Sunday, July 6, 2014

O.V. Hunt - Birmingham's Photographer - Episode #25

By: David L. Morrill
@ Deadly Dave's Blog

Updated - January 16, 2017

O. V. Hunt (rear) and Robert Stubbs (front) - Birmingham, AL. ca. 1913
Birmingham, Alabama Public Library Archives - O.V. Hunt Collection




If you've ever picked up a book on the history of Birmingham Alabama, you have very likely seen an O.V. Hunt. photograph. Beginning in the early teens, Mr. Hunt photographed Birmingham's rapidly rising skyline, and recorded the events of daily life in the Magic City. Mr. Hunt was also a motorcycle enthusiast and recorded many significant motorcycle events held in Birmingham in the teens and twenties.

My own involvement with Mr. Hunt's photographs began, when Johnny Whitsett sent me a DVD containing scans of several of Hunt's Birmingham motorcycle event photographs he received from one of Mr. Hunt's relatives. Over the next several years, I attempted to identify, both the events depicted, and the subjects in those photographs.

                                                                                                                                                       
Oscar Virgil Hunt was born in Bowden, Georgia in 1881. By 1900, Hunt's family had relocated to Birmingham, Alabama, and the eighteen year old Hunt was working as a day laborer. In the next few years, his passion for photography, developed into a career, and he opened a photography studio on 4th Avenue North in Birmingham.  He also worked as a photographer for the Birmingham Ledger Newspaper.



O.V. Hunt Photographic Studio - Birmingham, AL.
Birmingham, Alabama Public Library Archives - O.V. Hunt Collection

Mr. Hunt developed a reputation of taking great risks to get his photographs. In 1912, climbed on to an early Biplane in the infield of the Alabama State Fairgrounds racetrack, and he took to the air above Birmingham to take aerial photos of the city. Mr. Hunt, who had mastered self promotion, often appears in photographs taken by his firm.

Edmond "Wild Bill" Heth (left) O.V. Hunt (right)
Alabama State Fairgrounds ca. 1912
Birmingham, Alabama Public Library Archives

O.V. Hunt Collection
In July 1913, Hunt, and his camera, were suspended from a steel beam suspended from the top of the Tutwiler Hotel, which was under construction in downtown Birmingham.

Birmingham, Alabama Public Library Archives
O.V. Hunt Collection - 1913
The Alabama State Fairgrounds in Birmingham had a one mile dirt oval racetrack, which held it's first motorcycle race in 1906. Mr. Hunt was a friend of Robert Stubbs, the Birmingham dealer for the Hendee Manufacturing Company, which produced Indian Motorcycles. Stubbs, was a motorcycle racing enthusiast, having been a member of the Indian Factory racing Team.

Amateur Motorcycle Race Alabama State Fairgrounds - ca. 1912
Birmingham, Alabama Public Library Archives - O.V. Hunt Collection

Stubbs had retired from track racing, but sponsored local riders Gail Joyce, Richard Gayle, and Eugene Walker. Joyce and Gayle were experienced riders having competed in races around the state for several years. Gene Walker worked for the Post Office delivering mail on his motorcycle,  and was making a name for himself competing in races at the Fairgrounds racetrack. Stubbs riders were photographed by Mr. Hunt in front Stubbs Dealership in 1913.

Richard Gayle (left), Gail Joyce (center), Gene Walker (right)
Furman Family Collection - O.V. Hunt ca. 1913

In early 1914, Hunt was hired by the new Birmingham Harley-Davidson Motorcycle dealer, William F. Specht Jr. to record the opening of his dealership at 1714 3rd Avenue North. Mr. Hunt captured the first load of ten Harley-Davidson motorcycles arriving by horse drawn wagon at Specht's dealership.

William F. Specht Jr. (far right) Specht Harley-Davidson - Birmingham, AL.
Johnny Whitsett Collection - O.V. Hunt - 1914



Hunt took a photograph of Harley-Davidson Racing Team members Johnny Aiken (Atlanta), Bill Specht Jr. (Birmingham), and Gray Sloop (Mooresville, NC.) in front of Specht's dealership. Sadly, Gray Sloop was killed, along with Savannah, GA. rider Zeddie Kelly, while competing in the 1914 Savannah 300 Mile Road Race.
Johnny Aiken (right), Bill Specht Jr. (center), Gray Sloop (right)
Johnny Whitsett Collection - O.V. Hunt - 1914




Interior of Specht Harley-Davidson in Birmingham, AL.
Birmingham, Alabama Public Library Archives 

O.V. Hunt Collection 1914
Mr. Hunt was the official photographer for the July 14, 1914 Birmingham Ledger Motorcycle Endurance Run. This grueling event took place over several days on the public roads between Birmingham and Atlanta, Georgia.  This a pre-race photograph of some of the thirty one of race competitors in from of the Birmingham Ledger Offices in downtown Birmingham.

