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The women of this country are going to come and sit here

Posted by | November 14, 2014

Rebecca Latimer Felton, in her customary way, saw right through the political machinations that led to her officially becoming the first woman to serve in the United States Senate.

When Georgia Senator Thomas E. Watson died on September 26, 1922, Governor Thomas Hardwick appointed a replacement to serve until a special election could be held. Hardwick noted that his appointee would not actually “serve” because Congress was not in session when Watson died, and the next session would not begin until after the special election.

Hardwick himself wanted to be a senator, and he knew that the person he appointed would have a real advantage (as incumbent) in the special election. So rather than give an edge to a potential opponent, and to get on the good side of Georgia’s newly enfranchised women voters (whom he had offended by opposing the Nineteenth Amendment), Hardwick appointed the eighty-seven-year-old Rebecca Latimer Felton (1835-1930) on October 3. To this day she holds the record for the oldest freshman senator to enter the Senate.

Rebecca Latimer Felton in the US SenateFelton sitting at the Senate Office Building desk she occupied for 24 hours.

Hardwick lost the special election two weeks later to Walter F. George. When the session opened George allowed Felton to present her credentials before he claimed his seat so that she might make history. She was sworn in at noon on November 21.

In one sense it was a meaningless, perhaps even condescending parody; Felton herself called it a “joke.” But it acknowledged her years of political activism and set the stage for women to become serious participants in the political process. Minutes after being sworn in, Felton rose to address her temporary colleagues: “Mr. President, the women of this country are going to come and sit here. There may not be very many the next few years, but in time they will come. When they do I pledge that this body will get ability, integrity and unstinted usefulness.”

The next day Senator-elect George was sworn in. Felton’s term had lasted for just twenty-four hours.

Rebecca Latimer Felton is worthy of our attention for far more than this passing episode in her long life. A writer, lecturer and reformer who had a special interest in agricultural and women’s issues, she did not accept the popular belief during that time that a woman’s proper role was a housewife and instead had an active role outside the home.

As a columnist for the Atlanta Journal for twenty-eight years, Felton contributed various articles under the titles “Mrs. Felton’s Timely Talks” and “The Country Home,” their format being a cross between a modern “Dear Abby” and “Hints from Heloise.”

Late in her life, Felton campaigned tirelessly for Progressive Era reforms. Through speeches and her writings, she helped to effect statewide prohibition and to bring an end to the convict lease system, a system of leasing cheap labor to private companies, which often maintained the convicts in substandard and even inhumane conditions. Both were achieved in 1908.

She supported the state university against its opponents—the church-affiliated colleges and those who felt that the state’s limited funds should be directed toward improving public schools below the college level. In 1922 Felton received an honorary doctorate from the University of Georgia.

She also spoke out for vocational education opportunities for poor white girls in the state. Not until the early twentieth century did Felton embrace the reform with which she is most associated: women’s suffrage. She became the South’s best known and most effective champion of women’s right to vote. Hence the symbolic importance to Georgia’s women voters of her Senate seat appointment.

Felton published her Memoirs of Georgia Politics in 1911, Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth in 1919, and The Romantic Story of Georgia Women in 1930, shortly before her death. In her preface to Country Life in Georgia… she stated: “[The readers of Georgia’s newspapers] write to me and touch my heart, and some of them say further – ‘You have a large following in the State of Georgia who are devoted to you, especially among the rural citizens, the plain people of the State. They always feel assured you will state facts and furnish proof if your statements should be questioned.’”

Sources: www.legis.state.ga.us/legis/2005_06/house/kids/famous/rebeccafelton.htm
http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=F000069
www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-904
www.roselawnmuseum.com/history%5Cfelton.html
www.georgiawomen.org/_honorees/feltonr/index.htm

Rebecca+Latimer+Felton womens+suffrage Georgia+politics Appalachian+politics appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history

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Book Excerpt: ‘Unionists in Virginia’

Posted by | November 13, 2014

Larry DentonPlease welcome guest author Lawrence M. Denton. Denton, an authority on the secession crisis, is the author of  “A Southern Star for Maryland: Maryland and the Secession Crisis,” and William Henry Seward and the Secession Crisis: The Effort to Prevent Civil War.” He held several academic administrative posts at the university level from 1968 to 1978. In 1978 he accepted an appointment to serve as special assistant to the associate administrator of NOAA, a presidential appointee. He ended his career representing the Weather Channel in Washington, and his new book “Unionists in Virginia: Politics, Secession and Their Plan to Prevent Civil War” is now available from the History Press. He will be speaking and signing books on Saturday, December 6 from 9:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. at the Tredegar Visitor Center located at the Richmond National Battlefield Park (3215 E Broad St, Richmond, VA).

