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Stars fell on Alabama

60 years later

By Emmett Burnett

Sculpted by Don Lawler, the “Falling Star” monument, standing in front of the Sylacauga Municipal Complex, is the only known statue dedicated to a meteorite striking a human. Photo by Emmett Burnett
Sculpted by Don Lawler, the “Falling Star” monument, standing in front of the Sylacauga Municipal Complex, is the only known statue dedicated to a meteorite striking a human.
Photo by Emmett Burnett

Ann Hodges was napping in her living room when the meteorite hit. With an estimated speed exceeding 200 mph, the grapefruit-sized intergalactic rock punctured her roof, bounced off a radio console, and hit the Sylacauga woman in the thigh and hand. She recovered from the injury but never overcame the visitor from outer space. Sixty years have passed since Sylacauga’s collision course. On Nov. 30, 1954, around lunchtime, townspeople heard a massive explosion. Many thought it was a nearby factory. Some believed it was the Russians. No one expected an incoming meteor, until they looked up. Former Alabama Natural History Museum Assistant Director (retired) Dr. John C. Hall was the curator of the rock. He has lectured frequently about Sylacauga’s close encounter. “People actually witnessed the space phenomenon in the middle of day, broad daylight,” he recalled. “It was visible in Tuscaloosa, well over 100 miles away.” The Birmingham News reported a heavenly fireball almost in unison with the explosion, witnessed in three states. Scientists theorized it was a sonic boom created by a meteorite’s traveling faster than the speed of sound: destination, Sylacauga.

Thirty-one-year-old Ann Hodges had a different perspective. “I thought my time had come,” she told the media. In a way, she was right.

Randy McCready, Director of the Alabama Museum of Natural History, Tuscaloosa, holds “The Hodges Meteorite.” He is standing by the radio console the meteorite hit before striking Ann Hodges on Nov. 30, 1954. Photo by Emmett Burnett
Randy McCready, Director of the Alabama Museum of Natural History, Tuscaloosa, holds “The Hodges Meteorite.” He is standing by the radio console the meteorite hit before striking Ann Hodges on Nov. 30, 1954. Photo by Emmett Burnett

“Mrs. Hodges was a small town, country girl,” says Hall. “There was no one more unqualified to handle the media onslaught than she was.” Life Magazine featured her as did National Geographic. She was flown to New York City to appear on the nationally televised game show, I’ve Got a Secret. The Hodges meteorite not only invaded her home, it invaded her life.

“You have to remember, this was 1954,” Hall continued. “There was no text messaging or internet. News was slow. Back then most people’s knowledge of outer space was from science fiction movies. Add to that we were in the middle of the Cold War with Russia and UFO sightings.” People assumed the worst, and so did the United States Air Force.

Hours after the meteorite hit, a military helicopter landed at a nearby high school campus. Officers demanded Hodges surrender her piece of the rock. She did.

It was transported to Ohio’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for analysis. After careful study, military scientists concluded it was a meteorite. Meanwhile, Hodges and husband Hewlett realized the potential to make money from their new found fame. The meteorite could be worth a fortune. Hodges’ landlady, Birdie Guy, agreed, but felt the stone belonged to her. Everyone hired lawyers.

Guy claimed that since the object crashed through her property she was the rightful owner. After many expensive legal battles, the court agreed. But by then, interest waned and both parties had strained savings for legal fees. The landlady sold the meteorite back to Hodges in 1955 for $500. Sylacauga’s extraterrestrial, which one year earlier caused a local panic, was seized by the military and received worldwide press coverage, was now the Hodges’ home doorstop. An Indiana attorney representing Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution visited. He unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a selling price for the meteorite with Hewlett Hodges. “But Hewlett felt the Yankee attorney was trying to take advantage of him with a low price offer,” says Hall. “The two had words and the attorney left.” But not quite.

Actual size, at 7 by 5 inches and weighing 7.5 pounds, the Hodges meteorite is estimated to be billions of years old. It once traveled faster than the speed of light. Photo by Emmett Burnett
Actual size, at 7 by 5 inches and weighing 7.5 pounds, the Hodges meteorite is estimated to be billions of years old.
Photo by Emmett Burnett

