Vulculean Effort
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90.3 WBHM | Birmingham -- A Herculean -- make that Vulculean -- effort is being put in place to fix the old man on the mountain. But he wasn't always atop Red Mountain. And his past is about as cracked as his present.

In 1904, more than 20 million people attended the St. Louis World's Fair to witness the births of Dr. Pepper, a new food rave called the hot dog, and Vulcan. If not for the creativeness and generosity of folks from all over the new city of Birmingham, Vulcan might not have been made.

"Well, it was just a crazy, promotional idea."

Marjorie White, President of the Birmingham Historical Society... She asks what better idea than a statue, cast at the McWane Foundry, of Sloss Furnace iron, a shining example of Birmingham's prosperity to be showcased at the World's Fair…

"Alabama failed to come up with the money... The state -- generally, states sent exhibits to world's fairs back then...So the Chamber of Commerce... with a very aggressive, young chairman... they decided they were going to do this... send a statue of Vulcan."

It was James MacKnight, a marketer and journalist from Utah whose idea of sending Vulcan -- which hadn't even been built yet -- caught the attention of that young, aggressive chairman, F. M. Jackson. Both were quickly engulfed with Vulcan fever and began a campaign to make him a reality.

"It was a tremendous marketing effort...a hundred years ago. I think our fore-bearers were very aggressive in a marketing sense, I mean, to have this colossal statue at the St. Louis World's Fair, I mean, what a statement for Birmingham and for Alabama..."

That’s Tom Cosby, Senior Vice President of the current Chamber of Commerce which today is collecting money for Vulcan's repairs.

In 1903, it was a monumental task (pun intended): Commission an artist, Italian Giseppe Morretti, to design and create the statue. Get Vulcan cast and ultimately pieced together... Send him TO St. Louis. And then get him BACK to Birmingham.

It sounded simple. But proved more difficult. Big pieces of the statue couldn't be moved quite so simply -- and inexpensively. It would take more Birmingham ingenuity not only to make him, but make him travel.

Again, Marjorie White.

"It was a public campaign. And everyday The Birmingham News and The Birmingham Age-Herald published the contributors to the fund... on the front page... and they would publish 'so and so passed the hat at their community meeting last night,' or they would publish, 'so and so ladies' group had an art show..."

Between more donations and a break on the train fare, Vulcan made it to the fair and back.

And here's a surprise... the effort got no help from the folks in Montgomery... How profound then that the words of F. M. Jackson, at the statue's dedication speech in St. Louis, reflected the state's lack of interest in sending anything to the World's Fair...

"It should be said here that the state of Alabama made no appropriation from its treasury for a place in this grand pageant of achievement. It is easy to accomplish results when the taxing powers affords the fund, but in Alabama, the city of Birmingham and the county of Jefferson, the heart and ear of our great mineral district, with some commonwealth, wrought for themselves what the state declined to do. This is the true crown on Vulcan's brow."

While speaking at the Palace of Mines and Metallurgy, he noted the generosity of the people of Birmingham... the upper class and common folk.

In the years since his return, he towered over the Alabama State Fairgrounds for 30 years... and it was the Kiwanis Club of Birmingham that led the effort to put him where he is today -- atop Red Mountain. One of the club's current members is the grandson of that young, aggressive chairman, who helped get Vulcan built in the first place: F. M. Jackson, the third.

"I remember Grandfather Jackson, whenever any dignitaries or friends came to Birmingham, he had to take them to see Vulcan."

But Mr. Jackson says there were some early tourists who wanted an up-close view.

"One year, a Romanian group was there and he brought them up to Vulcan and they went up on the platform. While he was talking to them... 2 slipped through the trap door at the top and were getting ready to climb Vulcan... (laughs) when they finally got them down!"

Today, Vulcan is closed because of cracks in the iron that once was indicative of Birmingham's strength. Concrete has expanded and compressed inside his body in what was originally a plan to keep him weighted down.

Time has taken a toll on this statue of the Roman god of forge made of Birmingham-blasted pig iron.

((oink oink)) – pig sounds

No, not that kind of pig... Harley, the pet, pot-bellied piece of pork maneuvers nowadays in the front yard of The Wilson's home near Leeds. In just two months, 11- year old Stephanie and 12-year old Jessica Wilson have collected quite a few dollars toward Vulcan's big fix.

"Four hundred, five hundred (five hundred dollars?) uh huh... Well, we started reading it in the newspaper and we seen that he was falling down. (Have you ever been to Vulcan) A lot!"

"And I called him 'nakey-butt.' (He's sort of uncovered around the Homewood area...) Uh huh. (A lot of people have ribbed about that because he's kind of naked back there...) Uh huh... (Do you think that in your restoration effort you should cover him up back there?) Nah-uh. Nope. He was made that way."

The Wilson girls have been back time and time again to Vulcan's Homewood and Birmingham neighborhoods, selling advance order t-shirts. They've raffled beanie babies and have similar plans for Lady Vulcan, a Barbie doll adorning an elegant, golden crocheted dress, handcrafted by their grandmother.

Currently, the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce and a host of local organizations are taking up money to help save Birmingham's iron man. More than 15 thousand dollars has been raised in the early stages... and the McWane Family foundation, which shares the name of the foundry from where Vulcan was cast, has donated up to $2 million in matching funds.

Almost a century ago, the effort was just as difficult to make a symbol in which the world could see Birmingham and its prosperity... Today, Vulcan's possible restoration is also symbolic... of all kinds of people bringing resources together, just like they did when Birmingham -- and that crazy and promotional idea -- was young.

~Steve Chiotakis, March 31, 1999