Mr. Coke Goes to Frankfort

J. Guthrie Coke; Laura Clay – who’s “pugnacious”?

I am agreeably surprised that of all the members of the house I have not seen a man who was drunk and only three or four who looked like they had drunk any.  If this continues it will be remarkable and will be a credit to the body.

When he arrived in Frankfort in January 1914 to take his seat in the Kentucky House of Representatives, J. Guthrie Coke found this and other reasons to be optimistic.  Following three earlier generations of his family into public office, the 47-year-old Logan County banker and farmer had resolved to “place one rule for measurement against all things and that is is it right.” 

In letters—he called them “journals”—addressed to his wife Carrie, Coke took careful note of his surroundings—Frankfort was “a pretty town” but the magnificence of the Capitol made its houses look drab by comparison—and tried to understand the peculiarities of the democratic body of which he was a member.  On the positive side, he found himself “favored far more than any new man has been” with assignments to seven committees.  He enjoyed making the acquaintance of his fellow legislators and resolved to learn all their names.  On the negative side, Coke found some of his colleagues “trying in their several and limited capacity to do good,” others paralyzed as they contemplated “the effect of each thing they do upon their constituents,” and still others consumed as much by “some trivial measure as upon one of great moment” purely on the grounds of principle. And then there were the pesky lobbyists for the school book publishers and the railroads; the latter, he wrote, “are the worst . . . they flood the legislature both Senate and house and give every executive officer we have all the passes they desire.”  In between the good and bad were the routine aggravations of a large deliberative body: the slow pace of work as it was farmed out to committees, and the squabbles over preliminary matters, such as payment for extra stenographers and messengers, before the “mill will begin to grind, turning out its grist of good and bad laws.”

On January 13, Coke’s own capacity to do good was tested when he voted to table a resolution inviting leading woman suffragists Laura Clay and Madeline McDowell Breckinridge to address the House.  An opponent of woman suffrage, Coke nevertheless thought the brushoff “very discourteous” to these nationally known Kentucky women; he made a motion to reconsider, and the resolution was adopted. 

When the women appeared before a joint session on January 15, however, Coke’s gallantry seemed to fade.  Laura Clay, he sniped, “is a very large woman with a very flabby pugnacious face, in fact she would make a child hide under the bed if it did not know she would not eat it.  Mrs. Breckinridge is a very frail consumptive looking woman of 30 or 35 years who is a granddaughter of Henry Clay.”  They “made fine speeches,” he admitted, “but I do not think they changed anyone’s mind.”  Coke’s estimate that the legislature stood “about three to one” against suffrage might have been accurate, but Clay and Breckinridge, as they say, persisted.  Six years later, Kentucky became one of only four southern states to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women the vote.

J. Guthrie Coke’s letters from Frankfort are part of the Coke Family Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here for a finding aid and full-text download.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Cupidistic Affairs

Sir, the letter began:

The receipt of your letter occasioned me some surprise, especially as it treated on a subject to which I had not yet devoted my thoughts; neither did I imagine, from the general tenor of your conduct towards me, that you entertained the sentiment you have thus avowed.

Uh oh.  This foretold heartbreak for the recipient, who had obviously made the decision, sometime early in 1857, to declare his love for 22-year old Marie McCutchen of Logan County, Kentucky.  Her brief but masterfully composed rejection, however, let him down easy in the gentlest of terms:

Trusting you will suffer your natural and good sense to conquer a passion which can never need a due return from me.  I return to you my very grateful thanks for the honor you have done me, and at the same time assuring you that you will ever possess my faithful friendship.

Among the many courtship letters in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections are those chronicling relationships gone wrong, or, like Marie’s, nipped in the bud (perhaps wisely, in her case: her suitor was twenty years older and had already been married twice).  It’s not known if he replied to Marie, but some spurned lovers find that a letter back is the best forum in which to plead their case.  In 1918, a young WKU coed received a reply to what her (now) ex termed her “confidence jarring” break-up letter.  “We shall always remain friends,” he declared, giving himself good grades for his manly conduct.  While he wished her luck in her “Cupidistic affairs,” he laid on a little bit of a guilt trip, hoping that she wouldn’t regret her decision and vowing to fight hard for the hand of the next “Fair Lady” who came along.  Though gainfully employed, he also warned that he would likely be off to serve in World War I soon and . . . please, could she at least send a photograph? 

