Category Archives: Manuscripts & Folklife Archives

“Woven from the Warp and Woof”: Sarah Gertrude Knott and the National Folk Festival

1936 National Folk Festival

Window card for the 1936 National Folk Festival

Sarah Gertrude Knott knew how to set a stage.

Born in Kevil, Kentucky in 1895, Knott was no stranger to the deeply rooted folkways of small southern towns, but it was the siren’s song of the small stage and the silver screen that called her west. In St. Louis, Knott served as a member in a local theatre guild, The Dramatic League. It was in this space—surrounded by vaudeville performers, snake handlers, comedians, and musicians—where Knott first found inspiration for what would later become the National Folk Festival (NFF).

Having received funding from the National Council for the Traditional Arts, the first festival was held in St. Louis in 1934 at a time when the country was still in the economic throes of the Great Depression. In her 1946 article titled “The National Folk Festival after Twelve Years,” Knott remembers that at the time of its inception, “folk beliefs, legends, superstitions, folk songs, music, and dances were considered ‘crude relics of an outlived past.’” Seeking to redefine what constituted “American” folklore, Knott used her critically creative eye to frame (and stage!) folklife traditions in a way that underscored their relevance to a contemporary audience in a contemporary space. After World War II, when the United States saw an influx in immigration numbers, Knott’s vision sought to include performances from “Scandinavians, Italians, Jews, Bulgarians, Chinese, Finns, Rumanians, Filipinos, Portuguese, Russians, Czechoslovakians, Poles, Spaniards, and Lithuanians.” While the idea of the United States as a melting pot may be idealized, Knott was determined to give equitable recognition to cultures and communities that were beginning to blossom, and flourish, during the early 20th century.

The new addition in the Department of Library Special Collections accentuates Knott’s expansive collection held in DLSC’s Folklife Archives is a “visually striking (and somewhat disconcerting) promotional window card for the third annual National Folk Festival.” The NFF, hosted in conjunction with the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936, was the final festival in a year-long string of celebratory events sponsored by the State Board of Education and Departments of Recreation in the Lone Star State. While Knott was primarily concerned with incorporating representatives of Texas’ diverse ethnic population into the program—such as the Kiowa and Tigua tribes and members of Mexican and Spanish communities—Anglo and African American performers dominated the stages.

As with most folkloristic programs related to performance and presentation, the NFF was not without its faults. Knott was often accused of allowing her own aesthetic and theatric interpretations to overshadow the artistic expressions of the tradition bearers, and sometimes these arrangements could lean toward stereotypical representations of ethnic identities. However, Knott’s commitment towards emphasizing the relevance and significance of folkways should not be overlooked. Knott concludes her article on a note of hope when she writes, “Our national culture is being woven from the warp and woof of the variegated color strains of many nations. No one would want to dull the richness of that pattern. How bleak indeed would be the cultural outlook for the future if we overlooked the distinctive, individual cultures in a universal, standardized, regimented culture!”

To visit the WKU Manuscripts and Folklife Archives website, click here!

Blog post written by WKU graduate student Delainey Bowers

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Explore World War I

A soldier's postcard (Price Family Collection)

A soldier’s postcard (Price Family Collection)

About 84,000 Kentuckians saw Army service in World War I.  About half of them served overseas, and out of a total of 2,418 deaths, 890 were battle-related.

In this anniversary year of the U.S.’s entry into the war, a web site now allows researchers easy access to information about the World War I collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Included in our collections are letters, diaries, photographs, military records, scrapbooks and other materials documenting the experiences of Kentucky soldiers and those they left behind on the home front.  Young men from the Commonwealth and elsewhere arrived at Camp Zachary Taylor, Louisville’s massive training site, where they were inoculated, drilled, and prepared for war.  They wrote encouraging letters to lonely wives and sweethearts.  They endured the ocean voyage to England and France, and marveled at the sights and strange customs “over there.”  Some of them escaped wounds and death from battle, only to succumb to influenza and other communicable diseases.

Click here to go to the site.  Each listed collection comes with a link to TopSCHOLAR, WKU’s digital repository, from which a finding aid explaining the collection in more detail can be downloaded.

