The sweetness of sour

Well, here it is again, November 1, National Vinegar Day – time to tip the hat to this incredibly versatile concoction, used in medicine, home canning and pickling, salad dressing, pest control, all-purpose chemical-free cleaning, and as a delicious condiment for French fries (ask a Canadian).  It’s also time to highlight the vinegar-esque features of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.

As WKU folklife professor Lynwood Montell found in his research, Kentucky folk remedies are replete with vinegar: on brown paper applied to bruises, pains, swellings and sprains; in a poultice for an earache; with bloodroot for an itch; with salt and pepper on the chest for pneumonia; and taken internally with alum and pepper for rheumatism.  Vinegar is also an indispensable ingredient in homemade cough medicine (with moderating additives, mind you, like brown sugar, butter, molasses and alcohol).

Two of Louisville’s Vinegar Vendors

Speaking of alcohol, Kentucky distillers have found themselves well adapted to the secondary production of vin aigre – literally, “sour wine.”  Early in the 20th century, the McClure Brothers store in Grayson County ordered regularly from makers of vinegar and cider in Louisville.  The Friedman family, whose daughter Sunshine married prominent Bowling Green banker Max Nahm, manufactured vinegar in Paducah; Sunny’s brother Joseph then moved on to operate a large distillery in Nelson County. 

But in Bowling Green, the product most likely brings to mind the historic name for the highest point on WKU’s campus: “Vinegar Hill” – so known, according to legend, for the foul moonshine once brewed there by an old woman encamped in its cedar thickets (oh, and it’s haunted too).

A “Vinegar Valentine”

Vinegar’s darker side is also evident in the acidic attitude of “vinegar valentines,” many of which can be found in our ephemera collections.  A kind of “anti-Valentine” popular with the Victorians, they took a poke at the recipient’s looks, marital status, habits or personality.  Oh! What’s the use? one sneered.  Your form and face / Present indeed a hopeless case! / All the beautifiers ever made / Could not redeem you, I’m afraid.

Click on the links for finding aids and more information.  To browse other collections in WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“Like a tornado”

No mask, no ride: that was the rule on Seattle streetcars during the 1918 flu pandemic (American Red Cross photo)

In 1976, the appearance in humans of a previously unknown strain of swine flu virus prompted WKU history professor Dr. Carlton Jackson to begin a research project on the deadliest disease outbreak in the United States up to that time.  For A Generation Remembers: Stories from the Flu, 1918,  Dr. Jackson placed queries in newspapers across the country soliciting memories of the great influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed about 675,000 Americans.  Although he didn’t achieve his goal of producing a book or article, his grim but fascinating research has been preserved.

Dr. Jackson received letters and narratives from almost 450 people recalling their experience of the flu as it struck in 42 states and 9 foreign countries.  In 1918, of course, all of the witnesses were young, but most remembered vividly the impact of the pandemic on their families, their neighbors and their communities.  They remembered the savage symptoms: high fever, severe headache, chills, back and leg pain, pneumonia, and the blood that gushed from noses and lungs when the victim coughed.  They remembered the closure of schools and businesses; the disease’s particular toll on pregnant women; the hasty, improvised funerals; the mass graves; and the apparent arbitrariness of infection and death.  Some remembered being untouched by illness as others around them sickened and quickly died.  “It was like a tornado,” wrote one respondent, “some houses will be blown away & the one next door will stand & that’s the way the flu went thru the country.”

Others remembered the often quirky and largely futile attempts to ward off infection: with whiskey, chewing tobacco, quinine, castor oil, formaldehyde, even green sour apples.  More than one mentioned the use of asafoedita, a lump of plant-based resin carried in a bag around the neck, which would emit a smelly “gas cloud” thought to repel the flu “bug.”  And should that “bug” attempt to attack from a different angle—say, by creeping up the legs—a spoonful of powdered sulphur in each shoe would raise a similar odorous defense.  (Don’t laugh—it was hypothesized that this method may have actually helped by making it unwise for its stinky practitioner to mix in crowds, thereby avoiding infection from others.)

And speaking of crowded places, the flu exacted a terrible cost on the military, then still mobilized for World War I.  Some 45,000 American servicemen succumbed, about two-thirds of those in stateside camps.  At Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville, wrote one respondent, doctors and chaplains were “buried under the demand for care.”  He and other students at nearby theological seminaries were drafted to act as liaisons with soldiers’ parents.  When told of a son’s dire condition, a mother could become indignant “and sometimes near hysterical” when denied entry to the ward to see her boy.

