His film career would descend to low-budget westerns in the 1950s, but Dothan’s Crimson Tide running back Johnny Brown was a Hollywood leading man for decades.
His dashing good looks led him in 1927 to a role opposite Mary Pickford in her first “talkie “and on to major studio contracts and roles alongside John Wayne, Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. Some time after his 1969 Alabama Sports Hall of Fame induction, Brown picked up the phone to call a fan seeking his autograph. Forty-five years later, Bob Nelson remembers that call in a chapter of Proceeding Over the Mountain, a collection of personal memories by members of the Homewood Senior Center.
“I saw him on TV giving the acceptance speech, one of the finest I’d ever heard…his eloquence and genuineness struck me,” Nelson writes.
Nelson is one of 40 authors who have contributed 88 stories, most of them less than 1,000 words each, that capture emotional and sometimes historically significant memories from their personal pasts. What started as an extra-curricular activity soon spawned a writing class, editorial debates, and new perspectives into each others’ lives, said Center Director Aimee Thornton.
“I was amazed by the variety of stories and the topics,” she said. “People were willing to talk about things I wouldn’t think they’d even be involved in.”
In “The King and I,” member Bennie Charles recalls being drafted in 1958 and completing basic training in the Second Armor Division at Ft. Hood, Texas, with fellow inductee Elvis Presley. Charles said Presley hung out with the regular guys, using his special allowance of a personal car to take them on weekend day trips, and once to Tijuana. Presley—who had just finished filming the movie King Creole—was frequently recognized and would perform songs just for the asking. The famously generous singer “always insisted on picking up the tab,” Charles writes. “I never had to pay for anything.”
Charles, who is black, tells in another story how he traveled from Pittsburgh to Ft. Hood by bus with 12 white inductees, who elected him “captain” to shield him from any racial incidents in the deep South. Presley, he said, also showed no signs of racial or social prejudice.
“I was proud to call him a friend—he was almost like a brother; he never showed any sign of prejudice toward anyone.”
Overhearing so many stories—some of them startling—during the course of her work gave Thornton the idea for the book. The stories tend to fall into two categories, historically accurate retellings, such Frances Carter’s World War II account of modifying B-29 fuselages for the home front, in Rosie the Riveter, or personal narratives about childhood and teen years.
Many hark back to rural and austere scenes of the Depression: sewing flour-sack dresses, snaring rabbits and fish for food, wearing a “fat back” poultice, and preparing hominy from corn washed with lye.
In contrast, author Jackie Hoffman recounts the national treasures she passed on her way to grade school in Newport, Rhode Island: The first United States lending library, the Touro Synagogue, oldest in the nation, and St. Mary’s church, where JFK in 1958 married Jackie.
Others tell about a first kiss, a stint at reform school, forbidden honky tonks, and a missionary’s tale of remaining pure (with difficulty) in a cross-country trip with a beautiful female colleague.
In one expertly told story well under 300 words, Betty Mann tells how her husband, who is deaf and was signing a Sunday school lesson one warm morning, reached in his jacket for a handkerchief and pulled out a pair of her panties instead.
“Most of the stories were written; but many others were dictated,” said Thornton, who contributed her own stories, one about her grandfather. “I take after my granddaddy, who was gregarious. I like to hear stories and tell them,” she said.
Member and contributor Carolyn Roberson collected the stories and Thornton was editor. The project took nearly three years, in which Bobbie Hunt, 89, the writing instructor and the book’s most prolific contributor, said she didn’t think she’d live to see it published. That day arrived [publishing day].
Paperbacks are $14, with a signing event scheduled Feb. 20 at 11 a.m. at the Homewood Public Library. For more information or to purchase a copy, call the Homewood Senior Center at 205-332-6500.
Americans in the late 19th century collected and enjoyed lithographs, especially if the image depicted a favorite topic such as historic figures (Abraham Lincoln and George Washington were the most popular), famous naval or land battles, public buildings, sailing ships, patriotic tableaux, natural wonders, and sentimental scenes of family or holidays. Invented by a Frenchman in the late 18th century, the most common method of lithography (from the Greek “lithos,” meaning stone and “graphein,” meaning to write) was to etch an image on a smooth treated limestone plate, a method much easier and cheaper than woodblock or letter press printing. Today most lithographs are made by applying a polymer coating to a flexible aluminum plate, usually with the etching designed with the aid of a computer.
