Category Archives: Manuscripts & Folklife Archives

“A bench for the Court to sit on”

Edmonson County, Kentucky’s story begins on January 12, 1825, when it was created from land carved out of surrounding Grayson, Hart and Warren counties.  By May 1825, as prescribed in the enabling statute, the county court had gone to work on the nuts and bolts of infrastructure, finance, and law enforcement, and its order book, held in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library, tells that story in detail.

The book’s first entries document the appointment of constables, tax commissioners and a jailer, after which the court turned to locating the “permanent seat of justice.”  A panel of commissioners recommended that the county seat be established on a 100-acre tract donated by patentees Joseph R. Underwood and Stephen T. Logan “on Green river and immediately above the mouth of big Beaver dam creek.”  The town was “to be called and known by the name of Brownville [sic] in Honour of Genl. Jacob Brown who distinguished himself during the late war with Great Britain” – not the Revolutionary War but the War of 1812, in which many Kentuckians served.  (Brownsville with an “s” was established in 1828 under legislation authorizing a town trustee-style of government.) 

The county court itself needed a place to conduct business, so it enlisted one John Rountree to provide a two-story house with “a Bench for the Court to sit on also a bench for the Lawyers and a bar and Jury Benches,” and two jury rooms upstairs.  A detailed plan for the county clerk’s office on the public square covered two pages: 25 by 14 feet, made of brick with a “good Chimney” on each end, the floors to be “good oak or ash plank,” the doors and window shutters to be “yellow poplar,” and all doors, window casings and sashes to be covered with three coats of white paint.  Additional public structures planned for the town were a warehouse and a stray pen.

The court appointed commissioners to complete other municipal tasks: letting a contract to build a jail, and viewing and marking out a network of roads to connect Brownsville with neighboring settlements.  Also appointed to calm ever-present fears of rebellion were slave patrols consisting of a captain and assistants who were to patrol twelve hours per month within five miles of the town south of Green River, “visiting all negroes quarters and suspected places of unlawfull assemblies of slaves.”

Other matters of public order addressed by the court included granting licenses to perform marriages, to practice law in the county, to keep a tavern (at specified rates for food, whiskey, lodging, and stabling horses) and to operate a ferry; one John Rhodes was doubly lucky to be granted a license to “retail spirits at his ferry.”

A finding aid and full-text scan of the Edmonson County Court order book can be accessed here.  This collection also features militia rolls, fee books, data on early school districts, and land records, including a memorial book of early recorded deeds.  The first page lists two deeds from 1830 (1829?), for 100 and 1000 acres respectively, from “Abraham Lincoln” to Thomas Ray, and to Abraham Lincoln from the Grayson County sheriff.  Is this the Abraham Lincoln?  More likely, it is the 16th president’s cousin and namesake, the son of his uncle Mordecai Lincoln who settled in Grayson County about 1811 and departed for Illinois about 1829.

For more collections of our county records, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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From the Farm to the Farms

As we know from books like Code Girls, And If I Perish, and A Woman of No Importance, American women served in World War II out of duty and patriotism.  But for some, the war also offered an opportunity for adventure and the chance to escape their small towns for a unique experience of the wider world.  One of them was 19-year-old Dorenda Martin, who left her family’s farm in Smiths Grove, Kentucky in the summer of 1944 for a job in Washington, D.C.

In a letter to her parents, Dorenda described her work as a clerk-typist (“We are called Junior Clerks instead of Secretaries because the pay is less”) in the Washington Building, part of the city’s financial district anchored by the U.S. Treasury Building.  Once there, however, she quickly found her racial prejudice put to the test.  She was allowed time off work to attend an afternoon class to improve her typing skills, but found it populated mostly by African Americans (the boys were even called “Mr.,” she huffed) and switched to a morning class. 

Near the Washington Building was the White House, where Dorenda and some coworkers chatted with an officer about getting a personal tour.  President Roosevelt was out of town, they were told; as to the indefatigable Eleanor Roosevelt, laughed the officer, “didn’t any one know.”  Dorenda also planned to visit the Pentagon, “a large war building” with its own shops as well as offices.  She heard that the Duke of Windsor (whose Nazi sympathies were causing consternation in the intelligence community) had recently tried to enter, but didn’t have a pass so “he had some army officer to come help talk his way in.” 

