Special Collections to the Rescue: In a Small Way, We Do That, Too!

Cover from the first set of instructions, Ragsdale’s Original Course of Candy Manufacturing Instructions

About two months ago, while staffing the front desk at Special Collections, I took an interesting phone call. A woman called to ask if we really had copies of Ragsdale’s Original Scientific Course of Candy Manufacturing Instructions and, if we did, could she get copies. If I remember correctly, she said that she had found out that Virginia Tech was one of only two libraries that held these materials. The catalog showed that we did, indeed, have it, but since she was interested in obtaining copies, I asked if she would hold the line while I went to retrieve it. “It” turned out to be ten sets of mimeographed sheets, each with a well-designed heavy paper cover and held together by two grommets at its top. “It” also turned out to be something I’d never seen while working here (therein lies the fun, as I have often said before).

I got back to the phone and described what I had in my hands. She was overjoyed. I said that we were talking about approximately 90 scans—not a problem—but that the grommets could be a problem. It would be impossible to scan the sheets without unbinding each set of instructions. Typically, we would want to “remove the metal,” but I would have to see if the grommets could be safely removed without damaging the documents. Ten years as an archivist and I’d never removed grommets. Surprise, surprise!

“I hope you’ll see what you can do,” she said.

I saw no copyright notice, but each of the folders/volumes carried a big WARNING:

Statement from back cover of each set of instructions
Statement from back cover of each set of instructions

I was not too worried about the threat of prosecution from Mr. Ragsdale, and even though the item’s cataloging gave its pub date as 1930 (Worldcat says, “approximately 1930?”), I was more than willing to scan the entire set for our patron . . . if I got past the grommets. That was before I heard the story behind the request.

She was calling from Nebraska. It was the end of March. Her house had been completely flooded in the history-making flood that had occurred about 2 weeks before. These booklets had been in her family for a couple of generations and were cherished. More than that, they were part of her family’s story. And, they were gone. She specifically mentioned the recipe for fruit cake fudge—a great favorite.

That was more than enough for me, and I told her I would get back in touch with her when I knew more. A couple of days later, I reported that the grommets were out and the scanning had begun. I thought I had heard there was a specialty tool for removing grommets, but, in the end, a small pair of wire cutters (used primarily not to cut, but to bend the metal) and an equally small needle-nosed pliers did the trick.

Of course, as I was scanning the materials, I became more interested in their origin. First, Worldcat does report that only Virginia Tech and Rutgers have these materials. (We acquired them in 2013, not that long ago. One of our major collecting areas is the History of Food and Drink.) But what of these lessons, and what might we find out about W. Hillyer Ragsdale?

The lessons were not written for folks who wanted, occasionally, to make candy, but were for entrepreneurs or established small business folks who wanted to make and sell various kinds of confections. The cover page of the booklet titled, Beginner’s Work Sheets and Special Supplement . . . declares:

Statement on page one of Beginner’s Work Sheets and Special Supplement

On page 2 of the same set, under the subhead, Selling Plans, Ragsdale writes: “As you are perfectly aware, the market for candy is absolutely unlimited. Its sale is no longer confined to the corner confectionery store—but department stores, tea rooms, grocery stores, drug stores, cafeterias, office buildings, road stands, amusement parks, fairs, and hotels all sell tremendous quantities.” Ragsdale includes lots of practical advice for the business of selling confections in this folder, everything from buying attractive boxes (cheaply) for display and packaging, to staying up-to-date by reading the appropriate trade papers. As for the recipes in this lesson, they include Almond Crunch (“a delightful nut piece—very popular everywhere. Usually sells for 80¢ to $1.00 per lb. retail.”); Haystack Goodies; Maple, Mocha, Pistachio Fudge, and the curious Chop Suey Candy (“take a popcorn crispette, but add roasted peanuts and concoanut . . . more corn and cocoanut than peanuts”).