The price paid by servicemen also brought Dr. Jackson a memory from Bowling Green.  William C. Lee was then a prep student at Ogden College.  “One of my most vivid recollections,” he wrote, “was seeing large stacks of caskets” at the railroad station awaiting transfer between the main line of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad and the Memphis branch.  Lee’s father, a railway postal employee, told him that the trains often had to add extra cars to carry remains back home to the soldiers’ families.  And sometimes their escorts were not spared: during the train stops, soldiers—“the living ones, that is”—might drop in at the local canteen for food and coffee, only to suddenly collapse—“one of the first symptoms” of this deadly flu.

Letters to Carlton Jackson with a generation’s stories of the flu are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections about influenza, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Straight Shooter

Philip J. Noel’s Pocket Pistol Holster

Philip J. Noel (1874-1950) was a man of many interests.  After Noel was appointed a manager for the Kentucky Central Life and Accident Insurance Company in 1903, he and wife Blanche had settled in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Here, Noel indulged several passions, including photography, philanthropy, poetry, disreputable women (not all of his interests were savory) and strike-it-rich investment schemes courtesy of the many fly-by-night real estate, oil and mining companies that spread across the country in the early 20th century. 

A Spanish-American War veteran, Noel was also a hunter and inventor, pursuits that merged well with two more interests: dogs and firearms.  He kept up a correspondence with an Illinois kennel operator to whom he sent pups for training as bird dogs.  When one of them died of distemper, Noel was irate and demanded a photograph of its body.  The death of a second left the hapless trainer defending himself against charges of “murder” in a “diseased kennel.”

Noel tinkered around with various inventions, including a type of toothbrush, and even secured patents for some of them.  One patent was for a “pocket pistol holster,” a side draw holster that fit in a hip or overcoat pocket.  Made without straps or belts, it was designed to accommodate a revolver “with hammer cocked or safety catch off, if desired.”  Noel promoted it as the ideal accessory not just for sportsmen but for “Secret Service and Army men” and anyone else who needed to draw a gun from any position, “without the movement of the body, within a fraction of a second.”

Even before he was born, Noel’s first (and, as it turned out, only child) was nicknamed “Tumps.”  When Tumps grew to manhood and entered World War II service, one of his father’s requests was to procure two Luger pistols for his collection.  But Tumps was a mere nine years old when his father first introduced him to gun ownership.  At Christmas 1923, the boy received greetings from none other than Santa Claus, but Saint Nick’s letter brooked no arguments about the responsibilities that came with the accompanying gift.  Dear Tumpie, it read:

I have left you this little shot gun with the understanding that you shall never point it loaded or unloaded at any person or persons and that you will not let other boys handle or play with it, or snap the triggers and you must not make a practice of snapping the triggers yourself unless you are with your Daddy and he is learning you how to shoot.  After Christmas week you must put it in your gun case and put it away so that other boys will not bother you about it.

If you disobey these orders about this I have instructed your Daddy to put your gun away and keep it for you until you become 16 years of age.  Please follow these instructions and if you do you can handle the gun all you want to.

Philip J. Noel’s papers are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  A finding aid can be downloaded here.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Four from Illinois

Henry Gardner describes the Battle of Stones River

Volunteering for Civil War service, three of the young men enlisted at Atlanta – but not with the Confederate Army, for this was Atlanta, Illinois, a tiny town about 45 miles from Springfield, where the fourth had enlisted.  Two of them served in the same regiment, and all probably knew each other.  Three wrote letters home to the same friend, a local farmer whom one entrusted with his pay and the settlement of some debts.  Three survived the war; the fourth did not.

Letters of these four from Illinois – Edgar Brooks, Henry Gardner, William Lawless, and Jefferson Sullivan – were recently loaned to the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections for scanning and posting to TopSCHOLAR, our digital repository.  They give us a vivid glimpse of each writer’s experience of the war after he found himself thrust into the heart of Confederate America.

