When I was growing up my dad had a friend barely half his age who lived all the way on the other side of town. Laney moved down to Birmingham from Jasper when he was about twenty and still single for opportunities building houses. He and my dad both knew everything there was to know about plumbing, wiring, painting, framing- -anything to do with building a house. These days you can’t find people who can build their house themselves, but that was one of my dad’s many talents. Same with Laney.
They became such fast friends, and my dad was so supportive of the new kid in town, that Laney did all the courting of Helen--a legal secretary he met when he moved to the big city, and who he later married--on our front porch. And Helen and my mother became friends, as well. It was not very common for women to work in those days, much less run a law office, and my mother was a go-getter herself. More on that another day.
One day I will also tell you more about my dad’s money-making schemes, but he and Laney were planning to go into business together building houses. My dad was very analytical and they pored over the new FHA requirements with the thought of building two-bedroom one-bath frame houses. In those days you didn’t go to a bank to get a mortgage for your house. You kept your deposits in the bank and that was about it. You used to have to have cash to withdraw to pay for a house--of course our house in Bush Hills cost $2000 in 1936. But even that was a huge amount of money back then.
So it was a big deal when the federal government came down with the Federal Housing Authority that would give you a loan to buy a house. But of course they laid down their own requirements, and the house had to meet strict government specifications to qualify for the loan. The banks finally figured out the potential to make ten times the cost of the home, and they later took over that mortgage loan business.
“George James Roebuck and his wife Ann Hawkins Roebuck built a log cabin at the mouth of Roebuck Spring.”
The FHA stayed involved, and the loan went through the bank but still had to meet FHA requirements for backing. Of course, then those federal agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, were turned into private corporations. Well, you know the rest of the story, but we missed it back then, and no one came around to bail us out.
My dad and Laney were examining whether they could build their houses for $1000 and meet all the FHA regulations and sell them for $5000, a handsome profit in those days.
Before he was married Laney used to take my brother Tucker and me out to Roberts Field, a small airport near Bessemer. In those days you could rent a horse to ride around the field. I remember being amazed by interspecies communication. We had to ride across a wooden boardwalk, and I remember my horse turning its big eyes around to me to inquire whether it was safe to proceed before stepping on the planks.
Later, Laney and my dad built a house way out near Roebuck for Laney and his new bride. Of course it was not part of The Roebuck Springs, Birmingham’s first fancy suburb, developed by the same Jemison company that later went really toney and built Mountain Brook.
Before that, Roebuck was just another little country village. In 1850 George James Roebuck and his wife Ann Hawkins Roebuck built a log cabin at the mouth of Roebuck Spring. His Influence and leadership led to the area around it to be known as Roebuck. In 1900, Alabama Boys Industrial School was located adjacent to the spring, and the spring water was used for the school until city water became available. Today it’s the juvenile detention center.
In 1910 George Miller, a leading landscape architect and industrial town planner, developed the first planned golf course and club house close to the spring. Known as Roebuck Country Club, the name was changed in 1914 to the Roebuck Golf and Automobile Club, and the fame of the prestigious club was well known. Today the water from Roebuck Spring is an original source of water for man-made East Lake and for Village Creek, which flows across Birmingham into the Black Warrior River.
When they were finally finished restoring a garage on the semi-rural property that the newlyweds moved into till they could save enough money to build a main house, my whole family got an invitation to go see Laney and Helen in Roebuck. My brother Tucker was so excited to show Laney his new BB gun and he brought it in the car with him.
Back then the other side of town did not mean a quick jaunt around 459. The trek from Bush Hills near Ensley all the way over to Roebuck took us through town and country. We had to cross the northern outskirts of downtown, then pass the old Terminal train station that was later torn down. I remember riding through a tunnel underneath it, making it a real treat for us kids to go to the east side of town. For a ways the road paralleled the tracks, and if my dad tooted his horn the engineers would blow the train whistle in response.