Our patron from Nebraska told me that her family had these in the 1920s, that her grandmother had passed them down to her mother. Certainly, as early as October 1923, ads appear in the Newsstand Group advertising supplement to Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness, then edited by H.L. Menken and George Jean Nathan. In fact, In his autobiography, My Life as Author and Editor, Menken writes about the introduction of this kind of advertising to his posh, literary magazine:

H.L. Menken and GEorge Jean Nathan, August 1928. Theatre Magazine Company; Ben Pinchot, Photographer

“Inasmuch as all the other members of this group [Newsstand Group] were such dubious pulps as Snappy Stories, Breezy Stories, and Young’s Magazine, Nathan and I were perturbed more than gratified, and our doubts were not allayed when we saw the advertisements that began to come in. They included everything in the shabby line save lost manhood and bust developer ads, as we had to take a pretty severe kidding from readers and friends.”

The ads in Smart Set started with a couple of pages, but by December 1922, there were 23 pages of advertisements. Look to the November 1923 set of ads, and there is W. Hillyer Ragsdale at Drawer 400, East Orange, N.J. proclaiming:

Ad for W. Hillyer Ragsdale’s Candy Making opportunities, Smart Set, November 1923

GO INTO BUSINESS FOR YOURSELF, right there between “Don’t Wear a Truss” and a bust developer ad! Menken, in the same passage quoted above goes on to write of that December 1922 supplement, “There were several ads headed “Send No Money” and half a dozen or more announcing ways to make fortunes by spare-time work at home! Ragsdale was right there.

So, by 1923, Ragsdale was running ads enticing folks to “Establish and operate a “New System Specialty Candy Factory,” using some of the same language that appears in our sets of lessons. Also by 1923, Tools and Machinery for Confectioners by W. Hillyer Ragsdale, The Candy Specialist, becomes available. Here are the first three pages, including a price list (From the Alan and Shirley Brocker Sliker Culinary Collection, Michigan State University Libraries.)

Here’s his ad from the November 1929 issue of Popular Mechanics, promising enormous profits:

Ad for W. Hillyer Ragsdale’s New System Specialty Candy Factories, Popular Mechanics, November 1929

Throughout the 1920s, Ragsdale’s business must have grown. Perhaps the 10 sets of lessons were available at once; perhaps they were developed over a few years. We do know that Ragsdale was born on a farm in Lithonia, DeKalb County, Georgia in 1876. According to census data, in 1900 he was living at home and employed as a clerk in a drugstore in nearby Kirkwood, Georgia. By 1910, he had relocated with his wife, Wilhelmina (Willie) to East Orange, N.J. where he was working as a traveling salesman possibly for a department store. The 1920 US census lists his occupation as “Proprietor,” his status as “Employer,” and the “Industry” in which he was engaged as “Jobber Confectioner Supply House.” At the very least, by 1920 the roots of his candy-making endeavors were firmly in place. A notice on the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association website dates the set of lessons as “ca. 1920s?”

Vintage Ragsdale Candy Thermometer

In David Lawrence Pierson’s History of the Oranges to 1921, Vol. 4 (Orange, NJ: Lewis Historical Publishing Co. 1922), Ragsdale is reported to have come to East Orange in 1908, where he established and built his “ large business as a manufacturer and jobber of confectioners’ supplies.” Pierson also writes that, as of 1922, Ragsdale was a director of the Lackawanna Building and Loan of East Orange. We can assume that his business was quite successful, at least through the early part of the depression. In 1930, Ragsdale is listed in the census as manager of his Confectionary Supply Company. By 1940, however, at age 63, he was employed as an investigator for the New Jersey State Beverage Tax Department. William Hillyer Ragsdale died in East Orange in 1957, but the traces of his candy-making business can still be found quite easily. It is not at all hard to find some of his equipment, for example, especially his candy thermometers, on eBay.

But the sets of instructions in candy-making for profit are the trace that continue to hold significance for our patron in Nebraska. After we’d gotten the scans to her, about three weeks after our phone call, I asked her if she would send me a bit of her family’s story in connection with these sets of instructions; also if I might retell that story in our blog. Here’s what she wrote (copied with permission):

“My grandmother passed them down to my mom. So, since the 1920’s. They were really prized. When my mom’s family was young, her father came down with tuberculosis of the liver. That knocked him out of working. My grandmother, being an excellent cook to seven children, and having a brother that owned an ice cream store in Massachusetts, set out to do the confections. They were sold through the brother’s store and during the holidays, the kids would go door to door. Then the depression happened and finding work was even more hard to do. They kept their business going. They were hard workers. They rallied around my grandfather. There were four boys. When the war broke out, they left to serve their country and of course, they were no longer involved in the candy making business.”

