Tag Archives: Philip J. Noel Sr.

Of Books and Boondoggles

It was an impressive publication, not just in its ponderous title but in the amount of space it occupied on the shelf of the discriminating doctor, lawyer or businessman.  In 1909, Philip J. Noel, Sr. of Bowling Green, Kentucky purchased The Great Events by Famous Historians, a 20-volume “comprehensive and readable account of the world’s history.” 

Published at $100 (about $2900 today), Great Events represented a significant outlay, but it came with an attractive bonus.  Upon payment in full, the purchaser would also receive, free of charge, title to a 25 X 100-foot building lot in Westhampton Beach, Long Island, “in the centre of the fastest growing and most fashionable suburban district of Greater New York.” 

Though he was a successful insurance executive, throughout his life Noel was attracted to these quirky opportunities to leverage his income.  He bought stock, for example, in a number of short-lived mining and oil companies, all of which responded to his attempts at due diligence with rhapsodic promises of the riches that lay just around the corner.  In the case of Westhampton Beach, the developer, the New York Seaside Land Company, provided a seductive brochure designed to convince small investors that the time to acquire an interest was now.  Close to rapidly growing New York City, the area, with its beautiful beaches, railroad connections, and tennis and golf clubs, was already being bought into and improved by both profit-seeking capitalists and old-money types looking to build their summer “cottages.”  Hmmm. . . it almost seemed as if Great Events by Famous Historians was the freebie that came with the lot purchase, not the other way around; in any event, Noel was enthused enough to procure for himself a reward of two lots.      

As it turned out, other professionals with money to invest were similarly tempted—to their regret.  Just as Noel was taking the bait, a Detroit man considering the same offer was advised by the Rural New-Yorker to steer clear.  “There is land in the section worth from $3 to $5 per acre,” advised the editors, so that the lots “are worth probably 30 cents each.”  In 1912, more of the scheme came to light when a Texas doctor consulted the editors of a medical journal.  He had first been solicited with a card in the mail, to be signed and returned if he was interested in getting some lots “free of charge.”  After being induced to purchase a different set of door-stoppers—the equally weighty, 20-volume Author’s Digest—for $95, he had then wondered if the lots were “above the water” or otherwise had any value.  Imagine that, came the smug reply–“a Texan got caught in a land scheme.”

Needless to say, our Mr. Noel found no opportunity to flip his properties for a quick profit.  After a few years of tax bills, he wrote rather plaintively to the town clerk asking for the current valuation of the lots and the chances of an increase.  Though likely to gain value “in the future,” was the reply, they were then assessed at $10 each.

Philip J. Noel’s dalliance with the New York Seaside Land Company is part of the Noel Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to download a finding aid. Search our collections in TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“The willow behind his wallop”

The first pitch

On April 6, 1942, some 2,500 spectators gathered at the Bowling Green Fairgrounds to watch an exhibition major league baseball game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox.  The contest was part of their three-city swing through Kentucky and, for local fans, most certainly a welcome diversion from the accelerating world war.

Insurance executive Philip J. Noel wrote with delight to his son, a physician in Washington, D.C., about his afternoon at the park.  Not only had Noel secured a seat in the national press box, he had been perfectly positioned behind home plate to capture a photograph of the game’s first pitch from Boston’s Lancelot “Yank” Terry.  “If you look closely,” he boasted, “you will see the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand.”

Noel was entirely satisfied with the day’s tally: 13 hits by each team and a 9-6 victory for the Red Sox.  “These two National teams are some ball players,” he marveled, “and work just like clock ticks.”  But Herb Wallace of the Park City Daily News was less starry-eyed.  In his opinion, the “big-time boys” had disappointed the fans with their “lack of hustle and enthusiasm.”  The inflated hits/runs total was largely attributable to this laid-back attitude, a stiff breeze and a smaller-than-major-league-sized park. 

Reds vs. Red Sox, Bowling Green Fairgrounds

But there was one highlight, all agreed, that made the afternoon worthwhile.  While two of the game’s three home run shots might not have left a big league ballpark, batting champion Ted Williams, said Wallace, “had the willow behind his wallop.”  Williams’s sixth-inning blast cleared the center field scoreboard, bounced onto the track behind, and put the Sox ahead for good. 

Fans packed the stands for the exhibition game

Philip J. Noel’s letter to his son and his photos of the game are part of the Noel Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to download a finding aid. Search our holdings in TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Versailles in an uproar

P. J. and Blanche Noel; and a warning about “fake news”

In mid-1918, the Germans launched a series of offensives along the Western Front in a last-ditch attempt to secure victory in the Great War.  The fighting was ferocious, but on the afternoon of July 25 the news broke in Versailles, Kentucky that the German crown prince and his massive army of several hundred thousand were now captives of the Allies. 

Visiting Versailles was Philip J. Noel, Sr. of Bowling Green, who was busy setting up a local office for his network of insurance agents.  Like many other Kentuckians, “P. J.” had followed the war news with dread; he was saddened by the recent combat deaths of former president Theodore Roosevelt’s son Quentin and, closer to home, the loss of the nephew of a former county sheriff.  But now, with this spectacular capitulation of the enemy, perhaps peace was at hand; indeed, wrote P. J. to his wife Blanche, the news had unleashed a tide of pent-up relief.

“Well, I never saw anything like it.  Versailles was in an uproar,” P. J. reported the next day.  On the news of the Crown Prince’s capture, “everything turned loose”: bands played, people marched, and revelers discharged pistols and shotguns until after dark.  Members of the local African-American community “got into wagons and marched all over town”—especially relieved, perhaps, because a week earlier fifty of their number had departed for Army service.

But then things got out of hand, no doubt exacerbated by the popping of gunfire and some generous toasts of whiskey.  A runaway horse and buggy, its two young lady passengers having bailed in the nick of time, ran straight into an automobile.  The buggy flipped and was dragged along the sidewalk, scattering pedestrians.  P. J. had to leap from the car in which he was sitting and duck into a hotel in order to avoid being struck.  On the heels of this mishap came four drunken men in an automobile, which also flipped and injured three of them.  Next came two fights: one that hospitalized one of the participants, and another between a restaurant owner and a rival confectioner. 

Then came the knockout punch.  No sooner had the dust settled, P. J. wrote, than “we all wake up to find out that the Crown Prince had not been captured and it was all a mistake.”  If only the citizens of Versailles had read that day’s Bourbon News from nearby Paris, Kentucky, warning about “wild grapevine” stories of the Crown Prince’s defeat.  Until verified by the paper’s “reliable sources,” sniffed the editors, such news had to be taken with “a pinch of salt.”

P. J. Noel’s letter is part of the Noel Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to download a finding aid. For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat, and click here to view our World War I collections.

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