Agritourism — It’s a Real Thing

Orchards such as this one in Adams, Tenn., are growing visitors as well as fruit. Photo (c) Tom Adkinson

ADAMS, Tenn. – Simply taking a city kid to a farm isn’t likely to inspire him or her to choose agriculture for a livelihood, but it certainly can provide some entertainment and show that food originates somewhere other than the grocery store.

Apples go up a conveyor before dropping into a press. Photo (c) Tom Adkinson

Farmers across America have found new revenue streams by welcoming visitors, and in the process, they inspired a new word – agritourism.

Agritourism runs the gamut. It can be everything from offering a few acres of strawberry fields for a you-pick-‘em opportunity to operating a bed-and-breakfast, perhaps with a chance to do some real farm work, too.

Other agritourism activities include wandering in cornfield and hayfield mazes (just be sure to go home with all the kids you bring, unlike a certain family in Utah), picking a future jack-o-lantern at a pumpkin patch, enjoying a hayride, fishing in a farm pond or learning how cheese or apple cider are made.

Finding an agritourism activity isn’t difficult. States such as mine, Tennessee, have vibrant promotional campaigns. Tennessee’s online presence is PickTNproducts.org, which goes beyond

Color, motion — and tractors in the fields — entertain youngsters. Photo (c) Tom Adkinson

argitourism information to include recipes, lists of Tennessee-grown items and even county-by-county databases of farmers markets and where to buy compost for home gardens.

Tom and Sarah Head, whose Shade Tree Farm and Orchard is northwest of Nashville at Adams, offers blackberries and blueberries for early-summer visitors and apples from part of their apple orchard for autumn visitors. In autumn, you get the bonus of watching the multi-step process of producing apple cider. It’s fun to buy a gallon to take home, but it’s more fun to enjoy an apple cider slushee before you head back to the city.

The Heads also have a small farm store with a variety of goods, country lunches on some weekends, wagon rides through the orchards and occasional special events, such as a night of scary stories just before Halloween.

Tom Head transfers another pail of fresh cider from the press. Photo (c) Tom Adkinson

Tennessee’s agritourism website has the recipe for this apple stack cake.

If you leave Shade Tree Farm and Orchard with a bag of apples to go along with your good memories, you then can revisit PickTNproducts.org to find recipes for an apple stack cake or a traditional apple pie.

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I Never Wanted To Visit the 9/11 Memorial

(Editor’s note: Today is Sept. 11, 2017. As Americans deal with the agonies of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Hurricane Irma in Florida and wildfires across the West, this also is a time to remember where we were 16 years ago.)

I was in New York City last week for the first time since the terror attack of Sept. 11, 2001, and I had said aloud that I did not ever want to visit the World Trade Center site. Why  resurrect the trauma of that day, a trauma that remains close enough to the surface anyway?

Despite that declaration, I went. I had filled my spare hours on a business trip with other diversions – a Broadway comedy, a walk on the High Line, oysters at Grand Central – but I was drawn to the memorial.

Sept. 11, 2001, was a most peculiar day for me back home in Nashville. The day before had ended with my termination after 22 years of a corporate job in the hospitality and entertainment industry. I had volunteered to clear up unfinished projects over the next couple of weeks, and my employer agreed. As I left, I said not to expect me early the next morning.

I awoke to the first news reports, knowing that my oldest child lived in New York and was to fly to St. Louis that day. I didn’t know his schedule or airport.

As the horror unfolded, I headed to the office for what I knew would be a challenging day. My job was media relations, and I worked for one of the city’s biggest employers and one of the nation’s biggest hotels. What was happening in New York would affect us quickly.

At work, everyone’s shock grew as America’s air transportation system shut down and the scale of what we learned was an attack became clear. We had thousands of guests. More were expected.

I technically wasn’t on the payroll, but two decades of experience jumped into high gear. We worked with the existing and incoming meeting groups. We communicated with our employees. We began to get questions from the media.