She also wrote this:

“We’re still under water where the farm is. It’s going to take a long time . . . but, we are hardy people and will probably just rebuild. . . . I’m going to be sharing them with Mom on Friday. I haven’t told her that I got them replaced. I know what this means to her.”

A little over a month after the flood, still under water. That made me think about a lot of different things. After considering how horrific it must be, how staggering to have such an event occur and how more common weather events of this historic proportion are becoming, I thought about how short our news cycle is. Perhaps it’s just because we are east-coasters, but we stopped hearing about midwest flood waters about a day or two after they first hit. Every big rain in April added to the disaster. Incredible.

But then, hearing about her plan to surprise her mom with the material Special Collections was able to provide, well, I was glad to have been able to help in a very small way. I’ve probably never felt so good about providing a patron with scans from our collections.

Oh yes, and she again mentioned the fruit cake fudge. If you make it, she says, you have to add some peach Schnapps to it! I’m guessing this is it:

Fruit Fudge Bar from Lesson 23, Ragsdale’s Scientific Course of Candy Manufacturing
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The Western Lunatic Asylum

Insane Asylums have been a part of horror movies and ghost stories for decades. From shows like American Horror Story to Shutter Island, there are many portrayals of what it was like to be treated for mental illness in the 1800-1900s. However, when it comes to the real story about old asylums, not all institutions were set up for jump scares.

The Western Lunatic Asylum was founded in 1825 by the Virginia State Government. It was the second mental health facility established in the Commonwealth and took patients that could not function in society but had hope of recovery. The first director of the hospital was Dr. Francis T. Stribling, who was also the first graduate of the University of Virginia Medical School. Stribling believed in humane treatment for those suffering from mental illness and applied the concept of “Moral Medicine” to his practice. Appointed in 1836, Stribling served as the director of the asylum until his death.

The Western Lunatic Asylum collection currently consists of an annual report from the asylum from 1903 and numerous letters written to Stribling between 1840 and 1868. This collection gives you an insight into what everyday life was like for the patients and family who were connected to this institution. It strips away all the haunted hallways and creaky doors and tells the stories of brothers, sisters, parents, and children whose loved ones are under Stribling’s care. It also gives you the chance to see into the mind of patients who were treated at the asylum when they write back to Stribling to discuss their condition.

Western State Hospital Annual Report 1903

The annual report (pictured above) introduces this collection perfectly. Situated in the first folder of 14, it acts as an exposition chapter, setting up the scene. While the report is from a few decades after Stribling’s death, it helps you understand how they ran an institution like this. Some of my favorite highlights of the report are the section titled Occupation, Recreation, and Amusements which talks about how they “divert the disordered minds of [their] patients again into normal channels” by alternating their schedules between jobs around the asylum and entertainment like weekly dances, concerts, and games. The statistical tables are also fascinating, detailing information about how many people were admitted, what they were admitted for, and how long it took to cure those who recovered.

As mentioned above, there are two main types of letters in the collection: The Families and The Patients.

The letters from families range from those appealing to the doctor to admit a new patient to those asking about the status of current patients (Above). Many of those with family members in the asylum also mention sending money or clothes. Letters from former patients are primarily written to Stribling to update him on their status after being released from the hospital. Some are thriving and thankful, but most seem to write the doctor when they are experiencing symptoms of relapse like the one pictured below.

There are also a few business letters like the one below that informs Stribling of a woman that had “been examined according to laws & found to be a fit subject for the Lunatic Asylum at Staunton.”

This collection really feels like a window into the past. After months of scanning and transcribing these letters, it feels living in a way, and that isn’t just because we find new letters to add every other month causing it to continuously grow. Each time a new one comes in it’s a privilege to be able to read them and add that person’s story to the rest of the collection.

