90-Year Old Coppersmith Still Turning Out Lanterns

At age 90, Bill Paulk is still hand crafting copper lanterns.

When Bill Paulk opened his coppersmith company in 1985 at age 64 he says it was as “a retirement business.”  Now 26 years later at age 90, Paulk gives no hint of real retirement.

“But my wife doesn’t want me to advertise because it might bring in too much business,” says Paulk.  The shop is a one man operation and Paulk turns out a hand crafted copper lantern about every four days.

His shop in Mobile, Alabama, has supplied ornamental street lighting for subdivision all over the country.

“I even have some of my lanterns in a residential development in Kuwait,” says Paulk, who explained that one afternoon a guy drove up to his shop in a big black Mercedes.  “He got out and walked around for a while looking at the different styles of lanterns.  For a while he didn’t seem real interested, but then he ordered a bunch of lanterns and peeled off a wad one-hundred dollar bills to pay for them.  He shipped them to Kuwait where he was developing a subdivision.”

Paulk’s lanterns sell for a minimum of $350 with the top models bringing well over $1,000.

Before “retirement,” Paulk spent his career in sheet metal work.  He worked with several local companies and did the sheet metal work for the first air conditioning system in the original Battle House Hotel and the Waterman Building, both regional landmarks.

“It’s been a good life,” says Paulk who seems as nimble today as men 30 years his junior.

Indeed it has.

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An Adventure Into Prehistoric Alabama

Captain Steve Day guides the Delta Explorer up the Tensaw River towards Bottle Creek and Mound Island.

By William Bruce

Deep in the heart of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta lies a mysterious island, studied for centuries by explorers, archeologists and historians.

As the crow flies, the island is only 24 miles north of downtown Mobile, Alabama.  But by other measures, it’s eons away.  The site is accessible only by boat.

The Mobile-Tensaw River Delta is formed by the confluence of the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers.  Below where the two rivers join, a vast area of wetlands consisting of winding rivers, creeks, bayous, cut-offs, lakes and islands spread out over an area approximately 40 miles long and 10 miles wide.   It’s the second largest river delta in the U.S.  Ultimately all of this opens into the head of Mobile Bay.

This mysterious place in the heart of the wetlands wonderland is Mound Island.  On a recent Sunday, our boat pulled out of a landing on the eastern edge of the Delta near Stockton heading for the island.

Captain Steve Day maneuvered the boat north up the Tensaw River and then into Bottle Creek.  Mound Island is so deep in the Delta, that even departing from the closest landing, the boat trip is an hour-long ride to reach the site.  The trip was organized by Blakeley State Park and included 50 adventurers on their boat, the Delta Explorer.

Mound Island on Bottle Creek is intriguing because of its prehistoric inhabitants.   Humans lived there, as dated by archeologists, from about 1200 to 1450 AD.  Archeological digs during the 1930s and 1990s suggest that the ancient inhabitants were Indians who migrated south from the mound building tribe at Moundville, Alabama, near Tuscaloosa to establish a new colony near the Gulf Coast.

On the island are 18 earthen mounds, the tallest being roughly 45 feet high.  Five of the eighteen mounds are arranged around a central plaza.

Our group climbed the highest mound on the island, the equivalent of over four stories.

Once the large pontoon boat was beached on Mound Island, Dr. Greg Waselkov, director of the Center for Archeological Studies at the University of South Alabama led the group of explorers by foot into the interior of the island.  The island is dense with vegetation and there are no signposts, making it very easy to get lost.  You want to hang tight with the group.  Signs of wild hog rootings are everywhere.  And Alabama’s remnant population of Black Bears lives in the Delta.

Dr. Waselkov said it’s not entirely clear what purpose the mounds served in the Indian culture, but indicated that living arrangements and ceremonial functions are the consensus of professional archeologists.  He said the ruling families would probably have lived on the highest mounds, with the same mounds possibly playing a role in the religious and ceremonial life of the community.  The lower classes of Indian society would have lived on the lesser mounds.

Excavations show that the mounds were well engineered and according to Dr. Wsaelkov, took years to construct, one basket of dirt at a time.

Dr. Greg Waselkov leads an on site discussion of the Indians of Mound Island.

