Author Archives: Lynn Niedermeier

“A Memorable Day for Oakland”

Prof. Langley and the Shakers report on the eclipse, 1869

Prof. Langley and the Shakers report on the eclipse, 1869

As we all know, a total eclipse of the sun will pass over southcentral Kentucky in the early afternoon of August 21, 2017.  The last time such an event occurred in this area was August 7, 1869, and the tiny Warren County community of Oakland was expected to provide a prime viewing spot.

Four days before the eclipse, Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley, an eminent astronomer and later Secretary of the Smithsonian, arrived by train with a colleague to set up his observation post at Oakland.  Finding only a few houses in the vicinity of the station, he moved two small sheds to a field near the tracks and procured a telegraph connection.  He set up his telescope and other instruments, conducted some practice sessions, and prepared for the big event.

But Langley’s splendid scholarly isolation was not to last.  “On the afternoon of the 7th,” he reported, his station was overwhelmed by “all the inhabitants of the adjoining country, white and black, who crowded around the sheds, interrupted the view, and proved a great annoyance.”  As if that wasn’t enough, just as the eclipse neared its total phase, a special train pulled in carrying onlookers from Bowling Green and–of course!–a brass band.

Langley soldiered on with his work.  He calculated the duration of totality, when the moon completely obscured the sun, as lasting only a second or two, far less than the 30 seconds he expected.  Nevertheless, he was able to see the sun’s corona “visible through the darkening glass as a halo close to the sun, whence radiated a number of brushes of pale light.”  He felt particularly fortunate to get a 15-second view of “Baily’s Beads,” the effect produced when the disappearing sun backlighted the moon’s uneven surface–“like sparks,” he reported, “upon the edge of a piece of rough paper.”

In Bowling Green, druggist John E. Younglove noted the eclipse in his meteorological journal.  Though brief, the totality was sufficient to “observe the Corona with its variegated Colors.”  The eclipse also merited an entry in the daily journal of the Shaker colony at South Union–“nearly total here.”  Writing a history of Oakland in 1941, Jennie Bryant Cole conceded that the astronomers’ better position “should have been about one mile farther up the railroad”; nevertheless, when the “country people came in” and the crowd and brass band arrived, and when the stars suddenly came out in the afternoon and the chickens went home to roost, it was a “memorable day for Oakland.”

Click on the links to access finding aids for collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections relating to the eclipse of 1869.  For more firsthand accounts of eclipses, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

And click here to join our “Tell Us About Your Eclipse Day” project!

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“Desirous Not to Die Intestate”

Kentuckians make their wills

Kentuckians make their wills

During this National Make-A-Will-Month (yes, it’s a thing), we note the many historic examples of these solemn documents in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Our collections of family papers often include wills and associated estate documents from Warren County and elsewhere.  Our large collection of Warren County Equity Court cases includes lawsuits involving estates and a copy of the will that started all the trouble.

We also hold a collection of miscellaneous wills made primarily in Warren County but also in Tennessee, Virginia and Alabama.  The oldest, made by local man Daniel Shipman in 1798, is one of several noncupative, or verbal wills: too sick to write out or sign the document himself, Shipman made his wishes known to two witnesses, who presented their memorandum to the County Court and attested to its truthfulness.

Like many antebellum wills, Shipman’s includes a bequest of slaves, but African Americans who had escaped bondage also made wills.  The collection includes the 1853 will of Archy Barclay, a “free man of color” in Bowling Green, who gave “my body to the dust and my spirit to God,” then the rest of his possessions to his wife and children.  Of note is his designation of Samuel A. Barclay, possibly his former master, as his executor.  Henry Bibb, another free man of color, made a will in 1855 leaving his property “to Harriett Gray, a woman of color formerly owned by Joseph Gray of Russellville.”

Women’s wills in the collection are usually those of widows desirous of leaving property to children, grandchildren or to those who cared for them in old age.  As we have seen, prior to 1894 the will of a woman with a living husband was of no effect, since her property became his upon marriage.  A wife, however, could make a will devising property held in a trust or otherwise given to her on condition that it was free of her husband’s control; in the case of Martha Blewett’s 1868 will, she bequeathed it to her husband anyway, since he had “been kind and affectionate to me through all my afflictions.”

Many of the wills attest to the modest wealth and possessions of ordinary Kentuckians, but the 1870 will of Robert Ogden–made by a wealthy Warren County farmer, businessman and horse breeder “conscious of my mortality and desirous not to die intestate”–listed numerous generous bequests.  Of great local significance was item 15, which gave $50,000 for the establishment in Bowling Green of a school for young men or young women.  His trustees decided on the former, and Ogden College opened in 1877.  In 1927, the college merged with WKU and the name is still familiar to every science student on the Hill.

