Alabama


6
Sep 21

Happy Labor Day

Welcome back to you and me. Nothing happened here last week because … well … you didn’t miss much around here. It was the second week of classes, and, as ever, the first few weeks of classes are hyper-charged. If anything, the post-lockdown might make that period run even longer. Typically it’s a two week rush to find a semester’s cruising speed. Looking at the upcoming calendar, the ops tempo isn’t evening out for another week or two, though.

Meaning things might feel like they’re running at a normal speed … as we approach October.

The most fun things last week, perhaps, were an interview I conducted about two interesting new studies and some television stuff. We had a practice shoot for the sports crew and a big call out meeting Thursday night.

Late that same evening we climbed out of the car after a long drive for a weekend visit with my family.

This was our second visit since the pandemic. And just my third trip, total, since all of this began. We act conservatively and try to stay as safe as possible so we can have visits like that. It makes sense if you’re being risk adverse.

And the trip was nice. We picked up barbecue in Louisville and had a lot more great food all weekend. We sat poolside with my mom, saw my grandfather and finally won a game of dominoes from him, got to hug my uncle. And we watched the hummingbirds dance.

We came back today. If it feels like a full day’s drive that’s because it is. But work calls again tomorrow, and there are cats that need attention. And, since I didn’t give you anything last week, there are extra kitty pictures this time around.

Phoebe is (almost always) a good girl. Except for when she’s on this ledge.

It’s a weird thing, really. “You’re cute, but you’re not supposed to be there. Get down. Wait, let me take a picture first.”

She likes afternoons on the stairs, which gives her some nice indirect sunlight warmth. There’s also a change of temperature near that spot on warm days. Maybe she prefers a half-and-half temperature.

Poseidon prefers tasty snacks.

Again, “Stop buying that! But not before I take a picture!”

He managed to get one out of the box. We think he just likes the crinkly foil. Or likes dropping them on the floor, since we did that a few times.

Phoebe also likes sitting on that box. As we’ve discussed here before, we’re dealing with two cat lawyers. ‘On the box isn’t on the counter,’ is, I’m sure, what’s behind those eyes.

And, also, ‘As you can see, I’m not getting into the treats like he is.’

Poseidon is caught.

And he is notably chagrined.


26
Aug 21

Back to the year 1921

Let us once again go back in time, to see if anything interesting was in the paper 100 years ago today. And there’s … not a lot … that captures our eye these years hence. Sometimes a slow news day here is matched by a slow news day then. It isn’t exactly the planets aligning, but it could seem close enough if you wanted to think that way. The better read is that probably no one feels like doing more than necessary in the middle of an August heat wave.

So to quickly gloss over the day’s lead story from the August 26, 1921 edition of The Birmingham News

That’s the West Virginia Mine Wars, a series of strikes, skirmishes, kerfuffles and outright battles that ranged through the 1910s and early 1920s. At the first of August a police chief and his deputy were killed by hired gun thugs when they were going to trial for a violent shootout earlier in the year. That was a tipping point. For weeks miners started arming themselves, and moved to just outside the state capitol. The firing was just starting again when they put this paper together. Thousands of union miners and another few thousand police offers, militia and others were clashing. President Harding was tinkering with the idea of martial law. National Guard were standing ready to be shipped in. Today they call it the Battle of Blair Mountain, which ended on September 2nd, and it claimed about 130 lives. It wound up being a defeat for the miners, and union membership plummeted. Ultimately, the mine owners success helped lead to a larger, stronger movement in many other industries. This was nearing the end of the West Virginia violence. Within the next decade, though, the unrest and violence spilled over into eastern Kentucky.

Anyway, inside the paper … a very vague ad on page three.

This makes sense if you are of the time. Lots of ads, across the country. You’re meant to see it as a seal of approval.

Text of another ad, from elsewhere at about that same time reads, “Like all thoroughbreds the Pup is inclined to be exclusive. He will talk for only one clothing store in each city. And that’s got to be a good one. He symbolizes the live successful merchant — and he is always on the job.”

That we don’t have more in this ad is likely a teaser. Maybe the Pup was just coming into the market.

Knowing, as we do, what was to come in just a generation, this was probably a good idea.

That was page four. She was launched on the first of September. The next month a new treaty went into effect, so the battleship was never actually completed. The Washington was sunk in late 1924 as gunnery practice. It took several days to sink her, and the analysts decided the armor was inadequate.

