JCHA NEWSLETTER –SPRING 2019

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Avondale Cotton Mill

Avondale Cotton Mill.


Avondale:
The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of a Birmingham Neighborhood

—by: Laura King
Vulcan Park and Museum Educational Programs Intern and Executive Editor of UAB Vulcan Historical Review


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utside of the industrial center of Birmingham proper, just east of this “Magic City,” sits a small, formerly industrial neighborhood, named Avondale. Originally, this neighborhood stood as its own town, settled by Peyton Griffin King and named King’s Spring, before being bought and developed as an industrial hub complementing the promising iron industry within Birmingham. Industrial tycoons and mainstays of the city such as James W. Sloss and Henry F. DeBardeleben stood out as some of the early, yet brief, owners of the property before the city’s founders, including William Morris, established the Avondale Land Company and took ownership of the town in 1887. Noting the proximity to raw materials, including iron ore and coal, and established railroad routes, industries such as lumber yards, foundries, and cotton mills eagerly took advantage of the new Jones Valley town. The most notable of these included the Continental Gin Company and Avondale Cotton Mills.

Alabama Governor  Braxton Comer.

Alabama Governor
Braxton Comer.

Avondale Cotton Mills, led by Braxton Bragg Comer (B. B. Comer), found early success after opening in 1897. It employed hundreds of Alabamians, black and white, fleeing perpetual poverty as tenant farmers. The mill faced scandals stemming from its use of child labor as well as from deplorable living conditions within the company housing, critiqued as the worst in Birmingham because, “…sewers were non-existent, the streets unpaved… The mill village was also adjoined by a prostitution alley called “Hell’s Half Acre.””

Eventually in 1907, B. B. Comer passed leadership to his son Donald who improved conditions as the Progressive Movement ran concurrent to his leadership. Avondale Cotton Mills continued its growth, expanding into Sylacauga and eventually employing an estimated 7,000 workers. Later, The Great Depression proved too crippling to overcome and permanently impacted the company. Layoffs, strikes, and wage cuts plagued the workforce and Donald Comer eventually sold Avondale Mills. The local factory closed in 1971 while the rest of the company continued production in Sylacauga, Alabama under various entities until the early 2000s.

With industry nonexistent in Avondale after the closures, the neighborhood faced a swift and seemingly unstoppable economic downturn. Coupled with economic struggles, the national suburbanization trend impacted even Avondale because in Birmingham, those with means migrated “over the mountain,” specifically Red Mountain. With the city populations dwindling, the tax base left as well, leaving structures vacant and jobs nonexistent.

Congruently, the black population migrated into these vacating cities, in what urban historians coined “transitional neighborhoods,” altering the socioeconomics of the cities. By the 1970s, Avondale gained a reputation for crime, violence, and drugs. Avondale Park, the focal point of the neighborhood and former location of the small Avondale Zoo with the famous elephant Miss Fancy, then housed what local media described as the “hippie element” and “undesirables.” Fear plagued the community and the stories of the crimes happening in the park increased apprehension towards visiting the park. Newspapers played into these stories, printing descriptions of the nonconformists that stated, “They were dressed as ‘hippies’ ‘freaks’ – the uniform of scores of young people who are regular park visitors.” Police patrols became a common occurrence within the park, but locals still refused to frequent the area.

 

A grassroots movement began in the late 1980s by women of the community known as Friends of Avondale Park. Their primary goals included the removal of crime and drugs from the park, implementation of security measures such as lighting, and renovation of the existing structures. These tasks proved an uphill battle, however, as overcoming Avondale’s reputation and gaining the necessary financial support from the city remained challenging. With the community pushing for improvements, Friends of Avondale Park finally succeeded in gaining financial support in 2006. Renovations and improvements took place throughout the park and eventually different parts of the neighborhood followed suit. Restaurants and bars slowly started moving into the area and drew in a younger crowd. An improving economy around 2010 aided this period of revitalization and business growth. While these improvements continue today in Avondale, the park remains the center of the neighborhood and incorporates still reminders of its history, such as Miss Fancy.

