1911 – 1920


Rotary Goes International

In November of 1910, just three months after the National Association of Rotary Club’s formation and convention, Arthur Frederick Sheldon, a Chicago Rotarian, shared startling news with Ches Perry, general secretary of Rotary National. Sheldon had recently learned that a Mr. McIntyre, a former Chicago resident who knew about Rotary, had become a member of a Rotary club in Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada. Perry questioned how this could be. There was no Rotary Club in Winnipeg. At that point Sheldon told Perry that after moving to Winnipeg from Chicago he had in fact, joined the new Canadian club, a club complete with 30 new members.

No one in the U.S. was ever consulted about the formation of the new club and given the opportunity to join the National organization, the Winnipeg group was initially hesitant. However, the Winnipeg club applied for that affiliation with Rotary in February of 1912 and was admitted on March 1st. Winnipeg Rotarian C.E. Fletcher attended the 1912 Rotary Convention in Duluth, Minnesota as a delegate. The delegates at the convention moved by decree that the name of the National Association of Rotary Clubs be changed to the International Association of Rotary. After only seven years, Rotary was now both a North American and an international club.


Rotary - The International Club

At the 1911 Chicago Rotary Convention, Paul Harris confided to the Portland convention delegates, "I have thought this Rotary idea so great it might be permitted to extend beyond the confines of this country. Without authority of the Board of Directors, I have taken up the matter of a club, also (clubs) in Paris, Glasgow, Melbourne, and Sydney."

In 1911 Harris wrote to Boston Rotarian Harvey Wheeler, who made frequent trips to London, that he should help form a club there. The two men met in the British capital, arranged a dinner meeting with associates, with the result being the formation of The Rotary Club of London in August of 1911. While this was a Paul Harris victory in the expansion plans of Rotary, it appears Stuart Morrow beat him to the punch in providing the first foothold Europe. Stuart Morrow approached business and professional leaders in Dublin with the idea of starting a club there. His efforts were successful and the first meeting of the Rotary Club of Dublin was held on the 22nd of February, of 1911, more than five months before the London club and a full year before the admission of the Winnipeg club.

Following were the establishment of clubs in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Liverpool. A club was also formed in Birmingham, England in 1913 – Coincidentally, the same year, another club would be formed in the city of Birmingham, some 4,200 miles from its English namesake, the city of Birmingham, Alabama.



Rotary Comes To Birmingham

While visiting his brother in Denver, Birmingham architect, Harry B. Wheelock, learned of a new movement among men of good will. It was called "Rotary." It originated in Chicago and was spreading throughout the U.S.

Wheelock had been encouraged to start a club in Birmingham by friends but a letter sent in the year 1912 – from Rotary’s founding father, Paul Harris, may have been the trigger. Harris wrote,

"The advices to the effect that you will undertake to organize a Rotary Club in your city are very pleasing to me and I intend to make it my business to assist you in every way I can. You will find it a comparatively easy matter to establish a club in your city. As a matter of fact, the situation ordinarily resolves itself into a sort of an endless chain. While your personal acquaintances might be insufficient in number to comprise a sufficiently comprehensive organization, the personal acquaintances of your personal acquaintances — etc. and ad infinitum would ultimately include the entire city."

It was January of 1913 when Harry Wheelock called a meeting of six or seven of his friends at the old Turn-Verein Hall to discuss the possibility of starting a new Rotary Club in Birmingham. Those present at the meeting carefully compiled lists of businesses and professional men "...whose lives and purposes and personal philosophies were regarded as having already made them Rotarians in all but the new name."

The organization date for Birmingham’s new Rotary Club was February 6th, 1913. The new officers for the club in 1913 were: president – Harry B. Wheelock, vice-president – John E. Shelby, secretary – Bromfield Ridley, treasurer – J.W. Donnelly, and sergeant-at-arms – Robert I. Ingalls. The Rotary Club of Birmingham was now off and running.



Rotary Expands To Atlanta


As soon as the Birmingham Rotary Club became affiliated with the National Rotary organization it was assigned the Rotary Club Number 56. Almost immediately the Birmingham club began a movement to promote Rotary in other cities – a promotion that can be only described as religious fervor. In August of 1913 a virtual safari of Birmingham Rotarians made the trek together by train to Atlanta, Georgia. The group’s purpose was clear; they wanted to start a new Rotary club in Atlanta.

