A few weeks ago in a story about the special class at Elyton School, I mentioned a Civil War sword sticking out of a tree we used to watch for every time we drove down Third Avenue. It was part of a sad sweet story of love unfulfilled.
More on the sword. The story we always heard is that a gallant Confederate officer plunged his sword into the tree before he went off to war, promising to retrieve it when he returned to his sweetheart. But he never returned to reclaim the blade from the trunk. When I returned home to Birmingham after years of school and family career travels, the sword was gone.
Thanks to my friend and lover of Birmingham history, Dr. Lamar Osment, for confirming the story, sending some old press clippings, and even locating the sword today.
But first more Birmingham lore of unrequited love.
Like many former Appalachain hollers, Birmingham has its own tale of a Lover’s Leap, and like most of them between here and Rock City, it involves an Indian maiden. With the maiden forbidden to marry her white settler lover, these pioneer-day coon- skin Montagues and Capulets reputedly jumped to the their deaths together. There used to be many tales of lover’s leaps, but you don’t hear them much any more.
There is a large rock outcropping off of Shades Crest Road you could walk out on, so it was a plausible launching pad. It was a nice Sunday afternoon drive for a picnic. And while many sweethearts used to make the trek up to Bluff park for the romantic view over the valley, there is no documentation that any of them ever jumped off. Nor did I ever personally know any Indian maidens.
But concrete elements of the story of the sword in the tree have been verified.
According to the clipping sent to me by Dr. Osment’s wife, Nelda, the story was documented in 1960. A column in the Birmingham newspaper by Walling Keith even included a photo of the blade jutting from the tree, and I also saw it with my own eyes as a child.
Columnist Keith claimed to have heard the story when he was young, when there was an old white colonial house with an iron ornamental gate on the site, and had it confirmed by a number of unidentified sources in later years.
In his version of the tale, the old house was part of a plantation when Elyton was a village, and sometimes a hundred candles burned in the main chandelier when callers came to visit in carriages from as far away as Ruhama,Trussville, and Huffman.
Until the war came 150 years ago, in 1861, and the son who lived in the grand house wanted to join the Confederate cavalry, though his mother and sweetheart begged him not to go. But, as in the opening scenes of Gone With the Wind, there was no denying the call to arms and chivalry. But before he rode off to war, the gallant soldier had one last word.
The boy kissed the girl, jumped on his horse, then pulled out his sword. He plunged the sword into a sapling.
“I’ll pull it out when the war’s over,” he told the girl. Then he waved at them all and galloped away.
So the story goes. But when the war was over the rider never returned. And the sapling grew into a tree and the blade grew into the trunk for all those years. Then, in the early 1940s the house was torn down and the tree was felled to make way for the Elyton Village housing project.
An engineer for the housing authority reputedly named Harold Harper saved the sword from the tree, and today it can be found in the museum at Arlington Antebellum Home and Gardens.
And there you can still find it today. Steve Moode and Terence John of Arlington add more to the story. The young soldier was actually the brother of Florence Earle, who in fact lived nearby and married the young lawyer, later judge, who owned the home that is Arlington today, William Mudd. I guess you didn’t go far to find your bride in the Alabama of the 1800s.
In any case, the young Mr. Earle told his own young lady, even as the tree grows our love will grow, and it did for eighty years.
Even with the facts falling into place, could there be something more legendary to the story. It sounds like King Arthur’s sword in the stone. And that mythic tale has roots in earlier Norse legend in which Sigmund, another future boy king, pulls a sword from a tree. When he is thus revealed as heir to the throne, a jealous dame whose husband couldn’t pull the sword free has all Sigmund’s relatives slaughtered and tries to bury him alive...well, that may be all you care to hear about the savagery of evil Viking would-be queens.
But Sigmund prevails in the end and burns the wicked woman to death for a new day and a happy ending. Wouldn’t it be something if our sword in the tree could also somehow identify our own idealist willing to take the leap to lead us to Birmingham’s own Camelot, a promised age.
One more detail of the story revealed by columnist Keith: The gallant blade was not a cavalry saber. In fact, it was really a sickle, a garden variety farm implement more typical of life during the day.
And sure enough the blade on display at Arlington is a scythe for mowing hay.
So maybe the story was romanticized a little, like so many things in the South, especially in Birmingham--a city that does not have much in the way of antebellum history. But that really does not take anything away from the poignancy and the pangs of lost love that, as we so clearly see from this legendary story, can live on for more than a century.