1 month ago

Miss Fancy the elephant returns triumphant to Birmingham’s Avondale Park

Miss Fancy has returned to her old stomping grounds at Avondale Park in Birmingham.

For about 20 years, the huge elephant reigned supreme at the Avondale Zoo, the city’s first large public zoo. It closed in 1934.

It’s been about eight years since a bronze statue of Miss Fancy, affectionately known as Little Miss Fancy, was “spirited away” after a drunk driver damaged the piece, said Avondale resident Leslie Smukler. After that, the statue’s whereabouts were largely unknown until Smukler investigated and learned the damaged piece was being housed at Legion field, in a storage room.

During the past two months, Birmingham sculptor Mike Chiarito has repaired and retrofitted the beloved statue into a fully operational fountain. Miss Fancy is again the master of her domain, perched atop her new platform at the western edge of Avondale Park.

Miss Fancy takes rightful place back in Birmingham’s Avondale Park from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

On Saturday, June 19, at 5 p.m., Smukler and Chiarito will host a neighborhood celebration as an official “welcome home” to the 200-pound. statue. Those attending will enjoy balloons and treats, as well as a trivia contest with Miss Fancy T-shirts and books as prizes.

For the party, Chiarito invites everyone to bring a jug of water to start the fountain’s system and allow the elephant statue to spray water from its trunk: “I thought it would be neat to have people come out, after the fountain is ready to be turned on, and have them contribute a little bit of water into the fountain so they can have a part in the whole process.”

A plaque in Miss Fancy’s honor will adorn the statue. Smukler noted that it’s a long-awaited celebration: Indeed, it’s been about 84 years since Miss Fancy roamed the park.

From humble beginnings to ‘Fancy’ life

It was around 1913 or 1914 when residents began to talk about building a zoo in Avondale Park, according to “The History of Avondale.” Many stories have circulated about the zoo’s humble beginnings, but the most popular version is that the struggling Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus came to town and its train car was stranded. When that news reached the Birmingham Advertising Club, Browne wrote, its members knew that an elephant was the perfect means to gather a crowd.

A mammoth of flesh and blood was rarely seen in the South. Residents were thrilled to hear that an Indian elephant could be seen in their fair city – if only they could raise the money. So obsessed were the city’s youngsters, Avondale resident Irene Latham wrote in “Meet Miss Fancy,” that eager children held a penny drive. Certainly, the popular Lincoln “wheat pennies” first minted in 1909 were among the 50,000 collected by youngsters. Miss Fancy’s total cost was $2,000.

Thus, the huge mammal found a home at the fledgling Avondale Zoo. For about 20 years – from 1914 to 1934 – the huge elephant was the queen of the zoo.

Queen of the Avondale Zoo

In 1914, the city of Birmingham budgeted $500 for an elephant house. While Miss Fancy was the most popular animal, “The History of Avondale” noted that other exotic species lived at the zoo. There was no charge to enter. Miss Fancy had a happy career at the zoo, with visitors often supplying treats, such as peanuts. Under careful supervision by her zoo caretakers, up to seven youngsters at a time rode on Miss Fancy’s back.

The elephant liked to frolic outside the zoo. Smukler, a licensed massage therapist who has lived in Avondale for 15 years, said that long-time neighbors remember Miss Fancy looking in windows.

“Miss Fancy tossed hay at visitors with her hose-pipe trunk. … Her ears flap-flapped as she and her tail swish-swished as she strolled down neighborhood streets …,” Latham wrote.

In 1931, the elephant escaped from her holding pen and ran through trees on Red Mountain until she was finally caught at Overlook Road.

It’s likely that alcohol fueled some misadventures. In October 2012, “Alabama Heritage” magazine published a story that noted the sale of alcohol was illegal for most of the years Miss Fancy was in Birmingham. The zoo worker John Todd, who cared for the elephant, persuaded city officials to “give him bottles of confiscated illegal liquor to medicate Miss Fancy.”

