Monday, December 29, 2014

A Giant Frog in Mobile in 1877

The following item appeared on the front page of the Mobile Daily Tribune on a Sunday morning in 1877. At least, I think it was the Tribune. My copy has only "Mobile Daily" at the top and a daily Tribune was being published in the city in that year.



One of the curiosities of our coast, is a mammoth frog, which was exhibited yesterday afternoon, to a crowd, down at the New Orleans and Mobile depot. He is evidently a stray animal in the pen, as no such frog was ever known to infest the waters or bays of our gulf coast before. Several river men and bay men declared that it is the largest frog ever known to exist anywhere in our swamps and bayous. It is estimated that its weight is a least 200 pounds. Tom Bullock, the courteous and popular agent of the New Orleans road, in whose keeping his frogship is, has determined to keep him on exhibition several days, when he will send him to Barnum. The old fellow was found under the wharf, at the foot of Government street and captured by a little negro boy. We advise all who would witness a real curiosity in the shape of abnormal growth, to go down to the New Orleans and Mobile depot and take a look at this--certainly the largest frog ever seen by us.

Well. What a sight the creature must have been for all the Mobilians who went to the depot to see him! Why, they would have found absolutely nothing! This item appeared in the April 1 edition of the paper.

Even in 1877, just a dozen years after the end of the Civil War and in the same year as the end of formal Reconstruction in the South, journalists in Mobile were pulling such jokes. April Fool's Day humor and hoaxes have a long history; April 1 was initially associated with pranks and such by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales.

The mention of "Barnum" refers of course to P.T. Barnum, already well-known in 1877. A major figure in the history of American business and showmanship, Barnum's career helped create the culture of spectacle in which so much of the world lives today.

I wonder if Tom Bullock, he of the great courtesy and popularity down at the depot, was also a real person?

Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Shopping in Gadsden in December 1940

These nine photographs were taken by John Vachon in Gadsden, Alabama, apparently on a Saturday in December 1940. Vachon was one of a number of photographers who traveled America from 1935 until 1945 documenting conditions and activities during the Depression and WWII for the U.S. Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information. He worked for the OWI in 1942 and 1943. Almost 8300 of his photographs can be seen here. Vachon was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1914 and died in 1975. 

John Vachon 8c51722r.jpg
John Vachon in 1942

In the 1940 U.S. Census Gadsden had a population of almost 37,000. Many seem to have come downtown that December Saturday to take in the shopping opportunities; no doubt many others from surrounding Etowah County were there too. 

We can see some specifics in a few of these photos. On the right of the fifth photograph a temporary "Grant's Toy Land" sign hangs above the store's permanent sign. Grant's was a variety store chain that operated in the United States from 1906 to 1976. A Texaco sign is visible in the next photo, and in the one below that we see signs for a shoe store, loan operation and a law firm. The county courthouse is prominent in two photographs. The streets and sidewalks are crowded with cars and people. One of Vachon's photos has an artistic tilt to it.

These photographs caught my attention because I was born in Gadsden and over the years visited my paternal grandparents there many times. I remember my grandmother taking me to that Grant's store when I would stay with them for a week in the summers in the late 1950's and early 1960's. I also have numerous other ancestors buried in cemeteries in the area. 

My grandparents and father [who had turned 14 in August of that year] may have been in the crowd. This Christmas was probably another sad one for them. My father's older sister had died just before Christmas in 1939 at the age of 18. Of course, by the Christmas following this one the United States would be at war. 

All of Vachon's Gadsden photographs are available at Photogrammar a site maintained by Yale University. The site features photographs taken by photographers for the U.S. Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information between 1935 and 1945. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Standing Tall at UAB: The Statue of Dr. William E.B. Davis

This statue is found to your left as you start up the front entrance steps of the New Hillman building on the UAB campus. You can find out more about the building in an earlier blog post. The man depicted is William Elias Brownlee Davis [1863-1903], described in the subtitle of an article about him as "surgeon--teacher--organizer." Davis was one of Alabama's most prominent 19th century physicians.

Born in Trussville, William and his older brother John formed a third generation of doctors in the family. Grandfather Dr. Daniel Elias Davis was an early settler in Alabama; their father, Dr. Elias Davis, was killed at the Battle of Petersburg during the Civil War.

John Daniel Sinkler Davis graduated from the Medical College of Georgia in 1879, and when he set up practice in Birmingham two years later invited his sibling to come "read" medicine under him. William studied at the University of Alabama, medicine at Vanderbilt and the University of Louisville and graduated from Bellvue Hospital Medical College in New York City in 1884. Then the Davis brothers began a joint practice in Birmingham.

