Friday, January 30, 2015

A Vintage Valentine’s Day in Birmingham

            Although it began as a religious event in the early Christian church, Valentine’s Day in America is now associated with romantic love and commercialism. This transformation began in Great Britain in the early nineteenth century; the type of greeting cards we know today began then and there. These  cards appeared in the U.S. in the late 1840s. Wikipedia has an extensive article on the history of Valentine’s Day.
            By the late 1800s newspapers and greeting card companies made a big fuss about February 14. We can find local evidence in the newspapers being published in Birmingham at the time. For instance, there is an obligatory “origins of Valentine's Day” article that appeared in the Birmingham Weekly Age Herald on March 1, 1893. Oddly, that paper—and perhaps others of the time--seemed to publish materials related to the day even AFTER February 14.
            The Weekly Age Herald ran a local, anonymously written gossip and happenings column signed by “The Woman About Town.” On February 17, 1892, her column included the following:

                Valentine's Day! Ah, the thought means much to some. There is a racy little story going the rounds regarding the fatal day.
              Certain cards have been received bearing the name of a young woman, with bows of yellow, pink and blue. On one is written:
"If to me your heart is true,
Send me back my bow of blue."
On another:
"If you are some other girl's fellow,
Send me back my bow of yellow."
And the last:
"If I'm the girl you wish to wed,
Come and bring yourself instead."
Comments are unnecessary.
There are few who will believe the above is true, but the fact remains the same. The young woman did send them. THE WOMAN ABOUT TOWN

            Ah, the racy days of 1892 in Birmingham….
            Even then, not everyone seemed happy with the state of Valentine’s Day. On February 22, 1893, the Weekly Age Herald inserted this sentiment as a filler item into one of its pages: “As Cervantes killed knight-errantry by his Don Quixote, and Dean Swift put a quietus on the marvelous tales of Gulliver's Travels, so the comic valentine has destroyed the sentiment of St. Valentine's Day. Oh, ridicule, how much mischief is done in thy name!”
             From the Victorian Era into the 1920s, our ancestors might have exchanged some of the cards below. These and many other wonderful vintage Valentine’s Day cards in the public domain can be found at  Issues of the Weekly Age Herald can be found online in the Birmingham Public Library’s Digital Collections at

Happy Valentine’s Day!

This item first appeared on DiscoverBirmingham in February 2014.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Birmingham Photos of the Day (26): Ramming the Earth in 1936

In 1936 seven houses were built in the Gardendale "district" as part of a demonstration program by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The houses remain in the unincorporated Mount Olive community next to the suburb of Gardendale north of Birmingham. Each house had enough land for gardening and small numbers of livestock. Each house was built using the "rammed earth" method.

This building technique is ancient  and involves mixing damp earth with such stabilizers as sand, gravel and clay into a frame using pressure to create walls or blocks. Many such buildings around the world have survived for thousands of years.

The seven houses in Mount Olive are still standing. In 2009 an article at described the houses, their history, and included a photo of one of the houses. The article notes that each one-story house had about four acres and 1500 square feet of interior space.

The article identifies the architect on the project as Thomas Hibben. I have been able to find very little about him; one site devoted to rammed earth construction also identifies him as an engineer. Another site notes the project was so successful it attracted visitors from around the world, including Nehru from India. 

Twenty-six photographs of the project taken by Hibben are available on the Yale University site devoted to photographers working for U.S. government agencies in the 1930's and 1940's. Ten of them can be seen below. One photograph of a rammed earth house on that site was taken by Arthur Rothstein during his April 1937 visit to Alabama. I have talked about other Rothstein photographs in three previous posts on this blog. The Hibben photographs are all labeled with just a year, 1937.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Is a Florida Highwayman Hiding in Alabama?

Back in the day, before development forever changed much of the Florida panhandle, my father and his parents would make annual pilgrimages to a small fishing village somewhere further down that part of the Gulf coast. My mother thinks  the spot was Cedar Key, which in the 1940's and 1950's would have been tiny and away from it all. Pretty much still is, I guess. Not long after my parents married and when I was just a young sprout, there was an infamous family trip to wherever this fishing haven was. But that's another story....