It’s thought that these bouts of drinking led to Miss Fancy escaping about 12 times. In a comical account in the “History of Avondale,” longtime resident Ollie Powers said that Miss Fancy’s trainer took her to Cannon’s Coal Yard for weighing.

“On one such trip with the huge elephant, they had reached the area of the tennis courts when a red patrol car pulled up and noticed that John was walking unsteadily,” Browne recorded. “In those days, police drove red patrol cars. The police were very familiar with John and the elephant he escorted around. The officers arrested John and put him in the back seat of the patrol car, but then they faced a real dilemma. What could they do with Miss Fancy? They tried – but unsuccessfully – to get the elephant to move, but Miss Fancy only responded to comments from her trainer, so she just refused to budge an inch. Finally, the policeman had to get John out of the patrol car so that he could take Miss Fancy back to her home.”

When the Great Depression struck in 1929, the city of Birmingham could no longer afford Miss Fancy’s food and care. She daily ate an elephant-sized amount of food: up to 170 pounds of hay and up to 5 gallons of grain. She guzzled as much as 110 gallons of water.

With a lack of funds, the zoo continued its decline. In October 1934, the city sold Miss Fancy and several other animals – six monkeys, a bear, a llama and a cow – to Cole Brothers-Clyde Beatty Circus. The city received only $500 for Miss Fancy, one-fourth the original amount paid.

According to “Alabama Heritage,” Miss Fancy toured for two years with the circus. In April 1939, she was sold to the Buffalo Zoo in New York. She lived to be 83.

Not everyone is aware of Miss Fancy, but her legend lives on at Avondale Brewing Co., where her image is used on trucks, labels and T-shirts.

From Avondale resident to community activist

For a long while, after the damaged statue had been removed, Smukler pondered the statue’s disappearance. An admitted elephant lover who calls herself a “do-it-yourselfer,” Smukler was determined to solve the mystery.

“I started asking my friend Claire Parker, who is on the board of Friends of Avondale Park, what had happened to the elephant,” said Smukler, who formerly lived in Los Angeles. “One day last fall, she called and said, ‘I know where she is.’ Someone mentioned the statue was in a storeroom at Legion Field.’ My idea was, if it wasn’t that bad, we could fix it.”

Smukler started a GoFundMe fundraising account to restore Miss Fancy to her original glory. She is friends with Chiarito, a resident of the Forest Park neighborhood in Avondale, and immediately thought of him for the project. Chiarito estimated the entire project – soldering and repair of the elephant’s metalwork, retrofitting as a fountain and building a platform – would cost about $7,000.

“In two weeks, we got everything from $5 to $1,000,” Smukler said. “I care about the community; there is real community here. This is a community project.

“It was in the middle of COVID and was kind of a cool thing to cheer people up,” Smukler said. “I’m flabbergasted by the response. It tells everybody we love her. It’s just been fun at a time when things definitely were not fun.”

Adding artistry to electrical skills

As an artist who sculpts in stone – and one of few in Birmingham who works with bronze and brass – Chiarito had the metal-working abilities to restore the statue. Chiarito is a Renaissance man, of sorts: He also knows the skilled trades very well after working five years under a master plumber, electrician and heating and air specialist.

First, he carefully transported the damaged statue from Legion Field to his workroom in Avondale.

“I got really excited about the process of bringing her back,” said Chiarito, who saw the possibilities of using his engineering and creative skills. “It’s exciting because Little Miss Fancy has been and will remain an icon for Avondale Park. When she’s out here, in her place and  working as a fountain, when kids come by and see Little Miss Fancy … it draws excitement and just imagination.”

It was a different task for Chiarito, who is well-known for his marble sculptures. While working on Miss Fancy, he also was completing a commissioned piece: a botanical-type sculpture that is the centerpiece of a Birmingham couple’s backyard garden. Chiarito made the one-hour drive from Birmingham to Sylacauga – home of some of the world’s finest marble – to select a slab to create his latest verdant statue.

