Thursday, September 29, 2016

Birmingham Photo of the Day (51): The Magic City Sign

In April 2016 Rotary Trail opened in downtown Birmingham, turning a former railroad cut into a pedestrian park. A prominent feature was a close reproduction of the old "Magic City" sign that once stood near the Terminal Station, which was demolished in 1969. 

Below is a photograph of the original sign taken in February 1941. Also included are a postcard featuring the sign with Terminal Station in the background. The final photo shows the new sign at the Rotary Trail. 

As with so many things related to Birmingham, a fascinating history of the original sign can be found at the wonderful BhamWiki site. 

Source: Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections

Source: BhamWiki

Source: WBHM-FM 

Monday, September 26, 2016

Jackie Gleason and Phenix City

On June 18, 1954, attorney Albert Patterson was murdered outside his office in Phenix City. He had recently won the Democratic primary for the office of state attorney general. If he won again in the November general election, Patterson planned to begin cleaning up the town which had become a mob haven for gambling, narcotics trade and prostitution. 

Patterson's assassination was the culmination of other local efforts to clean up the town that also met with violent reactions. Government responses this time were swift. The mayor banned alcohol sales on Sunday, but Governor Gordon Persons brought down the big hammer. He declared martial law and sent 75 National Guardsmen to work around the clock raids on gambling dens, booze warehouses and nightclubs. Soldiers from Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, were banned from entering the city. Patterson's son John later ran for state attorney general, won, and prosecuted the men involved in his father's murder. Only one was convicted. 

Events in Phenix City attracted massive media attention. Even Hollywood got involved; the faux documentary film The Phenix City Story appeared in August 1955. The film starred well-known actors John McIntire as Albert Patterson and Richard Kiley as son John. Look magazine called the town "The Wickedest City in America." 

Edwin Strickland's book Phenix City also appeared in 1955. More recent books on the events include Margaret Barnes' The Tragedy and Triumph of Phenix City, Alabama [1999] and Faith Serafin's Wicked Phenix City [2014]. Alabama author Ace Atkins devoted one of his novels, Wicked City [2008] to the story. 

We can even tie actor and comedian Jackie Gleason, Honeymooner Ralph Kramden himself, to the Phenix City story. Born in Brooklyn in 1916, Gleason developed as a nightclub comedian and movie actor by the early 1940's. Later in the decade he moved to television on the DuMont network. CBS lured him away for his own variety series, The Jackie Gleason Show, which became the second highest rated program of the 1954-55 season. Gleason continued a combination of dramatic acting, comedy, and hosting for the remainder of his long career. 

On Sunday, December 6, 1954, Gleason took a break from his own show to appear in "Peacock City" on Studio One, an anthology show that ran on CBS-TV from 1948 until 1958. Many prominent actors appeared in the stories over the years. 

The site has this description of the plot of "Peacock City": "An unscrupulous politician takes all kinds of short cuts to get what he wants, until a crusading attorney seeking justice stands in his way." The episode was written by Corey Wilber, a prolific author for television who wrote several other scripts for Studio One. For some reason, the episode is also found as "Short Cut"

I've yet to determine if this particular episode has survived. The Wikipedia entry for the show says many episodes are in the collections of the Paley Center for the Media in New York City and Los Angeles. 

Airing just six months after the events in Phenix City and the resulting publicity, this program no doubt had a "ripped from the headlines" feel even if highly fictionalized. The episode may be Jackie Gleason's one tenuous connection to Alabama. If you know of others, let us hear about them in the comments. 

People gathered on the sidewalk just after Albert Patterson's assassination

Two men clean the sidewalk after Albert Patterson's assassination

John Patterson with Richard Kiley, the actor who played him in The Phenix City Story

Source: Wikipedia

Early publicity photo of Jackie Gleason

Source: Wikipedia


Thursday, September 22, 2016

Tom Roan's 1936 "Loot Island"

Although he wrote novels and other types of stories, Tom Roan is best known as the author of hundreds of stories published in the western pulp magazines from the late 1920's until the early 1950's. He's also one of those authors whose life is more unbelievable than most of his fiction.

