Don Harbor wrote his memories of his time at Shades Cahaba to share with family and friends. When I mentioned to him that I was going to produce a Shades Cahaba history podcast, he sent me a copy, which was my starting point for the Shades Cahaba Oral History Project. He has graciously allowed me to post excerpts on the blog. You can hear my interview with him at

I was five years old when the school year of 1948 began on August 30 at Shades Cahaba School. Age six was required to enter the first grade. It would be 83 days before I would reach age six on November 20. 

That left my parents with the dilemma of waiting a year until I was almost seven or else sending me to a private school. Why they chose the private school route I’ll never know. But, I do know that I wished they had waited. I realize now that throughout my eight years of primary schooling I was always the youngest kid in my class, with some kids more than a year older. I had no academic problems but I was perpetually socially naïve and immature as compared to my classmates. I hadn’t a clue as to what they were up to socially and was often confused and frustrated. So I withdrew into a comfortable place in my mind until such time as I was able to catch up. Thank goodness they didn’t double promote me in the Fifth Grade when that was suggested! 

First Grade 1948-1949

Mountain Brook Private School was located in an old house on Cahaba Road at the corner of Chester Road just south of where Bromberg’s is now located. It offered two classes, Kindergarten and First Grade. My teacher was Vivian Maise. I have few memories of her. I believe she was slender and attractive and loved children. I have a hazy vision of the classroom with an American flag hanging above the blackboard behind the teacher’s desk that was centered on the back wall. I remember windows on both sides of the room that provided nice north and south light. And I have a fairly good image of the playground that was in the front yard. There was a swing set with four swings, a metal playground slide, a see-saw, and a metal jungle gym affair. 

I have a vivid image of my first day at school. I was violently against going to school and fought bitterly with my father as he dragged me to his green 1937 Plymouth. For some reason he had parked on the street in front of the house on Poinciana Drive and all the neighbors were watching the spectacle. The Plymouth was a two-door sedan with no back doors. He threw me into the back seat and headed toward Mountain Brook seething all the way. Trapped, with no way out, I was screaming, yelling and kicking my feet all the way there. 

As we approached the schoolyard I noticed a large metal playground slide in the play area in front of the house. Standing at the top of the slide was a vision of loveliness with long blond hair. I later learned her name was Janie Tanner. As I watched Janie slide down the chute suddenly the concept of school transformed into the most wonderful idea possible. And the next eight years whizzed by. 

I have few memories of my year there, none of them bad. It must have gone well. 

My mother had to drive me back and forth. She kept our only car at home, a light blue1948 Desoto. My father rode the bus to work in downtown Birmingham. 

Memories of Shades Cahaba

Shades Cahaba School first opened in 1920. It was still a twelve-year school when I entered the Second Grade in 1949. I was in the last class to attend through Grade Eight at Shades Cahaba. Shades Valley High School was still under construction and would not open until the 1950-1951 school year. Homewood Junior High opened for the 1956-1957 school year and Shades Cahaba became the elementary school it remains today. 

Though expanded, the school and its grounds remain today much as they were then. I believe there were only two wings to the building at that time. Each wing is narrow with classrooms on either side of a hallway. This insured plenty of window light. The wings were separated by the auditorium and the principal’s office and the cafeteria in the rear behind the auditorium. 

Each hallway had a Boys and a Girls bathroom. Seems like they were at the front of the hall. You asked the teacher for permission to go to the bathroom. 

There were five rows of six desks, each row all connected together as one unit and bolted to the floor. The desk frames were cast iron with an ornate design not unlike wrought iron furniture. The wooden desk tops slanted slightly downward and had a recessed area at the top to hold a pencil and a hole in the upper right corner to house a small glass bottle of india ink. There was a shelf under the desktop to store books and yo-yos and stuff. The wooden seats folded up so someone could walk between desks in crossing the room. 

There was no air-conditioning. In fact, I never attended a class in an air-conditioned room, not even at Auburn. 

Sometime in the 1990s I visited the school one afternoon and was surprised to find the Auditorium the same as I remembered it. I shot some snapshots of it. It was located next to the Principal’s Office, between the two classroom wings with the entrance just as you entered the front doors. 

The Principal’s Office was just to the right of the auditorium. 

The school principal though my Third Grade year was Robert B. Nichols, a tall, heavy set middle aged man with ruddy complexion and kinky white hair. We rarely saw him with his coat on. He wore thick glasses and wore suspenders supporting baggy pants that gave him an almost slapdash appearance. He seemed to be perpetually happy, smiling all the time. He loved children and I remember him reading stories to us from time to time. 

