Monthly Archives: January 2015

Kentucky Cave Wars

Since the first tourist tract written by Alexander Clark Bullitt in 1844, it seemed  everyone wanted to visit the “Mammoth Cave.” He considered such a visit an almost spiritual pilgrimage.  “Awe and apprehension soon yield to the influence of the delicious air; and after a time a certain jocund feeling is found mingled with the deepest impressions of sublimity. I recommend all broken-hearted lovers and dyspeptic dandies to carry their complaints to the Mammoth Cave, where they will undoubtedly find themselves ‘translated’ into very buxom and happy persons.”

Mammoth Cave is the country’s 26th national park and contains almost 60,000 acres of land in South Central, KY. But, the entire region, because of our 22545771karst topography is riddled with caves. This push for visitors lead to one of the most interesting parts of Mammoth Cave history. It was the period known as the “Kentucky Cave Wars.” It was a time when local cave owners used devious advertising and other illegal means to lure tourists to their underground treasures and away from the “real” cave.  They did this impersonating rangers and flagging travelers off the road before they could reach the cave and national park. A recent book by David Kem, The Kentucky Cave Wars: The Century That Shaped Mammoth Cave National Park, delves into this time by “telling the story of Mammoth Cave’s greatest competitors in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.   From the death of Dr. Croghan and the first competitors popping up in Cave Country, to the national park’s creation and beyond, more than a century of fighting for tourist dollars shaped the decisions in and around the famous cave.” Kem used several photographs and other illustrative materials from the Kentucky Library Research Collections to illustrate his new book. Find materials about the cave and other subjects in the Department of Library Special Collections by searching TopSCHOLAR and KenCat or request more information from

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The Buchanan Heirs

Any resemblance? President James Buchanan and Mattie (Buchanan) Gerard

Any resemblance? President James Buchanan and Mattie (Buchanan) Gerard

Like those e-mails we get today from Nigerian princes, it was surely too good to be true. . . but then again, maybe not.  Way back when, a cousin of President James Buchanan was said to have left an estate comprising dozens of valuable properties in New York’s Manhattan and at least six other states.  By the 1920s, all the long leases on the properties had expired and the estate, now worth as much as $850 million, was due for liquidation and distribution to Buchanan’s descendants.

As America entered the Depression, rumors of the jackpot awaiting those who could prove their Buchanan ancestry spread like wildfire.  The ringmaster of the proceedings was one L. D. Buchanan, a Houston, Texas grocer, great-grandson of the Buchanan tycoon, and self-appointed coordinator of the estate settlement.  In Bowling Green, Kentucky, Martha “Mattie” Gerard (1869-1962), the daughter of Lawson Lafayette Buchanan, was skeptical, but if the rumors were true, why not give it a shot?  She swore an affidavit as to her ancestry, carefully prepared her Buchanan history, and mailed it to L. D. Buchanan with a request that he file her claim.

Letters and genealogies flew between Mattie and other prospective beneficiaries in the family, none of whom could completely suppress their doubts. . . or their expectations.  Mattie’s cousin Clara had heard that the mysterious L. D. Buchanan was “sincere and honest” and that the money “might be paid in a month, and it might take 5 years.”  Another potential claimant, she wrote Mattie, “does not think there is any estate, but if there is, he thinks the man will be square.”

Eventually, it all became too much for old L. D. Buchanan.  Protesting mightily that he had received no financial benefit from his efforts, but under suspicion of fraud, he refused all further mail from claimants.  And in 1932, at the urging of an exasperated New York Surrogate Court judge, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a statement: There were no–repeat, NO–Buchanan estate settlements pending in the courts of his state, and “money contributed by claimants for the purpose of establishing their existence is money wasted.”  He might have added that any genealogies prepared for the express purpose of cashing in on an ancestor’s millions should be taken with a grain of salt.

Mattie (Buchanan) Gerard’s file on the Buchanan estate claim is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives holdings of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For other genealogical collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Mary Ellen Miller Will Speak at the Kentucky Building on February 12th

Mary Ellen Miller

Mary Ellen Miller, an English professor of WKU, talked about the life and literary talent of her late husband, Jim Wayne Miller, a renowned writer and pioneer of Appalachian Studies and a distinguished and revered teacher that she and Morris Allen Grubbs have written about in the book Every Leaf a Mirror: A Jim Wayne Miller Reader. The event took place in the Kentucky Museum on the evening of February 12, 2015.

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WKU Alum – Charles Napier

Charles NapierCharles Napier is pictured here as Captain Striker in 1984, click on the image to visit the official Charles Napier website, which includes images of his watercolor paintings.

Charles Napier, a Scottsville native and WKU alumnus, is the tough military officer/ cop/cowboy that was the bad guy on everything you saw in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.  The list of his acting credits is extensive and much too long to include, here, but please check it out on Continue reading

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Political Survivors

Since the Cold War, a feature of the annual State of the Union message is the “designated survivor” status given to a member of the U.S. government.  Should a catastrophic event wipe out the Capitol and everyone inside during the President’s speech, continuity of government would rest in the hands of this individual, who watches the proceedings from a secure, Secret Service-protected location.  This year’s “designated survivor” was Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx.