When not at work or sightseeing, however, Dorenda’s life revolved around “the Farms.”  Located on the family estate of Robert E. Lee, Arlington Farms was a sprawling complex of temporary housing for female civil servants and service members.  Residents were supplied with laundry, shopping, cafeteria and recreation facilities, and the lobby of each hall served as a rendezvous point with the servicemen who “just come out here and look around till they find a girl that looks to suit them.”  Dorenda was more impressed with the military women: the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, a branch of the Naval Reserve) who congregated in their blue and white uniforms for church services; and the WACs (Women’s Army Corps) who “were a lot of fun, & asked us to come to chow.”  She was also intrigued by individuals like Juanita, a petite young woman from Puerto Rico; Vera, who had escaped the German occupation of Czechoslovakia; and a barefooted walker, who Dorenda “hollared” at to inquire where she was from.  “I was expecting her to say Ky. because she said she didn’t wear shoes where she came from.” 

After bringing her parents up to date with this lengthy letter, Dorenda concluded “I have a lot of fun here.”  But duty called, and she “might not write for a month now.”

Dorenda Martin (far left), at a War Bonds event (Harris & Ewing photo)

Dorenda Martin’s letter is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here to access a finding aid and typescript.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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My friend and critic

After graduating from State Street High School as its valedictorian in 1936, Bowling Green, Kentucky native Lillie Mae (Bland) Carter earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Tennessee State University, married, had four children, and pursued a career as a first grade and remedial reading teacher in the Toledo, Ohio public school system.  A civic activist and champion of African American history and literature, Carter encouraged her students to express themselves through writing. 

Carter herself was an author, editor and poet.  Her books included Black Thoughts (1971), a volume of poetry, and Doing It Our Way (1975), an anthology of multi-generational poetry and prose.  But like most writers, Carter encountered obstacles to getting her work published.  This struggle helped her form a bond with one of the most prolific purveyors of the black experience to the world, the poet, author, playwright and icon of the “Harlem Renaissance,” Langston Hughes.

“The only way I know to achieve publication,” Hughes wrote Carter in 1947, “is to continually submit one’s work to magazines, and if it comes back (as it usually does) send it to others.”  “Do not mind rejection slips,” he counseled.  “I have hundreds of them.” 

Over the next twenty years, Carter corresponded with Hughes, who critiqued her poems and offered advice on where to submit them for publication.  He shared her frustration over editors who were reluctant to accept “race-problem” poetry or fiction, but recommended that she simply keep searching for others who weren’t so squeamish.  Delighted with her poem, “Whispering Leaves,” he asked permission to send copies to the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American culture at Yale University, and to New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.  Hughes found poems she shared with him in 1963 to be “strong and dramatic and, I think, would make most effective program pieces to read aloud to audiences.  I suggest you try them out the next time you have occasion to speak in public – or maybe you should create an occasion to do so.”

Lillie Mae Carter

Carter dedicated Black Thoughts “In memory of my critic and friend, Langston Hughes.”  It included the gentle “My Prayer,” which Hughes had praised (May I live from day to day / In an honest, sincere way; / That someone through me may see / What joys come from serving Thee), and a tribute to a former custodian at Toledo’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School (Keeper of the building, goodbye! / Rest well in new buildings on high).  But also found in its pages were the mournful “Half-Still” (Half slave, half free / Half a citizen still / That’s me) and the bitter “America” (America is not red, white and blue / America is lily white – all the way through.)

Lillie Mae (Bland) Carter’s papers are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“The best government that ever was made”

After her husband’s death in 1852, Maria Knott left her home in Lebanon, Kentucky for Missouri, where her son, James Proctor Knott, was beginning his legal and political career (Proctor Knott would later become governor of Kentucky).  Five of Maria’s other children were also in Missouri, but late in 1860 Maria returned to Lebanon to visit her son William.  She was caught there when the outbreak of the Civil War tore apart her family, her town and her country.  Her letters and diaries, held in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library, vividly record her conflicting emotions and experiences.