A Trip Up the Sweetwater River

Hidden History at Special Collections IV

The title of this occasional series may be something of a misnomer, as the materials discussed aren’t hidden at all but instead are readily located through existing online discovery tools.  Still, though adequately described for retrieval, these items may remain hidden to interested users who overlook them because they’re housed in such unlikely locations.

Any manuscript repository of significant size or age is bound to have its share of outliers, collections that simply don’t fit into any of the repository’s primary focus areas but somehow find their way into the repository, through one route or another. With our collection focuses here in Special Collections at Virginia Tech being well known, researchers recognize us as a go-to resource for primary and secondary sources in several subject areas, including university history , women in architecture, the history of food and drink, local and regional history, and the Civil War in Virginia. The casual user, however, may be surprised to learn that a number of our collections don’t relate to any of these things. Many of these are legacy collections, materials that were acquired before the department narrowed its scope to a few well-defined focus areas.

And that explanation brings me today to write about an item that we simply call the Wyoming Photograph Album (Ms2017-026), which had been housed within the department for a number of years before recently being made more widely accessible through the creation of an online finding aid.

Measuring 11 x 12 inches and containing 75 photos, the album documents the journey of a group of unidentified men—most likely a surveying team—through central Wyoming around the turn of the 20th century. A photo on the first page of the album, bearing the stenciled title “A Trip Up the Sweetwater River,” explains the event commemorated by the collection.

On the pages that follow, the album’s anonymous creator has pasted photos that chronicle a journey that was deemed of sufficient personal significance to be memorialized.

The album’s first few pages include photos of several public buildings and private residences in Cheyenne.  While Cheyenne isn’t on the Sweetwater River, the city was likely the departure point for the group’s journey. From Cheyenne, the group made its way north to Glendo, then westward to Casper, and eventually south to the Sweetwater, with a photographer documenting the landmarks of both the natural and built environments throughout the trip.

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Included among the photos are images of ranches, livestock, dams, rock formations, rivers, and mountains. Together with these sights, the scrapbook records the surveyors at work and hints at the hazards of early travel across the plains of Wyoming.

This photo of a broken wagon near a ditch (referred to elsewhere in several places as “Bothwell’s Ditch”) is captioned “Breakdown.”

Elsewhere, the scrapbook records the simple pleasures of camp life, as in the chow-time photo below, captioned “Camp Sweetwater.” The inclusion of a National Biscuit Company crate in this photo allows us to somewhat narrow the date of the photograph, as National Biscuit (today better known as Nabisco) was formed in 1898.

This detail from the camp photo, showing a young fellow enjoying a biscuit, allows us to place the album within a broad timeframe.

The team eventually made its way into Wyoming’s gold- and iron-mining region, and several photographs document the area’s mining enterprises and settlements.  The level of clarity in some of these images is remarkable, and the photos provide a glimpse into early development in the area.

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The scrapbook ends, as we may assume the journey also did, near the Wind River Mountains in western Wyoming. Unfortunately, the final photograph, captioned “A Remembrance of the Past” and which may have provided some clue as to the identity of the scrapbook’s creator, was removed.

At least one photograph in the album is attributed to C. C. Carlisle, and a little online digging led to information on a Charles C. Carlisle (born 1876). His biographical sketch in I. S. Bartlett’s History of Wyoming (1918) notes that Carlile, a civil engineer, worked in various capacities connected with waterworks and civil engineering during the first two decades of the 20th century. An article in the June 16, 1904 edition of the Wyoming Tribune mentions that a survey of the central part of the state being conducted by assistant state engineer Carlisle had measured the Sweetwater River at Devil’s Gate. It seems safe to conclude that this is the survey documented by the photo album. Further digging by an interested researcher might reveal whether Carlisle compiled the album.

Outlier collections sometimes contain outliers of their own. Tucked into the front of this album, consisting entirely of Wyoming scenes, is a photograph of a man on horseback at Gibson Park, Great Falls, Montana in 1899. The man is identified as Wallace Coburn.