Why did the Moundville Indians want to establish a southern community in the middle of the Delta?  “Possibly they wanted to take advantage of the east-west trade that was developing along the Gulf Coast,” said Dr. Waselkov.  “And they may have considered the location protected but also accessible to the entire Gulf Coast area.”

During the community’s time of prominence, Dr. Waselkov says that Mound Island was probably the cultural, political and religious center of a large area of the Northern Gulf Coast.  He says the mound builders were the genealogical antecedents of the “modern” tribes that we know as the Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws and others.

For whatever reasons, the Mound Island culture was in decline by 1500.  By the time Bienville established the City of Mobile in 1702, there were few if any Indians living on Mound Island.  However, the local Mobilian Tribe of Indians knew of the island and considered it sacred.

They offered to take Bienville into the Delta to show him the site.  Once on the island, Bienville entered the temple which was located on one of the mounds.  The Mobilian Indians, with fear and reverence for the temple, would not go in with him, and in fact averted their gaze so as to not look inside.

Once inside the temple, Bienville found five statues: a man, a woman, a child, a bear and an owl.  He immediately seized the statues and took them back to Mobile.  The Indians were horrified.

Bienville later shipped the five statues to France where they have been lost.

Other than Bienville’s plundering and a few vandals digging for relics over the past decades, the site has been well protected by its remote location and also by the McMillan family which owned thousands of acres in the Delta including Mound Island.  The site is now owned by the State of Alabama and protected by the Alabama Historical Commission.

Further information on Mound Island can be found at the Encyclopedia of Alabama by clicking here.

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For other intriguing local historical lore, you may be interested in this article:  “Were There Welsh Explorers on the Shores of Mobile Bay 300 Years Before Columbus ‘Discovered’ America.

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Alabama Home Prices Still Declining

According to a recently released report, Alabama has experienced a decline in home prices during the last 12 months of 3.7 percent.  This compares to an average national decline of 3.9 percent.

It’s always interesting to look at how we stack up compared to our neighbors.  Georgia had a steep decline of 7.3 percent while Florida experienced a drop of 3.5 percent over the past 12 months.  Tennessee’s home prices declined by only 0.2 percent.  Mississippi was the real surprise among our contiguous neighbors with home prices there actually rising by 2.0 percent.

This information comes from CoreLogic®, a leading provider of information, analytics and business services.  The firm released last week its October Home Price Index which shows that home prices in the U.S. decreased 1.3 percent on a month-over-month basis, the third consecutive monthly decline.

According to the CoreLogic, national home prices also declined by 3.9 percent on a year-over-year basis in October 2011 compared to October 2010.

Mark Fleming, chief economist for CoreLogic said, “Home prices continue to decline in response to the weak demand for housing. While many housing statistics are basically moving sideways, prices continue to correct for a supply and demand imbalance.  Looking forward, our forecasts indicate flat growth through 2013.”

Highlights as of October 2011

  • Including distressed sales, the five states with the highest appreciation were: West Virginia (+4.8%), South Dakota (+3.1%), New York (+3.0%), District of Columbia (+2.4%) and Alaska (+2.1%).
  • Including distressed sales, the five states with the greatest depreciation were: Nevada (-12.1%), Illinois (-9.4%), Arizona (-8.1%), Minnesota (-7.9%) and Georgia (-7.3%).
  • Of the top 100 markets measured by population, 78 are showing year-over-year declines in October, two fewer than in September.

Full-month October 2011 national and state data can be found at http://www.corelogic.com/HPIOctober2011.

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Alabama and Mississippi Rank High Among Business Friendly States

The Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council has released its 2011 ranking of the states according to their public policy climates for small business and entrepreneurship in the “Small Business Survival Index.”

The Index stands out as a comprehensive measure of how friendly or unfriendly states are for small business in terms of public policy decisions. The factors included in the Index – taxes, various regulatory costs, government spending and debt, property rights, health care policies, energy costs, and much more – matter to the competitiveness of each state and to the well being of small business.

The 2011 Index has been expanded to cover 44 major government-imposed or government related costs affecting small businesses and entrepreneurs. The measures are  added together for an overall rating.

The top 15 states are: 1) South Dakota, 2) Nevada, 3) Texas, 4) Wyoming, 5) South Carolina, 6) Alabama, 7) Ohio, 8 Florida, 9) Colorado, 10) Virginia, 11) Washington, 12) Mississippi, 13) North Dakota, 14) Utah, and 15) Arizona.

