Saturday, May 31, 2014

Birmingham Photo of the Day (13): U.S. Weather Bureau Station in 1908

 In 1870 Congress had established a weather service under the U.S. Army Signal Corps. In 1890 the service moved to the civilian Department of Agriculture and to the Commerce Department in 1940. Today the National Weather Service is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

Official weather observations began in April, 1882, in the Birmingham area, just a few years after the city was founded. Until September 14, 1895, records were not continuous, done in cooperation with railroads such as L&N and often used volunteers. At this time the office was located in the Walker and Jordan Building on First Avenue North; instruments were on the roof of the building.

A full-time facility began operation in July 1903, and the office and instruments were moved to the Title Guarantee Building at 21st Street and 3rd Avenue North. The first official Weather Bureau observation was made at 8:00 a.m. on September 1. W.A. Mitchell noted that "The day began clear and unusually cool...Maximum temperature for the day was 79.0 degrees. Fresh north wind." By January 1904 the station was recording a storm that turned out to be tornadoes with damage about a mile north of the station.

In 1907 a building for the service was constructed at the corner of 12th Avenue [then Alta or Elta] and 13th Street on a hill north of downtown. The service remained in this building until December 1, 1945, when Weather Bureau activities were consolidated at the Birmingham airport. 

A history of the National Weather Service in Birmingham is available here.

U.S. Weather Bureau Station 
 From the book Views of Birmingham, Alabama published in 1908

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Mom Makes the Front Page in 1949

Before she and dad married, my mother Carolyn Shores did some modelling for Avondale Mills. Along with other young women, she appeared at various fashion shows and in newspaper advertisements. The photo below shows her on the left along with others at a show in early June, 1949. She was 19 years old.

That particular show took place in the Continental Room, a lunch, dinner and event space in Birmingham's Tutwiler Hotel. Back in August, 1937 that same room was used for the wedding reception of famed Alabama actress Tallulah Bankhead and actor John Emery after the marriage took place at her father's home in Jasper.

As noted on the masthead, the Avondale Sun was a newspaper for employees of all Avondale Mills and their families. Mom was the youngest child of Methodist minister John Miller Shores, and family members turn up in the paper several times in various contexts. I found an item in a 1934 issue noting mom among other children who had perfect attendance at kindergarten for the month of September. I've also found a notice of a luncheon hosted at the parsonage in Sylacauga by my grandmother Tempe, and various notes about aunts Heth and Marjorie. 

The Comer family had expanded the company into Sylacauga with the giant Eva Jane mill in 1913. The plant was named after the wife of founder B.B. Comer. In addition to the plant itself, the company also supported schools, churches and stores for employees. Unable to compete with overseas competition, the company and all its operations closed in 2006. The empty Eva Jane building burned in 2011.

The entire run of the Avondale Sun from 1924 until 2006 is available in Birmingham Public Library's Digital Collections.

Mom's modelling career didn't last long. After marriage, she and dad raised my brother Richard and me. Some forty years ago she began painting, first in oils but soon changing to watercolors. She is still at it; her art can be found at her web site and for sale on ArtFire and Etsy. She's on Pinterest too!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Birmingham Photo of the Day (12): Birmingham Theatre in the 1940s

This photograph by Oscar V. Hunt is taken from the Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections. BPL's record for this photograph notes the marquee as proclaiming the Birmingham Theatre "the largest and finest colored theatre in the entire South, 1st run pictures and stage shows exclusively for colored people."

According to the BhamWiki site, this building at 17th Street and 3rd Avenue North was constructed in the 1890s as a public auditorium. The Birmingham Theatre opened there in 1946 but was unsuccessful; the building was demolished in 1950.

O.V. Hunt photographed scenes in Birmingham for many years; he died in 1962. BPL has many of his photographs in their collections. Alabama Mosaic indexes more than 200 of them.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Who Are Birmingham Natives Sonia Sanchez and Margaret Walker?

