Author Archives: Lynn Niedermeier

He Knew his ABCs

FDR and some of his New Deal federal agencies

Perhaps feeling justified during a time of war, in 1943 Congressman Hampton P. Fulmer decided to push back against a cranky voter.  The South Carolina Democrat, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, had received a complaint from Eugene M. Biggers of Houston, Texas concerning the plethora of federal agencies created under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal—“Alphabetical Agencies,” as they were called, because of the acronyms by which they were known: the NRA (National Recovery Act), WPA (Works Progress Administration), CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), and so on. 

“I would like to know just what line of business you are engaged in,” the congressman challenged Biggers.  “In the next place, I would like to know whether or not you would prefer going back to the conditions which existed in every line of business in 1930-33,” referring, of course to America’s tumble into the Depression.

Biggers, meanwhile, had been busy compiling a list of agencies and offering copies to interested parties.  The response, he found, was overwhelming.  Small businesses, taxpayers associations, educational groups, farmers, and the press clamored for confirmation of what many had long maintained: that these “damnable Bureaus,” as Biggers wrote, were wasteful, oppressive, and manipulative, run by “fan-tailed theorists” burdening the American people with regulations and regimentation.  In a three-page reply to Congressman Fulmer, Biggers railed against the “Roosevelt New Deal Party” and, despite the war, presented an unapologetic indictment of the “experimenters in Washington” who had imposed themselves between producers and their markets and upended the laws of supply and demand.

And just what was Biggers’ line of business?  Unfortunately for Congressman Fulmer, it was printing.  Even without the internet, he was well positioned to “go viral” with his views.  He offered, for the low price of $1 per hundred, a reproduction of the congressman’s letter, his own response, and his list of 104 “Alphabetical Agencies” (out of a total of 2,241 agencies, bureaus and commissions that he had uncovered) as souvenirs of “the goofiest period in America’s history.” 

These printed materials created by Eugene M. Biggers are 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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Miss Em

Emily Perry in 1888

It was summer 1913, and Put-in-Bay, Ohio was gearing up to celebrate the centennial of one of the most important naval battles of the War of 1812.  On September 10, 1813, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry wrested control of Lake Erie from the British Royal Navy, forcing the surrender of a squadron of ships and opening his terse report of the victory with the memorable phrase, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

Remarkably, at the center of the excitement, and one of the most honored guests expected at the celebration, was “a frail, sweet-faced, silver haired Kentucky woman.”  Emily Perry was the daughter of the late Reverend Gideon Babcock Perry, who had been born in Rhode Island at the same family homestead as his cousin, the famous Commodore.  Emily had followed her father through numerous pastoral postings in the Midwest and South until they reached Hopkinsville, Kentucky in 1867, where Reverend Perry became rector of Grace Episcopal Church.  “Miss Em,” as she became known, immersed herself in social, cultural and charitable activities, organizing concerts and other entertainments for worthy recipients like Hopkinsville’s public school library.  Now, with her parents and three brothers gone, she lived with her sister, Maria Efnor, who had been adopted into the family as a child.  In addition to superintending the work of her United Volunteers Musical and Literary Society, Emily was a devoted scrapbook-keeper, pulling together newspaper clippings on the vast number of topics that attracted her interest: Civil War history, music, poetry, celebrities, and women as well as men who had made names for themselves in politics, science, arts and culture. 

Alas, as proud as she was of her heritage, and despite being promised every comfort and consideration she might have wished for, Emily decided to decline the invitation to the festivities.  At 69 years of age, her eyesight was failing, and that of 82-year-old sister Maria’s was completely gone.  Emily instead remained at the family home at Ninth and Campbell streets, ultimately compelled to obey the command on Oliver Hazard Perry’s battle flag—“Don’t give up the ship.”

Papers and photographs of the Perry family, including Emily Perry, are 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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“A straight shirttail for home”

An all-too-common crinoline fire (Wellcome Collection CC BY)

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 home.” 

William Weldon’s letter telling of his rescue of Fanny the Flirt is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to download a finding aid and typescript.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Dissing Duluth

J. Proctor Knott (Mathew Brady photo, Washington, D.C.)

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.” 

The Northern Pacific Railroad’s brochure included Knott’s speech

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.

James Proctor Knott’s Duluth speeches and related material are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid to the Knott Collection.  A recent donation of more Knott family materials is currently being processed and will soon be available.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Emancip-eight!

Historical marker for Paducah’s Eighth of August celebration

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.

This project focusing on Paducah’s Eighth of August Emancipation Celebration of 2008 is part of the 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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Ray and Ray

Maud Howell’s brother Ray (left) and his namesake (right)

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.”