The brothers were nothing if not ambitious. Within a decade they had started the Alabama Medical and Surgical Journal, founded the Birmingham Medical College where experimental surgery on dogs was included in the curriculum, and opened a private clinic for surgery and gynecology on Third Avenue. The brothers also helped organize the Southern Surgical and Gynecological Association at a meeting in October 1887 held in the local YMCA. The organization still exists today as the Southern Surgical Association.

Originally located on 21st Street North in a former hotel, a new building for the Birmingham Medical College was constructed in 1902 in the same block where this statue now stands. A two-story autopsy house was added later. The college graduated its final class in May, 1915. Graduates from the school included one woman, Elizabeth White. Clinical training took place at Hillman Hospital, St. Vincent's Hospital, and other city facilities including the Davis Infirmary.

In addition to the Southern Surgical and Gynecological Association, William served other medical groups before his death in 1903. He was Vice-President of the American Medical Association in 1892 and President of the American Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in 1901. Dr. Davis published extensively in the medical literature, as the references in the Carmichael article noted below demonstrate.

He was killed at a railroad crossing in the city when he was only 40 years old. His wife Gertrude lived until June 1953; both are buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.

This bronze sculpture is the work of Giuseppe Moretti and was cast at his Roman Bronze Works in New York in 1904. The work was commissioned by members of the Southern Surgical and Gynecological Association. Moretti's slightly larger cast-iron statue of Vulcan debuted that same year at the St. Louis Exposition.


Davis in 1887
Source: BhamWiki

Further Reading

Carmichael EB. William Elias Brownlee Davis: Surgeon--Teacher--Organizer. Ala J Med Sci 1966 April; 3(2): 224-229

Moore RM. The Davis Brothers of Birmingham and the Southern Surgical and Gynecological Association. Ann Surg 1963 May; 157(5): 657-669

Friday, December 12, 2014

Birmingham Photos of the Day (24): Migrant Workers in 1937

In February 1937 photographer Arthur Rothstein took a number of photographs in the Birmingham area. I've discussed one particular photograph here. He was among a number of photographers traveling around the country documenting conditions during the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration. Almost 8000 of his photographs can be seen here.

Many of his Birmingham shots featured the mills, mines and miners of industrial Birmingham. But he also visited a migrant workers camp on U.S. Highway 31 near the city. The photographs below were taken there.

Migrants of the Great Depression are often associated with "dust bowl" residents leaving Oklahoma for California as immortalized in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath and subsequent film. Yet during that Depression tens of thousands of individuals were traveling all over the country in search of work. Sociologist Paul S. Taylor estimated in 1937 that more than 200,000 people were on the move.

My paternal grandmother [I have discussed an old Baptist hymnal she gave me here] told me stories about men who came to the back door of their house in Gadsden during the Depression looking for work. She would give them some food.

Migrants from Indiana

Child of migrant family

Children who live in the migrant camp on U.S. Highway No. 31

Making chairs to sell to tourists

Migrant workers in the camp

Another part of the camp

Tent occupied by former sharecropper family

Washing clothes in the migrant camp

Friday, December 5, 2014

Alabama Book Spotlight: Birmingham Yellow Pages for 1920

Telephone yellow pages are a utilitarian publication that later serve as a snapshot of the cities included. Other directories are useful in similar ways; an earlier post on this blog has an overview of some old Birmingham directories. Let's take a closer look at the 1920 yellow pages for Birmingham and see what we find.

The first page has information about the directory itself and advertisements for three companies for common services still needed today--storage, laundry and taxicabs. Love that AT&T logo.

A number of clubs are listed; some of them are still active today. I find it interesting that the city already had an automobile club in 1920. We Americans love our clubs, don't we?

Now on to another service still widely used today--hotels. Information about some of these facilities can be found on the BhamWiki site. At least one is still around, the Tutwiler, even if not in the location listed here.

In 1920 the area had several newspapers and publishing companies; at least two of the newspapers, the Alabama Baptist and Birmingham News are still being published. The Progressive Farmer and Southern Medical Journal are also still around.

The city also had a number of photography studios in this time before cheap cameras and then cell and smart phones with cameras. Below this listing is an ad for one of the studios, Lollar's Kodak Parlor. We also see a listing for Oscar V. Hunt, one of Birmingham's best known photographers. 