 

During the thirty-plus years that I have been writing and lecturing about the secession crisis, two fundamental themes have emerged that make studying the antebellum era so complex for the modern researcher. First is the primitive nature of the social and behavioral sciences during that period of time, which led to society being downright primitive as well. Medicine was in its very early stage of modernization; head or abdominal wounds were considered fatal because physicians simply did not know how to treat them. Pasteur was just publishing his research on the “germ theory,” but it was not widely known and certainly not practiced. Psychology was in its infancy. Mary Todd Lincoln was put in an asylum for her bipolar disorder in May 1875, but nobody knew quite what to do with her other than isolation. 1

va unionists cvr.indd

Sociology was in its infancy, too. It was thought that to educate a woman would do her physical harm. Slavery, yet another cruel beast of the era, was still practiced throughout the world. The social mores of the antebellum were downright crude.

A rather strict social “pecking order” was still in vogue. The vast majority of Americans, from both the North and South, were treated with near contempt by the “upper crust.” Punishment for crimes, some quite trivial, was often cruel and even inhumane (whipping was still practiced). Basic cleanliness and simple clothing necessities were often neglected. Folks usually bathed once a week, if that. Bruce Catton described the young recruits from what was then called the Northwest (today’s Midwest) being handed underwear and, never seeing it before, laughing and placing it on their heads. 2

Malnutrition was widespread, and common diseases of today often proved fatal. Infant mortality, especially among poor whites and free blacks, was exceedingly high. Dirty water was everywhere; it was claimed that Lincoln’s son, Willie, died from drinking polluted water in the White House. Mid-nineteenth-century America was, indeed, very primitive. For the twenty-first-century researcher, this crude nature of society must constantly be kept in mind; otherwise, very little makes much sense.

Second is the issue of the “slows,” the phrase Lincoln used to describe General McClellan after the Battle of Antietam. News traveled slowly. In the big cities, most papers were printed weekly, as only a handful of daily papers existed. While scientific work was in play, no radio, no telephone and certainly no television existed. Mail moved so slowly that often it took weeks for letters and newspapers to reach folks in rural areas.

While the telegraph, the revolutionary new means of communication, was available, it only reached cities and towns serviced by railroads (as the lines ran alongside railroad tracks). It was often unreliable and never secure. And railroads, the other revolutionary nineteenth-century invention, were considered rapid for running fifteen to twenty miles per hour. Most folks, in fact, walked or rode horses or wagons from place to place. Thus, the “slows” made it unbelievably difficult to control or influence rapidly changing events, much less keep track of them. Again, the modern researcher must keep the “slows” in mind when trying to understand the movement of events and the oftentimes haphazard way they transpired.

Richmond, Virginia, as seen from the south bank of the James River. Richmond was arguably the most magnificent city in the South in 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia.

Richmond, Virginia, as seen from the south bank of the James River. Richmond was arguably the most magnificent city in the South in 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia.

 

The primitive nature of antebellum society would produce scenes of a truly barbaric nature, as events in the upcoming war would so aptly demonstrate. Young boys would stand a few yards apart and shoot at one another from point-blank range. The “slows” would produce scenes from a tragic-comic opera. The right hand so often did not know what the left hand was doing that events often controlled the leaders, as Lincoln so poignantly observed late in the war. These two fundamental themes of antebellum America added an enormous complexity to an already complex setting.

“Wait for Virginia. See what she does.”
—William Wilkens Glenn, editor, Baltimore Daily Exchange, April 1861

Virginia was the most populous and wealthiest state in the South during the antebellum years. Geographically, it bordered two lower Northern states, Pennsylvania and Ohio, and two Southern border states, Maryland and Kentucky. From its shore across the Potomac, one could see the White House. But Virginia was much more than statistics and geographic happenstance. The state had a special aura about it—it was the cradle of the nation’s first settlements, the birthplace of the “father of the country” and the incubator of the American form of republican government. Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe added a luster that was unmatched by any other state.

Virginia truly occupied a unique position at this crucial moment in the nation’s history. In light of continuing scholarship regarding the secession crisis, is it fair to ask again: Could Virginians, with their rising Unionism, and with their rising anti–Slave Power sentiment, have led the nation from the brink of civil war during the winter and spring of 1861? 3

John Brown Baldwin, the rising young star of the Virginia Unionists, came from a distinguished family of Augusta County. He would serve on the board of visitors of the University of Virginia early in his career. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia.