Serving with the 7th Illinois Infantry, Brooks and Lawless wrote from Tilton, Georgia and Corinth, Mississippi.  Brooks chronicled his movements in June 1862 through Tennessee, remarking on the fortifications, both natural and man made, around the embattled city of Chattanooga.  General William T. Sherman, he marveled, “had to fight over nearly all of this god forsaken Country.”  Confederate raiders were attacking the railroads and setting fire to nearby bridges; nevertheless, Brooks witnessed two or three trains “every day loaded with our wounded a going north and also two or three trains loaded with Rebel Prisoners.”  Two months later, his comrade Lawless reported from camp near Corinth of the same problem with “Gurillass” tearing up the tracks, but had resolved to take a risk and send his pay home on the train rather than “spend it and get sick on trash.”  He had mixed feelings about the handful of young men still at home, supposing they had stayed to get married and tend to their farms, but “if I was a girl I would not have them they should show their spunk first.”

William Lawless writes of guerrilla warfare

Though Gardner and Sullivan were not as literate as the other two, their letters were no less evocative.  Like Lawless, Sullivan was envious of the folks at home.  From Camp Stuart in Virginia, he worried that his wheat crop would fail—“if that is so I am Busted”—and that the local girls had forsaken all the young men who had gone off to war.  Then, some four months later, came Gardner’s letter, written early in January 1863 at Murfreesboro, Tennessee in the aftermath of the Battle of Stones River.  “I have just gon thro one of the moste terable Battle that has ever bin fought,” he told his father and sister.  He described at length the “mitey worke” of death across the broad battlefield: the hissing bullets, the “oful peals of the monster cannon,” the men with mangled limbs, and the bodies “tourn in peases” as Confederate forces ran into the “Blast of leade and hail” brought to bear by Union General William Rosecrans.  Despite some “clost escapes,” Gardner had not suffered “a marke of eny kind from my enemy.”  He would, however, die of wounds the following October, possibly suffered at the Battle of Chickamauga.

Click on the links to access finding aids, full-text scans and typescripts of these letters.  For more Civil War collections, browse here or search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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The Radiator Tax

Ruth Hines Temple

Oh, to be a college sophomore—a term said to derive from the Greek “sophos” and “moros,” literally, a “wise fool.”  You have survived your lowly freshman year, made some friends, learned your way around, and returned to campus convinced that you own the place. 

Long before she became head of WKU’s Art Department, Bowling Green’s Ruth Hines Temple enjoyed this enviable position when she arrived at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in September 1920.  In a letter to her “Dearest Darling Mother,” she excitedly reported on her financial, material, social, and—oh yes—academic preoccupations as she began her second year.

First on the list was the furnishing of her dormitory room.  Using funds from a drugget (a no-frills floor covering) bought during her freshman year, then sold (albeit at a discount), she and her roommate had purchased some blue curtains and a gray wool rug that, together with a rose-colored rug, looked “just divine.”  The place needed some prettying up, for Ruth had found herself domiciled on the second floor of Main Hall, the oldest building on campus.  Her room had a fireplace that was now blocked up, but no worries: she and her roommate had placed their bookshelves in front of “the hole,” and enjoyed having the mantel as “another place to put things.”  They had removed the back from a washstand and converted it into a desk, and covered their chair backs with cretonne (a heavy cloth used for upholstery).  Other aspects of Main Hall were more problematic, as the venerable building had been expanded over the years to accommodate some public uses.  Ruth’s room was right next to an auditorium-style chapel, so she would have to watch herself during those times when entertainments were in session and “I will want to sally forth in my kimono.”

Ruth’s room: “divine” rugs and a taxable radiator

Ruth’s academic plans for the year were eclectic but showed her tacking toward artistic pursuits. She had used her “star” status in Freshman English to insist that “girls who could write should certainly be given an opportunity to do it,” and thereby squeezed her way into a course on exposition and short story writing.  Though she had succeeded in enrolling in an interior decoration course, she was somewhat disappointed that an art professor could not take her on as an assistant—“with all my talent”—until she had a degree.

But the first weeks of sophomore life weren’t complete without a little “stunt” or two at the expense of the freshmen.  While soliciting subscriptions for the college newspaper, a classmate had come up with a way to more quickly enhance the second-year class coffers.  “Have you paid your radiator tax yet?” Ruth and her mates would ask the freshmen, who would “run and get their pocket books and fork it over.”  Some were relieved of a dime, others a quarter, but, Ruth chortled, all was fair.  “We just gave the Freshmen the experience in exchange for the money”—not to mention a scheme they could adopt next year as “wise fools” themselves. 

