Imagine driving 20 minutes outside of Birmingham into the quiet rural hills and discovering St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church with a traditional onion-shaped steeple. How did Slovak immigrants settle in Brookside?
In the early 20th century, Sloss Iron and Steel Company recruited Eastern European miners skilled in advanced mining technology. Brookside served as the headquarters for four Sloss-owned mines in Cardiff, Coalburg, Brazil and Brookside. At the turn of the 20th century, Brookside had advanced equipment and proudly stood at the forefront of mining technology in the Birmingham District.
In August, residents and former residents gathered at the modern Brookside Community Center to share family stories and photos. Staci Simmons Glover, UAB history professor, and Pam Elise Jones, Jefferson State Community College history professor, have family roots in the Brookside area and presented their research on the cultural history of the area. Dr. Jack Bergstresser, an industrial archeologist, showed images of the beehive coke ovens that still remain hidden in kudzu on private land above Brookside. Following the practice of the time, the mined coal was processed into coke in rows of beehive ovens banked into the hillside below the mine opening.
In the early 1900s, Brookside had a Slavic dance hall and international community. By the 1950s, Brookside was a thriving community with a swimming pool, two movie theaters, clothing stores, skating rink and, of course, baseball. Residents shared stories of an idyllic childhood in the “Mayberry” small town, where no one needed to go to Birmingham to shop.
The mayor remembers rowing a boat into one mine as a boy on summer afternoons. From research into her family’s history, one woman brought a 200-page documentation of the local cemeteries, one dating back to 1846. Two other ladies shared photos of their forefathers, a mine inspector from Scotland and Harris Bottling Company entrepreneur as well as a musician in a family brass band.
In the 1970s, the local school burned down and the local Catholic Church consolidated and moved to another town. In May 2003, flooding destroyed the municipal complex, the last two grocery stores, the restaurant and 51 historic homes. Today the mayor is working to redevelop a historic village and highlight the natural beauty of the Five Mile Creek Historic Trail. He has proposed a mural in the new Town Hall rotunda to reflect the unique mining and immigrant history of Brookside.
The small working-class town has survived on centuries of old family ties and the natural beauty of Five Mile Creek. At the next community meeting on October 3, Staci Glover will be speaking on the Slovak community at Brookside, and Pam Jones will be talking about mining strikes in 1908 and the violence that occurred. Jack Bergstresser will add the archaeologist’s perspective.
On Saturday, November 7, and Sunday, November 8, enjoy the annual St. Nicholas Russian Food Festival in Brookside.
Pictured: Brookside’s St. Nicholas Russion Orthodox Church, then and now.
Written by: Susan P.