1921 – 1930


Rotary – “Down Under’’ with Colonels Ralston and Davidson

As World War One ended, Rotary began to spread throughout the world. The first club in Asia was in Manila in 1919; but soon there were Rotary Clubs in Shanghai, Tokyo and, in Africa, and in Johannesburg, South Africa.

In March of 1921, two prominent Canadian Rotarians were asked to introduce the Rotary model to Australia and New Zealand. The two men, Colonel J. Layton Ralston of the Halifax club and Colonel "Big Jim" Davidson of Calgary gave four months of their time for the purpose of establishing Rotary Clubs in the countries "down under." With a considerable personal financial contribution, Ralston and Davidson traveled by train to San Francisco and embarked on a 21 day voyage. They were on a mission to sway Australians and those in New Zealand to try something "new and fine" – Rotary. By the time the two Rotarians returned home, they had established Rotary Clubs in the four largest cities in Australia and New Zealand.

With this "down under" accomplishment, Rotary in 1921 was planted on six continents. Colonel Ralston eventually got involved in Canadian politics; while James Wheeler "Big Jim" Davidson, the consummate adventurer, had become Rotary’s ambassador in other areas of the world and was affectionately known in Rotary circles as "The Marco Polo of Rotary." Davidson had successfully established a positive reputation at Rotary International after his successful South Pacific expedition with Ralston. He served on many international extension committees, and, by 1928, was appointed as honorary general commissioner with the mandate to add the missing links to Rotary’s world map, especially in Europe and Asia. This led to new clubs in Greece, Cairo, The Palestinian Territories, Syria, Iraq, Bangkok and many more. "Big Jim" Davidson died in 1933 and would be remembered as one of Rotary’s best ambassadors. It was said that "Big Jim" had traveled nearly 150,000 miles in his quest to establish Rotary Clubs in Europe and Asia. Too bad for "Big Jim" it was before the airline frequent-flyer programs.


The Southern Club of Birmingham

From the Rotary Club of Birmingham’s inception to 1921, our club met for lunch at the old Tutwiler Hotel. In April of 1921 there was an announcement in the RotaryGram that the Rotary Board had made the decision to move the luncheons to the prestigious Southern Club. From the 1890’s to the late 1920’s the Southern Club played an important role in the social and business life of early Birmingham. Its location in 1916, on the corner of Twentieth Street and Fifth Avenue North, was, at the time, the most prestigious social location in the city. It adjoined the Birmingham Athletic Club and what remained of the 5th to 7th Avenue residential area.

In the 1880’s in Birmingham there was a movement to form social clubs for the city’s interested citizens. One of the earliest social men’s clubs was the "Shakespeare Club," an organization comprised of professionals in the city. The club soon changed its name to the "Alabama Club."
Even earlier in 1883 eight young men had met on the street in front of the Church of the Advent to discuss the topics of the day. One of those discussions involved starting their own club. The Racquet Club was born out of those discussions and the group began meeting in a building across the street from the Metropolitan Hotel. In 1891, the name of the club was changed to the Komos (Kosmos) (Comus) Club and incorporated as such. The Komos Club was known and acknowledged as the organization with the most elegant balls and dances. Shortly thereafter the Alabama Club and the Komos Club along with other smaller clubs combined to form the Southern Club.

In 1896 the Southern Club purchased the old home residence of Charles Linn and converted the rooms into a proper club venue. After a large closing party in 1901 the house was torn down and a new two-story facility, designed by soon-to-be-Rotarian, Harry Wheelock and his father, Charles Wheelock, was built. In 1910 a third story was added and the Southern Club had themselves a magnificent clubhouse complete with a ballroom, a lounge, a billiard room and kitchen.

The Southern Club was for many years the center of downtown social events competing only with the Country Club and local hotels. The Birmingham News once stated that more business deals were made at the Southern Club than anywhere else in the city. Many Rotarians were longtime members of the Southern Club including Harry Wheelock. By the late 1920’s membership had fallen off as new venues in the suburbs appeared. In the Fall of 1933, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company saw the need to foreclose on the club’s mortgage and Birmingham’s fine old Southern Club was no more. Most of the records of the club were lost in the process, but not the memories of Birmingham’s finest social club in its day.



