Thursday, December 6, 2012

Birmingham, Alabama

Wed, Nov. 28th - Tue, Dec. 4th                        

The Saturn 1B rocket (224' tall) at the Alabama Welcome Center on I-65, one of three developed in Huntsville, Alabama.  

At Birmingham we stayed at the campground next to the suburban Hoover Metropolitan Stadium where the Birmingham Barons moved to in 1987, when they left Rickwood Stadium (below), the oldest surviving baseball park in the nation.  Rickwood Field was built by local industrialist, A.H. "Rick" Woodward in 1910.  It was the home park for the Birmingham Barons until 1987 and the Black Birmingham Barons until 1963.

It was also a favorite site for barnstorming Major League teams.  Many greats of the game thrilled crowds here, including Hall of Famers, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Dizzy Dean, Hank Aaron and, also, Shoeless Joe Jackson.   Black Barons sensation Satchel Paige and 16-year old rookie from Birmingham (and future Hall of Famer), Willie Mays, led the Black Barons to the 1948 Negro American League championship here.  Reggie Jackson's towering home runs over the right field stands led to his call up to the Birmingham Athletics. 

It is a living museum of Southern baseball and is kept busy now with the Birmingham Industrial League, the Men's Over 30 and 40 Leagues, the Police Athletic League, the city high school varsity league, occasional college games, corporate events and the annual Rickwood Classic. 

I went to the Birmingham Museum of Art (free), while John went to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.  They are right next to each other downtown.  These are some of the things I liked or found interesting.  A young boy selling flowers, entitled "Three for Five" by John George Brown, famous for his depictions of street urchins. 

The USS Birmingham Punch Service 1908.  We have seen these silver services in several different museums.  The custom of honoring newly christened ships of the US Navy with elaborate silver services began in the late 1880s.  These "presentation services" are donated by the states and cities for which the ships are named.  Just a bit of trivia. 

A Japanese suit of armor from the 1500s made of laquer, wood, iron, silk and cotton. 

Cartonnage (mummy case cover) about 800 B.C. 

In the contemporary art section was this "Soundsuit" 2009 by Nick Cave.  It is fabric with appliqued crochet and buttons and knitted yarn.  Wearable art.  I'm not sure who would wear it, but interesting. 

This was also in the contemporary section, but I neglected to get the title.  It was in a little room all by itself with the light flashing on and off, like being in a disco from the '70s.  It was a bunch of hands turning the pages of the books as the table rotated around.  Caught this photo in the dark with the hands and pages in motion. 

Caught this shot in the light with the hands between motions, so you can get a better look at it.  I'm not sure what the idea behind it was, but it did make you want to stand there and watch. 

This one was my favorite, just titled "Love" by Mary Whitfield 1991. 

John is on the catwalk, just below the statue.  This is Vulcan, the Roman god of metal and fire, built in just seven months for the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, to represent the industrial might and flourishing foundry industry of the Birmingham district.  It was cast in 21 pieces and shipped by rail to St. Louis where it was assembled.  The ice cream cone, the hot dog and iced tea were new products debuted at this world's fair.  Vulcan, the working god, Roman god of the forge, was said to be ugly, but created things of great beauty.  After being thrown from Mount Olympus by his parents, Jupitor and Juno, the king and queen of the gods, he set up a massive workshop under volcanic Mt. Etna.  There he worked as a skilled craftsman, forging beautiful ornaments, jewelry, weapons and arms for other gods and goddesses. 

Vulcan Park and Museum on Red Mountain was a WPA project to provide a permanent place to display the symbol of their city.  At 56' tall, he is the largest statue ever cast in the U.S. and the largest cast iron statue in the world.  He weighs over 50 tons, as much as 41 Honda Civics.  The 124' tower has 160 steps up to the catwalk.  The elevator was added in the 1960s to meet ADA requirements.  A full-size man could be buried in one of the feet.  A company of four could sit down to a luncheon in the head and two men could lie at full length inside his right arm.  Between 1860 and 1960 there were over 100 mines in Jones Valley with over 1,000 miles of tunnels 1,200 to 1,800 feet below an aquifer that caused repeated leaks.  The last mine was closed in 1960 due to safety issues and because it was no longer as economical as shipping in higher quality ore.

