Author Archives: Lynn Niedermeier

“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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John Glenn, 1921-2016

“You couldn’t pay that officer too much attention,” said Bowling Green’s Martha Potter, when Lt. Col. John H. Glenn, Jr., became the third American to go into space (after Alan Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom) and the first to orbit the earth.  One of the original “Mercury Seven” astronauts, Glenn circled the earth three times during his five-hour flight on February 20, 1962.

Project Mercury commemorative stamp (Frank Chelf Collection)

Project Mercury commemorative stamp (Frank Chelf Collection)

Like all Americans, Martha was transfixed, even though numerous delays had postponed the flight.  “I got [up] at five o’clock the first morning [January 27] he was to make his trip,” she wrote her children.  “The TV was working fine and I saw him get in his capsule and was still watching when he came out.”  On the day of the successful launch, she had invited some friends over to play cards, but the group quickly turned to the unfolding event.  Martha “lived at the TV” until late evening and in the days afterward, when Glenn was feted with a ticker-tape parade.

In Washington, Kentucky Congressman Frank Chelf joined the chorus of praise for Glenn.  On February 26, he introduced a bill to award Glenn and his fellow Mercury Seven astronauts the Congressional Medal of Honor plus a bonus of two years’ salary.  A version of his idea became law in 1969, when Congress authorized the Congressional Space Medal of Honor for astronauts who distinguished themselves in the space program.

In recognition of the many contributors to the milestone, Chelf’s bill also provided $5,000 to each of the scientists, engineers and technicians associated with the mission.  Glenn himself was the first to credit the “team effort of many, many thousands of people” behind Project Mercury.  A thank-you letter written on his behalf to Bowling Green native Lillie Mae Carter and her first-grade pupils in Toledo, Ohio put his pioneering feat in perspective: “Many things were learned from this and from the earlier flights of Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom,” it noted.  “Each flight is a stepping-stone in our ever-expanding manned space flight research program.”

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

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Pardon Me (Please!)

Josiah Pillsbury's respite

Josiah Pillsbury’s respite

On December 10, 1861, the Confederate States of America officially recognized a group of secessionists calling themselves the Provisional Confederate Government of Kentucky.  This “shadow” regime, however, never gained legitimacy in Frankfort; in fact, it chose Bowling Green, then under occupation by Confederate forces, as its capital.  (A historical marker commemorating the designation stands on WKU’s campus).

The first governor of Confederate Kentucky was Scott County lawyer George W. Johnson.  In need of someone to fill the position of Auditor, and because his first choice had declined, Johnson asked Josiah Pillsbury of Bowling Green to serve in a temporary capacity.

Pillsbury’s reward for doing this favor for his friend was to find himself, along with other officials of the Provisional Government, indicted for treason by a Warren County grand jury.  In “claiming to be auditor in said pretended government,” read the indictment, Pillsbury had acted “in usurpation of the regular legitimate and constitutional government of the state” and cooperated with an army in “open rebellion” in order to wage war on the good citizens of the county.

Horrified, Pillsbury wrote a “my bad” letter, now in the collections of the Kentucky Historical Society, to Governor Thomas E. Bramlette.  He had wanted no part of the Confederate government, he insisted, but accepted the Auditor’s position only to accommodate Johnson until a replacement could be found. Supporting Pillsbury’s request for clemency were prominent Bowling Green attorneys William V. Loving and Robert Rodes.

Governor Bramlette obliged, but the document filed with the Warren County court was not a full pardon.  The constitution, Kentucky’s Secretary of State warned Pillsbury, only gave the Governor power to issue a temporary “respite”; the document Bramlette signed was, in fact, an edited version of a form used to extend the time for criminals “sentenced to be hung.”

The indictment of Josiah Pillsbury (who was eventually pardoned by President Lincoln) and other members of the Provisional Confederate Government of Kentucky, along with Bramlette’s respite, are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For more Civil War collections, click here or search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“If Cuba Belonged to Us”

As U.S.-Cuba relations enter a new era, collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections offer a look back at America’s fascination with the island in the days before Castro.

Writing to his parents in Kentucky in the mid-1850s, E. S. Baker told them of an offer he had received to supervise a sugar house in Cuba, where his prospective employer owned three farms.  Americans, in fact, owned one-quarter of Cuban farms, Baker had learned, but “the Catholic and Spanish control restricts them too much.”  Profits from cotton, corn and sugar would be fatter, he believed, “if Cuba belonged to us.”  At the time, private armies of Americans known as “filibusterers” were complicating U.S. territorial designs on the island; Baker had been told of men secretly organizing in Kentucky, Arkansas and Texas to go there and “disperse over the farms” in support of their countrymen.