Lithographic printing came to the United States in the 1820s. It soon dominated the market for popular prints. One of the most popular categories of lithographs became city views. At first these views were from street level, but soon it became popular to portray settlements from an imaginary viewpoint high in the air. These lithographs would also usually include number legends or keys, passages of descriptive text, and detailed vignettes of important buildings.
As many as 2,500 city view lithographs were produced in America in the period between 1835 and the early 20th century when the fad finally ended. Many lithographic artists, such as Edwin Whitefield, T. M. Fowler, and O. H. Bailey, produced hundreds of city view lithographs. Large and small cities and even small towns and hamlets were depicted, making it truly democratic. However, since this was a purely commercial venture, this art form was largely ignored by art critics, until recently. Today, an original city view lithograph can sell for up to $10,000.
The usual procedure was that a roving agent of the lithograph company would visit a city and sell subscriptions to local businessmen and prominent citizens, often soliciting support from local newspapers. They would stress that this project would be a point of city pride, that other rival communities in the area had already done this and that the final product would be a splendid addition to any wall or business board room. It would also prove to the rest of the country how attractive and prosperous the city had become.
For a larger fee, a business could have its image enlarged around the edges of the city view. A smaller fee would get the business on the numbered legend at the bottom of the print. Then the artist would come to town. He would prepare a city street and avenue grid and make hundreds of sketches of buildings and public areas, noting their locations. From these rough drawings he would produce a more detailed and attractive drawing which would then be sent to a printer.
In 1885, Henry Wellge of Norris, Wellge and Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin came to Birmingham. One of the best view makers in the country, Wellge was born in Germany in 1850. Rumors were that he had once been a captain of engineers in the Russian army although never proven or denied by Wellge himself. He began making city views in 1878. Over his career, which ended with his death in 1917, he produced over 150 views of cities from across 26 states and Canada. His most prolific year was the same year he visited Birmingham. That year he also completed 10 cities in Wisconsin, 6 cities in Florida, 4 cities in Georgia and 1 city in Texas for a grand total of 22 cities.
His 1885 view of Birmingham is one of his best. Looking across the city to the west from a point high in the air, the image centers on 20 Street and First Avenue North. It is surrounded by 16 larger drawings of sponsor buildings and maps. The legend includes 81 additional city businesses with corresponding numbers on the map. Interesting details emerge including the rail line, the first city school, Capital Park (now Linn Park) and a proposed hotel and depot that was never built near the rails at 20th Street. The upper right corner of the view shows Sloss Furnace which had just been built while the Birmingham Rolling Mill is shown at the lower left corner. It is an amazing snapshot of a growing, booming city.
Author’s note: Herein is a very brief history of shorthand followed by two instances in which the dying or lost art has interfered with deciphering historic documents, some which may be important, and others which may be only fun.
Writing is hard.
No, not just composing, that’s definitely hard. What I’m talking about is the physical act of writing, of making letters and words fast enough to capture the lightning speed of one’s thoughts. Or, harder still, to accurately and “discreetly” record another person’s speech, which flows at an average of three words per second. Because this is the original reason for developing shorthand—not to take dictation or jot notes accurately in English class—but to record, precisely, conversations that one intends to put to use later.
Long before texting, the proliferation of at least 500 major English-language “shorthand” systems since the Renaissance attests to the importance of spreading accurate gossip.
Two of the most important systems historically are the British Pitman System, developed by Isaac Pitman in 1837, followed in 1888 in the United States by John Robert Gregg’s simplified system. Both use symbols that indicate common speech sounds. In the literal hands of an expert stenographer, more than 200 words per minute can be taken down with no more technology than a pencil and pad– more than the 180 words produced by an average speaker. Compare that to the typical 22-words-per-minute achieved by handwriting.
