Monday, March 19, 2018

Birmingham's Great Temple of Travel

The Birmingham area will have at least one sad historical event to remember in 2019--the 50th anniversary of the demolition of Terminal Station, the "Great Temple of Travel" as author Marvin Clemons has described it. After two years of construction and expenditure of some two million dollars, the elaborate station opened in April 1909. Thus a major anniversary of its opening will take place next year also. Before demolition the station had its ups and downs; you can read an overview of that history on the BhamWiki site.  

Luckily for us, local railroad history author Marvin Clemons has written a wonderful account of Terminal Station just stuffed with details and photographs. This book is a natural compliment to his earlier, broader pictorial history, Birmingham Rails: The Last Golden Era from World War II to Amtrak. Both books are available here

Mr. Clemons has graciously provided me with the exterior and interior photographs of Terminal Station included below. They are just a taste of the treasures included in the book of the station itself inside and out and the many trains that passed through it. Both of his books will appeal to anyone with even a slight interest in railroads or Birmingham history. He is also available for talks on the Terminal Station as the flyer below describes.

I must confess I have more nostalgia than experience when it comes to railroads. I've never ridden on a train except those mighty ones at the zoo and such. I really need to change that someday.

I suppose I have a fondness for railroads and their history not only because of their importance to Alabama and the nation, but also my grandfather Amos J. Wright, Sr. He worked for several decades as a "switchman" for the L&N Railroad in Gadsden. I remember visiting my grandparents in the summer and on weekdays my grandmother would drive him to work and come back in the afternoon to pick him up, since they only had one car. Naturally I got to go along for the ride and see the station and the trains. 

One of his duties was to make sure all empty box cars were completely cleaned out. We have a collection in the family of empty artillery shells he found there over the years.

An overview of the state's railroad history can be found in Wayne Cline's 1997 book, Alabama Railroads.

Exterior in 1957

Interior in October 1968

Interior in 1969 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Cloverdale Drive, "Jack & Jill" & Me

I've written a couple of blog posts about my family's time on Cloverdale Drive in Huntsville in the 1950's. In one I discussed a "Snowfall on Cloverdale Drive in 1958". The other explored "Sunday Afternoon on Cloverdale Drive in 1959"

I recently came across a batch of Jack and Jill magazines sent to our house during many of the years we lived on Cloverdale Drive. Mom subscribed while I was growing up and kept it going during my younger brother Richard's early years as well. She said we both enjoyed the monthly collections of stories and puzzles aimed at younger children.

The magazine, which at that time billed itself as "The Better Magazine for Boys and Girls" and by 1960 as "The Exciting Magazine for Young Boys and Girls," is still being published. Issues included fiction, stories to be read aloud, "Things to Do" such as recipes and mazes, and so on. Looking at a random issue, February 1960, I note a "Huckleberry Hound" comic based on the popular TV show. Other issues included TV-related stories on Captain Kangaroo and an upcoming Shirley Temple Christmas special.

As I was going through this fascinating material, I noticed something interesting about the address labels on some of them. For instance, the August 1958 issue shown below has us living at 142 Cloverdale; by April 1959 we were at 4220. We certainly didn't move, so what happened?

I recently asked mom about this mystery, and she suggested a possible solution. She said that some point after we moved into the neighborhood, streets were extended and houses renumbered. That would make sense, given Huntsville's explosive growth while we lived in that house. In 1950 the population of the town was just over 16,400. By 1960 it was 72, 365--an increase of more than 340%.

As the maps below indicate, the house and neighborhood are still there in northwest Huntsville. According to a couple of realty sites, the house is 1006 square feet and was built in 1955. 

Here's a photo of the Cloverdale house in a 1958 snowstorm. 

Here mom and I are standing in front of the house in 1959.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Whatever Happened to Powhatan and Praco?

My aunt Marjorie Shores Pike, one of mom's older sisters, died in January. I was reminded by her obituary that she was born in Praco, Alabama. Mom herself was born in Powhatan, another small mining town in Jefferson County. 

When the family lived in Praco where Marjorie was born in January 1928, my grandfather John Miller Shores worked as an inspector for the mine company. At the end of the day he would go into the mine and make sure all equipment had been left in its proper place or brought to the surface. He worked this job to earn money for college, and then he planned to enter the Methodist ministry. He had begun ministerial training and had a church assignment, but was still going to college when they were living in Powhatan where mom was born in December 1929.