Similar face-saving appeared in the letter of a young Woodburn man to his sweetheart only a year later.  “I have got some good news for you I am going to leave Ky in September,” he announced.  Another suitor had intruded upon their two-year relationship, leading him to realize “that you don’t care anything about me.”  He admitted, nevertheless, that “I never expect to meet another girl that I could love like I love you.”  In 1882, Robert C. “Coley” Duncan had confronted the same dilemma when he wrote to Nellie Gates of Calhoun, Kentucky.  “You love someone more than you do me I feel sure of it and it would certainly be best for both of us to cancel our engagement.”  Robert, in fact, married someone else only a year later, while Nellie’s rather cryptic reaction was to save his letter – in eight torn-up pieces. 

If some courtships start as well as end with a letter, perhaps no finer specimen can be found in our collections than one lengthy, unsigned, undated appeal, perhaps drafted and then carefully rewritten – or hidden away by an author who lost his nerve.  Dear Miss, it began.  For fear that a conversation with her would arouse gossip, he had resolved to take this approach:

Feeling my situation to be a forlorn lonesome & unhappy one I have seriously considered the propriety of writing myself to some tender hearted female calculated to soothe my sorrows and to enjoy with me the pleasures this uncertain world is able to afford. . . .

And in considering where I could find one in whom I could have that confidence in their good sense and propriety of conduct necessary to a happy Union my mind seems involuntarily to center on you. . . . And I must acknowledge to you that I have existing within my breast feelings of a very tender and inexpressible kind for you that I do not feel for any other person. . . .

And now I would candidly ask you whether you could consent to enter into a matrimonial connexion and whether your affections are disengaged. . . . If you would condescend to answer me by letter it would meet my warmest approbation. . . .  let your answer be plain & candid if you could subscribe the following it is all that is necessary: “I will share your sorrows and you shall share my Joys.”

Let’s hope he got his answer.

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

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What Does Victory Feel Like?

“Photograph of a Young Nazi”

It was clear that it was May 8, 1945, but in his eagerness to reach out to his family in Bowling Green, Kentucky from “the Heart of Germany,” Captain Harry Jackson misdated his letter April 8.  “To-day is VE day in Europe!” he exclaimed, but rather than “a day of great revelry and excitement . . . the day has been spent in sober reflection and rest.” 

Casting his mind back on the struggle – which, for him, had begun at Normandy only days after D-Day – Jackson found it difficult to appreciate the significance of the occasion.  He and his men felt less like conquering heroes than “bewildered children contemplating something too powerful to comprehend.”  No one could quite believe that, all of a sudden, “there will not be any more guns, snipers, buzz bombs, rockets, mortar shells, blood, suffering, death, and devastating destruction. We cannot realize that the hour is free – that the fighting here is over.”  Overshadowing any relief Jackson felt were the ghosts of “our men drifting and driving through the maelstrom of battle endlessly, tired, weary, footsore, cold,” and of those “who have fallen along the roadside in the mud . . . awaiting the Graves Registration units to come pick them up.”  His reserves of emotion, he admitted, were empty – “and yet moist tears even now trickle down my cheeks.”

Three days later, Jackson took up his letter again.  Still unable to sort out his reactions, he had wandered the sunny streets of the medieval village in which he was staying, then tried to shake off his indolence and reenter the “world of reality” and resume his officer’s duties.  “I must finish this letter now,” he wrote apologetically, “although I have failed miserably to fulfill my intentions when I began it.” 

But if Jackson could not yet understand the meaning of victory he had, only a month earlier, contemplated the wages of hubris, aggression, and defeat.  Billeted in a house in Hanover, Germany, he had come across a photograph of a German soldier. The discovery had moved him to compose a poem “Written Upon Finding a Photograph of a Young Nazi”:

Oh!  Imperious young man – Thou!
Where lies thy destiny?
Has the pillars of thy philosophy withstood
The gamble of the conqueror’s game,
the fanatic’s creed –
Which leads blindly into hate?

Think! – when returning to the remains
of thy heritage,
Of what price you have paid
…….
Weep! and survey the ruin.

Harry L. Jackson’s papers are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library. Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Have something to say, then say it

Harry Jackson (tallest, at rear) with “my crew,” Kerkrade, Netherlands

When Captain Harry L. Jackson landed in France five days after D-Day, the special services officer with the 120th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division had yet to encounter the worst of his war experiences.  His tour, however, was preceded by lengthy service in the National Guard and, after his unit was activated, by duty at stateside camps and by training at Officers’ Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia and Special Services School at Washington and Lee University.  His training groomed Jackson to be responsible not only for a variety of tasks but for coordinating the activities of his staff to best serve the needs of soldiers and civilians caught in the European theater of war.