Julius K. McKinney, an African-American sharecropper, lived nearby. Shortly after the Hodges meteorite crashed, McKinney was driving his mule wagon down a dirt road when suddenly the animals stopped. Shaken, jittery, and nervous, the mules refused to pass a small black stone in the road. McKinney took the mysterious rock to the only federal employee he trusted, his mailman. The two concluded the acquisition must be related to the Hodges meteorite and might be worth a lot of money. McKinney lawyered up. After the rock was authenticated, he sold it for an undisclosed sum but enough to buy a new house, new car, and property. “McKinney was the only one to ever profit from the meteorite,” Hall says. And the McKinney meteorite remains in the Smithsonian Institution to this day. Estimated to be as old as recorded time, the Hodges meteorite is still displayed at the Alabama Museum of Natural History in Tuscaloosa. “It is our wow factor,” said the museum’s director, Randy McCready, about the mysterious black object that traveled millions of miles before stopping in Alabama. “Even six decades later we receive inquiries from around the world.” The 7 by 5-inch oblong other-worldly rock has an almost eerie presence, resting by the Hodges radio with its 1954 damage marks clearly visible. “Ann thought it was cursed,” says McCready. Maybe it was. In 1967 Ann and Hewlett Hodges divorced, due in part to stress caused by the incident, publicity and litigation. Both agreed they wished the rendezvous with space never happened. She died in 1972 at age 49. Hewlett Hodges died in 2011. Ann Hodges is the only authenticated person ever struck by a meteorite. Her Decatur physician, Dr. Moody Jacobs, is the only known medical responder to treat a meteorite injury. The Hodges home, featured in press coverage around the world because of something outside the world, has long been demolished. Ironically, the home stood near the Comet Drive-In Movie Theater. But a statue, ‘Falling Star,’ stands on the grounds of the Sylacauga Municipal Complex. Sculpted from the area’s fine marble by artist Don Lawler, it is the only known monument in the world dedicated to a meteorite strike, the day stars fell on Alabama.

A soldier’s story

A sculpture by James Butler at the site of Croix Ridge Farm in the Marne Valley in France was given by Rod Frazer in honor of his father, who was wounded in the 1918 battle there.
A sculpture by James Butler at the site of Croix Ridge Farm in the Marne Valley in France was given by Rod Frazer in honor of his father, who was wounded in the 1918 battle there.

By John Brightman Brock

A former soldier has told a story of war from experience – his father’s and his.

Nimrod "Rod" Thompson Frazer
Nimrod “Rod” Thompson Frazer
Learn more from the author at Archives exhibit
The Museum of Alabama’s new temporary World War I exhibit, “Alabamians and the Great War,” opens in the museum’s new Alabama Treasures gallery on Nov. 9 at the Alabama Department of Archives and History, 624 Washington Ave., Montgomery. Author Nimrod T. “Rod” Frazer will talk at 2 p.m. about his new book, Send the Alabamians.
The new gallery is filled with actual relics from the war years of 1914-1918, and is highlighted by graphic panels depicting life on the front lines. “It was a war that affected everyone, whether you had a relative in the war or you didn’t,” Archives and History Director Steve Murray says. “We have terrific things – from uniforms to the flags of some of these units. These are beautiful banners, bright colors and in some way are special in conveying visually the process of Alabamians re-entering the union. We are talking about a period that is barely 50 years removed from the end of the Civil War.”
The exhibit is presented in honor of Frazer by his colleagues at Enstar USA, Inc. With so many contributions, “We have some artifacts that we don’t have room to display,” Murray says, so a rotation plan is being devised.
For more information, visit www.archives.alabama.gov, or call 334-353-3312.

The son, a decorated officer who once served in Korea, pursued an education. His father, country-boy poor, had only the glory of being among the heroes of often-forgotten World War I.

Frazer_jktfinal_copy

Almost a century later, the younger soldier set out to make things right.

For more than seven years, Nimrod “Rod” Thompson Frazer, a retired investment banker from Montgomery, researched and documented his book, “Send The Alabamians,” published in May by the University of Alabama Press. He tells the journey of his dad, Will Frazer, and 3,700 other Alabamians in the 167th U.S. Infantry Regiment of the famed 42nd “Rainbow Division.”

“Our scholars and educators have for the most part ignored a very important part of Alabama history that was written with the blood of mostly poor 3,720 small town and rural Alabamians. Real combat soldiers, they fought with distinction in France in 1918,” Frazer said recently in an interview from his home. “The last serious book about the regiment was written in 1919. I set out to make a fully authentic account of the combat of the 167th Infantry Regiment in World War I.”

But for Frazer, this is not just a historical account.

“Will was dead when I wrote the book,” Frazer said. “As a common soldier, he probably knew little of what was going on, only that he was in all the fighting.” A handsome man at 20, proud and tall, Will wrote a fine hand, but admitted to only seven grades of schooling. He joined the Alabama National Guard at age 19, in 1916, and served on the Mexican border before going to France as a corporal and squad leader.

Will Frazer was wounded early in the battle to take the Aisne-Marne, Croix Rouge Farm, a fight that raged from July 24-26, 1918; 162 Alabama soldiers were killed in just one four-hour period.