Roan was born in Snead on Sand Mountain in December 1892. His poor family moved frequently as the men sought jobs. At one point the family lived in Cardiff near Birmingham where his father William worked in a coal mine. Roan left Alabama on a freight train when he was fifteen and headed west.

He ended up in San Francisco, but that was only one of many stops during the next two decades. He served in the U.S. Army from 1913 until 1917, much of the time in Hawaii. Around that period Roan fought for Pancho Villa in Mexico, and worked in a circus, as a private detective and a marshal in various western towns. He was said to have killed five bad men during those days.

Roan returned to Alabama in 1930 with his first wife Marjorie. Soon they were living in Collinsville in DeKalb County. The following year Roan shot Dr. William Preston Hicks several times during a drunken brawl at Roan's home. Three trials later, in 1933, he was finally acquitted. During his time in jail he requested a typewriter so he could keep writing stories. Dr. Hicks, born in 1889, was a 1913 graduate of the Birmingham Medical College.

Marjorie and their daughter left Alabama during the trials, and she divorced Roan. The daughter was later killed in a car wreck in California. Roan would marry again, but they had no children. He died on July 1, 1958, in Sea Bright, New Jersey. He is buried in Fair View Cemetery in Middletown, New Jersey. 

Two early novels are autobiographical portraits of Roan's young days in Alabama. Stormy Road was published in 1934 and set in Attalla where Tom spent part of his youth. Black Earth came out the following year and is set in the coal mines around Birmingham. 

The story under discussion here, "Loot Island," is a real potboiler and set in Alabama. Two federal agents, G-men McGee and Lumbard, have arrived on an island in Lonesome Swamp pounded by "sheets of Alabama rain." They are following Crash Finnegan and his gang of thieving murderers who have hidden out in the "Treacherous Alabama Swamplands." Their loot consists of jewelry and almost three hundred thousand dollars. Their speed boat is ready to take them away if they need to say "good-by Alabama, hello, South America or some other safe places...[if] Washington got too nosey."

The local prison warden is skeptical of the need to search for the gang. "When a prisoner gets away and gets into it [the swamp], we usually let him go. If he's too bad, we watch the rims of the swamp. It's the hell-hole of Alabama." Nevertheless, he loans the agents a trusted prisoner named Rip, "a fearless Negro serving life imprisonment for the murder of one of his kind" who had "the highest recommendation his big, fat-jowled warden could possibly give him." Rip brought along two hound dogs to help in the hunt.

During that first night Rip and the dogs are murdered, and the convoluted chases back and forth over the island begin. Things are complicated by the "Swamp Rabbits", families who live on the island and don't seem to have much to do but visit each other and make "the traditional corn whiskey of Alabama." One of these denizens is the lovely girl Ann Crow, who can shoot as well as the rest of them and who quickly develops a thing for Lumbard. The feeling is mutual, of course.

At first the Swamp Rabbits are as suspicious of the federal men as they are of the recently arrived crooks, but soon the two groups work together. Chases, gun battles, fires, journeys through underground passageways and I don't remember what else ensue. We do get some lectures on how these people ended up in the swamp--escaping "damned Yankee carpet-baggers an' their kind what come down outa Yankeeland to take over the state" of course.  

Naturally this tale has a happy ending The crooks are vanquished and there is hope for the young lovers to get together in the future. "I reckon I'm not your kind," lovely Ann Crow tells Lumbard. "You see, I've never been about much, but I'm thanking you for coming. You have done us a good turn. The Swamp Rabbits never forget. But--but come back if you really do feel like coming back, I--I reckon I'll be here sorter just a-waitin'."

Who could refuse that invitation??