Wallace Coburn, Gibson Park, Great Falls, 1899

Wallace David Coburn (1872-1954), a Great Falls rancher who gained national renown as a cowboy-poet through publication of his Rhymes from a Round-up Camp, later operated a movie theatre. The theatre serving as his springboard into the field of motion-picture entertainment, Coburn established his own film studio, Great West Film Company. Great West appears to have produced only one film “The Sunset Princess,” based on Coburn’s own poem, “Yellowstone Pete’s Only Daughter.” The would-be mogul later appeared in a few films produced by others, most notably the silent anti-German propaganda film, “The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin.” Why Coburn’s photo appears in this album devoted to a survey of the Sweetwater River will likely remain unknown.

The Wyoming Photograph Album would of course be of interest to anybody researching irrigation and development along the Sweetwater River, early Cheyenne architecture, and the region’s mining history. (Astute researchers could undoubtedly make some connections that I haven’t even considered.) So while this stand-alone collection may seem a misfit of sorts housed here among our collections, its potential value to interested researchers makes it worth a little extra promotion on our part. The album  can also serve as a reminder to researchers in other subject areas not to overlook far-flung resources when searching for relevant materials.

Holding the Light: April 16th Remembrance Exhibits on display April 8-18, 2019

Prayer flags were on display for a recent Day of Remembrance observance.
Prayer flags on display for a recent Day of Remembrance observance will be on display.

“Holding the Light,” is one of two exhibits that will be displayed on the second floor commons in Virginia Tech’s Newman Library as the university observes its 2019 Day of Remembrance.

The exhibit, on display Thursday, April 8 through Tuesday April 18, is a collaboration between the University Libraries and Student Engagement and Campus Life and honors those lost and injured on April 16, 2007. It features items of condolence from around the nation and world.

Among the artifacts on display will be an eight-pointed star quilt from St. Labre Indian School in Ashland, Montana, large banners signed by people in Seoul, South Korea, a work of calligraphy from Japan based on the Buddhist Heart Sutra, and a painting by students at Rappahannock County High School. The exhibit will also include items from the State University of New York Morrisville, Florida State University, Virginia Tech Graduate Arts Council, Hillel, Living Buddhism, and Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the New River Valley.

Hand made quilt from Saint Labre Academy, in the April 16, 2007, Condolence Archives
Hand made quilt from Saint Labre Academy, in the April 16, 2007, Condolence Archives

A display in the windows of Special Collections on the 1st floor of Newman Library will also reflect the “Holding the Light” theme. Most of the items on display were either left at the Drillfield memorial in the aftermath of April 16th or from vigils at other places in remembrance of the victims and in honor of the survivors.

S5L25H0202
Goggles placed at the VT Drillfield memorial site in the April 16, 2007, Condolence Archives, will be on display.

The second exhibit, “A Community of Learners, a Legacy of Achievement,” will feature photographs of each of the 32 victims and a selection of books that reflect their individual disciplines and interests.

In addition to these two exhibits, a small garden space for quiet reflection outside of Squires Student Center’s Old Dominion Ballroom will be available to the community. The garden features a large inscribed rock received from Itawamba Community College in Fulton, Mississippi, and stones from previous April 16 Perspective Gallery Exhibitions. Itawamba Community College planted a dogwood tree in honor of the victims, and this garden also includes a dogwood tree.

A small garden space outside of Squires Student Center. Photo by Robin Boucher
The Remembrance garden space outside of Squires Student Center is always open for quiet reflection. Photo by Robin Boucher.

For more information on the 2019 Day of Remembrance, please visit the We Remember website.

Denim Day: A Triumphant Return

My job here at Virginia Tech is Community Collections Archivist & Inclusion and Diversity Coordinator for the University Libraries. I forgive you if you got lost in all that. Essentially, the part of my job that is archival in nature is to engage with traditionally marginalized communities around their histories. I help them preserve and make available documentary evidence of their existence so that history will better reflect the full human experience. This post is about a project that fell squarely within that scope – and helped me really see what doing this work can mean.

