Category Archives: Manuscripts & Folklife Archives

The Mothers Club

Every woman that is the Mother of one child or children, should get a pension, it does not make any difference who she is, a Mother is enough.  Soldiers draw a pension, why not a Mother? 

So declared Barren County native Virginia Edmunds in a 1915 letter to her sister.  Foretelling today’s proposals to enact a “Marshall Plan for Moms” struggling with work, childcare and healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic, she reminds us that over generations, Kentucky women have grappled with what most see as the greatest joy and the greatest challenge of their lives.  They have grumbled and protested, but they have also campaigned, organized, survived and even triumphed in the experience of motherhood.

Take Bowling Green native Lida Calvert Obenchain, married in 1885 and the mother of four children in ten years.  Though fiercely proud and protective of her brood, she despaired at the plight of the “tired, overworked housekeeper”—the all-in-one “cook, scullion, nurse, laundress, charwoman, dining room servant, and chambermaid” tasked with care of the “new baby that is laid in the cradle every two or three years.”  She became a convert to woman suffrage as a way to protect the interests of all such women, and cited with approval an idea of author and reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman to establish cooperative kitchens to supply families with prepared food and other domestic assistance.  Like Virginia Edmunds, she called for tangible measures to back up the routine paeans her culture offered to motherhood.

Virginia, however, was quick to point out that she would have done it for free.  She had spent “the best part of this life in bringing up a family” and had “not a word to say against it, for it was my duty, and I took pleasure in it.”  On February 12, 1925, a group of Bowling Green women with the same approach organized the Mothers Club to enhance their experience of both the duties and the pleasures of raising children.  They adopted their club constitution with a view to “appreciating the advantages of friendship; believing in mental, spiritual and physical development; and recognizing the value of training our children for future citizens.”

Mothers Club yearbook, 1928-1929

Over its 73-year existence, the Mothers Club fulfilled its mission with programs, social activities, and civic uplift.  Its first year included programming on “Care of Children’s Teeth,” “Food for the Pre-School Child and School Lunches,” “Heredity and Environment,” “Music for Children,” and “Adapting Discipline to Individual Temperament.”  The club, recalled member Ruth Brown Denhardt, was “a very staid organization” when she joined in 1947.  Dressed in their hats, gloves and best dresses, members addressed each other as “Mrs.” and presented programs assigned to them by a committee, not chosen by themselves.  Children and husbands were guests at an annual picnic, and members also conducted a book exchange. 

As their children grew older and social conventions less formal, Mothers Club members turned increasingly to literary and educational pursuits at their meetings.  Through charter memberships and reunions, nevertheless, they maintained the bonds between those who had joined the club as harried young mothers and left it as grandmothers.  Like today, shared understandings in challenging times sustained them.  Harriet Downing, the wife of WKU President Dero Downing, joined the club in 1952 and valued the friendships she made as much as the “many valuable lessons on motherhood” she absorbed from the programs.

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections about mothers, 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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“It will make you feel warm for a while”

How are you de-stressing these days?

Sick, stressed, tired, anxious – these physical and mental states are all too common as we enter the second year of the 2020s.  What to do?  Self care takes many forms but, as generations of Kentuckians tell us, some of them never change. 

They can be as simple as Arthur Milem’s plan for decompressing when he returned to Covington after his World War I service in France.  “I am going to do nothing,” he declared in a letter to his girlfriend, “but eat and sleep for a month.”  For Bowling Green’s Sallie McElroy, worrying about her fiancee in Missouri and restlessly awaiting their marriage, her chronic headaches and blues could be relieved during the winter of 1858 with a walk along her beloved Drakes Creek.  There, this lover of nature found herself heartened at the thought of spring.  “Soon the birds will be warbling on every bough – the sweet flowers will awaken from their long, cold sleep, & the bright glad sunshine will play on the hilltops all day long!” she rhapsodized in her journal, the writing of which was itself a way of collecting her thoughts.

And who hasn’t felt invigorated after a long soak in the tub?  Even in 1830, when bath water came cold from the spring, Rebecca Condict wrote her sister-in-law Mary in Ohio County that a gentle dousing would work wonders.  “You must commence at your head,” she instructed.  “Put it on with your cloth or pour it on if you can stand it,” and “have some one to rub your back where you can’t rub.”  Even if bathing didn’t cure Mary’s ills, she counseled, “it will make you feel very warm for a while.”

