I have always been interested in the history of the postbellum industrial South. In fact, that history intrigues me far more than the antebellum South. Part of that interest probably stems from growing up in Birmingham – which did not exist during the Civil War and was founded in 1871, six years after the War ended.
The visionaries who brought Birmingham into existence as the first industrial giant of the post-war South were pioneers. As the city has evolved, the heavy industry which was its original raison d’etre has disappeared and been replaced by medicine and finance. Some factories still survive but there are large swaths of abandoned areas which once bustled with shift workers and 24-hour muscle.
I carry James R. Bennett and Karen R. Utz’s Iron and Steel: A Guide to Birmingham Area Industrial Heritage Sites (www.uapress.ua.edu) in my car. It is a handy reference to the industrial history of the region. My parents’ house sits on the side of Shades Mountain just above the site of the Oxmoor Furnace, Jefferson County’s first blast furnace. Oxmoor Furnace was tied to the Red Mountain mines, the site of which has been reclaimed by nature and is now the sprawling Red Mountain Park – one of the largest urban parks in the United States.
About thirteen miles southwest of downtown down I-20/59 is the postbellum industrial town of Bessemer which was incorporated in 1887, when Birmingham was sixteen.
Today, areas of Bessemer are blighted and most of the bustling heavy industry is gone. The Pullman Standard plant stopped manufacturing railroad cars decades ago and the iron and steel factories are long gone. Throughout Bessemer are reminders of its more thriving past — rusted relics of train trestles, factory sites, abandoned mines. During its heyday, when Bessemer was a town populated by shift workers, it was a 24-hour town – as were Fairfield and Ensley, industrial towns and communities between Bessemer and downtown Birmingham that are also reeling from economic challenges.
Bessemer has made an admirable effort to diversify and bring in business. Its location along the interstate is full of the types of businesses that one finds at any interstate intersection. The 109-year-old Bright Star (www.thebrightstar.com) is still a popular restaurant in the middle of downtown and Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q (www.bobsykes.com) on the Bessemer Superhighway has continued to pack people in since 1957. The downtown area is full of interesting old masonry buildings – some still well-maintained and others in dire need of repair. It’s a fascinating small city with a rich history and an abundance of reminders of a more flourishing past.
Last week my mother mentioned that the Bessemer Historical Homeowner’s Association (www.bessemerhistoricsociety.com) was presenting a tour of historic Bessemer homes and gardens over the weekend and that she would like to go. We planned to go on Sunday afternoon and it turned out to be a miserably rainy and windy day but we decided we’d go anyway and see what we could see.
The first stop on the tour was in Bessemer’s Lakewood neighborhood. The Wilson House, nicknamed “The Abbey,” is a sprawling house from 1926 on top of a hill overlooking the lake and its assorted white swans and other fowl. I was interested in checking out a Lakewood home since that community was an annual part of my family’s tour of Christmas lights when I was a boy in Birmingham. I haven’t been to Lakewood to see Christmas lights in five decades, probably, but a Christmas tree frame still floated on a platform in the middle of the lake so I guess it’s still a holiday destination.
“The Abbey” was the only Lakewood house on the tour. The rest of the tour went deeper into the heart of Bessemer’s residential area near downtown and that is where the true meaning of the event began to coalesce. Many of the proud homes on the tour were in the middle of streets that were partially abandoned and dilapidated. Freshly renovated treasures were sitting next to vacant lots and houses that were falling in on themselves.
Some of the houses were true mansions in their time; others remain mansions now. There were grand houses with monikers like “The Castle” and “The Abbey.” It was interesting how many times I entered a house and the first words out of the tour guide’s mouth were how many fireplaces the house contains; the Shaw House on Dartmouth Avenue may have been the winner, I think, with thirteen.
Most of the houses on the tour were recently renovated or in the process. I enjoyed the elaborate grand houses but I was most struck by the smaller and more modest homes that I could imagine myself actually living in. Many of the houses are owned by young couples or singles that have made a commitment of time, trust, and money to come into Bessemer neighborhoods that others might overlook as being past their relevance. These new pioneers – and I find them in many communities these days – are gambling that they can help restore a vitality that has faded in communities that are still worth our notice.
Bessemer’s Clarendon Avenue is a street I have never traveled before last week. Two of the houses on the tour were along that boulevard with its wide grassy median. Sections of Clarendon are in extreme disrepair but a drive down it – even in a raging Sunday afternoon thunderstorm – leaves little doubt of its former grandeur. The imposing house referred to as the “Moody Mansion” is truly impressive but the “Clay-Green House,” the more modest cottage directly across the street, was where I wanted to linger. The young couple who owns and is renovating the place have updated it beautifully while retaining its historic integrity.
The next to last house on the tour, the Matthews House on Owens Avenue, was also across the street from a big grand house, but its charm and warmth attained in a still progressing renovation were what caught my eye and attention. Again, a young owner has taken on the challenge of helping to revive the house and its neighborhood.
The storm got progressively worse and we ended up skipping two of the eight houses on the tour. Even so, the afternoon was well spent and inspiring; there are new pioneers of Bessemer to admire. I wish them well.