Friday, May 31, 2019

The Spheeris Family in Alabama

Ok, here's one of those "Sometimes it's amazing what Alabama connections can pop up" blog posts. Fasten your seat belts.

Our son Amos Wright was in town for Easter weekend and went through a bunch of the vinyl records we have around the house. The Jimmy Spheeris album below, a favorite of Dianne's in college, turned up, and she put it on the record player. In the meantime I checked his entry on Wikipedia because I wasn't familiar with him. And what did I find? Well, let me tell you....

Spheeris was born in Phenix City, Alabama, on November 5, 1949. His parents, Juanita and Andrew A. Spheeris, ran a carnival called the Majick Empire Shows; Andrew also performed as a sideshow strongman. The carnival operated mostly in the South and Midwest. 

The singer-songwriter released four albums before his untimely death in California on July 4, 1984. Isle of View was his first and came out on Columbia Records in 1971. Airplay on FM radio created a following for Spheeris and two more albums followed in 1973 and 1976. The fourth album was released posthumously.

Spheeris had other creative family members. His older sister Penelope Spheeris, who was born in New Orleans, is a film director, screenwriter and producer. Her movies include Wayne's World and a three-part documentary on the Los Angeles underground, The Decline of Western Civilization. Musician and composer Chris Spheeris is a first cousin, as is Greek-French filmmaker Costa-Gavras

The family has another strong connection to Alabama. Penelope's Wikipedia page has a summation of the event:

Spheeris spent her first seven years traveling around the American South and American Midwest with her father's carnival. Her father was shot and killed in Troy, Alabama after intervening in a racial dispute. In a 2015 interview, Spheeris stated that her father had come to the aid of an African American man who had been struck on the back of the head with a cane by a white man over a dispute about cutting in front of him in line. The white man soon after returned and shot Spheeris' father dead. She states that her father's killer served no jail time, the man's legal defence apparently resting entirely on the claim that he was justified in murdering Spheeris senior as "he was defending a black."

Andrew Spheeris, who was born in Greece, died in Troy on October 27, 1951. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Montgomery. I've included a photo of his grave below. 

After her husband's death, Juanita moved the family to California where the children grew up with a series of stepfathers. Their problematic youth did not prevent Jimmy or Penelope's subsequent successes in their chosen fields. 

I did a bit of research on the Majick Empire Shows and Andrew Spheeris and his murder in Alabama and found nothing more than what is given here as noted in the Wikipedia entries. Perhaps I will eventually find something for a future update of this post.

Jimmy lounging among the lyrics for the album's songs

Photo by Paul Bartley via Find-A-Grave

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Alabama's Centennial in 1919

In a previous post I've taken a look at Alabama's sesquicentennial activities in 1969 in celebration of statehood in 1819. I've also written about a few bicentennial activities going on this year. Now it's time to examine the state's centennial festivities in 1919. 

That celebration might be described as a "Marie Bankhead Owen" production. And who was Marie Bankhead Owen, you ask? Let's investigate.

Bankhead was born in 1869 into what became one of the state's premier political families in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Her father John H. Bankhead was a future U.S. representative and senator. Younger brother John H. Bankhead, Jr., also served in the U.S. Senate and another younger one, William B. Bankhead, rose to the office of Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Her mother Tallulah was the namesake for her niece, actress Tallulah Bankhead, daughter of William. 

In 1893 she married attorney Thomas McAdory Owen. Using her family's connections, Marie and Thomas convinced the state legislature to establish an Alabama History Commission and in 1901 the Alabama Department of Archives and History. At their initial meeting ADAH trustees appointed Thomas to lead the department, which was the first such entity in the nation. When Thomas died in 1920, Marie was appointed to the post and served until 1955, three years before her death. 

Marie began publishing in various magazines early in the 20th century, and became society and then features editor and writer for the Montgomery Advertiser from 1911 until 1917. By the time that 1919 centennial came around, she was ready to participate. She ultimately wrote six historical plays and four histories for schools related to the event. 

Below are title pages and links to the full texts for some of those writings by Owen. She would continue to write historical materials after the centennial and in 1927 even published a novel, Yvonne of Braithwaite. Also below is some information on the Alabama Centennial half dollar and a couple of other items. 

I've done a bit of preliminary research into a possible semi-centennial in 1869, but have found nothing so far. Since that was just four years after the end of the Civil War, I wouldn't be surprised if that anniversary had no formal celebration. 

Marie Bankhead Owen [1869-1958]

I don't know how long Paragon Press operated, but in 1928 they published a pamphlet celebrating their silver anniversary.

On February 17, 1918, the state legislature created the Alabama Centennial Commission. I'm not sure what else they did during the actual centennial period except issue Owen's publications. However, in September 1922 the Commission was apparently still operating.

