It’s not every day that someone gets to dig into Birmingham’s history — literally. But in May, that's exactly what volunteers from Protective Life had the opportunity to do. With hands in the soil, they helped build Red Mountain Park’s newest resource — a 12-table picnic area that makes the park more accessible to all.
Now that’s a great day of work.
“Before Red Mountain had this picnic area, we didn’t have a place for large groups to sit together and have a meal or enjoy each other,” says Katie Bradford, Red Mountain Park Director of Communications and Marketing. “This is a game changer for us because we can now welcome many more groups, whether it’s a family reunion, people who want to enjoy a meal after doing our adventure course, or colleagues who want to work in nature. It makes Red Mountain more inclusive and accessible to all people, which is one of our goals.”
The picnic area sits on the foundation of what was once a “car shop” — the mechanical repair shop for the coal operations that helped grow the Magic City so quickly.
"The Protective Life Picnic Area has one, huge open layout,” says Angela Cleary, Volunteer Coordinator for Red Mountain Park. “There aren't any barriers, so if 100 or more people want to come show their support for the park they will be able to all eat and collaborate together.”
Over the course of two weeks, groups of Protective Life employees hiked through the park to the cleanup site, dedicating time and resources to building the picnic area. The project took a total of 209 volunteers contributing 268.5 hours to bring it to completion. Some of their activities included removing tree debris and leveling ground, planting 14 native trees, assembling picnic tables, and collecting artifacts for the Red Mountain Park Staff Archaeologist to clean and classify.
In the process, the volunteers uncovered part of the park’s history that had never been seen by the public, according to Leigh Collins, Director of Philanthropy at Red Mountain Park. “The Red Mountain Park staff and Protective Life employees together uncovered (for the first time in about 60 years) the track that led into the car repair shop,” she says.
Protective Life gives back to the community in many ways each year through their foundation, but physically building a facility was something new for the employees, says Vice President of Community Relations for Protective Life, Kate Cotton.. This project was among the most labor-intensive projects in the company’s history. “It took hard work and man power, but we were committed to contributing to a project that was environmentally friendly and addressed a critical need for the park,” Cotton says.
In the early 1900s, Red Mountain was responsible for Birmingham’s prosperity and prominence due to its abundance of iron ore. Birmingham was said to be the only place in the world where all of the raw ingredients for iron could be found in such close proximity, earning it the title of “The Iron City”. People not only worked, but lived on the site of the current park. The creation of amenities like the Protective Life Picnic Area allow the park to accommodate more visitors who are eager to experience nature, get active, and learn about the deep history of the foundation of this city.
“When visitors come to this picnic area they aren’t just sitting in a park. They are honoring the people who lived and worked here,” says Cheryl Dawley, Red Mountain archaeologist. “Now they can get a little bit closer to that story.”
As more people become interested in Birmingham’s re-development, they are often intrigued by its roots, says Red Mountain staff member Jeff Newman. “We’re seeing young people taking an interest in how our city came to be, and people of all generations recalling their family’s ties to this place,” he says. “Now, thanks to Protective Life Foundation, we can welcome even more of them.”
To learn more about Red Mountain Park, visit their website. Reservations for group events at the Protective Life Picnic Area will soon be made available.