(Interestingly, Pitman’s brother Benn, who served in the Union Army of the Civil War, popularized and used the shorthand later as the government’s official court stenographer during the trials of President
Lincoln’s assassins.) Gregg’s shorthand doesn’t have many adherents while Pitman’s system has endured in part due to the British legal system, where shorthand records–but not tape recordings–are admissible as defense evidence in journalism libel cases.
Still, with the advent of stenography machines and audio recorders, shorthand is at best a dying art. So few are the practitioners, in fact, that important top secret documents may be safely left lying open on a desk so long as they are recorded in shorthand.
Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, historians do get their hands on those documents and need to find a translator. That is precisely what happened some years ago when documents were uncovered that recorded the secret 1962 Birmingham Chamber of Commerce meetings held to negotiate an end to racial segregation and street protests. Among the typewritten minutes of the famed “Senior Citizens Committee,” meetings turned over to the Birmingham Public Library was a steno pad written in shorthand that remains untranslated to this day.
Here at the History Center is another example. A year ago the center received a donation of 46 letters written in 1938-1940 by a Gorgas power plant clerk to his teenage girlfriend in Birmingham. The couple met taking classes at Wheeler’s Business College in Birmingham. Frequently throughout the 18-month correspondence, the writer uses shorthand to convey a private message.
What do the messages say? What is recorded on the steno pad? Anyone wanting to help translate, please reply to this blog or call the office at 205-202-4146.
Beside the ubiquitous Wikipedia articles on shorthand, information was drawn from the Birmingham Public library archives, Birmingham Chamber of Commerce Senior Citizens Committee Papers, 1963.
Digging Pennsylvania History, the Benn Pitman House http://www.diggingcincinnati.com/2013/01/the-benn-pitman-house.html
Leah Price Diary: The Death of Stenography in the London Review of Books, 2008, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n23 Jennifer Schuessler/leah-price/diary
A Brief History of Shorthand, by Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times.com http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/06/a-brief-history-of-shorthand/?_r=0
The shorthand Place, with link to chart of 500+ systems; http://www.t-script.co.uk/history.php
And for fun, the blog by Beryl Pratt, Long Live Pitman’s Shorthand http://long-live-pitmans-shorthand.blogspot.co.uk/
There’s nothing like a buried, rust encrusted iron ball found in a local park to cause a stir, especially among history buffs. And there are no amateur historians more engaging— and engaged — in their work than those in the ranks of local metal detectors. When they are not scouting loose change from our beaches, they can be found in our parks, our wooded buffers and public right-of-ways monitoring their instruments and sometimes detecting relics of our forgotten past.
So it is with this historic find from Avondale Park in a picture submitted by metal detector Tate McNees. McNees has undoubtedly unearthed an historic piece of ammunition – if not a ball bearing—of some kind. But can he attach it to an historic event?
McNees and other devotees of Birmingham history will nod when reminded that on land now Avondale Park Union shots were fired and a casualty recorded during the waning years of the American Civil War. Bhamwiki.com’s Battle of Avondale post has summarized two published references to this sole Birmingham claim to a civil war casualty:
In the 1885 weekly, Iron Age, a story published 20 years after the 1865 incident, the wife of Jefferson County Sheriff Abner Killough was hit by accidental “friendly fire” while at her house on the property that later became Avondale Park. It was here that Union Army officers, as non-aggressors innocently stopping by after watering their horses, were mistaken as marauders by the local 10th Alabama Infantry, which fired—hitting only Ms. Killough.
In the 1893 Birmingham Age Herald account, the Alabama guard is already stationed near the house when it spies and fires upon the Union officers at the spring–“their rifle balls hitting the water like hail”– who promptly returned fire, hitting Ms. Killough.
In both accounts, the exchange goes no further and Ms. Killough recovers.
McNees suggests that the artifact found at the park is a “grape shot,” so named because such iron balls were bundled in grape-like clusters before being fired in a spray of shrapnel by cannon or other artillery.
If this not a piece of grape shot, could it be a “rifle ball” associated with the skirmish, or some other object entirely? Here’s another take on the Killough story.