Maria’s son James Proctor Knott

“In this cruel rebellion,” she wrote, “there is scarcely a family that is not divided”– her own included.  Son William was against secession.  Maria’s Missouri children, however, were less enamored of the Union.  Though not “secesh,” son Proctor, then Missouri’s Attorney General, would lose his position after balking at what he believed was a heavy-handed loyalty oath to the United States.  Proctor’s wife (and first cousin) Sallie needled William for his “tory” sympathies and took delight in calling herself a “rebel.”  When William was briefly taken prisoner after secessionists captured a rail car in which he was traveling, Maria complained angrily that some of his uncles would not have “raised a finger” to rescue him.

Maria’s daughter-in-law (and niece) Sallie Knott

In the face of growing violence, middle ground was hard to find.  “I don’t like Lincoln any more than you,” Maria admitted to Sallie about the recently inaugurated president, but “don’t condemn him for what the south has brought on us.”  Secret, pro-slavery cabals like the Knights of the Golden Circle had seized on the interregnum between Lincoln’s election and inauguration to initiate a rebellion. Now, Maria observed with distaste, “I am told all the respectable portion of society belongs to the secession party,” yet lawlessness prevailed and citizens were being “driven from their homes on account of their principals [sic].”

Trying to sort rumor from fact, Maria followed news of the war closely, and observed firsthand its effect on Lebanon.  She was saddened by the hardships of Union soldiers passing through the area – encamped in cold and rain, sick with measles and smallpox, and dying far from home and loved ones – but despaired at their demands on the local population as they appropriated precious food, water, livestock, timber, horses, wagons and mules to meet military needs.  “Joy go with them,” she wrote wearily, but “I for one will be glad to see the last one leave.” The threat of Confederate incursions caused unbearable anxiety.  “We are to be murdered and burnt by the rebels who are approaching,”  Maria cried after they captured Lexington and Frankfort in mid-1862.  She reserved special animus for Confederate guerrilla John Hunt Morgan – that “child of satan” – who tormented Lebanon with destructive raids in 1862 and 1863.  In September 1862, with the town full of “secesh soldiers,” she pronounced members of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s “rebel Cavalry the dirtiest most woebegone looking set of men I ever saw.”

John Hunt Morgan, a “child of Satan”

“God only knows what is to be the result of this war,” Maria often lamented, but she would never know, for she died on March 6, 1864.  From the beginning of the conflict, however, she maintained that her “once happy united states” would be irreparably changed as some, including many in her own family and community, foolishly staked their futures on “destroying the best government that ever was made.”

Click here for a collection finding aid and for typescripts of Maria Knott’s letters and diaries.  For more of our Civil War collections, click here.

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Scholars All

As December unfolds and students across the country strive to earn the acclamation of their teachers, not only for academic achievement but for associated good behavior, here are a few historical examples of such awards from among the keepsakes of young 19th-century scholars and their families:

In 1860-61, 14-year-old Aaron Bate received awards from Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown College for grammar and arithmetic (one hopes the Ingenuo adolescenti was also proficient in Latin, the language in which the citations were written).

On June 14, 1864, 13-year-old John Bowker Preston’s teacher presented him with a Reward of Merit card on which two prancing cherubs celebrated his aptitude for spelling. 

In Grayson County, Texas, teacher J. O. Edwards filled in pupil S. H. Orr’s evaluation ticket for the fall 1875 term commending him for attendance, good behavior, “No. of words missed” (low; a spelling score, maybe?) and “No. of Head marks” (high).  The memento then appears to have been supplemented with inspirational quotations, classmates’ autographs, and instructions to a relative to “put in the Bible when she gets it.”

Also in 1875 but in Grayson County, Kentucky, Harrison L. Gary (though not himself a perfect speller) commended 9-year-old John Robert Lee Mason “for his good conduct at Scool & elswhere studying well his Lessons,” with further admonitions to “Love and obey Parents cheerfully” and “Always consider the end before you begin.”

In 1888, “One Hundred Tokens of Merit” came to 11-year-old Nettie Kimberlin, a pupil in Washington County, Kentucky.  For “Good Deportment and Perfect Lessons,” read the “Card of Honor.”

In June 1909, Logan County’s Auburn Seminary awarded Harold Helm a certificate for being neither absent nor even tardy during the preceding quarter.

