Tag Archives: Martha Potter

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 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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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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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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Sadie and Susie

Max Nahm; the Nahm home, site of a murder

Max Nahm; the Nahm home, site of a murder

It was a domestic tragedy that devolved into a spat about domestic servants.  On June 7, 1945, Sadie Brown, the longtime African-American cook of prominent Bowling Green banker Max Nahm, was arguing with a male acquaintance in the kitchen of Nahm’s home at 14th and College Streets.  The argument ended when he grabbed a knife, slashed her throat, and fled.

From her State Street home a block away, Martha Potter wrote the news to her children.  For most of her life, Martha, who kept boarders in her home, relied heavily on African-American domestic servants, but the past few years had been a trial.  Susie Potter, her own longtime cook and maid with whom she shared a surname, had resigned in 1937, and recently the attraction of better-paying war work had made replacements scarce.

But now it was Max Nahm’s turn to experience a “servant problem.”  As the local African-American community reacted in shock to Sadie’s murder, Susie told Martha of their folk beliefs regarding violent death.  “Susie said that murder blood was hard to wash out and that if it wasn’t washed up before the victim’s death it never would come out,” Martha informed her children.  Sally, her current cook, had agreed, adding that “every time there is a thunderstorm that spot will come back.”

A few weeks later, Susie herself was cooking for Nahm, but his search for live-in help remained futile because no servant was willing to stay overnight in the house.  Then Susie became ill, and she and Martha made a secret pact: after Susie’s recovery, she would return to work for Martha, not for Nahm.

The conspiracy continued through the fall of 1946, with Martha confiding to her children that “Max still says she is coming to work for him.”  When Susie finally rejoined Martha’s household in spring 1947, Nahm “got mighty mad,” but Martha haughtily denied having “stolen” his cook.  Although he found a replacement, the 84-year-old banker nursed a grudge that Martha attributed solely to ego.  “Max is still pouting with me about Susie,” Martha wrote in June 1948–a full three years after Sadie Brown’s tragic death in his kitchen.

Martha Potter’s letters about the politics of domestic service are part of the Lissauer Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For more collections of Bowling Green family papers, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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The Heat is On

Martha Potter

Martha Potter

Bowling Green had just endured a frigid winter.  Five months later, in a letter to her children on July 25, 1934, Martha Potter confessed again that her news would be mostly “about the weather, for that is all we talk or think about down here.”  Her description of the summer heat in Bowling Green gives a vivid picture of life in the days before air conditioning.

“People have been sleeping outdoors all night on the ground or on porches or anywhere to keep out of the house for the houses register ninety degrees at bed time,” she wrote.  “Ted [her brother-in-law] said he looked out the other night just before day and a big fat man in yellow pajamas was ‘baking’ in the moonlight on the tin roof at Mrs. Green’s.”  The sheer numbers of those seeking relief in a yard nearby had even prompted a neighbor to call the police.  “We live under the fans and the refrigerator door is open most of the time after water or ice,” reported Martha.  “But it is such a joy!” she declared of her new appliance, purchased two months earlier.  “We have always had plenty of ice even in this weather.”

Social activities had required a few concessions to the heat.  Attending a music practice for a program at WKU, Martha pronounced the hall “the hottest place I ever felt. . . . The men wore cloths around their wrists to keep the perspiration off the strings.”  Pursuing one of her favorite activities with her sister, Martha wrote that they were “golfing under umbrellas, and it is much cooler, as we do not have to wear any hats.”  Nevertheless, she was planning a trip to the beauty shop to get her hair bobbed.  “I can’t have hair in this kind of weather.”

Martha Potter’s letters chronicling daily life in Bowling Green are part of the Lissauer Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Bethie

Elizabeth Moseley Woods, 1865-1967

Elizabeth Moseley Woods, 1865-1967

Elizabeth Moseley Woods was born in Mississippi in the last months of the Civil War.  When she was six, her family moved to Glasgow, Kentucky and, when she was sixteen, to Bowling Green.  By the time she joined the WKU faculty in 1911 to teach modern languages, Elizabeth had traveled around the world and studied in England, France and Italy.  She retired from teaching in 1937, but spent the next decade applying her passion for gardening and landscaping to beautification of the WKU campus.

To her younger sister Martha (Woods) Potter, however, Elizabeth Woods was just “Bethie,” and it is from Martha that we get an affectionate and intimate glimpse of this longtime WKU faculty member.

Bethie’s absent-mindedness caused particular mirth.  Standing with Bethie in her living room one day in 1933, Martha noticed that “her pink panties were around her feet where they had dropped down and she never had noticed them.  It would not have been so funny if it had been anybody but Bethie,” she wrote her children.  Several years later, Martha reported that “Bethie distinguished herself by parading around the streets of Bowling Green with a strap to her panties hanging down between her legs almost to the ground.”  Bethie explained that “the panties were the old fashioned kind with strap (a concession to what we used to call ‘open drawers’). . . .  I went into stitches,” laughed Martha.  “I told her I hoped that nobody took her for me.”