Cuba travel brochure, 1950s

Cuba travel brochure, 1950s

Forty years later, in 1893, Grace Beecher Goodhue of Massachusetts visited Cuba.  As her ship arrived in Havana’s harbor at sunrise, she admired the “exquisitely delicate coloring of the plastered houses – Blue faded pink and the tiled roofs.”  While others went to bullfights and masked balls, Grace and her mother explored the pawn shops, but found little to buy as “the English have been here . . . and have carried everything off in the shape of silver.”   They managed to purchase some white linen for dresses, however, “much to the horror of the clerk who sold it to us” and who insisted that such cloth was for “nun’s dresses not for ladies.”

Another sixty years later, in 1952, journalist and Smiths Grove native Virginia Wood Davis made the excursion to Cuba by plane.  Reporting on her visit for the Kingsport (Tenn.) Times-News, she described the scenery, industry, street life, and even burial customs of Matanzas, the island’s third-largest city.  Fidel  Castro’s Cuban Revolution had yet to grasp power, but signs of strife were on the horizon:  in black paint on the sidewalk in front of a local college, Davis saw the words “Students:  Communism is not for you.  Do not listen to the Communists.”

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections.  For other collections relating to Cuba, including the Spanish-American War, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

Virginia Davis's luggage tag

Virginia Davis’s luggage tag

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Ghosts of Thanksgivings Past

napkin-mss-517a

Thanksgiving Dinner napkin (Catherine Simmons Anderson Collection)

As the yearly festival of over-indulgence in food approaches, here is evidence from some of the collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives holdings of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections that Thanksgiving is more about who’s around the table than what’s being served on it.

Overseas with the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, Mitchell Leichhardt of Bowling Green, Kentucky wrote his parents about his 1944 Thanksgiving dinner of turkey, cranberry jelly, dehydrated potatoes, peas, olives, finocchio (“Italian celery with a sassafras flavor”), coffee and ice cream.  “I hope it is the last one I’m away from home,” he told them.  “I thought of the big dinner you always have and wished that I could be there.”

Also during World War II, in 1943 Alma Sexton of Greenup County, Kentucky described the holiday just past to her soldier-husband.  “We didn’t have much for Thanksgiving,” she wrote of the family repast of chicken, “spud” and biscuits, but she was “wishing you was here so you could help us eat them.”

From West Point, Thomas Rawlings Woods wrote his mother after Thanksgiving in 1881.  “Thursday was a holiday.  We were released from quarters, and excused from recitations.”  The mess hall offered a “splendid dinner” but, he confessed, “I thought of our Thanksgiving turkey at home and would rather have slipped down and taken dinner with you than to have attended the grandest banquet in the land.”

A U.S. Army captain described President George W. Bush’s surprise Thanksgiving visit to the troops in Iraq in 2003: “We were seated in the chow hall, fully decorated for Thanksgiving when all kinds of secret service guys showed up.  That was my first clue,” he remembered.  “Then, from behind the camouflage netting, the President of the United States came around.  The mess hall actually erupted with hollering. . . . There was not a dry eye at my table.”  As Bush worked his way around the hall shaking hands, the captain hurried through the food line, “got dinner, then wolfed it down,” so he would be ready to meet the President when he arrived at his table.

And here’s an excerpt from a poem by William Shakespeare Hays (1837-1907), Louisville journalist and composer, called “Eli’s Thanksgiving” (excuse both the stereotypical dialect and attitude toward in-laws):

Eli had Thanksgiving dinner, / ‘Twas his day to treat, / Cooked an’ stuffed a big fat turkey / Fo’ de folks ter eat. / Comp’ny sot aroun’ de table, / One dar brought her jaw, / Dun de talkin’ for de party– / Eli’s mudder’n-law.

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

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It’s Over at Last

John Potter's Armistice ribbon

John Potter’s Armistice ribbon

The world was overjoyed when hostilities in the Great War, after inflicting some 37 million casualties, ceased with the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918.

Simpson County native James Lambert would later share his memories of the event.  “In the evening of that day, I was in London,” he recalled.  No vehicles could move, as “rejoicing men, women and children” crammed the downtown streets.  He marveled at the democratic nature of the celebration.  Men carried women on their shoulders, and girls kissed soldiers “right on the streets.  They were not women of questionable character either,” observed Lambert, “but some of the best and fairest ladies of the realm.”  Indeed, citizens of every age, class and occupation had turned out “with uplifted hands, with upturned faces, and with tears running down their cheeks, thanking Almighty God for peace.”

Serving aboard the troop ship USS Powhatan, Thomas O. Helm reported to his mother in Bowling Green that his ship had docked at Brest, and he “certainly did enjoy being in a French port when they signed the Armistice.”  Like Lambert, he remarked on the inclusive nature of the festivities.  The streets were full of parading citizens, singing and linking arms “regardless of whom they were.”  At night, “the harbor was beautiful,” wrote Helm.  “There were 25 transports and at least that many destroyers playing their search lights over the harbor. . . it was like riding down Broadway.”

