By Maggie Edwards
Tucked away under longleaf pines and cypress swamps stands a hidden gem in Alabama’s Wiregrass region.
“The goal was to build a place where Auburn University (AU) students, professionals and private landowners could learn about forestry and natural resources,” said Joel Martin, the Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center (SDFEC) director. “Solon Dixon wanted to give people the opportunity to sit in a classroom and be in the woods at the same time.”
SDFEC, located outside of Andalusia, was gifted to AU by Solon and Martha Dixon in 1974. The family donated the homeplace; 5,350 acres; and $500,000 to build the first facilities.
“The Dixon family land dates back to the 1850s,” Martin said. “Solon and his brother, Charles, gathered land and built a timber industry over time, owning sawmills and pulp mills.”
That land now houses a summer camp for 60-80 college students a year. Students often call the SDFEC “Solon Dixon,” paying homage to the man responsible for their classroom in the forest.
“Solon was often quoted saying he wanted a place where students could get their hands dirty,” Martin said.
The center welcomed its first group of AU forestry practicum students in 1980. In 2012, the center’s first wildlife practicum took place.
“This camp is a great course to introduce people to forestry,” said Tony Logan, who was at Solon Dixon in summer 1987. “I had been exposed to the industry because my dad was a forester, but some of my classmates had not. I learned a lot and learned how to do things right.”
Thirty-one years later, Tony’s son, Cal, stepped onto the soil of the SDFEC.
“It means the world to me to follow Dad’s footsteps. Being a forester was always my dream,” said Cal, who serves on the Alabama Farmers Federation State Young Farmers Committee. “Seeing his class picture at summer camp was a surreal moment for me. It is special to know my dad went through the same things I did, and now we are business partners at Cliff A. Logan and Associates, the forest management service my grandfather founded.”
Spending a summer at the center is a requirement for students in AU’s College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment (CFWE). The Logans of Greene County agree it was the most influential part of their college experience.
“Summer camp was a great opportunity to create friendships, but it also exposed me to the science behind forestry,” said Cal, who attended in 2018. “Students sit in a classroom and learn about mapping and walk out the door and do it. The opportunity to put what you are learning into action the second you learn it helps you remember it so much better.”
The SDFEC has impacted hundreds of lives, giving each AU student the tools needed to succeed, said John Gilbert, SDFEC assistant director.
“This is coursework that gives students hands-on and experiential learning opportunities,” said Gilbert, who spent summer 2001 as a student at Solon Dixon. “Wildlife students come as juniors and seniors, while forestry students are rising juniors. This is our forestry students’ first field experience. For many, it’s their first class in forestry.”
The forestry summer program is broken into nine-week intervals, with each week focusing on a new class. Classes include forest mensuration, forest biology, field surveying, forest operations and forest management.
Current student Brooks Milling spent his summer learning the ropes of forestry.
“I have picked up a lot of knowledge and have learned more than I ever could in a classroom,” Milling said.
Solon Dixon is a treasure, said Federation Forestry and Wildlife Divisions Director William Green.
“Forestry is Alabama’s top industry with over 23.1 million acres of forest land,” said Green, an ex officio member of the AU CFWE board. “The Dixon family left this as a way to educate students but also act as a production forest to pay for itself. It is a living museum.”
In addition to AU summer practicum, the center hosts natural resources groups throughout the year for professional development and hands-on learning. That includes the Alabama Forestry Commission and its recently revamped Forestry Academy.
“I don’t know if it was a vision or just how it was built, but all these front porches are gathering places for students and their instructors,” Martin said. “As much learning happens in those rocking chairs as it does in the classroom.”
Gilbert echoed Martin, adding there’s a difference in being at the center and sitting in a lab on campus.
“This center builds a network of lifelong friendships and gives students an experience they will not get anywhere else,” Gilbert said.