John Brown Baldwin, the rising young star of the Virginia Unionists, came from a distinguished family of Augusta County. He would serve on the board of visitors of the University of Virginia early in his career. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia.

William Henry Seward, “Mr. Republican” and secretary of state-designate during the Secession Winter, clearly saw the possibility and worked tirelessly to encourage the Unionists of Virginia to defeat the secessionists of the state. Abraham Lincoln, because of his lack of experience and unfamiliarity with the key players at the national level, was more reluctant than Seward to reach out to the Unionists. When he arrived in Washington, exhausted from his arduous trip from Springfield, he was badgered by men from all sides of the political spectrum, and he had virtually no close friends to lean on for advice.

A rarely told, but exceedingly important, story of the Civil War era is the effort anti-secession Virginians, dubbed Unionists by the press, played in trying to save the nation from war during the Secession Winter. These Virginians included such prominent men as John Brown Baldwin, George W. Summers, John Janney and Jubal Early, some of whom would end up becoming prominent Confederates.

These Unionists won an incredible victory over the Southern Rights Democratic Party, the party of the secessionists, in the election for delegates to the Virginia State Convention (the Secession Convention), on February 4, 1861 garnering 63% of the votes across the state. They immediately began to negotiate with William Henry Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, to find a way to preserve the peace. Exactly two months to the day later, they delivered an equally incredible victory to the Lincoln Administration (and the nation) in defeating an Ordinance of Secession. This just eight days before the firing on Fort Sumter.

The efforts of Virginia Unionists to defeat secession are reviewed in the new book, Unionists in Virginia. The volume documents how close they came to being true heroes by preventing Virginia from seceding. Several passages from Unionists in Virginia are cited below to illustrate the story:

John Letcher, governor of Virginia in 1861, was a Unionist who bitterly opposed former governor Wise and his radical Southern Rights followers. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia.

John Letcher, governor of Virginia in 1861, was a Unionist who bitterly opposed former governor
Wise and his radical Southern Rights followers.
Courtesy of the Library of Virginia.

Speaking of the Unionists victory, “It was in the Democratic stronghold counties of the Northwest region – those counties just to the south of the Panhandle where Breckinridge and the Southern Rights Democrats rolled to an impressive victory in the November election – that a political sea change occurred. Lifelong Democrats – again, those who had just voted for Breckinridge in November – now deserted the Democratic Party in astounding numbers and joined the Unionist movement, the movement sponsored by and controlled by Constitutional Unionists, most of whom were former Whigs, the lifelong opponents of these Democrats.”

Summing up the scene Virginia Unionists faced at the end of March, 1861, “So March ended in Richmond with the Unionists remaining in solid control of the Virginia State Convention – and with public support in the state solidly in their favor. Ominously for the peace of the nation, March ended in the nation’s capital with the president, his cabinet, the military high command and all their subordinates in a state of extreme turmoil and confusion. It was a scene from a tragic-comic opera, as the first days of April will attest.”

Referring to the defeat of the first Ordinance of Secession, “In a stunning victory for the Unionists, Harvie’s Ordinance of Secession was defeated by a vote of ninety to forty-five. Of the forty-five votes for the Ordinance of Secession, 70 per cent came from the black belt counties of the Piedmont and Tidewater regions of the state (representing the Slave Power), a handful came from heavily enslaved pockets in the Southwest Region and, as previously noted, three votes came from the Northwest region, where those three delegates were clearly not representing the wishes of their constituents.”

Finally, a summary comment regarding these men who risked their political careers, indeed for some their lives, to save the nation from war, “In hindsight, it is easy to see the reasoning of many Virginians in relation to their Unionism. In mid-April 1861, looking forward, and not knowing that war would soon envelope them, these men were loyal, patriotic Americans who believed the leadership of the country would not desert them. In the end, the heroic Unionists of Virginia were betrayed by the politicians in Washington – and be the aristocrats in their very own state.”

To their enduring credit, “The Unionists of Virginia felt there was a better way than that of total war.”

 

(Citations)

1 In his recent book The Madness of Mary Lincoln (Southern Illinois University Press, 2007), Jason Emerson documents the travails of Mrs. Lincoln during her confinement.

