Thursday, February 25, 2016

Is that the Moon? No … you’re just looking at Vulcan’s backside.

Turning the pages of Southern Living magazine, I came upon the article “The Place I’m Thankful For: Notable Southerners Share Their Most Treasured Spots.” Actress Andie MacDowell is grateful for The Gay Dolphin Gift Cove in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Novelist Nicholas Sparks appreciates his adopted home of New Bern, North Carolina. (Born in Omaha, he’s not a Southerner, but after 24 years in the South, I guess we can claim him.)  
Author Harrison Scott Key holds a special place in his heart for a Waffle House in Jackson, Mississippi. 

And musician John Paul White, half of the duo The Civil Wars, praises the music scene in his hometown of Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

I thought about the Southern place for which I’m most thankful. To choose just one seemed daunting. I’ve strolled the sugary, white beaches along the Alabama Gulf Coast, stretching from Gulf Shores through Orange Beach.
I’ve taken a scenic drive, punctuated with fascinating history and adorned with blazing, fall color, through Cades Cove, Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Cades Cove Methodist Church
I’ve rejoiced over the salvation and restoration of the 1927-built Alabama Theatre in Birmingham - a majestic movie palace with a mighty Wurlitzer organ, where I saw the silent film version of Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney one Halloween night with Kathryn Tucker Windham telling Alabama ghost stories as a prelude.
In Key West, I’ve eaten conch fritters, touched a bar of gold from a 17th century Spanish shipwreck, posed for a photograph at U.S. 1’s Mile Maker Zero, stood 90 miles from Cuba, had my legs rubbed against by descendants of Hemingway’s cats, and watched the sunset with an eclectic assortment of humanity. At The Grand Hotel, built in Point Clear, Alabama in 1847, I’ve slept where Colin Powell, Margaret Thatcher, Barbara Bush, Dolly Parton, and Fannie Flagg have reposed (not all together!),
and I’ve imagined the faces of 300 Confederate soldiers who died in the hotel when it served as a hospital during the Civil War. They’re buried near the 18th tee on the Grand’s Azalea Golf Course. At Toomer’s Corner in Auburn, Alabama, I’ve seen rolls of toilet paper fly and unfurl over the branches of majestic oak trees to celebrate an Auburn Tigers’ win in Jordan Hare stadium (War Eagle!), 
and I’ve drunk lemonade at the fountain counter in the corner drug store that has graced that spot for 120 years.  
And twice I’ve drunk a paper cupful of water drawn from the Fountain of Youth in Saint Augustine, Florida – benefits as yet to be determined. 

But none of these are my most treasured. Instead, I choose an iron man wearing no pants. His most private area is covered by a leather apron area, but, yes, his derrière is bare. And his bottom is hard to miss, since he weighs 100,000 lbs. and stands 56 feet high on top of a 123 foot tall pedestal on the crest of a mountain where he looms 600 feet above the nearby valley floor. He’s the Roman god of the forge, but I’ve known him all my life simply as Vulcan. The mountain he crowns is Red Mountain in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. The city, founded in 1871 in the shadow of this iron ore mountain, boomed due to the proximity of large quantities of the natural elements needed for steel production: iron ore, limestone, and coal. By 1900, this metropolis, nicknamed “The Magic City,” was one of the fastest growing in the country.

In 1903, to showcase Alabama’s iron industry, the city’s Commercial Club decided to build the largest iron sculpture in the world for exhibition at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. They contracted with Italian-born sculptor Giuseppe Moretti who worked on the Statue of Liberty’s base, among other prominent projects. Workers at the Birmingham Steel and Iron Company labored for four months of sixty-hour weeks to produce the 29 pieces for the statue. Art shows, concerts, and baseball game fundraisers, along with donations ranging from $1 to $500 and coming from as far away as Paris, helped cover the $20,000 cost. Newspapers in New York and Chicago reported on the statue. Two thousand, bronze, 12” replicas sold for $2.00 each as souvenirs in St. Louis and Birmingham. 

Trains carried the giant pieces to St. Louis and by May 25th, 1904, Vulcan stood in the Alabama exhibit in the Palace of Mines Metallurgy. In seven months 20,000 visitors signed the guest book at the Alabama exhibit.
Vulcan, with his spear point almost touching the exhibition hall’s roof, was a must-see, even with competition from the newly-invented automobile and a genuine pygmy tribe. For his triumph, Vulcan was awarded the Grand Prize by an international panel of jurors with Moretti and James R. McWane, owner of Birmingham Steel and Iron, also receiving prizes. The city of San Francisco offered to purchase the iron god, but the Commercial Club donated the statue to the city of Birmingham, specifying he be erected in the downtown’s Capital Park, which was surrounded by the homes of many leading citizens.