To start the process of converting Little Miss Fancy into a fountain, Chiarito began by making a concrete base for the elephant. He then formed a concrete basin to catch the water, which will recycle the water into a pump that pushes the water out of the statue. The water travels into the basin, funnels into a hole, then pumps into the leg of the statue, where a port is located. The water then shoots from the tusk of the statue.

Using weather-resistant steel, Chiarito fashioned a platform that resembles a circus stand for the elephant. The stand contains the pump’s electrical apparatus. Chiarito bolted the statue to the stand.

“All you have to do is hit a switch, and she’ll be pumping water,” Chiarito said, with a smile. He’s excited to bring the elephant to “life,” when the fountain is flowing. “It’s going to be a sight to see.”

In the long term, the statue will hold many benefits for those who visit Avondale Park, he said.

“Kids are going to do better in school, even,” Chiarito said. “Art in itself helps communities, individuals – it helps things that most people wouldn’t even imagine would be helpful. It’s because it makes you think about what we’re capable of, what we can do individually, in groups, creatively and effectively for society, and for parks, and just togetherness in general.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

27 mins ago

Britt: Border crisis ‘a result of the weakness of the Biden administration’

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Katie Britt on Thursday appeared on News Talk 93.1’s “Dan Morris Show,” where she was interviewed by guest host Apryl Marie Fogel.

During the interview, she was asked by Fogel whether some of the recent turmoil overseas and at the border was attributable to the transition in the executive branch.

“There is no doubt that this is a result of the weakness of the Biden administration,” Britt outlined. “You mentioned the border — it is a total disaster. If you look at the number of people coming over the border, both in May and June we hit 20-year highs. President Trump placed policies and enacted policies that showed strength and got the border under control. I mean, the first thing that we need to do is seal and secure the border. If you look at the safety and security of our nation, but also the humanitarian crisis that is occurring there. We are seeing so many drugs being trafficked over the border. They said they are catching over 3,000 pounds a day, but Apryl Marie, what China is sending over in fentanyl to Mexico, to then come over our border, they said could kill every American four times over.”


“And every bit of this, it’s interesting, when Vice President Harris said, ‘Oh, I’m going go to the border to see what the issue is,’ which obviously took her, how many days did it take her? – How many months? It was absurd. But I thought, ‘You don’t need to go down there to see (the problem), just look in the mirror.’ It’s you, it’s your administration, the Biden administration’s policies. It’s the weakness that you’re showing,” Britt concluded. “We’ve got to put back Trump’s Remain in Mexico policy. We’ve also got to make sure that, as President Trump did, when people came over the border, they knew that they weren’t going to be placed on our welfare system. Those types of policies, that type of strength, that deters people from coming. Same thing in Cuba. Same thing in Israel. I mean, they see weakness in the Biden Administration, and they see that the Democrats are starting to undermine that relationship, and they are taking advantage of it. Make no mistake: this is why we have to have strength in D.C. and in the White House. We must have strength in the Senate, and we must have strength in the House.”

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia

2 hours ago

A new-look Alabama Crimson Tide, the same old Nick Saban

Nick Saban knows you want to know what he thinks. About the prospect of COVID-19 disrupting another college football season. Name, image and likeness rights for college athletes. The revolving door on the transfer portal thanks to the one-time free transfer rule.

Winning a poll-era record seven national championships, six of the past 12, including the 2020 title, has earned the Alabama football coach a bully pulpit. It’s also earned him the right to admit he knows what he doesn’t know.

“I know there’s a lot of interest in a lot of those things,” Saban said Wednesday at SEC Media Days at the Hyatt Regency Wynfrey Hotel. “I almost feel that anything that I say will probably be wrong because there’s no precedent for the consequences that some of the things that we are creating, whether they’re good opportunities, even if they’re good opportunities, there’s no precedent for the consequences that some of these things are going to create, whether they’re good or bad.”

Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban talks NIL, vacationing, sustaining success and a past SEC Media Days memory from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The more college football changes, the more Saban and Alabama adapt to those changes and keep winning. They went undefeated to capture the 2020 national championship despite COVID disruptions such as Saban himself missing the Iron Bowl because he tested positive for the virus, and two games being rescheduled.

Saban explained how Alabama has handled the subject of vaccinations for the disease with its players heading into this season. He broke it down into “a personal decision” for each player and “a competitive decision” on how that choice could affect the team.

How has that approach worked to date?

“I think that we’re pretty close to 90 percent maybe of our players who have gotten the vaccine,” Saban said, “and I’m hopeful that more players make that decision – but it is their decision.”

Speaking a day earlier at a Texas high school coaching convention, Saban weighed in on the newest phenomenon affecting college athletics, NIL rights. He dropped a nugget that Alabama’s heir apparent at quarterback, sophomore Bryce Young, has earned almost a million dollars in endorsements. Saban didn’t expound on Young’s earning power Wednesday but applauded the opportunity for players to make money.

He also questioned the impact that a disparity in NIL earnings could have on the roster “because it’s not going to be equal, and everything that we’ve done in college athletics in the past has always been equal. Everybody’s had an equal scholarship, equal opportunity.”

“Now that’s probably not going to be the case. Some positions, some players will have more opportunities than others. And how that’s going to impact your team, our team, the players on the team, I really can’t answer because we don’t have any precedent for it.

“I know that we’re doing the best we can to try to get our players to understand the circumstance they’re in, the opportunity they have, and how those opportunities are not going to be equal for everybody, and it will be important for our team’s success that people are not looking over their shoulder at what somebody else does or doesn’t do.”

What Alabama does in trying to compete for another championship without 10 NFL draft picks from last year’s team, six of whom were selected in the first round, including Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, will reflect the program’s ability to adapt to the new era of college football “free agency.” Tennessee transfer linebacker Henry To’oTo’o, a potential “quarterback-type guy on defense” in Saban’s words, is one of the newcomers expected to make an immediate impact on a team that will start the season in a much different place than last season.

With eight new starters on offense and a new offensive coordinator and play-caller in former NFL head coach Bill O’Brien, the experience this time around is on defense. Just the same, Saban said, after setting school records last season with 48.5 points and 541.6 yards a game, “we’re not changing offenses.”

“We’ve got a good offense,” he said. “We’ve got a good system. We’ve got a good philosophy. Bill has certainly added to that in a positive way, and we’ll probably continue to make some changes. But from a terminology standpoint, from a player standpoint in our building, our offense was very, very productive, and we want to continue to run the same type of offense and feature the players that we have who are playmakers who can make plays, and I think Bill will do a good job of that.”

So as a new season awaits, Saban and Alabama find themselves in a familiar place in a new world, trying to defend a national championship with a new cast of featured players and assistant coaches. Saban called it “the penalty for success.”

“The challenge is you’ve got to rebuild with a lot of new players who will be younger, have new roles, less experience, and how do they respond to these new roles? That’s why rebuilding is a tremendous challenge,” Saban said. “That’s why it’s very difficult to repeat.”

Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban speaks at SEC Media Days 2021 from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Saban, who has won back-to-back national championships just once in 2011 and 2012, is heading into his 15th season at Alabama, his 20th in the SEC, including his five years at LSU. The SEC coach next in line in seniority is Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, who’s entering his ninth year. Eight of the league’s head coaches are in their first or second year.

Someone asked Saban the secret to his longevity.

“I think that’s simple,” he said. “You’ve got to win.”

Mission accomplished. Again and again and again.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 hours ago

In Alabama, conservation is for the birds

Whether it’s the Yellowhammer State or the Cotton State, whatever you call the state of Alabama, an abundance of birds call it home. “Yellowhammer” in fact refers to the common name for the northern flicker woodpecker — which just happens to be the state bird of Alabama.

