JCHA NEWSLETTER –WINTER 2020

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PREVIOUS NEWSLETTERS

masthead edition

Michael P. Rucker Book

Michael P. Rucker Book


UPCOMING
PROGRAMS

Wednesday,
January 8, 2020

Emmet O’Neal Library Auditorium Refreshments at 6:30 pm Meeting at 7:00pm

Michael P. Rucker
Civil War Experiences of Colonel Edmund W. Rucker

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April 8, 2020

James Pate
Pickett’s History Addendum

OUR MISSION:

To Preserve And
Remember

In Memorium Alice Williams

—by: Edward W. Stevenson


Alice McSpadden Williams

Alice McSpadden Williams

W

i t h the death of our immediate past-president, Alice McSpadden Williams, on November 16, 2019, our history association, and the world have lost a very exceptional human being. As is the tradition, her formal obituary summarizes the essential high points in her life. In addition, for those of us who are members of the Jefferson County Historical Association, you may remember a feature article in The Jefferson Journal of April-June 2019 which reviews many of her life’s accomplishments. My purpose is to shine a more personal light on her life.

My wife, Dolly, and I have known Tom and Alice as friends for 53 years. They were our neighbors directly across the street for the years that our children were growing up. Alice’s first association with the Girl Scout movement was as a helper for my wife in the Scout troupe which Dolly organized. As our and their children became adults, we were active participants in their weddings. When Dolly and I celebrated our 70th wedding anniversary, Tommy and Alice were one of the two non-family couples that we invited. Ironically, Dolly and Alice have both died this same year.

Having offered this very brief review, my purpose here is to share with our fellow-members some observations and opinions about Alice and her life.

First of all, Alice’s intellect placed her in the genius level, with a photographic memory. She had unbounded energy that allowed her to utilize her intellect in useful work. She channeled that energy and intellect successfully in a large number of charitable and non-profit venues. Had she chosen to channel it in the corporate world, there is little doubt that she would have been CEO of whatever company that she chose.

With all of that, she was a kind and thoughtful person. She and Tom were deeply in love; and she was a loving and attentive mother. She worked in her yard and flowers, and could “lay bricks” if needed. She loved animals, but none ever replaced McDougal, her beloved Yorkie. In short, her humanity was equal to her intellect and energy, and was a very large part of who she was.

Tom has always appeared to be “comfortable in his own skin”. He was a structural engineer with Rust Engineering Company, and later retired as Vice President of Sonat (Southern Natural Gas Company). He remained proud of Alice and supportive of her activities, and worked quietly with her behind the scenes. They traveled the world together for many years, and it probably would be easier to list the countries they did not visit rather than those that they did. Without Tom’s even and quiet disposition, Alice could not have been who she was nor done what she did to make this world a better place. They were a perfect “Yin and Yang” team.

The Jefferson County Historical Association has been lucky indeed to have had the talents and experience of Alice McSpadden Williams as a member of the Board of Directors, and to have had her serve for six years as our President.

More about Alice on Page 2

 
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JCHA Logo

OFFICERS:

Dan Puckett
President

Harry Bradford
Treasurer

Harry Bradford
Secretary

Jim Hard

BOARD OF DIRECTORS:

Cathy Criss Adams
Leah Rawls Atkins
Thomas E. Badham
Jeanne B. Bradford
David Bright
Thomas N. Carruthers, Jr.
Walter W. Dean, Jr.
Judy S. Haise
George L. Jenkins
Catherine Pittman Smith
J. Randall Pitts, Jr.
Mary Ellen West

DIRECTOR EMERITUS

Edward W. Stevenson, MD

David Bright

PAST PRESIDENTS:

J. Morgan Smith
Margaret D. Sizemore
Elmer C. Thuston, Jr.
Chriss Doss
Betsy Bancroft
Tillman W. Pugh
William A. Price
Thomas M. West, Jr.
Madge D. Jackson
Thad G. Long
Don G. Watkins
Fred M. Jackson, III
Thomas O. Caldwell, MD
Charles A. Speir
Craig Allen, Jr.
Edward W. Stevenson, MD
Jim Bennett
Alice McSpadden Williams
Thomas N. Carruthers

JEFFERSON JOURNAL

Tom Badham, Editor (thomase.badham@yahoo.com)
Jim LaRussa, Graphic Designer

Message from the President


W. Dan Puckett

W. Dan Puckett

I

am fascinated and impressed by each of the speakers we have at our quarterly meetings. Added to that list is Bill Finch, our very illuminating speaker in October. He laid out the foundation of this state’s culture beginning before Desoto and painted a picture of the contribution made to it by our tremendous biodiversity. As an example, we learned that Alabama is one of the world’s center of diversity of hickory tree species. How is that important to our culture? Did you know that the first great trading commodity of Alabama was hickory milk, made from the hickory nut? Some referred to it as hickory butter. Either way, it was the source of significant trading wealth.