Both Powhatan and Praco no longer exist except as memories and in the case of Praco some ruins. Let's investigate.

The towns were located close to each other just north of the Locust Fork in northern Jefferson County. Powhatan was on Alabama 269/Birmingport Road; Praco was located a bit north on Jefferson County 81 or Flat Top Road. A Powhatan Street remains and heads east near the Birmingham Marine Terminal. 

On a web page about Alabama coal mines I found this information on Praco:

"The small community of Praco, the last company-owned coal town in Alabama, will vanish next month. The deteriorating community northwest of Birmingham is shutting down, its residents having been told by Alabama By-Products that they must find new homes within 30 days. About 80 houses remain, not all of them occupied. The number of people affected isn't known ... 'These are the last of some 500 houses that we owned in that area,' said Gene W. Lewis, president of Alabama By-Products. 'The primary purpose of these houses many, many years ago was for our employees. It's not a cold-hearted decision, but was one made quite some time ago. We are not in the housing business but in mining.' The company store closed last June, and the company has notified the remaining residents that they must vacate. Many of the residents do not look at Praco's closing with nostalgia, but with anger and worry. 'I would like to stay. It is about the only place where I can afford to rent,' said Mrs. Billie Pridemore, a Praco resident for 26 years.

From a December 11, 1981 UPI article titled, 'Coal Co. Town to Close Its Doors, Evict Residents'"

That same web page had this photo and caption:

Coal company houses in Praco, Al. 

(1970's image courtesy of Patricia Dickey Whitlock via

A recent article by Kelly Kazek gives more information about the background of Praco. The town appeared around 1910 on land owned by the Pratt Consolidated Coal Company from which the name was derived. The owner by the 1970's was Alabama By-Products; the land is now owned by Walter Energy. The mine closed in the late 1950's, but as the quote above notes Alabama By-Products maintained a company store and housing for many years afterward. Kazek's article has many photographs of the mine's remains and information about significant mining events including a May 1943 explosion that killed 10 miners.

According to this site, Praco's post office operated from 1931 until 1986. The same site notes the Powhatan post office operating from 1919 until 1978. I also located in the Alabama Almanac and Book of Facts 1955-56 that Powhatan is included in a list of places in the state with telegraph stations. [p. 252]  

The 2002 book The Heritage of Jefferson County, Alabama has entries on both Powhatan and Praco. The source of information about the towns given there is Barry J. McCleney's 1991 book, Journey into the Past: A History of the West Jefferson Area.

In 1917 the Powhatan Coal and Coke Company was founded, but soon failed and the Franklin Coal Company assumed operations the following year. The company constructed a two-story school. In 1926 the Methodists organized in the area and met in the school. This must have been John Miller Shores' church. The company was operating two mines by 1934, but operations ceased by 1947. The school closed two years later. 

The commissary was purchased and run as a private store for a few years. By 1978, when the Powhatan Fuel Company began strip-mining in the area, most signs of the community were gone. Sometime in the late 1990's my mother and her two sisters Heth and Marjorie toured various places in the state where they had lived growing up as a preacher's kids. They were in the Powhatan area one day, and stopped to asked where Powhatan was. The gentleman pointed to a mud puddle near the road and said, "Somewhere around that."

Just after 1900 the Pratt Consolidated Coal Company began to purchase land for mining in the area that became Praco. The first mine opened in 1905 and by the following year were employing almost 50 people. Originally called the Skelton Creek Mine after a local family, the company renamed it Praco in August 1907. By 1927 some 300 new camp houses had been constructed, along with a commissary, doctor's office and a post office. 

In September 1958 the mines closed, but the coal preparation plant continued until 1966. By 1979 some 200 houses remained and in December 1981 the company informed residents they would have to relocate. By August 1982 the community was deserted.  

Praco on a Jefferson County map from 1942. The map above shows details including two schools [the squares with flags on top] and the nearby L&N Railroad. I did not find Powhatan on this map.  

This larger portion of the same county map shows Praco and some of the surrounding towns. 

This map shows Powhatan and Praco due west of present day towns of Graysville and Adamsville. 

Source: Alabama Atlas & Gazetteer DeLorme, 1998

This photograph shows road grading and widening near Praco around 1935.