You can find Roan's story here. It was originally published in the September 19, 1936, issue of Detective Fiction Weekly. The table of contents for the issue can be found below. Roan shared space with at least two other prolific authors, Norman A. Daniel and Judson P. Philips. That magazine's history is about as convoluted as Roan's plot in this story. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

A Quick Visit to Hartselle

Each year my brother Richard and I take a trip together primarily to explore Alabama and family history. Our trip this past July ended in Hartselle, and this post examines a few things we found there. Comments on other stops: Bessemer & Jasper, Posey's Hardware in Jasper, Bug Tussle, and Colony

Hartselle had about 14,000 people in the 2010 U.S. Census. The town has a nice historic downtown area which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. Notable natives include author William Bradford Huie, politician John Sparkman and various sports stars. 

Incorporated in 1875, the town has some interesting history. The downtown area has rebounded from two major fires in 1901 and 1916. A Rosenwald school for black residents, built in the early 20th century, closed in 1969 and had to be demolished in 2000. Hartselle High School celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2009. 

In March 1926, more than a dozen men stormed the bank, held hostages for four hours and then made off with $15,000 worth of cash, gold and silver. They used six sticks of dynamite to blow the bank's safe. The robbers were never identified; today the building is the home of a boutique. 

In the late 1980's Hartselle was home to the "Tomb of Mystery Museum" operated by magician John Reed. The collection consisted of his personal magic materials and historical acquisitions over the years. I wonder whatever happened to those items. 

We had a specific goal in mind for this Hartselle visit, but we also managed to see a few other things. All will be revealed in the comments below. 

Back in June I posted an item about James Copeland, a Confederate veteran who once vowed never to cut his beard if the South lost. He kept his word, and his beard was said to be nearly seven feet long when he died. According to my research, he is buried in the cemetery adjacent to this Methodist church outside Hartselle.  

Richard and I spent a half hour roaming around the cemetery in the July heat hoping to find Mr. Copeland's grave. We didn't, but there are many unmarked graves here. As the marker below notes, the cemetery has graves going back to 1804, so it's worth visiting as historic itself. 

Like Birmingham, Hartselle has its iconic Iron Man. We found him on our way to the Methodist church. He's on Iron Man Road. At the Iron Man Grocery. In the Iron Man community, with an Iron Man Barber, too. The fellow has been around for a century or so and has survived various attacks of vandalism.

Iron Man was originally an advertisement for VegaCalBessemer pharmacist W.D. Taylor developed the liver tonic, and the iron man advertised his product. "VegaCal Gets the Bile" according to the slogan on his chest. Apparently several of these iron advertisements were made in Birmingham and scattered in the area. I wonder if any others have survived.

There is a Civil War site of significance in the area.

Richard and I had lunch at Cahoot's Cafe in downtown Hartselle, where I had a great Reuben sandwich. As you can see from the photo below, the place is packed with all sorts of neat historical stuff. 

A few years ago the Hartselle Public Library was named after one of the city's most famous natives, William Bradford Huie. The journalist and novelist was a  very controversial figure during his lifetime, but returned to live in Hartselle in the mid-1950's. He is buried in the city cemetery. 

This building seems to have been a bank at one time; that book drop area sure looks like a former drive through for one.  


Black group unable to save landmark building [Morgan County Training School]. Associated Press 2000 September 25

Keith, Susan. Welcome to John Reed's World of Magic. Kudzu Magazine/Birmingham Post-Herald 1988 October 28, pp 4-6

Kennedy, James H. Iron Man pride of community named for him. Birmingham News 1991 March 11

Mcdaniel, DeAngelo. From the ashes: Downtown Hartselle survived 2 major fire. Decatur Daily 

McDaniel, DeAngelo. Memorabilia captures century of Hartselle High. Decatur Daily 2009 September 18

Shocking, unsolved 1926 bank robbery still provokes interest. Birmingham New 2000 March 28, p 2B

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Alabama Book Covers (15): Robert McCammon

Robert McCammon grew up in East Lake and graduated from Banks High School. After his first novel Baal appeared in 1978, he became one of the most successful writers of horror fiction as that genre boomed from the 1970's into the 1990's. In 1992, after publishing thirteen novels, he tired of the horror writer pigeonhole and took a ten-year break. In 2002 he returned to publishing his fiction with Speaks the Nightbird. He has published ten more books since then. Thus the covers below are only a small sample of his output. 