Ruth Hines Temple’s letter to her mother is part of the Temple Family Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“Look Navy, act Navy & talk Navy”

John W. “Billy” Beam

From his WKU credentials – Bachelor of Science (Biology), Chemistry-Physics Club, Band and Dramatic Clubs, Drum Major, and manager/second tenor in the Men’s Glee Club – it might have been easy to guess where Bardstown native John William Beam was headed next: perhaps to a high school to teach science and advise students in extracurricular musical and theater activities. 

But “Billy,” as he was known, followed two of his brothers into military service.  Where his older siblings had answered the call during World War I, however, 22-year-old Billy joined the U.S. Navy after graduating in 1935.  He entered the new aviation cadet training program at the Naval Air Station at Pensacola, Florida, the site of heightened activity in the face of increasing world tensions.  Billy’s letter to WKU friend Tom Tichenor, who was working on an article about him for the College Heights Herald, offers a glimpse into the peacetime military as it sought to enlarge, modernize, and prepare for any contingency during the ongoing debate over America’s role in international affairs. 

Pensacola Air Station covered “several thousand acres,” Billy wrote, and housed 200 officers, 1,200 enlisted men and 1,000 civilian workers.  One of about 425 cadets in seven classes, Billy described a “very high type bunch” representing more than 75 colleges across the country.  Everyone resided in a six-winged barracks, making sure to keep beds made and lockers arranged with military precision.  Billy was intent upon learning the prescribed vocabulary: walls were bulkheads, windows were ports, upstairs was topsides, floors were decks.  “The time is screwy but when you get to 12 o’clock keep on going till 2400.”  The cadets’ mandate was simple: “We have to look Navy, act Navy & talk Navy,” he wrote.

Billy outlined the day’s routine, from waking up at 0600 to taps at 2200.  Groups of men alternated between squadron and ground school, where Billy had earned distinction in seven completed courses.  Flight training was a five-step, 350-hour regimen designed to make them pilots in about a year’s time.  Beginning with seaplanes, they moved to land planes, then to observation ships (“Here we get all formation flying, radio communication, navigation etc.”) to “big flying patrol boats,” and finally to “fast single seated fighters” where they learned “dog fighting, gunnery, bombing & everything else.”  As aviation cadets, Billy and his mates were given the status of officers outside of working hours, enjoying free shows, Friday night dances, and a choice of recreation on their Saturdays off.  And finally, “we get our wings & go to the fleet for three years & take our place alongside regular naval officers.”

“Billy Beam Enjoys Navy,” headlined his friend Tom’s article in the February 21, 1936 Herald.  But like that of too many young aviators, Billy’s story ended tragically.  He died on November 17, 1938 in a plane crash, ironically, at Pearl Harbor, where his country’s next war would begin.

Billy Beam’s letter to classmate Tom Tichenor is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“Rustle for yourself”

Mattie Gentry considers a move to Orange County, California

In 1896, Owen County, Kentucky native Robert Gentry struck out on his own.  At only 31, he founded the Bank of Sonora in Hardin County and, as it turned out, would remain associated with the bank for more than 50 years. 

In 1905, however, Gentry, his wife Mattie and two young sons were thinking about striking out again, this time for the West.

Beset by illness, the couple considered California as a place where Robert could resume banking or some other business, and both could recover their health.  Seeking information from friends and acquaintances who were familiar with the region, Robert received some enthusiastic responses about the potential of the Golden State.  One boasted of “over a million dollars of building” in Los Angeles in July 1904 alone.  Eager for a new investor, another friend touted the success of his Los Angeles printing business.  The city’s future was assured, he noted, by the approval of an ambitious (but controversial) aqueduct system to supply water from the Owens River in the east.

But what could Robert’s wife Mattie expect?  Suffering from a lung complaint, possibly tuberculosis, she seemed prepared to make the move first and leave her husband to tie up matters at home.  Accordingly, she would have carefully read a letter from Corinne Phillips, the Kentucky-born niece of a family friend and a resident of Tustin in Orange County, that provided some additional perspective on life in southern California.

