By Emily Williams
Retired otolaryngologist Dr. Ed Stevenson spent about 40 years practicing medicine, serving as a naval medical officer and a head and neck surgeon and operating a private practice.
His hobby of aerobatic aviation and involvement with The Southern Museum of Flight has garnered much acclaim over the years, including his receiving the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award in 2016 by the Federal Aviation Administration. But it is his love of history that continues to keep him active in his 90s.
He recently published the Jefferson County Historical Society’s first historical article specifically on the history of Mountain Brook’s Cherokee Bend neighborhood.
“They used to tell us, if you ever have to make a speech, be sure to know your subject. So, I knew my subject before I even started,” Stevenson said.
He already had an extensive knowledge of the region through his participation in the Jefferson County Historical Society, including serving as president for three years. There was also ample opportunity to write articles for the society’s quarterly journal.
“So, I was used to writing, and I like to,” he said. “I realized I was probably the only one left in the world who knew the history of Cherokee Bend.”
Stevenson also knew the history because he had lived it, residing on Antietam Drive from 1965 until 2008.
During that time, Stevenson developed a close friendship with one of the area’s leading developers, John Hamilton “Ham” Perkins Jr.
“We watched it develop from the very beginning,” he said. “Cherokee Bend never had a boundary. It just grew until it hit Irondale. Then, past Old Leeds Road, New Cherokee Bend grew.”
Stevenson also felt it was important to write the history because the definition of Cherokee Bend has changed over the past few decades.
“Most of the people that have come along since only have a vague notion of the area. That’s why they associate the term Cherokee Bend with the school,” Stevenson said.
From a Forest It Grew
Before its development, the area that would become Cherokee Bend was a dense forest in Shades Valley. Then Wallace S. McElwain of Jones, McElwain and Company Iron Foundry built the Irondale Furnace to supply pig iron to Confederate forces during the Civil War.
Stevenson wrote that the land was later used for an equestrian recreational area and then a hardwood reserve for a lumber company.
In 1963, Ham Perkins and Mel Davis helped spark interest in developing the area as a residential neighborhood, forming The Cherokee Bend Corporation. The corporation was composed of Perkins Realty, Davis and Majors Realty, Johnson Rast & Hayes and Jerry and Allen Drennan.
“Ham Perkins, with agreement and approval of Robert Jemison Jr. and the other developers, gave the development its name, ‘Cherokee Bend,’ referring to the location of the ‘bend’ in Old Leeds Road at the end of Cherokee Road,” Stevenson wrote.
Researching the history of the area was a multi-faceted operation, with Stevenson relying on written sources from The Birmingham News archives and books regarding the history of Shades Valley.
Since published sources were few, Stevenson relied partially on his conversations with the late Ham Perkins, as well as interviews with relatives of Cherokee Bend founders. For the first version, he spoke with Ham Perkins’ wife, Marge; his sister, Carol Perkins Poyner; and his son, Charles Perkins. He also spoke with Betty Drennan, wife of the late Jerry Drennen.
In the early years of the neighborhood, Stevenson recalls a highly close-knit community, much like a small town.
Neighbors would come together for parties, they would go sledding together in the winter, and they would pay Christmas day visits to each other’s houses.
“The time was right for Cherokee Bend to grow,” he said.
According to his research, an estimated 400 houses were built in Cherokee Bend within its first 10 years. Original residents jokingly referred to their community as the Telephone Company Ghetto, because so many South Central Bell employees based in downtown Birmingham had built homes.
“The social and economic timing turned out to be nearly perfect in the mid 1960’s,” Stevenson wrote. “There were many young professionals and business executives already living in Birmingham or the suburbs, some of whom were war veterans and had completed their educations.”
Growing families needed more room, and soon, Ham Perkins donated land to the city that became the site of Cherokee Bend Elementary School.
The school opened its doors in 1969 and recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Though his two oldest children were out of elementary school by that time, Stevenson’s two youngest daughters attended.
Nowadays, he has found that the school’s name has caused a disambiguation of the original Cherokee Bend neighborhood.
“People seem to think that if you go to Cherokee Bend School, you live in Cherokee Bend. … In my article, I tried to make it clear that there was a difference,” he said.
The Cherokee Bend neighborhood rests on about 200 acres in the immediate area surrounding the property where Irondale Furnace once stood. There was a complete deforestation of the area after the furnace was destroyed in 1865.
“Therefore, all of the trees in Cherokee Bend after 1873 and prior to 1963 were a maximum of 90 years old; and, in 2019, the larger and oldest ones are now 146 years old,” wrote Stevenson.
Time Does Not Preserve Memories
The article was first published in the April 2019 edition of the Jefferson County Historical Society’s journal, and Stevenson quickly found that his work was a work in progress.
“People questioned, seriously, some of the things I wrote in (the original version),” Stevenson said. When it comes to memory, everyone has their own version.
He said that one of the biggest issues his fellow original Cherokee Bend residents had was regarding the naming of Cherokee Bend’s streets.
Stevenson was swayed at first by claims from others saying they had named each street after Civil War battles, not Ham Perkins.
“Ham was a graduate of Annapolis, and he was a history buff. And he was an authority on Napoleon,” Stevenson said. “I knew Ham, and I know he named all of them after Civil War battles, except Stone River Road.”
He has since revised his original article, settling the battle by stating clearly that Perkins named the streets, with evidence to back it up.
After the first version was published, the late Dr. Joseph Appleton, a former head of the engineering department at UAB and Cherokee Bend resident, reached out to Stevenson. The two sat down for an interview and Appleton gave Stevenson an original blueprint of the development.
In studying the blueprint, Stevenson found that the only two streets Ham did not name are the two that are not named after Civil War battles – Old Leeds Road already had been named before development, and Stone River Road was originally supposed to be an extension of Monarch Avenue.
Stevenson supposes that someone other than Ham named that street.
“The Civil War battle was not Stone River, it was Stones River,” he said. “Nobody knows the difference except for us Civil War historians. Purists we are, I guess.”
Stevenson continues fine tune his history of the area, making his history of Cherokee Bend a project that continues to evolve.