Jackson learned that military life was more than the receipt of and obedience to unfathomable orders and meaningless procedures; rather, leading and motivating others required skills that were necessary in any well-functioning organization, military or civilian.  Included in his papers, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Library Special Collections, is a two-page list of 28 points summarizing the “Management of the American Soldier.”  Among the items of advice:

Treat the American soldier as a man; look him squarely in the eye when you talk to him and treat him justly.

Give short talks to men on subjects which they ought to know.  Be sure the talks are short.  Have something  to say; say it; then stop.

Be extremely careful about your manner in dealing with soldiers; they are entitled to a respectful and patient hearing.  Some officers seem to go on the theory that military efficiency consists in a loud voice and an impatient manner.

[Soldiers] respect and admire an officer who requires a strict performance of duty.  The true rule for handling soldiers is: Don’t nag them; don’t neglect them; don’t coddle them.

Look carefully after the company mess.  Much of the discontent in a company is founded upon dissatisfaction with the food and the way it is served.

Be an optimist; cultivate that habit.

Remember Napoleon’s maxim, that in war the moral is to the physical as three to one.

There is always something to be done; the efficient officer sets to work earnestly and loyally to do it, overcoming obstacles as he goes along.

Prohibit the use of dirty, vulgar language – Punish offenders and see that your instructions are carried out.

This last admonition was, perhaps, more honored in the breach than the observance, as indicated by the motivational techniques of another officer whose words were also preserved in Captain Jackson’s papers.  A week before D-Day, legendary General George S. Patton gave a speech to the men of the Third U.S. Army.  Here is some of what he had to say by way of motivation (edited for PG-13):

Death must not be feared.  Every man is frightened at first in battle.  If he says he isn’t, he’s a #&%@# liar.

All through your army career you men have bitched about what you call “this chicken$#&* drilling.”  That is all for a purpose.  Drilling and discipline must be maintained in an army, if only for one reason: INSTANT OBEDIENCE TO ORDERS AND TO CREATE CONSTANT ALERTNESS.  I don’t give a damn for a man who is not always on his toes.

An army is a team.  Lives, sleeps, eats, fights as a team.  This individual heroic stuff is a lot of crap.

Why, by God, I actually pity those son-of-a-$%&# we’re going up against.  By God, I do.

Every man in the army plays a vital part.  Every little job is essential to the whole scheme. . . . Even the Chaplain is important for if we get killed, and he was not there to bury us, we’d all to go to Hell.

Sure, we will all want to go home.  We want this thing over with, but you can’t win a war lying down.  The quickest way to get it over with is to get the #%&$#&.  The quicker they are whipped, the quicker we go home.

Thank God that at least, 30 years from now when you are sitting around the fireside with your grandson on your knee, and he asks you what you did in the Great World War II, you won’t have to say, “I shoveled #&$@ in Louisiana.”

Click here to access a finding aid for the Harry Jackson Collection.  For more World War II collections, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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Tangling Up, 1920s-style

I had to get married right away and didn’t have time to get someone I really wanted so now I’m Mrs. James Clayton Newman.  Jimmie’s a sweet kid but I can’t understand how his own mother can love him, let alone me.

For this Women’s History Month, we bring you a tale of courtship right out of the Roaring Twenties.  Though it’s hard to imagine this same scenario playing out even a generation earlier, it’s likely it did; few, however, described it with more casual candor than 18-year-old Elizabeth Jolly of Stanford, Kentucky.

It started with a date with “Jimmy.”  They raised a pint . . . then two, then three (all presumably illegal, since this was December 1927).  Before long, Elizabeth wrote her girlfriend Emily, “I was absolutely wild and passed out once.”  It was almost midnight when Jimmy poured her into her Louisville rooming house and left her asleep, “with my hat, coat, shoes, stockings and everything on,” to fetch them something to eat.  On his return, Jimmy was spotted sneaking into the house muffling his steps with “soft bedroom slippers,” a scandalous infraction that led to Elizabeth’s eviction by her housemother.  “Call a taxi,” an angry Elizabeth told her amour the next morning.  Their destination: one of many “marriage parlors” in Jeffersonville, Indiana.  “Getting people married,” she reminded Emily, “is the chief business there just like bootlegging is in some towns.” 

