Library director Dr. Shirley Spears called it one of the proudest moments for the library staff and board when almost 83 years of Avondale history was made available via a keyword searchable database on the Internet.
“It took a partnership to bring this massive project to fruition. The library received an LSTA federal grant from the Alabama Public Library Service and a grant from The Comer Foundation for the digitalization of the 29,998 images that made up ‘The Avondale Sun,’” Spears said.
“We will always be grateful to Mr. Stephen Felker for entrusting this invaluable source of Alabama history to our library and to Mark Tapley for getting those papers right on over to Comer Library.”
Shipping the company newspapers off to Provo, Utah, and getting the digitized records back was a big step for the library, but this was not the end of the process, Spears said.
“We had to find a way to get the digitized newspapers on the Internet and a way to keep them there so people could use them for pleasure and for research,” she said.
Again a partnership made access possible. Spears said the Birmingham Public Library, renowned for its history archives and helpful staff, came to Comer Library’s rescue.
“Library director Renee Blalock, along with librarian Melinda Shelter and former director George Stewart were eager to see ‘The Avondale Suns’ available for public use. So the staff of the Birmingham Public Library assumed the task of getting the records on the Internet and they generously agreed to host them. Raising the considerable funds for this project would have taken awhile for Comer Library, so we appreciate the helping hand with this worthwhile project,” Spears said.
The first issue of Avondale’s inter-Mill newspaper was published in Birmingham as “A Paper Without A Name” June 8, 1923. Donald Comer announced a contest for the best names suggested, with a first prize of $5, a second prize of $3, and a third prize of $1.
Comer noted the love of the people for those three community papers — Avondale, Mignon and Eufaula — and decided that a paper featuring local news from each community, as well as the general news, would be of interest to all. He felt sharing news would bring the mill communities closer together, Spears said. The workers were excited about the newspaper as a place to showcase accomplishments — a reward for those who had done something worthwhile.
Comer said the news about friends and neighbors should come from the employees themselves, stressing that if the readers learned too much on Editor Tippen, “a preponderance of general news — state and foreign will be the results.”
The first issue of the newspaper under the wining name “The Avondale Sun,” published Jan. 4, 1924, sported a rising sun with the rays of sun named for the mills — Mignon, Pell City, Sycamore, Birmingham, Bevelle and Eufaula.
The outpouring of news from these six mill towns proved Comer was on the right track and “The Avondale Sun” became so much more than just a company newspaper. The sections from the various mills had family news, school news, sports news, letters, jokes, social news, obituaries, recipes, household hints, letters and photos.
In addition, short stories, under the headers of “Matrimonial Adventures” and “Daddy’s Evening Fairy Tale,” had a prominent place along with articles on safety, health and finances.
Comer, longtime president and chairman of the board of Avondale Mills, was the son of Braxton Bragg Comer, the 33rd governor of Alabama. Gov. Comer had been known as the “education governor.” Many of his relatives express the sentiment that his son, Donald, was carrying out his father’s progressive practices by providing interesting, readable material for families to have in their homes during a time when illiteracy was high and books and newspapers were scarce, Spears said.
“Over the years, ‘The Avondale Sun’ had many fine editors — Bill Irby, Martha Donze, Graham Byrum and Kelley Wasserman — to name a few. ‘The Sun’ also had the ongoing interest of management, but none were more committed to the newspaper than J. Craig Smith, a grandson of Gov. Comer. Smith had wanted to work for a large newspaper, but after he found out how low the pay was for the reporters at the ‘Atlanta Constitution,’ he is quoted as saying, ‘I came back to Avondale and went to work,’” Spears said.
Smith started out as a squidge (cotton weigher) under his Uncle Donald, but he worked his way up through the ranks and served as president and chief executive officer of Avondale from 1951 to 1970. Smith, Spears said, had newsprint in his blood and wrote editorials for “The Avondale Sun” for several decades and proudly served as associate editor.
“Editor Bill Irby dubbed J. Craig Smith’s editorials as concise, clear and to the point. Smith wrote the expected pieces about the textile industry, business and government, but he was unafraid to tackle controversial subjects. His articles were often picked up by other newspapers and periodicals nationwide. So the company newspaper, intended for Avondale associates, reached an audience and exerted an influence far beyond the boundaries of the mill towns,” Spears said.
Sylacauga’s public library was founded in 1936 and received a WPA grant to build a new library, which opened in 1939. The Comer family again upheld Gov. Comer’s love of learning by furnishing the new facility and offering support for this important educational resource. Library officials voted to change the name of the library to B.B. Comer Memorial Library in memory of the late Gov. Braxton Bragg Comer.
Longtime library trustee Harry Brown Sr., said, “We are proud to be a part of saving the legacy of Avondale Mills. That textile dynasty meant so much to our town and to other small towns and it was such an important part of our state and our nation’s history.”
Richard Comer, great-great-grandson of the governor, said, “I appreciate Mr. Felker giving the old newspapers to Comer Library and I’m so delighted that they have been able to complete the digitization project and get the information on the Internet. I have already used the link that is on the library home page and found information on the old Cowikee plant Eufaula. ‘The Avondale Sun’ covered the Cowikee Mills plants before they were even a part of Avondale. There is just a wealth of information in this database and it is available to anyone, anywhere in the world. The stories are so much more than just mill history since they reflect a segment of Alabama culture during the time in which they were written. The Comer family is very proud of the library’s accomplishment.”
Spears encouraged everyone to take a look at the articles and the photographs in “The Avondale Sun” newspapers.
“These papers depict a way of life that no longer exists. The hard copies are brittle and yellow, but digitization preserved those beautiful memories forever and made them available to everyone with just a click of the mouse,” Spears said.