Recollections of Roebuck Springs
by Virginia Hamilton
April 2, 1989
One summer afternoon in 1925, Birmingham News columnist and author, James Saxton Childers, was writing a book in a back room of Wilson Chapel. A tall man on a big black horse followed by a hound rode up to the window and asked if he might come in. “I just rode over from y home, ” the visitor told Childers, “to welcome you to Roebuck and ask if there is anything I can do for you– such as lending you a horse.” He and his brother– the rider explained– were feeding three horses and would be happy to have Childers ride with them. A few days later, Childers, on a little mare named Dixie, joined his new acquaintance for a horseback ride through the woods and trails of Roebuck Springs. Childers’ visitor was my father, McClellan Van der Veer — known to his friends as “Ted.” He had just moved to Birmingham from New York City and he was to make his home in Roebuck until his death forty years later.
My own early memories are of the Roebuck Springs of the Twenties and Thirties. At first my mother, father, and I lived at 8727 4th Avenue South– in the white house with columns built by Dr. J.C. DuBose and later owned by Mrs. Gladys Molloy. In those days, the house had no columns and contained– for the use of our extended family, often numbering ten people– only one bathroom. Later my grandparents moved to 433 Exeter Drive, maybe because that house had two bathrooms. My aunt, Elizabeth Van der Veer, remembers those houses well. She was the champion of our Sunday afternoon ping-pong contests on the wide porch at Exeter Drive.
Eventually my parents built a small frame house at 630 Ridge Road heated only by a large coal stove in the living room. My father loved that property with its view of the hills and valleys: having served in the Navy in the First World War, he named his home “Topside.” At first we had no close neighbors except for trees.
Those who lived here in that long ago time considered that we lived “in the country.” The opportunity to keep horse and hounds, to ride horseback around this sparsely populated, almost rural area, to possum hunt in the woods, had attracted my uncle, Stewart Van der Veer, and he persuaded my grandparents to settle in Roebuck rather than in fashionable newer suburbs “over the mountain.” If one went horseback riding or for a Sunday afternoon stroll in the hills back of our house, it would not be unusual for a couple of rough-looking characters to cross our paths and look us over. These moonshiners checked every intruder to be sure that the revenuers were not on the trail of their bootleg stills hidden back among the trees.
These hills also produced iron ore; when we passed open mineheads, I would ask to look inside.But I was never allowed to step inside the mine opening; if a female, even a very young one, should enter a mine, the miners would not reenter that mine believing that disaster would ensue.
Our family had not been the first to be attracted by the rustic charm of Roebuck Springs. The Ross Smiths– who owned Wilson Chapel– lived in a rambling one-story white brick house just across Fourth Avenue, in a beautiful natural setting of plants and flowers. (Now, unfortunately, part of interstate 59). In my memory, Ross and Jessie Smith were an imposing couple– he handsome and courtly, she presiding graciously over a silver tea service; to me, they epitomized the expression, “to the manor born.”
Just west of here, on Fourth Avenue, on a rise above the lake, live the Frye family; Mr. Frye was a banker and a frugal Scotsman; he believed in the motto “a penny saved” and often saved the nickel carfare on the yellow streetcars #38 or #25 by walking from his home in Roebuck to his office in downtown Birmingham.
I remember other old-time residents like the Hugh Morrows, who lived in a stucco house next door to the Ross Smiths; the George Strange family across the street; the Walter Moore and Armistead families whose large frame house and its surrounding farm stretched from Fourth Avenue to the edge of Roebuck Golf Course in an area known today as South 88th Street containing about 25 houses.
But my main recollections are of Roebuck Springs in the 1930’s and 1940’s as a kind of artist colony. I say artist, meaning writers, musicians, and booklovers, most of them attracted to Roebuck by my father’s enthusiasm. Just up the road from Wilson Chapel, across from Jim and Pat Abbott, lived Dorsey Whittington, the first conductor of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and his pianist wife, Frances Whittington. Their living room was large enough to hold the two grand pianos so they could practice at home for their duo-piano concerts.
John Temple Graves II, whose column appeared each morning on the from page of the Birmingham Age-Herald, married Rose Smith, daughter of Ross and Jessie Smith, and lived for a time with her parents across Fourth Avenue fro Wilson Chapel.
Douglas Hunt, who taught English at Birmingham-Southern before he joined father’s editorial staff on the Birmingham News, and his wife, Mary, built a house on Ridgetop Circle overlooking the city. Here they raised champion boxers and Mary wrote novels. Another writer, Bill Hays, and his wife Mabel, lived next door to us in the house where Alex and Charlotte Wellman later moved. Bill wrote short stories for the pulp magazines about adventures on the railroads. When he sold a story, Bill was elated; when his stories were rejected as they often were, Bill was desolate.
Also on Ridge Road near our house, the owner of the Studio Bookshop– Birmingham’s earliest bookstore located where Smith and Hardwick is today– M.B.V. Gottlieb, an immigrant from Russia, build a large wooden house, a replica of a Russian country dacha, and filled it with furniture, paintings, icons, and other memorabilia of his homeland. I was particularly attracted to a large wooden nest doll that opened to reveal a dozen smaller dolls concealed inside. I also dimly remember the terrible night when Gottie’s wooden house burned to the ground, all the Russian furnishings and the nest doll consumed in the flames. Later Gottie married and he and his wife, Mitzi, and their son, Paul, lived on Valley Road below Harry Horner’s big house.
Retired people also built on our hill; Harry Austin, who has survived the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and his imposing wife whom he and everybody else called “the Duchess,” bought the house built by Claude Morton.
Mr. and Mrs. Will Thomas, who had come from Ohio to retire in a warmer climate, built a house on the bluff next door to us. Mr. Thomas was a cautious builder; my father said his stucco house would never succumb to earthquake or fire and would stand for eternity. So far, this house, later owned by the accountant Francis Latady, is still standing.