In 1891, Bowling Green’s public schools gave the nod to Fred Cartwright for attendance and good deportment.

These commendations are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click on the links to access finding aids.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Pate-r familias

From his home near Cloverport in Breckinridge County, Kentucky, George L. Pate kept tabs on his large family: seven children from his 1835 marriage and, after his first wife’s death, five more from his 1852 marriage.  Perhaps it was the strains of a blended household that had sent some of the children off to live elsewhere, including oldest son Samuel, who stormed out of the house early in 1861.  Samuel wrote to his married sister Mary Jane mourning their late mother and pitying their other sisters still stuck at home “if I can call it home at all.”

But his trials with Samuel did not blunt father George’s affection for his other children.  In March 1861, he wrote daughter Mary Jane of the death of her young stepbrother; two days later, he devoted the entire contents of another letter to an anguished account of the child’s illness, treatment, and forbearance in the face of suffering.  The approach of the Civil War and the appearance of U.S. Army recruiting officers did nothing to alleviate George’s sorrows.  “There is nothing talked of but war,” he wrote Mary Jane in July.  “I am so tired of hearing it.”

“We are all true blue union men in this country,” Samuel Pate had assured his sister, but the Pates found their loyalties tested when Confederate guerrillas descended on Breckinridge County.  Early in 1863, Mary Jane’s sister Sarah told of the rebels’ attempt to hang a member of their stepmother’s family after stealing his horse.  Late in 1864, George wrote Mary Jane of the guerrillas’ charge into Hardinsburg, “cursing & swearing” and firing indiscriminately at the sheriff, at a local judge, and at any others who dared stick their “damed heads” out a door or window.  When their captain was shot dead, the outlaws took to nearby roads, robbing George’s neighbors and taking every decent horse in sight. One such neighbor, William Basham, was carrying a cask of brandy; though relieved of his money, he was miraculously allowed to pass after giving the robbers a nail to make a hole and drink “what they wanted.” 

A year earlier, William Basham’s daughter Sarah had married Joel Meadors, also robbed during the 1864 rampage.  An incident just before the nuptials gave George Pate an opportunity to engage in some rare but wry humor.  Meadors, he reported to Mary Jane, “has been shot” by none other than “his sweetheart.”  It was, of course, an accident, and Sarah “never had any trial.”  Observed George: “I have often heard of men being henpecked by women, but it seldom happens that a young lady that loves a young man well enough to marry him will shoot him.”

These and other letters of the Pate family have recently been donated to the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here for a finding aid, scans, and selected typescripts of the letters. For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Way to Go Joe

It was so hush-hush that even his wife was kept in the dark.  “She knew I was acting awfully strange. I don’t know if she thought I was carrying on an affair or what.”  So recalled Joseph “Joe” Whittle, U.S Attorney for the Western District of Kentucky, of his immersion in an ultra-secret investigation of bribery and corruption in the Kentucky General Assembly. 

Confirmed as U.S. Attorney under President Ronald Reagan in 1986, the Grayson County native had worked to enlarge and modernize his office, prosecute civil rights and environmental cases, and collect debts owed the government through the forfeiture of assets derived from crime.  But this corruption case, opened in 1990, promised to be his most consequential.  The FBI had learned that some Kentucky legislators, particularly members of the Business, Organization, and Professions Committees (BOP), were willing to sell their votes in connection with the regulation of horse racing (the “trot”).  To collar the wrongdoers, the feds launched Operation BOPTROT.

The undercover sting – which featured secret tape recordings, drops of cash marked with invisible ink, and the flipping of a suspect by showing him FBI file cabinets supposedly filled with incriminating evidence – was highly productive.  From 1992-1995, some 17 legislators, including the House Speaker and Senate Minority Leader, were charged and convicted of bribery, conspiracy, extortion, racketeering, and lying to the FBI.

About halfway through the investigation, however, President George H.W. Bush (who had reappointed Whittle as U.S. Attorney), lost his reelection bid to Bill Clinton.  Although it was Clinton’s prerogative to replace U.S. Attorneys as his own nominees were confirmed, his new Attorney General, Janet Reno, surprised all 93 incumbents by demanding their immediate resignations.  Despite warnings that some critical investigations, including BOPTROT, might be disrupted, all stepped down, including Whittle, who left office in July 1993.  Many of his fellow U.S. Attorneys exchanged farewell letters with Whittle, advising of future plans and testifying to the pride they had taken in their work representing the United States.