It’s an interesting find, and thank you Tate McNees for showing it to us.
So begins begins this first letter in a collection of 46 missives sent in 1939-1940 from one Dalton Wilford Pierce, a Gorgas Steam Plant clerk, to his 17-year-old girlfriend in Birmingham.
The letters were donated to the History Center by Anne Greene of Birmingham and chronicle the light-hearted but determined efforts of Mr. Pierce to woo Miss Lottie Peterson. Her responses are not part of the collection, but over 13 months of weekly messages we infer that she graduates from Wheeler’s Business College in Birmingham, where Pierce likely met her, that she moves over the summer from her home in Eastlake to Irvington, New Jersey, finds a job, then returns to Birmingham.
Pierce himself is a power plant resident worker, a clerk who ends many letters with a hidden message written in shorthand. We read that he’s up for the Chief Clerk’s job, a promotion he lands in the summer of 1939. Meanwhile, he gives glimpses of life on the Warrior River—the shock of a steamboat whistle, the nighttime sounds of bullfrogs, passing time pitching horseshoes, and a record 22-inch snowfall in January 1940 that shut down plant communications.
What we know about Gorgas — or any power plant — comes mainly from company archives, newspaper mentions, environmental enforcement, and a few local histories. What these letters provide is the often missing human face of the facility, the resident workers like Pierce, whose lives emanate from the daily routines of their workplace. Here are some excerpts:
“By the way, we did have a little excitement last night, one of the men in Camp went crazy from drink and had to be taken to Jasper in a straight jacket. He got after another man with a screw driver (heck no it wasn’t me) and almost wrecked the Guest House before they got him under control. …It’s kind of hard on a man’s nerves with nothing to do from 5;O’clock until bed time but just sit around and play checkers or listen to a opera conducted by the bull frogs on Warrior River.”
Largely typed, but sometimes written in longhand, the letters are dated approximately one per week. They are two- and sometimes three-pages long, written on company letterhead with the printed footer message, “This paper made in Alabama from Alabama Pine.”
News about the plant is sparse but telling. We learn that the #2 Plant begins operation on Monday, May 16 and 85 men are recruited to the workforce. Life is regimented at the plant: They pitch horseshoes for recreation, have regular checkups by a company doctor, and call mealtimes “chow.”
The letters’ tone and Pierce’s comments resound with the kind of stereotypical innocence we associate with 1950s advertising. Pre-war, Pierce wonders if the United States will get involved in the “scrap across the pond” but mostly avoids mention of the political events that fill the newspapers. He and Lottie smoke Lucky Strike cigarettes, go to dances, drink “malteds” and see movies at the Alabama—including the December 1939 release of Gone with the Wind. Expectedly, their private romantic moments take place in Pierce’s car “Josephine,” which he laments having to trade for a four-door Chevy that summer.
But this is not a 50’s stereotype or the Endless Summer of California. Summer ends very prosaically in Alabama in 1939:
I’ve almost took that one way ticket West since I wrote you last. Have been in bed with Malaria Fever and they even said I did some tall talking while I was out of my head for a few hours. You should have been here you might have heard something interesting.”
And a droughty December plunges the plant in enforced darkness to conserve energy:
On Dec. 18, 1939, Pierce writes on The American Radio Relay League letterhead:
“Dearest Honey Lamb:
Did you ever hear of a Power Plant about to run out of electricity? Well, this place is getting so tight for juice that no lights can be allowed to burn at night unless absolutely necessary. If it don’t rain during the next week it looks like we’ll have to burn candles on Christmas Trees this year. The rivers are lower than they have been in years and if something goes wrong with one of the generators in Gorgas Town it gonna be too bad.”
It is followed by a record snowfall Jan. 24 & 25, 1940, reported in the papers and which Pierce relates as light-heartedly to his “Dearest Pal:
“…We’ve been having a time at our Radio Station W-4-CCP. It has been the only means of communication from Gorgas and I kinda know how Mr. Byrd (or whatever his name is) feels at the South Pole.”