Source: Alabama Mosaic

John Miller Shores [1898-1982]

Methodist minister in the North Alabama Conference for more than 50 years

Here are the four children of Tempe and John Miller Shores: Margorie, mom, Heth and John. Heth was born in Brundidge and John in Sipsey.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Johnny Mack Brown's "Complete Surrender" to Clark Gable & Joan Crawford

Dothan native Johnny Mack Brown first gained fame as a football player at the University of Alabama. His talent in the sport in high school earned him a scholarship to play in Tuscaloosa, where he excelled as halfback on the 1924 and 1925 teams coached by Wallace Wade. In the 1926 Rose Bowl Brown scored two of Alabama's three touchdowns as the team defeated the heavily favored Washington Huskies. He was named the game's most valuable player and later inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and the initial class of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.

His success on the football field led to his portrayal on Wheaties cereal boxes and an offer of a Hollywood screen test. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer signed him to a five-year contract; his film and television career lasted until 1966.

Brown played mostly minor roles in the early years. A big break came in 1928 and only his fourth film, the silent Our Dancing Daughters. He appeared opposite Joan Crawford, already a star by that time. In 1929 he appeared in Coquette, the first talkie for mega-star Mary Pickford. She won a best actress Oscar for the role. In the following year he played the title role in Billy the Kid Another 1930 western Montana Moon found him teamed again with Crawford.  

Based on these and several other high-profile, successful films Brown seemed poised for major stardom. A third film with Crawford proved to be his undoing as the leading man MGM wanted him to be. Bob Thomas, in his 1978 biography of Crawford, had this to say about that film: 

"Crawford had meanwhile starred in Complete Surrender as a cabaret dancer who is saved from suicide by a Salvation Army man, Johnny Mack Brown. After a preview audience failed to respond, Mayer ordered a complete remake with Gable in the Salvation Army role. Retitled Laughing Sinners, the movie proved a success." [p. 80]

At about this same time Brown tested for the role of Tarzan, but didn't get the part. Johnny Weissmuller did, and went on to great fame in the role. Brown left MGM and began making westerns exclusively for Universal and then Monogram. Most of these were low budget B-moves, but they made him famous. He retired in 1952, but returned to make a few more films and television shows before 1966. In all he made some 160 movies in his career.

Brown died on November 14, 1974, and is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park  in Glendale, California. For some years in the 2007-2011 period Dothan hosted the Johnny Mack Brown Western Festival to honor its native son. 

Johnny Mack Brown in his Alabama football days

Johnny Mack Brown in 1935

Source: Wikipedia

 Brown first appeared with Joan Crawford in the 1928 silent film Our Dancing Daughters. Also starring in the film is Birmingham native Dorothy Sebastian. You can read more about her on this blog post.

Source: Wikipedia

This 1930 film was one of Brown's earliest westerns and also starred Crawford and Sebastian.

Source: Wikipedia

Johnny Mack Brown performing in one of his many westerns. 

From March 1950 until February 1959 Dell Comics published a title devoted to Johnny Mack Brown as western star.  

Friday, February 23, 2018

What's a Wavaho?

For years I've been going to mom and dad's house in southeastern Huntsville on the same route--north from Pelham on I-65 until I reach the Alabama 36 exit in Hartselle. Then I follow 36 until it intersects with U.S. 231 and on into Huntsville. 

At the intersection of 36 and 231 is the Corner Quick Stop with gas and goodies. It's a Wavaho station, and I have often wondered about the history of this small company. I did a bit of research but haven't found much.

The Dun & Bradstreet site has a page for the Wavaho Oil Company that gives a few basic details. The company was founded in 1958, and annual revenue was listed as more than $6,700,000. Walter V. Hough was the name given as a contact and the phone number as 256-881-3621. A site has been crawled by the Internet Archive since 2001, but only a placeholder page was saved each time. The domain was registered in November 1999.

Perhaps one day I'll give them a call or stop by and try to learn a little more.

I find small operations that have survived in industries dominated by much bigger players to be fascinating. According to Google Maps, there are also Wavaho gas stations in Decatur, Huntsville and Pinson. Another one in Birmingham pops up on a Google search. If you know of others or more about the company, tell us in the comment section!

UPDATE on February 25, 2018:

An informant tells me that the company's name comes from the first two letters of the founder's name--Walter Van Hough.

Here's the office building facing Alabama 36 and just behind the gas station and store. 

That iconic sign appears in a couple of places. 

Source: Google Maps

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Bing Crosby Sings Alabama--Twice

Bing Crosby [1903-1977] was one of the most popular singers, recording artists, and radio, film and television stars for several decades in the twentieth century. He was born in Tacoma, Washington, and by 1923 was singing with a group of high school students at dances, clubs and on the radio in the Spokane area. In the early 1930's he found some success in California and New York with various orchestras and did his earliest solo recordings and radio work.