Whittle served as Grayson County Attorney and also ran for Attorney General of Kentucky

Joe Whittle has recently donated to WKU’s Special Collections Library a collection of his correspondence, clippings and personal items covering his early legal career and his tenure as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Kentucky.  Included are speeches recalling his work on Operation BOPTROT, the history of the U.S. Attorney’s office, and summaries of his achievements.  A couple of unusual items also appear.  In 1985, a 38-year-old Illinois rabbi and diamond dealer disappeared while in Louisville on business.  An investigation pointed to his murder, but his body remained missing for years.  In the meantime, Whittle helped provide enough evidence to satisfy Jewish religious authorities that his widow was eligible to remarry.  Another item is a list of predictions for 2050 prepared by Whittle in 1985 and placed in a time capsule at the Leitchfield Deposit Bank in Grayson County.  Some of them proved remarkably tuned in to the future.  He imagined that “80% of homes had personal computers which were used for communications, electronic mail, electronic banking and to control electrical and electronic devices”; that “most telephones were wireless and were carried on the person so that he or she could be reached by telephone wherever they might be”; and that “many people traveled within a fifty mile radius by way of electric powered automobiles and that it had become necessary by the year 2050 to restrict the use of internal combustion engines because of environmental considerations.”

Whittle with President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan

Click here to access a finding aid for Joe Whittle’s papers held in WKU’s Special Collections Library.  For more of our collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Caught in the Act

At first glance, the January 18, 1968 issue of the College Heights Herald had a scoop that any student journalist would envy.  A front-page story told of the arrest of three well-known local physicians in a midnight raid on “Pauline’s,” Bowling Green’s legendary brothel. 

Pauline Tabor had been running her house of prostitution for about 35 years, but her discreet business acumen, kind personality, and generous financial support of local causes insulated her – at least until now – from most unwanted publicity.  (Not until 1971, a few years after retiring, would she write a sensational memoir, a red-velvet-covered limited edition of which is held in WKU’s Special Collections Library.)

But wait – something else wasn’t quite right about this issue of the College Heights Herald.  For one thing, the masthead read University Herald, and the exposé was dropped into its front-page slot in place of the real Herald’s lead article about a competition for the title of “Miss Western.” 

Another giveaway was the story itself.  Patrons caught in a house of ill repute were no doubt liable to make some creative excuses, but the stories of these doctors strained all credulity.  One, a pediatrician, claimed that he was only making a house call, but his wardrobe – a turtleneck and red-and-white-striped shorts – belied his professional mission.  The other two, nabbed while attempting to escape through a side door, insisted they were “making a public health survey and performing routine well-baby inoculations,” a claim that had prompted an investigation into which “babies” they were really working with that night.  The story further disclosed that all three merry medics had been under surveillance for weeks “because of certain irregularities in their night time activities,” which had included “being observed after dark on the roof of a house owned by another local doctor.” 

Also caught in the dragnet – found the next morning, in fact, in Pauline’s attic – was the superintendent of the local Electric Plant Board.  His explanation?  He had been called to check on some defective wiring, something he routinely did at night – as the girl found holding the flashlight for him could certainly attest.

We can’t precisely identify the prankster who so carefully “doctored” this issue of the Herald, but we suspect Dr. Thomas Baird, a colleague of the punked practitioners (upon whose roof, perhaps, they had initiated the mischief), and possibly other confederates in the medical community.  Whoever was responsible, however, took admirable pains to create a tabloid that made town and gown alike do a double-take.

This fake-news issue of the College Heights Herald is held in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  For a finding aid, and to view that scandalous front page, click here.  For more collections (including more on Pauline’s), search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“This morning I registered at the College”

Gordon Wilson

Before beginning his 44-year teaching career at WKU, student Gordon Wilson (1888-1970) witnessed some of the most significant events in the school’s history.  In February 1911,  he participated in “Moving Day,” when the furniture, books, and equipment of the Western Kentucky State Normal School were carried by hand and wagon from its location on College Street between 11th and 12th streets to its new home on the Hill. 

