Digging history: Jim Phillips documents local history on film


Historical videographer Jim Phillips checks the date on a coin found with his metal detector. Photo by Rick Watson.

Jim Phillips digs history—literally. As one who was always fascinated with history, Phillips, who lives off Valleydale Road, took up metal detecting a few years ago and opened a whole new world of historical videography.

Phillips started finding many historical objects: old coins, store tokens, buttons and eating utensils from the 1800s. Each object he found had an interesting story behind it about early Birmingham and antebellum Alabama. The deeper he dug, the more interesting the stories became.

After discovering old dumps in Birmingham, he found medicine, soda and ink bottles from the 1800s that taught him about Birmingham’s early bottling history.

“Bottles are beautiful. You find them in different shapes and multi-colored glass,” he said. Many say that Birmingham has one of the richest soda bottling histories in America, said Phillips. He said that from the late 1800s to 1915, there were over 50 bottlers with home offices in Birmingham.

A professional videographer since 1983, it was only natural that Phillips would combine the skills he’d learned in the corporate world with his passion for history. He’s now filmed histories of Jefferson County, St. Clair County, Southern Aviation, Old Tannehill Furnace and Birmingham-Southern College.

His brother, Dr. Doug Phillips, is also a noted Alabama naturalist who produces the Alabama Public Television series Discovering Alabama.

One of the most interesting projects for Phillips was the History of the Old Tannehill Furnace. “That video was fascinating because it dealt with the Civil War back in the 1860s,” he said.

Now Phillips is working on videos of three all-but-forgotten antebellum plantations in Alabama. Stories abound about gold and other buried treasure at these historic sites. Many of the stories are old folk tales, but there seems to be a measure of truth to some of them, Phillips said. However, Phillips cautioned that you should always get permission from the landowner before digging for treasure on private property.

There’s a great deal that goes into making these historical videos according to Phillips. Research, verifying facts and writing scripts that are both historically correct yet entertaining are all included. After the script is completed, Phillips works to marry the narration with the background music to create a soundtrack that adds flavor to the words and images.

History is a popular topic, and Phillips is asked to speak at local social, community and church groups several times a month. At these talks he brings artifacts from the era to display. He also does bus tours of Old Birmingham (1851 to 1915). He finds those years particularly interesting because there were few automobiles, and most travel was by horse-drawn carriages.

There were also still a great many patent medicines made in Birmingham in that period.  “These old colored glass bottles were made in wooden molds and came in beautiful colors with interesting imagery,” said Phillips. “That’s the period that I love.”

What’s next for Phillips? In addition to the antebellum Alabama videos, he’s also working on documentaries about Blount Spring and Shelby Springs, Ala. When it comes to Alabama history, Phillips is digging it.


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