Author Archives: Lynn Niedermeier

Tangling Up, 1920s-style

I had to get married right away and didn’t have time to get someone I really wanted so now I’m Mrs. James Clayton Newman.  Jimmie’s a sweet kid but I can’t understand how his own mother can love him, let alone me.

For this Women’s History Month, we bring you a tale of courtship right out of the Roaring Twenties.  Though it’s hard to imagine this same scenario playing out even a generation earlier, it’s likely it did; few, however, described it with more casual candor than 18-year-old Elizabeth Jolly of Stanford, Kentucky.

It started with a date with “Jimmy.”  They raised a pint . . . then two, then three (all presumably illegal, since this was December 1927).  Before long, Elizabeth wrote her girlfriend Emily, “I was absolutely wild and passed out once.”  It was almost midnight when Jimmy poured her into her Louisville rooming house and left her asleep, “with my hat, coat, shoes, stockings and everything on,” to fetch them something to eat.  On his return, Jimmy was spotted sneaking into the house muffling his steps with “soft bedroom slippers,” a scandalous infraction that led to Elizabeth’s eviction by her housemother.  “Call a taxi,” an angry Elizabeth told her amour the next morning.  Their destination: one of many “marriage parlors” in Jeffersonville, Indiana.  “Getting people married,” she reminded Emily, “is the chief business there just like bootlegging is in some towns.” 

On the train, Elizabeth noted, word spread quickly as to “what we were up to.”  Some fellow passengers happened to have a portable Victrola, which they pulled out and played for the entire trip (no wedding march, thankfully).  On arrival in Jeffersonville, another taxi driver efficiently connected the lovebirds with a license clerk and a magistrate, who was “up waiting for us and had a light on and everything.”  Elizabeth had “never seen a place where marriage is looked upon so commercially.”  When the magistrate “had finished tangling us up he gave us one of his cards and asked us to send our friends.” 

The bride and groom returned to Louisville, resolved to seal their union with a proper wedding ring.  “I was married with my class ring,” Elizabeth reported, noting with a mix of sentiment and practicality that Jimmy “wanted me to use his but I thought maybe we would get us a divorce sometime and I will always want the ring I got married with.”

Now came the really tricky part: breaking the news to the folks at home.  But Elizabeth had a plan.  She intended to go home for Christmas in a few weeks “and have dates just like nothing had happened.”  Then, on her way out the door, she’d share her secret with her mother. 

And what did the future hold?  On this, Elizabeth was hazy, but “this won’t interfere with all our good times,” she assured girlfriend Emily.  In fact, two young fellows that she and Emily had recently had their eyes on might still get the benefit of their company.  “I will still help you get Beecher and I am going to see Lawrence or tear up a couple of these Bluegrass towns,” promised our newlywed. 

Elizabeth’s letter to Emily about her hasty marriage (spoiler: it didn’t last) is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid and full-text scan.  For more collections about marriage and courtship, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“There is nothing romantic about it”

Harry Jackson despaired at homes blown out “like the bowels of a butchered pig”

As a U.S. Army Special Services Officer during World War II, Warren County, Kentucky’s Harry L. Jackson (1907-1985) saw combat up close.  Landing at Utah Beach five days after D-Day, he and his men pushed toward Germany via France, Holland and Belgium.  Jackson’s duties included arranging recreation for the troops, writing a regimental history, distributing ballots for the 1944 presidential election, and preparing applications for decorations.  Before long, however, he found himself doing much more: burying war dead, helping to manage waves of refugees, and juggling pleas for favors from desperate civilians.  He experienced the far-away look in the eyes of exhausted combat soldiers, and the utter destruction that war brought to once-beautiful cities and villages across Europe. He also learned to cope with his own emotional tailspin after witnessing a vast panorama of human suffering that included a visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp in summer 1945.

So it was with much authority that Jackson reflected on the bitter fruits of war in an October 9, 1944 letter to his sister Juanita:

While I write this there is a terrible battle raging. . . you will never know (thank God) the terror of war – all evening long I have been listening to the artillery fire – the concussion of which shakes the building to its foundations – then there are the mortars and machine guns – then the tanks. . . the planes are over most every night. . . then to-morrow the casualty lists. . . . 

I went out today – all of the houses are torn to bits – everything blown from the inside with large holes blown through the walls – all the inside contents spilling out like the bowels of a butchered pig – there are no windows – just large gaping holes in the walls through which the wind and weather plays jauntily with the lace curtains – curtains hung by some proud hand to make a home. . . makes one feel ashamed to look into the intimate privacy of these houses as they stand stripped of their raiments and stand naked before you.  The people – the people that once called them home have been driven, helpless away . . . to make way for the mighty god of war and destruction. . . . .