But in January 1908, Wilson was, like so many others before and since, a new arrival to campus.  In his diary, he recorded the experiences of his first semester at Bowling Green and the State Normal School.  Here are a few annotated excerpts:

January 20:

This morning I registered at the College and secured Room No. 16 Cherry Hall. My roommate is Mr. Corbett McKenney of Logan County.  This afternoon we took a walk to Reservoir Park and other noted places of town. We also visited the Book Store and bought books for the term.

[“Cherry Hall” was not the building we know today.  Located at Twelfth and Center streets, it was rented by school president Henry Hardin Cherry for use as a dormitory.  No campus bookstore existed until 1920, and Wilson is likely referring to a retail outlet in town.]

Reservoir Park, 1908, where Wilson strolled with his classmates

January 21:

School opened today. The chapel was very crowded and after chapel exercises all adjourned to the classrooms.

[A hallowed institution that dated back to the State Normal School’s days as a private institution, chapel gathered students together each day for announcements, speeches, musical performances, and other spirit-building exercises. Wilson’s classes consisted of Rhetoric, Physical Geography, Physiology, Drawing, and “Mental Arithmetic.”]

January 28:

Tonight I attended a musicale at Vanmeter Hall, which was well rendered and very fine. . . . This afternoon Burnett Craig and I took a walk to the old fort on College Hill.

[Rather than the building we know today, “Vanmeter Hall” was the name given to the Normal School’s first home on College Street.  It was named for Captain Charles J. Vanmeter, who had helped capitalize the construction company that built it in 1901.  The remains of the Civil War fort built on the Hill and located behind the current Van Meter Hall are still visible today.]

January 31:

Tonight I attended a debate at the College, the subject being “Resolved, That millionaires are a benefit to our country.” The affirmative side won.

February 15:

I attended a meeting of the Kit Kat Club [where the debate topic was] “Resolved, that ministers should take part in political affairs.” (The affirmative won.)

[One of three literary societies (the others being the Junior Society and Senior Society), the Kit Kat Club came to represent those in the lower academic ranks of the school.]

February 21:

Prof. Cherry returned from Frankfort at midnight and about 300 of the pupils met him at the train. He was carried into the depot amid wild cheers.

[President Henry Hardin Cherry lobbied on behalf of the “Whirlwind Campaign” that culminated in the passage by the General Assembly of several bills in support of public education.  One in particular made an appropriation of $150,000 (about $5 million today) to the Western Kentucky State Normal School for buildings, grounds and equipment, and increased its appropriation for operating expenses.  Arriving at the railroad depot that night, a startled Cherry wielded his umbrella at the mob of students before they explained their good intentions.]

March 13:

Tonight I attended the Junior Society at the College.  The program was well-rendered and was as follows.  Debate, Resolved, That the resources of the south are greater than those of the north. (The negative won.)

March 19:

This morning we received the news that Gov. Willson had signed several of the bills that shall influence education in Kentucky in the future. We soon gathered in the chapel and after cheers for the Governor, Prof. Cherry, the Normal, etc, we formed in line, and led by Prof. Alexander marched to town and around the park. Here we halted for a while, several songs were sung, and after many cheers had again rent the air, we marched back to the College. . . . Lessons were dismissed until afternoon and many of the students played games on the campus.

[Like Wilson, Professor J. R. Alexander’s relationship with the State Normal School began when he was a student.  He taught mathematics until retiring in 1930.]

March 20:

Tonight I attended the regular meeting of the Junior Society. The program was as follows: Debate, Resolved; That a college education is essential to success. . . . . The negative won.

April 13:

This morning at chapel period, Miss Flora Stallard, teacher of the fourth grade in the Model School, received the first Life Certificate given by the Western Kentucky State Normal.

[The State Normal School established “model school rooms,” where its students could receive hands-on training under a supervising teacher.  Stallard’s Life Certificate, which entitled her to teach for life in any county of the state, was the highest academic credential then granted.  After receiving authorization to grant degrees in 1922, the Western Kentucky State Normal School added the phrase “and Teachers College” to its name.]