We also learned that in 1250 AD, the two largest cities in North America were both located in Alabama. One, you might have guessed, was Moundville. The other, less well known by many, was Bottle Creek in the Mobile Tensaw Delta. Both of these were large cities, well developed, and both left behind huge mounds.

My intention in recounting just a little of Bill Finch’s presentation is to remind you of the quality of our speakers and to entice you to join us at our meetings. I promise you will go home better informed about this great place we live.

In January we will hear about Edmund Winchester Rucker, Confederate Colonel and, later, a very successful Birmingham businessman.

Many of you responded to our request to have your email address. We thank you for that. As we begin to look to the new year, communicating with you will be a large part of our plans. Email will play an important role in meeting those plans.

Stay tuned as we develop other channels for sharing history with a growing audience.

I join you in the feeling of great sadness at the death of Alice Williams. For many years, she inspired all of us as the energetic, level-headed and far sighted leader of this association. Her contribution to it and so many other facets of our lives has been large and long lasting. We will miss her very much!

— W. Dan Puckett, President



Facts About Birmingham


B

irmingham’s smog problems were obviously created by the steel industry upon which the city thrived. But the steel industry really wasn’t the only culprit. The problem was exasperated by Birmingham’s geography...a city in a narrow valley surrounded by mountains. There was no air current to carry the smog away. The city passed anti-smog ordinances in 1945 but they were largely ineffective. Nothing was really done to stem the pollution until national anti-pollution laws were passed. As now seems fit, some of Birmingham’s industries were the first in the U.S. to be closed down temporarily until the air cleared. (Thinking back to my childhood - when we would drive to downtown from “over the mountain”...the Sloss city furnaces at illuminated the night skies with an eerie glow that is hard to describe but not easy to forget).


 
 
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Morris Avenue 1871

Morris Avenue and the Slaying that Killed Old Town Uptown

—by: Laura King, M.A. History.


F

ounded in 1871, Birmingham, Alabama’s economy relied on an abundance of iron ore, limestone, and coal that allowed for a flourishing iron production industry. For decades the area mines, furnaces, and foundries operated to fill the demand for pig iron, but as the industry began fading in the 1950s, once vital industrial districts located around railroads became vacant.

Morris Avenue, running through the center of Birmingham’s industrial district, became one of those impacted districts. It morphed from a chaotic and thriving industrial epicenter full of warehouses and merchants into a barren skeleton of its former glory.

This loss of industry in conjunction with trends in population migration left Birmingham with the question of how to transform these downtown districts. Moving into 1970s, the idea to reinvent Morris Avenue into the “Bourbon Street of Birmingham” came to the forefront of plans to increase the economic viability of downtown.

Birmingham’s revitalization began before the Morris Avenue project and included outlandish proposals such as turning Birmingham into “sky city” with elevated, air-conditioned walkways and fountains throughout the city.

Few proposals reached reality, but after the formation of Operation New Birmingham in 1965, plans to boost the city’s economy gained traction.

A new initiative known as “Design for Progress” and a partnership with the Harland Bartholomew & Associates architecture firm began discussions on transforming Morris Avenue. Architect Bob Moody saw potential in the project. Moody envisioned Morris Avenue as becoming an entertainment district full of bars, restaurants, and shops incorporating the aesthetic of the old, industrial warehouses with the name Old Town Uptown.

Morris Avenue Old Town Up Town, early 1970’s.

Morris Avenue Old Town Up Town, early 1970’s.

By the early 1970s, only a few short years after project planning began, multiple businesses stood open within the newly formed Old Town Uptown. Cobblestone streets, gas lanterns, and landscaping, funded by the City of Birmingham, ran the length of the entertainment district. Investments also allowed for the commissioning of an artist who painted the official sign for the newly named district, Old Town Uptown, in large, flowing letters on the side of the Lacke Building near 20th Street.

Within a few years, Old Town Uptown opened a respectable number of clubs and bars, drawing musical performances and crowds to the gas lit street. In addition to Victoria Station and Diamond Jim’s, the area now featured Cobblestone, Inc., which later became the Crazy Horse, the Old Town Music Hall, Bachelor’s Showboat Lounge, and Oaks Street. The clubs drew a mix of genres from bluegrass and jazz to southern rock.

One musician, Glenn Tolbert, that frequented Oaks Street during Old Town Uptown’s peak recalled, “I remember taking my mom there… She loved good ole’ bluegrass music… I remember taking her, and her riding down there with me to Oaks Street, like on a Tuesday night, and this was like the ‘70s…I remember the place Oaks street being packed with people you couldn’t hardly get in the door down there. Not on a weekend, bear in mind, but during the week!”

Musicians that remember Morris Avenue’s musical heyday agree that it transformed much of downtown and became the “it” place to be. The variety of musical scenes the clubs drew and the sheer number of foot traffic that visited the area created an entertainment hub that Birmingham never before experienced.