Among those in the Birmingham group were: Joe Rosenberger, John Shelby, B.B. Burtin, Fred Wheelock, and first president Harry Wheelock. After arriving in Atlanta they met with members of the Atlanta Ad Club and spoke to them on the virtues of Rotary. Shortly after their visit, the Atlanta Rotary Club was founded from the nucleus provided by the Ad Club. It was then, after becoming affiliated with National, that the Atlanta Rotary Club was given Rotary Club Number 79.

Seldom, if ever, has the Atlanta club hierarchy given the Birmingham club any credit for their formation. They claimed (and still claim) an epiphany on the part of Atlanta resident, Ivan Allen, Sr., after he had visited the Baltimore Rotary Club. According to them it was his idea to start a Rotary Club in Atlanta. Of course the Birmingham club makes the stand that it was instrumental in initiating the idea. After all, would a group of 80 adult men travel to
Atlanta for such a visit with no purpose in mind decades before the Atlanta Gold Club opened? Although the argument appears to be moot, at least with the Atlanta group, it is clear that, at the very least, Rotarians from Birmingham helped along the process. They reinforced the idea that it would be appropriate to start a club in Atlanta.

Rotarian historians will all agree that the Birmingham club had a purpose for its visit in August of 1913. It's members weren’t over there just to shop or see the sights – they wanted a Rotary Club for Atlanta and that happened, as it did in other cities, where they promoted Rotary including: Montgomery, Nashville, Memphis, Savannah, Macon, Tampa, and Mobile. Those Atlanta Rotarians may continue to claim that they were there when the Rotary idea light bulb came on, but in Birmingham, it is well known who flipped the switch.


William Thornton "Speedy" Estes

Future Birmingham Rotary President William Thornton Estes was born in 1885 in Talbotton, Georgia. He was one of eight children of George Hensen and Anna Thornton Estes. George Estes, Thornton’s father, moved his family from Talbotton to Birmingham in the late 1890’s to join an insurance firm. Three of his sons, Charles, Claude, and Tom were charter members of Redstone Club, founded in 1908.

Thornton Estes started his business career as a runner for Birmingham Trust & Savings Company. However, Estes' main career was in the lumber business where he served as president of the Estes Lumber Company. The company in 1916 was located at Estes Station on the North Birmingham street-car line and had an Ensley location as well. The company sold long leaf yellow pine and used an advertising slogan, "Estes Long Leaf Lasts Longer." Estes' brother Charles, and later his son, William Thornton Estes, Jr., worked with him.

Brother Tom Estes & Thornton were partners in a real estate development business, developing homes on Somerset Circle in Redmont. Three homes were built and were titled after significant figures of the Queen Elizabeth Reign.

Thornton Estes joined the Rotary Club in the 1913 and was chosen president in 1926 – 1927. It was said that during his year as Rotary President, "The club membership was welded into still closer bonds of good fellowship." It was also said that Thornton Estes was given the nickname "Speedy" early on by being the fastest runner at the Y.M.C.A. Thornton "Speedy" Estes, a memorable member of Rotary, died in 1979.


The First Birmingham Rotary Club Luncheons

The first weekly meetings of the Rotary Club of Birmingham were held at the Gold Lion Restaurant. Little is known of the early Birmingham eatery today, but it was reported that a lunch there in 1914 cost fifty cents. Later the club went on to meet at Miss Mary Beard’s Kitchen where it was said that the food was better than adequate.

The meetings in those early days were full of fellowship, but no food fights, singing or arguments were allowed. Research shows that the meetings were held more or less in the open, no exclusive back room for Rotary members; that is, there were other "luncheoners" at the Gold Lion and they on occasion complained that the "lusty vocalizings from Rotary members disturbed them."

At these early meetings the programs were almost "entirely devoted to talks by various members on the subject of their own businesses or professions." From time to time the club members made excursions to those businesses. This represented the old Paul Harris philosophy that Rotarians should know each other better and the club should continue to push for new prospective members that were employed in varied occupations. On occasion the club as a body would hold meetings at a plant, store, or other place of business where a Rotary member was employed. These were good times for Rotary and all enjoyed the fellowship.


The Rotary Flag

The first weekly meetings of the Rotary Club of Birmingham were held at the Gold Lion Restaurant. Little is known of the early Birmingham eatery today, but it was repIn September of 1914, Rotary National Association President Frank Mulholland of Toledo, Ohio, in compliance with the instructions of the 1914 Houston Convention, appointed a committee to design a flag for all Rotary clubs.