In 1921 the U.S. Bureau of the Mint issued a half dollar to commemorate the state's centennial. The coin was designed by sculptor Laura Gardin Fraser

I wonder if David Holt was the only publicity director the commission had; if so, May 1 seems a bit late to be starting such promotion. 

Pensacola Journal 1 May 1919 via Chronicling America

Thursday, May 23, 2019

W.S. Newell HIghway

Recently we made a trip to see our daughter Becca Leon and grandson Ezra who live near Jacksonville, Florida. On the way back to Pelham we ended up stuck for two and a half hours in a massive traffic jam on I-65 just north of Prattville. Unfortunately, the problem was caused by a wreck involving two commercial vehicles and the death of one of the drivers. The backup lasted for more than ten hours. 

Traffic was shuttled off the interstate onto US 31 at the Pine Level exit; the wreck was several miles north toward the Verbena exit. As we crawled toward that exit, I noticed the sign below that read "W.S. Newell Highway". As so often happens, wondering about that individual led to this blog post. 

W.S. "Billy" Newell was a road and building contractor who died in September 2009. His company built portions of I-65 and I-85; the stretch of the former named after him was their first interstate project. Newell also built various neighborhoods in Montgomery and other projects around the state. You can read more about him and see a photograph here. His firm remains in business today. 

Another one of Newell's well-known projects is the large "Go to Church or the Devil Will Get You" sign along that same stretch of I-65. 

Source: Flickr

Exactly 80 years ago you could see this sign along a roadside in #Alabama in May 1939. Found via @Shorpy Taken by Marion Post Wolcott during her work for the Farm Security Administration documenting poverty in the Great Depression. The words are the title of a hymn by Daniel March [1816-1909] based on Isaiah 6:8 

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

A Trader Joe's Opens in the Alabama Theatre--in Houston

On November 2, 1939, an art deco movie house named the Alabama Theatre opened in Houston, Texas. The first film shown was The Man About Town with comedian Jack Benny. In December 1983 a final movie appeared on the screen, the low budget horror title Mortuary. The Alabama Bookstop opened in the theater the following year. That business, later acquired by Barnes and Noble, operated until September 2009. You can see photos of the bookstore interior at this site

Despite several proposals, the facility's future remained in doubt until 2011 when the Trader Joe's market chain announced plans to open its first store in the Houston area. The next year the chain opened that store in the former theater and preserved much of its exterior and interior architectural delights. 

The Alabama in Houston was built in the same year as the River Oaks Theatre; both were owned by the Interstate chain. That company, which operated from 1905 until 1976, had vaudeville houses and movie theaters in Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. I have not found any mention of operations in Alabama. Perhaps founder Karl Hoblitzelle admired our own Alabama Theatre in Birmingham, which had opened in 1927.

The Trader Joe's at The Summit is nice, but we seldom shop on the 280 corridor. If only Joe's had chosen a historic building downtown to re-purpose...

Source: Wikipedia

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Morrione Vineyards in Wetumpka

In cleaning out some stuff at mom's recently, I came across this bottle in a box  of other wines from California and Tennessee. These bottles have been at her house for probably 15 years; she's not much of a wine drinker. They were all purchased sometime before dad died in 2003 and never opened. 

Alabama currently has a pretty robust wine industry. The North Alabama Wine Trail includes six wineries. I found this 2013 posting from the Wine Nomad on wineries in the Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile areas. At that time there were eight wineries in the state. This search at the state's official travel site will pull up links to wineries, wine festivals and wine bars around the state. 

Morrione comes up on none of those searches. If you Google "Morrione Vineyards" you will get some results but all are seemingly out of date and consist mostly of an address and phone number: Location: 3865 Central Plank Rd, Montgomery Alabama Telephone 334-567-9957. Often "U-Pick" is added to the name. You can see that location on a Google satellite view. That phone number seems to be no longer in service.

I'm not really a fan of sweet wines, but my paternal grandparents in Gadsden  had a fence in their back yard loaded with muscadines each year. Whenever I visited for a week in the summer I'd practically make myself sick eating them. Ah, the muscadine days of yore....And did you know there is a community named Muscadine in Cleburne County? 

I presume this winery is now defunct. Anyone who has further information is invited to leave a comment to this post!

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Dad's Photographs at Auburn University in 1946

In one of our albums of old family photos I found a few from Dad's time at Auburn University in the second half of the 1940's. I've selected some for this post. I guess the shots were taken with a camera of Dad's, and someone else took the ones that include him. 

Of course, Auburn was known as Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API) until 1960, when the name was formally changed to Auburn University. Mom says when they were there in the late 1940's everyone called it Auburn.  

Further comments are below. 

Theta Chi House ca. 1945

The website for the Auburn chapter of Theta Chi notes, "The first house was Dorm 12; the second house was located near downtown Auburn by the Freewheeler Bicycle Shop. Our third house, built in 1952, was located at 712 West Magnolia Avenue. Currently, we are living at 935 Lem Morrison Drive. The house was completed in the summer of 2007..."