Specifically, coastal Alabama is home to a treasure trove of avian species that nest on the beach and use the area for stopover on their migratory journeys around the world. Coastal Alabama is a particularly vulnerable area, as well as the other four Gulf state coasts. The Gulf’s coast is subject to battering from hurricanes and storm surge, land loss from a lack of sediment transfers, and increased development — making coastal restoration projects all that more important.

The incredible amount of bird habitat in the Yellowhammer State is good news for outdoors enthusiasts. Birding trails and hunting opportunities are prevalent, and per Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism, birding as a sector of tourism is huge. Roughly $17.3 billion is spent on wildlife-watching trips and related expenses, with an estimated 20 million Americans traveling for birding.


“While our 32-mile stretch of sugar-white sand beaches is what draws people to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach for their vacations, the broader nature and outdoors are part of our core marketing focus, especially in the last year with the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Beth Gendler, Chief Operating Officer of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism. “The Tourism Office learned during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill just how vital it is that we protect our special environment for residents and visitors to enjoy and appreciate in the future. Birding and bird conservation efforts are a key component of this because our area is part of the winter and spring migration routes.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) Gulf Restoration Office is working to implement projects ensuring these opportunities continue to exist far into the future. Within these efforts, some Service biologists are focused on land restoration, while others are looking to the sky — literally — as they track birds’ migration patterns.

Dauphin Island’s West End

Amid settlement negotiations and cleanup efforts from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which occurred in April 2010, one spit of land remained in focus for some Service biologists. Roughly 840 acres of coastal habitat, which until recently was privately owned, is known as the West End of Dauphin Island. Located near the mouth of Mobile Bay, Dauphin Island is a 15-mile long barrier island. The U.S. Census Bureau has designated the area as 166-square-miles, which includes about 96% open water. It offers invaluable habitat for coastal bird populations.

A major milestone on the path to restoring the Gulf of Mexico was marked recently as the state of Alabama acquired the West End of Dauphin Island. The acquisition conserves habitat for coastal bird populations that are dependent on the area. The Dauphin Island West End Acquisition project was approved as part of the Alabama Restoration Plan III and Environmental Assessment in December 2019. The 840 acres is a diverse coastal habitat made up of dunes, marshes, and beaches. Sea turtle and several bird species use these habitats for nesting. Migratory birds use the area as a prime resting spot during migrations. The Service’s team will work in close coordination with the State of Alabama and Mobile County to restore this valuable property.

“Public ownership of the West End of Dauphin Island will allow for the protection and management of its habitats,” said Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “Through the collaborative work of the Alabama Trustee Implementation Group, and the local stakeholders, the acquisition of this land will have a tremendous benefit for coastal and water birds injured by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”

Among the bird species present at the West End are the piping plover and red knot. These two shorebirds are a threatened species within their Alabama range, and are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Piping plovers frequent Alabama’s quiet shoreline throughout fall, winter and spring. Red knots are known for their more than 9,300-mile annual migration, one of the longest-distance migrants in the animal kingdom. Conserving this parcel of land will ensure that the sensitive coastal habitat is protected for years to come.

Tracking birds on the go

Conserving bird habitat is vital for species conservation, but so is knowing where Alabama’s coastal birds are going and staying. A project to track seasonal movements and habitat use of two species of colonial wading birds is providing valuable information for future planning to restore wading bird species in Alabama still recovering from the Deepwater Horizon spill. The project relies on the use of electronic transmitters attached to captured birds.

The Colonial Nesting Wading Bird Tracking and Habitat Use Assessment project has been underway since last July. Biologists will use the information to better understand important colonial wading bird foraging, resting and nesting areas in coastal Alabama which will allow for more efficient and effective restoration.

“This project gives us an important way to understand the many impacts that affect colonial nesting wading bird populations, including human disturbances such as the Deepwater Horizon spill. The data provided through this project will help us to more effectively restore bird species injured by the spill,” said Kate Healy, a Service biologist who works in the Gulf restoration office.

15 hours ago

WBRC’s James-Paul Dice signing off after 26-year career in television

One of the most familiar faces on Alabama television is signing off the air tonight.

