History from Home

David Ellen Tichenor’s D-Day letter

Everyone knew something big was coming – just not when or where – but on D-Day, June 6, 1944, the mystery was solved.  As soon as she heard the news that morning in Calhoun, Kentucky, David Ellen Tichenor penned a letter to her son Thomas, then serving as a convoy communications officer with the U.S. Navy.  In short letters (her V-Mail stationery limited her to one page) she relayed something of the predicament of ordinary people: the “majority in the middle,” in the words of philosopher Eric Hoffer, over whose heads “the best and the worst” so often clash to make history.

On the morning of D-Day, “about 4 or a little later,” she wrote, “we were awakened by the Methodist bell ringing.  [S]oon all the other church bells began ringing.  I got up and turned on the radio as did every one else.  Soon a line of people were seen going to the churches to pray – the invasion had started!” – but she had stayed home, “being too full of emotion and sadness of knowing some of our boys were in it, but I did my part of praying.” 

With the outcome still uncertain, there were only ordinary things to talk about.  David Ellen reported that she and Thomas’s father had recently spent a day visiting family in Bowling Green (she was a niece of WKU’s first president Henry Hardin Cherry).  Upon their return to Calhoun, they found that a generous rain had revived their beloved garden.  “In fact it there had been quite a storm.”  Everything, however, was “fresh and pretty.”

Six days later, wrote David Ellen, everyone was still glued to their radios, but “the invasion seems to be going along O.K.”  Nevertheless, some of the Calhoun boys were “thought to be in it and their mothers are frantic.  What  a mess the world is in.”  Mr. Tichenor was gathering “big luschious” cherries from their tree, an old one that would probably expire after “making its ‘war effort.’”  Two days later: “The first ripe tomato to-day!”

Almost three weeks into the invasion, local mothers were still feeling the aftershocks.  One of them came by David Ellen’s home crying because her son hadn’t received any of her letters (“Of course she writes all the time”) and was worried that something was wrong at home.  For another, it was worse.  “Alma” was “almost crazy,” she wrote, having received word that her son had been missing in action over France since D-Day.  With so many boys being killed, the July 4th holiday was “the quietest day I have ever known around here.”

But still, ordinary life and hopes populated David Ellen’s thoughts: a lack of rain for the garden, a new veterans bill promising servicemen a college education, local marriages and babies, and especially her postwar plans for her son.  Although the world was “a mess,” she didn’t think for a moment that it would stay that way.  “I like your idea,” she told him, “of going to school a year when the war is over and getting your masters degree and a place in a college. Bowling Green would be a nice place.”

These are some of many World War II letters in the Tichenor Collection, held in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Planning in Uncertain Times

The year 1946 marked the beginning of the “baby boom,” a dramatic increase in the U.S. birth rate following the Depression and World War II.  Signs of what was to come, however, had appeared at the outbreak of war, when many couples hastily married and conceived their first child before the husband shipped out for military duty.  Afterward, there was always the opportunity for “furlough babies” to enter the world. 

During the war, the question of pregnancy was challenging and complicated, as shown in two collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  In 1943, Philip J. Noel, Jr. and his wife Mary Katherine of Bowling Green, Kentucky were newly married and living with their baby daughter in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  Training to serve as a medical officer with the U.S. Army, Dr. Noel received an invitation from the Pennsylvania Federation for Planned Parenthood to acquaint himself with its mission and services.  The country’s war against the Axis, stated its brochure, included “a war against a way of life in which human freedom is consistently violated.  In America, we believe in the right of children to be wanted and well-born, and in the right of parents to plan their own families.”  With young men overseas, and healthy women needed to work in war industries and support their families at home, “competent medical advice on the spacing of pregnancies” was an “essential part of the war health program.”  Equally important was the “treatment of involuntary sterility” in order to support a mother’s well being and build “the world of the future.”  Only 16 years old, the organization had established 30 “child-spacing centers” for teaching, demonstration and treatment, and boasted a board of sponsors that included citizens, doctors and clergymen.