By the time he died in October 1977 Crosby's achievements were legendary. Over 1 billion records, tapes, CD's and downloads of his songs and albums have been sold. In 1944 he won the Best Actor Academy Award for his performance as a priest in Going My Way. The next year he was nominated for the same award for The Bells of St. Mary's, becoming the first of only six actors nominated twice for playing the same character. 

In 1963 he was the first winner of a Grammy Global Achievement Award. He is one of only 33 people who have three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame--motion picture acting and radio and music recording. Crosby was among the earliest to adopt reel-to-reel recording technology so he could pre-record his radio shows. He was also instrumental in the early development of videotape.

One of the final recordings Crosby released before his death was A Southern Memoir in 1975. The work is what we would call a "passion project"; Crosby recorded it at TTG Studios in Los Angeles at his own expense. Jazz pianist Paul Smith, with whom Crosby had worked before, and his Orchestra provided the music. The album had twelve tracks; seven more mostly alternate takes appeared on a 2010 CD issue. The album was the first recording Crosby made after a large abscess and a portion of his left lung had been removed in January 1974.

The Wikipedia entry on the album includes this quote about the songs:

"Record producer, Ken Barnes, wrote: "This collection of “Southern-cum-mammy” type songs was a pet project of Bing’s and his affection for the material reveals itself time and again throughout each of the twelve songs. The small-band backings arranged by pianist-conductor Paul Smith are beautifully written and very well played. Bing sings with greater spirit and drive than on his album with Basie and some of the tracks, notably “Carolina in the Morning,” “Swanee,” and “Sailing Down the Chesapeake Bay” stand comparison with some of his best-ever up-tempo performances."

The quote is taken from Barnes 1980 book, The Crosby Years.

Two of the songs on side one of the album are Alabama-related. "Alabamy Bound" is second on that side and is a 1924 piece with music written by Ray Henderson and lyrics by Buddy DeSylva and Bud Green. I've written more about the history of the song and a 1941 recorded performance by Jackie Green and the Five Spirits of Rhythm in a blog post here.

The fourth song on side one of Crosby's album is the classic "Stars Fell on Alabama." Written in 1934, the composer was Frank Perkins and the lyricist was Mitchell Parish. Perkins was a native of Salem, Massachusetts, who wrote music for a number of songs as well as film and television. Parish had changed his name from Michael Hyman Pashelinsky that he was born with in Lithuania. He came to the U.S. as a young child with his parents and briefly lived with relatives in Louisiana before the family moved to New York City.  I leave it to readers to sort out the ironies in all of this background.

Parish apparently took the title of his song from a 1934 book of the same title by Carl Carmer. Carmer came to Alabama in 1927 from New York and spent six years on the faculty at the University in Tuscaloosa. His book has chapters devoted to various aspects of the state's history and culture. One of those describes the spectacular Leonid meteor shower seen in Alabama in November 1833.

As I noted in the blog post linked above, "Alabamy Bound" has been recorded by a number of artists and so has "Stars Fell on Alabama". Singers ranging from Billie Holliday to Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Jimmy Buffett have performed it. Unlike "Alabamy Bound" and many other Tin Pan Alley songs referencing the state, "Stars" is tied to an actual event in the state's history. 

Bing Crosby ca. 1946

The cover of A Southern Memoir

Source: Wikipedia

Friday, February 16, 2018

Carnegie Libraries in Alabama

Between 1900 and 1916 grants for "Carnegie" libraries were awarded to 19 locations in Alabama. Let's investigate.

In 1880 businessman Andrew Carnegie began a philanthropic enterprise unlike few others in history--he gave cities money to build libraries. Lots of cities. Around the world. The first grants were given in his native Scotland and then his adopted home, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That first one in Scotland opened in 1883 and the final one in 1929; in those decades more than 2500 libraries were built. Most were in the U.S. and Europe, but a few were in places like Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Fiji. Some 1681 of those libraries opened in the United States, a large percentage of the nation's libraries of 3500 by 1919. A study in 1992 found that 1554 of the original buildings in the U.S. still existed and over 900 were still being used as libraries. 