This standalone photograph is on page 10.

You won’t be surprised to learn that there are people who track presidential pets.

This advertisement really strikes a tone, doesn’t it?

MOTHER!

This is an interesting ad during Prohibition.

These days that address is a parking lot.

I’m not saying these jokes are funny, but on a full page of comics, these are perhaps the best two for modern eyes.

This was a great downtown store. A.B. Loveman’s Dry Goods Emporium was founded in 1887 and soon became the Loveman, Joseph & Loeb when Moses Joseph and Emil Loeb came on board.

When you saw this ad in your 1921 paper, you were reading about the largest, most magnificent department store south of the Ohio River. Most of the store destroyed by fire in 1934, but they rebuilt on the same location. They expanded across town and the state, until they went bankrupt in 1979 and closed the next year.

Today, the beautiful old store is still for kids, even those bursting through the roof. The Loveman’s building is home to the state-of-the-art McWane Center.

It is a terrific museum.

And that’s it for today, and a century ago. Come back tomorrow, for more tomorrow, and probably some history that’s a bit more recent.


12
Aug 21

Deadline reporting, 100 years ago today

I saw a note that yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the wedding of Ruth Stephenson and Pedro Gussman, and the murder of Father James Coyle in Birmingham. If those names don’t jump out at you, well, it’s been 100 years, so let’s take a look.

Ruth Stephenson was 18-year-old when she married Pedro Gussman. He was 24 years her senior and, perhaps most importantly, Catholic. The young woman had converted to Catholicism that spring and that bit of running family tension aside, things seemed better on this warm August Thursday. There were clouds in the sky, and a chance of rain for the coming weekend, but the storm had already arrived. At about 6 p.m., Ruth and Pedro were wed. An hour later the priest who married them was dead. Father James Coyle, an Irish priest who’d been in Birmingham for the better part of 17 years as a broadly respected pillar of the community by then, conducted the ceremony.

Soon after, at around 7 p.m., the bride’s father, Edwin Stephenson, a barber and itinerant Methodist Episcopal preacher, walked into the priest’s rectory and shot him.

People all over town knew that much, or some amount of it, before the paper showed up the next day, I’d bet. This was the front page they read 100 years ago today.

I don’t know, Mister Coroner, but the secret was out. My friends and historically generational counterparts at the News made sure of that. This is what they knew by the time they put that paper to bed.

Two witnesses separately said Edwin Stephenson walked into the rectory and, with hardly any time passing to allow for conversation, they heard gunshots. Another witness saw Stephenson beforehand and said he’d looked pale and nervous. Two police officers on patrol nearby heard the gunshots and ran toward the sound. They caught Stephenson a block away. He was trying to get into the nearby courthouse to turn himself in. He handed over his weapon — different stories in this edition disagree on the caliber of the gun. The sheriff had already testified. The suspect’s wife, and bride’s mother, was summoned. Distraught, she saw her husband. She blamed all of this on the Catholic church. There was plenty of quotes and efforts made to knock down this statement. Her husband, the shooter, was allowed to comfort her.

The bride and groom found out the father of the bride killed their priest during their bridal dinner, at a home 1.2 miles away, with the Badgers. Gussman and Mr. Badger were close friends. He’d lived with them for a time. Mrs. Badger picks up the story about their unexpected guests.

“We had already had our supper, but we prepared one for them, and we had a very jolly meal together, chaffing with the couple about the secrecy of the marriage. They were in high spirits.”

“Then after supper we all walked down to the store and bought some drinks. We came back to the house and sat down on the porch.”

A police detective walked into that same store and called in to the police department. A store clerk overheard that side of the conversation and told the cop that the young woman was just two doors down the street. So the officer went over and broke the news: your dad killed the priest who married you.

“I just can’t believe it. I don’t believe my father could have done such a thing,” was what her dinner hosts, the Badgers, recall her saying. The bride is now crying hysterically. They left by cab 10 minutes later, destination unknown.

The paper, meanwhile, has gotten reaction from civic leaders and faith leaders, both Catholic and Protestant. The archbishop was due in later that night, coming up by train from Mobile, 260 miles away. Reporters sought out people who could say that they’d ever heard the priest mention the reverend, or vice versa. No one could.