On the train, Elizabeth noted, word spread quickly as to “what we were up to.”  Some fellow passengers happened to have a portable Victrola, which they pulled out and played for the entire trip (no wedding march, thankfully).  On arrival in Jeffersonville, another taxi driver efficiently connected the lovebirds with a license clerk and a magistrate, who was “up waiting for us and had a light on and everything.”  Elizabeth had “never seen a place where marriage is looked upon so commercially.”  When the magistrate “had finished tangling us up he gave us one of his cards and asked us to send our friends.” 

The bride and groom returned to Louisville, resolved to seal their union with a proper wedding ring.  “I was married with my class ring,” Elizabeth reported, noting with a mix of sentiment and practicality that Jimmy “wanted me to use his but I thought maybe we would get us a divorce sometime and I will always want the ring I got married with.”

Now came the really tricky part: breaking the news to the folks at home.  But Elizabeth had a plan.  She intended to go home for Christmas in a few weeks “and have dates just like nothing had happened.”  Then, on her way out the door, she’d share her secret with her mother. 

And what did the future hold?  On this, Elizabeth was hazy, but “this won’t interfere with all our good times,” she assured girlfriend Emily.  In fact, two young fellows that she and Emily had recently had their eyes on might still get the benefit of their company.  “I will still help you get Beecher and I am going to see Lawrence or tear up a couple of these Bluegrass towns,” promised our newlywed. 

Elizabeth’s letter to Emily about her hasty marriage (spoiler: it didn’t last) is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid and full-text scan.  For more collections about marriage and courtship, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“There is nothing romantic about it”

Harry Jackson despaired at homes blown out “like the bowels of a butchered pig”

As a U.S. Army Special Services Officer during World War II, Warren County, Kentucky’s Harry L. Jackson (1907-1985) saw combat up close.  Landing at Utah Beach five days after D-Day, he and his men pushed toward Germany via France, Holland and Belgium.  Jackson’s duties included arranging recreation for the troops, writing a regimental history, distributing ballots for the 1944 presidential election, and preparing applications for decorations.  Before long, however, he found himself doing much more: burying war dead, helping to manage waves of refugees, and juggling pleas for favors from desperate civilians.  He experienced the far-away look in the eyes of exhausted combat soldiers, and the utter destruction that war brought to once-beautiful cities and villages across Europe. He also learned to cope with his own emotional tailspin after witnessing a vast panorama of human suffering that included a visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp in summer 1945.

So it was with much authority that Jackson reflected on the bitter fruits of war in an October 9, 1944 letter to his sister Juanita:

While I write this there is a terrible battle raging. . . you will never know (thank God) the terror of war – all evening long I have been listening to the artillery fire – the concussion of which shakes the building to its foundations – then there are the mortars and machine guns – then the tanks. . . the planes are over most every night. . . then to-morrow the casualty lists. . . . 

I went out today – all of the houses are torn to bits – everything blown from the inside with large holes blown through the walls – all the inside contents spilling out like the bowels of a butchered pig – there are no windows – just large gaping holes in the walls through which the wind and weather plays jauntily with the lace curtains – curtains hung by some proud hand to make a home. . . makes one feel ashamed to look into the intimate privacy of these houses as they stand stripped of their raiments and stand naked before you.  The people – the people that once called them home have been driven, helpless away . . . to make way for the mighty god of war and destruction. . . . .

No there is nothing romantic about it.  Beauty and the lightness of life is gone. . . . but we are winning – and there will be a to-morrow of a better world I hope whether I am here to see it or not. . . . My eyes have seen too much – and my mind is filled with revolt at the scene – but I must go on – for them that have gone and for those that are out there to-night and for you at home.

Harry Jackson’s letters are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  A finding aid can be downloaded here.  To browse our World War II collections, search TopSCHOLAR and Ken Cat.

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A Register of Lives

It’s a slender, legal-sized ledger with a nicely marbled cover, but worn from use and with some of its pages missing.  Its mid-nineteenth-century inscriptions appear to have been of little interest to a later custodian, who used its blank pages to doodle and trace comic strip frames.  At some point (perhaps about 1930), it ended up in Bowling Green’s city dump, where it was retrieved by a schoolboy and given to the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.     