Those desiring more formal therapy could, like WKU Director of Libraries Margie Helm, pursue a regimen prescribed by a professional.  In 1960, she received an encouraging letter from Dr. Edmund Jacobson, a director of Chicago’s Foundation for Scientific Relaxation, after she reported favorably on her progress in combatting fatigue, insomnia and social anxiety.  (In addition to Jacobson, who pioneered the techniques of progressive muscle relaxation and biofeedback, the Foundation’s Board included meat and cold cut king Oscar Mayer – a nice example of synergy, comfort food lovers might say).

That the mind possessed its own healing powers was the belief of Virginia Edmunds, who in letters to her sister Laura in Barren County in the 1910s mentioned such up-to-date balms for the soul as yoga, meditation and holistic health.  Grateful for the “good Karma” that had settled upon her home in San Diego, she reflected on the wisdom of living in the moment.  “We have wished, at times,” she wrote, “for Aladdin’s lamp or for a magic ring, or for a rug on which we could be wafted away to lands of our heart’s desires.  Yet we all have a lamp and ring and rug – only, we do not use them.  The world is full of delights which are ours for the asking – but, we do not ask.”

Click on the links to access finding aids for collections containing these materials, 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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Better Days Ahead

St. Mihiel and the River Meuse

Like many of us at this time of year, he had to correct his typed letter by hand to change “January 5, 1918” to “1919.”  Mt. Olivet, Kentucky’s Howard Buckner had just moved to quarters on the outskirts of St. Mihiel, France, joining a long line of soldiers awaiting demobilization and return home following the end of World War I. 

Buckner and his detachment of 36 men and 3 officers found St. Mihiel inching toward recovery after four years of war.  About the size of Maysville in Buckner’s estimation, it had, he learned, been considered a “very fine place.”  But then came the occupying Germans, and repeated efforts by the French and British to retake the town.  Finally, the Americans had come along and recaptured it “in six hours,” according to Buckner.  The Yanks’ secret was their willingness to shell the town into submission, but Buckner insisted that far more damage had been done by the retreating Germans, and French families had continued to reside there throughout the war.

Nevertheless, Buckner and his men faced the immediate task of creating decent living quarters for themselves in the middle of the devastation.  Most of the “desirable ‘ruins,’” he explained, had already been taken, and “we got the ‘left-overs,’” which required the men to brush off their handyman skills.  But they had fixed up two houses, “with a stove in every room” and everything “nice and dry.”  Some of his men joked that “if their wife is cross and fussy with them upon their return home” they would be well accustomed to taking a blanket and curling up on the porch or in the woodshed.  They had yet to explore the town itself, but Buckner had heard rumors of normalcy: “lots of little stores, hotels and everything that goes to make up a real city.”  Rations were plenty, local delicacies were available to buy, and there was a YMCA with the possibility of “entertainment on tonight.”  Things were clearly looking brighter.

Buckner’s thoughts, however, were on home.  Rainy winter weather was setting in—the swelling River Meuse, he observed, resembled “the Ohio river during the 1913 flood”—and the men stood ready to depart “as soon as there’s a boat to carry us.”  Buckner declared to his family that he was determined to “be with you all again” and “do everything within my power to interest you and make things more pleasant.”  For now, he trusted that they would encounter “only the richest blessings” in the New Year. 

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

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“Until this epidemic is over”

Flu fighter: Kentucky’s Dr. Joseph N. McCormack

A looming pandemic, its dangers made vivid by the closing of churches, schools and other places of assembly.  A ramped-up campaign of “warning and advisory literature.”  A frantic effort by federal and state authorities as well as local physicians and relief workers to suppress the spread of the disease, followed by some relaxing of quarantine restrictions.

Then, a series of “celebrations and similar festivities, during which all precautions and safeguards were thrown to the winds.”  A spike in cases, and renewed calls to reinstate closures.  But then, a vaccine, ready to be distributed to states and administered first to those most at risk.

So read the summary of Dr. Joseph N. McCormack, Secretary of the Kentucky State Board of Health, published in newspapers in December 1918.  The pandemic, of course, was influenza, and the super-spreader celebrations were the parties, parades and gatherings that marked the end of World War I.

