JCHA NEWSLETTER –APRIL 2013

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Press/Media

The Birmingham Ledger, Pages From the Past

—by: Jim Bennett.


Birmingham Ledger Building

The home of the Birmingham Ledger as it neared completion in 1902. The building at First Avenue
and 21st Street, North had two stories underground and enough steel to carry 14 stories in time.
It was developed by the Jemison Investment Company (Jemison Magazine, September 11, 1911).


W

hile we are all familiar with Birmingham’s most recent dailies, the Birmingham News and the Birmingham Post-Herald and to a lesser extent some of their predecessors, the Birmingham Age‑Herald and the Birmingham Post, few may recall another prominent paper, the Birmingham Ledger.

The Ledger was established in 1892 by E. B. Powell and T. A. Wiggs. A leading rival to the Birmingham News at the turn of the century, it changed its name to the Daily Ledger in 1896, then changed its name back to the Birmingham Ledger in 1902.

After a 28-year run and a series of advertising wars, it was sold to the Birmingham News, exclusive of its First Avenue building, for $425,000 in 1920. The Ledger published its final edition that year on April 18 and was discontinued. In 1917 the News had moved to a new six story office building on the corner of 4th Avenue North and 22nd Street and just three years later, in purchasing the rival Ledger, increased the size of its staff to 748 and its circulation to 60,000.

The Protective Life Insurance Company later purchased the building and, with the help of architects Warren, Knight and Davis, built the 14‑story Protective Life building using its frame as the base.

Birmingham Ledger delivery wagon

Birmingham Ledger delivery wagon (O.V. Hunt photograph),
c.a. 1920.

The Ledger was known as a Democratic newspaper. During the early days of journalism, papers across the United States were often published along political party lines. At the time of the acquisition, James J. Smith, one of its principal owners, was president and publisher and J. R. Waters was treasurer. The paper’s editor was George M. Cruikshank, who wrote a notable history of the Birmingham district in 1920 entitled A History of Birmingham and its Environs.

The Ledger had a circulation of 37,888, according to an Audit Bureau of Circulation statement. The purchase by the News gave it a clear field in the Birmingham media market under the direction of Victor H. Hanson, its publisher.

Under Hanson, the News attracted advertising dollars and prospered even as other area papers floundered. Hanson purchased several of these failed papers, including the Birmingham Chronicle; the Birmingham Age‑Herald (which merged with the Birmingham Post to become the Birmingham Post-Herald); and the Huntsville Times.

In 1927 when the Birmingham Age-Herald was sold to Hanson, the News continued publishing both papers. In 1950 Scripps-Howard, which already owned the Birmingham Post bought the Age-Herald, but entered into a joint-operating agreement that moved the new Birmingham Post-Herald into the Birmingham News building. The News press printed both papers and handled advertising and subscriptions sales while the editorial and reporting staffs remained independent. The agreement lasted until the Post-Herald ceased publication in September, 2005, leaving the News as Birmingham’s only daily newspaper.

In 1996, the News Company instigated a switch between the morning and evening schedules again creating a joint weekend edition (distributed on Saturdays). This move reinforced The News’ pre-eminent role at a time when morning papers were the norm. Toward the end of its existence, the Post-Herald adopted a niche of emphasizing more detailed local stories and featuring well-known local columnists, including sports writer Paul Finebaum.

The long-expected closure was announced to staffers and then to the public by E. W. Scripps executives on the morning of September 22, 2005, the day before the final edition. The announcement said that the Birmingham market could simply no longer support two newspapers, thus continuing a trend of big-city afternoon newspapers either folding or merging with morning newspapers.

The Post-Herald’s ultimate demise was a loss of circulation abetted by the change in publication schedules. In 2006 the News cut the ribbon on a new $25 million headquarters building across 4th Avenue from its 1917 plant. The old building was demolished in 2008.