It’s a “Register of Slaves Owned for Life,” but the reference wasn’t to the life of the slave.  Instead, it was a stark reminder that, because of their legal status as chattel, enslaved people were subject to often complex and arcane Anglo-Saxon laws governing personal property.  Early Warren County court records show the frequent litigation that ensued when slaves were bought and sold, but also gifted, loaned out, mortgaged, divided up under estate settlements, and seized and sold for debt (or hidden away to avoid such seizures).  Enslaved people were also devised by will, either outright or, for example, to a widow for life and then after her death to an ultimate beneficiary, often children—the “remaindermen” or “owners in remainder.”

It was this last arrangement that the Register of Slaves Owned for Life was meant to monitor.  Since the owners in remainder had a future enforceable interest in the enslaved people, life estate owners were required to make an annual report to the county clerk of the names, sex and ages of slaves in their possession.  We learn, therefore, that in 1855 Mrs. Mary Burford had life ownership of eight enslaved men and ten women, who were to pass to the heirs of the late J. A. Cooke on her death.  Mrs. Burford, however, was free to sell her life interest in some or all of the slaves; she did so on at least two occasions, obliging the transferee to make subsequent reports. 

In addition to an enslaved person’s name, age and sex, other descriptive information was commonly added, such as skin tone and physical characteristics or peculiarities.  But while they were considered commodities, enslaved people were living commodities, their births, children and deaths adding fluidity to their value to life estate holders and remaindermen. They also performed duties that confounded their status as chattel and foretold the future: a life interest holder’s final report in April 1865 listed five enslaved men who were serving as volunteers in the Union Army.

Emancipation, of course, ended the need for records of property in people.  For some of them, the break was clean, but (surprise!) the law occasionally dragged its heels.  Witness the answer of the defendants in a suit brought in Barren County disputing the proceeds of a mortgage of three enslaved people.  Two had earlier been sold, but the third, a woman?  She was of no value, huffed the defendants, since she was “‘lying loose around’ under the idea that she is free.”

Click on the links to access finding aids (including a full-text scan of the Warren County Register of Slaves) for these collections.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Justin Harris: Student Worker Experience

When I first accepted the position as a student assistant at WKU Archives, I did not expect to go on such a fascinating historical journey. My experiences in the past year have been more invaluable than I ever could have imagined. Having the opportunity to work firsthand with the archived historical documents in WKU Archives has helped to paint a broader picture of the story as to how WKU began and what it has evolved into today. More specifically, my day-to-day tasks have mainly included collecting and scanning a multitude of different types of historical documents to be easily accessed on the TopSCHOLAR research & Creative Activity Database of WKU.  The documents that I’ve been able to work on so far date back from the 1900s to the 1990s. The ability to upload these different materials from their physical form to our digital database has helped and will continue to help expose a vastly greater audience to the history of our school than ever before.

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Pass the Can

Mattie Spangler; the SS Oder

Even though you feel you’re dying for the first, and dying from the second, the two worst afflictions in the world have to be homesickness and seasickness.  When, as a child, Martha “Mattie” Spangler left her birthplace in Owen County, Kentucky to move with her family to Covington, it’s uncertain whether she felt pangs for her old home.  In 1878, however, when 16-year old Mattie set out for boarding school at Hamilton College in Lexington, she keenly felt the loss of family and familiar surroundings.

Hamilton College was a typical 19th-century female school.  The president, John T. Patterson, ruled the roost, and the young women were severely restricted in their activities and movements.  Although she made friends and enjoyed the company of her roommates, Mattie watched wistfully when some of the students obtained permission to visit their own homes or those of friends on weekends.  Trips to church or to shop downtown were limited to small groups and were chaperoned by Patterson or one of the female teachers.  Beset by waves of homesickness and the “blues,” Mattie dreaded Mondays, rejoiced when Saturdays arrived, and counted down the days until she could go home for Christmas. 

All the more surprising then, was Mattie’s departure in fall 1879 to attend another boarding school an ocean – and a world – away in Orléans, France.  Enrolled at the “Pension Clavel” (shades of Villette!), she arrived after a Channel crossing from Southampton, England.  Her trans-Atlantic journey had been on the steamship Oder, a German vessel that made regular crossings between New York and Bremen via Southampton. 

It was aboard the Oder that Mattie had her experience – once removed, fortunately – with seasickness.  She was apparently travelling with one Etienne Quetin, a Covington, Kentucky teacher of French, his wife, his son Alex, and “Mary,” possibly another member of their household.  Then it hit.  “Mary & Allie are as sick as dogs,” wrote Mattie in her journal, before noting (in the smug manner of the spared) that she felt fine and had a good appetite.  She was rather annoyed, however, when queasy Mary claimed the bottom berth in their stateroom and left her with the top bunk.