Family planning was also on the mind of James C. Browning, an Edmonson County, Kentucky teacher who joined the Army in 1941.  A year earlier, “J.C.” had married his wife Lila and they had recently become the parents of a daughter.  Lila, however, had suffered health problems after the birth and was anxious about another pregnancy. In letters from training camp in Arkansas, J.C. was equally anxious to reassure her, for among the many dreams he shared with his much-loved wife—of paying off their debts, buying a small farm and building a life for themselves after the war—was the prospect of “a good time” with her when he made his scheduled return to Fort Knox.  If she didn’t want more children, he assured her, “we will try our best and use the best remedies available.”  She should go to the doctor and arrange to be fitted with a diaphragm, he instructed; then “[m]aybe you won’t be scared all the time.”  Inquiring about her progress in successive letters, he even offered to “get the diaphragm for you if you don’t want to get it.”  He finally advocated a “double preventative”—diaphragm plus condom—as the solution to their problem: then “surely there won’t be anything wrong.”  The young husband trying to avoid “anything wrong,” however, couldn’t plan for the attack on his ship off the coast of North Africa that took his life in 1942.

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections. For more, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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In search of a cure

When her late husband, astronaut John Glenn, became the first American to orbit the earth, Anna Margaret “Annie” Glenn, who lost her life to coronavirus on May 19, was herself rocketed into the public spotlight.  She found her new celebrity mortifying, however, because of her severe stutter.  After a successful program of therapy in 1973, Annie became a champion for people with communication disorders.

In 1846, William Malone of Limestone, Alabama was also hoping to find therapy for his 23-year-old son, Clement.  In a letter to his brother-in-law, John Marion Robertson of Franklin, Kentucky, he reported the results of what appeared to be an extensive search.  “We have heard,” he wrote, “that there is a man in Kentucky some where perhaps at or near Springfield, who can cure persons of stuttering.”  He requested that Robertson find out who the man was, where he lived, and what success he could claim.  Working as an overseer in Mississippi, young Clement planned to come home to Alabama before departing for Kentucky in search of treatment, and his father was eager to have some information for him before he went on his way.

We don’t know if Clement found his cure, but speech impediments have sent others on paths that, like Annie Glenn’s, do not surrender to reclusiveness.  It was some kind of speech disorder, probably a stutter, that caused a young Romanus Emerson (1782-1852) to veer away from a career in the ministry, but the Boston merchant (and cousin of transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson) openly abandoned religion in his fifties. Pronouncing himself an “infidel,” he wrote and published pro-atheist tracts. 

Reverend Henry David Carpenter (1859-1927), by contrast, retained his faith as both the pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky and the founder of a county school for African-American children.  Widely respected in both the community and the classroom, Carpenter too had a stutter, but his “presence just demanded attention,” according to a colleague in the ministry.  “He’d walk into class and if the students was cutting up they would be quiet because Dr. Carpenter was in.”

Click on the links to learn more about these individuals, found in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  To search our collections further, use TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“A Great House of Mourning”

Cholera devastated “My Old Kentucky Home” in 1833

We’ve blogged in the past about Kentuckians’ varied reactions to epidemics of disease.  In 1833, cholera’s assault on Federal Hill in Bardstown left permanent scars on the surviving members of the Rowan family. During an outbreak in Bowling Green in 1850, by contrast, a young man affected amusement as he witnessed some rather chaotic attempts at social distancing.  Somewhere in the emotional middle was a Scott County native taking public health training in Philadelphia during the influenza epidemic of 1918; struggling with illness himself, he nevertheless viewed the deluge of cases at the city’s hospital as interesting subjects for clinical study – if they didn’t die first. 

At home in Arkansas in 1835, Jane Washington Walker must have been dumbstruck when she read her mother’s letter.  “The cholera has been among us,” wrote Rebecca Smith Washington from Russellville, Kentucky, as the scourge turned her town into “a Great House of Mourning.”

In language reminiscent of those reporting from today’s virus “hot spots,” Rebecca proceeded to recount in grim detail what the disease had wrought.  “It broke out last Friday night three weeks ago with great violence, in twenty four hours there was nine widows left to mourn the sudden death of their husbands.”  What followed was a parade of names—all known to Jane—and all dead: husbands, wives, children, neighbors, acquaintances, enslaved people.  The disease initially “raged more violently among the Negroes than the White people,” her mother reported, and those who had somewhere to escape to had quickly left town.  Rebecca closed her school.  Stores “shut up, their owners either dead or fled to the country.”  Those who remained were fearful of contact with others.  Though she “felt like I was signing the death warrant of a great part of my family,” Rebecca nevertheless agreed to shelter the family of a man helping to nurse the sick.  She praised the other first responders of the day, even though they could do little to alleviate the suffering.  “The young men performed every office male and female,” she observed, from tending the victims to making coffins out of boxes and planks, digging graves and burying the dead. 