Rotary of Birmingham in the 1920s

It is indeed unfortunate that this club has retained so little of our history from our early years. This is especially true of the 1920s. While we are missing RotaryGrams, we do know pertinent information from that "lost" decade. The 1920s began under the Rotary leadership of Percy H. Woodall, a Birmingham osteopathic physician. It was during Percy’s year that Rotary of Birmingham continued to sponsor boys' activities. With the country at peace those activities continued at an unflagging pace.

Dr. Woodall was born in Nashville in 1874 and joined this Rotary Club in our first year – 1913. Oscar Wells served as president in 1921-1922 and was president of The First National Bank of Birmingham. In the following year J.W. Donnelly led our organization in a year marked by a great growth in our membership. Our Rotary Club, along with others, got involved with the establishment of the local Community Chest in 1923. W. Carson Adams was president of Rotary in that year. Born in Bowling Green, Kentucky in 1880, Adams, a partner in a coal distributing business, served as the first campaign chairman of the newly formed Community Chest under that organization’s first president – Crawford Johnson.

We all are familiar with the life of Dr. Henry M. Edmonds or at least those in the Presbyterian Church should be familiar with his name. A pastor at Independent Presbyterian Church, Dr. Edmonds led that church through some tumultuous years. It was during Dr. Edmonds’ stint as Rotary president in 1924-1925 that he experienced a serious illness, forcing the club to rely on the services of Vice-President Hill Ferguson for leadership.
Birmingham publisher, John C. Henley, Jr., a charter member of this Rotary Club and president of Birmingham Publishing Company, was our president in 1925-1926. He also served as a Rotary District Governor in the early 1930’s. These Rotarian leaders and others led this club through the early and middle 1920’s with dignity, high principles and dedication to purpose insuring that our organization would continue on the right path for the years to come.



Rotary – Navigating Through Turbulence In The 1920’s

There was a period of turbulence for Rotary International in  the  1920’s  that  continued on into the next decades although with diminishing occurrences. As the Rotary movement spread throughout  Europe,  including  many  countries  where  the  Catholic  Church was influential,  rumors surfaced concerning an alleged connection between Rotary  and Freemasonry. At that time many local Masonic  Lodges  were  considered  a  meeting  place  for  simple  fraternal  fellowship; while others considered the lodge as a home for a   dark and secret society.

There have been many famous individuals who were members of the Freemasons including George Washington, Harry Houdini, Duke Ellington, Ben Franklin, Winston Churchill, Mozart, and yes, Harpo Marx. Indeed there were Masons who were members of Rotary at    the time. However, Paul Harris went out of his way to argue that the Freemasons never were an influence on the ideals of Rotary. Nevertheless, the turbulence  gained  hold  as  the Catholic Church embarked on a campaign against Rotary in the late 1920’s.  The  Catholic Church alleged that there was a link between Freemasons and The Rotary Code of Ethics and implied that Rotary was, by those codes, promoting itself as a universal religion. This was obviously untrue; however Rotary International had indeed become an influencing and powerful organization in the ensuing years since its inception. The situation continued to deteriorate to the point that the Vatican banned their priests from Rotary membership.

The heart of the antagonism toward Rotary had begun in Spain and spread to other European countries. In 1929, Rotary International drafted a statement declaring that Rotary had no connection to Freemasonry. New members who had traditionally been issued a framed placard of The Rotary Code of Ethics would now receive the Rotary Objects of Rotary, while downplaying The Code of Ethics. The Vatican seemed to be  satisfied  by  the  gesture;  however it took many years to heal the wounds and this was only accomplished as new members in Rotary who were Catholics began to spread the value of Rotary to  other  members of the Church. Pope John Paul II officially welcomed  a  delegation  of  Rotary  to Rome in 1979 .The Freemasons, the Catholic Church and Rotary are now viewed as independent organizations not influencing each other as it had, in reality, always been.