Despite the success of these venues and the positive memories of many of the musicians, an undercurrent of crime still infiltrated Old Town Uptown. Tempers flared easily among the crowded streets and often brought out violent encounters. One night at the Old Town Music Hall in the late 1970s, a car full of people drove by the club and threw a rock into the window, shattering glass and yelling, infuriating the owner who went out to the street with his pistol as the car drove around again.

He fired multiple shots after the car where there were an estimated two hundred people walked the street. Other attacks remembered by musicians included robberies and even a stabbing. Encounters like these remained commonplace on Morris Avenue, but soon would come to head as an abduction and murder beginning in Old Town Uptown caught the attention of Birmingham citizens and media sources.

On August 17, 1977, Nigel Harlan, vice president of Ogden Steel Company in Chicago, arrived at the Bachelor’s Showboat Lounge with two associates near midnight to see a music performance. A young woman later joined the men shortly after entering the bar with another man. There, she talked to the men sharing personal details and drinking. The man she arrived with eventually left the bar before her and not long after, a beer arrived at the table already paid for.

Within minutes the woman got up to leave, asking Harlan if he wanted to go with her. Harlan agreed, leaving his associates. After leaving the Bachelor’s Showboat Lounge, Harlan did not show up for meetings the next day and his associates, fearing the worst, reported him missing to local police. Harlan did not share where he was going with the woman, leaving no information for police.

The case grew cold quickly, so a massive search began, spanning across Birmingham and into the surrounding towns. The search proved futile in the beginning as no one knew the identity of the mystery woman, described only as young, white, and possibly named Debra.

Little progress was made in the coming weeks as tips led to dead ends. A break in the case finally came from a new tip from a woman, identified as the baby-sitter for the mysterious “Debra,” that proved to be true.

Early Photo of Morris Avenue.

Early Photo of Morris Avenue.

The baby-sitter reported to cops that on the night Harlan disappeared, she watched Debra’s young child through the night. On September 3rd, police finally reported that they believed they knew the identities of Debra as well as the man she arrived to the Bachelor’s Showboat Lounge with and arrests could come soon.

From the information police gained and the length of Harlan’s disappearance, the police also inferred that despite their investigation and search efforts, Nigel Harlan would not be found alive. Other leads surfaced at the time, such as a credit statement showing a charge on Harlan’s credit card from a nearby state after his disappearance.

Police now believed Harlan faced robbery before being murdered, but without his body, the police struggled to prove that a murder took place. Helicopters and search teams scoured the city and surrounding areas in hopes of recovering Harlan, but with the suspects named as possibly out of state residents, the search expanded to multiple southern states. With the aid of the baby-sitter’s tip, a single credit card charge, and dedicated search parties, the suspects were found and arrested on September 9th in Florida.

With the identities confirmed, suspects Debra Ann Andrus and Tony Randolph Nolen were returned to Alabama to await charges and trials. Police focused on Andrus who they believed would offer information because of her easy surrender to police in contrast to Nolen who attempted to flee.

In the investigators’ early questioning, Andrus broke down after prosecutors offered a plea deal in return for information and her testimony against Nolen, who she named as the killer. She then admitted to officers that the body of Harlan lay in a pasture in nearby Shelby County.

The trials brought forth the details of Nigel Harlan’s death through the testimony of Debra Andrus. Her testimony began with the pair arriving together at the Bachelor’s Showboat Lounge with Debra posing as a charming woman, waiting for a beer to arrive at the table to signal her to leave the bar.

She shared details of their drive to the pasture, with her driving and Nolen in the backseat with a gun pressed against Harlan’s neck, ordering him to hand over his wallet and watch, but Harlan refused. Her testimony ended with blame pointed at Nolen as the one who pulled the trigger, first in the legs to cripple Harlan and then again in the head to kill him.

By the end of the hearing, Nolen faced charges of capital murder and robbery and Andrus faced a lesser charge of first-degree and second-degree murder with the agreement that she would plead guilty and again testify against Nolen.

Throughout the investigation, trials, and sentencing of Debra Andrus and Tony Nolen, the public followed the case through constant media updates. The murder of Nigel Harlan stirred fears throughout Birmingham, aided by the updates in local newspapers and broadcasts.

Headlines of murder, abduction, and robbery fueled public perceptions of the dangerous downtown areas, impacting the success and viability of Old Town Uptown. Even though crime took place throughout the area before and after the murder of Harlan, none reached the scale of complete headline takeover than the Harlan case, causing fears to stir.

The eventual shutdown of Old Town Uptown resulted as businesses, already battling high lease prices on Morris Avenue, could not keep up financially as people remained too frightened to frequent the once popular area. Many news sources and publications years later blamed this high-profile crime, coupled with smaller issues such as lease prices, as the ultimate reason Old Town Uptown faded in only a few short years.

Bruno’s grocery ad, approx. 1969

Bruno’s grocery ad, approx. 1969.

 

 
 

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