The following images of Alabama's Carnegie libraries are in alphabetical order by city. All photos, postcards, etc. are via Alabama Mosaic unless otherwise noted. Some of these photographs [and others on the Alabama Mosaic site] have specific dates in November and December 1910. However, no photographer or source is given. Perhaps the Carnegie Institute had someone in the state documenting these structures. As noted below, only two of the original Carnegie libraries in Alabama still operate as libraries

Two Alabama Carnegie libraries are not pictured. The Avondale library in Birmingham opened in 1908 and operated as a library until 1961. The one at Talladega College burned in 1963. 

You can read some of my other posts on aspects of Alabama library history here.

Postcard of the Carnegie library in Anniston from the 1920's. Operated as a library 1918-1965

This Carnegie library was on the Alabama Polytechnic Institute campus in Auburn. The photograph was taken in October 1910; the library had been dedicated on December 2 of the previous year. The building is now Auburn University's Martin Hall and houses offices.

Inside the library at API on October 19, 1910

Photograph of the Bessemer library, probably 1940's. Now the Chamber of Commerce offices.

Birmingham's West End library as it looked on December 17, 1910. Operated as a library until 1962.

Decatur's Carnegie library in October 1910; an interior shot is below. Operated as a library 1904-1976.

Ensley library photographed in 1910. Operated as a library 1906-1955

Eufaula library around 1910. This library and the one in Union Springs are the only two Carnegie structures in Alabama that are still operating as libraries

Interior of the Eufaula library around 1910

Postcard of the Carnegie library in Gadsden from the early 20th century. Operated as a library 1906-1955.

"The Huntsville Public Library was built in 1915 with a grant from the Carnegie Library building fund. This building served Huntsville until 1966 when the building was demolished for a parking garage. In 1915 the Huntsville population was 5,000 people. When the building was razed the population had grown to 100,000." [quote from Alabama Mosaic entry]

I remember going to this library as a boy; the children's section, known as the Longfellow Reading Room, was in the basement and can be seen below. No date is attached to this photo at the Alabama Mosaic site, but it would seem to predate my years there in the late 1950's-early 1960's. 

"Pictured in front of the bookmobile at the Huntsville Public Library when it was housed in the Carnegie building are board member Mrs. Claude Davis, council member James E. Davis, library director Elizabeth Parks Beamgaurd and County Commission Chairman Roy Stone."

Date unknown

I've done a post on bookmobiles in Alabama.

Circulation desk at the Carnegie library in Huntsville, date unknown

A gathering of presumably faculty and students outside the Carnegie library on the Alabama A&M campus near Huntsville, date unknown. 

Postcard of the Carnegie library at Judson College in Marion before 1920. Now Bean Hall, which houses the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame.

Postcard of the Montgomery library, early 20th century

Postcard of the Selma library, early 1920's 

"Mrs. Lou McElderry Jemison donated the land and $10,000 towards building Talladega's Public Library in 1906. Robert S. West was the contractor who built the library. It served as the main library until a new library was constructed directly behind this one in the 1970's. This example of a Jemison-Carnegie library is one of only four remaining Carnegie-affiliated buildings in Alabama. The building now serves as the home to the Heritage Hall Museum for local history and the arts."

Source: Wikipedia 

This card of the Troy library is postmarked February 26, 1911

The Tuskegee Institute library on November 29, 1910. The building operated as a library from 1901-1932, and now houses offices.

Inside the Carnegie library at Tuskegee Institute early 20th century

Union Springs Carnegie library around 2000. This library and the one in Eufaula are the only two Carnegie structures in Alabama still operating as libraries

In library school at UA I wrote a paper on the formation of this library; a major primary source was the local newspaper. My work is available here

An abstract:

Carnegie Comes to Union Springs. The Development of an Alabama Public Library. A Research Proposal
This proposal examines the formation of the Carnegie Library at Union Springs, Alabama, in the context of the rural society from which it grew. It is suggested that the availability of detailed research into the dynamics of this library's formation may help historians identify factors that support the advent of public libraries, regardless of their locations, and may assist the library profession to better articulate methods to help floundering public libraries. It is proposed that several independent variables be examined in varying depth, including: (1) the confluence of Carnegie's philanthropy with the local philanthropic impulse and civic pride; (2) local leadership from elected officials, library association members, and community leaders; (3) the presence of supporters of the local subscription library and their backgrounds; (4) the presence of enough wealth in the county to support Carnegie's matching funds requirement; (5) the backing of the local newspaper; (6) the influence of populism; and (7) the presence of general cultural factors--e.g., the public library movement throughout the southeast, the growth of public education, and the relative lack of racial and political turmoil. (22 references)