“What will this mean to future business?” was the basic inquiry.

My hotel general manager recoiled at the question, and I admired his devotion to the core tenet of his profession – the wellbeing of guests.

“Our concern right now is caring for the people under our roof. They are confused and hurting. We’ll worry about the future later,” he said.

The day proved to be a paradox. It simultaneously was the best professional day of my life amid one of our nation’s most tragic. Somewhere in the midst of work, I learned that my son’s flight was at midday and that he had never left New York.

The myriad memories of that day pushed to the front of my mind as I rode the No. 4 subway to the Fulton Street station. I emerged into a weather day almost identical to 16 years ago. The air was cool, and jet airplanes coursed through a brilliantly blue sky. However, it was eerily – yet appropriately – quiet for a space in the middle of a huge city.

I walked the two blocks to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum and completed my trip back in time.

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An Art-Filled Stroll in Chattanooga

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – The Bluff View Art District is a quiet retreat high over the Tennessee River that features a B&B operation in three houses, an art gallery, a chocolate kitchen, a bocce court, a nice restaurant, a fancy restaurant, a coffee roaster and more.

In the “more” category is a collection of outdoor sculptures that makes the Bluff View Art District so unlike many other enclaves of escapist businesses, Some of the sculptures are located around the various businesses, but most are in the River Gallery Sculpture Garden.

Some are thought provoking, such as one called “Prodigal Son.” Some are whimsical, such as a park bench in the silhouetted form of a couple or one called “My Black Belt,” which has nothing to do with martial arts. Some have classical allusions, such as “Icarus,” which is ready to soar off the bluff.

The garden has a permanent collection, and it hosts an annual changing exhibition. It is listed in the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Gardens and is among 195 worldwide on a list from the International Sculpture Center. Access is free.

(All accompanying photos are © Tom Adkinson.)

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Keeping the Trains on Time at Tweetsie Railroad

 

Locomotive No. 12 is the only surviving engine from the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad, which operated from 1882-1950. (Photo © Tom Adkinson)

BLOWING ROCK, N.C. – Scott McLeod has had a dozen or more jobs at Tweetsie Railroad, including cowboy actor, pyrotechnician and haunted house designer, but he’s hanging on to the one he has now.

He supervises the train shop that keeps Tweetsie’s two locomotives rolling through the hills and hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Blowing Rock and Boone, N.C.

This is a big year for McLeod because it’s the both 60th anniversary year of the western-themed park and the 100th birthday of the park’s biggest attraction, locomotive No. 12. No. 12 the only surviving locomotive from the real-life East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad that stopped chugging through the mountains in 1950.

Scott McLeod and his team keep the trains running at Tweetsie Railroad. (Photo © Tom Adkinson)

Describing No. 12 as the park’s biggest attraction is literal. It may be a narrow-gauge locomotive, but it’s still hefty and powerful. It rolled out of the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia in 1917 measuring 54 feet long and weighing 60 tons.

No. 12 and the younger No. 190, also built at Baldwin in 1943, carry passengers in open-air coaches on a three-mile loop multiple times a day. You can ride as many times as you like, watching the scenery go by and laughing along with a very campy show featuring cowboys, train robbers, Indians and frontier soldiers.

How campy is campy? It’s fun enough for the kids on the train to shout out warnings to the good guys when the train robbers are sneaking up on them and tongue-in-cheek enough for the adults to snicker good naturedly, such as when the train robbers introduce themselves as Texas Pete, Tabasco, Picante and Cayenne – the Hot Sauce Gang.

Cowboys in North Carolina? Why, sure, since they are characters in the comedic train robbery skit at Tweetsie Railroad. (Photo © Tom Adkinson)

In addition to train rides, the 200-acre park offers 14 very child-friendly rides and six shows. One of the shows features high-kicking mountain clogging and pays tribute to nearby Tennessee by featuring “Rocky Top” as the closing dance number.

There are a classic carousel and an open-air chairlift, both ideal of family photos of children, parents and grandparents. At the highest point in the park is a place for the children to feed goats, deer and other animals.