They had a reporter at Stephenson’s first interrogation. He complains of a head and back injury. He tells the officers that Coyle hit him and that it was self defense. Said he had lawyers in mind. Also in the paper are vivid descriptions of Coyle’s fatal wounds. He made it to the hospital in six minutes, we learn on the front page. On page two we learn he died on the operating table.

The News also immediately started working on the backstory. The subhead was “Trouble Long Standing” and it delves into the young woman’s early interest in Catholicism, that time she’d disappeared to Chattanooga, how her mother had once taken her to Texas for a long trip in the hopes of breaking up what they thought were “wrong influences.” They note that the father had spent all of the afternoon before, looking for her, trying to get the police to help him search the convent and so on. This was a running drama.

It’s just incredible, incredible deadline reporting from The Birmingham News. I see one glaring typo and one logistical inconsistency. Everything else looks solid.

How long the romance had brewed between bride and groom we don’t know here. Some time after the fact you learn that they’d known each other for about five years. Mr. Stephenson had hired Gussman for some housework.

He had a preliminary hearing two weeks later. Ruth testified that he had often made threats against her new husband’s life.

Edwin Stephenson, was a member of the Klan. So was his judge. Four of his five lawyers were in the Klan. A young Hugo Black, an eventual U.S. Senator and Supreme Court justice and future Klan member himself, was on the defense counsel. The Klan — which by then was playing the part of being a fraternity of “patriots” intent on protecting themselves and one another against threats from others — immigrants, Blacks, Jews, Catholics — paid for the defense.

The trial began October 17th and ended on Friday, October 22nd. The daughter appeared in court at the end, said to be the first time she’d seen her parents since the shooting. She kissed her father. In his closing argument, Hugo Black said the jury should return a fair verdict without regard to any fear that Birmingham might receive a black eye.

He was acquitted by one vote.

The next day, 60 miles away, Emmett O’Neal, a former governor, a progressive, told an audience:

“So it would seem that, after reading the verdict in the Stephenson case, a jury in Jefferson County has made an open season in Alabama for the killing of Catholics. Ladies and gentlemen, our wealth and resources will be but dross in the balance, if human life can be taken without cause or provocation on account of religious belief. It is said that our criminal laws and administration have broken down. I can not subscribe to that opinion. Our criminal laws are sufficient but the defect is in their administration. The time has come in Alabama when we should select as judges of our criminal courts men who are able, courageous and learned lawyers, and not merely self-seeking politicians. The chief cause of the conditions that now confront us is largely due to a spirit of religious intolerance and bigotry which seems so widespread in this county … Let no man fear that the eternal principle of civil and religious liberty upon where our free institutions are founded can ever be successfully attacked by zealots or misguided fanatics.”

Wikipedia notes:

The outcome of the murder trial for Father Coyle’s assassin had a chilling impact on Catholics, who found themselves the target of Klan violence for many years to come. Nevertheless, by 1941 a Catholic writer in Birmingham would write that “the death of Father Coyle was the climax of the anti-Catholic feeling in Alabama. After the trial there followed such revulsion of feeling among the right-minded who before had been bogged down in blindness and indifference that slowly and almost unnoticeably the Ku Klux Klan and their ilk began to lose favor among the people.”

Oh, and the Stephenson-Gussman marriage ended even before the trial began. Whatever else might have been going on between them is likely lost to history, but surely the stress of the trial played into it. By the first week of September, she’d left him.

Ruth Stephenson ultimately moved to Chicago and remarried. She died of tuberculosis in 1931, at 28. Her ex-husband, Pedro Gussman, survived her by three years, and died in 1934 at 56. Her father, Edwin Stephenson, died at 86, in 1956. Ruth and her mother are buried in the same Birmingham cemetery. Father Coyle was laid to rest there as well. Ten miles away, at another cemetery Edwin Stephenson and Pedro Gussman are interred near one another.

It’s a sad tale that echoed through several decades, as trauma and notoriety often do. In 2012, the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church held a service of reconciliation and forgiveness. The story has been retold in a few books, at least one poem and, someone is writing fan fiction online, apparently. Also, this very year, Coyle’s grand-niece, Sheila Killian published her debut novel which deals with some of this family history.

Here’s your kicker. On page 19 of that paper, from 100 years ago today, you’ll find this brief.

W.F. Winters, now there’s a story …


16
Jul 21

Rocks and washing machines

I was gripped, a few years ago, by an article that made the case for the washing machine as the most important invention of the 20th century. Sure, you say, there’s also the refrigerator and the computer and/or the microchip. Penicillin, a discovery rather than an invention, doesn’t count.