Click here to access a finding aid for the papers of Ray Howell, including the letter from Ray Howell #2, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For more of our World War I collections, browse here or search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Apollo 11

Hardin Planetarium Director Paul Campbell and WKU students examine a moon rock from the Apollo 11 mission

July 20 at 10:56 EDT marks the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the moon.  Those of a certain age will remember the blurry TV images, Armstrong’s “one small step for man” declaration, and the achievement of President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 challenge to the nation to put a man on the moon before the close of the decade.

Mary (Rodes) Helm and her husband, Auburn, Kentucky native and New York banker Harold H. Helm, had been invited to Cape Kennedy to witness the launch of the Apollo 11 spacecraft on July 16.  Their host, Jim “Mac” McDonnell, the founder of McDonnell Douglas, was a space-age enthusiast whose company had been involved in the mission.  Mary had been initially reluctant to endure the crowds and Florida’s summer heat, but returned from the launch with a change of heart.  “It was a very moving and emotional experience which I did not expect,” she wrote her father, retired Bowling Green judge John Rodes.  “It may have been crowd psychology – so many thousand breathless & with a single thought & prayer.  But when that rocket went up as you saw it on TV – a man behind me murmured ‘God speed,’ I felt tears rolling down my cheeks.”  At a dinner the previous evening, she had met other astronauts from the program, including Wally Schirra (Apollo 7) and Jim Lovell (Apollo 8 and later 13).

Others in Bowling Green were equally uplifted.  “Wasn’t the moon landing and spectacular walk exciting?” Mary Kimbrough declared to a friend.  But like Mac McDonnell, who quickly asked “What next?” after the success of Apollo 11, she was looking ahead.  “They announced that my cousin, Jack (Harrison) Schmitt will go on the next trip – Apollo 12,” she wrote (he actually flew on Apollo 17).  “We’ve always said ‘Man in the Moon.’  We have to revise that to say ‘Man ON the Moon.’”

One of the unknowns about Apollo 11 was the danger of invasion by alien microbes or “moon bugs,” a possibility that kept the astronauts in quarantine for more than two weeks after their return.  But three years later, it was the cargo of rocks brought back from the lunar surface that scientists sought to keep in pristine condition.  In August 1972, a loan of one of these moon rocks arrived for display at WKU’s Hardin Planetarium.  To protect against leakage and contamination by the earth’s atmosphere, the sample was sealed in a container filled with pure nitrogen.  More than four billion years old, it was part of a 70-pound haul collected during the Apollo 11 mission.

Click on the links to access more information about these materials, housed in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.

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A Buzzard and a Boxer

A boxer’s mysterious letter

Bowling Green, Ky.: They found him in September 1902 in “Hobson’s woods,” after a passerby noticed a buzzard in a nearby tree.  His head was devoid of flesh (probably courtesy of said buzzard) and his body dismembered.  There was a bullet hole behind his right ear.  He may have been deposited in a shallow grave, because investigators found a pair of pants “buried with him.”  Other personal effects included a hat, “one Phial of poison,” a “large long rubber ear trumpet,” $3.59 in cash, and a Catholic badge. 

In the deceased man’s pocket was a letter from one Barney Furey, whose letterhead advertised his prowess as “Light Weight Champion of the West.”  In a pencilled scribble, the Cincinnati-based boxer introduced himself to our dead friend who, we learn, was from Chicago and who had acquaintances in common with Furey: Joe Gans, an African American who was one of the nation’s greatest lightweight fighters; another pugilist, Charley “Young” Kenney; and respected match referees Malachy Hogan and George Siler. 

But Furey’s letter then moved on to other business.  “Now the money I owe don’t be worried,” he told the dead man, “for I will surely give it to you.  I am going to Chicago to fight in a week.” 

At the inquest, the coroner’s jury had no difficulty determining the cause of death, but the backstory, unfortunately, remained untold.  Who was the man, and what, if anything, did a letter from a boxer in his debt have to do with his murder?

This is only one of many local mysteries to be found in the collections (currently being processed) of historic court records, including inquests, held in WKU’s Manuscripts & Folklife Archives.  Search us in TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Stitches in Time

On this June 13, National Sewing Machine Day, we remember the 19th-century English, French, German and American inventors who alleviated (or at least revised) the toil of the tailor and seamstress.  We also remember the millions of women who saw their employment and domestic lives transformed by the new technology. 

Early in 1861, Sallie Knott had much to write about from Missouri to her mother in Bowling Green, including the election of Abraham Lincoln that had ignited talk of secession.  Also of note, however, was her friend’s new Grover & Baker sewing machine.  “I’ve learned to sew pretty well,” Sallie reported.  “It only cost $45 & answers pretty well when there is no stout jeans for servants.”  She had run up a calico dress in only one day, and was quickly losing interest in sewing by hand.  “It spoils one very soon,” she admitted.  “I dislike to take up any needle now to do anything – even to baste.”