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

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A Dog’s Life (Part 2)

George Messer's letter

George Messer’s letter

When we last saw Civil War soldier George Messer in May 1863, the Illinois volunteer was at Camp Hobson (formerly Camp Joe Kelly) near Glasgow, Kentucky.  He was grumbling about “dog tents,” two-man canvas shelters no better suited for canines than humans.  Man’s best friend also gets a mention in another of Messer’s letters, recently added to the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.

Writing two months earlier to his wife Lottie, Messer had been somewhat more content.  Despite the cold temperatures of early spring, he was feeling well, had put on weight, and was hopeful that the war would end soon.  He described the dramatic changes made to the local countryside by Union troops seeking to protect their position from surprise attack.  “Timber around our camp it is to be cut off clean for five hundred yards all around,” he explained, “and five hundred more to be cut down and left lay.”  So thick was the coverage of trees and brush “that when it is cut down you could not shove a dog through it backwards.”

His comrades on picket duty reminded Messer of “cows on a stormy wet day,” when they would “put their backs to the storm and turn up one side of their heads to try and shun as much of it as possible.”  Nevertheless, the sentries had some fun with a lieutenant who had returned from town without his military pass, resulting in his brief incarceration in the guard house.  Messer noted with satisfaction that such “Shoulder Strap gentlemen” were granted no easier passage than a private when they ventured outside of camp.  In his “dog tent” letter, he had also expressed little affection for these epaulette-bedecked officers and their habit of grabbing credit for “great exploits” that were in fact the work of the common soldier.

Click on the links to access finding aids and typescripts of George Messer’s letters.  Click here to browse our Civil War collections, or search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Pardon Me (Part 2)

Erasmus Gardenhire letter

Erasmus Gardenhire seeks a pardon

As we have seen, many Americans who pledged loyalty to the South during the Civil War were compelled to seek pardons in order to resume their economic and civic lives.  Although Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson issued general amnesties, members of the Confederate Congress and high-ranking Confederate Army officers were not covered by this blanket reprieve; instead, they had to petition specifically for a pardon from the chief executive.

Tennessee’s Erasmus L. Gardenhire was excluded from the general amnesty on two counts: not only had he served in the Confederate government, he had abandoned his judicial office to aid the rebellion.  Seeking support for his pardon application, on May 28, 1865 Gardenhire wrote to Jonathan Davis Hale of Nashville, who had served as a kind of intelligence chief for the Union command in Tennessee.  “I now desire to return to my allegiance and make a good citizen,” he assured Hale.  Having lost much of his fortune during the war, Gardenhire had “a large and helpless family of children, most of which are small daughters.” From Burkesville, Kentucky, he asked Hale to “use your influence with the proper authorities, that I may be permitted to stay with them and provide for them.”

Hale turned over Gardenhire’s letter and scrawled his endorsement on the back. “Dear President,” he addressed Johnson, who had served as military governor of Tennessee.  “You will remember Judge Gardenhire.  I am satisfyed he has suffered much both in mind & Body and I can forgive him if you will pardon him.”

Gardenhire filed his petition on August 18, but whether a pardon actually followed is unclear (Tennessee’s governor, William G. Brownlow, opposed it). Nevertheless, Gardenhire seemed to earn some measure of forgiveness, for he soon returned to his legal, political and judicial vocations.  President Andrew Johnson, meanwhile, was headed for a showdown with Radical Republicans in Congress and their ally, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, over Reconstruction policies.  Ultimately, Johnson’s attempt to fire Stanton and replace him with a more sympathetic cabinet member triggered the first impeachment proceedings against an American president.

Click on the links to access finding aids relating to these Civil War pardons, 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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At Home With the Lucases

Nathaniel Lucas Home, Warren County, Ky.

Nathaniel Lucas Home, Warren County, Ky.

Tucked in with a large collection of genealogy research on the Helm family (think WKU’s Margie Helm Library) recently donated to the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections was this little sketch, made in 1883 by an English visitor to Warren County.

Located a few miles north of Bowling Green, the home belonged to Nathaniel Henry Lucas (1818-1908) and his wife Mary Barton (Maury) Lucas (1832-1907). The land was originally part of a grant to Nathaniel’s grandfather and namesake, Captain Nathaniel Lucas.  During the Revolutionary War, Captain Lucas wrote a letter to his wife-to-be on the eve of the Battle of Yorktown that is one of the oldest items in our collection.

The first house on the property burned during the Civil War, but soon afterward Nathaniel and Mary built this home in which to raise their family of six children. Their daughter, Virginia “Jennie” Lucas, married Margie Helm’s uncle, James W. “Jimmie” Helm in 1879; one of two couples participating in a double wedding ceremony in Mammoth Cave, they had ten children, ensuring that many members of the Helm, Lucas and related families could look on this substantial home as part of their heritage.  The house remained in the Lucas family until 1956.