An acceptable design had been sketched and was used as a starting point. The main portion was to be white in color which is the banner of internationalism and is looked upon as the "Lilly White Banner" of international amity and goodwill. In the center of the flag appears the official emblem of the organization in gold and blue colors and containing the words "Rotary International." The blue stands for constancy of purpose and the gold for the pure standard upon which rotates the wheel of eternal progress.

The first time the Rotary flag was flown was at the Baltimore Hotel in Kansas City on January 4th, 1915. Some interesting sightings of the flag over the years are:

  • Admiral Richard Byrd flew the Rotary flag over the South Pole in 1929 and the North Pole four years later.
  • In 1932, Professor Auguste Picard carried the Rotary flag, given to him by the Rotary Club of Zurich, on his record-setting balloon ascent to 55,577 feet.
  • A year later, the flag headed in the opposite direction when the Rotary Club of Houghton, Michigan carried it 6,254 feet beneath the earth’s surface
    for a meeting at the bottom of the Quincy Copper Mine.
  • The first Rotary Club banner flew in outer space when Astronaut Frank Borman, a Rotarian, took it on his orbit around the Moon.

The flag flown by Admiral Byrd over the South Pole is now displayed at the Rotary International World Headquarters in Evanston, Illinois. Today a giant Rotary flag flies high atop the Headquarters Building. One of the colorful traditions of many Rotary clubs is the exchange of banners or flags. The exchange is a meaningful gesture that serves as a tangible symbol of international fellowship.


Rotary Steps In To Help The Boy's Club

The Boys Club of Central Alabama was founded in 1901. By 1905, John Melpolder took the reins as Director of the Boys’ Club. In 1906 delegates from the Birmingham Boys’ Club traveled to Boston to meet with representatives from 51 other clubs to form the Federation of Boys’ Clubs. Our Rotary Club’s involvement with the Boys’ Club likely began at a meeting held on July 7th, 1915 with the following resolution:

  • Be it resolved: that the Birmingham Rotary Club shall make the Boys’ Club of this city its special beneficiary for one year from July 1st, 1915.
  • Be it resolved: that, as patron of the Boys’ Club, the Birmingham Rotary Club shall assist in the annual Tag Day Benefit to meet the expense of the maintenance of the Boys’ Club and in other ways cooperate with those who are officially entrusted with the management of the club.
  • Be it resolved: that the Rotary Club shall give an annual Boys’ Club Luncheon with each member inviting one or more boys to said luncheon. It will be called "Boys Club Day."
  • Be it resolved: that a standing committee be appointed whose duty it should be to assume charge of all activities of the Rotary Club as it relates to the Boys’ Club.

In these resolutions, Rotary entered upon the responsibility of patron of the Boys’ Club without assuming any authority or administrative control or any obligations for the Boys’ Club financial maintenance or official conduct.

Indeed, the luncheon on December 8th, 1915 served as the first "Boys Club Day" at Rotary. After the event several members offered their commendation for the event – "Greatest event in the history of our club", "Let’s make "Boys’ Day" a quarterly affair", "The men enjoyed it more than the boys did – if that’s possible."

Rotary Club has continued to support The Boys’ Club – now the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Alabama.



Notice in the Rotary Gram in August of 1915

After the last meeting of the Rotary Club held at the Tutwiler Hotel, the following "Expense Account" and ledger was plucked from the floor of the dining room. It would appear that one of our members dropped the document. So to help identify the owner we offer a recount of the notes and expenses:

March 4th Advertising cost for new girl to do my typing – 1 dollar and 20 cents
March 9th Violets for the new lady typist – 50 cents
March 11th Week’s salary for the new typist – 10 dollars
March 16th Roses for the new typist – 3 dollars
March 20th Immediate upgrade of salary for new typist – 15 dollars
March 20th Candy for the wife – 15 cents
March 26th Lunch for the new typist – 2 dollars
March 27th Lunch with the new typist – 4 dollars
March 28th Now call new typist—"Daisy"
March 28th Theatre and supper with Daisy – 19 dollars
March 29th Wife finds theatre ticket stubs
March 30th New sealskin dress for wife – 225 dollars
March 31st Silk Dress for wife’s mother – 50 dollars
April 1st Advertising costs for new male typist – 1 dollar and 50 cents

We would suggest that the Rotarian who dropped the "expense account" document see the secretary in order to avoid the publication of his name.