The epidemic was subsiding, but Rebecca’s lingering shock was still evident.  As she watched merchants begin to reopen their stores, and townspeople return to their deserted (and in some cases, burglarized) homes, her thoughts were of her loved ones.  She had long contemplated pulling up stakes and moving to Arkansas; now that “life has become so uncertain,” her desire to do so was overwhelming.  “I shall never enjoy life again,” she wrote Jane, “until I join you.”

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“One entire description of suffering”

With our prospects of travel currently unappealing and not likely to improve soon, we can at least hope that we will not return to past discomforts of wagons, coaches, and explosively coal-fired locomotives and steamboats.  One such 19th-century travel nightmare is here, but here’s another from the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.

Missing his family, including a newborn daughter, William Coolidge, Jr. of Baltimore was already in a grouchy mood when his steamer arrived at Maysville, Kentucky enroute to New Orleans in 1822.  A former Bostonian (and a rather snooty one at that), Coolidge was enchanted with the Ohio River but found Maysville “a dirty hole indeed.”  Pushing on to Cincinnati, his coach ride to Lexington was “attended with discomfiture the roads almost impassable.”  He found Lexington “a tolerable flourishing town” of about 6,000 but, worn down by the January weather, he reached Frankfort “cheerless and gloomy. . . my mind diseas’d and much disquieted within me.”  He didn’t mince words about Kentucky’s state capital: “a dull and insipid hole the inhabitants vulgar, gross and mean, offensively impudent and low bred.” 

On the next leg of the journey to Louisville, his coach broke a wheel, sending Coolidge wandering for miles on foot and horseback in search of a blacksmith and wheelwright to repair the damage.  Reaching Louisville after “severest hardships and dangers,” he found no charms awaiting: “I never saw but ‘twas all of a piece, for roads and men, and women and children were all alike abhorrent and loathsome to my better senses.”  Pining for the virtues of “happy New England,” the Yankee put up at yet another undistinguished boarding house. 

The General Pike – not up to traveler Coolidge’s expectations

January wore on, the temperature dropped, the river froze, and Coolidge’s letters home went unanswered.  “My journal is but one entire description of suffering,” he wailed.  Finally, late in February, he sailed with relief from Louisville, only to have the boat run aground on a sandbar.  He switched to another boat, the General Pike —“old and altogether inferior”—and finally reached the Mississippi.  A thousand miles down the river from Louisville, he was still grumbling.  He had looked upon the waters of the Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee, and Mississippi, but “nothing on each side of these majestic rivers offering comfort or encouragement for either emigrant or Traveller save now and then a miserable log hut . . . chang’d the dismal view.”

Click here for a finding aid for William Coolidge’s journal.  For more of our collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Slowing the Spread

A military encampment at Bowling Green: a challenge to “social distancing”

As we know, accompanying the usual physical sufferings from an outbreak of infectious disease are fear and uncertainty, rumors and half-truths, and a search for scapegoats.  Such was the case when the 119th U.S. Colored Infantry set up camp near Bowling Green, Kentucky in March 1866.  Most of its members were recruited from Lexington, and they comprised one of 23 such volunteer regiments organized in Kentucky between 1863 and 1865.  

Unfortunately, the 119th’s presence coincided with an epidemic of smallpox in the town.  This appears to have prompted a local newspaper to accuse the African-American troops of introducing or spreading the disease among the citizens.  Its editor seemed to have little evidence, however, being satisfied to attribute the contagion only to “careless Negro Soldiery.”

This casual condemnation rankled the detachment commander, Captain William T. Y. Schenck.  “What you mean by ‘careless Negro Soldiery’ I do not know,” he wrote the editor, inviting him “or any other person” to visit the camp and inspect it for order and cleanliness.  Just “a few inquiries,” he pointed out, would have revealed that “this disease had shown itself in town at least two weeks before we had a single case of it here.”  It seemed just as likely that his men had become infected by the local civilians, not the other way around.

Schenck then assured the editor that he had quickly taken steps to “flatten the curve” of infection.  Upon learning of the outbreak, he “had all the men vaccinated” and, with few exceptions, allowed no one to leave the camp, “not in fear of the disease being carried from here, as we had none, but if possible to keep it without the limits of this camp.”  Despite his efforts, about 20 of the men fell ill, but they were being isolated in a “secluded building” and the threat was now “very much on the decrease.”  He concluded with a request to the paper to print his response “in order to do justice before the public to me & my fellow officers.”