The vaccine to which McCormack referred, one of many produced during the pandemic, had been developed by Dr. Edward C. Rosenow of the Mayo Foundation’s Division of Experimental Bacteriology.  After testing it on the staff of his own institution and concluding it was safe, he offered it free to physicians and hospitals, as long as they would return questionnaires reporting on its use and results. 

McCormack responded to Kentucky doctors who requested doses of the Rosenow vaccine with a letter outlining its ingredients, giving instructions (three inoculations, one week apart), and touting its successful use in the Army—and curiously, on policy holders of the Equitable Life Insurance Company and employees of Pittsburgh’s Homestead Steel Works.  The Kentucky State Board, he advised, endorsed the vaccine for use “by every person in Kentucky who is not certain that he or she has recently had influenza.”  McCormack’s colleague Dr. Lillian H. South, who had visited the Mayo Clinic to procure a half-million doses, had charge of distributing the vaccine from the State Board’s offices in Bowling Green. 

Despite Dr. McCormack’s eminence—he is now regarded as one of the most influential public health figures in Kentucky’s history—his letter showed that vaccine development and testing was still in its infancy.  For example, like other vaccines of the time, the Rosenow vaccine was made from what one historian has described as a “witches brew” of  bacteria isolated from dead and living patients, “heat-killed,” and added to an injectable fluid (compare to today’s COVID-19 vaccines, which do not contain the virus).  Vaccine studies, moreover, suffered from what our historian has termed selection bias, unequal exposure to risk, and inadequate data collection on outcomes.  (Rosenow’s requests for responses to his questionnaire, in fact, appear to have been largely ignored). 

The Rosenow vaccine was soon subjected to a somewhat more rigorous test involving the residents of a California asylum.  While still lacking many of the methods employed in today’s clinical trials—double-blind studies, placebos, and informed consent of subjects, to name a few—this study found the vaccine to be ineffective.  The confusion nevertheless brought a significant benefit, namely the initiation of a movement in the medical profession to devise proper standards for vaccine trials.

In the meantime, even Dr. McCormack understood that vaccines were not a panacea.  In his announcement given to newspapers that December, he admonished flu-ravaged Kentuckians in now-familiar terms:

1.  Keep away from all crowds of all kinds.
2.  Keep out of the sick room and away from houses with sickness, unless your services are needed.  Keep clean and wear a mask if you do go.
3.  Cover your cough or sneeze and keep away from people who do not.
4.  Keep away from dirty eating and soft drink houses.
5.  Have and do little visiting until this epidemic is over.

Dr. Joseph N. McCormack’s letter to physicians about the Rosenow vaccine is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid and scan of the letter.  For more of our collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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History in a Holiday Letter

Beulah Strong

Who wouldn’t have wanted to experience the artistic and cultural treasures of Europe in the company of Beulah Strong?  Born in 1866, the Massachusetts native studied art in Paris, then joined the faculty at Bowling Green’s Potter College for Young Ladies, where she taught art from 1892-1901.  After three years at Nashville’s Belmont College, she moved to Smith College, where she was an associate professor of art from 1907 until her retirement in 1923. 

After retiring, Miss Strong moved to Florence, Italy but still kept in close touch with her friends in Bowling Green.  Her holiday letter of December 2, 1933 showed how eagerly she had taken advantage of her proximity to Europe’s most charming destinations.  “Without taking any very long or distant trips” over the past year, she wrote, “I have had a number of small and pleasant ones.”  Small and pleasant indeed: there was the previous Christmas spent in Rome, “splendid and grand,” its vistas opened up by the cleaning up of the “mean streets.”  There was a tour of northern Italy – Pavia, Brescia, Cremona, Mantua and Parma – which she made sure not to visit at Lent because the altar-pieces in the churches would be covered up.  There was the great Franciscan monastery at La Verna, with its “precious” Della Robbia terracottas and “many picturesque nooks.”  Then, three weeks exploring the museums of Germany, with excursions to the cathedral at Bamberg, the Bavarian resort town of Tegernsee, and other “lovely little cities.”  And at home, there was gardening, concerts, and afternoons entertaining friends from the local expatriate American and English communities.

But as Depression and war loomed, ugliness was intruding upon all of this beauty.  Of immediate concern was the financial squeeze that jeopardized Miss Strong’s desire to make another holiday trip to Rome.  Prime Minister Benito Mussolini’s efforts to prop up the lira were colliding with President Franklin Roosevelt’s devaluation of the dollar as part of his economic recovery plan.  For the time being, however, only FDR – “our dictator-president” – attracted Miss Strong’s ire for undercutting the purchasing power of her savings.

