Author Archives: Lynn Niedermeier

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 Auburn, Kentucky 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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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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