1914 Birmingham Ledger Endurance Run Competitors
Johnny Whitsett Collection - O.V. Hunt - 1914
The race, which was run over the next two days on the public roadways between Birmingham, and Atlanta, Georgia began at 3:00 am on the morning of July 4th. The start/finish line was in front of the Birmingham Ledger office at 1st Avenue North and 21st Street.

Start/Finish Line - Birmingham, AL. - July 1914
Birmingham, Alabama Public Library Archives - O.V. Hunt Collection

There was great controversy with the results of the1914 race, and a protest was filed by the Harley-Davidson Team. When the referee ruled against them, the Harley-Davidson team withdrew from the race leading to an Indian sweep for Robert Stubbs' Birmingham Indian race team. Team rider Gail Joyce was declared the winner.

Gail Joyce - Birmingham, AL.  - July 1914
Johnny Whitsett Collection - O.V. Hunt

1914 Indian Motorcycle Promotional Poster
Scott Bashaw Collection

In October 1914, a race took place at the Alabama State Fairgrounds track that became an important part of Harley-Davidson's early racing history, and O.V. Hunt was there. Two of the photographs Hunt took that day have survived, and they are the only photographs of the event known to exist. The one hour Federation of American Motorcyclists race became the Harley- Davidson Racing Teams first National Championship race win. It also launched the professional racing career of a young man from Birmingham, who became one of the greats of early American motorcycle racing.

Alabama State Fairgrounds F.A.M. One Hour Championship Race
Johnny Whitsett Collection - O.V. Hunt 1914
This starting line photograph of the Alabama State Fairgrounds race track shows the riders preparing to take to the track. The young man with the focused look seated on his Indian racer on the right of the photo is John Eugene Walker. This was the Birmingham natives first professional motorcycle race.

As a side not, you can see this photograph also captures the iconic Vulcan statue, buy Giuseppe Moretti, to the right of the grandstand. The Vulcan statute remained at the Fairgrounds until the 1930's, when it was moved to it's current location on the top of Red Mountain, and became the symbol for the City of Birmingham.


Alabama State Fairgrounds F.A.M. One Hour Championship Race
Birmingham, Alabama Public Library Archives - O.V. Hunt 1914
 
At the end of the one hour race, Harley-Davidson's Red Parkhurst was declared the winner, with Joe Wolters finishing second, Gail Joyce finishing third, and Gene Walker fifth.  Two protests were filed, but the race results were upheld. The race went down as the newly formed Harley-Davidson Racing Team's first Championship Race win, and became a key part of their advertising campaign for their 1915 model.


1915 Harley-Davidson Ad

It was also a big day for Gene Walker.  Walker briefly lead the race, and set a new track lap record. This attracted the attention of the Indian Racing Team, and Walker joined their team for the 1915 racing season. Walker went on to become one of the great riders of the late teens, and early twenties.

In early 1915, Mr. Hunt's firm took a publicity photo for Robert Stubbs' Indian dealership. The photograph touted the release of the 1915 Indian motorcycle, and appears to have been staged as a satire of Specht's Harley-Davidson 1914 horse drawn wagon photo.

Robert Stubbs Indian Publicity Photo - Birmingham, AL.
Johnny Whitsett Collection - O.V. Hunt 1915
In this photo, Stubbs pulls a wagon full of dapper young men on a new 1915 Indian motorcycle. The message is clearly, that while Harley-Davidsons arrive in a horse drawn wagon, the new Indian can pull the wagon. O.V Hunt stands behind Robert Stubbs, who is seated on the motorcycle.

In April 1915, the second annual Birmingham Ledger Endurance Run was staged, and once again the Mr. Hunt photographed the contestants for the the Birmingham Ledger.