More unsettling were affairs in Germany.  Upon entering, Miss Strong had been required to disclose her money holdings – “just how much I was taking in and it was checked up as I came out.”  Even more ominous was the growing persecution of German Jews after Adolf Hitler’s seizure of dictatorial powers earlier that year.  An elderly Jewish friend had asked Miss Strong to check on her family in Germany “and hear from their own lips how things were, as letters are censored, opened at the frontier.”  Some of the family had begun to experience the effects of laws excluding Jews from professions and civil service positions “and as these Government places were for life with a pension at the end, few of them saved much.”  Emigration, too, was increasingly difficult, given the restrictions on taking money out of Germany.  Still, Miss Strong remained more suspicious of Roosevelt’s fiscal policies, hoping he “won’t try that scheme! We should have to crawl home with our tails between our legs.”

Back in August 1914, while touring Europe with her mother, Beulah Strong had barely managed to secure passage back to the United States at the outbreak of World War I.  History seemed to repeat itself in 1940 when she returned again to the United States, leaving behind both the beauty and ugliness of her Italian sojourn. 

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

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“Abe will be reelected”

Soldier William Ballew writes from Tennessee, 1864

It was November 12, 1864, and members of the 12th Kentucky Infantry were pondering the results of the presidential election held four days earlier.

Camped near Spring Hill, Tennessee, William Ballew wrote to friend Thomas Hopkins in Clinton County that his regiment had shown a strong preference for “Little Mac” – the nickname of President Abraham Lincoln’s challenger, Major General George B. McClellan.  Earlier, Lincoln had relieved McClellan of his command after becoming frustrated with his innate caution and failure to produce results on the battlefield.  Though popular with the average soldier, McClellan had run for president as the candidate of a Democratic Party hobbled by its split over what to do about the war.

While Pvt. Ballew himself was unsure which candidate would “be the best for the US,” he claimed access to a “decision desk” of his own, namely the votes of the African Americans in Nashville.  Five thousand of them, he reported, had “voted for abe.”  Ballew forecast “that if the election is carryed on every whare like it was in nashville that abe will be reelected for the negroes had the same privalege of voteing that the white man has.”

Ballew didn’t realize that what he had witnessed was only a mock election, conducted by a still-disenfranchised community demonstrating its intention to secure the “privalege” of the vote.  On Election Day, about 3,200 African Americans had assembled on College Street to participate in a symbolic poll that gave all but one of their votes to Lincoln.  The initiative came after a delegation of Tennessee freedmen returned from the National Colored Men’s Convention in Syracuse, New York determined to press their demands for equality and the abolition of slavery.  It turned out, of course, that their “votes” were prescient. While McClellan carried Kentucky, he secured only 45% of the national vote and lost the election to Lincoln.

William Ballew’s letter is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid and typescript.  For more collections relating to the Civil War and elections generally, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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Barroom Blitz

Polk Laffoon, James F. Clay and the barroom primary

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Democrat James Franklin Clay had made an admirable showing in Washington as representative for Kentucky’s Second Congressional District.  When the Henderson lawyer sought re-election in 1884, however, he faced a challenge from within his own party.  James Knox Polk Laffoon was a relatively unknown Madisonville attorney, but “Polk” (his nephew Ruby Laffoon would become Kentucky’s governor in the 1930s) soon charmed the voting public with his “quiet, yet honest and open” demeanor.  And he had a dramatic backstory: as a youth of 17, he had entered the Confederate Army and endured two stints as a prisoner of war.  During a forced march from Bowling Green, a veteran recalled seeing “the gallant boy soldier” trudging through the rain and mud after giving up his horse to a sick, weak comrade. 

Laffoon’s dogged campaigning undercut Clay’s previously unassailable position.  At the party’s convention, ballot after ballot failed to give either man the nomination.  Laffoon, it was reported, could have broken through with “a little trickery” by courting an “uninstructed” delegation from a county where the voters supported his opponent, but resolved instead to “go down true” rather than risk staining his honor.  Finally, the convention resolved to hold a primary election to break the deadlock.