Of course, the city had plenty of restaurants in 1920. The Britling Cafeteria listed on 1st Avenue may be the original business in what became a chain of cafeterias in Birmingham and and other cities in Alabama and Tennessee. The chain lasted into the 1980s. Elvis Presley's mother Gladys worked at one of the Memphis locations. The only establishment on this list still in operation is the wonderful Bright Star in Bessemer which had already been open for thirteen years. Long may it thrive. 

Only one of the theaters listed in 1920 has survived, the Lyric. Thank goodness restoration of that gem is underway. "Lyric" was a common name for vaudeville and movie theaters back in the day. I saw many movies at the Lyric Theatre in downtown Huntsville. 

Here's another striking advertisement from the yellow pages:

And finally, here are two listings for a type of firm you don't see much of these days:

I plan to do another post soon on the long list of doctors in the 1920 Birmingham yellow pages. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Alabama Writer Who Died in Apalachicola

OK, here's another one of those "let's figure out an Alabama connection and show some pretty pictures" posts. 

For a number of years my family has been visiting the wonderful little Florida panhandle port of Apalachicola (Apalach to the cognoscenti) and staying on nearby St. George Island. The town is full of fun shops, art galleries and even TWO bookstores as well as working shrimp, oyster and fishing boats. St George Island is half houses and half state park; the whole area is blessedly free of the numerous high rises and overbearing crowds that have ruined the traditional Red Neck Riviera from Gulf Shores to Panama City. 

Recently I was reading about Marie Layet Sheip, an Alabama author who died in Apalachicola in April 1937. In 1930, under the name Marie Stanley she published one novel, Gulf Stream, which was reprinted in 1993 by the University of Alabama Press. According to Sharon Deck's entry on Sheip in the Encyclopedia of Alabama, at the time of her death Sheip left the manuscript for another novel, "Penhazard," which her publisher had rejected.

Sheip was born in Mobile in April 1885 into a prominent city family. Orphaned when young, she lived with her maternal grandmother who was a close friend of local bestselling novelist Augusta Jane Evans Wilson. When her grandmother died, she lived with relatives in Ohio and New Jersey and studied art with William Merritt Chase before she returned to her native city at age 24. She opened an art studio and as Marie Layet wrote scripts for at least six short silent films.

In 1917 she married Stanley Sheip, member of another wealthy Mobile family. They lived on a 17-acre estate in the Spring Hill area where Marie became active in local theater and wrote poems and short stories. In the late 1920s the couple moved to Apalachicola so that Stanley Sheip could manage a sawmill owned by his family. They are listed in the 1930 U.S. census as living at 127 Bay Avenue; the house survives and can be seen below.

Sheip began writing Gulf Stream after the couple moved to Apalachicola. The novel is set in a barely-disguised Mobile and features interracial relationships and marriage. The novel received generally positive national reviews, but local blacks objected to a white author writing about their Sand Town section of Spring Hill and including much dialect. John Sledge, who wrote about books for the Mobile Press-Register for many years, published an appreciation of the novel in 2009. He called it "one of the most astonishing pieces of fiction ever set here [in Mobile]--a complex, textured and fundamentally unsettling tale."

According to a "Florida, Deaths, 1877-1939" database available at the FamilySearch genealogy site, Sheip died on April 9, 1937, and was buried the next day in Mobile. Her occupation was listed as "Housewife."

The house at 127 Bay Avenue

A street scene in Apalachicola featuring the Owl Cafe

A former ships' chandlery offers a variety of shopping

A view of the beach at the state park on St. George Island

On our last visit to the park we got to watch some mullet fishermen...

...and later I got to eat a waffle cone at the Old Time Soda Fountain in Apalachicola

We also visited Apalachicola's brewery, open about a year...

...and had some glasses full of very good beer.

One of the great places on St. George Island is Eddy Teach's

Friday, November 28, 2014

Birmingham Photo of the Day (23): New Idea Barber Shop in 1937

This photograph shows the front window of the New Idea Barber Shop in February 1937. Prominently displayed is a poster for the Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Combined Circus featuring the Durbar of Delhi, "Most Magnificent Spectacle in History." That part of the show seems to be an adaptation of the Delhi Durbar, an Indian celebration of the coronation of British kings and queens held in 1877, 1903, and 1911. Certainly a good excuse to bring out more elephants. 

"Join John Lewis C-I-O Now" is a reference to the Congress of Industrial Organizations, a federation of labor groups. Proposed by John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America, the CIO merged with the American Federation of Labor in 1955 to form the AFl-CIO. 