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Camp Zachary Taylor

Barracks at Camp Zachary Taylor, Louisville, Kentucky

Camp Zachary Taylor, Louisville, Kentucky

“Some things I’ve seen here I [wouldn’t] believe if I hadn’t seem them.”  So declared an awestruck soldier on finding himself in Louisville, Kentucky, for military training at Camp Zachary Taylor.

After the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Camp Taylor (named for the U.S. president and former Louisville resident) materialized in a mere 90 days.  The largest of 16 such camps across the country, it grew to the size of a small city, with more than 2,000 buildings and a population of as many as 47,000 troops.  As they passed through the camp, soldiers wrote to family and friends with their impressions, and the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections holds many such letters.

Some noted the rigors of their training.  “We hiked about three miles with all of our equipment,” wrote “Mack” Muncy, “and I have been tired ever since.”  Arthur Miller, an enlistee from Connecticut, complained of “the nervous tension” resulting from a three-month crash course in artillery.  But other aspects of military life drew more frequent comment as young men were ushered into a new world of routine and regimentation.  Part of their “processing” ordeal was receiving vaccinations, which left many of them light-headed, sore-armed and sick.  Of his two shots, Wilson Sprowl wrote “that first Doce [dose] made some [of] the Boys sick and some fa[i]nted.”  Several of his mates, confirmed Grant Sorgen, “laid down from the vaccination, but I got thru O.K.”  Contagious illness, nevertheless, plagued this large group of assembled humanity from all parts of the country.  Fay Alexander found himself part of a quarantine “because one of the fellows got awake with the measels.”  Jim Grinstead had already had measles, but was worried that if too many of his fellow soldiers fell ill, “they will keep all of us in and that will give me hell” for “I have a date with my girl.”

Soldiers training at Camp Taylor

Soldiers training at Camp Taylor

Other aspects of camp life were more satisfying.  From most accounts, the food was tasty and plentiful.  “This morning we had coffee, biscuits, fried potatoes, cream of wheat and bacon,” wrote Fay Alexander.  “They sure do eat up the grub.”  Grant Sorgen was happy with “a fine shower bath to-day and three good meals.  So far, ‘This is the life,’” he declared, “but may not last long.”  Just as memorable was the hospitality of the local citizenry.  Arthur Miller enjoyed regular Saturday entertainment at the “Hawaiian Gardens” dance hall, courtesy of “numerous, sweet and innocent southern maidens.”  Mack Muncy concurred: “Yes the girls are pretty free with us boys it is no trouble to get acquainted down here; if a fellow hasn’t got a girl it is his fault I am shure.”

On September 9, 1918, Private Ivan Wilson arrived at Camp Taylor.  Wilson, who would go on to a long teaching career in WKU’s art department, was a diminutive 5 feet 4-1/2 inches and just over 100 pounds.  Nevertheless, the gentle Calloway County native resolved to meet the challenge.  Though consigned to clerical duties, he found the Army “thrilling”: “When I really did get my uniform on,” he wrote in his diary, “I knew that Germany would soon surrender.”  And Germany did.  On February 24, 1919, Wilson was discharged from Camp Taylor a “150% better man than when I came.  I am going back into civilian life much better prepared to face the issues of life: to pass things which formerly have depressed me and has caused me to pine my life away in vain.”

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections.  In this centennial year of the U.S.’s entry into World War I, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat for more of our war collections.

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Strikeout Artist

Cumberland University baseball team; Laban Lacy Rice

Cumberland University baseball team; Laban Lacy Rice

As this year’s World Series wraps up, we look back at Dixon, Kentucky native Laban Lacy Rice, whose long life as an educator, classicist, hoax artist, astronomer and cosmologist began to take shape when he entered Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee and organized its first baseball team.

From 1890 to 1893, Rice and his younger brother Cale Young Rice were, as pitcher and catcher respectively, the team’s feared battery.  In the early days of his career, when the pitcher’s mound was nine feet closer to home plate, Rice, who possessed control, velocity and mastery of one of the first curve balls inflicted on local batters, regularly recorded 15 to 18 strikeouts; he recorded 21 against an unfortunate team from Hopkinsville.