On May 4, join Vulcan Park and Museum’s Walking Tour of the Avondale neighborhood. Learn about how one of the city’s oldest residential areas is adapting to a recent renaissance in the adjacent commercial core. The tour will look back at Avondale’s early history as a company town and look ahead at plans to redesign 41st Street, the heart of the commercial district. For more information and to buy tickets, please visit www.visitvulcan.com/events.

Avondale boys

women sitting on elephant
 
 
seperator

Mountain Brook’s Cherokee Bend

From A Panoramic Picture of Woodward Iron Company Pamphlet

—by: Dr. Edward Stevenson, M.D


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herokee Bend is an upscale residential area of Mountain Brook, Jefferson County, Alabama. It does not have inclusive political limits per se, as would be outlined on maps of Mountain Brook as “Cherokee Bend”. It extends east to the political city line of Irondale, and north to the political city line in the middle of Shades Creek between Mountain Brook and Birmingham. The geographical area bordered Old Leeds Road on the south and west. (Refer to map). Prior to 1963, the Cherokee Bend area and the Mountain Brook Club were in Jefferson County, not in Mountain Brook. After the original development, as residential areas expanded to the south across Old Leeds Road, new county areas were annexed and became a subdivision known as Cherokee Bend South.

The area holds exceptional historical interest for the present and future homeowners of Cherokee Bend, as well as for history buffs. Although Red Mountain and the associated valleys had active Indian populations in the pre-colonial days, there is no direct evidence that the Cherokee tribe itself occupied Shades Valley, therefore the Cherokee Bend name is not directly related to the tribe. Historical interest in the raw land begins with the establishment of the Cahaba Iron Works (Irondale Furnace) by Wallace S. McElwain during the Civil War. He moved from Mississippi in 1864 and bought 2,146 acres, which included two detached sites on the Cahaba River.

Cherokee Bend 1964 PlaqueCover of the Woodward Iron Company Pamphlet.

The property extended from present day Spring Valley, Westbury, and Cherokee Roads on the south, to Red Mountain on the north; and west from Montrose Circle to near the eastern end of Brookwood Road. The area named “Cherokee Bend” in 1963 was composed of perhaps 200 acres, which was only one percent of the total McElwain acreage of 1864.

Cherokee Bend can be thought of as the immediate area around the Irondale Furnace. The furnace was destroyed by Gen. Wilson’s famous raid in 1865. It was rebuilt in 1866 by McElwain, and operated until 1873.

Cedar charcoal was the fuel for the furnace before coke was generally used in America. The reason for closing the furnace in 1873 was the complete deforestation of his land for fuel, which included the present Cherokee Bend as well as much more. All of the trees in Cherokee bend after 1873 and prior to 1963 were a maximum of 90 years old; and now in 2019, the larger and oldest ones are 146 years old.

After McElwain left, the present Cherokee Bend land, and perhaps much more, became the private property of George Gordon Crawford, who was President of T.C.I. from 1907 until 1930. He was a very active civic leader, and a friend of Robert Jemison, Jr. During those years after the deforestation, the natural botanical cycle from weeds to softwoods to hardwoods was progressing. Some people in the area owned horses and stables. Houston Blount had a home and horse barn; and John Davis, Mel’s brother, had a stable. The territory became a network of riding trails.

Robert Jemison, Jr. developed Mountain Brook in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s and was very familiar with the ironworks. He proposed to George Gordon Crawford that he donate the ironworks site itself as a public park, which Crawford did; and it is now Mountain Brook City’s Irondale Furnace Park. The park is marked with an historic marker on Stone River Road, and the park actually bisects Cherokee Bend.

Either before or after Crawford’s death in 1936, the land that was to become Cherokee Bend was bought by W.E. Belcher to use as a hardwood reserve for his Belcher Lumber Company. After Belcher’s death in 1945, the property became embroiled in a very lengthy legal process involving W.E. Belcher’s children, the lumber company, and a bank. The legal result (See Wikipedia) appears to be that the property remained with the Belcher Company, and one of W.E. Belcher’s son’s, Brady Belcher, became president of the company.