The argument has been spelled out in many other newspaper opinion columns, in historical research and even in one of the 20th century’s oddest inventions, TED Talks. Simply put, doing the laundry was once an all day exercise. It was hard, backbreaking labor. It was almost exclusively ‘a woman’s job.’ And when the first powered washing machines came along, they freed up people, almost all of them women, to do other things. Probably it helped with their hand care, too.

I asked my grandmother about this article at some point. She always called it The Wash. If you heard her say it, you heard the capital T and capital W. The Wash. Do you remember, I said, a time before you had a washer and dryer?

“Of course,” she said, in that not-dismissive-but-entirely-obvious way that your elders can use on you.

I asked her when she got her first washer. It was when they’d built and moved into that very house, the only one I’d ever known my grandparents in. It was the 1950s. She was a young woman still starting a new family. The washer and dryer lived on the covered back porch. (Where the laundry connections are is almost a tell. Back porch, that’s hedging your bets on this technology at best, an afterthought at worst. In the two houses I grew up in the connections were in the basement. Out of the way, but inherently inconvenient. In our house today the laundry is upstairs, very near the bedrooms.)

I asked how she did The Wash before she had a washer and dryer. She took it down to the creek. Soap, boards, stones, the old antiquated thing. That’s just what you did. This is the middle of the 20th century.

Which is where my story gets a little foggy. My grandparents’ house was surrounded by a creek. It’s just a small bit of water that breaks off a larger waterway which is itself a slough of a tributary of the Tennessee River — and we talked about that yesterday. If you saw it on a map, my grandparents’ road and the creek almost make a four-way intersection. I started wandering through their woods at a young and early age, when some of those creeks looked like wild, untamable testaments of God and nature. And to my young mind that water was everywhere.

The water was nice. It was always cool, and it always looked clean. But it was never the water that interested me the most, it was the rocks.

Where I grew up was far enough away from my grandparents that the soil was, in places, noticeably different. All of my family lived in this area, a place around a massive river, where the water was a dominant element of everyday life. Having different topographical features where I grew up meant I spent a lot of time playing in the little streams and on the rocky shores.

On a physiographic map this is on something called the Highland Rim, the southernmost section of the Interior Low Plateaus of the Appalachian Highlands Region. By name and almost everything else, it’s a series of contradictions. It’s messy and beautiful.

How the underlying rocks erode in different ways define the area. The rocks formed during the Mississippian period (353 to 323 million ago. Explain that to a kid taken in by the many colors and the smooth polished feel that ages in the water have created.

I lived in a different physiographic region, a bit to the south, in the Valley and Ridge province. Our soil was exclusively clay and, to me, the rocks didn’t have the same sort of interesting character. Has to be that river, I always thought when I was young. I told you yesterday, the river figures into everything, so why not the rocks?

It actually has to do with the mountains.

Kaiser Science tells us:

The mountains of the British Isles and Scandinavia turn out to be made of the same kind of rock, and formed in the same historical era.

Evidence shows that in the past all of these were one mountain system, torn by the moving of the tectonic plates – continental drift.

Put another way, if you like the hypothesis of continental drift, you look at this as a broken mountain range, making these mountains older than the Atlantic Ocean.

A few years ago, longer after the Atlantic Ocean was formed, we visited London and caught a changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

There’s a lot of standing around and waiting and jockeying for position and wondering who you’ll see and what the bands will play. It’s good fun if you are patient, and you don’t mind crowds.

We walked to the palace, from wherever we’d been before, through Green Park, and we returned that same way. At one point there in the park I looked down and picked up this rock. It looked familiar. Looked like home.

I brought it back with me, and later took it to my grandmother.

The queen has the same rocks you do!

As ever, my enthusiasm was what amused her most.

If you look at that map, you can see it. The rocks you saw when you were doing chores are the same sort of rocks the queen of the United Kingdom was used to. Their rocks, your rocks, same kinds of rocks.

I wonder when the queen got her first washing machine.


15
Jul 21

This post was a century in the making

Water is the predominant geographical feature of the area where all of my family live. I didn’t grow up there, but I understand the story of the Tennessee River. It dips down into the northern part of Alabama, creating a topography that has defined generations and generations of people that lived there. The Tennessee River forms near Knoxville, Tennessee and flows to the southwest, into Alabama, before looping back up, helping form the Alabama-Mississippi-Tennessee borders and then heading on up to Kentucky.