You can learn more about McCammon, his reading schedule and books on his website. He continues to live in the Birmingham area, one of the rare very successful Alabama authors who has remained in the state his entire career. 

I must admit I've only read one McCammon novel so far, They Thirst, and I highly recommend it. The book is both juicy horror and well-written. I have several other McCammon titles on my shelves and fully intend to read those too.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Birmingham Photos of the Day (50): Airport Terminal Views in 1947

In August I posted an item in this series that discussed a photograph of the original terminal at the Birmingham airport. Since then I've found some more photographs, including several taken inside the terminal. All were taken by Charles Preston in 1946 and 1947, according to the entries on the Birmingham Public Library's Digital Collections site. These pictures seem to be something out of a neat old movie, maybe just after Bogie and Bacall have boarded their plane. As always, I have comments on some  of them. 

As you'll note from the dates noted below, something does not jive. I suspect one or more dates are incorrect. Or the old Birmingham airport terminal was a way station in the Twilight Zone. 

Many other photographs by Preston related to the Birmingham area can be found on the Birmingham Public Library's Digital Collections site

Entrance to the Birmingham Airport taken by Preston in February 1947. 

This interior shot shows the Eastern Airlines ticket counter and the coffee shop entrance. The clock tells us it's 10:25 am on that February 5, 1947. I wonder if the next flight is running late?

This Preston photograph is dated June 1946 and also shows the Eastern Airlines ticket counter. What happened? Not sure how this more modern looking counter became the counter above.  

This Preston photograph was also supposedly taken in February 1947. Delta was founded in 1924 as a crop-dusting operation; the airline's headquarters moved to Atlanta in 1941. Note the lone women sitting in a chair; she seems to appear in the next two photographs as well.  

Another February 1947 photo that features the PCA International ticket counter. I'm not sure what "PCA" stood for, and the airline must not have been around long. I couldn't find it on either Wikipedia or a general Google search. And what happened to that coffee shop sign??

A final February 1947 shot features some of the terminal's windows.

Another undated photograph by Preston shows passengers boarding an Eastern Airlines plane.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

A Quick Visit to Colony

On our recent trip taking us from Bessemer to Jasper and Hartselle, my brother Richard and I made a drive through the town of Colony in the southwestern corner of Cullman County. Parts of this trip from Bessemer and around Jasper have already been described here, here and here.

I've noticed the I-65 exit for Colony many times, and after reading a bit about the history we decided to see it. The town's origins lie in the land claims in the area by two former slaves, and brothers, Major Reid and Enoch Montgomery. Other former slaves also filed claims, and a community slowly grew. Reid died in 1893 and his brother the following year; both are buried in the cemetery of the Methodist church in Colony.

During these early decades a cotton gin and various mills opened. A general store, Colony Mercantile, found success serving both blacks and whites in the area. A school started up in 1927 and offered instruction through seventh and then through the high school grades. Colony School merged with Hanceville in 1965 so that students were attending an accredited school. The town incorporated in 1981. Colony's population in the 2010 U.S. Census was 268. 

Oddly, Virginia Foscue's Place Names in Alabama does not have an entry for Colony. My brother and I saw no historical marker in town, and I did not find one listed on the inventory of the Alabama Historical Association. 

Further Reading

Kent Faulk, "Colony: Pop. 412. Numbers add up to hope for Cullman community. Birmingham News 18 February 2005, 1C, 6C

Rheta Grimsley Johnson, Ex-slaves Colony on the map now. Atlanta Journal-Constitution 1 February 1995, D1

The branch library is part of the Cullman County Public Library System. 

The library is housed in the Tom Bevill Educational Complex. A recent article discusses efforts to increase community use of the complex. 

Signs of past structures can be spotted in Colony. 

In addition to the town hall, built in 1986, and senior citizen center, Colony also has a very nice 13 acre park.