William Weldon was 22 when he left
his mother, father and 16-year-old brother Vachel in Ballard County, Kentucky
and struck out for Arkansas in 1848. The
entire family was on the lookout for opportunities elsewhere: Vachel would decamp
for Texas in 1854, and his widowed father followed.
Five months into his absence, however, William was still anxious to hear all the news from back home in Kentucky—marriages, crops, religious conversions, and so on. But he had his own story to tell about a recent test of his gallantry. It involved a young lady, “Modest, Handsome, & sensable,” but afflicted with “a disease which is very common in Kentucky called the flirts.” Indeed, Weldon wrote in a letter, “Miss Fanny” was really on her game one “coald dry day,” pausing only briefly from her non-stop coquetry to pose herself dangerously close to the fireplace. Weldon considered warning her but thought, no worries, she’ll “flirt away soon.”
He was wrong. Fanny’s dress, no doubt a flammable mix of
crinoline, muslin and gauze, suddenly ignited, and “she broke for the door with
the blaze higher than her head.” With no
water handy, and without time to consider what a gentleman should do in such circumstances,
Weldon surrendered to the “painful necessity” of tearing off her burning
clothes. “Just think of a young man
stripping a lady in company,” he wrote sheepishly. But it was all over quickly and Miss Fanny,
her dignity no doubt as charred as her wardrobe, “made a straight shirttail for
Mike Sisk, a WKU alumni and teacher in the Hardin County
Schools, recently donated a collection of family and business letters related
to the Green family of Falls of Rough in Breckinridge County. This complemented a collection of fifty-two
boxes of Green family material already located in the Manuscripts unit of
Library Special Collections. While
reading through the material in preparation for cataloging, the manuscripts
curator noted that in the late-1880s Lafayette Green received several letters
of recommendation related to a milling position at the flour and woolen mill he
owned at Falls of Rough. One of those
letters was from Willie Green, no relation to Lafayette. In the letter Green recommends Mr. Montford,
because he is familiar with the more traditional grinding mills rather than “the
new roller process and the consensus is that the mill he is running don’t get a
great deal to do—as it is an old fashion one or a mill like yours and his
employers cannot afford to pay him a salary sufficient to remain.” At the end of the 18th October
1886 letter, he notes that “Mr. Montford’s address is at South Union, Logan
County, Ky.” Indeed, Lafayette Green was
not only consulting various experts about upgrades at the mill, he was also
aware that the dam needed to be re-engineered.
The manuscripts curator went immediately to Shaker Record
D (the daily journal of the Shaker community at South Union) to see if Mr.
Montford was mentioned. Indeed Montford
and his family were mentioned several times in Record D as Francis Monfort, Sr.
(variant spelling). The first Monfort
mentioned is John, Francis’s son. The
record keeper noted that on Sunday, 1 February 1880: “Boy Received. John Monfort aged 13 years on the 5th
of May next. His Father resides at
Tunnel Hill Ky. & expects to come himself—This Boy arrived here last Monday
the 26th of Jany Ult.” On
August 18, Francis came “with his family wife and 3 children…Francis wants to
live a Shaker life. His wife is not
ready. Therefore we have fixed up the
Tan house—now called the halfway house for them to reside in as Francis a
miller he will be handy to this work.”
In September we learn that at the age of 50 Francis was
admitted to the Shaker community. Again
the record keeper notes that Francis “is a Miller & now goes to the Mill.” Although the record never says that his wife
Nancy joined the Shakers, she is listed for a number of years in the census
records with the other Sisters. In 1885,
the family is listed in the West Family census.
On December 31 Francis and his family left the society; “they
go to Auburn for a present home. They
consist of 5, F[rancis] & wife [Nancy].
One daughter [Naomi] and three Sons [Francis, Jr., Frederic and John].
The letter to Lafayette Green was dated 18 October 1886,
and the family was obviously in dire straits as Record D indicates they
returned to South Union in the summer of 1887 and united with the Centre
family. The journalist didn’t record the
specific date of their return, but he mentioned on 15 July 1887 that the
temperature was 100 degrees and the “Demise [of] Francis Monfort,…at 4 A.M. this morning. Not of us tho he intended [to] be. Aged 56 years.” On 5
August 1889 Nancy and Naomi Montfort “left with privileges of returning if
desired.” Apparently the boys had
already left and Nancy and her daughter must have never “desired” enough to
return. The Montfort family is not
mentioned again in Shaker Record D. It
was fascinating to see how these items from different collections dovetailed.
Today, it would have caused a Twitter-storm. On January 27, 1871, a well-liked but relatively unknown Kentucky congressman took the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and (to quote a later newspaper) brazenly “twitted” Duluth, a Minnesota town of a few thousand clinging to the western shores of Lake Superior.
J. Proctor Knott’s beef with Duluth arose from his unhappiness with the common practice of handing over public lands to railroads—in this case, in the form of a bill giving federal land to the St. Croix and Lake Superior Railroad. Knott believed (or pretended to) that the terminus of the proposed line would be at Duluth rather than at Superior, Wisconsin, a short distance to the south.
