As U.S.-Cuba relations enter a new era, collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections offer a look back at America’s fascination with the island in the days before Castro.
Writing to his parents in Kentucky in the mid-1850s, E. S. Baker told them of an offer he had received to supervise a sugar house in Cuba, where his prospective employer owned three farms. Americans, in fact, owned one-quarter of Cuban farms, Baker had learned, but “the Catholic and Spanish control restricts them too much.” Profits from cotton, corn and sugar would be fatter, he believed, “if Cuba belonged to us.” At the time, private armies of Americans known as “filibusterers” were complicating U.S. territorial designs on the island; Baker had been told of men secretly organizing in Kentucky, Arkansas and Texas to go there and “disperse over the farms” in support of their countrymen.
Forty years later, in 1893, Grace Beecher Goodhue of Massachusetts visited Cuba. As her ship arrived in Havana’s harbor at sunrise, she admired the “exquisitely delicate coloring of the plastered houses – Blue faded pink and the tiled roofs.” While others went to bullfights and masked balls, Grace and her mother explored the pawn shops, but found little to buy as “the English have been here . . . and have carried everything off in the shape of silver.” They managed to purchase some white linen for dresses, however, “much to the horror of the clerk who sold it to us” and who insisted that such cloth was for “nun’s dresses not for ladies.”
Another sixty years later, in 1952, journalist and Smiths Grove native Virginia Wood Davis made the excursion to Cuba by plane. Reporting on her visit for the Kingsport (Tenn.) Times-News, she described the scenery, industry, street life, and even burial customs of Matanzas, the island’s third-largest city. Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution had yet to grasp power, but signs of strife were on the horizon: in black paint on the sidewalk in front of a local college, Davis saw the words “Students: Communism is not for you. Do not listen to the Communists.”