Friday, March 30, 2018

My Grandmother & the Progressive Farmer

After my paternal grandmother Rosa Mae Wright died in January 1996, mom and dad cleaned out the house in Gadsden and brought lots of items home to Huntsville, from furniture to stacks of old letters and photographs. In that material was the envelope below. Let's investigate.

The Progressive Farmer was founded as a newspaper in North Carolina in 1886 with the aim of bringing the latest crop and agriculture information to farmers in the Southeast. Various changes ended in the creation of a magazine in 1908 and the establishment of a central office in Birmingham in 1911. 

In 1966 Southern Living magazine was created from the lifestyle section, and various other publications and products and ownership followed over the years. In 2007 The Progressive Farmer was sold to former advertiser DTN and continues publication with headquarters still in Birmingham. 

Many of those changes occurred after my grandmother received the pattern for these "good looking glass towels." The pattern came to her home in Gadsden; I wonder if she actually made the towels. Like many women of her generation she sewed often, so perhaps she did.

I contacted the current Progressive Farmer in hopes of finding more information about this pattern, but was told this sort of magazine history has not survived. We can assume the mailing was done before the U.S. Post Office adopted zip codes in 1963. The 1.5 cent Martha Washington stamp was issued in 1938 and used extensively into the late 1950's. I would thus suppose my grandmother received this pattern before 1960. She kept the pattern and noted "Kitchen Design" on the envelope; i recognize her writing. 

Can we imagine a time when a magazine offered free or very low cost patterns? And when they only cost a penny and a half to mail? I wonder if they were offered to subscribers only or anyone? There is no indication in this material of any charge, and I don't remember ever seeing issues of the magazine at my grandparents' house.

I did run across this site which describes women's clothing patterns once offered by The Progressive Farmer. 

Novelist L.P. Hartley began his work The Go-Between, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." Isn't that the truth.

Amos J. and Rosa Mae Wright

50th wedding anniversary October 1966; they were married on Halloween 1916

Living room of their home at 1313 Chandler Street, Gadsden

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Birmingham Photo of the Day (64): Medical Alumni Building

As you drive along 20th Street in Birmingham, through the UAB campus on your way to Five Points South, this building will be on your left as you start up the hill. Don't blink or you'll miss this little concrete Art Deco gem. In my years at UAB I always heard it referred to as the Medical Alumni building. Let's investigate.

The structure was designed by architect David Willdin for the Brown-Service Funeral HomeWilldin designed many buildings in Birmingham, Gadsden and Tuscaloosa in a career that lasted from 1902 until 1961. His projects included Legion Field, the Thomas Jefferson Hotel and Druid City Hospital in Tuscaloosa.

In 1946 Liberty National Life Insurance bought the funeral home and sold the building to Dr. Roy Curtis Green who relocated his office. Green was born in Alabama in November 1904, attended Howard College [now Samford University] and graduated from Tulane University medical school in 1930. He completed an internship at Hillman Hospital and received his medical license in Alabama in the same year. In 1933 he married Miriam C. Walker.

I found him listed in various years of the American Medical Directory. By 1934 he had an office at 5357 1st Avenue North where it remained until he moved to this building at 811 South 20th Street. Green retired in 1981 and died in November 1990.

The University of Alabama Medical Alumni Association purchased the building in 1981, and a year of renovations followed. The location provided not only offices but meeting and banquet rooms and a library. I seem to remember going to a committee meeting of some sort there long ago but don't remember anything specific about the interior. The alumni group vacated the building around 2014. The structure is now the home of the Rose Law Firm

Art Deco architecture in the United States is often associated with such huge projects as the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center in New York City. The style was also used for many government buildings, movie theaters, train stations and diners. Many consumer products such as automobiles and radios also adopted the sleek, futuristic design during the 1920's and 1930's. So Birmingham still has its own little piece of Art Deco near UAB. 

Here's the building as it looked in February 2018 with the Rose Law Firm sign. The white plaque on the right of the front door notes the historical designation by the Jefferson County Historical Commission

A slightly different view of the building in 2009 is available on the BhamWiki site.