2 Catton, Reflections on the Civil War.

3 The works of many secession crisis experts will be cited throughout this book, especially works by the leaders of this movement, Daniel W. Crofts and William W. Freehling. A lesser-known source, but one of particular note, is the doctoral dissertation of Patricia E. Hickin, “Antislavery in Virginia, 1831–1861,” presented in June 1968 to the graduate faculty of the University of Virginia. Although modern social historians have downplayed her work, the 832-page, two-volume study is still the most detailed reference on the subject and should not be dismissed.

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The Mountain Memories Project

Posted by | November 12, 2014

craig lamPlease welcome guest author Craig Lam. Craig is a 28 year old father of two with a passion for history & genealogy. Craig currently lives in the Shenandoah Valley with family ties into the Blue Ridge mountains that run along the Valley. Craig’s passion for history has fed a desire to make a difference in terms of the preservation of his own history.

 

From a young age I’ve always had a passion for history; in particular, my own. I’ve always wondered, “Where do I come from?” or “Who carried my last name before it was given to me?” That love for my own roots led me to create the Facebook page, Blue Ridge Genealogy in 2012. At first the page took off as a way to rally local family members so that we might have a better outlet for sharing photos and stories. Then a few short months later the page exploded into what it is has become today—a gathering of different faces, names, and backgrounds with the common interest of family ties in the Blue Ridge.

With the growing traffic on Blue Ridge Genealogy it became evident that most of the members had some type of tie into the mountainous regions of Shenandoah National Park. Many of today’s visitors to the park have no idea that the lands within the boundaries of the Park were once privately owned property.

Mrs. Walker Jenkins evicted from her property by authorities while still sitting in her rocking chair. Credit-Neil Mowbray Collection.

Mrs. Walker Jenkins evicted from her property by authorities while still sitting in her rocking chair. Credit-Neil Mowbray Collection.

Those mountains once contained homesteads, farms, mills, stores, and other buildings required for each community. The planning for such a park began in the 1924 and in 1926 President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill to move forward with Shenandoah National Park. In 1928 Virginia passed the Public Park Condemnation Act allowing the government to bypass much of the negotiations with landowners in this region. During the next 10 years many of the residents would leave their land either by force, or voluntarily.

My personal belief has always been that we can’t erase the past and we can’t always fix the wrongs. What we can do, as a society, is never forget what was done to these people in the name of the “common good”. We can’t go back and give the land back to these families but what we can do is record these stories so that future generations may also learn from them. We need to preserve and cherish these stories because one day we may not have the opportunity to talk to these folks one on one. Our aim within the Mountain Memories Project is to individually film every pre-displacement mountain resident that we can locate.

Our current plans are to release 2 individual phases from this project. If everything goes as planned we hope to release the first phase of the project in Fall, 2015. The first phase will include a main film edited from the more interesting points of the interview collection. We also plan on releasing a second phase; a box set of all the interviews together. There will be little editing involved in the box set so that you may be able to view the interviews in their entirety. We now face an aging generation of pre-displacement mountain residents. This generation is slowly leaving us and taking with them the stories of a life lived in the hills and hollows.

Many of the former mountain residents still with us today have to dig back deep into their childhood to tell their story. During a recent interview, I asked Willard Dean (a former resident of the Lydia & Saddleback regions) how his parents felt during the displacement. His response echoed the feelings of many others: “Well they didn’t like it, they didn’t want to go but back then you had to do what the government said to do.” In the end these people had no choice but to pack up everything they owned and move from their home.

Roadside apple vendor in what is now Shenandoah National Park. Credit-Arthur Rothstein Collection

Roadside apple vendor in what is now Shenandoah National Park. Credit-Arthur Rothstein Collection.

 

While this project has always been and always will be about the displaced mountain residents, their culture just naturally seems to take a leading role in the interviews. Whether it be moonshine or apple butter, chestnuts or gardening, their memories always recall a better time and way of life. Some say that this way of life almost separated these self-reliant mountaineers from those who greatly depended on others for their daily goods. While interviewing Irvin Jenkins (a former resident of Tanners Ridge), I asked him about growing up during the Depression. He replied, “We didn’t know it, we had plenty to eat – simple stuff but it was good, ya know? We didn’t know nothing about a depression or nothing. We never heard of the Depression until later.”