Nancy Kelly smiling
Nancy Kelly, “The Instigator”

About a year ago, I got a request for a meeting with Nancy Kelly, a lesbian alumna who wanted the university to acknowledge the early history of the Gay Rights Movement at Virginia Tech. At the time, I assumed this would be a fairly standard discussion with a potential donor about materials they had and whether Special Collections would be interested in adding them to our collections. I was wrong. Nancy, certainly had some wonderful documents and we talked about the donation process. But, Nancy had a vision. She wanted us to document her experience as a lesbian at Tech during the birth of the publicly visible LGBTQ+ community here. And, she wanted it done on video. And, she wanted us to document the experiences of all of her friends and fellow alumni from that same time period. And she wanted the university as a whole to celebrate the events of 40 years ago and publicly display support for the LGBTQ+ community here. This seemed an impossible dream at the time.

Having some familiarity with the events of January 1979 from the coverage in the Collegiate Times, I wasn’t about to say no. It’s a fascinating exploration of late-1970s attitudes toward gay and lesbian people. At the time, I had no idea how I would make a video oral history project a reality. I had no personal experience as an oral history interviewer. I also knew we had limited storage space and that video files are huge! Still, this was a project with potential, so I said yes. No conditions. No mentioning all the potential issues. I just said yes. Luckily, the university made Kaltura available institution-wide for video hosting about the time I needed to put the interviews online.

What happened over the next year was a mixture of serendipity and perseverance. Working with Jessica Taylor, Assistant Professor of Oral and Public History, and Luis Garay Director of the LGBTQ+ Resource Center, we held an oral history workshop in late November specifically targeted to the LGBTQ+ community and preservation of its history.

Oral History Workshop banner ad

At that workshop, I found out that Joe Forte, Shelving Supervisor with the University Libraries (and an amazing DJ for Stacks on Stacks, the University Libraries Radio Show), and Slade Lellock, PhD candidate in Sociology, were very interested in recording some interviews. I also met Adri Ridings, a student who was similarly interested in helping to document LGBTQ+ history.

From there, we began recording interviews with alumni who hadn’t engaged with the university in 40 years. It was emotional. It was cathartic. It was a labor of love for everyone involved. Nancy did the work to engage them and tell them we could be trusted. Without her, there would be no interviews because these alumni had no reason to trust someone from Virginia Tech to care about their experiences and sharing them honestly.

While I worked with the alumni to preserve their stories, Luis Garay, from the LGBTQ+ Resource Center, Latanya Walker, Director of Alumni Relations for Diversity and Inclusion, Mark Weber, from the Ex Lapide Alumni Society, students from Hokie Pride, the LGBT Faculty and Staff Caucus, and more were all working on putting together an amazing schedule of events for a 40th anniversary commemoration of Denim Day combined with Pride Week and Queer in Appalachia, an annual event celebrating what it is to be queer here in appalachia.

Pride Week 2019 calendar

Meanwhile, we were busily recording and transcribing as fast as possible to get as many interviews online as we could before Pride Week and the planned #VTDenimDayDoOver. I worked with our media folks to create a cool promo/intro video (linked below – click on the picture) for the collection.

Screenshot of a video player showing the starting shot from the Denim Day 2019 promo/intro video.

As the Denim Day events grew near and we had recorded almost all the scheduled interviews with the alumni from 40 years before, I worked with Susanna Rinehart, Chair of Theatre and Cinema in the School of Performing Arts on content for Jeans Noticeably Absent: The Story of Denim Day 1979 which combined theatre students reading newspaper articles and letters reacting to Denim Day with clips from the oral histories.

Overall, this experience has been amazing and triumphant. We gathered great oral histories and engaged the community. Nancy and her fellow alumni were celebrated by the university that had once ostracized them and called them an embarrassment. We were in the VT News, and the Roanoke Times. We were on the home page of the university – for 2 days running so far!!!! (see picture below)

Screenshot of the vt.edu homepage featuring the VT News article.

We had the main university Twitter account tweeting about us.

Screenshot of Tweet featuring a short video of the VT Denim Day Do Over event.

We had departments from across the university sending out messages of support even though they couldn’t attend our coordinated commemoration photo.

Screenshot of a tweet from the VT Department of Dairy Science.
Screenshot of a tweet from VT Rec Sports.

We also got more members of the community to sit down and record their own stories for our collection.