Oscar Wells

The Rotarian Oscar Wells played an important part in the development of Birmingham, Alabama. Born in 1875 and orphaned at the age of three, Oscar Wells was raised in Missouri by his uncle and aunt. At his uncle’s death, Wells was forced to discontinue his education at Bethany College in West Virginia and return home to work in the banking business, first as a cashier at the Wells Banking Company. He married Helen Jacobs, a native of Wheeling, West Virginia in 1900.

Through dedicated hard work and diligence Wells worked his way through the banking industry, taking on several jobs before being named President of the First National Bank of Birmingham in 1915. Wells served as president of First National Bank until 1930 when he became Chairman of the Board. As president and chairman of the board he involved himself in the affairs of the city. At a time when Birmingham was facing financial ruin in the depth of the Depression, Oscar Wells helped negotiate a loan to the city of $ 1,000,000 to help keep the city operating. He also served on a committee with 15 leading citizens and 10 physicians who helped raise funding to supplement the state Legislature’s appropriation and charge to get the UAB Medical School started.

With its roots dating to 1905 as the Birmingham Art Club, the Birmingham Museum of Art was opened in 1951 in the City Hall Building. After a major gift in 1954 from the estate of Mrs. Oscar Wells and a large gift from the Kress Foundation, the Oscar Wells Memorial Exhibit Building was dedicated in 1959.

Oscar Wells joined this Rotary Club in 1918 and became president of this club in 1921-1922 while serving as president of the bank. In quick succession Wells was called to perform financial services for and in conjunction with U.S. Government and to assume the presidency of The American Banking Association. At that point, his Rotary leadership had to be put on temporary hold with Vice-President Ed J. Rowe filling in for him. Wells was the architect of The Department of Public Welfare in the “Depression” years and was a financial advisor for the government of Cuba. Oscar Wells remained a public servant, a community leader and a member of Rotary until his death in 1953.


A Rotary Outing

Birmingham Rotarians took a field trip to Fairfield, Alabama in April of 1918. Field trips by Rotarians were frequent in those early years. In the words of one of the trek mates: "It was a bunch of tired but happy Rotarians who came in from Fairfield at five-thirty Wednesday afternoon. They had the time of their lives. (Apparently these guys were not big time travelers) To begin the story – it has to be said that the day of the trip there was beautiful weather – not a cloud in the sky. Brilliant sunshine and warm spring weather was on tap. The fellows gathered at the Tutwiler Hotel where plenty of cars were waiting them. The trip out was made in record time, not even a single puncture marred the ride. At Fairfield they were met by Hill Ferguson and Paschal Shook – both members of our club – their hands were extended in welcome. A dinner consisting of oysters, soup, fish, roast turkey and dressing, sweet breads, salsa, Peach Melba and cheese was served – and we shouldn’t forget the demitasse. (They were serving up good food that day in Fairfield) After dinner they went through the new plant of the T.C.I. facilities where eighty-six ships were almost completed (obviously for the war effort). Everyone was astonished at the progress which had been made. At the new hospital in Fairfield several patients were airing themselves on the sun parlor after serious operations. (At that time, Fairfield was known as "The Model City", which was billed as the most beautiful industrial town in the United States.) The new addition of the Westfield community in Fairfield was looked over and several Rotarians bought lots as an investment. A great time was had by all. The tired bunch of Rotarians returned to town satisfied with their outing that day in 1918."



Rotary in Europe During World War One

There’s an old saying – "Things are never as bad as they seem, until they get as bad as they really are." In the years 1916-1918, World War 1 in Europe was as bad as it really was. Europe was embroiled in what was christened "the war to end all wars."

As the ashes of war, begun in 1914, began to replace the flame of hope for peace in Europe, Rotary began to rally its members and committees into patriotic service. During the war, clubs across Britain appointed war service committees, which in turn had subcommittees charged with promoting international trade, encouraging enlistments, providing war relief, addressing unemployment and helping to maintain local industries. In Ireland, the Rotary Club of Belfast formed the Ulster Motor Ambulance Division, which helped produce vehicles (reworked) for wounded soldiers in France.

There were many instances of Rotary’s good work in Europe at that time. Long-time Rotary General Secretary, Ches Perry, remarked – "Let this war go on if it needs be, but let us give thought now to the horrors of war and the blessings of peace. Let Rotary make international peace and goodwill its mission as an international organization."