Click on the links to access finding aids for collections relating to the Lucas family, including the sketch of their family homestead.  For more on the Helm, Lucas and other Warren County families, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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The Code

John Rowan; The Code reduced to writing in 1858

John Rowan; The Code reduced to writing in 1858

This week in 1804 saw one of the most famous duels in American history when, on July 11, Vice President Aaron Burr faced down his bitter rival, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton, who died the next day of his wounds, had offended Burr’s honor by attacking him relentlessly during his attempts to secure renomination to the vice presidency and then to win the governorship of New York.

One of Kentucky’s most famous duels occurred on February 3, 1801 between John Rowan, the rising lawyer and politician of “Federal Hill” fame, and Dr. James Chambers.  Both men were prominent citizens, but their affair of honor began with a rather seedy encounter in a Bardstown tavern.  Chambers was irritated that night over his losses at cards, and Rowan, by his own admission, had had too much to drink.  They first argued over the card game; then Rowan, who had excelled in the classics as a student, disputed Chambers’s claim to possess greater proficiency in the “dead languages.”  This was enough for Chambers to issue a challenge, coupled with the threat that if Rowan did not accept, “he would publish him as a coward in every paper in the State.”

On the day of the duel, the men faced each other in the woods outside Bardstown.  Each took careful aim at the other, but missed.  A second round ensued, and Rowan wounded Chambers in the chest.  Then, as Frances Richards notes in her biography of Rowan, “the peculiar code of duelling” kicked in. Rowan gallantly offered to summon his carriage to take Chambers back to town. When Chambers died the next day and Rowan was arrested, even some of Rowan’s fiercest enemies “objected to having a man whose difficulties had been settled according to the ‘code,’ punished by law.”  In a letter to his brother-in-law, Rowan claimed that the dying Chambers himself had “begged his friends not to prosecute me.”   Commonweath Attorney Felix Grundy reportedly resigned rather than bring his boyhood friend to trial.  Ultimately, the charges against Rowan were dropped.  He went on to become Kentucky’s Secretary of State, a member of Congress, a state legislator, and a judge on the Court of Appeals.

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

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Aviatrix Comes to Bowling Green

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart was on the final leg of her attempt to circumnavigate the globe when her plane disappeared over the Pacific on July 2, 1937.  Amid recent news of yet another claim that she might have survived her presumed crash into the ocean, we recall Earhart’s visit to Bowling Green only 18 months before she met her mysterious fate.

On January 20, 1936, Earhart took the stage at WKU’s Van Meter Hall.  The previous January, she had flown solo from Hawaii to California, and in May 1932 had become the first pilot to reproduce Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic.  As she talked about her adventures, the reporter for WKU’s College Heights Herald was charmed.  “The slender aviatrix who, had she been attired in flying togs, might have been mistaken for Colonel Lindbergh, was simplicity itself, direct in manner with no affectations or pretensions and yet with a quality that won her audience.”  Earhart’s stage presence and presentation were delightful, but what really captivated the reporter was her humor, which “played in her serene, frank eyes full of intelligence and friendliness” and in her smile–“generous, jolly and wide.”

Earhart had driven from Lexington to speak and would soon depart for Nashville, but she was convinced that flying was safer than automobile transportation.  Driving “at a speed above 40 or 45 miles an hour,” she said, as reported in the Park City Daily News, “is more dangerous than flying in a plane at a speed of 150 to 200 miles per hour.”  The keys to success in flight, she maintained, were preparation and stress management.  For a pilot, hot chocolate, not coffee or tea, was the best tonic.

Among the audience of 900 at Van Meter Hall was Martha Potter, who had noted Earhart’s January 1935 Pacific flight in her diary.  In a letter to her grandchildren, she told them about seeing the famed aviatrix “who flew across the Atlantic by herself.  She was most interesting,” Martha wrote.  “I wish you could have heard her.”

Martha Potter’s diaries and letters are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more of our collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“In Honour of Dominion Day”

Invitation to Dominion Day ceremonies; Clara Hines's postcard of Old Fort Henry

Invitation to Dominion Day ceremonies; Clara Hines’s postcard of Old Fort Henry

With its official emblem and half-billion-dollar budget, the 150th anniversary celebration of Canadian Confederation will bring extra colour to this year’s July 1 Canada Day holiday.  But in 1953, with the country yet to reach its 100th year, observance of Dominion Day (as it was then called) was not centrally orchestrated, and communities put their own unique stamp on the occasion.