There’s still a ton of work to do to process the material we’ve gathered related to these efforts. There’s also a ton of work needed to engage the parts of the community not represented by the story of Denim Day: those members who aren’t white, cisgender, gay, or lesbian. Hopefully, the work we’ve done here will be a step toward showing that we care enough to do this work honestly and with respect.

To see the collection we built about Denim Day (in progress) and our broader documentation of LGBTQ+ history at Virginia Tech visit here and here.

Commemorating a Sherwood Anderson Anniversary

I’ll be honest. I’ve written about Sherwood Anderson on the blog before. Three times, to be more precise. And this makes four, but for a good reason. Among his many works, Sherwood Anderson was the author of Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of short stories first published in May 1919. Why am I being specific about the month? Because this May will be the book’s 100th anniversary and Special Collections and VT Publishing in the University Libraries are doing something to celebrate!

On May 2, 2019, we will be hosting a reception and a guest lecture by Dr. W. D. Taylor about Sherwood Anderson. In addition to commemorating Anderson, the event will celebrate VT Publishing’s digital and analog publication of Dr. Taylor’s essay, “Requiem for a Wanderer: Sherwood Anderson’s Last Days.” During the event, select items from Special Collections relating to Anderson will also be on display.

Downloadable pdf of the flyer: Anderson_Flyer

But, of course that’s not enough Sherwood Anderson for the month! During May, Special Collections display cases in the reading room will feature an exhibit called “The Life, Letters, and Literature of Sherwood Anderson,” with a focus on Winesburg, Ohio, and contextualizing the work in Anderson’s life and time. Special Collections has editions of the book in more than eight languages! In addition, we will take the opportunity to launch a permanent digital exhibit called “Sherwood Anderson: His Life, His Letters, His Literature, and His Circle.” This digital exhibit will contain content from collections in Special Collections related to Anderson directly, as well as to his family, friends, and collaborators. It will feature highlights from collections already digitized, including the James T. Farrell Letters to Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson, 1952, 1954 (Ms2017-005) and the Sherwood Anderson Correspondence with Llewellyn Jones, 1916-1924, n.d. (Ms2015-044), as well as newly digitized collections, photographs, book covers, dust jackets, and illustrations.

The calendar item for this event is online at https://calendar.lib.vt.edu/event/5228637 and more information about the forthcoming exhibits is available online at https://calendar.lib.vt.edu/event/5228708. “The Beautiful Truths of Sherwood Anderson” is an event open to all and we encourage you to join us for some refreshment and conversation! It begins at 5pm on Thursday, May 2, 2019, in the Multipurpose Room on the first floor of Newman Library. If you have questions, contact us (specref@vt.edu or 540-231-6308)!

Previous posts on Sherwood Anderson:

A Mystery Banjo and the Racism in Our Past

Recently, I’ve been working on identifying artifacts and university memorabilia in our collections, and I came across a beautiful, four-stringed tenor banjo and its case. I did not anticipate that an item so innocuous as a musical instrument would lead down a path into learning about the university’s racist past, including minstrelsy and blackface.

To start, I could find no information about the banjo’s former owner, so I investigated the banjo and case themselves for clues.  Handwritten on the banjo head is “The Collegians, VPI, Blacksburg, VA.”, and the peghead identifies it as a Bruno banjo. Handwritten on the banjo’s case are the initials, “L.A.H.”

Searching through names related to our collections, I found the Lewis A. Hall Papers, Ms1983-009, very promising given his initials and his connection to Virginia Tech. Looking thru the collection, my excitement rose almost immediately when I found a reference to the Collegians – the band the banjo is advertising – in the printed items. Then I opened the folders of photographs and found a beautiful picture of the Collegians themselves, with one man holding this very banjo! A portrait in the collection is of Hall, and it’s clear he’s the same man holding the banjo.

Interested in finding out who else is in the photo, I pulled the Collegians folder in the Historical Photographs Collection. I found a copy of the same photo, dated 1923-1924, identifying the musicians from left: Robert B. Skinner (drummer); J.B. “Yash” Cole (trombone);  Arthur Scrivenor Jr. (piano); Lewis A. Hall (banjo, manager, and director); H. Gaines Goodwin (saxophone); Bill Harmon (saxophone); and S.C. Wilson (trumpet, not pictured). This picture is also used in the 1924 Bugle yearbook.