            A number of black women born in Alabama have achieved great success or sometimes great controversy in their lives and careers. Coretta Scott King from Marion is one who comes immediately to mind. Lesser known in this state is Marva Collins who was born in Monroeville but who went on to great achievement as an educator in Chicago. She has published several books based on her experiences in the Windy City and was the subject of a 1981 made-for-tv movie in which she was played by Cicely Tyson.

            Birmingham has its share of individuals in this group: Condolezza Rice (academic, National Security Advisor, Secretary of State), Angela Davis (political activist, academic), Vonetta Flowers (Olympic gold medalist), Odetta (singer) and Nell Carter (actress and singer). Two well-known writers who are Birmingham natives are Margaret Walker and Sonia Sanchez.

            Margaret Abigail Walker was born on July 7, 1915, the daughter of a Methodist minister, Sigismund Walker, and his music teacher wife Marion. Raised in Mississippi and New Orleans, she graduated from Northwestern University in Chicago in 1935. The following year she began work with the Federal Writers’ Project, a federal program designed to help authors during the Great Depression. She earned a creative writing master’s degree from the University of Iowa in 1940. Her thesis, a collection of poems, was published as For My People and won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Award.Margaret Walker

            In 1943 she married Firnist James Alexander, an interior designer; by 1949 the family had settled in Mississippi, where Walker had accepted a faculty position at Jackson State College. In 1968 she founded what is now the Margaret Walker Center, an archive and museum devoted to the study of African-American history and culture. She retired in 1979 and died in 1998.

            Margaret Walker published other collections of poetry as well as non-fiction, but her best known work is probably her only novel, Jubilee. Published in 1966, the novel grew from stories about her great-grandmother, Margaret Brown. Set in Greenville, Alabama, the novel follows the story of a slave woman into Reconstruction. More about Walker can be found in her entry in the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

            Sonia Sanchez was born Wilsonia Benita Driver in Birmingham on September 9, 1934, and attended Tuggle Elementary School. In 1943 she went to live with her father, sister and stepmother in Harlem. She graduated from New York City’s Hunter College in 1955. She later studied poetry under Louise Bogan at New York University. Sanchez has retained the name of her first husband although that marriage did not last. A second marriage to poet Etheridge Knight also ended in divorce.
Sanchez speaking in 1990
            Over the course of her still-active career Sanchez has published a number of poetry books as well as plays and children’s books. She taught at eight different universities before her retirement from Temple University in Philadelphia in 1999. She has read her work and lectured at more than 500 colleges in the U.S. and other countries. In addition to other awards, she received the Harper Lee Award for Alabama's Distinguished Writer of the Year in 2004. You can learn more about her life and work at her website and her entry in the Encyclopedia of Alabama

 The photographs of Margaret Walker and Sonia Sanchez are taken from their entries at BhamWiki.

 A version of this piece appeared at in September 2013.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Birmingham's "Heaviest" Medical Block

Between 1902 and 1912 four of the tallest buildings in the Southeast at that time were constructed at the corner of 20th Street and 1st Avenue North in Birmingham. The Woodward, Brown Mark, Empire and American Trust and Savings Bank buildings were anointed as the “Heaviest Corner in the South” by Jemison Magazine and over the years the word “South” has often been replaced by “World” or “Earth.” In 1985 the location was recognized by installation of a historical marker and listing in the National Register of Historic Places. 

The heaviest corner on “earth” in 2005
Source: BhamWiki

The UAB Medical Center has what might be called “Birmingham’s Heaviest Medical Block” bounded by 19th and 20th Streets and 6th and 7th Avenues South. Buildings once and now at this spot have been the sites of much of the city’s medical history.

The oldest of these structures and one still standing is now known as “Old Hillman”. The four-story stone and brick Hillman Hospital was dedicated in July, 1903 and named after local benefactor Thomas Hillman, President of the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company. The hospital was constructed on lots 1-6 of the block, purchased from John S. Cox. He had bought the land from the Elyton Land Company in 1877 for $250. A Victorian house on the property was used as the hospital’s first nursing dormitory. 

