No need to send notes or promises; it will take money to save the college. –The Alabama Baptist May 7, 1896
We all know the sacrificial gifts of Ralph W. Beeson, William W. Wilkerson, Jesse B. Lovelace, and Julia Barron; but have you heard of Felix Wood or Burghard Steiner? In times of great need, one bet his mortgage, the other his reputation, on the success of Howard College. During this holiday season, the Bull Pup thought it fitting to tell the stories of Wood and Steiner and their selfless efforts to save Howard College.
When the Howard College trustees decided to move from Marion to Birmingham in 1887, no one imagined the difficulties of relocating a college. Once the excitement of removal that swept over the Alabama Baptist State Convention dissipated, the reality remained that buildings on the new campus were non-existent. When promised funds for building adequate facilities did not come, the school opened the fall 1887 session in little more than two unpainted frame buildings found in a forest of second growth pine. In the midst of laying the foundation for what would become Old Main, funds ran so low that the trustees were forced to consider ending the endeavor and selling the property to pay for materials and labor. Finding it difficult to rally the Baptists in the wake of the move and a severe economic downturn, prospects were bleak. But a Birmingham native intervened.
Felix Wood, a benefactor and member of Ruhama Baptist Church, took a keen interest in the school. Perhaps Wood adopted concern for Howard in October 1886 when he married Eliza Lee, a relative of board of trustee member and fundraiser J. J. D. Renfroe. Wood succeeded in his many business endeavors, especially his drug store at Fifty-fifth and Second Avenue South in Birmingham. When Wood learned of the school’s financial dilemma, he mortgaged all his property to pay off Howard’s debt. In his book on the history of Birmingham, George M. Cruikshank credits Wood with singlehandedly saving the school and concludes that this selfless act was what “really made it possible for Birmingham to have Howard College.” After construction resumed on the East Lake campus, Wood served as a trustee and supervised the building of Old Main and a few dormitories.
Unfortunately, Wood’s generous act did not keep Howard out of debt. In 1890, Old Main was still under construction and attempts to secure funding from Baptists proved futile. The college turned to the Union Trust Company of Philadelphia for a $40,000 mortgage, offering the East Lake property as collateral. Despite a generous extension, Howard was unable to make payments and defaulted on the loan in 1896 — much to the embarrassment of the Baptist Convention and Howard College, The Union Trust Company of Philadelphia ran a mortgage sale ad in the Birmingham News. When the trustees appointed Professor A. D. Smith as President that same year, Smith focused on ending the financial crisis. In turn, Smith contacted Burghard Steiner for help. A friend from Howard’s Marion days, Steiner and his brother were immigrants from Bohemia – both of whom found success in the banking business in the small Alabama town of Hamburg. They later relocated to Birmingham and established the Steiner Bank. Smith urged Steiner, who was an agent of the Union Trust Company of Philadelphia, to persuade the company to halt the foreclosure with the promise of a significant loan payment within a year. Steiner contacted Union Trust and personally guaranteed the mortgage payment. The company agreed and Smith fulfilled his promise to Steiner and paid off the loan in its entirety in 1899.
Thanks to the actions of these men, Howard College survived during those pivotal first years in Birmingham. The Birmingham Age Herald captured the growing pains that the college experienced in an article on September 24, 1890, “The Howard is a great college. . . It is in baby clothes now, but soon the stately building will have risen, and it will be dressed as becomes a strong and vigorous man.” In spite of inadequate facilities, Howard’s enrollment continued to increase during those years, but men such as Felix Wood and Burghard Steiner ensured the school’s continued success.
A History of Birmingham and its Environs: A narrative Account of their Historical Progress, Their People, and Their Principal Interests by George M. Cruikshank, Lewis Publishing Co; 1920
A Memorial History of the Baptists of Alabama by B. F. Riley, The Judson Press; 1923
Birmingham Age Herald, September 24, 1890
“In the Shadows of Foreclosure: Three Financial Crises that Threatened the Existence of Howard College” by Chriss H. Doss, published in the The Alabama Baptist Historian Vol. 28, no. 1, Jan. 1992