In simple matters of heat and humidity, Corinne advised, there were many choices.  Though it was the “garden spot” of Orange County, Tustin could be a little too damp for those with weak lungs.  The town of Orange offered a drier climate, as did communities like Riverside, Redlands and San Bernardino.  Even drier—“on the verge of the desert”—were Palm Springs, Beaumont and Hesperia.  Pasadena, with its healthy climate, was called the “Second Paradise.”

But Corinne knew that other aspects of her new home would be important to Mattie.  The desert towns, she warned, “are rather lonely places” for an unaccompanied woman, and Westerners in general, though possessed of some good qualities, were not as sociable as Kentuckians.  “I speak of the southern people,” she wrote, “because I know the South is dear to your heart.”  Santa Ana, for example, “has quite a number of southern people in it,” but Mattie should keep in mind that “every man is “rustling for the ‘Almighty Dollar’ and he takes it for granted that you are doing likewise.”  In a region where “everything is business” she would have to shed any tendency to “be dependent on the stronger sex.”  Women were “placed on an equal footing with men,” Corinne observed, “and you are supposed to rustle for yourself.” 

Overall, Corinne advised, Mattie should come prepared to be flexible and “to make the best of things.”  She should bring a letter of introduction from her pastor, “for it will open to you an avenue of friends.”  She might “see and hear things that would shock your modesty, but don’t worry over it let it go.  For everything goes out west.”  Boarding house rates varied – from two to six dollars per week – but if she committed to a stay of six months to a year, Corinne declared, Mattie would never want to leave.  “You will send for your husband and children [and] build for yourself a house in sunny, southern California.”

Corinne Phillips’s letter to Mattie Gentry is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“A flock of hawks”

On the Memorial Day weekend of May 29, 2021, the remains of Barren County Navy seaman Howard Scott Magers, killed aboard the USS Oklahoma during the attack on Pearl Harbor, were finally brought home.

Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941

On the morning of December 7, 1941, nineteen-year-old Logan County, Kentucky native Warren Tinsley was asleep aboard the U.S. Navy destroyer Aylwin, moored near Ford Island at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  He and his mates were enjoying the looser discipline of that Sunday morning, when many sailors were sleeping off hangovers from their shore leave in Honolulu; some, in fact, including several senior officers, had not yet returned from liberty.   

As a consequence, no one stirred right away when the general alarm buzzer sounded, as it was used for everything from “man overboard” to a fire drill.  But the catastrophic news came quickly: the Japanese were attacking.

Tinsley emerged from below decks to see the attack already under way.  Hit below the waterline, the “old battleship Utah was slowly turning over,” its starboard side high in the air.  Its dazed crew were either struggling in the water or trying to get over the starboard side to swim to Ford Island.  Tinsley hurried to his battle station to find four junior officers trying to decide who would assume the duties of the absent captain.  As the crew rushed to break out the Aylwin’s ammunition, Tinsley saw hostile planes everywhere.  “They reminded me of a flock of hawks attacking a chicken farm in the Kentucky hills.”  Low-flying fighters were “bombing our ships at tree top levels,” giving special attention to the mighty battleships.  One of his mates yelled “There goes the Arizona!” as the vessel exploded, the casualty of a direct hit on her ammunition magazines. And there was the battleship Oklahoma:  it had “turned over as a result of the hits that she suffered and lay like a dead whale with its belly shining in the air.”

Returning fire, Tinsley’s ship managed to make it down the western channel of Pearl Harbor and out to open sea, past the “burning and smoldering mass that was Ford Island.”  After a day of searching for the enemy, the Aylwin returned to the “graveyard of what had once been a formidable fighting force.”  Tinsley also returned to a changed Navy, in which the military routines of peacetime had suddenly vanished.

Warren Tinsley’s vivid account of the attack on Pearl Harbor is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  A finding aid and full-text download can be accessed here.  For more of our collections detailing the service and sacrifice of veterans, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Feast Your Eyes

As we learned during the pandemic, one of the challenges (and miracles) of grocery stores has been their ability to keep shelves stocked with our favorite foods and provisions, or at least with comparable substitutes.  Essential to their mission is the maintenance of supply lines with a corps of manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors.

