Author Archives: Lynn Niedermeier

Shaker Collections in Manuscripts & Folklife Archives

When the United Believers in the Second Coming of Christ established a religious colony at South Union in Logan County, Kentucky in 1807, they were fulfilling the missionary vision of Ann Lee (1736-1784), a British-born immigrant to New England and the founder of their faith.  “Mother Ann” had infused singing and dancing into worship services to such a degree that onlookers described an early meeting as full of “shaking, trembling, speaking in unknown tongues, prophesying and singing melodious songs.”  Thus was born the popular name for her followers, the Shakers.

Shakers dancing during worship

Shakers dancing during worship

The South Union Shakers were objects of curiosity for their practice of pacifism and celibacy, but by the time the colony dissolved in 1922, they had left a rich heritage of music, craftsmanship, and innovation in industry and agriculture.  Known especially for their packaged garden seeds and preserves, the Shakers also operated mills, sold livestock and poultry, and offered public meetings in addition to their private religious services.

The Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections is the premier destination for anyone interested in the history of the South Union Shakers.  Researchers can now browse a list of our principal Shaker collections, which focus on South Union but include materials relating to other Shaker colonies, by clicking here.  The collections include Shaker journals of daily activities, records of Shaker businesses, hymnals, memoirs, photographs, and the papers of leading Shaker scholar and WKU faculty member Julia Neal.  A fascinating Civil War resource is the diary of eldress Nancy Moore, which chronicles the hardships of the Shakers as both Confederate and Union troops descended upon them demanding food, provisions and horses.  Each listed collection includes a link to TopSCHOLAR, WKU’s digital repository, where a detailed finding aid is available for download.  For even more Shaker materials, search KenCat, the Kentucky Library Research Collections catalog.

Shaker colony at South Union

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It Ain’t Easy Being a Woman

Alice Hegan Rice

Alice Hegan Rice

Or is it?  Are women loved?  Hated? Revered?  Feared?  Pampered? Oppressed?  All of the above?  It depends on where you look in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For this International Women’s Day, here are a few examples:

It is my sad lot to write you that it is a girl instead of a boy. Bill Gossedge of Louisville, announcing the birth of his daughter in 1939.

I was liberated on the day I was born–in 1920!  Women have always been able to do what they wanted to if they wanted it enough–and have a family as well. Martha Mauldin of Bowling Green, responding to a 1996 “Rush Limbaugh Position Poll” to show “that feminists are out of step with most Americans.”

Woman is the embodiment of soul, romance, beauty and delicacy, that gives refinement to society, delight and enjoyment to the senses, and happiness to the mind. Byron R. Gardner, decrying supporters of woman suffrage “as if it were a greater boon to act with wicked men than to influence them.”

This will could never be recorded, as your wife was a married woman. — Bowling Green lawyer Daniel Webster Wright, returning to Simon P. Morgan his deceased wife Cassandra’s 1871 will.  She had left everything to her husband, but marriage deprived her of her legal identity and property rights, so the will was meaningless.

And, of course, on this “Day Without a Woman,” it’s worth remembering that some of the fondest words spoken about women come after they’re dead.  Here’s Rev. Benjamin S. McReynolds of Butler County, writing on the death of his wife Elizabeth in 1816:  My dear Elizabeth is gone / To inherit an immortal crown. / Reserved for her in heaven above, / Where she’s inflamed with joy and love.  Or this from poet Cale Young Rice, in a letter to his brother eleven months after the death of his wife:  My life seems to have run into a blind alley at present.  The loss of Alice and my home, the feeling that I have finished my work . . . leaves me desireless.  “Alice” was Alice Hegan Rice, author of the classic story of life in a Louisville slum, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.  Two weeks later, Cale took his own life, unable to cope “without a woman.”

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections, or contact mssfa@wku.edu.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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In Our Time

Martha Potter's letter from Time

Martha Potter’s letter from Time

The inaugural issue of Time on March 3, 1923 introduced Americans to a weekly tradition of news-reading that continues to this day.  At home on State Street in Bowling Green, Martha Potter warmed to the magazine’s format and content.  “I am taking a new periodical ‘Time,’ she wrote her children in 1925, “which comes every week and which I like because it gives the news in short paragraphs, and is a very thin little volume which I can read in a short time.”  She even suspected she could “get some valuable pointers from it” for her letters, which often ran to excessive length.  In 1939, however, Martha was not so enthused when she wrote to Time complaining about some “cuss words” in letters to its editor.  “Such words can indeed be in very bad taste,” replied a staffer, but “when they add color to the reader’s comments, or fit in with what he wants to say, we let them stand.  This will not become a habit, I assure you.”

