At the mid-afternoon grand opening ceremony on Sunday, Pete Conroy, the Center director, announced, “The Little River Canyon Center is now open to the public.” At that point, a standing-room-only audience in the exhibit hall erupted into loud and long applause.
Located along Alabama Highway 35, just north of Little River Falls, the Little River Canyon Center has been a dream of environmentalists and educators for almost two decades.
The Canyon Center will be the headquarters for the Little River Canyon Field School sponsored by Jacksonville State University. The building will also house the offices of the National Park Service’s Little River Canyon National Preserve.
During Sunday’s grand opening, more than 3,000 visitors signed the guest registry. (Dekalb County sheriff’s department officers who directed traffic for the Sunday festivities estimated 3500 attendees). Those visitors toured the building and observed the crafts of numerous northeast Alabama professional artisans. Most of the exhibitors demonstrated the creation of their products.
Popular with visitors were the displays of art glass from Orbix Glass, stained glass, iron art, Windsor chair making, artistic metal lampshades and chandeliers, pottery, and jewelry.
At the grand opening ceremony, a video virtual tour was shown to let participants know how the exhibit hall will look when all exhibits are installed. The hall will offer hands-on-activities (including rock climbing), models of the canyon, and even an 18-foot-tall replica of a green pitcher plant-which is native to the Canyon. In the near future, the hall will also feature displays of antiques and other artifacts-many hundreds of years old-from the Southeast. That collection was assembled by the late Catherine and Robert Mann of Cedar Bluff. The collection was donated to the Canyon Center museum by the Manns’ daughter Warwick Mann Woodall, who now lives in Birmingham.
Conroy served as master of ceremonies and also shared numerous humorous stories of circumstances experienced during the planning and construction f the building. One of Conroy’s main stories revolved round his first trip to Washington to meet the late Congressman Tom Bevill.
Conroy said “I had just purchased a new suit-my one and only shortly after completing graduate work-and a new brief case to make me look business-like.
En route to the Birmingham airport, I had a flat tire on my older model Volkswagen Beetle. I was unable to get to the spare tire-so with only minutes before I was to board Alabama Power Company’s corporate plane, I decided to hitchhike-thinking my neat appearance would mean a quick offer of a ride. That didn’t happen.
Instead, the only offer I had was with a family of chicken farmers whose vehicle smelled like their product. We made it to the airport just barely in time for me to get onto the plane.”
He then stated that he was certain his fellow passengers had real questions about his rather unique cologne. “But I did meet with Congressman Bevill-who became one of greatest supporters for the Canyon Preserve and the Canyon Center.”
Bevill’s son Don attended the Sunday ceremony and shared memories of his father and then presented a portrait of his father to the Center. The portrait will be hung in the Field School section of the Center.
Other speakers inlcuded Dr. William Meehan, president of Jacksonville State University; Mayor Bill Jordan of Fort Payne; Willard Bowers, Alabama Power Company vice-president; John Bundy, park superintendent; and Jay Jenkins, the architect for the Canyon Center. Conroy reminded the audience of the early support and promotion of the Center by the late Bill Bowen, a science professor at JSU.
Bowen died only weeks before the autumn preview of the Canyon Center. A scarlet oak tree has been planted in Bowen’s memory. The tree is just to the south of the front entrance of the Center.