At some point during his two periods at Auburn, interrupted by two years in the U.S. Navy, Dad was President of the fraternity. He was at Auburn from 1945 until July 1946 and again from 1948-50, when he was probably president. The house built in 1952 was being planned during that time; he and Mom left Auburn in December 1950 after he graduated.

The fraternity house shown in the photograph above is identified as the Theta Chi House ca. 1945 in a note in dad's handwriting on the back. 

Dad and presumably some fraternity brothers in front of the Theta Chi house. Dad is on the right holding the books.

Ross Chemical Lab ca. 1945

This building on West Thach Avenue was built in 1930 and named after Bennett B. Ross [1864-1930], a longtime chemistry professor at Auburn.

Ross Chemical Building [now Ross Hall] in a 1948 postcard

Source: Alabama Postcards Collection via Auburn University Digital Library 

Library ca. 1945 on West Thach Avenue

This library was one of  the Carnegie libraries built in Alabama; it opened in 1910. You can see the interior at that time here. I've written a blog post about those libraries. 

Today the library is Mary E. Martin Hall, named after the university's librarian from 1918-1949. The building house offices; when I arrived at Auburn in 1970, the registrar, graduate school and such were located there. 

Auburn's current Draughon Library was built in 1962. 

Here's the library in October 1910.

Women's Quad ca. 1945

A 1948 postcard of the girls' dormitories on the "quad" at Auburn

Source: Alabama Postcard Collection via Auburn University Digital Library 

Dad and some fellow engineering classmates? ca. 1945

Alpha Gams 1946 

I did not find any history or house photos on the Alpha Gamma Delta Auburn chapter website. Mom was not a sorority member, and she and Dad hadn't met yet, anyway!

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Alabama Author: John Craig Stewart

One thing I like to do on this blog is highlight some of Alabama's lesser known authors. The state has a rich literary history that's not limited to such well known figures as Harper Lee, Fannie Flagg and Rick Bragg. So next up in this post is John Craig Stewart.

Stewart was born in Selma on January 20, 1915 and died in North Carolina in 2003. According to the 1940 U.S. Census he was living in Montgomery and had been there since 1935. His address was given as 615 South Perry Street. Stewart had married Patti Gee Martin in February 1939. On October 16, 1940, he registered for the military draft, and that form gives us more information. Stewart was six feet tall and weighed 160 pounds, with light complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. 

We can find a fairly detailed outline of his subsequent life and career at the Alabama Authors site maintained by the University of Alabama Libraries. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II from 1941 until 1945, leaving the military with the rank of major. By 1950 he had earned bachelor and master degrees from the University of Alabama and joined the faculty there. He and Patti divorced in 1952; Stewart married Lila Harper in 1960.

Stewart taught in Tuscaloosa until 1964, when he relocated to Mobile and the newly established University of South Alabama. He left that school in 1983 and moved to North Carolina, where he died on April 16, 2003. He was buried in that state in Saint Paul's in the Valley Cemetery in Transylvania County. The University of South Alabama's McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library has a collection of his papers and publications. The Alabama Authors entry notes, "The University of South Alabama established the John Craig Stewart Creative Writing Award, given annually to outstanding student writers, in his honor." I have been unable to find out anything more about this award.  

Stewart's publications include both fiction and non-fiction. His first novel Through the First Gate appeared in 1960; a second, Muscogee Twilight in 1965 and a third one, The Last to Know in 1981. He also published short stories and  articles on Alabama history. His one non-fiction book was the 1975 The Governors of Alabama. He also contributed to the textbook for elementary school students, Know Alabama, and to Rivers of Alabama.

More details and comments are below.   

New York; Dodd, Mead, 1960

Northport, Ala.: American Southern Pub. Co., 1965

This back cover offers a bit more information about Stewart. Several magazines that published his short stories are mentioned; I've only found details on one, noted below. We learn that Stewart was living in Spanish Fort, a town of less than 2400 people at the time. Also mentioned is the publisher's plan to issue a collection of his short stories, a volume that apparently never appeared. The Lincoln-Mercury Times 1951 article by Stewart, "University of Alabama", can be found here.

 Gretna, La.; Pelican Pub. Co., 1975

Northport: Colonial Press, 1957

A fifth edition was published in 1981. The first edition appeared in 1955.

Huntsville: Strode Publishers, 1968

Stewart published the novel The Last to Know in 1981, but I have been unable to find a cover image.

Source: Find-A-Grave

The only published short story by Stewart I've tracked down so far is this one in a 1955 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. I notice some fellow named Kurt Vonnegut also had a story in this issue; he sounds familiar....

Source: FictionMags Index