Bethie could be both clinical and sentimental in her opinions.  After a 1934 visit to a venerable Bowling Green senior citizen, “Bethie said never again,” reported Martha.  “She thought that old lady belonged under the ground.”  Bethie was no more enamored of humanity’s other half.  “She is a hard boiled man hater,” concluded her sister.  Nevertheless, Bethie mourned the death of WKU president Henry Hardin Cherry in 1937, saying “no one ever knew what a good friend he had been to her.”  She also liked Virginia Garrett, the wife of Cherry’s successor, because of their shared love of flowers.  And when Bethie arrived at a friend’s house for lunch and realized that the friend had forgotten about the engagement, she “hot footed it down the alley,” said Martha, to spare the woman embarrassment.

Both Martha and Bethie were beset by failing eyesight in their later years, but reacted quite differently.  “I know that Bethie can’t see as she should but she never admits it.  All old people get that way,” said 82-year-old Martha of her 86-year-old sibling.  After learning that, during dinner in a poorly lit room, Bethie had put down her fork and been unable to find it again, “I told her she should have just asked,” Martha wrote, “but she isn’t that way.”

Perhaps it was her willingness to let her older sister be herself that allowed Martha to coexist peacefully with Bethie until Martha’s death in 1963 at age 94.  But hers was an early death, relatively speaking, for Bethie lived until 1967, reaching the age of 102.

Martha Potter’s letters about her sister Bethie are part of the Lissauer Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives holdings of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  For more collections about Elizabeth Woods, the Potters and other Bowling Green families, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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In the Deep Freeze

Martha Potter's snowy State Street home, Bowling Green

Martha Potter’s snowy State Street home, Bowling Green

A blizzard paralyzed the East, temperatures dropped to zero, and the storms even brought Bowling Green down to a teeth-chattering 3 degrees.  It was February 1934, a month of wintry weather for the record books.

“Snowing this morning, great flakes, the kind you like to catch on a piece of black velvet and study the crystals,” wrote Martha Potter on February 21 in her weekly letter to her children.  By February 28, the snow had subsided, but 65-year-old Martha, while spared the necessity of driving, felt the lingering effects of the storm.  After the snow came rain, then a plunge in temperature that “set the whole works” into crusty heaps.  “I attempted to walk to church,” she wrote, “and the cars that went by threw ice balls down my collar and into my pockets.  I finally just stood still when I would see one coming and duck my shoulders.”  That Sunday was the worst day, as “the ice broke off great branches from the trees, impeding traffic and pulling down wires, so that lights were out and telephone connections in some places disturbed.”  Some people feared “there was a fire as it sounded like twigs cracking and burning.”

Martha also related the attempt of a friend and her husband to pay a visit on that “icy Sunday,” thwarted because “nobody could get up the hill on Main Street.”  A full week later, they were still trying to pass along roads filled with tree limbs and other debris, leaving their car “mired to the hubs.”  After an extraction that took two hours, they suffered the same fate the next day . . . and the next.

Fortunately, wrote Martha, a thaw was on the way.  As the temperature climbed to a balmy 38 degrees, the retreating snow started to make “big noises leaving the roof of the house and sliding down the gutters,” closing another memorable chapter in Bowling Green’s winter history.

Martha Potter’s letters are part of the Lissauer Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  For other collections documenting weather and storms, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Kiddies and Confusion

Christmas was a busy time for Martha (Woods) Potter (1868-1963), but as a lifelong diarist, letter writer and journal keeper, the mother of four always found time to record the hubbub of the season in what she called her “Christmas books.”  Today, they offer us a detailed look at the activities of a Bowling Green woman during every holiday season from 1912 to 1954.

Martha usually began each year’s account with a summary of her “family status,” particularly the whereabouts of her children as they grew up, went to school, married and began lives of their own.  She continued with notes on every aspect of the holidays, including the weather, her charitable and church work (she was the longtime choir director and organist of the First Presbyterian Church), gifts given and received, the comings and goings of family and friends, entertainments, decorations and food.

In 1936, with her children grown, Martha reflected on her Christmas record-keeping in a manner familiar to many mothers.  “When I read back over all these busy Christmases,” she wrote, “it makes my head swim and my back ache to think of the work I did . . . .  Now Christmas is so quiet and restful, but I miss the kiddies and the confusion.”  Her subsequent entries betray increasingly quieter times, but when Martha finally ended her last Christmas book, she did not forget that “on its sacred pages is recorded forty-two happy years.”  Nor did she allow the vagaries of winter weather to darken her spirit.  On one of her greeting cards was a summer-like photo and the caption, “Here are roses from my garden / To brighten your Christmas scene / Ice and snow may be holding sway / But roses reign supreme.”

Martha Potter's Christmas photo

Martha Potter’s Christmas photo

Martha (Woods) Potter’s Christmas books are part of the Lissauer Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  For more collections relating to Christmases in Kentucky, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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