Being moved from their homeland would have quite an effect on these residents. Many of them were moved into what were known as “resettlement communities”. These communities weren’t anything like what they had moved from and many residents had a hard time transitioning into this way of life. Many, who gardened, now gave most of it up due to lack of space. Farmers could no longer keep livestock. The gatherers could no long pick berries or anything else the mountains once offered them. When asked about these activities, many former mountain residents have a change of tone in their voice and a certain look on their face. It brings back memories of a life they loved. A life filled with hard work but also with the satisfaction of a self-reliant lifestyle.

In 2013 I began planning a video project to preserve these stories of future generations to enjoy. My aim with the Mountain Memories Project is to film and document as many as possible of the pre-displacement mountain residents (or direct descendants) who are still with us today. I am filming, editing, and producing this entire production with my own hands and on my own time. There are no fancy editing booths, no high end equipment, and no endless budgets. This is a grassroots effort to save what otherwise might one day be forgotten.

Clark Taylor home at Ida Resettlement. Credit-Neil Mowbray Collection

Clark Taylor home at Ida Resettlement. Credit-Neil Mowbray Collection.

 

The Mountain Memories Project officially kicked off in October, 2014. It hasn’t taken long for this project to gain steam in the local communities and we are currently conducting interviews in multiple counties dealing with numerous regions within the Blue Ridge. We have conducted 4 face to face interviews to date with numerous others planned. The stories are all precious but we are looking for more. If you, or someone you know, was directly affected by the Park displacement, please contact me at BlueRidgeRambling@gmail.com.

You may also contact me on my blog: http://blueridgegenealogy.wordpress.com/

The Mountain Memories site: https://www.facebook.com/MountainMemoriesProject

Facebook page, Blue Ridge Genealogy: https://www.facebook.com/groups/292341594158153/

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Book Review: ‘Beyond the Briar Patch: Affrilachian Folktales, Food and Folklore’

Posted by | November 11, 2014

Lynette Ford. Beyond the Briar Patch: Affrilachian Folktales, Food and Folklore. Parkhurst Brothers: Marion, MI. 2014. Print.

Joshua Erni-SalmansPlease welcome guest reviewer Joshua Salmans. Salmans has lived in the Upstate of South Carolina for 17 years. He’s a quirky, librarian type who feels comfortable in the foothills of Appalachia, but has found adventure traveling and being a cultural exchange agent in this little blueberry of a planet. Currently, he has returned to Greenville to teach Adult Basic Education courses and contribute to Appalachianhistory.net and The Dictionary of Literary Biography.

 

If you’re like me, you are probably tired of the recent inundation of political attack ads on TV featuring politicians who did or didn’t vote for this or that. November during an election year often betrays the chasms of polarizing political thought that we usually keep tucked away —at least at the dinner table. My mom used to say that if you wanted to have a happy family, it doesn’t behoove you to talk about religion, politics or love. Sometimes, my mom’s insight makes me wonder whose idea it was to have elections so near to the holidays.

beyond the briar patch

Lyn Ford, a nationally recognized Affrilachian storyteller, has a remedy to transcend such rifts between us. Through African-influenced stories and folktales from Appalachia, she reminds us of our common humanity: for “when [we] share one another’s stories, [we] can’t stay enemies.” (1) Ford recently published her second book of tales, Beyond the Briar Patch, in which she intimately retells her own interpretations of what she refers to as ‘home-fried’ tales from her childhood.

Home-fried tales are organic, from the grit of our familial habitation: “from childhood summers shared with storytelling with my father…and my maternal grandfather, Pop-Pop[s]…and bedtime-story readings with my mother….” They are stewed in the pot of hardscrabble living—its humor, its wit, its cleverness, its lessons, its trickeries and its sophistications. Home-fried tales are from the thorny briar patch, the dense and tangled thicket of life many are born into. These tales are informed from all aspects of culture: life, history, racial tensions, romance, music, food, laughter, death and so much more. Most importantly, they are universal tales with full-bodied flavors that all of us are familiar with no matter where we call home.

This spirit of universality, however, does not detract from Ford’s sly ability to blend broad readability with sprinkles of Appalachian vernacular like wampus, clabbered, slumgullion, slew, seransifyin’, and piddlin’—words that will revive nostalgic memories of papaw and nana’s porch stories, yet appeal to the curiosity of those new to Appalachian/Affrilachian culture. Her clever and delicate balance between these two aspects allows her stories to betray the earthy sophistication and intelligence of their origins. Not to worry, she includes a glossary for those of us who might not be familiar with some of her terms’ use and application.