No there is nothing romantic about it.  Beauty and the lightness of life is gone. . . . but we are winning – and there will be a to-morrow of a better world I hope whether I am here to see it or not. . . . My eyes have seen too much – and my mind is filled with revolt at the scene – but I must go on – for them that have gone and for those that are out there to-night and for you at home.

Harry Jackson’s letters are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  A finding aid can be downloaded here.  To browse our World War II collections, search TopSCHOLAR and Ken Cat.

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A Register of Lives

It’s a slender, legal-sized ledger with a nicely marbled cover, but worn from use and with some of its pages missing.  Its mid-nineteenth-century inscriptions appear to have been of little interest to a later custodian, who used its blank pages to doodle and trace comic strip frames.  At some point (perhaps about 1930), it ended up in Bowling Green’s city dump, where it was retrieved by a schoolboy and given to the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.     

It’s a “Register of Slaves Owned for Life,” but the reference wasn’t to the life of the slave.  Instead, it was a stark reminder that, because of their legal status as chattel, enslaved people were subject to often complex and arcane Anglo-Saxon laws governing personal property.  Early Warren County court records show the frequent litigation that ensued when slaves were bought and sold, but also gifted, loaned out, mortgaged, divided up under estate settlements, and seized and sold for debt (or hidden away to avoid such seizures).  Enslaved people were also devised by will, either outright or, for example, to a widow for life and then after her death to an ultimate beneficiary, often children—the “remaindermen” or “owners in remainder.”

It was this last arrangement that the Register of Slaves Owned for Life was meant to monitor.  Since the owners in remainder had a future enforceable interest in the enslaved people, life estate owners were required to make an annual report to the county clerk of the names, sex and ages of slaves in their possession.  We learn, therefore, that in 1855 Mrs. Mary Burford had life ownership of eight enslaved men and ten women, who were to pass to the heirs of the late J. A. Cooke on her death.  Mrs. Burford, however, was free to sell her life interest in some or all of the slaves; she did so on at least two occasions, obliging the transferee to make subsequent reports. 

In addition to an enslaved person’s name, age and sex, other descriptive information was commonly added, such as skin tone and physical characteristics or peculiarities.  But while they were considered commodities, enslaved people were living commodities, their births, children and deaths adding fluidity to their value to life estate holders and remaindermen. They also performed duties that confounded their status as chattel and foretold the future: a life interest holder’s final report in April 1865 listed five enslaved men who were serving as volunteers in the Union Army.

Emancipation, of course, ended the need for records of property in people.  For some of them, the break was clean, but (surprise!) the law occasionally dragged its heels.  Witness the answer of the defendants in a suit brought in Barren County disputing the proceeds of a mortgage of three enslaved people.  Two had earlier been sold, but the third, a woman?  She was of no value, huffed the defendants, since she was “‘lying loose around’ under the idea that she is free.”

Click on the links to access finding aids (including a full-text scan of the Warren County Register of Slaves) for these collections.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Pass the Can

Mattie Spangler; the SS Oder

Even though you feel you’re dying for the first, and dying from the second, the two worst afflictions in the world have to be homesickness and seasickness.  When, as a child, Martha “Mattie” Spangler left her birthplace in Owen County, Kentucky to move with her family to Covington, it’s uncertain whether she felt pangs for her old home.  In 1878, however, when 16-year old Mattie set out for boarding school at Hamilton College in Lexington, she keenly felt the loss of family and familiar surroundings.

Hamilton College was a typical 19th-century female school.  The president, John T. Patterson, ruled the roost, and the young women were severely restricted in their activities and movements.  Although she made friends and enjoyed the company of her roommates, Mattie watched wistfully when some of the students obtained permission to visit their own homes or those of friends on weekends.  Trips to church or to shop downtown were limited to small groups and were chaperoned by Patterson or one of the female teachers.  Beset by waves of homesickness and the “blues,” Mattie dreaded Mondays, rejoiced when Saturdays arrived, and counted down the days until she could go home for Christmas. 

All the more surprising then, was Mattie’s departure in fall 1879 to attend another boarding school an ocean – and a world – away in Orléans, France.  Enrolled at the “Pension Clavel” (shades of Villette!), she arrived after a Channel crossing from Southampton, England.  Her trans-Atlantic journey had been on the steamship Oder, a German vessel that made regular crossings between New York and Bremen via Southampton. 