In 2009, Advance Publications’ three Alabama newspapers, The Birmingham News, Mobile Press-Register and the Huntsville Times, were organized into the Advance Alabama Group. Although Advance owned the Birmingham News since 1955, the Hanson family continued to run the business until December 1, 2009.

On May 24, 2012, Advance Publications, aware of a move toward electronic media, announced that its Alabama newspapers would do away with their daily print editions and go to a three-day a week schedule on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

The changes took effect on October 1, 2012, making Birmingham the second-largest city in the United States not to be served by a daily newspaper; New Orleans became the largest that same day as the Times-Picayune, also an Advance property, would undergo the same changes.

The era of reporters fighting for news stories, paper boys hawking the latest editions and street vendors, which were once routine activities in Birmingham, had finally come to an end. Maybe it’s time to bring the Birmingham Ledger back to life.

 
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James Meissner and Birmingham’s 106th Observation Squadron

—by: Tom Badham.


1st Lt. James Meissner

1st Lt. James Meissner and his "Dark 14," after stripping
his wing fabric on May 2, 1918.


O

ne of the more fun places in Birmingham to eat lunch used to be VJ’s on the Runway located on East Lake Boulevard overlooking the Birmingham Airport. While there, you might have wondered how both the civilian terminal and the now huge National Guard Air Base of the 117th Tactical Refueling Wing came about. One man, Maj. James Armand Meissner, and a few of his friends caused it all.

While Meissner was born in Londonderry, Nova Scotia, Canada on July 30, 1896, with the family "home" in New York City, he lived in Birmingham as a child and young man. His father was an executive with U.S. Steel and was here as a an officer of TCI.

When the U.S. entered World War I, Jimmy wanted to get into the fight. His father was horrified since his sister and her family still lived in Germany. He forbade Jimmy to get into combat. If he wanted to be an ambulance driver, like Ernest Hemingway and Walt Disney later became, or some other non-combat role, that would be acceptable. Jimmy wanted to fly, become an aviator. This caused a huge family rift. His father and he were estranged for years after the war.

As a member of the Sibley College, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., corps of cadets, he enlisted in the U.S. Signal Corps and graduated with the first class of the School of Military Aeronautics on 14 July 1917. Meissner was one of the first pilots sent to the Second Aviation Instruction Center at Tours, France, and then on to the U.S. Army Air Service Third Aviation Instruction Center at Issoudun, France, in October of 1917. He received his Military Aviator Rating and was commissioned a 1st Lieutenant, 20 November 1917. He and Eddie Rickenbacker were two of the first pilots assigned to the first U.S. pursuit squadron, the "Hat in the Ring" 94th Pursuit in late March of 1918. This squadron became America’s most famous pursuit squadron in France leading all the other American squadrons with 68 confirmed victories and seven of its members becoming aces.

Lt. Meissner soon became a flight leader in the 94th. Frequently teaming with ace Lt. Douglas Campbell, they would fly off on voluntary combat missions in addition to their assigned flights. During four of his missions flying the notoriously weak-winged Nieuport 28, he tore the linen fabric off his top wing while fighting the enemy. With extraordinary flying skills, he managed to coax the plane, which should not have been able to fly at all, either back to a landing field or to a survivable crash landing. Each time he stripped his upper wings, Eddie Rickenbacker happened to be in the fight. Playing guardian angel, four times Rickenbacker shot down German fighters lining up to shoot down Meissner’s crippled aircraft.

Meissner came back to Birmingham after the war as a 23‑year‑old discharged Army Air Service major who commanded the 147th Pursuit Squadron with the insignia of a Scottie dog and the legend "Who Said Rats". His eight combined confirmed combat victories made him an ace. Birmingham considered him a war hero, but he never thought of himself that way.