Given a generous 30 minutes to vent on the issue, Knott proceeded to double over the chamber in laughter with a satirical takedown of the pretensions of this northern town. Where was Duluth, anyway? he asked. “Never, in my limited reading, had my vision been gladdened by seeing the celestial word in print.” But he professed confidence “that it existed somewhere, and that its discovery would constitute the crowning glory of the present century, if not all modern times.”
Claiming to have consulted maps and other oracles to determine Duluth’s location, Knott imagined “one of those ethereal creations of intellectual frost-work. . . one of those airy exhalations of the speculator’s brain, which I am told are ever flitting in the form of towns and cities along the lines of railroads built with government subsidies.” Despite hearing rumors of cold that could “freeze the smoke-stack off a locomotive,” Knott expressed faux confidence in the “illimitable and inexhaustible” potential of the town. His prediction that Duluth “was destined to become the commercial metropolis of the universe” and his snarky plea for the railroad line to be built without delay drew, according to reprints of the speech, “roars of laughter.”
The railroad bill never came to a vote, but Duluth had the last laugh. It was, in fact, at the heart of a wealth of resources and soon fulfilled its promise to become “The Zenith City of the Unsalted Sea.” Only a few decades later, it could claim to be the greatest shipping hub in the world, as millions of tons of wheat, iron ore, dairy products and lumber passed through its port. And of course Duluthians (being Minnesotans) held no grudge against the saucy congressman who had, after all, put them on the map with his widely circulated speech. Proctorknott, Minnesota (now just Proctor) was established in 1894 just a few miles from Duluth. In 1890, Knott himself, now a former Governor of Kentucky, visited Duluth and good-naturedly acknowledged its “marvelous prosperity” at a banquet in his honor. The Commercial Club of Duluth proudly reprinted Knott’s original speech on the left-hand pages of a commemorative booklet, with a proud narrative of the city’s accomplishments on the opposite pages. In 1925, fourteen years after Knott’s death, his portrait was displayed at Duluth’s Exposition of Progress and Iron Ore Golden Jubilee.
Paducah, Kentucky’s Eighth of August Emancipation Celebration is a days-long, event-filled dive into the city’s African-American heritage. Since at least 1886, the community has been the site of an annual grand gathering to commemorate the end of slavery. The relation of August 8 to emancipation is a little uncertain, but the most popular theory is that it harkens back to the day in the 1790s when the enslaved people of Santo Domingo (Haiti) were declared to be free.
In 2008, field workers with the Kentucky Folklife Program visited Paducah to gather information about the current celebration. They took photographs and video and collected material, including a thick program highlighting that year’s theme “A Journey By Faith.” Along with sponsors’ ads and event schedules, the program features memorials, announcements, and autobiographies of African-American Paducahns that chronicle their lives, achievements, and spiritual journeys. Included for that election year of 2008 was a scholarship-winning essay by a local high school senior on the topic “Is America Ready for an African-American President?”
The field workers also conducted an interview with James Dawson, a Hopkinsville native who had made his home in Paducah since 1951. He recalled hearing his grandfather talk about the celebration, which drew African Americans from all over the country. Dawson’s own memories included dances, bands, street parties, class and family reunions, and all-night merriment. He and his son helped to serve up a food staple—barbeque (Dawson’s favorite was pork or mutton)—together with fried fish and hamburgers. Unlike the old days, Dawson observed, the event had become less spontaneous, bringing in commercial food vendors and requiring committees, permits, insurance, security and all the accoutrements of modern civic existence. Nevertheless, the 2008 gathering was another successful chapter in a tradition that retains its unique place in Paducah.
Like many soldiers overseas, Bowling Green’s Ray Howell (1893-1977), who served in the U.S. Army from July 1918 to September 1919, exchanged correspondence with the folks at home. Often included were personalized postcards with a photograph meant to assure the family that their boy was hale and hearty.
One of Ray’s correspondents was
his sister Maud, but the reply to her letter of December 3, 1918, complete with
postcard portrait, was not quite what she expected. “You start your letter Dear Brother,” it
read. “Sorry I cannot claim you as a
sister I only have one and her name is Grace.”
None of the other personalities mentioned in Maud’s letter rang a bell:
no “Uncle Ira,” no “Eli”—indeed, the writer “had no relations in Kentucky that
I know of.”
Ray, of course, hadn’t contracted amnesia. This was a different “Ray Howell,” a private with the American Expeditionary Forces occupying Germany after the Armistice, to whom Maud’s letter had been sent by mistake. But he had read its contents carefully, and his reply betrayed his eagerness to win a pen pal as he impatiently awaited demobilization. “I have been here 2 yrs this coming June,” he wrote, referring her to an enclosed picture showing a uniformed young man with arms crossed who bore a startling resemblance to Maud’s brother. “You can see by the stripes I wear on my lower part of left arm. Each one represents 6 months 3 of them 4 in June.” Further, if another letter were to come from his newfound “sister,” perhaps they could be strangers no longer. Of the mistaken identity, Ray concluded, he was “hoping to get an explanation on this subject and hearing from you very soon.”