Belle Meade area, Brookwood Road, and Brookwood Forest were being developed by Perkins Realty; Davis and Majors; Johnson Rast & Hayes; Berman Realty; Jerry and Allen Drennan and others. This expansion bypassed the large area owned by Belcher Lumber Company and was reserved by them as a source of hardwood lumber. Then, when you add Belcher’s litigation to the equation, it remained a forest while other areas were being developed.

It was Brady Belcher who progressively sold segments of the company land to the Cherokee Bend developers. Each segment was progressively annexed by mutual agreement with the Mountain Brook Planning Commission, the city of Mountain Brook and real estate developers. Belcher’s sales were not limited to particular real estate companies. Individuals could buy lots and build their own houses.

The Mountain Brook Planning Commission, originally set up by Mr. Jemison, regulated building codes and standards. Cherokee Bend was never annexed by the city as a total unit, but annexed piecemeal in segments as development progressed.

Development of residential property began in 1963, when several interested real estate companies formed a consortium, which is mentioned in available records as “The Cherokee Bend Corporation”. The consortium provided a unified voice for the realtor members to be able to deal with governmental issues that were common to all.

Perkins Realty, Davis and Majors Realty, Johnson Rast & Hayes, and Jerry and Allen Drennan were the principal members. John Hamilton “Ham” Perkins with Mel Davis are accredited with the original idea of development of Cherokee Bend. These two were the “sparkplugs” at the beginning of development, and for many years thereafter. Jerry Drennen and Tom Rast were very active participants.

Map with Cherokee Bend Outlined.

Map with Cherokee Bend Outlined.

Ham Perkins, with agreement and approval of Robert Jemison, Jr. and the other developers, gave the development its name, “Cherokee Bend”, referring to the location of the “bend” in Old Leeds Road at the end of Cherokee Road, as can be seen on the map. Before this large planned residential development began in earnest, there was already a road into the area, Old Leeds Lane, which began at the eastern end of the Mountain Brook Club golf course. Two other streets were already present, Old Leeds Terrace and Hillock Drive, branching from Old Leeds Lane.

Cherokee Bend development itself began up the hill on Old Leeds Lane, above those streets, near the driveway to the Blount estate. Stones from the Davis barn were used to build an entrance column, with a bronze plaque inscribed “Cherokee Bend 1964”. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held at that column, as pictured, but the stone column was later removed. Ham Perkins took the bronze plaque to his home and garden fence, where it hangs today.

The naming of the streets for Civil War battles was done by Betty and Jerry Drennen combined with the interest in military history possessed by Annapolis graduate, Ham Perkins. The McElwain iron works certainly provided adequate association with the Civil War, especially since the loss of the Battle of Shiloh had been the incentive for McElwain’s move from Mississippi.

Two prominent streets were exceptions to that original naming scheme, namely Old Leeds Lane, which was already present, and Stone River Road. On the area blueprints dated 1963, Stone River Road was named Monarch Avenue. The reason for that name was the original plan to build a bridge across Shades Creek where that street would have entered the pre-existing Birmingham city street named Monarch, in the Mountain Dale section. When the Birmingham City Council refused to allow footing of the bridge on the Birmingham side of Shades Creek, the bridge location was moved nearby to the end of Shiloh Drive, where Birmingham allowed footing to enter Groover Street.

This opened a second traffic access to Cherokee Bend. Monarch Avenue was renamed Stone River Road, and it dead-ends on the north end at Shades Creek. For several years prior to that Shiloh Drive bridge, the homeowners, firetrucks, and ambulances had only one access to the whole development, and that was Old Leeds Lane. It is possible that Old Leeds Lane follows an old road used by the iron works for delivery of fuel to the top of the furnace bloomer, and was later used as a bridle trail.