Each tale in Beyond the Briar Patch has truths in it, but be aware that “some [are] true, some almost true, [and] some purely fiction (about which my Pop-pops said, ‘If it ain’t true, it should be’).” Ford encourages her readers to decide for themselves which of her tales are true, partly true, or just plain made up. Like her Pop-Pops insists, there is more to these tales than the mere historical account. Made-up stories originate from common truths that are learned just from livin’ on this blueberry planet—our briar patch.

With a conviction that storytelling should be a shared family experience, Ford selects stories for children and adults. She wastes no time in sweeping us off into an adventure in the first section of critter tales, replete with heroic trickery. Before you know it, we’re in the briar patch with the rabbit from whom the bear could learn a thing or two. But lest the rabbit’s head should get too large, the turtles have their own lesson to teach the rabbit, if only the rabbit would slow down a little to notice details. The lazy monkey thinks he can keep taking advantage of papa turtle, but community turns out to a greater force to be reckoned with.

That inclination towards fantasy doesn’t mean that Ford retreats from some of the harsh realities of our socio-cultural history. In this volume, she includes several candid narratives of slave John as well as some others from the 1800s.(2) For these characters, their situations are grim and authentic; however, their cleverness, humor and wit are noteworthy examples of the tenacity of the human spirit. Though her selections possess serious and poignant elements, they also demonstrate how clever wit or cathartic humor can elicit, even between the oppressed and the oppressor, lucid moments of shared humanity.

For those who enjoy spooks and haints, Ford’s last section features a clever blacksmith who might have a few tricks up his sleeve when dealing with the Devil, a war veteran whose mother sends him on a journey to regain his fear, and a young man looking for work who finds more than he bargained for when he agrees to work a haunted field for a farmer. While not the most frightening of stories, these three selections are humorous reminders of the universality of humanity’s sojourn on this planet.

Sharing is Ford’s most valuable ingredient in her recipe for healing humanity’s ills with one another. Her home-fried stories warmly resonate with the human spirit on a multi-cultural and universal level. Our political institutions may still continue to exude the darker side of human interactions during election cycles, but Ford’s stories gently guide us back to our more primal connections with each other. Truly, when we share our stories—along with grandma’s scrumptious corn fritters—fearful animosity fades away and we realize we’re cookin’ in the same kitchen.

 

1 I recently came across a video that featured Ford telling a story at the St. Louis Festival in 2011. I wanted to pass this along to my readers as I found it the night of the elections—I loved how the video countered all the negative feelings being spewed out. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-M6KRj4ceo

2 Be sure to check out Ford’s Q&A section in the back of the book, especially if you’re in a small book club. She talks about her decision to put children and adult stories in the same volume, select stories that have overt socio-cultural narratives, and many more insights into the development of the book.

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Saving the Himler House

Posted by | November 10, 2014

Please welcome guest author Cathy Cassady Corbin. Corbin is the editor and agent for Martin Himler’s autobiography which will be published in 2015. Corbin also is a member of the Martin County, KY Historical and Genealogical Society and of the Society’s Himler Project Committee.

 

Martin Himler is known internationally for his 1919 founding of the Himler Coal Company, a coal company owned by Hungarian miners and structured on a unique co-operative business model that allowed the miners to be stockholders of the company and own their homes in the town of Himlerville (now Beauty), KY. The Hungarian immigrant coal mining entrepreneur arrived in America via the SS Carpathia on May 7, 1907, with 9¢ in his pocket and two goals in his mind. Mr. Himler was only eighteen years old when he stepped onto American soil, but he already knew that he wanted to fulfill his goals of making a living in America’s free enterprise system and serving America to the best of his capabilities.

Martin Himler in a miner’s cap explaining the $1,000 insurance policies being distributed among the workmen. Eugen Lang, the secretary, may be seen in this photo behind and on the left hand of Mr. Himler, policies in hand. Nearly every other man is a coal-miner-stockholder. From 1921 Coal Age article.<sup>2</sup>

Martin Himler in a miner’s cap explaining the $1,000 insurance policies being distributed among the workmen. Eugene Lang, the secretary, may be seen in this photo behind and on the left hand of Mr. Himler, policies in hand. Nearly every other man is a coal-miner stockholder. From 1921 Coal Age article.1

 

Mr. Himler’s first job in America was working as a coal miner in Thacker Mines, Thacker, WV. He also worked in the Iselin, PA coal mines. Mr. Himler later worked as a peddler to coal mining towns, and his entrepreneurial spirit further led him to begin his journalism career with the publication of Magyar Banyaszlap, Hungarian Miners’ Journal, a weekly newspaper published, as Mr. Himler said, “for miners by miners”.