A finding aid and typescript for Captain Schenck’s letter can be downloaded here.  To browse Civil War collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, click here or search TopSCHOLAR or KenCat.

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Of Books and Boondoggles

It was an impressive publication, not just in its ponderous title but in the amount of space it occupied on the shelf of the discriminating doctor, lawyer or businessman.  In 1909, Philip J. Noel, Sr. of Bowling Green, Kentucky purchased The Great Events by Famous Historians, a 20-volume “comprehensive and readable account of the world’s history.” 

Published at $100 (about $2900 today), Great Events represented a significant outlay, but it came with an attractive bonus.  Upon payment in full, the purchaser would also receive, free of charge, title to a 25 X 100-foot building lot in Westhampton Beach, Long Island, “in the centre of the fastest growing and most fashionable suburban district of Greater New York.” 

Though he was a successful insurance executive, throughout his life Noel was attracted to these quirky opportunities to leverage his income.  He bought stock, for example, in a number of short-lived mining and oil companies, all of which responded to his attempts at due diligence with rhapsodic promises of the riches that lay just around the corner.  In the case of Westhampton Beach, the developer, the New York Seaside Land Company, provided a seductive brochure designed to convince small investors that the time to acquire an interest was now.  Close to rapidly growing New York City, the area, with its beautiful beaches, railroad connections, and tennis and golf clubs, was already being bought into and improved by both profit-seeking capitalists and old-money types looking to build their summer “cottages.”  Hmmm. . . it almost seemed as if Great Events by Famous Historians was the freebie that came with the lot purchase, not the other way around; in any event, Noel was enthused enough to procure for himself a reward of two lots.      

As it turned out, other professionals with money to invest were similarly tempted—to their regret.  Just as Noel was taking the bait, a Detroit man considering the same offer was advised by the Rural New-Yorker to steer clear.  “There is land in the section worth from $3 to $5 per acre,” advised the editors, so that the lots “are worth probably 30 cents each.”  In 1912, more of the scheme came to light when a Texas doctor consulted the editors of a medical journal.  He had first been solicited with a card in the mail, to be signed and returned if he was interested in getting some lots “free of charge.”  After being induced to purchase a different set of door-stoppers—the equally weighty, 20-volume Author’s Digest—for $95, he had then wondered if the lots were “above the water” or otherwise had any value.  Imagine that, came the smug reply–“a Texan got caught in a land scheme.”

Needless to say, our Mr. Noel found no opportunity to flip his properties for a quick profit.  After a few years of tax bills, he wrote rather plaintively to the town clerk asking for the current valuation of the lots and the chances of an increase.  Though likely to gain value “in the future,” was the reply, they were then assessed at $10 each.

Philip J. Noel’s dalliance with the New York Seaside Land Company is part of the Noel Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to download a finding aid. Search our collections in TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“Just retribution! but how awful!”

“Horrible!” wrote Sallie Knott on April 15, 1865.  The previous evening in Washington, D.C, President Abraham Lincoln had been shot at Ford’s Theater and Secretary of State William H. Seward stabbed by unknown assailants.  At home in Lebanon, Kentucky, Sallie sat down to record her reactions in her journal.  But it wasn’t easy to sort out her thoughts, for at the outbreak of the Civil War she had made one thing clear to that same journal: “I glory in the name of Rebel.”

As a young schoolteacher in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Sallie had developed a disdain for Northern attacks on her state’s way of life.  Her anti-Yankee sentiments grew after she married her cousin James Proctor Knott in 1858 and moved to Missouri, where he was a lawyer and state legislator.  In 1861 Knott, now Attorney General of Missouri, was stripped of his office for declining to take an oath not to “aid the Southern cause,” and the couple was forced to return to Kentucky. 

Sallie Knott

For the next four years, Sallie remained largely true to her promise to confine her journal entries to personal affairs, but the news from Washington demanded comment.  Sallie could not restrain her sense of triumph.  “Just retribution!  but how awful!” she declared.  Lincoln had proclaimed the previous day “a universal Thanksgiving day,” but “while his partisans were feasting & making merry, by his own order, over the misfortunes of a brave & oppressed people, he & his chief director & adviser in all his fiendish schemes, are dying!  Lord, thou art just & holy; & thy judgements infinitely surpass our desires or comprehension.”