If it was indeed Cedar Key, that's a nice touch. When he left Texas in the 1870's on the run from the Rangers, gunfighter John Wesley Hardin left New Orleans and landed in Cedar Key before making his way to Gainesville. He spent a couple of years hiding in Pollard in south Alabama before the Rangers finally caught up with him in Pensacola in August, 1877. But that's another story... 

Anyway, my grandparents were going to Florida in the mid-1950's when a group of African-American artists began to sell their quickly-done landscape paintings from the trunks of their cars in towns and along the tourist highways. Many were also sold door-to-door. This group of 26 individuals has since become known as the Florida Highwaymen. Alfred Hair, one of the group's original members, died in 1970 and their heydey seemed over. 

The art languished until Jim Fitch, an art historian, discovered it around 1995, and published an article about the artists. Journalist Jeff Klinkenberg also wrote several articles for a St. Petersburg newspaper about that time. More recently serious interest in the art and its creators has developed. There is even a Wikipedia page, for goodness sake. Several other pages on the web are here, here and here. Gary Monroe has just published a book on the group's only female member, Mary Ann Carroll. That work follows several others he has published on the Highwaymen. PBS broadcast a documentary in 2008. The art is now often identified as "folk" or "outsider" art.

Most of the artists were self-taught; mentoring by other group members was common. Inexpensive boards became their canvases; crown molding painted for an antique effect often framed the works. Most of the paintings featured Florida landscapes.

For years the painting below hung in a storage room my grandparents had as part of their garage and carport in Gadsden. When it came time to clean out their house, I took the work that no one else wanted. The piece remained in one of our basement closets until the Basement Event That Shall Remain Nameless last April made me take another look at it.

I remembered having read something about the Highwaymen years earlier, and this painting had the same bright colors, interesting details, cheap canvas and crown molding frame. Nothing on the painting itself or the back indicates anything about the artist or gives other information.

Is it a Highwayman piece? Who knows? The scene doesn't seem quite "Floridian". When I saw it often as a kid in that carport storage room, I thought it had a vaguely Asian feel. Did they have log cabins in China?

I'm not sure any of the actual Highwayment operated along the Panhandle; the east coast of Florida would have offered access to many more tourists in the 1950's through the 1970's. Perhaps it was painted by someone immitating their style.

Anyway, it's a colorful painting and for now it continues to hang in one of our basement closets. Maybe one day another child will re-discover it.  

Monday, January 12, 2015

Birmingham Photos of the Day (25): "World's Highest Standard of Living"

The two photographs below were taken by Arthur Rothstein in February 1937 during his swing through Alabama for the Farm Security Administration. During the Great Depression the FSA sent a number of male and female photographers around the country to document conditions especially--but not exclusively--in rural areas. I've discussed his Birmingham photo of a barber shop in a previous blog post and his photos of area migrant workers in another. I'll be posting more of his work in a future item about FSA photographers in Alabama.

In trips in September 1935, February 1937 and June 1942, Rothstein took more than 400 photographs in the state, ranging from Jackson County to Mobile. About half that number were taken in June 1942 to document the war effort for the Office of War Information. A number of his Birmingham photographs taken on the 1937 visit relate to coal mining.

I have yet to identify the buildings seen in these two photos, especially the second one. The sign company is identified as the General Outdoor Advertising [Advertisement?] Company and may be the one listed here. However, that company filed as a "foreign corporation" [meaning out of state] in Alabama in 1963; the filing has since been "withdrawn". Yet a token celebrating the silver anniversary of this same Chicago company in 1950 can be seen here. Since that company started in 1925, perhaps it is indeed the one identified in these photographs.

More than 170,000 photographs taken by FSA and OWI photographers have been made available by Yale University. They are an incredible resource.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Bloodhounds & Escaped Convicts at Pratt Mines in 1886

The penal code Alabama adopted after the Civil War allowed the leasing of state and county prisoners to the highest bidder for work outside the prisons. This "convict-lease" system became common in other southern states as well. Alabama did not end the practice until 1928 and was the last state to do so. By the 1880's several thousand leased prisoners worked in mines in the Birmingham area, and provided governments with significant income. Over 90 percent of the prisoners were black.  