To get a mention in Time, nevertheless, is to hit the big time.  In a June 15, 1959 profile of Bowling Green native and New York banker Harold Helm, the magazine lauded the “expansion-minded” chairman of the Chemical Corn Exchange Bank, who had successfully engineered a merger with the New York Trust Company to create the nation’s fourth largest financial institution.  After the article appeared, congratulatory letters came to Helm from Kentucky friends old and new, including one who remembered boarding with his parents in Auburn in 1892.

The honor of gracing the cover of Time’s first issue went to former Speaker Joseph Gurney Cannon, about to retire from a long tenure in the U. S. House of Representatives.  In a letter to his grandchildren, Kentucky Congressman William H. Natcher told a story about “Boss Cannon,” so nicknamed because of his power as Speaker and as Chairman of the Ways and Means and Appropriations Committees.  It was Cannon, said Natcher, whose fondness for the bean soup served in the House dining room mandated its inclusion on the menu every day, a tradition that continues.

Click on the links to access finding aids for these letters, 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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Advice from an “Infidel”

Letter from the Emersons, 1822

Letter from the Emersons, 1822

Like his three brothers, Romanus Emerson (1782-1852) seemed destined for the ministry, but a speech impediment sent the New Hampshire native instead to work as a carpenter and merchant in Boston.  A cousin of transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, Romanus remained a devout Baptist until his 50s when, under the influence of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason and his own freethinking nature, he washed his hands of all religion and became an atheist – in his word, an “infidel.”  His self-composed funeral oration condemned theology as “a system of deceit and fraud” and exhorted his survivors to get a good education, observe the golden rule, and accept that “there is no part or parcel of the creature man that survives his decomposition.”

But Romanus was still a believer in 1822 when he and his wife Jemima wrote to 33-year-old Fanny Goodridge, who had left Boston to teach school in Lexington, Kentucky.  Jemima was interested in sharing news and hearing of Fanny’s “sorrows and joys,” but was also anxious about her new life “amungst strangers” and hoped that after serving the next generation “in that place,” she would return safely to her “native land.”  Romanus, on the other hand, wrote in full lecture mode, instructing her to remain pious above all else and never to lose sight of God.  “Let the blessed bible,” he urged, “be your first and your last, your highest and your lowest, your furtherist and your nearest . . . your downsiting and your uprising.”

Even if Romanus ended up disowning his own advice, Fanny stayed the course.  A year later, she began a Sabbath School in Michigan, and a few years after that emigrated with her new husband to Kansas, where they spent most of their lives as missionaries and teachers among the Potawatomi Indians.

Romanus and Jemima Emerson’s letter is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Her Ninth Heart

Valentine to William Carson

Valentine to William Carson

On this Valentine’s Day, here is our most spectacular, and probably oldest (ca. 1850) appeal to the affections — in this case (we think) of one Mr. William Carson — from a “love sick Maid.”  Measuring a full 12 inches in diameter, its verse begins on the outer edge with the lady’s decision to choose him “for my Vallentine,” then circles inward with dizzying entreaties to the gentleman not to “Refuse to be my love” — “for you are my chiefest hearts delight / you can my darkest hours make bright.”

portion of ValentineAs for all those handmade cutouts: There is Eight hearts Plain in your view / The ninth I lost when I saw you.

portion of ValentineThis valentine (and many more) can be found in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

portion of Valentine

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“I Know Nothing”

American Party broadside (Kentucky Library Research Collections)

American Party broadside (Kentucky Library Research Collections)

Streaking across the political firmament in the 1850s, the American Party rose in response to a wave of immigrants, many of them Catholics, to the United States.  The party saw the newcomers as a threat to American values and economic security, and feared that their allegiance to the Pope would compromise their loyalty to the country.

Collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections tell us of the interest the American Party attracted throughout the country.  It was originally more of a secret society, with a formal admission ceremony described by Robert Hale, and a command to members to say “I know nothing” when pressed for their beliefs.  The “Know Nothing Party,” as it came to be called, stood for restricting immigration, limiting eligibility for political office to native-born Protestants, and imposing a lengthy residence requirement for U.S. citizenship.

American Party broadside

Although the Know Nothings were most prominent in the Northeast, they drew comment from every region.  Writing from California to his father in Dry Fork, Kentucky, George Young observed that “the Know Nothings are increasing very fast” and “I am inclined to believe that it will do this state much good.”  A more skeptical letter-writer in Texas told the Goodnight family of Warren County, Kentucky that party supporters “talk a great deal about true Americans but I don’t believe there is a true Republican amongst them.”