Lelton Cobb became principal when I entered the fourth grade and remained so for my remaining years. He was tall and slim with a prominent nose that gave him an air of authority. He had a slightly dark complexion with well barbered slicked back black hair that gave him a somewhat exotic appearance. He dressed as would a successful businessman and projected an air of formal authority. The polar opposite of the disheveled Mr. Nichols. Yet he was kind, patient, and sensitive to the expanding issues of growing children. And, much appreciated, he never really put much force into a paddle stroke. 

The Lunchroom was in the basement at the rear of the school. It must have been underneath the first through third grade classrooms on the east side. You walked down stairs to reach it. There were windows facing the rear playground. I believe the walls were painted yellow. Mrs. Tyler was the head dietician in the cafeteria. She was a large-boned woman with plain features and wire rimmed glasses. She moved constantly with a purpose in mind though it often seemed she wasn’t sure just what. She wore a white uniform and a hair net for health codes. In my early years the school lunch was 15¢. It included a plate lunch and a half pint of milk. Large oatmeal cookies were two for a penny. Sometimes I would bring my lunch from home but regularly my mother would give me the 15¢ and I would often buy two or four oatmeal cookies and a pint of milk for 3¢ and pocket the rest. The rest eventually wound up at the Homewood Hobby Shop. 

Around 1953 Hill’s grocery store moved from its long time location on 18th Street in downtown Homewood to a new building on Highway 31 directly across from the school, the building now occupied by Piggly Wiggly. At the same time a tunnel was constructed under the highway connecting the school with edge of the store parking lot. This tunnel offered all sorts of fantasy possibilities for adventurous boys. 

On the school side of the tunnel there were racks for bicycles. Unless you had an exotic bike there was no need to lock them. 

The physical education teacher was a blustery man named Mr. Murphy. We called him “Old Man Erpy.” He was a stout, large man, physically fit, with faded red hair and a red complexion from much exposure to the sun. In warm weather he dressed as if on a safari complete with a pith helmet. It made him look funny to children but I suppose it made sense to someone who spent the day outdoors given the primitive clothing technology of the day. Boys often teased him unmercifully and he would sometimes become flustered by it, but he was a patient man and mainly took it in his stride. 

There were two playgrounds, one in front of the school featuring swings and playground equipment, and a combination baseball/football field in the rear. Seems like we played in the front playground in the lower grades and then switched to the rear field in the upper grades. 

When I was in the seventh grade the new gym building was opened and much of our physical education classes were moved to there, particularly in bad weather. It was set up as a basketball court though other activities were held there. Other than the following incident I don’t remember any other specifics about it. 

Raymond Rochelle was older and much larger than most boys in my class. He was at times a bully and began picking on me. One day he was chasing me in the gym and was right on my heels. I suddenly crouched and plunged to the floor sending him hurling through the air head first. He landed unceremoniously, pulled himself up, shook himself, and walked away. And never bothered me again. 

Mrs. Rice was the music teacher. I believe she traveled between several schools and we only saw her once a week or so. There was an upright piano in the classroom and she would lead us in simple songs. Gilbert and Sullivan songs were favorites of hers. LittleButtercup, etc. She was a large-boned middle aged woman with graying hair. She wore steel rimmed glasses that accented her homely face. But, oh, did she take all so very seriously! She loved her job and her enthusiasm was contagious. I’m sure she was responsible for laying a foundation for my later love of music. Dear, dear Mrs. Rice. 

Mrs. Frances Robinson was the school librarian. She had been at the school since it opened in 1920 and had taught English most of those years. She was small and frail with a pale complexion and pure white hair accented by thick steel rimmed glasses. She mainly sat at her desk in the front of the room and rarely said a word unless there was a disturbance of some sort. I remember one day all the kids in the room dropped their books on the floor at the same time when a signal was given by the instigator. Might have been me, I don’t remember. I did such things and was no stranger in the principal’s office. 

The black custodian, Minnie, had also been with the school since its beginnings. She was small, appeared frail but was able to do the required work with no problems. I remember her tirelessly mopping the wooden floors after school hours leaving a constant smell of creosote. 

Throughout my tenure at Shades Cahaba there were two teachers in each grade level up through Grade Eight. They usually faced each other across the hallway. I believe that  each successive year they would try to mix students from different teachers so that eventually everyone shared classroom time together. In the lower grades I remember boys on the playground bragging that their teacher was better than mine. The First Grade was at the rear of the left wing. Each grade progressed forward until Grade Six became the first classrooms encountered upon entering the hallway. Grades Seven and Eight were in the right wing. Though I believe my Fourth Grade classroom was at the rear of the rightwing. I remember the windows facing the rear playground rather than the Montgomery Highway. 

NOTE: The photo above is not one of Don’s classroom photos but one from around when he was there.