Many Hungarian immigrants worked in American coal mines, and Mr. Himler saw a need for these miners to receive news from both America and Hungary, along with information about job openings and American citizenship. Mr. Himler penned the first issue of Magyar Banyaszlap while he was waiting for his peddling customers at a Holden,WV mine. Magyar Banyaszlap was self-supporting within five months and soon had a following of 60,000 miners. Some of the issues of Magyar Banyaszlap were published in both Hungarian and English, and the success of Magyar Banyaszlap inspired Mr. Himler’s life-long career in journalism.

The residents of Himlerville were primarily Hungarian immigrants who came to America to live and work. By 1922, there were 100 miners’ homes in Himlerville, and 1,000 Himlerville residents. Mr. Himler’s home and the home of Eugene Lang, Treasurer and Secretary of Himler Coal Company, were located in the town of Himlerville, and the town also is reported to have contained a company store, a theatre/opera house, a school, the Himler State Bank, St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, an ice cream parlor, a bakery, a powerhouse, a round house for locomotive maintenance, a building for community gatherings, the Himler Coal Company and Magyar Banyaszlap Office, and a community park in the middle of town. The Himlerville community had its own culture, its own way of life and prosperity, and according to the July 28, 1976, edition of The Martin Countian , “… the people who were a part of Himlerville surely have a lot to be proud of. Himlerville will go down in Martin County history as a strong force in helping shape the county’s future.”

Rear view of Martin Himler house as it appears today.

Rear view of Martin Himler house as it appears today.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Himlerville was the beautiful home of Martin Himler, which sat atop a hill overlooking the town. With its imposing columns and homely veranda, the two-story building was magnificent in every way. Similar in construction to a barn, the unique style of the house comes from two forms of architecture: Dutch Colonial and Craftsman. The roof has a gambrel roof, but no flaring eaves (another Dutch Colonial distinction). Instead, the eaves resemble a Bungalow or Craftsman style of architecture. This type of architecture can be categorized by overhanging eaves, double-hung windows, and a front porch beneath the extension of the main roof. Located on Mansion Hill, Himler’s estate captured attentions and commanded a strong presence over the town and its inhabitants. 2

The beautiful and welcoming home of Martin Himler was a center of social activity in Himlerville. Miners gathered at the home in the evenings, guests from throughout America were hosted at the home, and community dinners and activities often were centered in Mr. Himler’s home. One of the Himlerville residents, a young Hungarian woman named Mary Domosley Koblass, shared her memories of Mr. Himler’s home in the July 28, 1976, edition of The Martin Countian.

Mary began her description of a banquet held at the Himler home to honor a Martin County physician, Dr. Stepp, by saying that guests arriving at Mr. Himler’s home had to climb over one hundred concrete steps to reach the home. Mary explained that the steps had a double purpose of both stimulating guests’ appetites AND loosening the accumulated mud on guests’ shoes. The dinner guests arriving to honor Dr. Stepp were greeted on the front porch by Mr. Himler and his nephew, Mr. Andrew Fisher.

The guests included coal buyers and journalists; even the famous New York Hungarian journalist and screen writer Illona Fulop was a guest. Guests cleaned their shoes, then were led to either the large combination sun parlor and library where a fireplace was heaped with Himlerville coal on cool evenings, or to the more luxurious parlor known as the Blue Room. Mary said that the conversation at the dinner table was focused on only pleasant and humorous topics; shop talk was purposely avoided.

This is a picture of the first wedding in Himlerville; the wedding took place in 1925. Mary Koblass said,

This is a picture of the first wedding in Himlerville; the wedding took place in 1925. Mary Koblass said, “The affair was more formal than any that had been witnessed in Martin Co. up to that time.” Mr. Himler is standing on the right. This is the only Himlerville wedding ceremony in which Mr. Himler is pictured.

 

When the delicious feast in honor of Dr. Stepp had ended, Dr. Stepp was driven to his home at Kermit, WV, via a Model T Ford. Mary further explained that the overnight guests were shown to their upstairs bedrooms, each room with a private lavatory, and Mr. Fisher bid everyone a pleasant good night and God’s blessing. Mary’s words to summarize her memories of life at Mr. Himler’s home are: “Such was the social life in the Himler residence. I am sure that any guest that was fortunate enough to be invited there treasured the occasion for a lifetime!”