Meanwhile, the bottom fifteen are: 37) North Carolina, 38) Maryland, 39) Hawaii, 40) Illinois, 41) Iowa, 42) Massachusetts, 43) Minnesota, 44) Connecticut, 45) Maine, 46) California, 47) Rhode Island, 48) Vermont, 49) New Jersey, 50) New York and 51) District of Columbia.

Any surprises for you?  I was surprised to see North Carolina ranked low.  I thought they were pretty business friendly.  All comments are welcome.

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William Bruce is a business broker and appraiser.  He currently serves as president of the American Business Brokers Association.

He is available nationally to assist with issues of business valuation and the transfer of ownership interests in privately held businesses.

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New Boutique Hotels for Mobile and (Maybe) Fairhope, Alabama

Fort Conde Inn, Mobile, Alabama

It’s interesting in the current economy that a trend toward small, upscale boutique hotels seems to be gaining traction.

The trend is fueled by upscale travelers who disdain the cookie cutter franchised hotels.  Boutique hotels tend to have a “wow” factor upon entering the lobby and a better room experience.

In Mobile, the recently opened Fort Conde Inn is an example.  The Inn is the restored Hall-Ford House, which actually is Mobile’s second oldest standing home.  The home was built in 1836 by a Mr. Hall from Philadelphia who moved to Mobile to enter the cotton trade.  Later the property was owned by the Ford family, hence the name Hall-Ford House.  Current Fairhope City Councilman Mike Ford is a descendant.

The home has been splendidly restored and opened last month for business as Mobile’s latest hospitality gem.

The owner is Larry Posner of Woodstock, New York.  Posner has invested heavily in Mobile since the 1990s, now owning four apartment complexes in the area.  Posner told Lagniappe that he “worked out an arrangement with the City of Mobile back when Mike Dow was Mayor to restore the dilapidated Fort Conde Village.  The area was calling out to me.”

Posner entered into a long term ground lease from the City of Mobile and went to work restoring the 13 buildings in the village.  The latest structure to be rehabilitated, to the tune of $2.7 million,  is the Fort Conde Inn.  The property is now a 10 guest room boutique hotel with average rates of $200 per night.  The rate includes a sumptuous breakfast prepared by a gourmet chef.

Also within the property are four parlors, two patios and a commercial kitchen for catering wedding receptions and other events.

As contrasted to Posner who stepped up to the plate in a big way in Mobile by putting his money where his mouth was with the Fort Conde Inn, the boutique hotel situation in Fairhope is different.

In Fairhope, plans were announced for the first Pulitzer Hotel in the U.S.  The 40-room luxury hotel was to be built by Mac Pulitzer, the great-grandson of the founder of the Pulitzer Prize.  However, plans are now on hold.

Pulitzer’s partner in the development is Mike Bernhardt of Fairhope.  Bernhardt in a uncle of Mac Pulitzer’s wife, Kourtney.  The Mac Pulitzers have been visiting Fairhope for years.

As originally proposed for Fairhope, the luxury hotel was to be located downtown on Section Street and was to house the nation’s first and only Pulitzer Library on the first floor.

In announcing plans for the hotel earlier this year, both Pulitzer and Bernhardt emphasized their love for Fairhope and said how much they wanted to do something in and for Fairhope.  They also stated that financing had been obtained for the project.

All those statements appear to have been – how shall I say this – “inaccurate.”

As this is being written, Pulitzer announced that, due to difficulty in obtaining financing, he needed an equity partner in his $11 million venture, and added that he’d be willing to consider relocating the project to another city should local incentives elsewhere make such a move reasonable.

“When I began my journey to open the nation’s first Pulitzer Library and Hotel in Fairhope, Ala.,” Pulitzer said, “I had a feeling banking the venture would not be easy; however, I never expected 99 percent of banks would slam the door on an asset that shows exceptional appraised values and has national historic significance.  I am determined, and I am not giving up.

“Unfortunately, I had money in one of the Bernie Madoff-type Ponzi schemes, and it ate the majority of my liquid assets. This makes me search out an equity investor with $1.5 million, or about 12.5 percent of this $11 million venture.

“This is an asset that should be built. ‘Pulitzer’ the name, is recognizable world-wide and it works very well with luxury hotel properties. I’d like to build the Pulitzer Library and hotel in Fairhope; however, if I locate an investor that wants this asset built in a larger market, well, my bags will be packed and ready to go,” Pulitzer concluded. “My goal, in the end, is to build this asset for the entire country.”