On April 19, after a period of illness, Wilson left Bowling Green for his home in Murray, Kentucky.  His first semester was now behind him . . . but he would return.

Gordon Wilson’s diaries are housed in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“Am I full of dirt today?”

Howard Greer

India Early Minshall (1885-1965) was a noted collector of Fabergé and other Imperial Russian art objects, many of which went to the Cleveland Museum of Art after her death. This rarefied pursuit put her in the company of other wealthy collectors and even some minor Russian royalty, but it also created a bond with a less conventional enthusiast. Howard Greer (1896-1974) was a well-known fashion and costume designer who created wardrobes for celebrities, socialites and actresses during Hollywood’s “golden age.” He designed wedding gowns for Shirley Temple and Gloria Vanderbilt, and dressed the stars in movies such as Bringing Up Baby (1938), My Favorite Wife (1940) and Lady on a Train (1945).

When he became friends with India, Greer was nearing retirement from the “rag racket,” a calling that had given him a close-up look at the good, the bad and the ugly of celebrity culture and wealth. It may have been their shared love of Russian literature, art and history that first brought them together, but in some 350 letters to India, Greer shared details of his home life, travel, reading, literary endeavors, social engagements, fashion showings, and experiences with the glitterati, both past and present. In expertly typed text over an outsized signature, Greer unleashed his keen memory and acid wit on the high, the mighty and the fallen of his personal and professional acquaintance. Honey, to say he dished is an understatement.

Here are a few morsels:

On seeing actress and longtime William Randolph Hearst companion Marion Davies at a party:

I thought I was seeing a spook. The spook turned out to be Marion Davies, falling-down drunk! If you want to know what her face looked like, just break an egg on a plate!

On seeing socialite and Washington political hostess Perle Mesta at another party:

Perle Mesta looked like a sausage wrapped in rhinestones, but of course Perle doesn’t drink so she still looked the same at the end of the evening.

On the décor at yet another party:

The party was given in what’s called “the penthouse” atop Mr. Romanoff’s restaurant and I walked up the stairs and came into a room so full of flowers I thought I was attending a gangster’s funeral. [Celebrity gossip columnist Hedda Hopper evidently agreed:] “Good God, where’s the body?” she yelled.

On attending a dinner at which film icon Bette Davis was also a guest:

Miss D’s arrival was a little like the sudden appearance of a hurricane. She whizzed in with enough voltage to set fire to an electric chair. . . . The face is still Bette Davis (if you forget a few pouches) but from her shoulders to her navel she’s ALL GUT! . . . . She fell in a heap upon a sofa, asked for Scotch on the rocks, lighted a cigarette and so help me, for a minute she was all the impersonators of Bette Davis rolled into one!

On seeing interior designer James Pendleton’s wife Mary Frances (“Dodo”) at a luncheon:

Dodo is very VERY rich; her money comes out of wood-pulp, and every time you go to the bathroom and use Kleenex or toilet paper, she grows a penny richer! She is so ugly I always expect her to whinny.

On Jacqueline Ford, the wife of avant-garde artist Gordon Onslow Ford:

. . . a frighteningly intellectual gal out of a Charles Addams drawing . . . and who also positively creaks with inherited money. . . . Mrs. Ford is a weirdie, but attractive in an old-fashioned Theda Bara way, and she never says anything except and until her husband has spouted something, when she rolls her eyes and moans “How teddibly true!”

On the funeral of Irene Lentz, a costume designer who committed suicide:

. . . some minister gave a completely impersonal and uninspired service and he mentioned the name of Jesus Christ so many times that I kept wondering when all the Jews would get up and walk out!

And on Marilyn Monroe, who only weeks after this letter would be found dead in her Los Angeles home:

. . . a sick girl. . . whose meteor shot up too fast and now she’s frightened to death of the world. . . She was so terrified the first time she took a screen-test at Fox that she had to be HYPNOTIZED.  [Screenwriter] Charlie Brackett says that now, to get what they want out of her emotionally, they have to keep a hypnotist on the set. . . . am I full of dirt today?

Howard Greer’s letters to India Minshall are part of the Harry Jackson Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library. (Jackson, a Warren County, Kentucky native, was married to India’s niece Evelyn). Click here for a finding aid. For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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