The Rotary Foundation - Rotary International Foundation

It was all Arch Klumph’s idea. A self-taught flutist, who played in the Cleveland (Ohio) Symphony, businessman Arch Klumph was a charter member of the Rotary Club of Cleveland and the father of the idea to start an endowment fund for the organization. He wanted to expand the good work of Rotary International, and as president of the International Association of Rotary Clubs in 1916-1917, he persuaded the Rotary International Board to approve the first endowment fund, known as the Rotary Endowment Fund.

Klumph’s idea was to accept endowments ‘"to do great things for Rotary." The Board did approve the new fund, however the project languished for nearly a decade with no mechanism set in place for funding. As a result, during that decade, there was little tangible action taken and very little enthusiasm for Klumph’s project.  After six years the fund balance was a paltry $700.

By 1928 delegates to the Minneapolis Rotary Convention changed the name of the fund to ‘"The Rotary International Foundation"’ and by 1932 $50,000 had been paid in by way of contributions. However, the ever worsening effects of the stock market crash and The Depression had the result of drying up to a trickle the level of contributions to the fund.

Even as bad as the times were it did not stop Rotary from making its first donation of consequence - to the International Society for Crippled Children. By 1937 a drive had been launched toward a goal of raising $2,000,000 for the national Rotary Foundation and it seemed that finally Klumph’s vision would be realized. However, World War Two dashed those hopes at least for the time being. After the war, the Foundation began to be funded on an ever-increasing basis resulting in a balance of $1,775,000 by 1948. In the 1980’s the Rotary Club of Birmingham Foundation was established with an initial gift from Prince DeBardeleben. With these developments and others around the world in local clubs, Arch Klumph’s vision for funding international, national, and local projects with an organized Rotary fund had been attained.


The Great Depression

The 1920s were good years for Rotary here in Birmingham and for the country at large. Rotary was about to celebrate its Silver Anniversary as 1930 approached  and  then  the  stock  market  crashed.  Free-wheeling  optimism  gave way to bank failures and soon soup was being distributed on the streets of the major cities in America.

Rotary national officials were trying to plan for a club whose membership was the business community as business was essentially bankrupt. Across the country many Rotary Clubs allowed their members to bring their own lunches to meetings---meetings now held often in church basements, community centers and schools rather than the fancy restaurants of the era prior to the Depression. This was the point in which Rotary stopped paying outside speakers and often called on their own members to take to the podiums for programs.

There were those in the Rotary  organization  who  felt  that  the  economic conditions called for a temporary softening of some of the Rotary ideals. Rotary  long-time  secretary  Ches  Perry  helped  stop  that  thought process by stating, "Today the world suffers---not because of an abundance of ideals, but because of a lack of ideals in those years when anything was all right that seemed to yield a profit."

During the Depression Rotary operated food kitchens, helped feed school children and supplied clothing to the needy---and there were plenty of those. Here in Birmingham capital investments had all but dried up, spending by the consumer was drastically curtailed, pig iron and steel piled up, and mills and mines were closed. Many in the community and the country recognized that Birmingham had been especially hard hit by the Depression. Indeed,  the  President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, went so far as to state that Birmingham was "the worst hit town in the country." Our club surely lost many members during those years as had Rotary on the national and international arenas. However, by 1935-1936, a recovery had started and both Rotary  nationally and here in Birmingham began once again to grow.



The Rotary Club The Second Part of the Decade The 1920’s

The second part of the decade of the 1920’s saw W. Thornton "Speedy" Estes as our president in 1926-1927. Thornton Estes was followed by James H. Eddy, the manager  of  the  Kaul  Lumber  Company  in  1927-1928;  Dr.  Charles B. Glenn, Superintendent of the Birmingham  Public  School  System  in  1928-1929; and Darius A. Thomas, president of  Montevallo  Coal  Mining Company in 1929-1930.