View of the city lights from the catwalk.  The city of Birmingham was platted in 1871 because of the iron ore, coal and limestone in the area and railroads finally reaching the area, hoping the new town would grow into an industrial area.  It grew into the largest industrial center in the South because of the iron and steel industry.  The blast furnaces made pig iron.  By the time the ore reached the bottom of the furnace, it had melted and separated into metallic iron and slag.  Molten iron flowed into sand molds that resembled piglets suckling a sow, hence the name pig iron. 

The maze of tunnels became the nation's largest underground ore mining district.  Pig iron was shipped worldwide and they became the South's largest steel producer.  By-products generated by the coke ovens were tar, gas, ammonia and light oils used to make fertilizer, explosives, auto fuel and hundreds of others.  Glass-like slag was used to pave streets, make railroad beds and manufacture concrete, brick and tile.  People flocked to Birmingham to escape extreme poverty for a better life.  Blacks, whites and immigrants endured long hours of back-breaking work seven days a week.  Company towns, houses, stores, even churches were owned by employers for their convenience and control. 

Experiences varied depending on period, company and job status.  Some had fond memories, while others complained they "owed their soul to the company store", as in the Tennessee Ernie Ford song, "You load 16 ton and what do you get?  Another day older and deeper in debt."  I've included a couple of personal stories here.  By 1900 Birmingham was the largest city in Alabama with a street car system, banks, hotels, vibrant retail and theater district and four steel skyscrapers at a downtown corner, known as the "heaviest corner in the South", earning it the nickname "Magic City".  Red Mountain Park covers 1,200 acres, four and a half miles along the ridges and hollows of the mountain, central in the single largest linking of a park system, giving Birmingham more dedicated green space per capita than any other city in the country. 

We went to Arlington, a Museum of the City of Birmingham, built in 1845.  It is the last Antebellum home standing in the Birmingham area, in the suburb of Elyton.  It was originally on 96 acres and was built by a Circuit Court Judge.  He and his wife raised nine children here at "The Grove", as they called it.  The grounds include only six acres now.  The rest was divided into house lots and named the Arlington Survey. 

It was the headquarters of Wilson's Raiders in the last month of the Civil War.  General James Wilson and his cavalry force of 13,500 grouped here to destroy Alabama's economic facilities for supporting the war.  Troops burned the military school, foundries, bridges, mines and furnaces in the surrounding county and destroyed railroads and factories at Selma. 

It just happened to be their annual Christmas open house, with free tours of the home and grounds, live music and treats.  Lots of Southern Belles on hand to welcome everyone. 

I think John was a little out of his element and looking for the nearest escape route. 

On the second floor porch, there was a horn group of young men playing Christmas carols, that we enjoyed as we walked around the grounds, eating our Christmas goodies.   It looked like they were getting ready for another musical group around the 1830s grand piano in the parlor. 

Dining Room. 

One of the bedrooms. 

Goodies were set up in the rear building where the servant quarters, kitchen and gift shop were located. 

Saturday night we went to the historic 1927 Alabama Theater to see Willie Nelson and Family.  Built by a division of Paramount Studios, their president called it the "Showplace of the South".  It's famous "Mighty Wurlitzer" pipe organ has 21 sets of pipes.  It has hosted the Miss Alabama Pageant and the Mickey Mouse Club.  It closed in 1981, but was saved from demolition in 1987.  The legislature designated it the official State Historic Theater and over 500,000 visit annually for movies, concerts, opera, ballet, weddings, graduations and private parties.

This is in the foyer.  It's a really elegant, old showplace, one of the nation's last operating movie palaces.  We had a floor seat, but I think that the front of the balcony might have been better. 

It's five stories tall with three tiers of seating.  The balcony hangs way out over the floor seats, so the front seats would be much closer to the stage than half of the floor seats.  Tickets were $70, but it was a really good concert.  Willie's daughter, Paula, opened with her band.  She has a really good voice, but a little hard to understand the words.  The second set was his son, Lukas, and his band.  He was really good.  He can really belt out a song.  Willie's other son, Micah, plays drums with Willie's band and his daughter, Amy, travels with them keeping a journal for the band.  Also, his older sister, Bobbie, plays the piano with them.  He was married four times and has two other daughters and a son who committed suicide. 