In a speech delivered in Virginia, Georgia native Michael Cluskey, later a newspaper editor in Louisville, offered a lengthy and increasingly passionate criticism of the Know Nothings.  He debunked the “bugbear of immigration,” which was “made to appear frightful by the unfounded statements of certain Know Nothing orators.”  Contrary to the claim that “there were 1000 000 million of emigrants into this country during the last year,” he pointed to actual native-born-to-immigrant ratios of 38 to 1 in Virginia and 8 to 1 in the U.S.  A recent decrease in immigration, in fact, was threatening to cause a labor shortage, especially for public works like roads and canals, to which “native born Americans generally don’t choose to expose themselves.”  As for the party’s anti-Catholic platform, Cluskey observed that “nothing is so easily stirred up in the breast of man as the serpent of Religious prejudice,” a “cry of wolf” through which politicians could achieve darker objectives.  “Small temporary shocks like these,” he argued, were more dangerous to the republic than “direct blows at its stability.”

The 1856 presidential election, in which their candidate finished last, spelled the end of the Know Nothings.  In a letter written from Madisonville, Kentucky, Charles Cook understood why.  “I still cherish the leading principles of the American party as the only efficient guarantee against the dangerous influences and corrupting tendencies of foreign emigration,” he admitted, “but these are questions of minor importance.”  The issue now roiling the country, and the one to which “the earnest efforts of every patriotic Union loving man should be turned,” was slavery.

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

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Mary Richards Goes to Washington

Mary Tyler Moore and William H. Nat

Mary Tyler Moore and William H. Natcher

The death of Mary Tyler Moore on January 25 reminded many of us how much we miss Mary, Rhoda, Lou, Ted and the gang, but tributes have also recognized her real-life, longtime advocacy on behalf of people with Type 1 diabetes (also known as juvenile diabetes).

Diagnosed with the condition in 1969, Moore became International Chairman for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the first celebrity to lend her name to the cause.  She frequently appeared before congressional committees to encourage awareness, research and funding.  In the course of her visits to Washington, Moore became good friends with Congressman William H. Natcher of Kentucky, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee for health funding.

Mary Tyler Moore with group of congressmenAmong the many hundreds of photographs in the William H. Natcher Collection, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, are these of Moore’s visits to Washington.  When Natcher died, she was one of many notable mourners who attended his funeral in Bowling Green on April 6, 1994.

For more information on the Natcher Collection, contact us at mssfa@wku.edu.

Mary Tyler Moore

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“Louisville is in an awful condition”

Eighty years ago this month, four times the normal amount of rainfall fell in the Ohio River Valley.  Louisville, Kentucky endured 19 inches of rain, 15 of them in just 12 days.  On January 27, the swollen Ohio River crested at 57.1 feet above flood stage, marking the peak of what has been called the worst natural disaster in the city’s history:  the Great Flood of 1937.  Before the water receded, 70% of Louisville was submerged, 230,000 citizens were displaced, and as many as 200 were dead.

Flooded Louisville, January 1937

Flooded Louisville, January 1937

The Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections holds numerous letters, diaries and recollections telling of the Great Flood and its impact on the region.  To name just a few of the eyewitnesses:  Alice Stout at the Cortlandt Hotel, who wrote her mother of the growing emergency as city services–water, gas and electricity–began to shut down; Edna Grauman, who wrote in anguish to WKU librarian Margie Helm of the herculean efforts to salvage the collections at the Louisville Public Library; Margie Helm’s sister-in-law Kitty Helm, who wrote of the flow of refugees to schools and churches, and of helping doctors administer typhoid shots amid fears of a public health crisis; volunteers like Mary Leiper Moore, who came from Bowling Green to help with relief efforts and evacuate refugees; and Arthur Lissauer, who earned a commendation for his work ferrying victims to safety.

Alice Stout's view from the Cortlandt Hotel, Louisville

Alice Stout’s view from the Cortlandt Hotel, Louisville

At the time of the flood, Christian county native Robert Tinnon Joiner was at Louisville’s Hazelwood Sanatorium being treated for tuberculosis.  In a letter to his wife Pearl written over several days in January, he gave a dramatic account of the deluge as experienced from his hospital bed:

Sunday morning, January 24:  “Louisville is in an awful condition.”  Joiner was glued to the radio as WHAS began broadcasting continuous flood reports and directing rescuers to people trapped and in danger of drowning.  As the flood overwhelmed the city’s infrastructure, the supply of electricity, gas and drinkable water was in jeopardy.

