Tag Archives: Martha Gentry

Pass the Can

Mattie Spangler; the SS Oder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Rustle for yourself”

Mattie Gentry considers a move to Orange County, California

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.

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