After Vulcan’s triumph at the Fair, he returned to Birmingham … to rust. His arm broke in transit and had to be recast. He lay in pieces on Red Mountain for a year and a half. Ladies who lived around Capital Park didn’t want him in their neighborhood because of his bare butt. Many felt he was ugly due to a disproportionately large head, an intentional decision by the sculpture to enhance the god’s rugged appearance and to give a proportioned appearance when viewed from below. Finally in the fall of 1906, the Alabama State Fair Grounds Association agreed to take him, temporarily. In the rush to assemble him for the upcoming state fair, his left hand was incorrectly attached so that he could not hold his hammer. A timber propped up his arm, which was soon used to hold signs advertising everything from Heinz 57 pickles to ice cream cones to a bottle of Coca-Cola. His right arm was backwards and, therefore, unable to hold his spear, which lay at his feet as his temporary stay at the fairgrounds stretched to 30 years. In the 1930’s, he was clad in Liberty overalls to promote the local company. Then someone got the bright idea to paint him. The fiery, Roman god suffered the indignity of his skin being covered with creamy paint and his face adorned with black eyebrows and rosy cheeks.

This final insult prompted the Kiwanis Club to propose a move to Red Mountain. With the cooperation of numerous agencies, many months of work, and a $40,000 grant from President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, by May 1937, Vulcan stood on the mountain’s crest, surrounded by a  4 ½ acre park built over an abandoned, iron ore mine. His body was cleaned and covered with aluminum paint. His hollow body was filled from the legs to the chest with concrete to stabilize him. Vulcan was soon the number one tourist attraction in Birmingham. U.S. Highway 31, which ran from Mobile, Alabama to Mackinaw City, Michigan, passed by the entrance to Vulcan Park, and many tourists on their way to Gulf Coast beaches stopped to climb the pedestal’s 159 steps and gaze on the city to the north and the growing suburbs to the south. Citizens took pride in their iron god, and the names of many businesses soon incorporated the name “Vulcan.”

In 1946, Vulcan’s spear was wrapped with a metal cone to create a lantern containing green and red neon tubes. The lantern burned green unless there was a traffic fatality in the city, in which case, the red light shone for 24 hours. (In the 1970s and ’80s, whenever I spotted Vulcan, while traveling Birmingham’s roads, I remember checking to see if the light was red or green.)
By the 1950’s, Vulcan was joined on the crest of Red Mountain by radio towers, soon to be followed by television stations. This was also a period in which many family’s enjoyed visiting the park on Sunday afternoons. My mother recalls Easter outings to the park after church with her family in their Sunday best and Easter baskets filled with dyed eggs.

By 1959, Vulcan was showing his age due to constant exposure to the elements. Over the next decade, much work was done to renovate the park, but not all was for the good. Large areas of the natural grounds were paved with concrete. Vulcan’s pedestal was enlarged to accommodate an elevator, but the result over-whelmed the statue. Much of the pedestal’s original stone was covered. A metal-roofed building, constructed at the base, obscured the view of Vulcan from the ground. In the 1960s and ’70s, a new interstate and a new U.S. highway resulted in many travelers by-passing the park. Still, the statue could be seen from all over the city and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

During my growing-up years, the park continued to be a place for school field trips, and every Fourth of July, fireworks were set-off from the top of the mountain. All over the city, folks found a spot from where they could see Vulcan who marked the spot where the fireworks would light up the sky, and my family was always among them.
I recall a crusade in the 1980s to cover Vulcan’s bare bottom. A jeans manufacturer offered to clad him as a publicity stunt. T-shirts were sold with a view of his rear and the slogan “Moon over Homewood,” that being the suburb with the full view of Vulcan’s backside. But the iron fellow needed something other than pants.

Over time, the concrete poured in his legs for stability caused cracking. An engineering study confirmed fears that the great god was on the verge of toppling from the mountain. A task force recommended a complete and proper renovation. In 1999, Vulcan was disassembled and sat in pieces on the ground as funds were raised. Two years later, the pieces were sent to an iron and steel company for repair using Moretti’s original plan. A new spear point was cast and a new hammer. Vulcan was painted his original gray color and reassembled on the renovated pedestal in 2003. The park was restored to appear as it did in 1938. By 2004, everything was ready for visitors again. Today, a new visitor’s center educates people about Vulcan, about the history of the area’s coal mining and steel industry, and about the city, itself. On the statue’s 100th birthday, water from the nearby Cahaba River was used to christen Vulcan, just as had been done on his opening day at the World’s Fair. Vulcan is now one of the few large structures from the Fair still in existence. He remains the world’s largest cast iron sculpture and is the second largest statue in the nation, after the Statue of Liberty.
Today, I live away from Birmingham, but I have two of the 1904, 24” replicas that I found on eBay, gracing shelves in my bookcase. In the summer of 2013, my family returned to my hometown to visit our cousins. My children, born on the coastal plains, marveled at the mountain views as I showed them around my city. And, of course, I had to show them Vulcan, up close. We walked the path from the parking lot to the visitor center and gazed out at downtown Birmingham and down at the entrance to the abandoned mine. We toured the museum, which swept us through a century and a half of history. And my son climbed all 159 steps of Vulcan’s pedestal to the observation deck for the ultimate view of the city and was rewarded with a Certificate of Completion upon his descent. As we left Birmingham, we stood on the crest of a nearby mountain and looked across the valley for a parting view of our iron friend lifting his arm in benediction from my mountain-top home.

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton

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