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Jefferson County Historical Association Seal


To: Members of the Jefferson County Historical Association
What: Quarterly Meeting
Date: Thursday, January 13, 2011
Time: 6:30 p.m. Social Period, 7:00 p.m. Program
Where: EMMETT O’NEAL LIBRARY— Crestline Heights
Speaker: Julie Williams
Subject: Wings of Opportunity: The Wright Brothers in Montgomery, Alabama

wings of opportunity

Julie Williams

I was born in Dayton, Ohio, on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the Wright Brothers’ old flying field. When I was in grade school, my family moved to North Carolina, where the Wright Brothers in-vented the airplane. Ohio and North Carolina both have a keen sense of ownership of the Wright Brothers, and consequently, I’ve been a fan of theirs all my life. When I found out the Wright Brothers had run the nation’s first civilian flying school in Alabama, I was astounded – and I knew I had to write Wings of Opportunity, which is about that flying school. I am a professor of journalism at Samford University here in Birmingham, and I’m the past president of the American Journalism Historians Association. I have a BA degree in History and English from Principa College and a Master’s in Journalism from University of Alabama, as well as a PhD in Mass Communications from University of Alabama. I am married and have two sons and two dogs and have lived in historic Highland Park here in Jefferson County for 18 years.

(See More on Wings of Opportunity on page 5)


Reminiscences of World War II

Editorial Note: It has been agreed that a few of us would do a reminiscences of WWII article in hopes that our membership would also contribute their reminiscences of WWII for publication in the next and future Newsletters. What follows is some reminiscences of our Editor that took place not only in Birmingham but in Decatur, GA.

One of my first memories of WWII was my father complaining that he was being followed or investigated by the FBI prior to and at the beginning of WWII. The present day reason for the alleged investigation that took place then exists even today in a hostile environment with regard to middle eastern-ers. My father’s father was a German immigrant from Hanover, Germany. Even though my father had served as a medical officer in the United States Navy after WWI, at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, I suppose there was a natural suspicion of the son of a German immigrant. If you recall, entire Japanese families were placed in detainment camps. More about this subject will follow in this article.

Some of my memories which revolve around living in Decatur, GA as a 5 or 6 year old child involve troops marching back and forth in front of our residence on Clairmont Avenue. I also distinctly remember the orange coloring that my mother had to put in oleo margarine to give it a yellow color (butter was not available), and I remember the terrible syrup that added maple flavor to sugar water, along with food, tires and gasoline rationing and standing in line for rationing stamps or coupons.

One of my distinct memories is of blackouts for air raids. My father was an air raid warden and I remember covering the dial of our console radio with a blanket and my sister, Rachel Drennen, studying in the closet upstairs that had no windows when the lights out siren came on.

I don’t remember much about the conduct of the war, but I do remember being in the Alabama Theatre with my mother and sister, Virginia, who now lives in Dothan, Alabama. The movie stopped and a man came out on stage and announced that victory over Japan had taken place that day. This was in the middle of August 1945. Everyone in the theatre immediately got up and rushed outside to join in the celebration on the streets in front of the Alabama Theatre.

Now, we return to the investigation of my father. At the end of the war, after the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, my father, as a world recognized hematologist (his book Diseases of the Blood was published in 14 languages), was asked by the Atomic Energy Commission to investigate the effects of radiation on the blood of the victims of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Of course, to do so he had to have a top secret clearance to travel to Oak Ridge, TN to study the blood slides of those victims. I remember his bringing home photographs of some of the victims who were on the fringes of the Atom bomb blast. Where they had plaid shirts, their body had become tattooed with dark portions of the patterned shirt, the white portions having reflected the light. At last, my father was vindicated with a top secret clearance from the United States Government, which offset his treatment before and at the beginning of the War.

At this point in time, he began establishment of one of the first urban Veteran’s Administration Hospitals after being appointed by President Truman’s Veteran’s Affairs Medical Committee. As a result, through the efforts of Col. William Pritchard and my father, a VA Hospital was established in Birmingham, Alabama. For many years it was called “Kracke’s Pink Elephant,” because it did not fill up for several years after it was established, but look at it now; it takes up a full block in the Medical Center and is a beehive of activity.

I know that many of you who might be slightly older than I am have much more distinct memories and reminiscences to pass on so that those memories can be preserved for future generations.

—by Jim Bennett

Although I was still quite young during the war, I do remember getting a card from my uncle A. J. Olson, who was dropped on a remote island in the Pacific as a radar technician. The card was postmarked from Manila in the Philippines in 1945.

“We drove into Manila yesterday but the city looks pretty bad after the Japs got through with it,” he wrote. My uncle said he was supposed to go to Japan and join up with the 6th Army. (Manila was attacked by Japanese forces in February and March.) The Sixth Army was to have provided the ground forces for the first phase of the invasion of Japan, but the surrender changed that. The card addressed to Dear Jim is one of my favorite possessions.