McLeod says he never had to perform in the clogging show or herd goats, but he’s dedicated enough that he’d try if called upon. Instead, he’d rather work on No. 12 or No. 190 or offer help to owners of steam locomotives across the U.S.

Tweetsie Railroad’s train shop is respected nationally for providing or repairing what McLeod calls “pieces and parts” to trains at Disney World, Cedar Point, Busch Gardens, Carowinds, Knott’s Berry Farm, Dorney Park, Six Flags St. Louis and many other places spread across the country.

“They send wheel assemblies, air compressors, brake components, drive wheels, road and more to us to work on,” McLeod said, adding that the Tweetsie shop has done full restoration jobs on locomotives, although those are less common.

When the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad, which once connected Johnson City, Tenn., with Boone, N.C., went out of business in 1950, locomotive No. 12 was bought by railroad enthusiasts in Harrisonburg, Va. Their idea for a tourist attractions got derailed, and Blowing Rock native Grover Robbins Jr. brought it back home in 1956 and opened the Tweetsie Railroad attraction in 1957. That grew into North Carolina’s first theme park.

Locomotive No. 12 pulls open-air coaches on a three-mile loop through the wooded hills of Tweetsie Railroad. (Photo © Tom Adkinson)

“Every day I’ve been around No. 12, I’ve wished it could talk and tell me stories about the people who have been on it over the past century. With proper care, No. 12 will run indefinitely,” McLeod said.

Tweetsie Railroad is open weekends in spring and autumn and daily in summer, and it will have its first Tweetsie Christmas season this year on Friday and Saturday evenings from Nov. 24-Dec. 30. Tweetsie Railroad is a member of Southern Highlands Attractions, a collection of 20 classic tourist attractions, including See Rock City, Luray Caverns and the Barter Theatre.

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Six Attractions Along the QLine in Detroit

Detroit’s QLine is is getting visitors and locals moving on Woodward Avenue. (Photo by Bill Bowen)

DETROIT, Mich. – The most popular wheels in Detroit today aren’t made of rubber and aren’t attached to shiny automobiles rolling off assembly lines at Motor City plants. They are the steel wheels underneath the carriages of the QLine, the city’s new foray into mass transit.

In one sense, the QLine is simple. It’s only on one street, and it’s only 3.3 miles long, but the impact it is having for visitors and locals alike is substantial. Along its route are sport facilities, theaters, restaurants, a medical center, a major university, retail location (including one that’s making Detroit shine) and restaurants.

What’s impressive – besides quick trips in sleek-looking cars – is that the QLine is a major transportation project led and funded by private businesses and philanthropies in partnership with local, state and federal governments.

It opened in May 2017, and fares are modest ($1.50 for three hours of hopping on and off, or $3 for a 24-hour pass).

The route is up and down Woodward Avenue, a main thoroughfare through the middle of the city. Just past one end are the Detroit Riverwalk and its views to Windsor, Ontario, and at the other end is West Grand Boulevard.

Here are six attractions along the way.

This Tiger roars at Comercia Park along Detroit’s QLine. (Photo by Tom Adkinson)

Sports Galore – Regardless of the corporate sponsor, Comercia Bank, it’s difficult not to think of Comercia Park as Tiger Stadium, home of baseball’s Detroit Tigers. It’s smack-dab downtown, and immediately behind it is Ford Field, home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions. The almost-finished Little Caesars Arena will be the home of the NHL Detroit Red Wings and the NBA Detroit Pistons. Can you say sports mania?

Fox Theatre – This 5,000-seat palace was among the five spectacular Fox Theatres built in the 1920s (others in Atlanta, Brooklyn, St. Louis and San Francisco). It was fully and grandly restored in 1988 and is a National Historic Landmark. On the fall calendar are Paramore, Sturgill Simpson, a touring production of “Kinky Boots” and a holiday run of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical.”