Sunday evening:  Still raining, with more to come.  The river was rising one foot per hour.  The sanatorium, located on high ground, was safe for the time being, Joiner reported, but the lights had gone out and there was talk of rationing food.

Monday afternoon, January 25:  The river was at 55 feet and rising.  Joiner had no heat or light and, though surrounded by this historic flood, little water to drink or bathe in.

Tuesday morning, January 26:  Joiner heard cars running all night, some delivering refugees to the sanatorium, and planes flying overhead delivering supplies.  The lights were still out.

Wednesday morning, January 27:  At 57 feet, the river was now 10.5 feet higher than it had ever been.  Joiner could see flooded homes in the valley below. Rumors abounded of deaths, shortages of coffins, and no dry place to bury the dead.

Friday morning, January 29:  The water was beginning to recede, but the sanatorium still had no lights, little water, and only enough food for two meals a day.  Joiner, who hadn’t bathed in nine days, lamented the fact that two dozen patients were using the same toilet but flushes were limited to three or four a day.

“The only cheerful thing about the whole dreadful thing,” wrote Kitty Helm of the Great Flood, “is the discovery of an amazing amount of kindness and generosity” in the rescue efforts and the aid extended by Kentuckians as far away as Bowling Green.  Even the U.S. Mail rose to the occasion:  Kitty’s letter, mailed on January 26, had been delivered on January 29 despite lack of sufficient postage.

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections.  For more collections giving first-hand accounts of the Great Flood of 1937, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“The Elephant Was the Great Show”

The circus comes to Bowling Green, 1921 (Kentucky Library)

The circus comes to Bowling Green, 1921 (Kentucky Library)

The recent news that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will shut down “The Greatest Show on Earth” in May 2017 brings to mind Bowling Green’s long history of circuses, some of which is documented in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.

Research into the city license records by a former librarian reveals that by 1875, some 36 circuses had come through Bowling Green, often several times a year.  The P. T. Barnum circus paid for its first license in 1853, with an additional fee for “one side show.”  The very first circus, however, appears to have been in 1839, when the “Raymond & Waxing” troupe came to town.  A witness to the extravaganza was Henry Fox, who marveled at the many kinds of animals, including camels and lions.  But “the elephant was the great show,” he remembered, the biggest creature he had ever seen: “He had tusks that come out and crossed and he could throw his snout up and drop it down.”

In an age when entertainment on such a scale was rare, the arrival of the circus in Bowling Green caused tremendous excitement.  One April day in 1879, 15-year-old Josephine Calvert went to school as usual, where her older sister Lida happened to be the teacher.  Lida, however, had to give up and dismiss the class when only three students showed up.  The reason?  “There is a circus in town,” Josie wrote in her diary, “and all are perfectly crazy.”

True to their reputations, circus folk and their animals could generate some strange legends.  Born in 1852, Elizabeth Gaines recalled her mother’s description of a cholera epidemic in Bowling Green “said to have been caused from the death of a very large snake,” that had expired while the circus was in town.  “They buried the snake,” Elizabeth was told, but some of the people connected with the circus also fell victim to the disease.

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

"Step right on in" (Fannie Morton Bryan Collection)

“Step right on in” (Fannie Morton Bryan Collection)

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Lots of Luck

Lynwood Montell and his "luck" data cards

Lynwood Montell and his “luck” data cards

On this Friday the 13th, here are some of the thousands of superstitions collected by (now retired) WKU folk studies professor Lynwood Montell and housed in the Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.

According to Dr. Montell’s research, it’s bad luck to:

Enter and leave a house by different doors.
Give away a small chicken.
Trim your fingernails on a Sunday.
Sing before breakfast (you’ll cry before supper).
Step over a baby (it will stunt its growth).
Carry money in more than one pocket.

On the other hand, it’s good luck to:

Turn your chair’s back to a gaming table and sit astride it.
Find a needle, especially one pointed toward you.
Kiss a girl over a cow’s back.
Eat black-eyed peas and cabbage on New Year’s Day.
Sneeze three times in a row.
Find a rock with a hole in it.

The Folklife Archives contain many other collections, created mostly by students, of superstitions and folk beliefs that have developed over generations to address every facet of life.  For example, quilters should know that it’s bad luck to start a quilt on a Friday.  Food-lovers should know that it’s bad luck to sing at the table, or to take the last thing on a plate.  And everyone should remember that it’s bad luck to leave a funeral before it’s over. . . because you’ll be the next one buried.

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

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