The Hillman Hospital complex, ca. 1929. The original structure on the right was erected in 1902 and the annex, in the middle, was added in 1913. On the left is the 1928 addition, or “new” Hillman.
Source: Birmingham Public Library

Hillman Hospital 
 From the book Views of Birmingham, Alabama published in 1908

Thomas T. Hillman

Efforts to organize a charity hospital for the city had begun in 1884, and Hillman’s donations had helped fund several locations, including a 100-bed facility that burned in 1894. Hillman required that his support pay for wards for both white and black patients. Hillman Hospital was chartered by the state legislature in 1897 and operated by a Board of Lady Managers—wives of local businessmen, a group involved from the beginning as the Daughters of United Charity.

The four floors and basement were crowded with various facilities, including offices, reception rooms, a laundry, store rooms, and boiler and fuel room for the steam heat. Twelve private rooms and four adult and one child wards occupied most of the first and second floors. The third floor held a surgical amphitheater that could hold up to 80 students, sterilizing and ether rooms, two private operating rooms and more private rooms. The fourth floor held the kitchen (with dumb waiter access to other floors), nurses’ dormitory rooms, a dining hall and additional private rooms.

By 1924 over 4600 patients a year were treated at Hillman. Financial difficulties had continued, and in 1907 the land and building were sold to the Jefferson County Board of Revenue. An annex built in 1913 failed to relieve the overcrowding of the 90 beds Dr. Will Mayo had noted on his visit in 1911. Finally the “new” Hillman Building opened in 1928, followed eleven years later by a five story outpatient clinic.

Hillman Outpatients Clinics building, demolished in 1964
Source: Holmes, History of the University of Alabama Hospitals [1974]

Those seats in the main surgical amphitheater of Hillman Hospital were filled by faculty and students from the Birmingham Medical College. The school was a proprietary college owned by nine prominent Birmingham physicians and opened in October 1894. The college and the Birmingham Dental College were first located in a five-story building on 21st Street North originally occupied by the Lunsford Hotel. The school had electric lighting, lecture rooms, several laboratories and operated a free dispensary. Students were also exposed to patients at the city charity hospital, infirmaries owned by faculty members and clinics in nearby towns.

In 1902 the college constructed its new home next to Hillman Hospital and a two-story autopsy house behind it. By that time the school had 94 students who were required to study four terms instead of the original two. In 1910 the medical and dental schools merged to become the Birmingham Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical College. One of the school’s achievements was the 1899 graduation of Elizabeth White. She was the second female to graduate from an Alabama medical school, following Louisa Shepard who had graduated from the Graefenberg Medical Institute in Dadeville in the 1850s. 

Birmingham Medical College in 1912
Source: BhamWiki

Despite improvements in facilities, funding and graduation requirements, the school closed in May, 1915. Six years earlier Abraham Flexner had inspected the Birmingham school and the Medical College of Alabama in Mobile. He and his team were touring the country gathering information on all the nation’s medical schools for the American Medical Association. His 1910 report was very critical of most of those schools, including those two and others in Alabama; many schools, especially proprietary ones, closed in the next few years. The Birmingham school’s owners sold it to the University of Alabama, which operated it until the final students graduated. After a move to Tuscaloosa, the University’s Medical College of Alabama opened in Birmingham in September, 1945, using Jefferson Hospital as its base of operations.

Before that major change another building was constructed on the block in addition to the outpatient clinic already mentioned . In 1929 Hillman Hospital opened a nursing dormitory. The structure was renovated and reopened in July 1965 as the Roy R. Kracke Clinical Services Building. Dr. Kracke was the first dean of the Medical College of Alabama when it opened in Birmingham in September 1945. 

Constructed in 1928 as a student nursing dormitory for Hillman Hospital, the building was renovated and opened as the Roy R. Kracke Clinical Services Building in 1965.
Source: Holmes, History of the University of Alabama Hospitals [1974]

Roy R. Kracke, M.D. [1887-1950]
Source: National Library of Medicine/Images in the History of Medicine

By the 1930s another expansion of Hillman Hospital was desperately needed. The County Commission hired prominent local architect Charles H. McCauley to design a seven-story annex to cost $1.5 million in U.S. Public Works Administration funds. By the time the building was dedicated in December 1940, nine more floors were added at a final cost of $2.25 million.

