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 Somerville 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. 

One of the brews from Cross-Eyed Owl Brewing in Decatur

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.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Birmingham Photo of the Day (22): The Hillman Hospital Annex Cornerstone

Often we walk by history every day and never notice. Recently I was waiting on the bus to take me to my car in the UAB remote parking lot and sat down on a bench. I was facing what is now called the New Hillman Building on 20th Street South. The Annex, actually between Old [1902] and New [1928] Hillmans, was opened in 1913. Here's what I saw on the corner of that building near its entrance:

This plaque for the Hillman Hospital Annex lists the agencies and men prominently involved in the structure. By 1907 the charitable founders & owners of Hillman Hospital, the Board of Lady Managers, transfered it to the Jefferson County Board of Revenue. The individuals were prominent in their day. Dr. Charles Whelan had been elected physician for the city of Birmingham in 1899. Dr. Edgar Poe Hogan published medical articles and served as part-time Superintendent of the hospital from 1910 until 1930. He also participated in the Spanish-American War and served in the Alabama legislature. He died in 1965. H.B. Wheelock had worked as architect on the original Hillman building.

The cornerstone plaque for the original Hillman Hospital building is below, taken from the BhamWiki site. As that article notes, Hillman Hospital originally opened on the city's Southside in 1888 as the Hospital of United Charity. Local businessman Thomas Hillman made a donation to rebuild the hospital after a fire and it was named for him when they new structure opened at its current location. All the names listed on this plaque except for the architect and contractor are women, the wives of local businessmen. That group had begun organizing for a charity hospital as the Daughters of United Charity in 1886.

A photo of the two Hillman buildings in 1929 and some history of the hospital and how it became a part of UAB can be found in one of my earlier blog posts. More about Hillman Hospital can be found on the BhamWiki site.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Mickey Rooney's Connections to Birmingham

On April 6, 2014, legendary actor Mickey Rooney died at age 93 after eight decades performing in films, television, stage, radio and vaudeville. During that career he made over 300 films and was the top box office draw in 1939. He also famously married eight times---including the first time to another legendary star, Ava Gardner---and had nine children. His second wife and first two children bring us to Rooney's Birmingham connections.

Rooney attended the 1944 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City; a runner up in that contest was Betty Jane Phillips from Birmingham, Alabama, who was Miss Birmingham that year. Rooney took notice and he and Phillips dated while he went through basic training in Alabama. Later that year, in a house off Highland Avenue in Birmingham, the two were married.

The union produced two children, Mickey Rooney, Jr. and Tim Rooney. Both sons appeared on the original Mickey Mouse Club television show and made a few other film and television appearances. Mickey Jr. currently owns an entertainment production company and has an evangelical ministry in California. Younger brother Tim died of a muscle disease in 2006. Both sons were born in Birmingham.

Betty Jane and Mickey were divorced in 1949. The following year she married Buddy Baker, a composer at Disney. They eventually divorced as well. Her third husband was jazz guitarist Barney Kessel; they divorced in 1980. She died in 2002.

The former Betty Jane Phillips was known as B.J. Baker throughout most of her life. She had begun singing in Birmingham, where she had her own radio show at age 14. Over the years she sang with many big bands and appeared on various television variety shows. She also provided backup vocals for artists ranging from Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra to Sam Cooke, Bobby Darin and the Righteous Brothers.

Mickey Rooney in a 1945 publicity still

Betty Jane Phillips Baker in the 1940s

 The happy couple in 1944

Mickey Rooney, Jr., in a photo taken from a 1978 album cover

Tim Rooney in a 1962 publicity shot

All photos are taken from either the BhamWiki or Wikipedia sites.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Once Shelbyville, A.T. & Now Pelham

Near Pelham City Hall stands a historical marker that includes the following text: “Near this site stood Shelbyville, A.T., first county seat of Shelby County; named for Isaac Shelby, governor of Tennessee. Shelby County was established February 7, 1818 by an act of the Alabama Territorial Legislature.”  Yes, the first seat of county government was located where Pelham is now. And yes, the community and the county existed before Alabama became a state.

