Sitting ‘High atop Red Mountain’, Vulcan is the original Ironman- completely designed and forged of cast iron in my hometown of Birmingham Alabama, he is the largest iron ore statue in the world! He was disassembled to be shown at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904 and won a grand prize! When I was a little girl- Vulcan was painted iron ore red- the picture above is the original color, refurbished just a few years ago. I went to Minnie Holman Grammar School and we learned a song about Vulcan:
‘High on mountaintop am I… I look o’er the valley from on high!… And what care I, if the stars – are beating in a fury at my feet? O-ah.. I look o’er the valley where I stand – and see a city, grand!
I totally loved singing that song! The first time I recall visiting Vulcan- I was very small and he was very tall! In fact, one of the problems about visiting the Roman God of the Forge was that visitors looked at him from the back- his bare backside is in full view! My slightly older sister didn’t let that pass her notice- I was holding my mother’s hand, and Sis was dancing around and said-
‘Why doesn’t he have any britches on?’ …Silence…clearing of throats…’Hush now, he has them on- they’re just real tight..shh’…Well, I’m here to tell you – that Ironman doesn’t have any britches on and he became known as the ‘Moon over Homewood’- even Wikipedia makes note of that fact and more- go check the article out- it is very interesting – poor ol’ Vulcan. Anyway-I have more to tell you about my hometown than this article can contain, let’s just say, Vulcan represents the powerful Industrialist City that Birmingham once was; full of rich red iron ore deposits which were mined, then forged- right there at his feet- there were thriving steel mills and furnaces. The story goes that after Reconstruction- the land-owning Bourbon Democrats of South Alabama and the wealthy Industrialists of Central and North Alabama joined forces to re-build. By the time Vulcan was forged, Birmingham was a melting pot of another kind- there were Greek, Italian, Asian, Europeans, Freedmen and Yankees! They knew how to capitalize on the natural resources of the Birmingham area. Some of the most beautiful homes in the South are in Birmingham and they aren’t plantation homes- they are estates on the East and to the West, sagging and worn – are homes of the mill and foundry bosses which I believe are making a comeback! But Birmingham also had her working men- ironworkers, steel millers and coal miners- who lived in camps and shanties- poverty really…which brings me to a little coal miner’s daughter…
Born in the year of Our Lord, 1920 on June 6, in the eastern outskirts of Birmingham, my Aunt Iva was the second of four children- two girls and two boys. I am 10% taller than Aunt Iva ever was- that’s not saying much because she was only 4’11” in her stocking feet. She was a coal miner’s daughter, which makes me the granddaughter of a coal miner, who also happened to be a union organizer. Alongside her father, in 1937, at age 17, Iva stood at plant gates and on the streets, collecting dues of $1.00- in a worn cigar box, which held scraps of paper, a small notebook and a pencil. Aunt Iva was proud of this, too- her portable desk was an overturned apple crate. Now, they did this before the steel industry recognized the union.
Industrialist Birmingham, late 1800’s and early 1900’s must have been an exciting place-where coal fields and mines, ironworks and steel mills were basically what we would call ‘start-ups’ today. Growing up in the shadow of Vulcan, Iva had a choice- to become a steel magnolia or tough as pig iron– she chose to become a little of both. She was the ‘original’ career woman on that side of our family. She married a man of the steel mills, never had children of her own- the steel workers and coal miners were her ‘boys’. It was downright scandalous, to marry a divorced man and be working woman among the toughest of tough men. Perhaps she never had children, because her parents died when she was so young leaving her to see about the family and her older sister died in childbirth. One of her brothers was a POW in World War II- life was not easy- but my tiny Aunt Iva had the grit of coal dust in her eyes, iron ore in her veins and a spine of steel.
We never knew our grandparents on that side- but we do know a little about them-Emma was a ‘Gibson Girl’ who was a postmistress for a time; William, a coal miner and union organizer all over the southeast. They both died young- William at age 40, Emma about 6 years later of ‘female troubles’- probably cancer.
I’ve been told stories from descendants of coal miners who lived in camps beside the coal train rails- just to wash clothes defined the word ‘chore‘. One man told me that he was assigned the job of sitting outside near the clothesline- when he would yell out- ‘Coal Train!!’- everyone would come running out of the house to grab the clean clothes- so the soot from the coal wouldn’t get the clothes dirty all over again! By the time Iva was 10 years old, the United States was in a deep Depression- she laughed and said that she didn’t realize how poor they were until about 10 years after that! Coal mining, ironworks and steel milling was hard dangerous work. Just a few years ago- I met an elegant elderly lady whose father had died when a molten vat of steel poured over him because his foundry rail cart stalled out on the track below the vat. This lady told me that if it had not been for the steelworker’s union, her family would not survived, financially or otherwise.
When the union was finally recognized in 1940, Aunt Iva’s name was listed as a dues paying member- she had attended the very first continental convention as a delegate to form the United Steelworkers Union and attended every single convention until the 1990’s when she was in her 70’s! Her accomplishments are astounding- but hey, she was my aunt. I didn’t know all she was doing, really until after she died- that she was a very influential political activist- I knew she argued my daddy down with politics; it usually got loud…we had to go outside with our cousins and played ‘Swing the Statue’ – though it was more like ‘Sling the Statue’ on Aunt Iva’s front yard and my sweet Uncle Roland was the peacemaker. He was amazing in his own right- a foreman on the third shift at the robust U.S. Steel- he could cook like a man on fire…or put up the best blackberry jam I’ve ever tasted! And he loved my aunt-she ‘tickled him’-another way of saying, she made him laugh-he adored her and was very proud of her work- and Uncle Roland loved us…they gave us our first bicycles, they took us to the Alabama Theater with it’s ‘Mighty Wurlitzer’ organ, they took us to eat Chinese food at Joy Young’s with tiny umbrellas in our iced tea and fortune cookies! When they travelled she added silver charms to our charm bracelets. She was an irritating but persistent photographer! She was one of my ‘southern mothers’, who influenced me in ways no other did. Uncle Roland died in 1971, she was devastated but Aunt Iva continued to work- maybe doing some of her best work for almost 30 years as a widow. She kept meticulous journals which recorded the journey of the working men and women of her era -students and doctoral candidates from all over the nation- sought out Iva Goodwin for help with their dissertations on various Labor Topics, her wisdom and information were an invaluable resource. Perhaps my love of writing came from her! I love to travel, my Aunt Iva was always an avid traveler- two trips I remember well- she went to Pearl Harbor and took a list of her ‘boys’ who had died there; and she went to Washington DC to see her nephew’s name inscribed on the Vietnam War memorial. Until she was 78 years old, she continued to work daily in her office at the Steelworkers Union. When she died in 2001, hundreds of honorary pall bearers- big strapping union men, cried- they were her boys after all.
Today, June 6, is her birthday, I was thinking about her…just wanted to tell you about this spunky, tough little lady who also happened to be a coal miner’s daughter, a steel magnolia and my aunt. A life well lived, Iva Elaine Goodwin, may you rest in peace.
Love, y’all, Camellia
History and Resources of Working Men and Women in Alabama – multiple sources from Amazon Affiliate link
Birmingham’s Statue of Vulcan all resources from Amazon Affiliate link