a cord to the seatbelt to secure the crate. Every dog I’ve transported has been so good and calm, they just go to sleep back there.” &