Roy Curtis Green in 1925


Monday, March 19, 2018

Birmingham's Great Temple of Travel

The Birmingham area will have at least one sad historical event to remember in 2019--the 50th anniversary of the demolition of Terminal Station, the "Great Temple of Travel" as author Marvin Clemons has described it. After two years of construction and expenditure of some two million dollars, the elaborate station opened in April 1909. Thus a major anniversary of its opening will take place next year also. Before demolition the station had its ups and downs; you can read an overview of that history on the BhamWiki site.  

Luckily for us, local railroad history author Marvin Clemons has written a wonderful account of Terminal Station just stuffed with details and photographs. This book is a natural compliment to his earlier, broader pictorial history, Birmingham Rails: The Last Golden Era from World War II to Amtrak. Both books are available here

Mr. Clemons has graciously provided me with the exterior and interior photographs of Terminal Station included below. They are just a taste of the treasures included in the book of the station itself inside and out and the many trains that passed through it. Both of his books will appeal to anyone with even a slight interest in railroads or Birmingham history. He is also available for talks on the Terminal Station as the flyer below describes.

I must confess I have more nostalgia than experience when it comes to railroads. I've never ridden on a train except those mighty ones at the zoo and such. I really need to change that someday.

I suppose I have a fondness for railroads and their history not only because of their importance to Alabama and the nation, but also my grandfather Amos J. Wright, Sr. He worked for several decades as a "switchman" for the L&N Railroad in Gadsden. I remember visiting my grandparents in the summer and on weekdays my grandmother would drive him to work and come back in the afternoon to pick him up, since they only had one car. Naturally I got to go along for the ride and see the station and the trains. 

One of his duties was to make sure all empty box cars were completely cleaned out. We have a collection in the family of empty artillery shells he found there over the years.

An overview of the state's railroad history can be found in Wayne Cline's 1997 book, Alabama Railroads.

Exterior in 1957

Interior in October 1968

Interior in 1969 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Cloverdale Drive, "Jack & Jill" & Me

I've written a couple of blog posts about my family's time on Cloverdale Drive in Huntsville in the 1950's. In one I discussed a "Snowfall on Cloverdale Drive in 1958". The other explored "Sunday Afternoon on Cloverdale Drive in 1959"

I recently came across a batch of Jack and Jill magazines sent to our house during many of the years we lived on Cloverdale Drive. Mom subscribed while I was growing up and kept it going during my younger brother Richard's early years as well. She said we both enjoyed the monthly collections of stories and puzzles aimed at younger children.

The magazine, which at that time billed itself as "The Better Magazine for Boys and Girls" and by 1960 as "The Exciting Magazine for Young Boys and Girls," is still being published. Issues included fiction, stories to be read aloud, "Things to Do" such as recipes and mazes, and so on. Looking at a random issue, February 1960, I note a "Huckleberry Hound" comic based on the popular TV show. Other issues included TV-related stories on Captain Kangaroo and an upcoming Shirley Temple Christmas special.

As I was going through this fascinating material, I noticed something interesting about the address labels on some of them. For instance, the August 1958 issue shown below has us living at 142 Cloverdale; by April 1959 we were at 4220. We certainly didn't move, so what happened?

I recently asked mom about this mystery, and she suggested a possible solution. She said that some point after we moved into the neighborhood, streets were extended and houses renumbered. That would make sense, given Huntsville's explosive growth while we lived in that house. In 1950 the population of the town was just over 16,400. By 1960 it was 72, 365--an increase of more than 340%.

As the maps below indicate, the house and neighborhood are still there in northwest Huntsville. According to a couple of realty sites, the house is 1006 square feet and was built in 1955. 

Here's a photo of the Cloverdale house in a 1958 snowstorm. 

Here mom and I are standing in front of the house in 1959.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Whatever Happened to Powhatan and Praco?

My aunt Marjorie Shores Pike, one of mom's older sisters, died in January. I was reminded by her obituary that she was born in Praco, Alabama. Mom herself was born in Powhatan, another small mining town in Jefferson County. 

When the family lived in Praco where Marjorie was born in January 1928, my grandfather John Miller Shores worked as an inspector for the mine company. At the end of the day he would go into the mine and make sure all equipment had been left in its proper place or brought to the surface. He worked this job to earn money for college, and then he planned to enter the Methodist ministry. He had begun ministerial training and had a church assignment, but was still going to college when they were living in Powhatan where mom was born in December 1929.

Both Powhatan and Praco no longer exist except as memories and in the case of Praco some ruins. Let's investigate.