Save your nickels and dimes for a Detroit-made Shinola watch. (Photo by Tom Adkinson)

Shinola – Surely you know this is a brand of American-made luxury goods, not a shoe polish. There’s a great story at the Shinola store just a block off Woodward Avenue, even if you’re not in the market for a handmade watch, a sleek bicycle or plush leather goods. It’s simply nice to see top-quality goods from a company that’s been on a mission since 2011.

That’s no ordinary corn dog at Grey Ghost. It’s really octopus. (Photo by Tom Adkinson)

Grey Ghost – Great food in a reviving location is the attraction at Grey Ghost, an instantly successful restaurant that opened in 2016 between the Brush Park and Midtown neighborhoods. The beer and whiskey selections are hefty, and the chefs sometimes are quite sly – that corndog on the appetizer menu doesn’t have a frankfurter in the middle; it’s really octopus.

Diego Rivera’s murals are among Detroit’s true treasures. (Photo by Tom Adkinson)

Detroit Institute of Art – Go to the Detroit Institute of Arts to see its amazing Diego Rivera murals that tell the stories of Detroit’s industrial past and stay to roam through gallery after gallery of 65,000 works of art from the earliest civilizations to the present day. It is an encyclopedic collection that never could be consumed in one visit.

Michigan Science Center – The QLine can take you to a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) experience, too, at the Michigan Science Center. Geek out at its planetarium, IMAX theater, 250 hands-on exhibits and even live stage shows. Science is far from boring here.

Visitor information about all aspects of Detroit is at VisitDetroit.com.

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Flowers from Guatemala for Mom

IN THE MOUNTAINS OF CENTRAL AMERICA — A visit last month to Guatemala produced a virtual bouquet for Mother’s Day. The only thing better would be having some of these beauties in my own yard, but I’d have to be in a completely different zone on the seed packages for the most part. (All photos by Tom Adkinson)

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The Sound of Music, Kansas-Style

IN THE FLINT HILLS OF KANSAS – Outside the isolation chamber that is my automobile, I’m not one for sing-alongs – but I changed my tune as a full orchestra pushed the melody of “Home on the Range” across the Kansas prairie and 7,000 people began to sing.

The giant Kansas sky crowns the site of the Symphony in the Flint Hills (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

The occasion was the Symphony in the Flint Hills, an annual concert/picnic/party that draws an appreciative crowd into wide-open spaces for stirring music, a celebrity guest performer, a panoramic sunset and that “Home on the Range” sing-along.

It is no small accomplishment to set up a stage, import the Kansas City Symphony, erect pavilions, arrange catering and address all of the other needs of a crowd of thousands, but it happens every summer for a good cause.

That cause is heightening the public’s appreciation and knowledge of the Flint Hills tallgrass prairie, a region of the state that seems big but is only a tiny portion of the prairie that once covered the middle of North America. Of the 170 million acres of prairie that existed before settlement, only about 4 percent remain.

Event organizers think good thoughts all year for a dramatic sunset on the night of the symphony. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

A not-so-simple birthday party was the origin of the prairie concert.  In 1994, a rancher named Jane Koger celebrated her birthday by inviting the public to her Homestead Ranch for what she called the “Symphony on the Prairie.” More than 3,000 people came, demonstrating how a magical union between symphonic music and the prairie landscape can be created.

Ten years later, a grassroots organization (pun intended) formed to increase awareness of the prairie, and it presented the first Symphony in the Flint Hills in 2006. People now come from around the world to experience the magic that began with that long-ago birthday party.

The 2017 Symphony in the Flint Hills is June 10 on the Deer Horn Ranch between Abilene and Manhattan and a few miles south of Junction City. It’s a long way from the Kansas City Symphony’s fancy home, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri. The guest artist is Michael Martin Murphey (singer of “Wildfire,” “Carolina in the Pines” and “What’s Forever For” and a real-life rancher).