As years passed, additional connecting access roads included the upper, south, end of Stone River Road, joined Old Leeds Road and Sharpsburg Drive, which joined Scenic View Drive in Irondale.

Robert Jemison, Jr. had been developing Mountain Brook since the late 1920’s, and certainly had been aware of this 200-acre tract of land as a possible inclusion. The Mountain Brook Country Club had been part of his earliest plans, so he had been very much aware of the contiguous area. In 1929, portions of the area were known as Jefferson County Estates. After World War II and the Korean War, expansion of the original Mountain Brook was inevitable.

Cherokee Bend Ribbon Cutting 1964

Cherokee Bend Ribbon Cutting 1964; L to R: Front: John Davis, Ham Perkins, Robert Jemison Jr., Bracw Belcher, Jerry Drennon. Back: Vann Perkins, Charles Zukowski, Sam Burr Top: Felix Drennon, Mel Davis, Ted Holder. Photo Courtesy Mrs. Hamilton Perkins

In dealing with the Mountain Brook city government, the infrastructure and school plans were of primary concern. The initial plans required assurance that there would be adequate property for schools. To assure that the school requirement would be met, Ham Perkins personally bought the property for Cherokee Bend School, and donated it to the city.

The initial plans also called for a small Williamsburg style shopping center. When the time came to consider implementation of that plan, enough citizens opposed the idea of a commercial area to force abandonment of the shopping center plan.

Cross Creek residential subdivision was substituted and developed by Jerry Drennen in the area reserved for the shopping center. The original plans also called for single family dwellings only; but, as years passed, the Mountain Brook Planning Commission agreed to allow controlled construction of some condominiums and apartments.

The social and economic timing turned out to be nearly perfect in the mid 1960’s. There were many young professionals and business executives already living in Birmingham or the suburbs, some of whom were war veterans, and had completed their educations. They had joined the professional and business community, had started young families that were now needing more space; and they were rising in their chosen businesses and professions.

These were the initial homebuyers, lot purchasers, and homebuilders in the new Cherokee Bend. This provided

a healthy mix of older Birmingham families and people moving from other cities and states. The early residents formed a community bond like a small town, with parties, sledding in the snow with the children, Christmas day visits to each other’s homes, and other activities which formed lasting friendships, associations and memories. Of the originals, only one person still lives in her home at the present time.

Then came a business bonanza, the Telephone Company! The federal courts had decreed that AT&T (“Ma Bell”) was not in compliance with the United States antitrust laws, and it must be broken up into competing smaller companies. As a result, Southern Bell, which was based in Atlanta, was divided in 1968; and a new company, South Central Bell, to be based in Birmingham, would serve Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and Kentucky.

The South Central Bell Building was constructed in the heart of downtown Birmingham, and remains one of the iconic downtown high buildings. Hundreds of top level and mid-level telephone executives were transferred from other cities and states. The Birmingham suburbs such as Mountain Brook, Homewood, Vestavia and Hoover offered new home buyers and home builders great opportunities. Cherokee Bend was waiting with open arms.

Other social and economic factors added to the profound changes during the 1960’s. The Red Mountain Expressway, the rapid development of The University of Alabama at Birmingham, the building of Baptist Medical Center Montclair, and the civil rights disturbances all had positive impacts on “Over-The-Mountain” development.

An estimated that 400 houses were built in Cherokee Bend during the first ten years. The original residents humorously called it “The Telephone Company Ghetto”, because so many of the new employees of South Central Bell bought or built homes there.

Cherokee Bend Elementary School was built in 1969 on the land donated by Mr. Ham Perkins. At the present time, it enrolls students from Kindergarten through grade 6. Students are assigned to the various Mountain Brook schools by the School Board depending upon need, desires of the parents, and availability.

There is no political boundary related to school districts, except the boundaries of the City of Mountain Brook itself. As the years have passed, areas outside of the original Cherokee Bend developed, and, as mentioned previously, names such as CHEROKEE BEND SOUTH used. Some homes built in Irondale, contiguous to the Mountain Brook city limits, are outside of Mountain Brook and are not eligible to use Cherokee Bend Elementary School. Likewise, assignment of a child to Cherokee Bend School does not necessarily designate that their home is in Cherokee Bend.