Willie will be 80 years old in April.  He sang non-stop for over an hour, threw out a few of his bandanas, and gave out hugs and signed autographs along the stage when the concert was over.  I love his new songs, "I'm Not Superman" and "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die".  I kind of liked the "Roll Me Up" t-shirt, but it didn't seem appropriate for a Grandma.  The couple in front of us bought two of them at $40 each, which clinched it that I didn't need one.  $40 t-shirts are just not in Granny's budget. 

We spent an afternoon walking around the Birmingham Botanical Garden.  Not a lot of flowers in bloom right now, but still a pretty place to stroll around and it was free.  It is 65 acres with lots of sculptures and walking paths.  This was in the Japanese Gardens.  There was a bamboo forest nearby and a black bamboo forest and some heavenly bamboo with red berries.  There was a lot of different types of holly with little red berries. 


Pond Lilies.  

One day we hiked around this mall, Riverchase Galleria, that is supposed to have the longest sky light in the world.  This was just a small portion of it. 

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, gathering place for many Civil Rights marches and training for non-violent protests.  It is across the street from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Kelly Ingram Park, staging area for many of the demonstrations.  One 11 year-old girl and three 14 year-old girls were killed here in 1963 when the church was bombed.  The FBI put an 11 man team on the case, the biggest operation since pursuing gangster John Dillinger in the '30s.  It took four decades to bring the culprits to justice.  The case was closed and reopened four times and two of the guilty died before it was finally solved and prosecuted.  It was later discovered that J. Edgar Hoover had impeded the investigations.  Two teenage boys were also killed that same week in separate incidents.  Rev. Shuttlesworth was a civil rights activist in the '50s and '60s.  His home was bombed and he was assaulted several times.  He saw promise in a young pastor named Martin Luther King and invited him here to help with organizing some marches.  On one of the marches MLK was arrested with a group of marchers and spent eight days in jail, where he wrote one of his most famous speeches, "Letter From Birmingham Jail".  The marches went on for a month, one campaign involved college students going to the public library where blacks were not allowed, one student asking for a library card and others sitting around reading magazines.  The librarian didn't know what to do.  The library board held a meeting later that day, and to their credit, they dropped the segregation policy that was being enforced by city commissioners.  They marched to the courthouse several times to get voters registered.   There were about 12,000 out of 150,000 blacks registered at the time, due to laws preventing them.  City parks were closed to Blacks and the city commission closed 67 parks entirely in order to keep Blacks out, when they were court ordered to desegregate them. They organized boycotts of downtown "White" businesses and would go to the shops and just pray and sing, which would also scare away their white customers.  A lot of businesses wanted to change things, but city and state laws and a very racist city commission wouldn't allow it. 

After a few weeks the demonstrations were losing their effectiveness, so they organized a campaign where about 1,000 kids skipped school and marched.  Officials were unprepared and arrested about 600, some as young as six years old.  The next day another 2,000 kids filled the park, but Commissioner "Bull" Connor was ready for them.  These dramatic sculptures in the park show what happened.  The caption on the jail one says, "I ain't afraid of your jail."  He sicced dogs on them and turned high pressure water hoses on them, with the pressure so high it could knock bricks out of buildings and bark off trees.  It slammed them up against walls and ripped their clothes, but they didn't give up.  Most of them were arrested.  Some were kept in livestock pens outside at the fairgrounds in the rain.  The next day another 1,000 marchers were arrested.   

When the media exposed the cruel scene to the nation, President Kennedy tried to intervene, but a defiant Connor continued to brutalize and imprison indiscriminantly.  The 4th day when 2,000 more showed up at the jail to pray and "Bull" Connor gave the order to "Give it to 'em!" in front of national TV cameras, the police refused to obey. 

Birmingham was known as one of the South's most fiercely segregated cities.  Blacks who spoke out risked violent retaliation.  From the late '40s to the mid '60s, nearly 50 unsolved, racially directed bombings led to the nickname "Bombingham".  In 1957 members of the Ku Klux Klan kidnapped and castrated a white judge to intimidate local blacks and stop school segregation efforts.   In the Civil Rights Institute across the street they have a Ku Klux Klan robe with a partially burned cross standing behind it.  The cross was donated by the FBI from a cross burning that took place in Huntsville in 1996!  Rev. Shuttlesworth is recognized as having brought more legal cases to the US Supreme court than any other person (NAACP supported lawsuits).  