I found the item below at the USGenWeb site, a genealogical resource full of historical goodies including many related to Alabama. The article appeared in the Nashville American and various other newspapers as noted at the end, apparently in the spring of 1886. 

The article is an interview with E.O Crauswell, who trained the bloodhounds that chased escaped convicts from the the Pratt Mines in Jefferson County. The Pratt Coal and Coke Company first mined in the area in February 1879 and the boom that created the "Magic City" began. In 1886 the company was purchased by the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company. Information and photographs of the Pratt Mines can be found at the Birmingham Rails site

Eli Osborn Crauswell was born in 1847 and died in 1909. He is buried in the Fraternal Cemetery in Pratt City. 

Another view of the Pratt Mines can be found on the Alabama Department of Archives and History web site. In a long letter convicts Ezekiel Archey and Ambrose Haskins address Reginald Dawson, President of the Alabama Board of Inspectors of Convicts. Written on May 26, 1884, the letter declares at the beginning "We write you looking to get your kind attention in this case. We have bin treated very cruel lately by the Board and we wish to find out what we have done to cause such treatment."

A 1923 pamphlet Let's get rid of Alabama's shame : the convict lease or contract system : facts, figures, possible remedies issued by the Statewide Campaign Committee for the Abolishment of the Convict Contract System can be found in the Birmingham Public Library's Digital Collections. The title page can be seen at the end of this post.

Pratt mine shaft number 1 around 1880
Source: BhamWiki

Nashville American 1886


The Master of the Bloodhound and His Wonderful Convict Catcher

"Wynton, allow me to introduce my friend E. O. Crauswell, who is the keeper of the dogs at Pratt Mines, Ala., and who has the only pack of genuine bloodhounds in the south."

The speaker was L. W. Johns, the mining engineer. Mr. Crauswell advanced and extended his hand to your correspondent.  He was heavily built, six feet eight inches tall, of florid complexion, and wore a wide brim slouch hat. His feet were encased in high-topped boots, in which his pants were stuffed. His coat was worn open in front, showing an immaculate shirt of snowy whiteness, on the bosom of which, half hidden in the ruffles, glistened a large diamond. He had the appearance of a desperado, but he was genial and frank and an interesting talker, with a voice as soft as a woman's, and with, actions as timid as a girl's.

In 1883 he came to this place and began to train bloodhounds.  He brought to the mines five famous dogs that had been owned by his father, among which were Fannie and Bucker, the two famous man-hunters of the south.The dogs are kept in a kennel in the stockade enclosure and are nursed and fed by their master as tenderly as children.  Their food consists of bread and raw beef.

The animals, when three months old, are put through a course of training.  A trusty convict is started off on a run with the dog at his heels, and runs a short distance.  A run of five minutes is taken, and it is increased until the dog can trail well at a start of thirty hours on him. The  dogs are not difficult to train; the only difficulty is to keep them from changing tracks, which is, in dog pariance, to put a dog on the track of a man and his sticking to it without changing even if other tracks cross it. 

Fannie will never give her tongue to any other but the first track she took, even if 100 persons were to cross it. She will follow the track to its end, and, if she does not find the man, she will stop and return home.

When a convict escapes, a general alarm is sounded, and the dogs are ready. They are taken to the place where the escaped convict was last seen.  Crauswell mounts his fast horse, and the dogs are let loose. Each dog circles for a track and begins to hunt.  Every one goes to work for the trail, like as many human detectives.  When the trail is found the dog who discovers it makes a signal and every other animal follows.  Fannie and Bucker always take the lead from any other dog. Crauswell and horse follow at full speed, and the longer the chase the more interesting it grows.

The longest trail this man and his man-hunters ever had was in March, 1884, when a negro escaped from the shaft prison.  He had gone forty miles and had been away about twenty-eight hours. The dogs had trouble to catch his scent after such a time.  The negro took an astonishing run and went about ten miles through water.  He was found at last on top of an old house on the mountain near Warrior river.  He was half starved when captured.