The development of Cherokee Bend has occupied a unique period in the land that it occupies. The land was dense virgin forest in “Shades of Death” Shades Valley before becoming an important Civil War site. Later it was an undeveloped recreational area for equestrian activity, and a hardwood reserve for a lumber company. Finally, it is a prestigious residential area, familiar to many people who call it home, or fondly recall happy childhoods when they grew up there.

The author was a resident of Cherokee Bend from 1965 until 2008, and wishes to thank the following other sources for this article:

The Perkins family: Mrs. Ham “Marge” Perkins; son, Charles Perkins; Ham’s sister, Carol Perkins Poynor; and many personal conversations by this author with the late Ham Perkins.

Interview in depth with Betty Drennen, wife of the late Jerry Drennen.

Sources: Birmingham Public Library staff and Birmingham News files. | The Mountain Brook City Administration staff (Janet Forbes and Dana Hazen). | “A History of Mountain Brook Alabama” by Marylin Davis Barefield. | The late Dr. Joseph Appleton by interview. | “Descendants of Wallace Scott McElwain” by Linda Coulter. | Wikipedia.

 

 
 

Birmingham Terminal Station Model

Construction of the new Birmingham Terminal
Station well underway

—by: Marvin Clemmons


N

o, you didn’t read the heading wrong. The new station is almost two-thirds complete, and will soon be ready for its grand opening.

Of course, we’re talking about the construction of a detailed model of Terminal Station as the centerpiece of the forthcoming exhibit “Terminal Station: Birmingham’s Great Temple of Travel,” opening May 17 at Vulcan Park & Museum’s Linn-Henley Gallery.

The scale model replica of Birmingham’s iconic railroad station is the handiwork of Gene Clements of Adamsville, Alabama. Gene is a retired railroad engineer with a basement full of trains. He’s also a model railroad craftsman and an expert at constructing railroad buildings from scratch. Gene admits that Terminal Station, with its soaring arches, towers and grand dome, is one of the greatest modeling challenges he has tackled.

The idea of building a scale model of Terminal Station began when Alabama Power Company commissioned Gene to rebuild a model railroad layout for a planned exhibit in the company’s former Southside steam plant. When plans for the exhibit fell through, Gene had begun construction of the station model as part of the layout. The unfinished model was placed in storage, its future uncertain.

In the meantime, as reported in the last issue of the newsletter, JCHA member Marvin Clemons approached Vulcan Park with a proposal for an exhibit commemorating Terminal Station. VPM adopted the proposal as the Park’s featured exhibit honoring the State of Alabama’s 2019 Bicentennial anniversary.

With assistance from JCHA member George Jenkins, the Terminal Station model was rescued from Alabama Power’s warehouse and returned to Gene for completion. Progress is well underway, and the model should be ready in time for the exhibit’s opening on May 17.

Seeing the model for the first time is an eye-popping experience. The detailing is remarkable, from the dozens of hand-cut and painted windows and doors surrounding the station, to the weathered brickwork and terra cotta tiled roof. “Topping” it all off is the station’s impressive main dome, a true work of craftsmanship.

When completed, the station’s finished “footprint” will extend almost 9 feet in length by more than 4 feet deep, and will include a station platform and several tracks for displaying “O-scale” model trains that operated through the station.

Several activities are being planned by Vulcan Park in conjunction with the exhibit. Events include panel discussions by local historians on the impact of Terminal Station on Birmingham’s development, a family day to acquaint young people with the station and Birmingham’s railroad history, and a presentation and book signing by Marvin Clemons, author of “Great Temple of Travel: A Pictorial History of Birmingham Terminal Station,” from which much of the exhibit material has been taken. Copies of the book are available at Vulcan’s Anvil Gift Shop, or may be ordered online at www.GreatTemple.net.

 
 
 

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