Congress created the Alabama Territory in March 1817 from the eastern half of the Mississippi Territory, which dated from 1798. In the 1810 census what became the “A.T.” seven years later had around 9, 000 people. By 1820, just after Alabama was granted statehood in December 1819, the population had swelled to almost 128,000. In 1826 a town on the other end of the county, Columbia, was renamed Columbiana and has been the county seat ever since. Shelbyville remained a tiny town for over 150 years even after changing its name to Pelham in the 1870s.

As the marker also notes, an orphan’s court was held in what is now Pelham just two months after the county was created. A private home served as the first courthouse. Even in that sparsely populated frontier of the United States, some provisions had to be made for orphans and their right to any family estate. An index for the county’s orphan’s court book 1818-1836 is available online, and the book is kept by the Shelby County Historical Society in Columbiana. This first court of the county was later replaced by probate court.
The map below is a close-up portion of Fielding Lucas' 1822 map of Alabama that shows two towns in Shelby County at that time. The map can be seen at the Historical Maps of Alabama online resource

A version of this post appeared in the winter 2015 issue of the Pelham City News.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Pondering Alabama Maps (4): Early State Road Maps

In the first three installments of this series I looked at the city of Pelham on some old maps. Why Pelham, you ask? I live there, silly! Now let's look at some early statewide road maps. 

One of the earliest Alabama road maps is surely the 1914 one below, which can be found at UA's Alabama Historical Maps collection. Below the state map is a detailed look at roads in Shelby, Bibb, Chilton and Autauga counties. This map was drawn by civil engineer and draftsman H.E. Anschutz under the direction of W.S. Keller and R.P. Boyd, State Highway Engineer and his assistant respectively. 

UPDATE on 2 July 2015: Historian Martin Olliff recently pointed out to me that W.S. Keller was Helen Keller's half-brother.

Notice anything interesting in the detail from Mr. Anschutz's creation?? That's right--in all this spaghetti, none of the roads have names or number designations. You'll find the same thing on the 1924 map in the digital collection. 

Now let's take a look at the state's 1925 road map:

And here's a zoom of the Selma-Clanton-Montgomery area:

Now we see some numbers on these roads. At first they seem like mileage numbers, but that doesn't work out. These numbers are the early highway designations in Alabama. 

No draftsman is identified prominently on this 1925 map, although I suspect we find his name in the lower right corner: D.E. Shields and the year 1924. 

In the next installment I'd like to continue by looking at some more state road maps from the 1920's and into the 1930's.

A fascinating history of the early "good roads" movement in Alabama is Martin Olliff's "Getting on the Map: Alabama's Good Roads Pathfinding Campaigns, 1911-1912" in the Alabama Review 2015 January; 68(1): 3-30.

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Visit to Historic Hobbs Cemetery in Huntsville

Well, a "visit" is an ambitious word in this case, since the cemetery is so small and so close to my mother's house in southeast Huntsville just north of the Tennessee River. But it's worth a stop, anyway.

This pocket cemetery sits between two houses in a development that is only a few decades old. This section of Huntsville has been growing for some time, as the commercial and residential developments just north in Jones Valley indicate.

Yet in a few places something older will pop up, such as the Historic Hobbs Cemetery on Siniard Drive. And this place is pretty old. More than 20 people are buried here, including John Hobbs who once owned Hobbs Island just to the south. Hobbs died in 1833; his brother-in-law James Fennell died in 1817 and his headstone may be the oldest in Madison County. Where Fennell was originally buried and the relationship between his grave and Hobbs' makes for an interesting story.

A railroad once terminated at the island. Railroad cars would be loaded onto ferries and floated downstream to Guntersville Landing. Offloaded there, the trains then made their way to Gadsden. The island is currently listed for sale at $7.8 million. 

As these photos taken in August show, the cemetery is currently in need of some cleanup. In February 2012 the Huntsville Times ran a story about a Boy Scout who was cleaning up the cemetery as part of his effort to earn the Eagle Scout badge. Nate Hornsby expressed the hope that others would care for the cemetery in the future. Perhaps someone will. although neglected cemeteries are pretty common in America.