Early in the twentieth century, the McClure Brothers (Joseph Schuyler and Jonathan “John”), carried a vast inventory of foodstuffs, dry goods, farm equipment, clothing, shoes and toiletries at their general store in the Grayson County, Kentucky community of Millerstown.  The store purchased stock from dozens of suppliers; many were in Louisville but some were elsewhere in Kentucky or in neighboring states.  The invoices rendered to McClure Brothers tell us something of the thriving consumerism of the region.  In addition, their content gives us small history lessons about the businesses, and their striking designs show us the purely aesthetic side of commerce.

There was the American Grocery Company, wholesalers who supplied McClure Brothers with coffee, vanilla, toothbrushes, note paper, nails, sewing needles and more, on payment terms carefully enumerated on the invoice.

American Grocery Company, Louisville

There was Charles W. White’s Louisville Coffee Company, which sold McClure Brothers not just several brands of  coffee but sausage, cheese, turpentine, cigars, face powder, and castor oil.

Louisville Coffee Company

There was the K & I Fruit House of Fred Kohlhepp, the son of German immigrants, and Italian immigrant Joseph (Guiseppe) Iula, from whom McClure Brothers also bought potatoes and cabbage.

K and I Fruit House, Louisville

There was the Louisville Grocery Company, where McClure Brothers obtained candy, chewing gum, peppers and pickles.

Louisville Grocery Company

There was Italian immigrant Michael DeSopo’s fruit company, providing McClure Brothers with oranges, lemons, bananas and watermelons.

M. DeSopo & Company, Louisville

Finally, to prepare all these goodies, there were stoves supplied by the Louisville Tin and Stove Company, a firm in business since 1888.

Louisville Tin and Stove Company

And, for four-legged customers there was animal feed and medicines from the International Stock Food Company in Minneapolis.  Billing itself as the “Largest Stock Food Factory in the World,” the firm covered the reverse of its colorful invoice with fine print explaining its guarantees, offering a free “Spring Canvassing Wagon” for use by agents, and giving tips on “How to Have a Big Sale.”  Attractive displays and show cards were important, but the company warned that the “VERY WORST” thing a merchant could do was to discount prices.  Looking to protect its brand, the company advised sticking to the regular retail price in order to maintain profits and avoid the impression that the goods were somehow damaged or deficient.

International Stock Food Company, Minneapolis

Supplier invoices for the McClure Brothers store are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  A finding aid can be downloaded here.  For more collections documenting Kentucky merchants, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“Never stop singing, mother”

When the U.S. entered World War II, Charles Henry Duff of Jackson, Kentucky had already been in the Army for 17 months.  A few days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he accompanied his infantry unit to Hawaii to begin 3½ years of active duty in the Pacific theatre.  He would earn a Combat Infantryman Badge for exemplary conduct on Saipan.  Though wounded, Duff came away with a Japanese pistol and saber as souvenirs of the battle.

Charles Duff’s mother, Linnie Duff

But the day after Mother’s Day in 1943, he was just another soldier happy to receive a letter from his mother, Linnie Duff. Worried that she was worried after having received no recent letters from him,  Charles made up for it with a heartfelt reply that paid tribute to his mother’s hard work and sacrifices throughout his life.

“Thinking of the times when I used to sit in the kitchen,” wrote the grateful son, “and watch you cook dinner and how you would scold us kids for fighting over who got to sit on the stool or who got to lick the cake pan. . . And how you used to come home from work so tired you could hardly walk.  And start right in ironing a shirt for me to wear to town.  And oh how it hurt me to see you have to work.”  He recalled the guilt he experienced when, as a young man, he couldn’t contribute financially to their Depression-era Breathitt County household.  “I couldn’t even get a job big enough to wear decent clothes, much less take care of a family.  Who wanted to hire a little ole boy seventeen years old and not big enough for a boy of twelve.” 

Charles remembered the “fuss” his mother made when he wouldn’t take medicine, or how she “used to lay awake nights waiting” for him to come home.  “But the one thing that stands out more than anything,” he wrote, “is the way you would sing.  When you were washing, ironing, cooking or anything that had to do with work you always did it with a song.” 

Attributing his own passion for music to his mother, Charles made one request.  “Music to me is everything.  It’s life, love and even death.  So never stop singing mother, no matter what happens.”  And if he didn’t make it home from the war, she shouldn’t cry over him.  “Just sing for me instead like you have always sung.”  In the meantime, he told her never to doubt that he was thinking of her, because to this son “every day is Mother’s day.”

Charles Duff’s letter to his mother 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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