The new hospital was state-of-the-art and known as the finest hospital in the South. Two banks of high-speed elevators carried doctors, nurses, patients and others from floor to floor. The fifth floor was a maternity ward; the seventh floor featured eleven operating rooms. Both of those floors were air conditioned. The top two floors had living space for 150 nurses and 25 interns and resident physicians. From March 1942 until April 1944 two of the floors were used for secret work by the U.S. Army Replacement and School Command. Responsible for personnel training, the unit’s headquarters had been relocated to Birmingham from Washington, D.C., to protect it from possible enemy attack.

1939 architect's rendering of Jefferson Hospital
Source: BhamWiki

Four years later the facility became the Jefferson-Hillman Hospital where the new Medical College of Alabama would soon be located. The UA Board of Trustees renamed it University Hospital in 1955 and finally Jefferson Tower in 1979. By September 2010 all inpatient activities had been relocated to the new North Pavilion hospital complex and other areas.

Since 1940 four other buildings have appeared on our particular block. Dedicated in February 1958, the Reynolds Library held the magnificent rare book collection donated by Alabama native and radiologist Lawrence Reynolds. In October 1975 the collection was moved to the new Lister Hill Library two blocks away. The Reynolds building was demolished in July 1979 to permit construction of the Center for Advanced Medical Studies. That building is now the Pittman Center, renamed to honor longtime medical school dean Dr. James A. Pittman who died earlier this year.

In December 1960 the Health Sciences Research Building opened next to what is now the Kracke Building. Six years later this facility was renamed the Lyons-Harrison Research Building to honor Drs. Champ Lyons and Tinsley Harrison, the medical school’s first chairs of the surgery and medicine departments.

The Monday Morning Quarterback Tower was dedicated on July 18, 1977, as Phase I of the Alabama Heart Hospital. Funding from the Monday Morning Quarterback Club helped with construction. The Tower was built on the site of the Birmingham Medical College and Hillman Outpatient Clinics buildings.

My guess would be that this particular block holds as much medical history as just about any similar area in the Southeast. Certainly, a significant portion of Alabama’s medical history is represented by the patients, doctors, nurses and many others who spent so much of their lives in these particular buildings.

A version of this piece appeared in the Birmingham Medical News November 2012

Thursday, May 15, 2014

What's in those Old Birmingham Directories, Anyway?

If they survive, all sorts of ephemeral materials from the past can be of interest to historians, genealogists, entrepreneurs, and even the rest of us. Whether its pulp magazines, baseball cards, advertising flyers or directories of all types, these products can tell us something about the people who produced and used them, are listed in them and the time in which they were created.

Three such items related to Birmingham I’d like to examine in this post:  Fred W. Green’s The Birmingham Church Directory published by the Dispatch Stationary Company in 1896;  R.W A. Wilda’s  Birmingham, Alabama: Facts Worth Knowing published by the Caldwell Printing Company in September, 1889; and the 1920 telephone yellow pages for the city. The church directory and the telephone book were found online at Birmingham Public Library’s Digital Collections. The Wilda pamphlet came from the Library of Congress via Google Books.

The church directory is 80 pages long and covers various Christian denominations around the city: Baptist, Christian, Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist and the largest number, Presbyterians. One Hebrew congregation is also given. Near the end is a listing of the sixteen church locations. The listings include histories of the churches and current members. South Side Baptist, for instance, has over seven two-column pages of members.

Wilda, a native of Germany, was co-owner of a real estate firm; and his booklet is one of many issued in the city’s early days to attract investment. He includes information on Birmingham streets, water works, sewers, schools, street car lines, banks, main industries and railroads. Information on black institutions in categories such as churches and schools is included. A listing of “Buildings” street by street is useful to us in establishing what existed at the time of publication. For instance, we learn that the Caldwell Hotel was located on the corner of First Avenue and 22nd Street.

