The Long Road Home travel blog

A view of Birmingham from the top.

Me thinks we need to get our toes done!

We arrived in Birmingham on Friday, the 22nd. On Saturday we hit the road and went to the Vulcan Park & Museum. Vulcan, Birmingham Alabama's colossal statue is the world's largest cast iron statue and considered one of the most memorable works of civic art in the United States. Vulcan stands 56 feet tall, from toe to spear point, upon a 124-foot pedestal rising to a height of 180 feet and weighs 101,200 pounds. Vulcan is the largest cast iron statue in the world and the largest metal statue ever made in the United States. Dick took the elevator to the top while I struggled the 200+ steps to the top; yes, I took the elevator down!

Designed by Italian artist Giuseppe Moretti and cast from local iron in 1904, it has overlooked the urban landscape of Alabama's largest city since the 1930s.

If you're into Greek mythology, then Vulcan is probably in your vocabulary. In ancient times, people worshipped many gods. Vulcan was the Roman god of the Forge. A forge is a shop with a furnace where metal is heated and hammered out into useful items. In Greek mythology, Vulcan's name is Hephaestus. His father was Jupiter, the supreme ruler of the universe, and his mother, Juno. Unlike all the other gods and goddesses, who were perfectly beautiful, Vulcan was ugly and lame. He was thrown from Mt. Olympus, the home of the gods. After falling for an entire day, he landed on the island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea and worked as a blacksmith, using a volcano as his forge. The one-eyed Cyclopes were his helpers. He made weapons and armor for all the gods, but was kindly and peaceful himself. He married the glamorous Venus, goddess of Love and Beauty. What does an ancient god have to do with a modern city?

Birmingham was founded in 1871. The area where the city grew is very special because it contains coal, iron ore, and limestone, the raw materials for making iron and steel. Birmingham's founders knew this would be a good place to build an industrial city. By 1900, Birmingham was called the "Magic City" because it grew so quickly. The city's leaders wanted to advertise Birmingham and the state of Alabama to the world by entering an exhibit in the St. Louis World's Fair. James A. MacKnight, the manager of the Alabama State Fair, decided a statue of Vulcan would best highlight the area's growing industrial abilities. Mr. MacKnight searched for a sculptor, and finally found Giuseppe Moretti, an Italian immigrant who had come to New York City in 1888 and was becoming well known for creating large and beautiful statues.

Mr. Moretti had only six months to complete the project. He made a two-foot tall clay model. Next, he made a full-size clay model, using a large, abandoned church in New Jersey as his studio. The clay was applied over a wooden form. Because Vulcan was so big, the wooden form and the clay model were actually in two pieces - the top and bottom half of Vulcan. Mr. Moretti then used this full-size model to create plaster molds, which were shipped back to Birmingham. Birmingham Steel and Iron Company used the molds to cast the statue in iron. The casting was done one piece (21 pieces) at a time. As the statue's pieces were cast, they were sent to St. Louis to be assembled. The statue of Vulcan, with his dark, burnished, metallic finish, was dedicated on June 7, 1904, in the Palace of Mines and Metallurgy at the World's Fair. Mr. Moretti sculpted Vulcan standing with his anvil at his left side. In his left hand, he held his hammer. He held his right hand high in the air, admiring a spear he had just finished making in his forge. The statue proved to be a very popular exhibit and won the Grand Prize, as well as medals for the sculptor and foundry.

In 1905, when the World's Fair had ended, Vulcan was taken apart and brought by train back to Birmingham. His pieces lay atop Red Mountain while city leaders tried to decide where to put him. Some wanted him in Capitol Park, now called Linn Park, in downtown Birmingham. Others thought he should stand atop Red Mountain. After a year and a half, he finally wound up at the Alabama State Fairgrounds. Although it was to be a temporary home, Vulcan stayed there for almost thirty years. Mr. Moretti was not there to help, and Vulcan wasn't put together correctly. He couldn't hold his hammer because his left hand was turned the wrong way. His left arm had to be supported by a timber. His right hand was put on backwards, so he could not hold his spear. Merchants began to use him for advertising, and over the years he held various objects, such as a giant ice cream cone, a pickle sign, and a Coke bottle. Later he wore a giant pair of Liberty overalls. In the 1930s he was repainted in flesh tones. Also, people only saw him for the few weeks the fair was open each year.

