October 18, 2012

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Elvis was spotted hanging around Opp, Ala., recently. So were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella, not to mention a pioneer family toiling away at daily chores.

A refreshing walk in the park, Frank Jackson State Park to be exact, will reveal all of the above characters, which are featured characters in the Scarecrows in the Park display constructed by the Frank Jackson State Park Trailmasters.

The Scarecrows in the Park display will be available at the park for the daily park entrance fee.

Ironically, it was that park entrance fee that prompted the birth of the Trailmasters organization.

Doris Wismer, Trailmasters’ vice president, said a couple in Opp liked to walk in the park for exercise, but they didn’t really like the entrance fee. The couple, members of the Master Gardeners club in town, started negotiations that resulted in waived entrance fees for members who would later become the Frank Jackson State Park Trailmasters.

“Although they got into the park for free, it’s definitely not free to be a member of Trailmasters,” Wismer said. “It takes a lot of your time, effort and sometimes money to be a member of Trailmasters.”

Ken Short, president of the Trailmasters, said the group, which formed in 2003, decided to build one trail through the park and see if it attracted any visitors.

“It ballooned from there,” Short said. “We started adding trails. We received a couple of grants that helped us, and then we had the county commission that helped us with in-kind services. As we did that, the membership grew from 18 to about 75.”

As the membership grew, so did the ideas for park projects. Short said the group wanted to give the 2,050-acre park on the shores of Lake Jackson a boost during the fall when traversing the trails would be the most pleasant.

“We kicked around several topics, like Autumn in the Park or Scarecrow Trail, but we understood there was another place in Alabama that already had a Scarecrow Trail,” Short said. “So the club decided to do Scarecrows in the Park.

“The first year we had a little over 100 scarecrows. This is our fifth year. Last year we had 456 scarecrows and this year we have more than 500.”

Wismer said many of the Trailmasters members meet at the Opp Senior Center, which she runs, to work on the scarecrows.

“They do a lot of painting, cutting and making frames,” Wismer said. “There are a lot of devoted people up there doing it, like Jane Short (Ken’s wife). She’s really into it. She likes the woodwork and painting.”

The club uses everything that might have the shape of a human head to make the scarecrows, including gourds, baskets, pie plates and plywood cutouts.

Short added: “You can take a Clorox jug or a plastic bucket and a broom and make a face for a scarecrow. There’s a lot of creativity on these trails.”

Wismer said the scarecrow teams love to go to extraordinary lengths with their displays.

“Driving through (on golf carts), you really don’t see it like you do if you walk it,” Wismer said. “You really get to see the details if you walk, and you can see the ideas behind each one. And most of them have a theme.

“We had one scene that was in the middle of the lake of somebody being baptized. I wouldn’t get out in the lake to do that. There are alligators out there.”

Short said the Trailmasters, who also volunteer for Opp Fest and the Rattlesnake Rodeo, get special pleasure from guiding two different groups through the display – the very young and very old. Short also said the club is also careful to ensure that none of the scarecrows are too scary.

“The thing that really makes this worthwhile is to take the senior citizens through the trails,” Short said. “The other thing is to see these little kids come through. They get excited. We have children’s themes like Cat in the Hat, Cinderella, Snow White and Spiderman. They’ll recognize them. We do copy some of the Dr. Seuss sayings on the signs, and they recognize that immediately.”

Of course, some of the youngsters have no idea who some of the characters depict.

“Now they don’t recognize Elvis,” Short said with a laugh. “That’s more for our senior citizens. And we have the record there, and they don’t know what that is. We have to explain what a record is. They have no idea.”

Short and Wismer said the popularity of the scarecrow display has been beyond all expectations.

“We would not have dreamed it would be like this,” said Short, a former principal at several middle and elementary schools in the area. “We’ve got counties calling us that want to put scarecrows in. And we’ve also got groups calling to schedule tours. So the response has just been … I’ve just never seen anything like it. The cities, the churches, the schools, even some a good distance from Opp, that are taking part.”

If not for the Trailmasters, Frank Jackson State Park might have been one of those small state parks that just faded into history as funding and usage continued to slip. But the Trailmasters group has revitalized the park, even turning a big burn pile into a new use area with a gazebo suitable for weddings and other special occasions.

“That was a dump pile, and Trailmasters took it and built a gazebo for the community,” said Wismer, a former editor at the Opp News. “It’s taken the Trailmasters to keep this park going. There was no way that the state would have had the money to keep the park open and do this work. I think the Trailmasters are to be commended for donating their time, energy and money out here. It started out with somebody trying to save a dollar walking, and now it’s cost them a lot of dollars in the things that they do. The whole community gets together for it.

“But we’ve got to get some young people involved. We’re getting a little long in the tooth.”

Wismer was among a Trailmasters contingent who proposed a land purchase through Forever Wild that would give the park a buffer to future development. Forever Wild voted to purchase the additional 28 acres that would be incorporated into the park.

“This would keep any development from encroaching on the park,” Wismer said. “Once it’s in Forever Wild, it will be forever wild.”

Scarecrows in the Park will continue to provide entertainment for visitors for the rest of October and the entire month of November. The park day use area is open from 7 a.m. until sundown. Day use rates are $2 for adults and $1 for children 11 and under and seniors 62 and older. There are also 32 RV campsites available. Visit www.alapark.com for more information.

“The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources applauds the Trailmasters at Frank Jackson State Park for their determined effort to enhance the park at every opportunity,” said Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr. “We can accomplish so much more when we partner with local civic organizations and user groups. The Scarecrows in the Park is a perfect example of how concerned citizens can make our beautiful state parks even better places to visit.”

PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) An Elvis sighting was confirmed in Frank Jackson StatePark at Opp, Ala., and he"ll be hanging around through November. He's got plenty of company with more than 500 scarecrows scattered throughout the park trails, including a pioneer family doing chores. A young couple from Opp brings their son to the park to check out the new gazebo that was built on what was once a dump pile by the Frank Jackson State Park Trailmasters.