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There were two other pictures in the folder of Hall and the Collegians, dated 1922-1923, from left: L.A. “Lukie” Hall (tenor banjo); J.B. Cole (trumbone); R.S. “Bob” Skinner (traps); W. “Bass” Perkins (clarinet, violin, leader); Tom S. Rice (piano); W.D. “Willie” Harmon (saxophone); F.R. “Piggy” Hogg (saxophone, traps, manager); and S.C. “Stanley” Wilson (trumpet, not pictured).

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After discovering the owner’s name, I wanted to know a bit more about both Hall and the Collegians. To the latter first – A dance orchestra at VPI formed in 1918 as the Southern Syncopating Saxophone Six. They were later renamed Virginia Tech Jazz Orchestra and known as the College Six. In 1922, they became the Collegians, and in 1931, they finally became the Southern Colonels. Today, the jazz band continues to perform, as part of the Corps of Cadets Regimental Band, the Highty-Tighties.

Second, Lewis Augustus Hall was born Lewis Augustus Hall in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia. He attended VPI from 1920 to 1924. In addition to playing for the Collegians (also called the Tech Orchestra), he was a member of the Norfolk Club, Cotillion Club, Tennis Squad, the American Society of Mechanical Engineering, and the Virginia Tech Minstrels (more on this below). He also served as athletic editor for The Virginia Tech, the predecessor of the Collegiate Times, assistant manager of basketball, and manager of the freshman basketball team. Finally, he rose thru the ranks of the Corps of Cadets, graduating as Lieutenant of Company F. In 1924, he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. Upon graduation, Hall joined the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, retiring as assistant vice-president in 1968. He married and with his wife Virginia had two sons. Hall maintained a connection to Virginia Tech, serving on the board of directors for the Virginia Tech Alumni Association for 15 years and earning the Alumni Distinguished Service Award in 1977. He died in 1982.

As mentioned above, Hall performed in the student club, the Virginia Tech Minstrels. I’ve heard of minstrel shows before and knew that students at Virginia Tech had held them. But this was my first time coming across them inadvertently, so it was a shock to learn that the owner of this banjo was a member of a minstrelsy.

If you aren’t aware, minstrel shows in the United States were a performance typically including skits, jokes, and music – predominantly performed by white people in blackface as a spoof, full of stereotypes and racist depictions, of Black people and their cultures. The 1924 Bugle (pp. 346-347) discusses the group and even depicts members in blackface. The Collegians are also listed as the group’s orchestra and a photo of the group includes Hall holding the banjo.

Hall’s and the Collegian’s involvement in minstrelsy shows that even an item as seemingly innocuous as a musical instrument can shed light on a part of our history that we – especially those of us in positions of privilege – do not always acknowledge. Yet, minstrel shows at Virginia Tech continued well into the 1960s, and this form of racism (and others) continues in America into the present day.

After Hollins College recently addressed controversy of blackface depictions in their yearbooks, Virginia Tech released the University Statement on Offensive Photographs to address the racist imagery in our past, and the University Libraries prepared a statement for our digital yearbook repositories to affirm our commitment to the Principles of Community and providing historical documentation to researchers.

My research about a mystery banjo took me down a path I could not imagine. I was at first excited to discover the owner’s identity, then horrified to learn about his and the instrument’s connection to racist entertainment. But in the end, the journey led me to learn more about this form of racism and how its legacy continues to impact American society. As the University statement says, “The history of our nation and the Commonwealth of Virginia has a common storyline starting with slavery and segregation, and moving toward our ultimate goal of treating everyone with respect and cherishing the strength that comes from diversity of identities and lived experiences. We, as a society, are somewhere in the middle of this process.”

For more information about blackface and minstrelsy, please read “Blackface: The Birth of an American Stereotype” from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture blog, A People’s Journey, A Nation’s Story, as well as Vox’s interview with author John Strausbaugh, “The complicated, always racist history of blackface” by Sean Illing.

(This post was edited May 22, 2019, with additional information about blackface and minstrelsy, the statements on offensive imagery in the Bugle yearbooks, and a revised title.)