By 1918, many U.S. military officers, diplomats, and humanitarian agency workers based in France, who in civilian life had been Rotarians, started the Allied Rotary Club in France. Ancil T. Brown from the Indianapolis club became its first president, and such notable Rotarians as General John J. "BlackJack" Pershing, U.S. Ambassador William Sharp and Major James Perkins, Red Cross commissioner for Europe, were regular attendees.

The official Rotary Club of Paris was started after the war, in 1921, and Rotary Clubs in Oslo, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Zurich and Praque soon followed. Rotary now had an additional Object for their Creed: "the aim to create peace and goodwill among all people." By April of 1917 the United States had entered the fray and scores of Rotary Clubs across the U.S. began to put their able backs behind the war effort.


The Rotary Club - Doing Our Duty


In 1915, the largest Rotary Club in the world was the Buffalo, New York club with 407 members; however membership numbers in Rotary would soon become irrelevant as the war exploded in Europe. The United States entered the war in April of 1917 and this club’s attention and conversation turned to ways to help in the war effort. An unnamed Rotarian spoke on the entry into war: "Yes, Uncle Sam is warming up and after he goes in, we’ll be building baseball diamonds in the city of Berlin."

Local Rotarian W.M. Cosby handled the first Y.M.C.A. War Fund Campaign, and Rotarian J.W. Donnelly handled the campaign for funds for the War Library. George Gordon Crawford helped handle the local Red Cross campaign. These efforts were outside the efforts of the club itself. By November of 1917, the Board of Directors passed a motion to "approve the recommendation from the Entertainment Committee that, out of respect for the National Food Conservation Movement and the devotion of time and money to the innumerable worthy causes occasioned by the War, Ladies Night will not be held. At the same time, motions were passed that ordered all members of Rotary to continue to subscribe to the various humanitarian movements occasioned by the War.”

By the time Uncle Sam was raising money to "Help Whip The Kaiser", our Rotary Club was beginning to participate in the then called National Baby Bond Campaign, a campaign for the sale of two billion dollars of U.S. Bonds. In Alabama, it was a request of every man, women and child in the state to buy 20 dollars worth of these Bonds. Rotarian Crawford Johnson was State Director of this and other appeals. Requests went to members to volunteer for Red Cross work and the Red Cross Campaign: In an appeal to members of this club to get more involved in the war effort, a statement went out to Birmingham Rotarians – "Let me call your attention in this respect to that poster issued by the United States Government, representing Uncle Sam pointing his finger at YOU!" He needs your help.


The War and The Kaiser

During the Spring and Fall of 1918, occasional letters from those on the front lines in Europe were reprinted in local Rotary RotaryGrams. It was a reminder of the terrible conditions which our servicemen (including many Rotarians) had to endure in Europe and beyond. There was a local Rotary effort to sell and buy Thrift Stamps for the War – "When you hear that the Kaiser has blown up some more unarmed vessels, don’t make a street corner speech; just go buy some more Thrift Stamps" – every little effort counts.

RotaryGrams were being sent to servicemen in all corners of the conflict. Quoting a serviceman with Rotary connections, "RotaryGrams are the one bright spot in my life. I sure enjoy them."

At our meetings during the War we were displaying flags of our allies, promoting Liberty Bonds and collecting funding for various projects supporting our soldiers fighting and serving in the conflict. The Liberty Bond Drive, while not reaching local expectations, was providing results our club could be proud of and displaying to the country our sincere effort to help.

Whether in jest or not, in September of 1918, the RotaryGram concluded that the Kaiser (Wilhelm the Second) was dead. However, The Emperor Wilhelm, who first began his reign in Germany and Prussia in 1888 and whom was said by many to be the instigator of the War, had become a figurehead in that country and had by November abdicated and had traveled to the Netherlands into exile. The War was winding down. A plea went out to local Rotarians – under the heading, "When the War Is Over" – "To err is human, to forgive is divine. Yet there is a deadline beyond which divinity becomes folly. The deadline in this case is the Peace Table at the close of the War." Forgiving the Germans was far from popular at this point – prior to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. The United States, its servicemen and organizations like Rotary had sacrificed too much. At that point there was no forgiving the Germans. This hard line opinion changed gradually as the years passed – at least prior to Hitler, as the new antagonist came to the forefront. Rotary began to get involved more with community; however, as we know, war was to come again. In the words of Rotarian, Morris Bush, "Peace is a much more complicated proposition than war."