In 1966, giving his farewell speech after 22 years in Congress, Kentucky representative Frank Chelf remembered an event that, if not catastrophic, surely rattled the halls of that institution.  On March 1, 1954, four Puerto Ricans demanding independence from the United States fired pistols from the gallery of the House at members of the 83rd Congress.  “When the sound of the last shot was history,” said Chelf, “five of our colleagues were lying bleeding on the floor of this chamber.”  Having just left for a doctor’s appointment, Chelf concluded that the engagement saved his life because “the seat that I had just vacated minutes before, had been completely riddled by two bullets.  It just wasn’t my time to go.”  The same, fortunately, held true of the five shooting victims, all of whom survived.

Departing Congressman Frank Chelf passes the torch to William H. Natcher, 1966

Departing Congressman Frank Chelf passes the torch to William H. Natcher, 1966

Frank Chelf’s farewell speech to Congress is part of the Frank Chelf Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives holdings of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For more political collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!  Here is a glimpse back as we continue to speed forward through the 21st century.  For more, visit TopScholar and choose a year from the drop down box.

1990 Talisman

25 Years Ago – Talisman 1990

1965 Talisman

50 Years Ago – 1965 Talisman

Talisman 1940

75 Years Ago – 1940 Talisman


1915 Vista

100 Years Ago – 1915 Vista

















Post written by WKU Archives Assistant April McCauley.

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Margie Helm Winners announced at holiday luncheon

The Margie Helm Award winners were recognized at the end of December at the Gondolier during the Libraries holiday luncheon.


Winners included: John Gottfried, Faculty Award; Amanda Hardin, Staff Award; Sarah Zibart and Katie DeCoursey,Student Award for Library Public Services; Lyndsey Pender, Student Award for Library Special Collections;Kelli Storm, Student Award for Library Technical Services; and Faraway Flix won the Team Award including committee members Shaden Melky (Chair), Uma Doraiswamy, Lisa Miller, Jack Montgomery, Tony Pagnelli, and Jennifer Wilson.

Approximately 80 faculty, staff, and students attended.

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Speaking with Pictures

James Proctor Knott cartoons

James Proctor Knott cartoons

James Proctor Knott (1830-1911) was a native of Marion County, Kentucky who practiced law in Memphis, Missouri before being elected attorney general of that state in 1860.  As the country moved toward civil war, he did not adopt the pieties of either side; he disapproved of secession but declined to take a prescribed loyalty oath to the U.S. government, an act that led to his disbarment and a brief stay in prison.  Knott then moved back to Kentucky (his second wife’s family lived in Bowling Green), where he became a member of Congress and then governor.

James Proctor Knott sketch of man readingKnott also liked to draw.  A collection of his sketches and cartoons is part of the Knott Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives holdings of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Executed in pencil, ink and watercolor, they show Knott’s appreciation of human, plant, animal and architectural forms.  On one small rendering of a landscape, he has added these lines from Hamlet: “We must speak by the card [precisely, that is], or equivocation will undo us.”

James Proctor Knott landscape with Hamlet quote

Click here for a collection finding aid.  For more collections relating to artists and cartoonists, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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A Little Flight Through History

Mona Lisa; Elizabeth Robertson Coombs

Mona Lisa; Elizabeth Robertson Coombs

January 8, 1962 saw the unveiling, for the first time in the United States, of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece La Gioconda — or, as it was probably better known to an advance audience of dignitaries at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, the Mona Lisa.

The painting was on loan from the Louvre, but half a century earlier a petty thief named Vincenzo Peruggia had attempted to borrow it permanently.  On August 21, 1911, he hid in the Louvre until it closed for the night, then removed the Mona Lisa from its frame.  The next morning, he sauntered out of the museum with the treasure concealed in a smock.  By the time it was recovered more than two years later, the Mona Lisa had entered the public imagination as the world’s most famous, and now closely guarded, work of art.

Traveling in Europe at the time, an aunt of Bowling Green’s Elizabeth Robertson Coombs had a unique experience of the theft.  She had spent the summer in England, touring the countryside and enjoying London — “of course it isn’t New York,” she wrote, referring to Elizabeth’s home at the time, “but it is very nice.”  After a tour of France’s chateau district, she went on to Paris for a month, where she shopped for her winter wardrobe, wandered through Montmartre, and visited the Moulin Rouge (which fell short of a promise that it was “eminently respectable”).  And yes, she reported, “we saw Mona Lisa before stealing — and the hooks where she had hung — after.”  But one can imagine Elizabeth’s aunt smiling as serenely as La Gioconda when she dropped this bomb on her 18-year-old niece: “By the way — I had my first aeroplane flight while we were in Paris . . . in a biplane — went around the horizon — and mounted to about the height of the Eiffel Tower . . . it was perfectly heavenly.”

Letters written to Elizabeth Robertson Coombs early in the 20th century are part of the Coombs Family Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives holdings 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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Out of the Box – December

Board of Regents Meeting 12/1939Elevator12-1914

Chamber Singers

College Heights Herald 12/1954

Commencement 12/2014

Elevator 12/1914

Hill Talk 3/1984

Home Economics Video, 1972

Modern Languages, Administration File Collection Inventory

Student/Alumni Scrapbooks

Unidentified Students, help us identify students

Western Players

WKU Owensboro

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