During the attack, Will Frazer crawled into a shell hole after being hit twice in the upper part of his right leg. “Will was in the hole with a French soldier and a dead German,” Frazer wrote. “Eventually, the French soldier motioned for Will to stick his head up to see the Germans’ location. Will motioned back for the French soldier to do so. He complied and was killed by a single bullet to his head.”

Will’s regiment, in the war’s only hand-to-hand fighting, halted the death toll that had claimed millions of lives. In the climactic battle of Croix Rouge Farm in France, the regiment incurred the most Alabama losses since Gettysburg.

Their division, so-named after Douglas MacArthur said it stretched like a rainbow across the United States, was one of the first American divisions committed to full combat after President Woodrow Wilson broke off relations. The division, always led on point by the 167th, “the Alabam,” would turn the tide of victory. After the armistice was signed, newspapers called them “the Immortals” upon their return to Alabama in May 1919. Their fame, it was thought, would be timeless.

The author, 84, saw significant combat in Korea, gaining the Silver Star and Presidential Unit Citation for gallantry in action and service. The father of five, two of whom “wore the uniform,” later successfully transformed The Enstar Group, became successful in business real estate and was inducted into the Alabama Business Hall of Fame in 2008.

Memories of his dad, his youth and a forgotten world war still linger with Frazer. For a time, Frazer walked the battlefields of France. Not a historian, he admits that researching and writing the book was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

“My mother was something of a hero worshiper, which is probably why she married him,” Frazer said about his father. “They lived in Greenville until she left him shortly before my seventh birthday, in 1936. My early years were spent in the Montgomery household of my maternal grandfather for whom I was named. He regularly sent me to visit my father but I never again lived in my father’s household. Our common bond was interest in the military and the 167th Infantry.

“Not talkative about anything, his only glory came from serving in (nearly) every battle of the 167th. Our most meaningful conversations came when I was on the way to Korea and when I returned home,” he said. “By then I was going to Columbia, then Harvard. Will was ashamed of his poor education and told me he had regretted it every day for 50 years.

Will had tried operating a storefront laundry and dry cleaning business, and eventually lost it. Every day, he had battled alcoholism, and he died at age 77 in Greenville.

“But this war … gave these boys glory,” Frazer said of his dad’s regiment. “It was glory. For some of these boys, it was the only glory they had ever known.”

Frazer used an impressive amount of primary sources. Research took him to France seven times, to the National Archives four times, to Carlisle Barracks, the Mexican Border and the Philippines. The final draft of Frazer’s book submitted to the University of Alabama Press had about 1,400 footnotes and many direct quotes from the soldiers themselves.

This summer, 200 people attended a commemoration – as they do each year – of “The Alabam” regiment in France. They laid wreaths near a statue memorializing the regiment, at the site of the Croix Rouge Farm battle. Frazer earlier had bought the battlefield and deeded it to the nearby Town of Fere en Tardenois, to carry on the annual remembrance.

“Send The Alabamians” is a graphic, intense return to the machine gun-strafed battlefields and mustard gas-filled trenches of France. These men, ages 18 to 28, most of whom had never traveled out of Alabama, became the point men for Gen. John J. Pershing’s victorious war effort. “In time of war, send me all the Alabamians you can get, but in time of peace for Lord’s sake, send them to somebody else!” quipped Gen. Edward H. Plummer, who once commanded the men.

The author will host a book talk at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9 at Alabama Department of Archives and History’s Montgomery museum, in conjunction with the opening of the new “Alabama Treasures” exhibit.

 

Iron Chef

CornBread_Over

By Jennifer Kornegay

Cast iron cookware: the must-have tool for your Southern kitchen

|Click here to view video of Eddie Brandon in his kitchen|

I cook a lot, and a quick inventory of my kitchen equipment proves it. I’ve got expensive pots and pans, a fabulous immersion blender, several sizes of food processors, a fancy peppermill and more. But if a meteor struck my kitchen and destroyed it all, there’s only one thing I’d truly miss: my grandmother’s 10-inch cast iron skillet.

I love the weight of it in my hand, and the memories it evokes each and every time I pull it from its resting place in a bottom cabinet. It’s a time machine that transports me back to my grandmother’s aproned side, helping her whip up whatever deliciousness she was making.

But in truth, if a meteor did hit my home, that skillet is the one thing that would probably withstand the blast. Cast iron is almost indestructible, and that’s one reason cast-iron skillets are handed down through generations. The other reason? They are must-have tools for creating several staples of Southern cuisine.

Eddie Brandon cooking with his cast iron collection in front.
Eddie Brandon cooking with his cast iron collection in front.
Why cook with cast iron?