In the primary held on October 13, 1884, Clay carried his own Henderson County by a large majority, but across the district he lost to Laffoon by about 300 votes.  Several days later, the Courier-Journal correspondent assured readers that Clay’s supporters were “reconciled to their defeat, and will heartily support Polk Laffoon, who they credit with gallantly winning the fight.”

On the ground, it was a little grittier.  From McLean County, where Clay had eked out a 75-vote majority, a disappointed George Priest reported on his efforts to bring voters into the fold with incentives of the liquid kind.  In accordance with Clay’s instructions, the Livermore merchant had enlisted a local saloon-keeper “to run his Barroom in your interest on the day of [the] primary Election.”  Unfortunately, the campaign of the “boy soldier” had responded in kind, Priest griped, as the town’s “other two Barrooms were thrown wide open for Laffoon.”  Beaten at his own game, he “regretted exceedingly that such a man should be elected.”  All that was left was to settle accounts: $25 to the pro-Clay barroom keeper, and $12 to Priest for out-of-pocket expenses.  Oh, and one more thing, wrote Priest to the soon-to-be-lame-duck Congressman: “If there is anything ‘Soft’ in the way of a Government position that I am competent to fill please remember me.”

George Priest’s letter is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid and scan of the letter.  For more collections on election campaigns, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Left to their own devices

Party symbols on Warren County’s 1901 ballot

Bots and trolls aside, some of us may find our devices useful in making sense of the forthcoming election: to research candidates and polling places, request an absentee ballot, or get texts and updates from our favored office-seekers.  But the “device”—in its more archaic meaning of an emblem, logo or design—took on a different significance in past American elections.

Late in the 19th century, some Kentuckians could still cast a vote by voice, but others going to the polls were liable to be handed a ballot printed not by an election authority but by a particular political party.  One glance at the distinctive colors and markings of such “tickets” allowed voters to quickly register their preference, but unfortunately the process also made their votes public and, once deposited in the box, eligible for remuneration from the candidate with the deepest pockets and fewest scruples.

Kentucky’s mandate of a secret ballot in 1891 sought to diminish opportunities for fraud, but concern remained for the then-large number of voters who were unable to read.  Accordingly, the state’s election law of 1892 prescribed the steps by which candidates, whether nominated by a party or put forward by petition, could appear on a ballot: in addition to “a brief name or title of the party or principle which said candidates represent,” they were to include “any simple figure or device by which they shall be designated on the ballots.”  It could be “any appropriate symbol,” with a few exceptions: “the coat-of-arms or seal of the State or of the United States, the national flag, or any other emblem common to the people at large, shall not be used as such device.” 

In October 1901, the Warren County, Kentucky clerk received instructions from Secretary of State Caleb Breckinridge Hill for balloting in the forthcoming state and local elections.  As long as each of four parties had at least one candidate entitled to appear, their devices were to be shown as follows: “a game cock in the act of crowing” for the Democrats; a “Log Cabin” for the Republicans; “the Plow and Hammer” for the People’s Party; and “a Phoenix” for the Prohibition Party.  The ballot should further display beneath each emblem the prescribed large circle in which voters could place an “X” indicating their endorsement of the straight party ticket.  From there, it was up to the voters.  Left to their own devices, on November 5 the county gave the Democratic ticket the lion’s share (or rooster’s, perhaps?) of 2,920 votes cast.      

These ballot instructions to the Warren County Clerk are found in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For other collections on elections and balloting, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat

P. S. Need help this year?  Check your ballot. . . the “devices” are still there!

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“I have only a few suggestions”

“Pete,” by Dorothy Grider

Bowling Green native Dorothy Grider (1915-2012) wasn’t even out of high school before she began summer studies at the Phoenix Art Institute in New York.  To earn a scholarship to the Institute after her freshman year at WKU, she submitted a portrait of “Pete,” a local African-American man known for his expertise with foxhounds.  Today, it’s in the collections of the Kentucky Museum at WKU.

Grider would go on to enjoy decades of success as a commercial illustrator, especially of activity, coloring and story books for children.  She had a long relationship with the publisher Rand McNally, which featured her work in some of its most popular titles.  Not only did her drawings of adorable puppies, bunnies and kittens delight children, her rendering of an earth mover in the story The Busy Bulldozer earned kudos from an employee of the Caterpillar Tractor Company.