The letters are no less fun to read because this very young couple didn’t marry and remain together through old age. The final letter in the collection is a February 1940 commercial Valentine’s Day card with
no message, just a signature. We know that Pierce and his Dimples did live into old age, however. Ms. Green says Wilford’s name is sewn into a family quilt, signifying his importance as a family friend at one time. Both are deceased. Lottie died in 1992.
The history of the Alabama Power Company has run a parallel existence. Suffice it to say, the company was founded in 1906 and was delivering power to Birmingham via the Lay Dam in 1914.* Beside generating electricity and industrial development for the state, the company generated an unmatched century of government, civil and environmental activity. For Gorgas, a coal-burning plant built around 1918 and expanded with U.S. government war funds, retirement will begin this year in reaction to EPA limits on mercury and greenhouse gas emissions.
*A centennial exhibit of Lay Dam’s history is open at the Alabama Power Company main office M-F, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. through Nov. 7, 2014. Come through the main entrance at 600 18th Street North, and bring photo id.
Louis Pizitz, a Russian immigrant who gave up rabbinical studies for retail, built and stood at the helm of Birmingham’s leading department store chain throughout much of the last century. The business passed to his son Isidore and eventually, in 1987, was sold to McRae’s, which summarily closed the flagship building on 19th Street North and Second Avenue. The historic structure with the decorative terra cotta facade was purchased in 2000 by Bayer Properties and is slated for a $59 million redevelopment into apartments and first-floor shops.
Twenty six years later, a mini-trove of Pizitz items left behind during the McRae’s closure was donated to the Birmingham History Center. The donor was a contractor hired to clear out the building’s contents; the donated material was removed from a single office. Here are pictures of just a few items donated, followed by a summary list of the other objects and papers.
Other donated objects include:
1) Photographs and picture postcards of an unidentified Pizitz family member;
2) Newspaper advertising sections from the Birmingham News, Birmingham Post and Birmingham Age Herald for the years 1928, 1929, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1950, and 1969;
3) A 1975 “key to the city” of Homewood to Louis Pizitz son, and business successor Isidore Pizitz;
4) Deeds and mortgages on Georgia property and residential property in Mt. Brook;
5) Pizitz annual reports and several Christmas catalogs from late 1960s;
6) A copy of a 1970s (?)-era spoof of a Pizitz catalog with mixed race models and entitled Christmas with Contrast;
7) A folder documenting Louis Pizitz research into, and rejection of, a nomination to place the building on the National Register of Historic Places.
As much interest as there is in the Pizitz name and building, the road to redeveloping the iconic building has been a rocky one. The plans for office and retail hit a major snag with the Great Recession, and the first office tenant to commit, in 2010–law firm Baker Donelson–backed out later that year. The city of Birmingham is now assisting Bayer with $1.9 million in streets improvements and facilitating efforts to land a federal HUD loan and tax exemptions. Construction hasn’t begun.
For more information on the Pizitz building and the history of its prominent entrepreneurial family, read bhamwiki’s account at http://www.bhamwiki.com/w/Louis_Pizitz.
For questions or comments on the donation, write email@example.com.
The Cane Creek rail line was an 28+-mile branch of the old Louisville & Nashville Railroad that forked off the main line just north of Birmingham and ran west to the Warrior River through the rugged coal hills of Jefferson County. On the way, it served nearly 30 separate coal mines owned by the Pratt Coal and Coke Co., opened through violent extraction of rock. To keep the rails on the same grade as the coal seam, nearly all its length lay through dynamited rock cuts across 30 separate train trestles.
Fifteen of those trestles were more than 75 feet in the air. But one of them–the #10–was 672 feet long, gently curved and, at the time, the highest wooden train trestle in the United States, at 116 feet.
Many of those facts are already familiar to long-time residents in North Jefferson County. But many have only recently been uncovered, including the identity of trestle builder Joshua L. Mitchell, whose picture with his large and growing family accompanied a 1904 Atlanta Constitution article about the Alabama trestle. Joseph Mitchell, 87, a professor emeritus of Troy University, is the trestle builder’s grandson. He found the article in 2008 after a 20-year search of his family heritage. At the same time, J.L.’s great-grandson Robert Lindberg, 64, a Boston-area dentist, was on the same trail of his family’s history. The two had never met–the Mitchell branches long parted by J.L.’s death at age 40 and other family circumstances.