Your grandmother knew what she was doing. Cast iron is the original non-stick cookware, meaning you can use far less oil or fat when preparing everything from chicken thighs to veggies in your skillet, but that’s only one of its health benefits. The other two are the lack of chemicals often found in modern non-stick pans, and the fact that cast iron is just that: iron. Your skillet will leach a small amount of the mineral into whatever you’re cooking, adding a little extra iron to your nutritional intake.

The real reason to cook with cast iron is taste. Iron is an excellent conductor, and since it heats evenly and consistently, it’s far easier to get a good sear on meat and keep those flavorful juices in. It’s also better at browning cornbread and crisping the crust on fried chicken.

Eddie Brandon, a staking engineer for the North Alabama Electric Co-op in Stevenson, Ala., knows this well. An avid cook, he’s also a cast-iron skillet collector. His cornbread has become famous among his co-workers, a treat they beg him to bring to the office over and over again. And he couldn’t do it without cast iron.

“I started using cast iron because my mom and grandmother did,” he says, “but I keep using it because for cornbread, there’s just no other pan or skillet that will do it right.” He stresses that only cast iron can bake cornbread evenly, and only cast iron delivers that beloved tawny brown crust. “That’s the best part,” he says.

But he cooks far more than cornbread in his many cast iron containers. His collection has grown to include close to 40 pieces of varying sizes and shapes. Other favorite dishes he makes in cast iron are fried catfish (in a Dutch oven), creamed corn and fried potatoes (both in a skillet). “They all get a better flavor in cast iron,” he says.

How to care for cast iron

It’s hard to argue with all the reasons to use cast iron, yet some people still shy away from it, probably due to concerns over its care. But that’s a mistake. Once you know the basics, cast iron is as easy, if not easier, to clean and keep as any other tool in your culinary arsenal.

First, you can wash it, and yes, you can even use soap, although Eddie Brandon doesn’t recommend it. The best way to clean cast iron is to run hot water on it while it’s still warm (but cool enough to handle) and wipe it out with a dry dishcloth.

You can use a bit of mild dish soap, but you really don’t need it. Most food bits should come off clean with the water, and if you need to give them a little nudge, use a soft brush or make a paste with Kosher salt and give it a rub.

There are a few don’ts: Don’t soak or submerge your cast iron in water and don’t put it in the dishwasher. And a few do’s: Do feel free to use metal utensils with your cast iron cookware (one more way it’s better than non-stick pans), and do dry it completely before putting it away to stave off rust, and wipe a little more oil on the inside.

But your cast iron skillet is already rusty you say? No problem. You can revive it quick with a bit of fine steel wool and another quick rinse.

“But I’ve tried using my handed-down skillet, and things stick!” you insist. Again, no big deal. That means it’s time to re-season, which is simple. Give it a good rinse and dry it. Add some vegetable oil or shortening, spreading it around the inside with a paper towel, and bake upside down in a 350-degree oven for about an hour. Place a sheet pan with aluminum foil on the rack below your skillet to catch any drips, and let the skillet cool in the oven once the hour is up.

“Well, I got a new cast-iron skillet, so how can I tell if it is seasoned already?” If it came from Lodge, the most popular and prolific maker of cast iron in the country, it has been seasoned. If not, follow the same steps for re-seasoning to get it ready for cooking.

What to cook in cast iron
(other than corn bread)

Join Eddie and break out of your corn bread box. You can cook almost anything in cast iron: steak (the skillet stays screaming hot so it sears meat perfectly), grilled cheese sandwiches (thanks to even heating), the dishes Eddie is so fond of, and even desserts. Try this easy recipe that pairs butter with sugar and fall’s favorite fruit to create a topping for pound cake, ice cream, cardboard, whatever.

Eddie’s Can’t Fail Corn Bread

1 cup Martha White Enriched Cornmeal
(NOTE: Not cornmeal mix)
1 egg
1½ cups buttermilk

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Put enough oil to cover the bottom of your skillet. Eddie recommends bacon grease. Put the skillet and fat in the oven and let it get hot. Mix the cornmeal, egg and buttermilk in a bowl. Pour the batter into the hot grease and place back in the oven for 20-25 minutes or until the top is thoroughly browned.

FriedApp_500

Skillet Sugared Apples

3-4 large apples, any variety
3 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg

Core the apples and slice them into thin wedges, approximately ¼ inch wide. Heat your cast iron skillet over medium heat and add the butter. Cook the apples in the melted butter for 6 to 7 minutes or until fork tender. Add the sugar and spices and stir. Cook for another 4 to 5 minutes or until the sugar creates a thick syrup. Remove from heat and let cool.