However, it was Cumberland’s rivalry with Vanderbilt University that attracted the most enthusiasm.  Behind Rice’s pitching, Cumberland regularly defeated Vandy and whenever the players returned from a road game, throngs of cheering citizens would meet them at the train station and escort them back to town.  But there was no line drawn between amateurs and professionals, and when Vanderbilt engineering student Ben Sanders—also a pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies—took the mound, Cumberland finally fell to its arch rival.

Besides Rice, Cumberland fielded other players who later excelled in their chosen careers, such as Tennessee Chief Justice Grafton Green and Missouri Supreme Court Justice James T. “Tom” Blair.  Lacy Rice himself became chancellor, then president of his alma mater.  Although he tried his hand briefly at professional baseball, his interests soon expanded “from curved balls to curved space” as he counted among his many academic achievements an expertise in Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Laban Lacy Rice’s career in baseball and education is documented in his collection of papers held in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to download a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Rapping With Spirits

Charles Foster; Richard Vance

Charles Foster; Richard Vance

During his long military career, Warren County, Kentucky native Richard Vance (1833-1902) indulged many extracurricular interests – French, ornithology, botany, literature, politics, religion, travel, and women.  He also cast a curious, if doubtful, eye on spiritualism.

In March 1873, while stationed in New Orleans, Vance paid a visit to the “celebrated Spiritualist, Mr. Charles Foster,” who was offering seances featuring “rappings” and other manifestations said to emanate from the realm of the dead.  Ushered into Foster’s room at the St. Charles Hotel, Vance found an amiable, somewhat heavy-set man of about thirty-five.  Foster listened politely while Vance made clear that he believed neither in life after death nor in the power to summon those who had passed to the other side.

At Foster’s request, however, Vance wrote down on slips of paper the names of acquaintances who had died.  Holding one of the slips, Foster then asked if the spirit of the person named thereon would communicate with Vance, and received in reply a “series of loud raps,” first from the table, floor and walls, then from “all parts of the house.”  To Vance’s astonishment, Foster then proceeded to relate details about three deceased individuals from his past—a servant, Tony, killed by a gunshot; Rachel, an elderly female servant of his grandmother’s; and an old friend, Gus Montague.

At a loss to explain Foster’s revelations, Vance insisted to himself that this spiritualist must have had the power to read his thoughts.  Writing of the encounter in his diary, he reviewed his religious evolution—from “firm believer” to skeptic to a refusenik on the subject of immortality.  That “was where I was this morning,” he admitted, but where “I will drift after what I have seen to day remains to be seen.”

Richard Vance’s diary recording his spiritual experience is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections .  Click here for a finding aid.  During this Halloween month, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat for other collections relating to spiritualism, ghosts and views about death.

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Education in the Archives

Green River Female College diploma

Green River Female College diploma

For October’s Kentucky Archives Month and its theme of “education,” the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections can boast of many collections documenting the work of teachers and schools in Kentucky.  We hold materials relating to WKU faculty such as Marjorie Clagett, Nelle Travelstead and Arndt Stickles, as well as distinguished educational administrators (and WKU alumni) like Chester Travelstead.  The classroom labors of many other teachers such as Erleen Joiner Rogers, Mary Woodrow Smith, Frances Hart and Dudley Whitmer are also represented in our collection.

We have previously blogged about several early schools in our area:  Cedar Bluff College, Franklin Female College, Smiths Grove College and St. Columba Academy.  A recent acquisition is an 1866 diploma from the Green River Female College of Bowling Green.  The diploma certifies Julia Woodburn Adams as a “Regular Graduate of the College,” having completed its course of study and “maintained during her connection with it a high moral character.”