Whether at home or in the workplace, women were quick to find that like much new gadgetry, the sewing machine pushed them to perform more labor in the same time rather than the same labor in less time.  “Lizzie sews every day,” a correspondent reported to her cousin from Bourbon County in 1870.  “She has a Wheeler & Wilson machine, and has all the sewing she can do.”  The machines also required a new technical language for parts and maintenance.  “Send me No. 26L306 sewing machine Needles one doz. for Improved Singer Head No. 6389759,” wrote Lewis County, Kentucky’s Annie Kinney to Sears, Roebuck in 1918.  Her efficient requisition was accompanied by a sample needle and a preference for ones “just a little longer,” if possible.

On its way to becoming synonymous with the sewing machine, Isaac Merritt Singer’s company developed a mass marketing strategy for women who sewed at home.  In 1885, Singer wrote from its Cincinnati office to Bowling Green lawyer Clarence McElroy about one of its local agents on whom it relied to sell machines, parts and accessories.  J. C. Webb had signed on as a full-time agent in 1880, receiving a salary of $15 per week plus a 3% commission on sales.  His contract also stipulated that he was “to furnish one Horse to be used in the business and to pay for its keeping.”  Webb, however, had attempted to buy his horse in the company’s name, making Singer responsible for payment.  While reluctant to make a scene, the Singer representative was firm in his instructions to McElroy.  “We do not question our obligation to pay for a Horse if Mr. Webb had bought it for the use of the company, but we cannot admit that an agent has a right or authority to purchase a Horse for another party and bind the company by a note.”  Besides, he pointed out, there was the matter of that clause in the contract – prepared, as it happened, on another newfangled device, the typewriter.

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For more, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“Hands, wits, and guts”

Stephen Ambrose’s 1994 book about D-Day bore this dramatic image.
Inset: Bert J. Borrone

June 6: the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the best- and worst-kept secret of World War II. 

It was 1944, and everyone knew this would be “the year of destiny,” when the Allies would launch a massive cross-channel invasion of Europe to mark the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.  But until it happened, no one knew precisely when or where the assault would take place. 

Bowling Green’s Bert Borrone was deeply interested in the question.  Stationed with a signal service company in North Africa, the U.S. Army sergeant was responsible for radio broadcasts that would keep his military audience informed about the course of the war.  Late in May 1944, he prepared two 15-minute programs for the American Expeditionary Station News Bureau to ready his listeners for the invasion, “so that when the day does come. . . and General Eisenhower says ‘Tonight, we strike,’ we shall be able to follow the hourly news, be it good or bad, with understanding, with confidence.” 

Borrone’s first program painted a vivid picture of the invasion landscape: the English Channel, both a “ready-made highway for assault” and “an itinerary to death”; the minesweepers, those “unsung old ladies of the sea,” spearheading the fleet; the arc of invasion vessels stretching across the horizon; the bombers, fighters and paratroop transports.  Beaches were necessary to land troops, and ports to supply them, but “no one knows better than the Nazi what is potential invasion land,” Borrone warned.  The enemy would be ready with mines, landing-craft traps, anti-tank obstacles, machine-gun and mortar emplacements, pill-boxes, bunkers, fortified towns and “hundreds of thousands of the Wehrmacht’s finest, dug in for the showdown.”

Then would come the landings, as “battle-wagons, with their escorts of the sea and air, plunge toward the pre-assigned beaches,” and all the plans, rehearsals and calculations were put to the test.  Many had performed their duties in advance: if Nazi fighters or weapons failed to appear, or if the enemy’s reserves arrived too late, or if his mines failed to detonate, it was because a production facility had been bombed day and night, or an intelligence operative had directed just where to place an explosive, or an underground fighter—“a Hans or a Pierre or an Emil”—had carried out a successful sabotage.  Ultimately, however, the invasion would be “committed into the hands, and wits, and guts, of a few hundred thousand.”

Borrone’s second program was a tutorial on the tactics of a coastal invasion, the nuts-and-bolts calculations of everything from enemy firepower and types of forces needed to anticipated numbers of sea-sickness among the troops.  Tides, terrain, defenses, roads, availability of reserves, and the timing, makeup and objectives of each “wave” of the invasion—these and other innumerable considerations, Borrone explained, needed to be weighed “against the single most important factor in any military action . . . initial, tactical surprise.  Only then,” he declared, “can the supreme commander point his finger at one definitive spot along all the vast shore line and commit it irrevocably to the fates who weave human destiny.”

Bert Borrone’s radio broadcast scripts delivered in anticipation of D-Day are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections on World War II and D-Day, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.   

75 years ago (@BeschlossDC)

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