It was aboard the Oder that Mattie had her experience – once removed, fortunately – with seasickness.  She was apparently travelling with one Etienne Quetin, a Covington, Kentucky teacher of French, his wife, his son Alex, and “Mary,” possibly another member of their household.  Then it hit.  “Mary & Allie are as sick as dogs,” wrote Mattie in her journal, before noting (in the smug manner of the spared) that she felt fine and had a good appetite.  She was rather annoyed, however, when queasy Mary claimed the bottom berth in their stateroom and left her with the top bunk.

The Oder’s support system for coping with mal de mer was pretty simple.  Each berth, Mattie noted, “has a little vomiting can hooked on its side.”  Though not needing it for its primary purpose, she was not above using it for an occasional expectoration.  And that is where she got even, to her secret mirth, with bottom-bunk Mary.  “As I went to get up in the morning,” she recorded, “I knocked my can, which was full of spit, right down on Mary’s head.  When I found out where my poor little can had landed I lay back in my berth and laughed until the ship fairly shook.” 

Mattie was not laughing, however, when a “funny fellow” on board, an artist, began surreptitiously sketching her as she gazed out at the sea.  After rebuffing her plea to erase his work, he shared a “splendid” remedy for seasickness.  “It is to swallow a chunk of salt pork with a string tied to it and pull it up again,” she recorded.  “He believes in this which shows what a big ‘goose’ he is.”  No mention of whether Mattie’s appetite survived this bit of advice.

Mattie Spangler’s journals detailing the ups and downs of her boarding school education have been recently donated to the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  A finding aid can be downloaded here.  To read more about Mattie later in life, click here. For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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An Ever-Green Christmas

As the question, “What are you doing for the holidays?” begins to spread over the land, here are a few past glances at Christmas Day as experienced by Kentuckians and others represented in WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Despite their lack of TV, video games, opening day movies and other distractions, it is surprisingly easy to empathize with their preoccupations and reflections.

One concern, of course, was the weather.  December 25, 1844 in Caswell County, North Carolina, dawned “a most Beautiful clear & pleasant morning,” according to one anonymous observer, “the ground a little crusted tho the Sun shines Bright and warm at 9 oclock in the morning.”  Closer to home, Bowling Green’s John Younglove recorded the temperature at sunrise on Christmas Day as part of his faithful meteorological record.  His readings ran the gamut from a frosty 6 below zero in 1878 to a rainy 54 degrees in 1889.

Some Kentuckians have made Christmas Day doubly memorable: for example, George W. Shanks and Catharine Johnson, both of Galloways Mill in Warren County, chose December 25, 1881 as their wedding day.

George Shanks & Catharine Johnson marriage certificate, Dec. 25, 1881

For those in military service, unfortunately, December 25 might be barely distinguishable from other days.  “There was not much here in a Christmas nature,” wrote Army dentist Bill Fulton from Fort Knox in 1942.  “Here we are in the Army and know nothing else.”  But Marshall Cole, serving in the Philippines in 1944, found himself having a better Christmas Day than he expected, thanks to gift boxes from the Red Cross and fresh turkey for dinner. 

For children, letter writing more commonly took the form of communiques to Santa Claus.  Saint Nick’s replies to young Maggie Nicholls of Calhoun, Kentucky, however, looked like they might have been ghostwritten by a Victorian parent.  “I will try to get to your home Christmas,” he promised.  “If you will straighten up I will be sure to come.”  And in 1881, her gifts arrived with instructions to take good care of them, love her parents, and “always sit still at the table.”

Santa’s note to Maggie Nicholls

Other Christmas Day letters gave their writers a welcome opportunity to reconnect with those dearest to them.  On December 25, 1865, a young man in Union County, Kentucky, replied eagerly to a letter from his father, with whom he had been out of touch for almost two years.  Bringing him up to date on his teaching and preaching duties at two small churches, he reflected on the “demoralization in society that is quite visible everywhere,” with increasing crime and intemperance and a decline in church attendance, especially outside the South. 

On December 25, 1848, Ann Rowan Buchanan, the daughter of John Rowan of Federal Hill (“My Old Kentucky Home”) penned a letter to her mother from Cincinnati.  The weather was gloomy and cold, and her husband appeared unwilling to let the holiday interfere with his business activities.  Nevertheless, Ann’s heart was full.  The mother of three boys under six years of age, she found joy in their eager wait for Santa and their excitement at finding their stockings full.  Remembering her own girlhood Christmases, she had resolved to continue the tradition.  The “cares and troubles of life may break us down,” she wrote her mother, but “one verdant spot still remains ever green, which blooms to the grave, a Christmas day in our childhood.”  For her children, she would “do my best to make them happy on this day that may be a green spot in their hearts in after years as it is in mine.”

Click on the links for finding aids and other information about these Christmas Day items in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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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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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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