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TANNAHILL STATE PARK OFFERS INSIGHT INTO ALABAMA HISTORY

If you ever find yourself with a spare afternoon in central Alabama, head to Tannahill Historical State Park. This beautiful park caters to campers but offers the one-day visitor plenty of activities, too.

Short, well-marked trails snake around the park and its more than 50 historical sites. The longest trail, about five miles, follows the 1815 stagecoach road, while others lead to an old ironworks furnace, slave quarters ruins or an 1867 gristmill.And if you're not interested in a hike, explore the buildings, most dating to Civil War times, scattered throughout the park. Some structures house craftsmen and artists, including quilters, woodworkers and candlemakers, whose presence makes the park a living history museum.

The park also is the site of the Alabama Iron and Steel Museum, a sprawling but straightforward complex. The free museum traces the industrialization of the South and recounts the history of Tannahill Ironworks (1830-1865), which was a major supplier of Confederate iron. The business was destroyed by Union forces on March 31, 1865.

What is left of the massive old ironworks sits alongside picturesque Mill Creek, a short tree-shaded walk from the main parking lot. If you're lucky enough to visit during the spring, you'll be rewarded with the site of thousands of dogwood blooms. The cream-colored blossoms stand out like a bride in a wedding portrait.

Children will be interested in the miniature railroad, which takes passengers on a shady, clackity tour of the park. The train runs near the pioneer farm, where visitors can explore several barns full of rustic farm equipment.

Don't miss the deer farm, where children can offer a nibble to some of Bambi's not-so-shy cousins.

You won't leave Tannahill Historical State Park hungry. The Furnace Master's Restaurant offers Southern home cooking in heaping portions.

A meat and three vegetables is $4.95 for specials like chicken livers over rice and gravy, meat loaf and country fried steak. Vegetables are country fare, including cucumber salad, turnip greens and fried corn.

Lake catfish ($6.95) and a frog legs platter ($9.95) are served with fries and a rather bland coleslaw. It seems everyone orders fruit cobbler for $1.50.

Restaurant hours are 11 a.m.-9 p.m. except Monday, when it is closed. Breakfast is served from 7 to 11 a.m. on weekends. The restaurant accepts no credit cards.

The restaurant is trimmed with a wide, covered porch. The benches lining both sides of the porch allude to the crowds that surely test the park on weekends.

Tannahill State Historical Park is about 20 miles south of Birmingham on I-20. The entrance fee to the park is $2. For information or camping details, call 1-205-477-5711.