The Oder’s support system for coping with mal de mer was pretty simple.  Each berth, Mattie noted, “has a little vomiting can hooked on its side.”  Though not needing it for its primary purpose, she was not above using it for an occasional expectoration.  And that is where she got even, to her secret mirth, with bottom-bunk Mary.  “As I went to get up in the morning,” she recorded, “I knocked my can, which was full of spit, right down on Mary’s head.  When I found out where my poor little can had landed I lay back in my berth and laughed until the ship fairly shook.” 

Mattie was not laughing, however, when a “funny fellow” on board, an artist, began surreptitiously sketching her as she gazed out at the sea.  After rebuffing her plea to erase his work, he shared a “splendid” remedy for seasickness.  “It is to swallow a chunk of salt pork with a string tied to it and pull it up again,” she recorded.  “He believes in this which shows what a big ‘goose’ he is.”  No mention of whether Mattie’s appetite survived this bit of advice.

Mattie Spangler’s journals detailing the ups and downs of her boarding school education have been recently donated to the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  A finding aid can be downloaded here.  To read more about Mattie later in life, click here. For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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An Ever-Green Christmas

As the question, “What are you doing for the holidays?” begins to spread over the land, here are a few past glances at Christmas Day as experienced by Kentuckians and others represented in WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Despite their lack of TV, video games, opening day movies and other distractions, it is surprisingly easy to empathize with their preoccupations and reflections.

One concern, of course, was the weather.  December 25, 1844 in Caswell County, North Carolina, dawned “a most Beautiful clear & pleasant morning,” according to one anonymous observer, “the ground a little crusted tho the Sun shines Bright and warm at 9 oclock in the morning.”  Closer to home, Bowling Green’s John Younglove recorded the temperature at sunrise on Christmas Day as part of his faithful meteorological record.  His readings ran the gamut from a frosty 6 below zero in 1878 to a rainy 54 degrees in 1889.

Some Kentuckians have made Christmas Day doubly memorable: for example, George W. Shanks and Catharine Johnson, both of Galloways Mill in Warren County, chose December 25, 1881 as their wedding day.

George Shanks & Catharine Johnson marriage certificate, Dec. 25, 1881

For those in military service, unfortunately, December 25 might be barely distinguishable from other days.  “There was not much here in a Christmas nature,” wrote Army dentist Bill Fulton from Fort Knox in 1942.  “Here we are in the Army and know nothing else.”  But Marshall Cole, serving in the Philippines in 1944, found himself having a better Christmas Day than he expected, thanks to gift boxes from the Red Cross and fresh turkey for dinner. 

For children, letter writing more commonly took the form of communiques to Santa Claus.  Saint Nick’s replies to young Maggie Nicholls of Calhoun, Kentucky, however, looked like they might have been ghostwritten by a Victorian parent.  “I will try to get to your home Christmas,” he promised.  “If you will straighten up I will be sure to come.”  And in 1881, her gifts arrived with instructions to take good care of them, love her parents, and “always sit still at the table.”

Santa’s note to Maggie Nicholls

Other Christmas Day letters gave their writers a welcome opportunity to reconnect with those dearest to them.  On December 25, 1865, a young man in Union County, Kentucky, replied eagerly to a letter from his father, with whom he had been out of touch for almost two years.  Bringing him up to date on his teaching and preaching duties at two small churches, he reflected on the “demoralization in society that is quite visible everywhere,” with increasing crime and intemperance and a decline in church attendance, especially outside the South. 

On December 25, 1848, Ann Rowan Buchanan, the daughter of John Rowan of Federal Hill (“My Old Kentucky Home”) penned a letter to her mother from Cincinnati.  The weather was gloomy and cold, and her husband appeared unwilling to let the holiday interfere with his business activities.  Nevertheless, Ann’s heart was full.  The mother of three boys under six years of age, she found joy in their eager wait for Santa and their excitement at finding their stockings full.  Remembering her own girlhood Christmases, she had resolved to continue the tradition.  The “cares and troubles of life may break us down,” she wrote her mother, but “one verdant spot still remains ever green, which blooms to the grave, a Christmas day in our childhood.”  For her children, she would “do my best to make them happy on this day that may be a green spot in their hearts in after years as it is in mine.”

Click on the links for finding aids and other information about these Christmas Day items in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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