Happy 200th! 13 amazing things to know about Jefferson County

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Happy 200th, Jefferson County. Photo via JeffCo Bicentennial

This month, Jefferson County is celebrating its 200th birthday! The bicentennial is a time of reflection and celebration—for both of which there is plenty of inspiration. Keep reading to find 13 things you may have never known about Jefferson County.

Celebrating 200 Years of Innovation

Since its founding on December 13, 1819, Jefferson County has been the home of innovation. As the largest county in Alabama and the host to some of the biggest employers and industries, Jefferson County has had its finger on the pulse of the south’s beating heart for centuries.

Jefferson County’s history is long and rich—and hard, at times. This place and its people have seen their fair share of hardships, but they’ve also seen triumph and growth throughout the centuries.

Over the past year, Jefferson County has been celebrating and remembering the rich history that lives in this area. One Jefferson County employee reflects on what her research has taught her over the past year.

“If there is one thing that I’ve learned from looking at our history its that entrepreneurship, hardship and perseverance all played a role in where we are today.”

Helen Hays, Director of Public Information, Jefferson County

1. Indian Mounds

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Abandoned 200 years BEFORE the arrival of Columbus, the Bessemer Indian Mounds, located behind the Donlonah Quarry just off I-59, constitute one of the most historic sites in Jefferson County.

The three earthen temple mounds dating from 1000-1200 AD were built by prehistoric Native Americans of the Middle Mississippian Period. WPA-financed archaeology removed the most visible traces of the old mounds although the site is well documented in photographs, illustrations and location maps.

2. An Old Steel Town

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Born in 1820, James Sloss is recognized as being one of the leading figures in the early development of the city of Birmingham, AL. Sloss was credited as the first person to show that pig iron could be made in Birmingham. In 1880, Sloss co-founded the “City Furnaces,” which today is known as Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark.

Jefferson County’s history of steel and iron production is as long as it is fascinating. It was foundational to the city’s beginning, and the evidence of that foundation is visible throughout the county today.

3. Rise to Tech Fame

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TechBirmingham was founded in May 2002 under the mission to strengthen the technology ecosystem within the region. In 2017, the TechBirmingham Board of Directors selected Deon Gordon as President.

The tech scene in Jefferson County is the source of many local jobs, as well as a lot of national attention.

4. Jefferson County is Home to the Oldest Family-Owned Restaurant in the United States

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In 1907, the Bright Star located in Bessemer, Alabama, opened for business. It is known to be the oldest family-owned restaurant in the United States. The Bright Star’s co-owner Jimmy Koikos recently passed away at age 81 after running the restaurant for nearly 60 years.

You can check out their website to learn more, but we recommend just heading over to try out their fresh seafood, fine steaks and ripe vegetables for yourself.

5. Mrs. Tutwiler Had a Mission

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Educator and social reformer Julia Tutwiler was known for her relentless efforts to improve prison conditions, women’s education and mental health facilities within the state of Alabama.

There are many more influential and innovative women who have come from Jefferson County and gone on to leave their mark on the world. Here are seven of them.

6. No Shortage of On-Field Talent

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Westfield, Alabama native Willie Mays is a baseball legend. During game 1 of the 1954 World Series, Mays made The Catch, one of the most famous plays in baseball history. He was named National League player of the year twice, won 12 Gold Gloves and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

Jefferson County has produced a slew of successful athletes across the (score)board. Just to name a few:

  • Sir Charles Barkley, two-time inductee into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame
  • Trey Mullinax, PGA professional golfer
  • Carl Lewis, ten-time Olympic medalist
  • Pat Sullivan, Heisman Trophy winner
  • Bo Jackson, Heisman Trophy winner and 1989 MLB All-Star game MVP

7. The Center of a Movement

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Of course, one would be remiss to have any discussion about Jefferson County’s history without mentioning its involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.

The history is long and hard, but it’s one of the most important elements of the last 200 years. There are many organizations and individuals dedicated to preserving this history and educating the public about the lessons learned.