Crauswell was asked to speak of some of the characteristics of his dogs. "I am convinced," said he, "beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the bloodhound has more than mere instinct.  I believe that they think and reason like human beings.  I know that Fannie and Bucker do.  The dogs are docile in camps and very vicious on the trail.  Their sense follows the movements of men. There is no trouble to get them to take the track when they find it.

"After a convict is captured the dogs return satisfied, and as happy as if
they had caught a rabbit.  When they return to the prison they become perfectly docile; when called out again they grow very excited. The affection of the dogs for me is more like that of a child to its father than anything else I can describe.  I feed them myself and they have great confidence in me.  I have five fine puppies, 4 months old, that have fur on them like sheep, which are now ready to track a man to the depths of hell, if he could travel there, and as for hiding a trail, it is an impossibility.  I am raising them for sale, and I guarantee them to find a trail thirty-six hours old.."  Nashville America.

Also carried in: Manitoba Daily Free Press, Winnipeg, Thursday March 18,
1888,  The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, 13 Apr 1886, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Page 2, Daily Picayune, New Orleans

[I'm not sure why two years are given above; perhaps the 1888 year should be 1886. The same article appearing in multiple newspapers was common practice at the time, but usually within a period of a few weeks. This item did appear for certain in the Orangeburg, South Carolna, Times and Democrat on April 15, 1886.]

File contributed for use in USGenWeb Archives by:

Elizabeth Crauswell Verchio July 17, 2011

Monday, January 5, 2015

Old Alabama Stuff (3): Official & Statistical Register 1907

From 1903 until 1912 Thomas M. Owen, Director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, compiled editions of this work. None were issued in 1905 and 1909. This 1907 edition can be found online at the Internet Archive.

Thomas McAdory Owen [1866-1920] was the founder and first director of the state archives. Alabama was the first state to create a publicly funded, independent archive which it did by law in February 1901. Owen was also responsible for the massive four-volume History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography published just after his death and completed by his wife Marie Bankhead Owen.  She was immediately appointed to succeed him at the archives and served 35 years in the post. As one of the members of the prominent Bankhead family, she was also Tallulah Bankhead's aunt.

Below are the title page of that 1907 Register and the table of contents. After the lyrics of the state song composed by Julia S. Tutwiler [also below] and "adopted by the public schools of the state", the introduction covers such items as the origin of the state name, the seal, and the state flag.  

Then the meat of the matter begins, with expected chapters on state government, judiciary and legislature, population, geography, agriculture and so forth. Also given are other snapshots of the time including "Benevolent Institutions"--primarily hospitals, orphanages and such--and newspapers and magazines published in the state.

One chapter is devoted to the election statistics for 1904 and 1906 and information on political parties. Pay special attention to pages 286 and 287; there you will find the platform of the Socialist Party of Alabama.

Near the end are a few pages devoted to a "Brief Classified Bibliography of Alabama"; the first page is below. In 1898 Owen had published A Bibliography of Alabama, a massive work listing more than 5000 items related to the state. This brief version is distilled from the longer work, which remains one of my all-time favorite Alabama books. Go forth and read it!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

What's Coming to the Blog in 2015??

People will be born, people will die. People will fall in love, get married, fall out of love, get divorced--wait, wrong list!

What's in store for THIS BLOG in 2015? Maybe I can get more specific with that one.

I began this blog in March 2014 and by the end of the year I'd put up 95 postings. Crazy. Topics ranged from old books to silent movies to old photos to adandoned drive-ins to a giant frog in Mobile. Oh, and Alabama Pizza Pasta in London. All of it related in some way to Alabama history. Mostly.

This year the onslaught of random quirkiness will continue:

-What's the Alabama connection in Rock Hudson's 1953 film The Lawless Breed?

-Who were some well-known movie actresses from Alabama--besides Tallulah Bankhead--long before Kate Jackson, Louise Fletcher, Courtney Cox and Kim Dickens?

-What three famous film directors have Birmingham connections?

-Who were all those photographers criss-crossing Alabama for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s?

-Who were three female writers from Alabama whose first names began with Z?

-Who was Ambrose Bierce and why did he come to Alabama in the 1860s?

-What kind of career has train robber Railroad Bill had in blues and folk music?

-Will the madness ever end?

As my grandfather used to say, "See you in the funny papers."