When it came to children’s books, however, Grider’s artistic license was necessarily more circumscribed, subject not only to the commercial exigencies of the day but to the cultural assumptions and prejudices of the 1950s.  Grider’s drawings for books like Our Auto Trip invariably featured children and families that were nuclear, middle-class, and almost incandescently white.  Editorial scrutiny of artwork that strayed from this baseline was unforgiving.  “PLEASE MISS GRIDER,” Rand McNally implored after an examination of The Busy Bulldozer, “WILL YOU SEE TO IT THAT YOUR SKIN TONES THROUGHOUT THIS BOOK ARE CLEAN-LOOKING AND LIGHT?”  Once “heavied up” by the lithographer, “skins with this dark a cast” ended up looking—well, non-Caucasian. 

The Unbearable Whiteness of Reading? 1950s children’s books by Dorothy Grider

Other content besides skin color worried Family Films of Hollywood, which vetted Grider’s drawings for a filmstrip called We Go to Church with an eye to the sensibilities of its religious audience.  “In order to please some of the denominations who take a dim view of stimulants,” the editor suggested removing a coffee pot from the family breakfast table and replacing the parents’ cups of coffee with cocoa.  Similarly, the “little white gloves” worn by the young daughter were “real cute and stylish,” but perhaps “a little too ‘sophisticated’” for attendance at an average church kindergarten.

By 1970, however, the “D-word” (diversity) was creeping into Rand McNally’s thinking.  The company sent Grider a script for Hoppity Skip, a new addition to its Start-Right Elf educational series, and asked if she’d be interested in the work.  “We’d like a sprinkling of the other races introduced,” were its rather timid instructions, “perhaps a Negro, Oriental, Puerto Rican. . . .”  The dam was breaking, but Grider’s work nevertheless remained subject to the formula that makes all such creatives pull out their hair: an editor’s message of fulsome praise, followed by the dreaded words “I have only a few suggestions. . . .”

Dorothy Grider

Dorothy Grider’s papers and artwork are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  To see more of our holdings of her books and artwork, search KenCat.

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“A rich morsel to roll under their tongues”

Like many young couples in the 19th century, they courted through their letters.  After they met early in 1880, Nellie Gates, 24, of Calhoun, Kentucky and Robert Coleman “Coley” Duncan, 26, began a correspondence.  Their face-to-face time was limited, as Coley’s travels selling for a wholesale grocer regularly took him to communities along the Green and Barren rivers between Calhoun and Bowling Green.

Coley’s letters covered the usual topics: gossip about their mutual friends, his reading, his travel accommodations, and plans for their next meeting.  He also expressed some envy of potential rivals for Nellie’s affection, and urged her to ignore warnings from old flames about his suitability as a correspondent.  Nellie’s replies must have been encouraging, for by late 1880 he had declared his love and by early 1881 they were engaged.

The couple tried to keep their plans to themselves, but when Coley boarded the Evansville and Green River packet steamboat to make his sales rounds, he found himself warding off the curiosity of one particular onlooker: the captain, Elmore Bewley, who knew not only Coley but many of the region’s young people through their leisure travel on his craft.  “Capt B. told me as I came up the river,” he wrote Nellie, “that he had seen you that day and went on with the usual compliments he pays you whenever he speaks of you to me.”  A few months later, Coley expressed his annoyance to Nellie after Bewley asked him if their engagement “was not satisfactorily settled. . . . He looked at me like he knew all about it.”  When Coley insisted that Nellie had given him the brush-off, Bewley “didn’t believe it and was going to ask you about it.”

But pointed questioning wasn’t his only device.  Bewley’s sleuthing skills were enhanced by the fact that his boat also carried the area mail.  Coley was reluctant to post too many letters on board “because those steamboat men are such accomplished talkers.  They all see the letters – know just who corresponds and make that the topic for their remarks to the public.”  Visiting the boat’s mail room, Coley himself had spotted a letter addressed to one of his friends “in a lady’s handwriting.”  As far as his own correspondence, he declared that if he were to mail a letter to Nellie “two Saturdays in succession,” he would be handing the boatmen “a rich morsel to roll under their tongues.”

Ultimately, the stress of controlling public perceptions of their relationship, combined with a host of other insecurities and misunderstandings, were too much for Coley, and he broke it off with Nellie a little more than a year later.  How Captain Bewley took the news is unknown, but it’s possible he figured out – even before the principals did – that the affair had “sunk.”

Robert Coleman Duncan’s letters to Nellie Gates are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more courtship letters, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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