50th Anniversary Homes Tour: Page Two

In late 1971, we made a $1,000 down payment (LONG time ago!) and acquired not only our first house but also our first mortgage. Recently, I drove up Tyler Road to Bluff Park, passing the shopping center where Sam Alfano managed the Western Supermarket and explained to me one day what self-rising flour was and that he didn’t carry molasses but sorghum would probably work for my Ohio grandmother’s cookie recipe. I honestly don’t remember if it did. His store was always well stocked and eventually carried molasses.

We didn’t move to Bluff Park to escape cholera epidemics in Elyton like the earliest settlers in the 1820s, and we didn’t move there to build a summer resort atop the bluff like Octavia Spencer (no, not the Montgomery-born, fabulous Academy Award winning actress, author, and producer). This Octavia Spencer (male) put up forty log cabins and a pavilion in the 1850s and called the place Spencer Springs. Guests could walk from the resort to two springs that were believed to have medicinal benefits.

We moved to Bluff Park because the neighborhood was affordable and the views along Shades Crest Road were beautiful.The trees are taller and shadier now on Bluff Park Road, a short street tucked behind the Methodist church and Valley Street, not far from Shades Crest. The street and our beige brick and shingle house look to be in good shape, and I noticed that someone had closed in the carport on the left and added a picture window.

Bluff Park Road

My favorite feature of this little house was the screened porch off the kitchen. I’ve been a journal keeper all my life and was able to hunt up this entry from August 16, 1971: How wonderful to have this screened in porch, shaded by climbing vines that rustle with the summer afternoon breeze. The sound of cars passing on Valley Street, birds crushing dry leaves with their tiny feet under the holly tree, the shouts of children on bicycles passing the house, bees buzzing unmenacingly outside the screen.

I don’t remember if that is the exact day I wrote this poem, but it would have been a day and a mood like that one. It was published a few months later in Good Housekeeping magazine—the only poem of mine ever to be in print, except for local journals years ago. Sincere thanks to my late Aunt Helen for framing a copy and sending it to me that Christmas because I can’t find my original anywhere!

Through the newcomers’ group, I met a woman named Carla who lived nearby, and we often rode together to luncheons and bridge games. She and her husband became close friends, and so did our children. We each had two boys then, similar in age. Our four-year-olds were in preschool, and we wanted to play tennis, so many mornings, we headed to a local park with courts—off Sulphur Springs Road, I think, set up a playpen in the shade for our toddlers, and played a couple sets before picking up the preschoolers. When Mr. P’s (for Charles Pilleteri and his family) Butcher Shop opened on the Crest in 1975, Carla and I began sharing a side of beef or a half a pig and packing our freezers a couple times a year. Little could she or I have guessed that, more than twenty years later, we would become sisters-in-law, but that’s another whole story.

On my drive, I was surprised to see workmen busy setting in wooden frames along one side of Valley Street as they prepared to pour cement for a very long sidewalk. The small Ohio town where I grew up was well endowed with sidewalks. Of course, it was a different era, but from a relatively young age, I felt safe walking or riding my bike to school, to the library all the way down Columbus Avenue, and to friends’ houses. By the time I lived in Bluff Park and had my own children, subdivisions were popular and sidewalks were often hard to find except in much older neighborhoods.

In May 1973, Birmingham magazine published “What Ever Happened to the Sidewalk?”, the very first of many feature articles I wrote for Birmingham magazine, first with Ray Martin as editor and then with Joe O’Donnell. Here is the opening paragraph:

            The sidewalk, with its cracks not to be stepped on, its chalked hopscotch squares and  roller-skating children, is all but forgotten in suburban Birmingham. Jefferson County housing developers discount it as too expensive and some homeowners complain that it spoils the aesthetic beauty of their sloping front lawns. Yet this same sidewalk once gave youngsters a safe place to walk and play. It once led to libraries, corner stores and bus stops. It once linked neighbor to neighbor and block to block in a way that driving a car can never do.

If you’d like a copy of the entire story, just leave me a comment, and I can email it to you.

Today, like many Alabama communities, the City of Hoover (including Bluff Park) has sidewalks on one side of most streets. Unfortunately, the area  where I now live was “grandfathered” in when Hoover began requiring sidewalks in the early 1990s, so I still have to get in my car or dodge the morning traffic on foot to go one-fifth mile from my home to a neighborhood park to walk Gracie.

If you read Page Four of the Noccalula Falls Road Trip on this blog, you already know that Bluff Park is home to one of three lover’s leaps in Alabama. (The other two are at DeSoto Caverns and at Mile 96 on the Tombigbee River.) The theme of the one in Bluff Park, not far at all from our first house, detours considerably from what Mark Twain referred to in Life on the Mississippi as summits where “disappointed Indian girls” jumped to their death. In the Bluff Park version, a Creek brave got tired of the attentions of a princess in his tribe, so he took her up to the bluff and stabbed her with a bone knife. Then, suddenly, he was struck with remorse, so he picked her up and leaped off the bluff with her in his arms.

But wait—there’s more! In 1827, Colonel Thomas W. Farrar, an early Alabama lawyer and legislator, got married in New Orleans and traveled by oxcart with his bride, Seraphine, towards their new home in Elyton. They rode through what Native Americans in the area called the Valley of Shadows (now Jones Valley where Birmingham wasn’t founded until 1871) and then up to the top of Shades Mountain (so named for the “shades” (ghosts) said to lurk in the shadowy valley below. The young couple camped on the bluff for several days and carved their names and the date on that ledge of leap fame, which has also been called Sunset Rock.

One version of this story says Farrar also carved the first four lines of Lord Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” into the rock: To sit on the rocks, to muse o’er the flood and fell, to slowly trace the forest’s shady scene where things that own not man’s dominion dwell, and mortal foot hath ne’er or rarely been.” More than 100 years later, in 1930, the inscribed rock was dug up and presented to the Masonic Lodge in Elyton (said lodge named for Thomas Farrar). All attempts to get the rock returned to its original location failed, so Bluff Park resident Thomas W. Martin and former Birmingham mayor George B. Ward hired someone to carve a replica of the inscription on another rock at Lover’s Leap.

When I lived in Bluff Park, the building next to Lover’s Leap was a gas station where the friendly owner pumped your gas and cleaned your windshield. Today, that building has been transformed into the Tip Top Grill which serves up great hamburgers and outdoor seating with spectacular views.

Stay tuned: Up next Ashland Drive, Jimmy Carter, and the Bluff Park Art Show

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