One such institution is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI), a research center and museum that promotes a comprehensive understanding of human rights. The Institute is located in the Civil Rights District, which includes the historic 16th Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, Fourth Avenue Business District and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.

8. The Man on the Mountain

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The Vulcan Statue, christened by the waters of the Cahaba River on June 7, 1904, is the largest cast-iron statue in the world. It was designed by Italian artist Giuseppe Moretti and cast from local iron.

Jefferson County’s very own Ironman has a long and fascinating history—you can read all about it here.

9. Boulder to Birmingham

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Emmylou Harris is both a Birmingham native and one of the most acclaimed country music songwriters in history. Her first album debuted in 1969, and she went on to write, sing and perform for decades.

Similar to Jefferson County’s history of impressive athletes, there’s no shortage of talented musicians, singers and songwriters whose roots are buried in the Magic City. Here are a few:

  • Ruben Studdard, winner of the second season of American Idol
  • Paul Williams, an original member of The Temptations
  • Andre Williams, a songwriter whose work has been performed by Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Parliament and more
  • Anthony Crawford, a singer and songwriter who is known within the music industry as a musical prodigy
  • Milton Davis, a musician, songwriter and producer who wrote the soundtrack of The Parent Trap

10. James Beard Recognition

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In 2012, Chef Chris Hastings won the James Beard Foundation Award for best chef in the South, and the following year, he defeated celebrity chef Bobby Flay on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America.”

Awards from the James Beard Foundation are kind of like the Oscars or Grammys in the culinary world, and Birmingham is no stranger to James Beard attention. Highlands Bar and Grill won the outstanding restaurant award in 2018, and several other restaurants, bars and chefs have been named finalists.

11. The Heaviest Corner on Earth

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Did you know the “Heaviest Corner on Earth” can be found in Jefferson County? Well, it’s true—or so legend claims. These four buildings on one corner of downtown Birmingham were the tallest buildings in the south at the time they were built:

  • Woodward Building (1902)
  • Brown Marx Building (1906)
  • Empire Building (1909)
  • American Trust and Savings Bank Building (1912)

Although most of us know them by different names, the Heaviest Corner is alive and well. Read more about the history of one of the skyscrapers, and check out cool before and after photos of what we now call the John Hand Building.

12. Monica and More

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Actress Courteney Cox is a former cheerleader of Mountain Brook High School. She is best known for her roles as Monica Geller on “Friends” and Gale Weathers in the “Scream” film franchise.

Other big names in entertainment that have come from Jefferson County include:

  • Estelle Louise Fletcher, Academy Award-winning actress
  • Alan Hunter, one of the first VJs at MTV in 1981
  • Betty Lou Gerson, best known for her role as the voice of Cruella De Vil in Disney’s 1961 animated classic, 101 Dalmatians
  • Rickey Smiley, stand-up comedian and radio personality who is the current host of the nationally-syndicated “The Rickey Smiley Morning Show”
  • Jordan Fisher, singer and actor who has appeared on television series such as The Secret Life of the American Teenager and Teen Wolf
  • Nell Carter, singer and actress best known for her role on the NBC sitcom “Gimme a Break!”

13. 200 Years Down, Many More to Go

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The Birmingham Airport opened in 1931 and was renamed in 2008 as the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport after Civil Rights activist Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. BHM underwent a massive modernization in 2014 and is Alabama’s largest airport, hosting more than 2 million passengers yearly.

Amidst all the lessons we can learn by looking at over 200 years of history, one thing is clear. Jefferson County is moving in one direction—forward.

“We want Jefferson County and the City of Birmingham to be known as the place where we make things happen.

It’s important, that if you want to be a part of innovation and looking towards the future, Jefferson County is where you want to be.”

Steve Ammons, District 5 Commissioner, Jefferson County

Be sure to check out @jeffco200 on Instagram to learn more about our county’s history, and let us know your favorite lessons by tagging us on social @bhamnow. Happy birthday, Jefferson County! You don’t look a day over 100.

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