WBRC-TV’s James-Paul Dice has been the chief meteorologist at the Birmingham TV powerhouse for 13 of his 26-year career in television.

The beloved weatherman is starting a new career as a corporate pilot, flying Gulfstream IV business jets for Birmingham-based Drummond Company.

Dice will deliver his final weather forecast Friday night at 10 p.m. on WBRC TV Fox-6.

In a tweet, WBRC thanked Dice and wished him well on his new journey.

17 hours ago

Gov. Ivey announces final recipients of Public School and College Authority bond

Governor Kay Ivey (R-AL) on Friday announced the remaining $23.5 million of the Public School and College Authority (PSCA) bond issue to five entities across the Yellowhammer State.

“I’m pleased to announce the more than $23.5 million to worthy infrastructural projects and upgrades to our educational facilities,” Governor Ivey said. “These remaining PSCA funds will make needed improvements to our public educational facilities, which will have a lasting impact on future generations of Alabamians. I am extremely grateful to Alabama’s retiring Finance Director Kelly Butler for his diligence on this project to ensure we are investing wisely in meaningful education and workforce efforts.”

“There is no question these dollars will provide a positive return on investment to the citizens of Alabama,” Kelly Butler said. “Despite the challenges of the last year, Governor Ivey and the members of the Alabama Legislature displayed great leadership by pursuing this important and meaningful initiative to transform our educational institutions.”

The PSCA projects announced today are as follows:


University of Alabama:

The $16.5 million for the Smart Communities & Innovation Building will provide the critical research infrastructure for the transportation industry in Alabama. Ivey said the investment will position Alabama to be a national leader in innovation relating to mobility and be able to power and connect smart and resilient communities. This project will facilitate a public-private partnership between the state, the University of Alabama, Alabama Power Company and Mercedes-Benz U.S. International with the likelihood of additional partnerships in the near future.

Senators Greg Reed (R-Jasper), Gerald Allen (R-Northport) and Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro) applauded the announcement.

Reed says the investments will strengthen the state’s research efforts relating to automotive manufacturing.

“I fully believe that this investment by the state will modernize Alabama’s research and development in the next generation of electric vehicle technology in a manner responsive to industry and with an eye for future growth,” said Reed.

Allen praised the teamwork that was necessary to make the project come to fruition.

“This is great news for the Tuscaloosa community, the University of Alabama and our state as a whole,” said Allen. “A number of highly motivated people and organizations have come together and created a mission to set our state on a path towards a bright future in this important, fast-growing industry.”

Singleton says the investment will place the state in a strong position to supply global markets.

“Alabama will be on the forefront of this technology, which will lead to new and greener jobs for the people of our state,” said Singleton. “The international community is demanding battery-powered vehicles and this investment by the state will make West Alabama a global leader in this field.”

Snead State Community College:

$4 million to assist in establishing a regional workforce training center in Marshall County.

Talladega County Schools:

$1.75 million to create the East Alabama Rural Innovation and Training Hub.

Alabama A&M University:

$508,754.17 to be applied toward various capital improvement and deferred maintenance projects.

Alabama State University:

$763,600.00 for the Southern Normal School in Brewton (Escambia County) is the oldest African-American boarding school in Alabama. This investment will provide immediate improvements to seven buildings on the campus.

During the 2020 State of the State, Governor Ivey announced her support of SB 242, the PSCA Bond Issue for public schools to use toward construction, safety improvement or technology upgrades. The PSCA is comprised of Governor Kay Ivey, State Finance Director Kelly Butler and Alabama Superintendent of Education Dr. Eric Mackey.

SB 242 authorized the PSCA to sell up to $1.25B in bonds and allocated money to every city and county K-12 school system and to higher education institutions. 73% of the funds went to K-12 schools and 27% to two-and four-year colleges.

Due to low interest rates, the bond sale resulted in the PSCA receiving over $300 million in premium revenues. The true interest cost of the bonds is 2.145% over the 20-year repayment period.

Dylan Smith is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News