He and other now ex-military flyers still wanted to fly, but it was too expensive a proposition for them. But, the Army began making plans to create observation squadrons attached to National Guard divisions. So, in 1919 he, Asa Roundtree, Henry Badham, Don Beatty and Sumpter Smith along with others formed the Birmingham Aero Club with the specific intention of using it as a nucleus to bring about an observation squadron based in Birmingham.

With Meissner as their "celebrity war hero", they cajoled Birmingham businesses and industries to help with building materials, equipment usage or whatever else they’d like to donate while giving speeches to every civic organization about what a great thing it would be for Birmingham. They talked Alabama’s Adjutant General, Col. Hartley Moon, into letting them use the National Guard’s 31st "Dixie" Division’s old cavalry training field and rifle range near Ensley just north and west of Birmingham‑Southern College, the field now partially covered by I–20. Then they found an abandoned army airplane hanger and talked the railroad into shipping it to the site which was to become Roberts Field. They did most of the labor in tearing down and erecting the hanger along with designing and building their operations building. At the same time they were locating and signing up mechanics and other technicians and staff the squadron would need.

On January 22, 1922, all their voluntary efforts and hard work paid off when the Army recognized them as the 135th National Guard Observation Squadron attached to the 31st Division. Shortly after, in an Army re‑shuffle, they were named the 106th Observation Squadron. It was one of the first to be accredited as a National Guard observation squadron. By the end of July, the squadron was functioning as a flying unit.

Their first planes were Curtis JN‑4’s "Jenneys" with the OX‑5 motor. They were considered government surplus and a new in‑the‑crate Jenney could be bought for $150 with the OX‑5 motor in its crate another $50. That’s how the planes were shipped to the squadron. They then had to construct them and the motor and test fly them.

James A. Meissner

James A. Meissner taken in 1919 photo from the collection of Dr. Peter Barker who also has done research into Mesissner's life. The photo is also on the US Army Air core Archives.


Settling down in Birmingham, he married Elva Kessler, daughter of a landscape architect from Augusta, Georgia. Meissner’s civilian job was with TCI as a boiler and blast furnace inspector. Sadly, the immensely polluted air he had to breathe caused him severe lung problems. After several years, he had to cease flying and resign from the 106th. He died on January 16, 1936 in Birmingham of pneumonia. Eddie Rickenbacker was one of the pallbearers at his memorial service. Meissner’s ashes were interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

When Meissner resigned from the 106th, Sumpter Smith then took over as commander of the 106th until 1932, when he became the Engineering Project Officer for the Washington-National Airport.

As principal aeronautical advisor for WPA construction, Smith drew up the plans, and helped get funding for what is now the Birmingham International Airport and the Air National Guard base. The original airport and 106th Squadron hanger and operations building was completed in 1935. Both complexes have been enlarged many times since then. In 1943, Col. Smith’s plane was lost over the South Atlantic on a flight to the Casablanca Conference to help plan the Allied European strategy for the next phase of World War II. The base in Birmingham was then named Fort Sumpter Smith in his honor.

 
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Recent History Center Acquisitions


Eisenhower Jacket

This World War II Eisenhower jacket belonged to Abraham B. Kaplan of Birmingham. It was donated along with a photograph of Mr. Kaplan by his wife, Rhoda Kaplan. Mr. Kaplan served in the 91st Chemical Battalion (Motorized) in Europe in 1944 and 1945. Chemical mortars are so named because of their capability of firing not only high explosives, but also chemical, gas, incendiary and smoke marker shells,

Pvt. Abraham B. Kaplan

Pvt. Abraham B. Kaplan

The 91st Chemical Mortar Battalion, code-named High Dawn, was a member of XII Corps, the spearhead of Patton's Third Army. The battalion fought in three major campaigns in 1944 and 1945, including the Battle of the Bulge.

To donate artifacts related to the history of the Birmingham region, please call 205‑202‑4146 or bring items to the History Center at
1731 First Avenue North, Birmingham, AL.