—by Thomas M. West, Jr.

My father served in World War I toward the end and was exempt from World War II due to age I guess but he was an Air Raid Warden and I certainly remember him leaving at night during “blackouts” to make sure all the neighbors complied.

There was one very strict rule at our house and that was to remain completely silent during the nightly radio broadcasts of H. V. Kaltenborn (1878–1965) who started out at CBS but joined NBC in 1940. If Kaltenborn was on not a word could be uttered!

Our favorite restaurant was “Chicken in the Rough” later “Vulcan Restaurant” and much later “The Gold Nugget”. (The Birmingham History Center has menus from these in it’s large Birmingham menu collection). At “Chicken in the Rough” on the countertop next to the cash register was a huge mound of colored wax, the result of many, many candles melting down. In the wax you were urged to stick coins and the owners were supposed to contribute all the money to the war effort. As all this money sat about “child high” it was fascinating to me. I always wondered if they did!

At home we collected “tin foil” stripped from chewing gum wrappers for the war effort. The tin foil was molded into a round ball and kept in the drawer of our mahogany end table. I have this table today and upon it sits my fax machine. The war ended and we never donated our ball.

I loved toy soldiers which before the war were always made of metal but as the war progressed toy soldiers were made of cheap plastic. In Shepard-Sloss’ strip shopping center (the first with off street parking in Alabama) on Highland Avenue, where Western Supermarket now is, was a “10¢ store” (was it Silver’s or Elmore’s?) and my mother discovered that on occasion this particular store was still able to get a few metal soldiers so it was a regular stop.

One of the great mysteries of World War II in Birmingham was the twin engined, tricycle landing gear bomber that sat in front of Alley School on Green Springs Road. I discovered it probably around 1948 or so and our parents would take us kids over to play on it. Eventually the bomber and Alley School disappeared and on the site now is an Army Reserve unit. Many hours have been spent researching this fascinating site to no avail. All the children of the time remember the bomber. The adults do not. (Note: if anyone knows the true story of the bomber please call me at 871-5365).

One last note on World War II. I have asked numerous people who were adults in 1941–1945 whether they were more afraid then or now. 100% report that they are much more afraid now.

World War I statue in Linn Park

Vandals Strike at History Again

The vandalism of local historic sites continues. Someone stole the plaque beneath the World War I statue in Linn Park in downtown Birmingham. Just a large rectangular outline remains on the pedestal and city officials are clueless about what happened. The plaque, believed to be brass, identified the monument and its sponsors. It was erected after the close of World War I in 1918.

Earlier this year, metal scavengers began cutting up important historical bridge work and a water tank at an abandoned Sloss iron ore mine on Red Mountain. At Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park, rangers are on the lookout for unknown persons who throw huge rocks off the furnace bridge onto the cast houses.

The Alabama Antiquities Act might be strengthened in a future legislative session to cover more cases. Prosecutors at times now use trespass laws instead when vandals are caught.


Furnace at Irondale, Alabama

Editorial Note: This is a story found in the Alabama Dept. of Archives & History relating the personal recollection of a former employee at the Irondale Furnace, Jefferson County's second oldest ironworks. It was written by Samuel Davis of Dover, NJ January 15, 1918.
Jim Bennett

The cold blast charcoal iron furnace located at Irondale, Alabama was originally erected during the Civil War and at the close of the war was abandoned. In the year 1868 it was again put in blast by a firm from Ohio and preparations made by this firm for the erection of a rolling mill; but the financial outlook continuing same was not very promising and they suspended operations. In August 1871, the McKee, Thomas Company of Pennsylvania (later the Jefferson Iron Company) leased the property intending to operate the furnace for the purpose of make charcoal iron.

The furnace was an ordinary stone stack with four arches lined with red brick, open top, abut 30 feet square at the base, 35 feet high, having a 4 ft. hearth base and a 9 ft bosh. The blowing apparatus consisted of one blowing engine of the horizontal type.

There were two tubular boilers and the hot blast connected to the end of the boilers with stack at the end of hot blast. The heat was obliged to pass under the boilers before reaching the hot blast. The arrangement for heating the blast furnace not being satisfactory was discarded, and plans were immediately made for a new hot blast; and taking advantage of the furnace while in operation a bell and hopper was made at the plant and installed during the second blast and was operated by steam. The air entering the furnace for the blast was through three tuyeres; that not being a success, one tuyere was used. And upon the installation of the new hot blasts two were used with better success. The General Superintendent, Mr. James Thomas, was the patentee of the automatic operation of the bell and hopper, which consisted of air, steam and water.