Pre-concert entertainment includes jostling rides on covered wagons. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

A special aspect of the 2017 concert is a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Chisholm Trail, the cattle-drive route from Texas to Kansas in the decades after the Civil War. The lush grasslands of the Flint Hills were the cattle’s destination for some fattening up before becoming protein for a hungry nation.

Of course, there are ways to learn about the Flint Hills and the tallgrass prairie beyond a one-day concert.

·      *   Start at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Cottonwood Falls, a speck of a town with a beautiful courthouse, a surprisingly nice hotel and restaurant (the Grand Central Hotel, built in 1884), art galleries and the offices of the Symphony in the Flint Hills. The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, which encompasses 11,000 acres of rolling hills where buffalo really did roam, is a unit of the National Park Service.

·     *     Visit the Symphony in the Flint Hills Gallery in Cottonwood Falls for art exhibits, special programs and community events.

·    *     To do more than observe, spend a few days at the Flying W Ranch near Cedar Point, where you can ride horses, drive cattle, hike, marvel at dramatic sunsets and gaze at the stars. Josh, Gwen and Josie Hoy will make sure you understand the importance of the prairie, and they will feed you well, too.

·      *    If your time is short, invest it in the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan. Through permanent and temporary exhibits, videos and demonstrations, the center explains the geology, ecology and cultural history of the 22-county Flint Hills region.

My idea of the ultimate experience is a stay at the Flying W, a personal exploration of the region using Cottonwood Falls as home base and the rousing finale at the Symphony in the Flint Hills.

I learned that “Home on the Range” is the state song of Kansas, but if I get back, I’m going to request an extra sing-along of “Don’t Fence Me In,” another fitting song for the location:

                       “Oh, give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above/

                       Don’t fence me in./

                       Let me ride through that wide open country that I love/

                      Don’t fence me in.”

It’s a full concert experience at the Symphony in the Flint Hills every summer. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

 

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Expert advice: See a bear, make some noise

This bear wandered off before I had a chance to say, “Boo!” I promise. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK — Bill Stiver, a wildlife biologist at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, wants me to do something that goes against every outdoor-loving fiber of my body. If I’m lucky enough to see a black bear, the symbol of America’s most visited national park, he’d appreciate it if I would make a ruckus, startle the bear and make it run away into the woods.

“Can’t I take a picture first?” I implored.

He smiled, didn’t answer directly and repeated what he said earlier about making a big noise.

Stiver, of course, was being theatrical – I think – but his point was clear. He doesn’t want bears to associate humans with anything good, even benign neglect. He wants bears to go the other way when they see a human.

The problem isn’t the bears. It’s the humans who aren’t smart enough, or respectful enough, to keep their distance from bears and understand that they are guests in the bears’ home, not that the bears are there for their amusement, photographic or otherwise.

Stiver explained that the absolute worst thing a human can do is try to feed bears or to leave human food or trash where bears can get to it. That’s especially important in campgrounds and at backcountry campsites in the park and at the vacation cabins that are near the park’s boundary.

“The saying is true that ‘a fed bear is a dead bear’,” Stiver said, explaining that bears that associate humans with food are a danger and that he has successfully lured a nuisance bear into a trap using a single M&M as the bait. Stiver and other wildlife professionals will trap and relocate nuisance bears, but if they continue to return to where they interact with humans, euthanizing them can be the result.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to about 1,500 bears spread throughout its 522,000 acres in Tennessee and North Carolina. Even under normal circumstances, your odds of seeing one are slim, and you won’t have much opportunity to be a noisy visitor or to take a photo anyway.

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Whiskey, Wine and Wildlife: Already Preparing for 2018

Jekyll Island’s Whiskey, Wine and Wildlife festival offers a winter break. (W3 photo)

JEKYLL ISLAND, Georgia – The purpose of the Whiskey, Wine and Wildlife festival is to provide a respite from winter, but the just-completed W3 2017 (February 12) proved instead to be a celebration of spring. Temperatures climbed into the mid-70s, sweaters gave way to golf shirts and beachcombers enjoyed unexpected opportunities for sandy strolls.