Barracudas cup from the collection

It is only a plastic soda or beer cup given out at a sporting event. It has an interesting history, however. The Birmingham Barracudas were a Canadian Football League team in 1995. They were part of a foiled attempt to expand the CFL into the United States. The team folded after one year.

 




Station Paintings

These large (48" x 36") paintings by Barbara Evans, a local artist, were in the L&N Station on Morris Avenue when Mr. Hardin bought the property in 1986.

 
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War Bond Breakfast Topped $2 million

—by: Jim Bennett

Million Dollar War Bond Breakfast

Guests at Birmingham’s “Million Dollar War Bond Breakfast”, Tutwiler Hotel, July 1, 1942.


B

y the summer of 1940, Nazi victories in Europe brought a sense of urgency to government officials discreetly preparing for United States involvement in World War II. Of principal concern were issues surrounding war financing. While some in Washington recommended an increase in taxes, the prevailing view was to initiate a voluntary loan program funded through war bonds.

During World War I the government had called them Liberty bonds and sold $21.5 billion worth. So, the effort began anew. Around the country war bond drives hit almost every community. Eventually every county in Alabama met its quota.

It was during this turbulent period that Harold B. Blach, president of Blach’s Department Store in Birmingham, came up with an idea to hold breakfast fundraisers where attendees would not only pay for their breakfast but agree to buy a bond or two. He was joined by James A. (Jim) Head whose company sold furniture to libraries. Both were members of the Chamber of Commerce.

An investment of $18.75 in Series E Bonds would bring $25 in ten years; $37.50 would bring $50 and $75 would bring $100. The planned breakfast events would feature speeches by local government leaders, veterans or active military personnel.

Birmingham’s goal would be to raise $1 million at a breakfast to be held at the Tutwiler Hotel on July 1, 1942.

The "Million Dollar Breakfast", sponsored by the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce Retail Division, actually raised twice that much. The $2 million figure surprised people nationwide including those listening to Don McNeill’s long‑running morning radio variety show, "The Breakfast Club", on the NBC Blue Network which originated in Chicago. As part of the Birmingham breakfast, the total collected was phoned into McNeill who gave reports on bond drives across the nation.

Porters ad 1947

Birmingham News, January 1947.

Harold B. Blach

Harold B. Blach

The printed program for Birmingham’s Million Dollar Breakfast gave Harold Blach credit for coming up with the breakfast war bond plan which soon spread to other cities.

The idea came to him when he decided to convert a savings account which represented a penny a day set aside for his son Harold, Jr. to a war bond. The government desperately needed money to help finance the war and in this small way, that would help, especially if others did likewise.

The $2 million raised at the Birmingham breakfast became a national model.

"Since that time I’ve helped organize these kinds of affairs in Atlanta, Chicago, New Orleans and many other places," Blach wrote his son in a birthday letter book. "Up until now from this little idea, more than $75 million worth of war bonds have been sold."

The Birmingham event earned for Blach a special recognition from the U. S. Treasury Department which stated:

"The idea was originated by a civic minded citizen and able retailer, a member of this Division of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, Harold B. Blach, who, because of his leadership and vision, has been appointed chairman of the America Heroes Breakfast Club—part of American Heroes Day, to be celebrated the nation over, July 17th."

Lewis F. Jeffers, chairman of the Jefferson County War Bond Campaign and an executive with Hayes Aircraft, praised Blach for getting the ball rolling on other bond related events in town. "Heroes Day" in Birmingham on July 17, 1942 was celebrated with five separate events designed to encourage the sale of war bonds.

Over the course of World War II 85 million Americans purchased bonds totaling $185.7 billion but it was in Birmingham on July 1, 1942 where the nation’s first "Victory Breakfast" produced $2 million in bond purchases, thanks to an idea from Mr. Blach.

[This information is taken from a book to be published this summer on Blach’s Department Store and the Blach Family written by Jim Bennett.]

Chesterfield ad 1940's

Advertisement from the 1940's.

 
 

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