Her thoughts then turned to the identity of the perpetrators.  Of course, fingers pointed to Southerners as “the prime movers in the plot,” but Sallie put her money on General Ulysses S. Grant who, “with the army at his back, is going to try to make himself sovereign & absolute!”  Grant had accepted Lincoln’s invitation to attend the play at Ford’s Theater, she noted, but then backed out and left town.  And like Americans who, after President Kennedy’s assassination, rejected the “lone gunman” theory, she saw conspiracies in the shadows.  “Why,” she asked, “was there no attempt to arrest either assassin by guards, servants, police, nor a theatre full of people?” 

Would “a terrible struggle for absolute power & the rights of the people” now ensue, with the army on the side of despotism”? Sallie wondered. “ Let us be still & see!”  In the meantime, she had to hold her tongue around grieving family and friends and at her church’s memorial for the martryed president.  “No heathen Juggernaut ever received so much devotion as we have been obliged to offer at the shrine of Abe Linkhorn’s dead, ugly old phiz!” she sputtered.  “Bah!  ‘tis perfectly sickening!”

Sallie McElroy’s journal is part of the holdings of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  Search all our collections through TopSCHOLAR or KenCat.

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“The willow behind his wallop”

The first pitch

On April 6, 1942, some 2,500 spectators gathered at the Bowling Green Fairgrounds to watch an exhibition major league baseball game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox.  The contest was part of their three-city swing through Kentucky and, for local fans, most certainly a welcome diversion from the accelerating world war.

Insurance executive Philip J. Noel wrote with delight to his son, a physician in Washington, D.C., about his afternoon at the park.  Not only had Noel secured a seat in the national press box, he had been perfectly positioned behind home plate to capture a photograph of the game’s first pitch from Boston’s Lancelot “Yank” Terry.  “If you look closely,” he boasted, “you will see the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand.”

Noel was entirely satisfied with the day’s tally: 13 hits by each team and a 9-6 victory for the Red Sox.  “These two National teams are some ball players,” he marveled, “and work just like clock ticks.”  But Herb Wallace of the Park City Daily News was less starry-eyed.  In his opinion, the “big-time boys” had disappointed the fans with their “lack of hustle and enthusiasm.”  The inflated hits/runs total was largely attributable to this laid-back attitude, a stiff breeze and a smaller-than-major-league-sized park. 

Reds vs. Red Sox, Bowling Green Fairgrounds

But there was one highlight, all agreed, that made the afternoon worthwhile.  While two of the game’s three home run shots might not have left a big league ballpark, batting champion Ted Williams, said Wallace, “had the willow behind his wallop.”  Williams’s sixth-inning blast cleared the center field scoreboard, bounced onto the track behind, and put the Sox ahead for good. 

Fans packed the stands for the exhibition game

Philip J. Noel’s letter to his son and his photos of the game are part of the Noel Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to download a finding aid. Search our holdings in TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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The Jump Ball

With March Madness now becalmed, here’s some Hilltopper basketball history to keep the pulse racing:

It was March 11, 1966. The Ohio Valley Conference Champion Hilltoppers entered the NCAA tournament with a 23-2 record and a stellar lineup that included Clem Haskins, Greg Smith, Dwight Smith, Wayne Chapman and Steve Cunningham.  After a lopsided 105-86 win over Loyola (Ill.), they moved on to the next round against All-American Cazzie Russell and the Big Ten Conference Champions, the University of Michigan Wolverines.

With 10 seconds to go and WKU leading 79-78, the referee called for a jump ball between Greg Smith and Cazzie Russell.  He then tossed the ball off center, directly over Russell’s head.  Russell did not jump, but Smith did, tipping the ball with his left hand to center Steve Cunningham.  Russell claimed that Smith “kind of belted me on the lip as he came up and held my shoulder.”  Smith only recalled coming down in the scramble and turning, which prompted a Michigan player to point and yell, “Referee, he’s pushing!”  The official called Smith for fouling Russell—the first foul on a jump ball that Hilltopper coach John Oldham had ever witnessed.

Russell sank his two free throws, giving Clem Haskins only a few seconds to salvage a victory for WKU with a sixteen-foot jumper.  He missed.  Michigan won the game, 80-79.

The Hilltoppers later maintained that film of the play actually showed Russell fouling Smith.  But the game was in the books.  Clem Haskins bitterly called the incident “the worst call in the history of basketball.”

The next night, the Hilltoppers took out their frustrations on Dayton University, 82-68, to take third place in the tournament.  Michigan took second, falling to the University of Kentucky, 84-77.

Search WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections through TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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