If the daytime highs had been where they usually are – the low 60s – W3 still would have been a hit, and that’s reason enough to start planning a trip to Georgia next February.

Even normal weather would be fine for a Saturday afternoon of food tastings, whiskey sampling and some up-close and personal encounters with sea turtles, snakes and alligators. (All of the critters had human handlers.)

All animals had human handlers and many admirers. (W3 photo)

This year, visitors got to judge wings prepared by some of the South’s top barbecue masters and to cast votes in a cocktail contest in which bartenders started with Coopers’ Craft bourbon and improvised from there.

Distillers from across the Southeast served samples. ({Photo: Tom Adkinson)

In addition, there were cooking demonstrations (“Not Your Mama’s Pork and Greens” drew a big crowd), a wine tasting presentation from two sommeliers and three sessions about Jekyll Island’s wildlife.

Some of the distilled spirits were central ingredients in edibles. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

As much fun as the guests had, it was the snakes, sea turtles and alligators that actually benefitted from the festivities, along with the historic preservation efforts on the island. That’s because the weekend raised funds for the Jekyll Island Foundation, which works on conservation, education and historic preservation projects across the island.

A quick history: Jekyll Island is a barrier island between Savannah and Jacksonville, Florida, that was known to Native Americans, named by colonizer General James Oglethorpe and eventually used in the late 1800s as an exclusive hunting club by families with names such as Rockefeller, Morgan and Pulitzer. In 1947, it became a Georgia state park, which made it accessible to everyone not named Rockefeller, Morgan and Pulitzer.

Jekyll Island’s beaches were an attraction beyond the food and drink. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

The island has an intriguing mix of accommodations, everything from camping to mid-range hotels to the beachfront Westin Jekyll Island to the historic Jekyll Island Club. It’s the Westin where W3’s Saturday festivities, along with classes, an opening wine dinner and a blowout Sunday brunch, occur.

Dates for Whiskey, Wine and Wildlife in 2018 are February 8-11. Consider getting hungry, thirsty and curious about then.

Desserts fancier than anyone makes at home were a highlight. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

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Winter Wonderland

Winter storm Helena covered the state of Virginia in a blanket of white on January 7, 2017, and the town of Christiansburg was no exception.

That morning, I hiked the 3/4 of a mile from my new home to the depot in historic Cambria to watch some trains.

This is what I saw.

Cambria Station, covered in snow from Winter Storm Helena.

The morning was still, as most folks had heeded the authorities’ advice to stay home. This allowed me to get some pictures I normally couldn’t capture.

After getting a few artistic shots of the depot, I set up to capture a couple of approaching trains. I didn’t have to wait too long.

The signals at Pelton give a green on main two.

On the western end of the straight in Cambria, at CP (control point) Pelton, a clear signal shone bright, indicating a train was close by.

A few minutes later, westbound Norfolk Southern intermodal train 233 arrived.

NS 233 starts to make its way past the defect detector after cresting the grade of Christiansburg Mountain.

NS 233 stirs the freshly-fallen powder.

NS 233 passes the Christiansburg Depot, partly caked in snow.

BNSF ES44C4 8388 has its nose fully covered in snow as it lends a hand to leading NS 233.

“NS 233, clear, main two, Pelton.”

The containers of 233 make up a chilly wall through Christiansburg.

Well cars and containers of 233 cross Cambria St.

Not long after 233 cleared, another clear signal showed itself.

Snowflakes silently fall as the signals at Pelton await another train.

Not long after, empty coal train 821 hove into sight.

NS 821, with Union Pacific power leading makes its way through the heavy snowfall.

UP GEvo 7695 and an NS cousin lead the coal empties back toward West Virginia.

“821, clear, main two west, Pelton.”

NS 821 takes the bend as it enters CP Pelton.

The coal empties of 821 roll past the former N&W depot in Christiansburg.

The tail of 821 finishes crossing Cambria St.

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