The telephone yellow pages are a veritable snapshot of the city in 1920. The 44 pages offer categories for everything from Abstractors to X-Ray Supplies. In between are numerous doctors, lawyers, produce merchants and over two-and-a-half pages of grocers. Thirteen theaters are listed; the Lyric is the only one still surviving. Only one power company is listed; you guessed it, Alabama Power Company. The directory also includes such categories as Bath Houses, Billiard Halls and something called Ladies Toggery—as in clothing.

A fascinating aspect of the 1920 yellow pages is the lack of segregation, as the listing for “Doctors” demonstrates. Scattered among the mostly white ones are some of the city’s early black physicians.  Arthur McKinnon Brown, Logwood Ulysses Goin and Ulysses Grant Mason apparently had the same office at 310 North 18th Street at this time. Brown and Goin had the same phone number, Main 503, but Mason’s was Main 2. Also listed is an early female physician, Annie M. Robinson. Although several women had practiced medicine in Birmingham in the 1890s and very early 20th century, she may have been the only one in 1920.

Near the end of the telephone directory is a table giving “Long Distance Rates from Birmingham.” Most of the cities listed are in Alabama, but a few such as Washington, D.C., and Pensacola are included for comparison. The table notes that rates for over 70,000 locations are available from the long distance operator. Two basic types of calls were station-to-station, which meant the caller would talk with anyone who answered, or person-to-person.  Such calls to Hartselle, for instance, would cost 50 cents and 60 cents respectively for the “initial period”, which the table does not define.  

Publication of the two directories was supported by advertising from many local merchants scattered across lots of pages. Southside grocer J.E. Minter placed a large ad just after the title page in the church directory. Bodeker’s National Detective Agency had a full page ad in the telephone directory, which tells us that their main office in Alabama was located in the Brown-Marx building and branch offices in the state in Mobile and Montgomery. The Wilda pamphlet is “Compliments of the Bankers of Birmingham.”

These publications offer us the names of numerous individuals and their relationships with businesses and institutions. The advertisements, tables, and lists tell us much about the way life was lived in the city at the moment of publication. We can look at them now with a sense of wonder at not only how much has changed, but how much remains the same all these decades later. 

This piece originally appeared on the site in December 2013.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Birmingham Photo of the Day (11): Eastwood Mall Theatre Marquee

This photo comes from the Birmingham Public Library's Digital Collections and was taken on March 22, 1965. The theater marquee is advertising one of Rock Hudson's many romantic comedies, which had been released on February 10. 

Eastwood Mall, the first of its kind in Alabama and probably the Southeast, opened in 1960. Birmingham Public Library has an entire digital collection devoted to the mall, which was demolished in 2006. That collection also has links to other resources about the mall in its heyday, decline, and destruction. has features on several Alabama malls, including Eastwood.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Pelham Schools Have a Long History

 In this photograph of Pelham before 1909, building No. 1 is the Rutherford High School; No. 2 is the Cumberland Presbyterian Church; and No. 3 is the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The house in the photograph, in front of and between building No. 2 and building No. 3, is the Turpin Family house. The original of this photograph, along with many other "old" original photographs of Pelham, are in a collection owned by Bobby Joe and Diane Seales. 

 The recent creation of a city school system brings to mind the history of schools in Pelham. The  Shelby Guide newspaper for April 23, 1872, declared the “citizens of the village and vicinity have just completed a large and commodious Academy and have an interesting school under the superintendence of Rev. C.L. Kirksey, nearly fifty pupils…” In February 1879 the Shelby Sentinel noted that the school “in a flourishing condition” was then managed by Mr. Shell Cross.
 The building also served as a church and was known as Rutherford High School. Destroyed by a storm in April, 1909, it was replaced by a two-story wood frame structure with the school on the bottom floor. This second facility, the Pelham School, was replaced in 1936 with a one-story building that had classrooms, an auditorium and lunch room and served as an elementary school for about 150 students. After Valley Elementary opened in 1964, the third school served as city offices until replaced on the same site by the current City Hall in 1975.
A resident who attended the Pelham School, Ida Cumberland, once told the Shelby County Reporter about the experience. “When the wind would start blowing and the weather would get bad, they would make us get out and get down in a ditch. They were afraid the building would blow away with us in it.”  More details about these early schools can be found in a history of Pelham written by public library director Barbara Roberts and available there.
In September 1974 Pelham High School opened with students in grades 7, 8 and 9; the first class graduated in 1978. Riverchase Middle School opened in 1977, and Valley Intermediate followed in 2000. As the new city school system develops, other schools may well open and close.