Their reunion in July and continuing work on the trestle’s history will be presented in a Jefferson County Historical Association newsletter later this year. “My first goal is to get J. L Mitchell now and forever proper credit as the trestle builder of this historic landmark and person of note in the building of the coal industry in Alabama Birmingham area,” Bob Lindberg said.
According to his genealogy research, Joshua Mitchell was born in 1866 and grew up in Loganville, Ga. He married his first cousin, Nettie Long, and the couple had seven children with an eighth on the way when the Atlanta Constitution picture was taken in 1904. Beside constructing trestles, Mitchell was a contractor working on convict labor housing at Palos and later the nearby Bessie Mines, opened by the Sloss-Sheffield Iron and Steel Co. The year 1906 was a tragic one for the family. Mitchell’s youngest son fell through the ties of a different Cane branch train trestle, dying in his father’s arms, Bob Lindberg said. Later that same year, at age 40, Mitchell himself died under circumstances prompting an inquest, and which will be detailed in a fully footnoted paper in JCHA’s newsletter.
As with any disappearing national treasure, recognition often comes too late. Such was the fate of the #10 and its task to carry coal out of the wilds of north Jefferson County. The structure survived without fanfare the boom years of mining, the rise and eventual abolition of the convict-lease labor system, and decline of domestic coal mining. Meanwhile, the L&N was absorbed through various mergers by CSX, which decommissioned the line in 1997 and pulled up the rails.
By 2002, the structure was interesting only as a potential barrier to another engineering marvel, the planned Northern Beltline. It lay out in the sticks, literally, and had been overlooked years earlier during an exhaustive study of Birmingham’s historic industrial sites by the U.S. Park Service. Two Birmingham News stories that year prompted a visit by Park Service’s Historical American Engineering Record to correct the oversight. Those photos are publicly available from the Library of Congress archives http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/al1317/.
Then in 2003, Jefferson County and CSX agreed to “rail-bank” the 16.5-mile corridor for a future walking trail. Managed by the local Freshwater Land Trust, and with $1 million in public funds still earmarked toward its purchase, a sale is still being negotiated with CSX more than a decade later.
A tragedy would follow a century later with the absolute destruction of the #10 trestle in a May 23, 2006, fire blamed on kids with fireworks. No state fire marshal investigation was conducted, and Lindberg admits his second goal—finding out about the fire’s cause–may never be answered.
“Did they catch and identify the boys?” he asks. “Did they admit to setting fire that Tuesday? Eight years later, do they regret what they had done? I could care less about any punishing of anyone. I just would like to know the whole story.”
Plans still chugging along
Lindberg’s and Mitchell’s research has helped correct several factual errors in the record (the trestle was completed in 1904, not 1914 as newspaper and CSX records showed). Also, the Library of Congress mis-dated the 2002 photographs and listed them the keyword “King” instead of “Cane” or “Cain” branch of the L&N Railroad. These are being corrected.
Finally, he feels satisfied that the old L&N line may still be used for hikers to travel and learn about the rough-and-tumble history of North Jefferson County. The Freshwater Land Trust has been quietly negotiating the purchase of the property, which has been rail-banked — or reserved– under the city of Fultondale, the proposed trailhead.
Lindberg is hopeful about the plan.
“I would like to see that the Fresh Water Land Trust recognizes what was lost and makes every effort to hold onto the ROW and even rebuild a ‘trestle’ structure of some kind,” he said. “Retelling of the story of the building of the trestle hopefully will help people of Birmingham and Jefferson County better appreciate what they had and what was lost and what should be remembered, on a personal level.”
Author’s note — I took some interest in this story after Robert Lindberg contacted the Birmingham History Center about it in August. I was the author of two of the Birmingham News articles listed above. Mr. Mitchell’s research also turned up a 1951 News story about the trestle. The last one published chronicled the devastating 2006 fire –Liz Ellaby