Twelve Pictures ’17

Back to posting on January 2, 2018, or so. Like last year, I’m going to wind up the year with a leftover picture from each month. This time, for no special reason, no people, just places and things.

Champaign, Ill., January 2017Charlotte, NC, February 2017

Kankakee, Ill., March 2017

Rockford, Ill., April 2017

Muskogee, Okla., May 2017

Naperville, Ill., June 2017

Barrington Hills, Ill., July 2017

Vincennes, Ind., August 2017

Denver, September 2017Evanston, Ill., October 2017Chicago, November 2017

Birmingham, Ala., December 2017

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all.


While I was in Birmingham earlier this month, I noticed a lot of yard and roadside signs for the upcoming Senatorial election. Every single one was for Doug Jones or, more likely, against Roy Moore. Birmingham tends to be Democratic, and Jones is from Birmingham, but I think there was more to it than that. What I didn’t think was that Jones would win.

The simplest of the signs said: No Moore.

I’m only half-joking when I say that the modern world was invented either by Victorians, or for the 1893 World’s Fair, or for the 1904 World’s Fair, or by ad men in the 1920s. In the case of the massive cast-iron Vulcan overlooking Birmingham, Alabama, the statue was created for the World’s Fair in St. Louis, to tell the world about the city’s core competence in metal.That’s Vulcan atop the stone tower that the WPA built for him in the 1930s. Next, a view from a little further back.

Note the observation deck. You can reach that via stairs inside the tower, or by an elevator in the other tower. We took the elevator. From the deck, which goes all the way around the tower, Vulcan’s backside is close by.Besides Vulcan’s buttocks, we could see Birmingham stretching out in the distance.

There were also views of the surrounding hilly terrain.

For Vulcan, created by immigrant Giuseppe Moretti, the road from the 1904 World’s Fair to the top of Red Mountain in Birmingham wasn’t direct. After the fair, he was painted and displayed at the Alabama State Fairgrounds until the 1930s, when he was moved to Red Mountain and put on the 124-foot pedestal fashioned by the WPA.

Instead of a spear point, which was lost en route home from the fair, he had a lantern in his outstretched hand. It glowed red after a traffic fatality in Birmingham; green when there had been none for a while.

In the early ’70s, the tower was “modernized,” that is, made ugly. By the end of the 1990s, however, the statue was threatening to fall apart — no small matter for something that’s 56 feet high and weighs 100,000 pounds (the head alone weighs 11,000 pounds).

It took a while to raise the funds needed for repairs, but civic pride eventually came through. The statue was revamped by 2004, including restoring the structure and Vulcan’s original coloration, giving the tower back its WPA appearance, and putting a spear point back in the god’s hand.

Sloss Furnaces

Not far from downtown Birmingham is Sloss Furnaces, site of pig iron production from 1882 to 1971.

In our time, Sloss is an enormous forest of iron and steel, besides being a National Historic Landmark, sometime music venue, and site of a metal arts program. The long shed was, in fact, active with metal working while we visited. To see the main part of the site, you walk past the shed through a kind of tunnel.
“In 1871 Southern entrepreneurs founded a new city called Birmingham and began the systematic exploitation of its minerals,” the Sloss Furances web site says. It’s an excellent short history — you don’t always get that at web sites — so I will quote at at length, to go with some pictures.

“One of these men was Colonel James Withers Sloss, a north Alabama merchant and railroad man. Colonel Sloss played an important role in the founding of the city by convincing the L&N Railroad to capitalize completion of the South and North rail line through Jones Valley, the site of the new town.

“In 1880, having helped form the Pratt Coke and Coal Co., which mined and sold Birmingham’s first high-grade coking coal, he founded the Sloss Furnace Co., and two years later ‘blew-in’ the second blast furnace in Birmingham.”

The site these days includes relics towering into the sky.

And entrances into dark cavities.
“Construction of Sloss’s new furnace (City Furnaces) began in June 1881, when ground was broken on a fifty-acre site that had been donated by the Elyton Land Co. Sixty feet high and eighteen feet in diameter, Sloss’s new Whitwell stoves were the first of their type ever built in Birmingham and were comparable to similar equipment used in the North.

“Local observers were proud that much of the machinery used by Sloss’s new furnaces would be of Southern manufacture. It included two blowing engines and ten boilers, thirty feet long and forty-six inches in diameter. In April 1882, the furnaces went into blast. After its first year of operations, the furnace had sold 24,000 tons of iron. At the 1883 Louisville Exposition, the company won a bronze medal for ‘best pig iron.’ ”

“Nothing remains of the original furnace complex. The oldest building on the site dates from 1902 and houses the eight steam-driven ‘blowing-engines’ used to provide air for combustion in the furnaces. The engines themselves date from the period 1900-1902 and are a unique and important collection — engines such as these powered America’s Industrial Revolution. The boilers, installed in 1906 and 1914, produced steam for the site until it closed in 1971.