Note: A version of this post was published in the Pelham City News Winter 2014 issue.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Birmingham Photo of the Day (10): Loew's Temple Theatre, 1925

This photo shows the Loew's Temple Theatre in 1925 and is from the Birmingham Public Library's Digital Collections. The theater was located at the Masonic Temple at 517 19th Street North. 

The marquee is advertising a combination of live acts and film including "Minstrelsys greatest stars" and The Dancers, a silent melodrama released that year. Interestingly enough, the film was based on a 1923 play that ran in London and starred none other than Alabama's own Tallulah Bankhead.  

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Two Alabama Natives Visit the Garden of the Gods

In June 2013 we were in Colorado for a family wedding, and during the trip my daughter Becca Leon and I visited the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. We've been there before, but it's always a spectacular place. And it was a glorious day to spend some time there with the daughter. A few of the many photos we took that day are below.

Garden of the Gods is a public park established in 1909 and designated a National Natural Landmark in 1971. The rock formations resulted when the Rocky Mountains were created. The park has a visitors' center and offers many recreational opportunities. 

If you are in the area, it's well worth a visit. The place may not be as imposing as Pikes Peak, but it's a lot prettier. More information is available on the park's web site and it's Wikipedia entry

What does any of this have to do with Alabama history? Beats me...but it sure is random!

Approaching the park and some of its many distinctive red rocks. 

Here's a view from the visitor center parking lot.

They seem to have deer in Colorado too. 

Pikes Peak looming in the background, as it does everywhere in this part of Colorado.

Rock climbing is popular in the park, and we saw several teams on various outcroppings. 

The Perkins Central Garden Trail is over a mile in length, paved and wheelchair-accessible. 

Here's daughter Becca, disguised as a tree-hugger. The quaint village of Manitou Springs is visible in the background.

Some of the late spring flora in the park

Monday, May 5, 2014

Maplesville Railroad Depot

Last November my wife Dianne and I made a trip to Camden in Wilcox County to visit the Black Belt Treasures shop. On the way back we made a brief stop at the Old Southern Depot in Maplesville in Chilton County. The building has been nicely re-purposed as a senior center and was decorated for Christmas. 

This existing depot, which served the Norfolk Southern Railroad and earlier companies, is actually the third one in Maplesville. The first was burned by Wilson's Raiders on their way to Selma during the Civil War. The second depot, along with other town buildings, burned in 1911; and the current one opened the following year. The building was placed on the Alabama Register of historic places in 1976 and the Maplesville Railroad Historic District created in 2003. 

The next to last photo below shows part of downtown Maplesville. The town, which has around 2500 people, actually originated about three miles from its present location soon after statehood. The namesake was Stephen W. Maples, whose store had the first post office. The arrival of the railroad in the early 1850s led to the relocation of Maplesville. All that remains of the original site is a cemetery. 

I just tossed in the final photo because the trees were so pretty. 

The town's official web site and Wikipedia entry were my sources of information. 

Lots of information about railroad depots in the state can be found at Dale's Alabama Rail Pics

A spectacular sight along the route near Maplesville

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Birmingham Photo of the Day (9): McAdory Home & Infirmary

This photo from the Birmingham Public Library's Digital Collections shows the home of Wellington Prude McAdory, M.D., in 1910. The structure was located at the corner of 11th Avenue and 25th Street.

Dr. McAdory's home also included his office and an infirmary, a common setup for physicians of this era.
His photo and biographical information below are taken from Notable Men of Alabama Volume II, published in 1904 and available online via Google Books.