Birmingham Ledger - April 3, 1915
O.V.  Hunt
The 1915 event, also had it's share of controversy. At the end of the second days run from Atlanta to Birmingham, Harley-Davidson rider Willard DeGroat, and Indian rider Robert Horton were tied for the top horns. A third days run was scheduled as a tie breaker, but was rained out. Horton failed to show for the agreed on tie breaker, and DeGroat was award the over all win.

Willard DeGroat - Birmingham, AL.
Jessica DeGroat Hayes Collection - O.V. Hunt 1915
During this period, Mr. Hunt also took several photographs of sidecar equipped motorcycles. These bikes were used by local businesses to deliver goods, and provide roadside assistance to stranded motorists. The riders of the bikes, were often African American.

Birmingham, Alabama Public Library Archives - O.V. Hunt Collection ca. 1916

With the approach of America's involvement in World War 1, motorcycle shops across the country faced hard times. The Military purchased most of the production of new motorcycles, spare parts, and tires. These were going overseas, and motorcycle dealers across the country really felt the pinch. Many dealers found it difficult to keep their doors open. In 1917, many of the young men, who had been customers of the shops were drafted.  This was the final blow, and countless shops closed their doors.

While the Birmingham Harley-Davidson and Indian dealers remained in business through the war, big changes to the motorcycle business in Birmingham came in 1919. Robert Stubbs closed his Indian dealership, and took a job managing a motorcycle shop in Montgomery, Alabama. William F. Specht Jr. returned to Atlantic City.

Gail Joyce opened the Gail Joyce Motor Company at 1709 3rd Avenue North. Although the records are sketchy, the Joyce Motor Company appears to have handled both Indian, and or Harley-Davidson sales in Birmingham during this period. Mr. Hunt continued photographing Joyce's dealership, and several motorcycle events for Joyce. After the war, motorcycles began the shift from basic transportation, to recreational use. The novelty of motorcycle events faded in Birmingham.


Gail Joyce Motor Company (center) - Birmingham, AL. ca. 1931
Birmingham, Alabama Public Library Archives - O.V. Hunt Collection
On June 24, 1924, the Birmingham News reported the death of Gene Walker form injuries received while practicing for a race in East Stroudsburg, PA. During his career, Walker won 19 Championship motorcycle races, and set track records across the country. During the winters, he returned to Birmingham, where he worked as a Motorcycle Police Officer for the city. 1920, Walker set the first official motorcycle land speed record at Ormond Beach Florida.

Under the headline "Motorcycle Riding Has Lost It's Greatest Star in Death of Walker" Birmingham News sports reporter Zipp Newman detailed Walker's career, and the circumstances of his death. The article was accompanied by a photograph of Walker taken by O.V. Hunt in 1913.

Birmingham News - June 24, 1924
Birmingham, Alabama Public Library Archives - O.V. Hunt ca. 1913 
The Birmingham Police Department Motorcycle Unit, and a large contingency of local motorcyclists, escorted Walker's funeral procession to Birmingham's Elmwood Cemetery. It was a fitting remembrance of the young man, who put Birmingham, Alabama on the map for sports fans across the country.



Indian Motorcycle Company's Memorial Ad - 1924

In 1934, Gail Joyce died in Birmingham. His family continued to operate the Gail Joyce Motor Company and were still the Birmingham Harley-Davidson dealer in the 1950s.

Oscar V. Hunt continued to photograph Birmingham's event's big, and small, for several more decades, retiring in 1953.  He passed away at age eighty one  in Birmingham, Alabama in 1962. His legacy to the Magic City are his photographs.

Birmingham The Magic City Sign - Birmingham, Al.
Birmingham, Alabama Public Library Archives - O.V. Hunt Collection ca. 1926
Through the time machine of his lens, O.V. Hunt instantly transports us back to the streets of Birmingham one hundred years ago, and we view can the early days of Birmingham motorcycle sport. What better legacy, could he have left us?

Sources:

Birmingham Ledger

Birmingham News

Birmingham, Alabama Public Library Archives - O.V. Hunt Collection

Clay Nordan - A Minor Mystery Solved

Chris Price - www.Georgia Motorcycle History.com

Hunt Family Collection

Jessica DeGroat Hayes Collection

Johnny Whitsett Collection

Kelly Stewart - Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum

Scott Bashaw Collection