When I first accepted the position as a student assistant at WKU Archives, I did not expect to go on such a fascinating historical journey. My experiences in the past year have been more invaluable than I ever could have imagined. Having the opportunity to work firsthand with the archived historical documents in WKU Archives has helped to paint a broader picture of the story as to how WKU began and what it has evolved into today. More specifically, my day-to-day tasks have mainly included collecting and scanning a multitude of different types of historical documents to be easily accessed on the TopSCHOLAR research & Creative Activity Database of WKU. The documents that I’ve been able to work on so far date back from the 1900s to the 1990s. The ability to upload these different materials from their physical form to our digital database has helped and will continue to help expose a vastly greater audience to the history of our school than ever before.Continue reading
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
In 1896, Owen County, Kentucky native Robert Gentry struck out on his own. At only 31, he founded the Bank of Sonora in Hardin County and, as it turned out, would remain associated with the bank for more than 50 years.
In 1905, however, Gentry, his wife Mattie and two young sons were thinking about striking out again, this time for the West.
Beset by illness, the couple considered California as a place where Robert could resume banking or some other business, and both could recover their health. Seeking information from friends and acquaintances who were familiar with the region, Robert received some enthusiastic responses about the potential of the Golden State. One boasted of “over a million dollars of building” in Los Angeles in July 1904 alone. Eager for a new investor, another friend touted the success of his Los Angeles printing business. The city’s future was assured, he noted, by the approval of an ambitious (but controversial) aqueduct system to supply water from the Owens River in the east.
But what could Robert’s wife Mattie expect? Suffering from a lung complaint, possibly tuberculosis, she seemed prepared to make the move first and leave her husband to tie up matters at home. Accordingly, she would have carefully read a letter from Corinne Phillips, the Kentucky-born niece of a family friend and a resident of Tustin in Orange County, that provided some additional perspective on life in southern California.
In simple matters of heat and humidity, Corinne advised, there were many choices. Though it was the “garden spot” of Orange County, Tustin could be a little too damp for those with weak lungs. The town of Orange offered a drier climate, as did communities like Riverside, Redlands and San Bernardino. Even drier—“on the verge of the desert”—were Palm Springs, Beaumont and Hesperia. Pasadena, with its healthy climate, was called the “Second Paradise.”
But Corinne knew that other aspects of her new home would be important to Mattie. The desert towns, she warned, “are rather lonely places” for an unaccompanied woman, and Westerners in general, though possessed of some good qualities, were not as sociable as Kentuckians. “I speak of the southern people,” she wrote, “because I know the South is dear to your heart.” Santa Ana, for example, “has quite a number of southern people in it,” but Mattie should keep in mind that “every man is “rustling for the ‘Almighty Dollar’ and he takes it for granted that you are doing likewise.” In a region where “everything is business” she would have to shed any tendency to “be dependent on the stronger sex.” Women were “placed on an equal footing with men,” Corinne observed, “and you are supposed to rustle for yourself.”
Overall, Corinne advised, Mattie should come prepared to be flexible and “to make the best of things.” She should bring a letter of introduction from her pastor, “for it will open to you an avenue of friends.” She might “see and hear things that would shock your modesty, but don’t worry over it let it go. For everything goes out west.” Boarding house rates varied – from two to six dollars per week – but if she committed to a stay of six months to a year, Corinne declared, Mattie would never want to leave. “You will send for your husband and children [and] build for yourself a house in sunny, southern California.”
Corinne Phillips’s letter to Mattie Gentry 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.
On the Memorial Day weekend of May 29, 2021, the remains of Barren County Navy seaman Howard Scott Magers, killed aboard the USS Oklahoma during the attack on Pearl Harbor, were finally brought home.
On the morning of December 7, 1941, nineteen-year-old Logan County, Kentucky native Warren Tinsley was asleep aboard the U.S. Navy destroyer Aylwin, moored near Ford Island at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He and his mates were enjoying the looser discipline of that Sunday morning, when many sailors were sleeping off hangovers from their shore leave in Honolulu; some, in fact, including several senior officers, had not yet returned from liberty.
As a consequence, no one stirred right away when the general alarm buzzer sounded, as it was used for everything from “man overboard” to a fire drill. But the catastrophic news came quickly: the Japanese were attacking.
Tinsley emerged from below decks to see the attack already under way. Hit below the waterline, the “old battleship Utah was slowly turning over,” its starboard side high in the air. Its dazed crew were either struggling in the water or trying to get over the starboard side to swim to Ford Island. Tinsley hurried to his battle station to find four junior officers trying to decide who would assume the duties of the absent captain. As the crew rushed to break out the Aylwin’s ammunition, Tinsley saw hostile planes everywhere. “They reminded me of a flock of hawks attacking a chicken farm in the Kentucky hills.” Low-flying fighters were “bombing our ships at tree top levels,” giving special attention to the mighty battleships. One of his mates yelled “There goes the Arizona!” as the vessel exploded, the casualty of a direct hit on her ammunition magazines. And there was the battleship Oklahoma: it had “turned over as a result of the hits that she suffered and lay like a dead whale with its belly shining in the air.”
Returning fire, Tinsley’s ship managed to make it down the western channel of Pearl Harbor and out to open sea, past the “burning and smoldering mass that was Ford Island.” After a day of searching for the enemy, the Aylwin returned to the “graveyard of what had once been a formidable fighting force.” Tinsley also returned to a changed Navy, in which the military routines of peacetime had suddenly vanished.
Warren Tinsley’s vivid account of the attack on Pearl Harbor is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections. A finding aid and full-text download can be accessed here. For more of our collections detailing the service and sacrifice of veterans, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.