Also to be seen in the photo is the reflection of what may be a customer's automobile. 

I have been unable to locate any information about this business, either via a Google search or the Birmingham Yellow Pages for 1920 and 1945 available via the Internet Archive. Perhaps it only operated for a few years; after all, 1937 was deep in the Great Depression.

The photograph was taken by Arthur Rothstein, one of numerous men and women hired by the Resettlement Administration/Farm Security Administration to document rural America during the Depression. Rothstein took photographs in various places in Alabama, but his best known are the ones he took at Gee's Bend in Wilcox County in early 1937. Eleven of Rothstein's photos were used in a New York Times Magazine article about that place published on August 22, 1937. The article was written by John Temple Graves II, a columnist for the Birmingham Age-Herald who during World War II wrote the classic book The Fighting South 

A web site devoted to Rothstein is here. Almost 8000 of his photographs can be found here

Monday, November 24, 2014

What's in Cotaco? And What Does it Mean?

Recently I posted an item on the small town of Sumerville in Morgan County and its historic court house. On that same stretch of Alabama Highway 36 is another small community named Cotaco. Going west on Alabama 36 just past the Valhermosso Springs post office is a small green "Cotaco" sign that marks a boundary of the unincorporated area. I don't think there is a similar sign coming east.

As seen in the photos below, some businesses and a church include "Cotaco" in their names. Off Alabama 36, down Cotaco School Road, is the Cotaco School; scroll down to the bottom of the website "About" page for the "Legend of Cotaco School." Also in the area is Cotaco-Florette Road and Cotaco Creek, which begins in Marshall County and flows into the Tennessee River. Way over in Decatur there is even the Cotaco Opera House, apparently the first opera house constructed in Alabama. 

William A. Read's Indian Place Names in Alabama [1937] notes that a Cherokee village probably existed in the area and that "Cotaco" is perhaps a corruption of a Cherokee word for swamp or thicket. The Alabama Territorial legislature in 1818 named what is now Morgan County as Cotaco County; the name was changed in 1821.  

I checked some Alabama highway maps from the 1920s until the present and none had Cotaco marked. Yet small places can have much larger resonances through Alabama history.

This business is no longer operating, but the church and grocery below definitely are. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Silent Filmmaking in the Birmingham Area, Part 5: Homegrown Silents

Parts 1-4 of this series covered silent films made in the Birmingham area by producers from outside the state. This posting covers local efforts in the city to make silent films. 

Please note that all of these items are identified on the Birmingham Public Library's Digital Collections site as being published in the Birmingham News and I have so designated them here. However, internal evidence in at least two of these items indicates publication in the Birmingham Post or Post-Herald. 

This article about a "home motion picture" appeared in the Birmingham News in the April 28, 1925, edition.

Source: Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections

According to the above article, "Things You Ought to Know about Birmingham" would be showing at the Trianon Theater the first week of May, 1925. The Trianon was located on 2nd Avenue North and had opened in 1913 as probably one of Birmingham's first movie theaters. I presume the "Imperial Film Comany" is not the same firm by that name as the one that became the largest in India in the 1920s and 1930s, but so far I've found nothing else about it. As best I can determine, the "2,000 feet" length of the film would have run under 20 minutes if shot in 35mm.

The article below appeared in the Birmingham News on February 12, 1928. The caption reads:

Here are the four principles in "The Love Beat," a Birmingham-written movie that is being produced by The Post and the Alabama theater with local characters. In the upper left hand corner is Miss Leatlha Martin, who plays the part of "Sally;" center, Olen Deitz, "Jimmie," a Post reporter; upper right, Miss Myrtle Burgess, "Johanna." In the lower center is Guy McNaron, who plays "Steve," another Post reporter and husband of "Sally." The other lower scenes were made when the party was on location at Mountain Brook estates on the road in front of the home of Warner S. Watkins, local broker.

Some quick research has produced nothing about these individuals, so deeper digging will be required.

Source: Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections

The next appeared in the Birmingham News a few months later on August 4, 1928. 

Source: Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections

Another item on an individual film appeared in the Birmingham News on July 14, 1929. This production was a product of the group noted in the article above, the "Birmingham Amateur Movie Association". That group also produced another film in 1929, "What Price Pearls."

Source: Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections

I hope to do some research in the future to shed further light on these individuals and films. Whether any of these films survive is unknown at this time. None of them appear in the Internet Movie Database, but that resource is known to be weak in information about silent and early sound films.