The original method of supplying the furnace with fuel was from the top furnace level, the fuel being brought to this point by mule-teams; but as it proved rather expensive it was decided to install an elevator to raise from the bottom level. This elevator for filling the furnace was called a “water hoist”, and composed of two water-tight compartments; while one ascended the other descended and the water for operating the same was taken from a wooden tank placed on the top of the hoist.

The ore used, a brown hemitite, was mined at a distance of about one and one-half miles from the furnace and the limestone for fluxing purposes was procured from the same neighborhood. The method of transportation was over a tram-way, the loaded cars ran by gravity and the empty cars returned to the mines by mule teams.

The fuel was procured within a radius of six miles of the plant, timber being cut into cord wood lengths and pits made for the purpose of making charcoal. The charcoal was carted into the plant by both mule and ox teams, and for this purpose there were six or seven four-mule teams and at least a half dozen yoke of oxen.

The output during the first blast was from 5 to 7 tons per day of cold blast charcoal iron. The output on the second blast was materially increased due to the installation of an improved hot blast. The finished project was carted from the furnace to the Irondale railroad station a distance of two miles while the roads were in good condition, and there stocked until orders were received for shipment, the principal market being Louisville, Ky and Cincinnati, Ohio.

The furnace direct employed about twenty men; outside labor consisted of wood choppers and coal burners numbering about thirty, composed of both white and colored help.

In addition to the furnace, the other buildings located on the property consisted of a two story frame building 30 ft by 50 ft., the first floor being used as a machine shop which was equipped with the best known tools manufactured at that time. The second floor of this building served as a pattern and carpenter shop. The foundry and blacksmith shop were built of brick the material for some being obtained on the property and made there. The motive power for the machine shop was steam; the air for cupola purposes was furnished by a “Root” blower. The blacksmith shop was equipped with three fires. These buildings were built by the owners of the property with the express purpose of carrying out their original project, that of building a rolling mill, as previously mentioned.

At the time of our commencing operations in 1871, there were but few men located in that neighborhood acquainted with furnace practice and we were obliged to secure help elsewhere, especially men who were conversant with the iron business. A Mr. Cartright connected with a firm in Ironton, Ohio, was secured as founder and he brought with him a few men who were familiar with the charcoal industry. These from the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania were, Mr. James Thomas, one of the firm, together with his family, Messers. Asa Beers, George Cook, Thomas Pettiet and family, and Samuel Davis and family. A Mr. Robert Stephens, a practical miner, who had been engaged in the mining industry in the magnetic ore mines of northern New Jersey was made Foreman of the ore mines and a contract made with him to deliver the ore at the furnace at a certain rate per ton. Mr. Stephens was later employed by the Pioneer Mining Company at Thomas, Alabama, and to the best of my recollection is still a resident of the Birmingham district.

The other prominent residents of Irondale were, Justice Fancher, Captain John Hamby, Lieut. Champ Langford, Mr. Merrill and a Mr. McElwaine, the later being Superintendent of the plant under the Ohio firm, afterward General Freight Agent of the Selma, Rome and Dalton Railroad, its title at that time. The employees were very much scattered.

There were quite a few log cabins and a few frame structures called “houses”. The mode of living was primitive and in order to make our families more comfortable these “houses” were obliged to undergo reconstruction, the mechanics and material being secured in Elyton, the County-seat at that time.

Religious services were conducted by Episcopalians, Baptists and Methodists in the little frame school house on Sabbath day and the education of children during the week was not forgotten. A very interesting incident occurs to me at this time. We were honored by a visit from the Reverend Wilmer, Episcopal Bishop of Alabama, who preached a very instructive and appreciative sermon much to the delight of those who had the pleasure of hearing him.

The present city of Birmingham was at that time composed of a few houses although building operations were booming, but there were no industries located there. The Alabama and Chattanooga was the only railroad that passed through the town. The South and North road was being built and reached that point in October 1871.

Our mode of travel to reach Birmingham was on horse-back over the mountain a distance of about seven miles, and unless necessity demanded it our trips were like “angels’ visits” few and far between; and I can only recall that at the time of my leaving that locality, Birmingham had grown to be quite populous.

Severing my connection with that Company in September 1873, the manufacture of iron was continued until the expiration of the lease. Mr. James Thomas the General Superintendent as afterward engaged by the Oxmoor Iron Company, and enjoyed the distinction of having made the first coke iron in Alabama. In reference to the manufacture of coke iron, permit me to say that in justice to Mr. James Thomas, the statement made above should be duly credited to him.

Irondale Furnace in Mountain Brook

The Irondale Furnace in Mountain Brook, also known as the Cahawba Iron Company, was the first to be rebuilt after the Civil War. The expanded plant included a steam engine to replace the old water-powered blower and hot blast stoves to expedite ore reduction. It operated until 1873. (George Crawford Collection, Samford University Library).



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