Back in St. Charles, Missouri, Annie Raus described the local celebrations to the family of her cousin, Private Clem Phillips, then recovering in France from wounds.  “Everybody is so happy we were all so excited we didn’t know if we should laugh or cry.”  The noisy parades passing by had interrupted her washing day and made it impossible to “stay at the tub.”

And in Bowling Green, Martha Potter took out her scrapbook of son John’s overseas Army service and carefully added the red, white and blue ribbon he had worn on his coat the night the Armistice was signed.

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

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An Election Prediction

Henry Clay

Henry Clay

With its use of catchy slogans (“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”), rallies, songs, banners and ribbons, the 1840 presidential contest between incumbent Martin Van Buren and the Whig Party’s William Henry Harrison marked the beginning of the modern era of campaigning.  Then as now, predictions about the outcome also enlivened the process.

That fall, Henry Clay sat down at his Lexington, Kentucky home, Ashland, to forecast the election results in response to a request from the Tippecanoe Club of Rushville, New York.  At the time, there was no single Election Day:  states voted for their presidential electors between October 30 and December 2, and the electors then met to vote for the next chief executive.  The Whigs had done well in most down-ballot races held in the preceding months, and Clay–who had lost the Whig nomination to Harrison, one of five tries he would make for the presidency–was in a good position to assess the race.

He got things nearly, but not exactly right.  Of the 26 states in the Union, Clay believed that Van Buren “would not obtain the votes of more than six.”  (He got seven).  Although down-ballot elections in Illinois had been disappointing for the Whigs, Clay was confident that “her vote will be cast in Nov. for W. H. Harrison” (He was mistaken).  He also conceded Maine to Van Buren (Harrison, in fact, won the state).  Otherwise, despite his lack of computer models and sophisticated polling, Clay would not have been embarrassed to compare his predictions with the actual result:  Van Buren’s 7 states brought 60 electoral votes, but Harrison’s 19 states and 234 electoral votes gave him the victory.

Clay nevertheless knew that voter turnout (or lack thereof) could make a fool out of any prognosticator.  “Cheering and bright as the prospects of success are,” he wrote, “it might be fatal to the salvation of the Constitution and the Country, to relax in honorable exertions. . . .  The Whig, therefore, who. . . neglects to perform his duty, is guilty of a double treachery–a treachery to his Country and a treachery to his Whig brethren in other parts of the Union, who are exerting all their energies to ensure success to our glorious Cause.”

Henry Clay’s letter to the Tippecanoe Club is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For more collections about Henry Clay and about other presidential elections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Don’t Hate 1908

Chicago Cubs player, 1908The last year the Chicago Cubs won the World Series is a distant age for most, but for those browsing the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, it’s a time easily recalled.  During that year, for example:

Architect Brinton B. Davis was overseeing completion of Bowling Green’s new City Hall at 10th and College Streets.  The cost:  a little over $25,000.

John Marion Robertson, manager of the Bowling Green Opera House, issued a complimentary ticket to Confederate veteran John W. Stark for a performance of “On Parole,” a play about the Civil War that included “scenes in which you,” he wrote Stark, “no doubt, took part.”

A friend wrote Hopkinsville’s Charles Hisgen about the state of the train station. “If we can get that railroad lot cleaned off . . . also coal yard & a new modern passenger depot, when a stranger arrives in Hopkinsville he will think the town amounts to something.”

Phineas Hampton “Hamp” Coombs (evidently not thinking about baseball at all) sent a Valentine by telegram to his wife Lattie.  “I send my love to you by wire,” he crooned.  “Sweetheart, for you my heart’s on fire.”

Butler County physician Dr. William Westerfield recorded in his diary that late October winds were aggravating “forest fires in Muhlenberg Co. causing considerable damage burning over corn fields, fencing etc.”

John Blakey Helm wrote his father from Princeton University about returning to Bowling Green at the school year’s end.  “I expect you had better send me about thirty dollars, which I think will bring me home.  I haven’t anything else here to pay for but have only a dollar and a half.”

And here’s an anecdote about President Lyndon B. Johnson (born in 1908) who, many agree, understood and wielded political power better than any modern chief executive.  At the conclusion of an event at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, a military officer informed the President that “your helicopter is ready.”  LBJ, stone-faced, replied “Son, they’re all my helicopters.”

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections harking back to 1908, and search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat for more.  Then sit back and wonder if the “last time the Cubs won” clock will be reset to 2016. . .

Hamp Coombs's 1908 telegram

Hamp Coombs’s 1908 telegram

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