That summer, Clara Hines and her husband Duncan Hines, author of the popular restaurant and hotel guidebooks Adventures in Good Eating, Lodging for a Night and Adventures in Good Cooking, left their Bowling Green home for a series of business meetings, interviews and promotional appearances in Ontario and Quebec.  As might be expected, they were eager to try the local cuisine.  They found a favorite in Montreal’s Cafe Martin, where, Clara wrote in her diary, the manager “was overcome when we left and Duncan gave him his card.”  Clara’s other passion was shopping.  Between meals, her exploration of local antique stores and her visits to the iconic Canadian department stores Eaton’s and Simpson’s took up more space in her diary than the usual tourist-style narratives.

On July 1, 1953, Clara and Duncan were invited to Dominion Day activities at Old Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario.  Situated on the St. Lawrence River at the eastern end of Lake Ontario, Kingston was of vital strategic importance during the War of 1812 and the fort had been erected to repulse an American attack. Accordingly, martial themes predominated during that day’s celebration of Canada’s 1867 act of Confederation.  “It was all a military show,” wrote Clara, “& they used the original drills of 1867 & the original uniforms and artillery.”  The demonstration of military tactics from the era included a mock battle with a gunboat and fireworks.  “This was all quite interesting,” was Clara’s assessment, “and something we are not likely to see again.”

Clara Hines’s diaries,which include a record of her three trips to Canada, are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For other collections with a Canadian connection, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Full Disclosure

Edward Crossland and his bio

Edward Crossland and his bio

It was an impressive resume, probably written for the Congressional Directory, that Edward Crossland (1827-1881) composed on letterhead of the 42nd Congress of the United States.  Elected as a Democrat in 1870 to represent Kentucky’s First Congressional District, the Hickman County native was a lawyer and former state representative who had resigned a judgeship in order to go to Washington.  Among his accomplishments, Crossland carefully noted the margin of his electoral victory–7,930 votes to 2,980–over his GOP opponent.

As is common in a mid-term election, President Ulysses S. Grant’s Republican Party had lost seats in the House, but retained its overall majority.  Also expected, perhaps, was Crossland’s omission, in these first years of Reconstruction, of some dramatic biographical details: as an officer in the Confederate Army, he had seen battle in Virginia, Mississippi and Alabama, the last being under controversial Lieutenant-General Nathan Bedford Forrest (“that devil Forrest,” in U.S. Grant’s words) as he tried to defend Selma in the last days of the Civil War.

Crossland’s non-disclosure of his military career might have led to a flurry of cable news comment today, but there was no cause for concern among his supporters in the South, where Democratic candidates successfully ran against Radical Republicans and their civil rights agenda.  On March 11, 1871, in fact, the Hickman Courier expressed relief at the news that Crossland had been duly sworn in as a member of Congress.  “Many leading men in this District,” the editors reported, “entertained serious apprehensions that Radical vindictiveness would seek to exclude him from the seat to which our people had elected him.”

Edward Crossland’s handwritten biography is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For other Kentucky political collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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A Dog’s Life

On May 23, 1863, Illinois volunteer George Messer, nursing a swollen ankle and the first signs of scurvy, penned a letter to his wife from Camp Hobson near Glasgow, Kentucky.  Some of his news, he admitted, “may appear somewhat ridiculous but it is nevertheless true.”  He and his comrades had been ordered to surrender their tents in exchange for new ones.  He then described the wedge-shaped tents that appear in so many images of Civil War encampments.  Each soldier carried one half of the tent, a two-pound sheet of canvas about six feet square.  When buttoned at the top, supported with poles or saplings, and anchored to the ground, they formed a rudimentary shelter for two men.  Judging these accommodations to be more fit for canines than humans, the soldiers quickly dubbed them “dog tents.”

The dog tent (Photo by David Walbert, (c) 2009, CC BY-NC-SA 2.5)

The dog tent (Photo by David Walbert, (c) 2009, CC BY-NC-SA 2.5)

Messer noted sarcastically that when his regimental commander required the men “to appear like Gentlemen on all and every occasion,” yet made them haul and use these “low and unhandy” tents, “it is more than enough to cause the soldier to be pleased and satisfied.”  His mates had made sure to communicate their “satisfaction” the next morning while preparing for roll call.  “You never heard such barking as the boys made,” he wrote, “they imitated from the Bull dog down to the little Rat terrier and they would frequently break out into a fight in imitations of dogs.”  A couple of unpopular promotions had also rankled the men, but Messer admitted that the wisest course was “to quietly submit” to these recent affronts.  In such circumstances, however, he found the rumors of a military draft disquieting. Imagine the barking then, he implied: “There is enough of the soldiers dissatisfied now and those that would be drafted into the army would be more so.”

George Messer’s letter is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid and typescript.  For other Civil War collections, browse here or search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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