It  was  March  7th  of  1927  that  marked  the  occasion  of  the  death  of J. Frank Rushton, president of this club in 1916-1917 and the first president of this club to pass away. Frank Rushton was born in November of 1876 in Columbia, Maury County, Tennessee. He was the son of William J. and Louise (Chaffin) Rushton. His father, William J. Rushton, was also a member of this club. Frank Rushton married Willis Roberts in 1899  and  had  been  educated  at  local  schools here in Birmingham. He worked with his father at Birmingham Ice & Cold Storage, at one time known as Birmingham Ice Company, and succeeded him as president.

Frank and Willis Rushton had eight children including William J.  Rushton, our own Billy Rushton’s father and Allen Rushton, our own Allen D. Rushton’s father.  All  were  or  are  members  of  this  club.  Frank  Rushton  was   a   member and long-time president and Elder  of  First  Presbyterian  Church  and was a member of many other  Birmingham  clubs.  Widely  beloved  throughout the community, Rushton  presided over our club during the trying years which  saw America’s  entry  into  World War One.  The government recruited our club  to mobilize national  morale  and  home  resources.  Dubbed  "Allied  Armies"  with Frank Rushton as "Field Marshall," the organization was effective in establishing a pattern for civic  campaigns,  including  several  Liberty  Bond  Drives. Frank Rushton also served as a director and board member of the Community Chest Drive in 1925. The Rushton  family  has  long  been  an important part of the community and of Rotary’s  leadership;  and  Frank  Rushton, as president, served this club well.



The Muscle Shoals Debate

In the early 1920’s, there was a serious debate taking place in the meeting  rooms of local civic clubs here in Birmingham. Two nitrate plants were built in 1917-1918 on farm land in Colbert County, Alabama. Along with these plants the building of Wilson Dam on the Tennessee River had begun.

An honorary member of this club, President Woodrow Wilson, sanctioned the construction of the nitrate plants and the dam which would be named for him. Construction was started, and for the building of the  dam  thousands  of  workers  were employed. With  those  employees  came  a  need  for  1700  temporary  buildings, 240 permanent buildings, hundreds of homes, a hospital, barber shops, schools and stores.

As the building of the nitrate plants was nearly completed, and  with  the ceasing of World War One activity, there was less need for nitrates which were used in the making of ammunitions and explosives. This led to the controversy as to what  to  do with the nitrate plants and the "then-uncompleted" dam. Would those facilities  stay under the control of the public sector or would they  be  sold  to  private  investors?

At that point – 1921 – automotive tycoon, Henry Ford, accompanied by his friend, Thomas Edison, entered the picture. By this time Edison was internationally known and respected and Henry Ford’s company commanded  50%  of  the automotive market. Together, Edison and Ford were the most dynamic twosome of  the era. Ford wanted to buy the nitrate plants and lease  the  dam  and a steam plant  in order to develop the area and build a city. In Ford’s own words that city, "would  rival  New  York  City"  in  size  and  importance.   He   imagined   a   city   75   miles  long,  encompassing  homes,  manufacturing  plants   –   specifically   automotive related plants – building Fords of course – and  farm  implement  manufacturing  plants.

The debate raged between those who wanted Ford to develop the area and those in Congress, the state government, and Alabama Power Company who wanted the facilities to remain in the public sector. As speculators swamped the area, our club wanted to get involved with the debate in order to promote better train connections and railway between Birmingham and the proposed new city, if built. This club, like all the clubs in our city, had members on both sides of the argument and there were several attempts to entice Ford and Edison to come to Birmingham and get involved    in the fray. Neither took the bait and ultimately Congress rejected the sale to Ford.

The Tennessee Valley Authority was formed in 1933 after the dam was completed, and the two nitrate plants were converted to produce cheap fertilizer for the farming industry in the area. This was the beginning of a period of growth for the city of "Muscle Shoals," which had been officially incorporated in 1923.