So much for any loyalty to Fairhope.

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Mobile, Alabama Housing Market Improves, Baldwin County Slips

Slow improvement in the Mobile real estate market is shown in the latest available numbers.

The median sales price of a single family residence in Mobile rose in June to $116,500, an increase of almost 6 percent over the previous month.  The total number of sales was up by 2.6 percent.

Of the 314 total single family residential sales in June, 213 sales were under $200,000, representing 68 percent of the entire market.  Forty-nine properties sold in the $200,000-$299,999 price range, nine in the $300,000-$499,999 range, and five
above $500,000.

The average number of months to sell the existing inventory of properties –
considered an important measure of market health – improved slightly in June to
10.9 months from 11.4 months in May.  Although an improvement, the time frame is still considerably above the June 2008 number of just under 9 months.

In the Eastern Shore communities of Baldwin County, the median selling price in
June was $180,000 which was a decrease of 14 percent from the previous month.  A total of 88 homes were sold, down from 111 in May.  The average time on the market
was 6.4 months.

Despite the decline in median selling price for the Eastern Shore area, Baldwin County as a whole was recently named by a respected economic analysis firm as one of the strongest micropolitan economies in the U.S.  To read of this report by Polycom Economics, click here.

The above statistics were supplied by the Center for Real Estate Studies at the
University of South Alabama.  Dr. Don Epley, who heads the Center, told this writer last month that he is optimistic about the recovery of the local residential market in both counties.

A New York financial news and opinion organization recently picked Mobile among all markets in America as the metro area in which housing values will rise the most this year.  To read this report, click here.

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Were There Welsh Explorers on the Shores of Mobile Bay 300 Years Before Columbus “Discovered” America?

By William Bruce

We find this legend an intriguing bit of local lore — and thought you might, too.

Ancient texts tell of Prince Madoc, an illegitimate but much beloved son of an 12th Century ruler of Wales. According to legend, Madoc lost a quarrel with his brothers upon the death of his father over his inheritance.

Again according to legend, Madoc having nothing to lose gathered a group of fellow adventurers and set sail west from Wales on a venture of discovery.  With favorable winds and currents – and a lot of luck – Madoc’s group landed on the shores of Mobile Bay in the year 1170.

Leaving most of his party in the new world, Madoc returned to Wales to recruit more colonists for another trip.  With amazing stories of this newly discovered land, Madoc had no trouble gathering a large group and outfitting three ships for the return voyage.  After sailing from Wales, the group was never heard from again, presumably lost at sea.

Meanwhile, the group that Madoc left in Mobile gradually migrated – or was driven by hostile Indians – up the major river systems of the country.  Some historians maintain that the colonists evolved over the next several hundred years into the Mandan Indian Tribe of Missouri, an atypical tribe of “Indians” who used vestiges of the Welsh language and with some members of the tribe having light skin, red hair and blue eyes.

George Catlin, the Pennsylvania lawyer turned Indian painter who lived among the Mandans in the early 1800s, came to believe that they were descendants of Madoc.

Other tantalizing clues in America lending credence to this legend are early Welch artifacts found in the Southeast, a series of ancient fortifications of unknown origin but of peculiar Welsh design along the group’s supposed path of migration northward, and the accounts of early explorers of the American interior encountering “White Indians” speaking remnants of the Welsh language.

Proponents of the Madoc legend frequently quote John Sevier, first governor of Tennessee.  In 1782, Sevier visited the ruling Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Oconostota.  Sevier asked Oconostota about the curious ancient fortifications near Chattanooga along the supposed inland migration route Madoc’s survivors.

The old chief told Sevier that the works had been made by the first white people who came to their lands from the Gulf of Mexico, into what is now Mobile Bay, and then up the rivers.  According to Sevier’s writings, Chief Oconostota stated that “he had heard his grandfather and father say they were a people called Welsh, and they had crossed the Great Water in ships.”

President Thomas Jefferson had heard enough about the “White Indians” to ask Lewis and Clark to keep an eye out for them.

None were encountered.  But the legend lives on.

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For little known “stuff” about South Alabama, you might also like Did Jesse James Practice Medicine in Baldwin County.

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