Tuesday we headed to Vance in Tuscaloosa County to tour the only Mercedes-Benz factory in North America, MBUSI.  This is just part of the Visitor Center and Museum building.  The plant was completed in 1997 and after an expansion in 2004, it is now three million square feet at a cost of $1 billion.  It is a Foreign Product Zone, so no cameras or cell phones allowed.  They make all of three models for the whole world and after their next expansion is complete in 2014, they will be adding one more model.  All the engines are made in Germany.  They have no warehouse for parts.  They only keep a 24 hour supply on hand in a central staging area.  They get daily deliveries.   They have dozens of nearby suppliers for cut and stamped metal pieces and other parts.  The entire cockpit comes from a nearby location and is placed in a car within 90 minutes of it being produced.  There are 5,000 welds on every car, most done by robots.  Amazing to watch all the robot arms going back and forth all over the place.  They had 67 robots when the plant opened and now have 1,200?  The plant was built to produce 65,000 cars a year and now produces 80,000.  Future plans are for 160,000 a year.  They have six trim lines for the interior and four finish lines for the exterior, with repetitive quality checks on every car at nearly every station, it seems like.  It takes about 32 hours to make a complete car.  About half that time is spent on the paint line which is 1/4 mile long.   The surface is checked all along the way with a special glove test for any flaws.  Employees go through an air shower to remove any loose debris from them before they enter the paint area.  The car gets six coats of paint, the phosphate coat, the E coat, two primers, the color and the clear coat.  The finished car goes over these spinning rollers where they test it's speed and power, over a big hole where someone underneath checks the undercarriage and through a car wash type station where they do a rain test for any leaks.  They have an off road area where they do random tests driving through water and over rough, rocky terrain.  Their office area does not have divided off cubicles.  Their walls are only desk high for easy and direct communication for quick decision making and efficiency.  They have two full service cafeterias, one in each building, where you can order just about anything, like a food court in a mall.  They also have a post office and credit union for employee convenience.  They use three-wheeled bicycles to ride around the plant, because it is so big.  They also have AGVs (auto-guided vehicles).  They have frigs right on the lines to keep their lunch cold and eat right there, in case they don't want to walk all the way to the cafeteria for break.  The whole place is immaculately clean and they all wear matching polo shirts with the company logo and their names embroirdered on them.  Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler both introduced gas powered automobiles in 1886 in Germany only 60 miles apart, never knowing each other.  Emil Jellinek, Daimler's distributor in Austria, France, Belgium and America, agreed to take 36 cars in 1901, if they would name it after his daughter, Mercedes, meaning mercy or grace.  The name was popuplar and became their trademark. 

Daimler invented this first motorcycle in 1885, the first motor boat in 1886, the first street car in 1888, the first motor truck and taxi in 1896.   The motorcycle caused intense pain as the engine was located under the seat and between the legs.

Carl Benz invented the first automobile in 1886.  Also, the first motorized bus in 1895.  Benz was the first to patent a motor car and produce them in quantity, the Velo.  In 1888 Bertha Benz drove the new car with her two sons on a 100 mile round trip to visit relatives.  In a few years they were the largest manufacturer of autos in the world.     

Daimler invented this motor carriage, debuting second after Benz.  In 1926 both companies were having financial difficulties after WWI and decided to merge, becoming Mercedes-Benz.  Mercedes were built in America from 1905 to 1907 when the factory burned down.  They were not built here again for 90 years. 

Fast forwarding to the future Mercedes.  They may have joy sticks to replace the steering wheel and pedals, an automatic steering and braking intervention system, video cameras to replace mirrors, air bags for front and rear passengers and swing doors making it easier to get in and out.

Wednesday we head to Montgomery for a week. 

Guten Tag Freunde (Hey, Neighbor).  That was the greeting billboard the company had up while they were building the plant.  Sounds like something Goober would say in Mayberry.

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