Green River Female College, Bowling Green

Green River Female College, Bowling Green

Green River Female College was the child of Baptist minister Thomas H. Storts.  He initially held classes in a church basement, but after the Civil War he moved the school to a large house at 1253 State Street, where he and his small staff of teachers accepted both day and boarding students.  Unfortunately, Storts struggled financially and lost the school in 1877, only a year after receiving a formal charter of incorporation.  Then as now, education could be a costly endeavor for all involved.  Storts’s struggle to collect tuition (and the creativity of methods used to pay) was evident in the forbearance he gave the family of Lida, Mary, and Maggie Calvert, sisters who attended early in the 1870s.  Two years after they first enrolled, Storts had credited against his $308 account only $10 in cash and $28 worth of goods consisting of two counterpanes, two blankets and a set of silver spoons.  Before marrying and embarking on a career as a successful author, Lida Calvert went to work for Storts as a teacher in order to retire her younger sisters’ indebtedness.

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

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From Juice to Jug: Cider Making in Western Kentucky

Students at cider press

Students at cider press

In the summer of 1970, Western Kentucky University folk studies student Karen Stewart set out to explore the cider making process at a small home in the even smaller river town of Woodbury, Kentucky. The cider press owners, Randall and Daisy Lytle, were certainly no strangers to the nuances of traditional cider making and shared with Stewart their history of owning a press and working the apples from juice to jug.

Snaking its way through thick forests and sprawling pastures, the Green River skirts the edges of small towns throughout south-central Kentucky. It was on these muddy banks where Lytle, at the time a young boy, received his first cider press from a ninety-year-old riverboat captain. Lytle restored the barely-functioning press to its former glory and began selling homemade cider for fifty-cents a gallon. Several years later, after returning home from serving in World War II, Lytle discovered his press had been sold as scrap iron for twenty cents. It would be another quarter of a century before Lytle found his second press, but the cider was worth the wait.

Enlisting the help of an orchard owner in Logansport, Kentucky, Lytle, along with his wife Daisy, began the intensive process of cider making. Adhering to the motto of “no apple left behind,” the Lytles gathered as many apples as possible, including those with worms, which, according to Daisy, were “just protein, anyway.” After sorting and washing, Lytle placed the apples into a large hopper on the top of the press. With a large crank to one side, the hopper served as a makeshift food processor reducing the apples to a thick pulp, which was collected in a barrel made of wooden slats. Lytle transferred the product to another barrel where a large wooden disc was lowered onto the pulp, squeezing out the juice between the slats. Afterwards, the juice was strained through a cloth into a glass jug, and any remaining pulp was fed to farm animals. Standing in the bottle for several days, the juice would begin the fermentation process, eventually resulting in the crisp, tangy flavor of a well-made cider.

With interest in southern foodways, self-sustainability, and cultivating intentional community at an all-time high, there is comfort in knowing that the Lytles served a vital role in carrying on the legacy of traditional craft brewing.

To access Stewart’s paper online, click here for a digital copy of the finding aid.

For more information relating to Kentucky folk studies, projects, and collections, visit WKU’s Manuscripts and Folklife Archives!

Blog post composed by WKU Folk Studies student Delainey Bowers

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A Niche Market

The Scioto (Courtney Ellis Collection)

The Scioto (Courtney Ellis Collection)

Thanks to lock and dam construction by the Rough River Navigation Company, incorporated in 1856, the citizens of Hartford and Ohio County, Kentucky once enjoyed regular steamboat traffic along that tributary of the Green River.  Late in the 19th century the Scioto, a 94-foot-long craft owned by the Hartford and Evansville Packet Company, transported both freight and passengers between Hartford and Evansville, Indiana.

The daily demands of operating the Scioto are documented in a collection of bills and receipts held in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Dated 1899, they show the expenses necessary to maintain this floating conveyance of people and goods.  We see purchases of foodstuffs such as flour, peas, corn, butter, coffee, ketchup, sugar and potatoes; provisions such as oil, matches and deck brooms; services rendered for laundering sheets, towels and tablecloths; and repairs to stoves, pipes and flanges.  The Scioto‘s crew did business at both ends of its route, so Hartford and Evansville merchants are well represented.  Some of these firms catered specifically to the steamboat trade, promising to serve their customers’ needs “at all hours.”  Many of the Evansville businesses were appropriately located on Upper Water Street, now Riverside Drive.