“Between 1927 and 1931 the plant underwent a concentrated program of mechanization. Most of its major operation equipment — the blast furnaces and the charging and casting machinery — was replaced at this time. In 1927-28, the two furnaces were rebuilt, enlarged, and refitted with mechanical charging equipment, doubling the plant’s production capacity. While the site strongly reflects the changes made from 1927-1931, some of the technology is more current.”

“Despite being dominated by black labor, the industrial workplace was rigidly segregated until the 1960s. Workers at Sloss bathed in separate bath houses, punched separate time clocks, attended separate company picnics. More important was the segregation of jobs.

“The company operated as a hierarchy. At the top there was an all white group of managers, chemists, accountants, and engineers; at the bottom an all black ‘labor gang’ assisted (until its demise in 1928) by the use of convict labor. Sloss utilized the convict leasing system only in its coal mines. As Lewis noted in Sloss Furnaces, ‘….convict labor, mostly black, was an important weapon in the district’s economic warfare with northern manufacturing.’ Slavery had not died but merely been transformed.”

Oak Hill Memorial Cemetery, Birmingham, Alabama

At the Oak Hill Memorial Cemetery in Birmingham on December 2, I saw this modest obelisk. It was a surprise.

The carving is a little worn, but still legible.

APRIL 27, 1891

Scattered around the memorial are the graves of former Union soldiers, such as P.J. Crawford of Co. H, 3rd New Hampshire Infantry and Corpl. Chas. M. Robinson of Co. F, 8th Michigan Cavalry.

A surprise, but then again I’m sure a number of former Northern soldiers made their way to Birmingham in the late 19th century, looking for opportunity in the rising industrial city like anyone else. Enough to have a GAR post, and enough for the post to buy a small plot in the cemetery.

The Birmingham Public Library says that “in 1871 the City of Birmingham purchased from the Elyton Land Company 21.5 acres for a city cemetery (later named Oak Hill)… As the first city cemetery, Oak Hill became the resting place for virtually all of the Birmingham pioneers. Although the majority of burials at Oak Hill Cemetery date back before the 1930s, it remains an active cemetery, averaging fifteen burials per year.”

Plenty of other stones are just as old as the GAR ones, and in various states of decay.

The cemetery is marked by mature trees.

And evidence even in early December that it’s still fall in central Alabama.

The cemetery sports some mausoleums, but not many. They were often crumbling.
There are also larger stones, but not that many of those either. As city cemeteries of the late 19th century go, Oak Hill’s fairly restrained in that way.
Oak Hill, like much of Birmingham, has some hilly contour. I think that adds to the aesthetics of a cemetery, especially if there’s a variety of trees and stones.
Other parts are more level.
We didn’t look for anyone in particular, though a number of Birmingham and Alabama notables are buried at Oak Hill. Looking through a list of them, the only one I recognized was Fred Shuttlesworth, who died only in 2011. We didn’t see his grave.

As it happens, Bull Connor — another of the handful of Birminghamians I’ve heard of — is buried at a different large local cemetery, Elmwood. Which is on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Heh-heh. Hope that sticks in Bull’s craw.

Birm-Tex ’17

Before spending the last week in San Antonio visiting family, I spent about 36 hours in Birmingham, Alabama, during the first weekend in December. I went there to visit my old friend Dan, whom I hadn’t seen in about 18 years.
That’s too long, as the Wolf Brand Chili man said. See your old friends if you can, because we’re all mortal. I was also fortunate enough to become reacquainted with his wife Pam, whom I’d only met once, more than 20 years ago.

Dan and I had a fine visit, talking of old times and places — we’ve known each other 36 years — but not just that. He grew up in Birmingham and has lived there as an adult for a long time, so he was able to show me around and tell me about the city’s past and about recent growth as an up-and-coming metro. In this, he’s quite knowledgeable.

I’d heard something about that growth, but it was good to see some examples on foot and as we tooled around hilly Birmingham in Dan’s Mini Cooper, which was also a new experience for me. Not to sportiest version, he told me — he’d traded that one for this one he now drives — but it had some kick.

On the morning of Saturday, December 2, we first went to Oak Hill Memorial Cemetery, very near downtown Birmingham, and the city’s first parkland-style burial ground. Dan told me he’d never been there before. Not everyone’s a cemetery tourist. But he took to the place, especially for its historic interest, and he even spotted the names of a few families whose descendants he knows.