Many Martin Countians remember the story which says that Mr. Himler took the money from Himlerville and escaped with the money into the darkness of a June, 1928, night, never to be seen or heard from again. However, the story is only a story. The Martin County, Kentucky Historical and Genealogical Society wishes to dispel this myth. Facts are that Himlerville went into receivership with a Cincinnati Bank in 1925 as a result of three factors: the unexpected expense of the Himler Coal Company Railroad Bridge, the one- inch seam of slate that was found in the Himlerville coal and that soon became a nine- foot seam of slate, and the decreased demand for coal following World War I. Himlerville Coal Company filed for bankruptcy because the company could not produce and sell enough coal to keep the company financially stable. All of the Himlerville Coal Company stockholders lost money, but Mr. Himler lost the most because he owned more shares of the company than other stockholders.

The Hungarians had hopes of opening another mine at Himlerville, but Nature intervened. Himlerville almost was washed away by the raging waters of Buck Creek on June 28,1928, and Mr. Himler said that he considered the flood to be a sign from God that the prosperous Himler Coal Company days were finished. The flood’s devastation sent most of the Hungarians to work in mines in WV.

Martin Himler shown wearing his US military uniform, with front of the house. Montage by Brandon Young.

Martin Himler shown wearing his US military uniform, with front of the house. Montage by Brandon Young.

The judge at the Himlerville bankruptcy hearing declared that the bankruptcy was the “cleanest” bankruptcy that he had seen, and the $1, 250,000.00 of Himler Coal Company assets were sold for $50,000.00. When Mr. Himler left Himlerville, he went to the Mayo Clinic to seek treatment for a lesion in his mouth that was thought to be malignant. Mr. Himler had $4.00 when he arrived at Mayo Clinic from Himlerville, and he had to contact friends and relatives to ask for financial support.

Martin Himler’s work in America was far from finished when the prosperous and happy Himlerville community came to an end. Mr. Himler continued his journalism career, and he fulfilled his goal to serve America when he became Colonel Martin Himler, Office of Strategic Services (now CIA), United States of America. Mr. Himler served America and the world when he became the interrogator of Nazi war criminals in Europe and decided the fate of the criminals whom Mr. Himler referred to as “the cringing beasts before me”.

The Martin County, Kentucky Historical and Genealogical Society initiated the Himler Project in June, 2014, with the mission of restoring and preserving an Appalachian historic site important not only to Appalachian history, but to American and world history as well. The Society needs the creative ideas, the volunteer help, and the financial help of Appalachian History readers to ensure the success of the Himler Project!

The Martin County, Kentucky Historical and Genealogical Society believes that a restoration of Mr. Himler’s home is imperative to preserve the Hungarian immigrant culture of Himlerville and Appalachia, and the Society’s vision for the restored home is to maintain the home as a center for Hungarian immigrant culture and coal mining history. The restoration of Mr. Himler’s home and the preservation of the remaining Himlerville structures and the Himlerville Cemetery may lead to the designation of Mr. Himler’s home as a national landmark. The Society doesn’t want to miss the historic and economic opportunity to have a national landmark in eastern Kentucky.

The Society is grateful to Dave Tabler for sharing information about the Himler Project with all of you, and more Himler Project information will be coming when a restoration contractor has been selected and a restoration fundraising goal has been set. If you have ideas for the Himler Project or would like to volunteer to help with the Project, please contact Tom and Cathy Corbin at tomcorbin@hotmail.com.

The Himler Project needs the support of all of us living in Appalachia and of everyone who loves Appalachian history. Please visit the Save The Himler House Facebook Page, the @himlerhouse Twitter Page, and  The Himler Project website. The Himler Project is looking forward to hearing from Appalachian History readers!

Martin County, Kentucky Historical and Genealogical Society members displaying posters that were made by middle school students in Martin County. L - R: Dwayne Sweeney,  Evelynn Cassady, President of the Martin County, Kentucky Historical and Genealogical Society, and Dena James.

Martin County, Kentucky Historical and Genealogical Society members displaying posters that were made by middle school students in Martin County. L – R: Dwayne Sweeney, Evelynn Cassady, President of the Martin County, Kentucky Historical and Genealogical Society, and Dena James.

 

1 Hungarians Successfully Conduct Co-operative Mine in Kentucky, by J.R. Haworth, Coal Age, Vol. 20, No. 11, September 15, 1921, p. 413.

2 Martin County Historical and Genealogical Society. A Pictorial History of Martin County, Kentucky. Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing Company, 2001.

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