Receipt from bakery serving steamboatsClick here to access a finding aid for the Scioto steamboat collection of receipts, and here to learn about our premier collection of Ohio River Valley steamboat photographs.  For more, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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The Falling Leaves

Leaves from the Antietam Battlefield

Leaves from the Antietam Battlefield

I now promise to be less attentive to my military duties, which will enable me to pursue my other schemes more successfully.  This is the first feature of my new ‘leaf.’  So wrote Captain Richard Vance in his diary on January 1, 1887.  An Army career of more than 20 years had taken him to postings in the South, the western frontier, and now Texas, but Vance, who had never been particularly fond of the military, was yearning to retire.

By his own account, Vance resembled the stereotypical soldier:  a devoted hunter and scrapper (he was once acquitted of murder), he chided himself over his chronic weakness for women (more about that at a later date).  But he was also widely read and self-taught, and his resolution for 1887 was to focus on the things that truly interested him and that he believed he could master.  “For the present,” he wrote, “I shall confine myself to French, German, Botany & Ornithology.”

Sample from Richard Vance's Ringgold, Texas herbarium

Sample from Richard Vance’s Ringgold, Texas herbarium

While stationed in Texas at Fort Clark, Vance had begun work on an herbarium, but now, garrisoned at Ringgold, he began collecting, analyzing and preserving samples of local flora.  Though he made no claims to being an amateur, let alone professional botanist, Vance carefully researched, organized and classified his finds.  The result was a thick volume of specimens “collected and arranged entirely for my own amusement,” which enabled him to “pass a very pleasant summer at this place.”  While traveling, Vance also preserved leaves from the Antietam battlefield in Maryland and horse nettle from Warren County, Kentucky, where he was born.

Richard Vance’s herbaria are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a collection finding aid.  For more relating to botany and botanists, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“I can’t describe this storm”

Damage near Key West from the 1935 Labor Day hurricane

Damage near Key West from the 1935 Labor Day hurricane

Hugo.  Andrew.  Katrina.  Ike.  Harvey.  Irma.   These names no longer bring people to mind, but rather destructive hurricanes that have visited the United States.  The Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections offers many firsthand experiences of these terrifying weather events.  We have already mentioned Andrew in a previous blog, but here are a few more accounts of hurricanes, both named and unnamed:

It was a vicious storm, seemed as tho the world had come to an end. . . .  I wanted to make a dash for the mainland but by that time our car was flooded and it’s a good thing we didn’t start as the storm returned with such greater fury that we would have no doubt been blown in the bay. — Lena Standrod, Miami, Florida, 1926

Miamians know what these hurricanes mean, therefore they know how to make thorough preparations. . . .  The big leaves on the palm trees fluttered on the trees like feathers in a breeze.  Few coconuts fell; they have a good supple stem I suppose.Dee Perguson, Miami, Florida, 1944

Hugo’s aftermath is far more powerful than his presence. . . .  Outside the scene was shocking.  It looked like a war zone.  The German lady up the street said it reminded her of Berlin after the war, except there weren’t any bullet holes.John Lee Disher, Summerville, South Carolina, 1989

After the murderous hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas in September 1900, a traumatized Ellen (Temple) Parker wrote a heartbreaking letter to her sister. “At 2 o’clock Saturday Sept. 8, I looked out and saw the gulf water backing up 32nd Street,” she recalled.  She summoned her husband home from work just as the waves and wind intensified, but he was stranded, unable to secure a carriage or horse at any price.  “I was entirely alone with the children until the worst of the blow was over,” she wrote, “and did not know what second our house would go” and her “babies would be at the mercy of the water and flying timbers.” Praying and reading to her children to stay calm, she fought the urge to “scream with fear” over the fate of her husband.  The family home lost several windows and much of its roof, but stood.  Ellen’s husband finally made it home the next day and they evacuated to Fort Worth.  “Mary,” Ellen declared to her sister, “I can’t describe this storm.  What you see in the papers is not over drawn; if anything it was even worse than the papers put it.”  Thankful that the family had escaped with their lives and at least some of their belongings, Ellen faced her next challenge: to recover her nerves and “get to be myself again.”

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections.  For more of our firsthand accounts of hurricanes, tornadoes and storms, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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