From there we drove to Sloss Furnaces, which, as the postcard I got there says, is “the nation’s only 20th-century blast furnace turned industrial museum.” Iron mining and smelting made Birmingham the city that it is. So it was only fitting that we went to Vulcan Park as well, to see the mighty cast-iron Vulcan on his pedestal on a high hill overlooking the city.

Toward the end of the afternoon, I suggested a walk, and so we went to the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve, which has 14 miles of hiking trails. More than that, the earth there is honeycombed with former mines, all of which are now sealed. But we got to see the entrance of one of them, dating from 1910.

After all that, we repaired to Hop City Beer & Wine Birmingham, a store that has an enormous selection of beer and wine in bottles, as well as a bar with a large draft selection, where we relaxed a while. Had a cider and a smaller sample of beer that I liked.

Along the way during the day, we also visited Reed Books, a wonderful used bookstore of the kind that’s increasingly rare: owned and run by an individual, and stacked high with books and other things, with only marginal organization. I bought Dan a copy of True Grit, which he’d never read.

We drove through some of Birmingham’s well-to-do areas, sporting posh houses on high hills and ridges along roads that I could make no sense of, twisty and web-like as they were. Luckily, Dan knew them well.

In downtown Birmingham, we also drove by some of the historic sites associated with the civil rights movement, including the new national monument. According to Dan, it would take a day to do the area right, so we didn’t linger. I got a good look at the 16th Street Baptist Church, the A.G. Gaston Motel, where King and others strategized, and Kelly Ingram Park, where protesters were attacked with police dogs and water cannons.

During my visit, I ate soul food, breakfast at a Greek diner — Greek immigrants being particularly important to the evolution of restaurant food in Birmingham, Dan said — excellent Mexican food (mole chicken for me), and a tasty breakfast of French toast and bacon made by Dan and Pam. On the whole, we carpe diem’d that 36 hours.

In San Antonio, as usual, I was less active in seeing things, but one sight in particular came to me. On the evening of Thursday, December 7, I looked out of a window at my mother’s house and saw snow coming down. And sticking. “I’ll be damned,” I muttered to myself.

At about 7:30 the next morning, I went outside to take pictures. Nearly two inches had fallen, according to the NWS. The snow was already melting. A view of the front yard.

Of the back yard.

It occurred to me that hadn’t seen snow on the ground in San Antonio since 1973.

Alabama Weekend ’87

Winter has asserted itself after a namby-pamby early phase. It reached about 40 degrees F on Saturday. Now, according to weather data available instantly online — another small marvel of the age — it’s about 3 degrees F. Tomorrow will be likewise gelid.

In early 1987, I was offered a job in Chicago, which I took. The second weekend of the year, I took a final road trip from Nashville, to see a friend in Alabama.

January 9, 1987

After lunch at Mary’s barbecue [still in business] and wrapping up bits of work during the afternoon, Mike and I left town in my car. It was cold and rainy all the way into Alabama. Ate dinner in Huntsville, some surprisingly good Mexican food [I didn’t note the name]. Stopped along the way a number of times for Mike to smoke his cigarettes. We met Dan at 11:30 pm at the Huddle House off I-20 in Anniston, and from there followed him to his place.

Dan and Susan have rented a modern log cabin in rural Alabama way the hell from anything (this weekend, Susan was away, so it was just the three of us). Two stories, a basement, a pond and a cat. Very pleasant. Before doing to sleep, we drank beer and watched some ’30s and ’40s cartoons on tape.

Two kids knocked on the door — 16 or 17 from the looks of them — claiming they’d run their car into a ditch and wanting to use the phone. After some deliberation, we decided that they had run their car into a ditch during a drunken episode. It took them a good while to decide who to call. Then they asked for some of our beer and were angry when we refused, but did nothing more than leave. I’d hate to go through life as stupid as those two.

January 10

We ate and played games and watched movies on video. Actually only one movie all the way through, Rambo (Rambo: First Blood Part II), which of course we’d all heard of, but none of us had seen. We also watched parts of The Battleship Potemkin and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. [For variety, I guess.] Games: Trivial Pursuit, darts, and Risk. Dan won Risk, but it was a close one. At one point I lorded over the Americas and had footholds in Europe and Asia, but a weak point was exploited and my forces crumpled like an aluminum can.

January 11

Sunday we left at a reasonable hour (11) and drove to Atlanta. We met Layne and her co-worker Shelly, a transplant from Pennsylvania with big eyes, at the Sheraton Northlake. Had lunch at Athens Pizza, which I’d been to on a previous visit. The first place I’d ever had feta cheese pizza. A fine lunch. [I’m glad to learn that Athens Pizza is still around.] But we didn’t stay much longer, driving back to Nashville in the afternoon.