The Yuchi tribe, the Alibamu and the Coushatta, and maybe some other members of the Muscogee Creek Confederacy lived their lives on it. They called it the Singing River. White people moved in and, a little over two hundred years ago, Alabama became a territory, in 1817, and then a state in 1819. Some of my ancestors were among the first white people into the area, some even before the Native Americans were forcibly displaced. They became hardscrabble dirt farmers, for the most part. Agriculture and water transit came to define this era, but even then the shipping was difficult. The Muscle Shoals were the problem. It was shallow and swift and turbulent. It typified the area for generations. Predominant geographical features figure into everything.

Then the Great War came.

There was a worry that the Imperial German Navy would cut off shipments of nitrates from South America. Nitrates make explosives. Things that go boom are important for the military. So the National Defense Act of 1916 called for nitrate plants. Hydroelectric power would run them and the U.S. could produce its own nitrates. Muscle Shoals was understood to have the greatest hydroelectric potential east of the Rockies.

So in 1918 they started building a dam.

We’ve driven over it, jogged over it, fished underneath it, taken photographs of it, watched the ships pass through the locks and dined above it. During the build it became it’s own city, employing thousands, and had a school, barbershops, a hospital and more than a hundred miles of sewage lines. But the war ended before the construction did. And the soon-to-be named Wilson Dam didn’t contribute to the war effort.

It wasn’t finished until 1924 and began generating power in 1925. The promise of that hydroelectric power is what we’re looking at today, and, indeed, in 1921, it was full of potential. So we go to a now century old edition of The Florence Herald.

The Herald began publishing in the 1880s and ran at least until the mid-1960s. In fact that Spillway graphic above is from a 1950s edition of the paper. It was a regular feature of the weekly paper, because predominant geographical features figure into everything. And people from far away take notice, as we shall see.

Henry Ford, yep, that one, wanted to buy in. He was interested in hydroelectric power, too, and dreamed of buying up the area and building factories for his own empire. It was the big news in mid-July, 1921.

But Ford wasn’t the only suitor.

“The publication this morning of the effort of Mr. Ford to acquire Muscle Shoals, followed by the development that several other individuals or corporations would likewise acquire the property, is taken to mean by Alabamians in Congress that Muscle Shoals, instead of being a corpse, is indeed a very live proposition.”

Because the news was coming in so fast the local weekly was having difficulty agreeing with itself, but inside there’s a several-days-old story that gives us more context, and a none-too-subtle bit of cheerleading. Excuse the hasty redesign I’ve made here. Long newspaper columns aren’t always conducive to the web.

There are little unsigned blurbs and letters like this all over this edition of the paper.

And that was the prevailing opinion of the day. That’s the story I always heard. The area was going to be a little Detroit. Roads were laid out and named to mimic the Motor City. Even the advertisements were cheering for Henry Ford.

But a U.S. senator from Nebraska, George Norris, had other plans. He thought the half-finished dam should stay under public management. The debate ran as the river flowed, for about a decade. The dam was completed and Henry Ford bowed out in 1924. The debate continued until the Depression, FDR, and until the TVA was born and took over. Predominant political structures figure into a great deal, too.

Even today you can drive through areas where there are rough old roads named after streets in Detroit, laid out in anticipation of the failed Ford deal. Nothing has ever been built on them.

Speaking of advertisements, here are a few more from that issue of The Herald. “We can’t be particular and so the little girl was smart to shop here, where we can’t be particular about our candy.”

Benjamin Luna was a longtime merchant in the area. He died at his home in 1956.

His wife, Adele Luna, shows up in the paper well into the 1960s. Quite the social figure, her name often appears under that Spillway graphic. She passed away in 1982. They had two daughters and a son. One of the daughters died just last year having lived just shy of 101 years. It was a full life, some 80-years of it right there in the Shoals.

I wonder what she thought about the lamb.

Hard to imagine ads explaining how your phone works, isn’t it?

But easy to imagine the phone companies would like you to spend some long-distance money with them. At least we have this advertisement here to explain long distance rates to younger readers.

This is the last advertisement in the June 15, 1921 Florence Herald. W.I. Swain started his business over in Mississippi in 1910. He was still touring at least through 1931.

Stand where he set up his tents for this show, you could see the river. Predominant geographical features figure into everything.