The towns were located close to each other just north of the Locust Fork in northern Jefferson County. Powhatan was on Alabama 269/Birmingport Road; Praco was located a bit north on Jefferson County 81 or Flat Top Road. A Powhatan Street remains and heads east near the Birmingham Marine Terminal. 

On a web page about Alabama coal mines I found this information on Praco:

"The small community of Praco, the last company-owned coal town in Alabama, will vanish next month. The deteriorating community northwest of Birmingham is shutting down, its residents having been told by Alabama By-Products that they must find new homes within 30 days. About 80 houses remain, not all of them occupied. The number of people affected isn't known ... 'These are the last of some 500 houses that we owned in that area,' said Gene W. Lewis, president of Alabama By-Products. 'The primary purpose of these houses many, many years ago was for our employees. It's not a cold-hearted decision, but was one made quite some time ago. We are not in the housing business but in mining.' The company store closed last June, and the company has notified the remaining residents that they must vacate. Many of the residents do not look at Praco's closing with nostalgia, but with anger and worry. 'I would like to stay. It is about the only place where I can afford to rent,' said Mrs. Billie Pridemore, a Praco resident for 26 years.

From a December 11, 1981 UPI article titled, 'Coal Co. Town to Close Its Doors, Evict Residents'"

That same web page had this photo and caption:

Coal company houses in Praco, Al. 

(1970's image courtesy of Patricia Dickey Whitlock via

A recent article by Kelly Kazek gives more information about the background of Praco. The town appeared around 1910 on land owned by the Pratt Consolidated Coal Company from which the name was derived. The owner by the 1970's was Alabama By-Products; the land is now owned by Walter Energy. The mine closed in the late 1950's, but as the quote above notes Alabama By-Products maintained a company store and housing for many years afterward. Kazek's article has many photographs of the mine's remains and information about significant mining events including a May 1943 explosion that killed 10 miners.

According to this site, Praco's post office operated from 1931 until 1986. The same site notes the Powhatan post office operating from 1919 until 1978. I also located in the Alabama Almanac and Book of Facts 1955-56 that Powhatan is included in a list of places in the state with telegraph stations. [p. 252]  

The 2002 book The Heritage of Jefferson County, Alabama has entries on both Powhatan and Praco. The source of information about the towns given there is Barry J. McCleney's 1991 book, Journey into the Past: A History of the West Jefferson Area.

In 1917 the Powhatan Coal and Coke Company was founded, but soon failed and the Franklin Coal Company assumed operations the following year. The company constructed a two-story school. In 1926 the Methodists organized in the area and met in the school. This must have been John Miller Shores' church. The company was operating two mines by 1934, but operations ceased by 1947. The school closed two years later. 

The commissary was purchased and run as a private store for a few years. By 1978, when the Powhatan Fuel Company began strip-mining in the area, most signs of the community were gone. Sometime in the late 1990's my mother and her two sisters Heth and Marjorie toured various places in the state where they had lived growing up as a preacher's kids. They were in the Powhatan area one day, and stopped to asked where Powhatan was. The gentleman pointed to a mud puddle near the road and said, "Somewhere around that."

Just after 1900 the Pratt Consolidated Coal Company began to purchase land for mining in the area that became Praco. The first mine opened in 1905 and by the following year were employing almost 50 people. Originally called the Skelton Creek Mine after a local family, the company renamed it Praco in August 1907. By 1927 some 300 new camp houses had been constructed, along with a commissary, doctor's office and a post office. 

In September 1958 the mines closed, but the coal preparation plant continued until 1966. By 1979 some 200 houses remained and in December 1981 the company informed residents they would have to relocate. By August 1982 the community was deserted.  

Praco on a Jefferson County map from 1942. The map above shows details including two schools [the squares with flags on top] and the nearby L&N Railroad. I did not find Powhatan on this map.  

This larger portion of the same county map shows Praco and some of the surrounding towns. 

This map shows Powhatan and Praco due west of present day towns of Graysville and Adamsville. 

Source: Alabama Atlas & Gazetteer DeLorme, 1998

This photograph shows road grading and widening near Praco around 1935.

Source: Alabama Mosaic

John Miller Shores [1898-1982]

Methodist minister in the North Alabama Conference for more than 50 years

Here are the four children of Tempe and John Miller Shores: Margorie, mom, Heth and John. Heth was born in Brundidge and John in Sipsey.