People began to discuss bringing back Vulcan's dignity and moving him to a park to be created especially for him atop Red Mountain. It took years for the new park to be built, partly because of the hard economic times during the years of the Great Depression. During the Depression, the United States government formed the Works Progress Administration. Also known as the WPA, this agency provided unemployed people with jobs, such as constructing trails and buildings in public parks. The WPA agreed to help get the land ready for the new park and to construct a museum as well as a beautiful stone pedestal for the statue. In May 1939, Vulcan, now painted with aluminum paint, was finally in his new home in Vulcan Park, atop Red Mountain. The hollow statue was filled with concrete to help anchor it in place.

In 1946, some safety-minded citizens decided Vulcan should remind everyone to drive carefully. Instead of his newly forged spear, he now held a cone-shaped, lighted beacon. This signal glowed green on days no one was killed in an auto accident and red on days when there was a fatality. In the late 1960s, people began to feel Vulcan and his park should be further "modernized" for Birmingham's one-hundredth birthday in 1971. This idea led to the addition of a huge marble-clad enclosure and observation deck, which covered up the original stone pedestal. These additions made it difficult for visitors to see Vulcan from below and hid the beautiful stone. During this time, the statue was also painted the color of iron ore. Over the years, the concrete poured inside Vulcan in the 1930s as an anchor began to cause problems. It also expanded and contracted at a different rate from the cast iron. Since Vulcan did not have a top to his head, rain poured into the statue. These factors caused the statue to develop cracks. In 1999, Vulcan had to be removed from his pedestal.

Vulcan Park Foundation was formed in 1999 to raise money to restore Vulcan to his original glory. The pieces of Vulcan were sent to Robinson Iron and Steel that repaired (and in some cases recast) the statue - using original drawings from the artist Moretti. Vulcan is now painted gray - thought to be his original color. In 2003, all of Birmingham watched with anticipation as each piece of Vulcan was lifted onto the restored original pedestal. Birmingham is glad to have Vulcan back in his rightful place on top of Red Mountain.

At the recommendation of Colonal, one of the volunteers at the museum, we headed out to find the Irondale Cafe. The doors of The Irondale Cafe were first opened in 1928 as a hot dog stand by Emmett Montgomery. Maggie Prentice came along shortly thereafter, to add hamburgers, barbecue, and a variety of sandwiches to the menu, and in 1932 Miss Bess Fortenberry purchased the business. The “stand” was renamed the Irondale Café, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Bess was a single woman with a great enthusiasm for life. She was free-hearted, loved practical jokes, and built a very successful business. In the early forties she went to Florida to work for the war effort, and while there she ran into an old acquaintance, Sue Lovelace. After the war Bess convinced Sue and a wonderful cook, Lizzie Cunningham, to come back to Irondale with her and help in the café. The trio made The Irondale Café one of the most popular places to dine around town. Their sandwiches were made to go because there wasn’t much room in the café for dining in, at the time. Thus, their sandwich business began to thrive. And they were known for miles around for their delicious meats and vegetables. The original cafe was housed in a small frame building with one step up to the entrance, with floors that sprang with you when you walked. The front room had four booths lining the outer wall, small tables in the center of the room, a long counter with eight wooden and metal Coca-Cola stools. The back room had three booths and an old Rockola. The kitchen separated the two “dining” rooms. Seating capacity for the front room was 31, packed like sardines.

In 1972 Bess suffered a stroke. About that same time Sue and Lizzie both developed health problems and were unable to continue working. So Bess decided to sell the café and retire.

If you haven't figured it out yet, this is The Whistle Stop Cafe based on the book / movie Fired Green Tomatoes.

Some of the items on their menu: Greek Style Baked Chicken, Chicken and Dumplings, Grilled Beef Liver and Onions, Butler Farms Fresh Collards, Pinto Beans, Tomato Parmesan

Blackberry Cobbler, and of course FRIED GREEN TOMATOES. The meal was scrumptious.

For more photos of Vulcan and our lunch click here.

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