Letters from 1919: Westward Expansion and Finding Peace

It is such a human concept to always be looking to the future.  In nature, most species are more concerned with the present.  They are aware of their current surroundings as they attempt to stay safe from predators, find food, and procreate.  But not humans.  There seems to be something different in our nature that feeds a desire within us to worry about the future, and therefore continually take active steps to improve our current situation.

It reminds me of my favorite poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,” by Wendell Berry:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

This concept is relevant in this week’s letters, which were written in 1919.  Due to high birth rates and immigration in the 19th century, much of the east coast was developed.  The United States Government wanted to encourage westward expansion, thus spreading democracy and capitalism.  President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in 1862.  For an $18 filing fee and a promise of 5 years of residency, anyone 21 and older could claim 160 acres of public land to develop.  By 1934, 270 million acres of land had been given away by the United States.

Oklahoma was home to some of the most fertile farmland in the United States, which resulted in the Land Rush of 1889.   If you were an east coast farmer in the 1800s/early 1900s, Oklahoma was quite simply the promised land.

In this week’s letters, Lizzie Hancock, a young teacher from Round Mountain, Alabama writes to her cousin, Stella Key, regarding her father’s desire to move westward to Oklahoma:


Round Mtn, Ala

Oct. 23, 1919.

Dear Cousin Stella:

Forgive me for waiting so long to write you all.  How are you all?  I’m as mean as ever.  What are you doing these rainy days?  I’m trying to piece quilts and write.  

I’ve been at home 3 weeks and have 2 more to stay yet.  I’m going to teach in the southern part of this co.  I think I’ll like my work better as I’ll have one assistant.  I don’t like to teach all grades together.  

Papa has bought us a home at Sylvania on Sand Mtn.  We are going to move as soon as we can.  There is a good school out there, two miles from our home.  

The farm cost $5,500.  It hasn’t a very good house but there is 160 acres.  I certainly am glad he bought after so long a time, but I don’t expect to live there very long, for Papa never has liked the mtn.  I think he wants to go out west and never will be satisfied until he goes.  

I want to go to school this coming year but it seems impossible.  I want to go on and get first grade.  

What has become of cousin Cora and Willie?  Would like to see you all.  I think if I ever do get time I’ll try to come to see you all.  I don’t want to teach next summer so I can visit some.  I’m going to grandma’s this week.  Haven’t seen her since last Xmas.  That seems awful but I’ve not been up there since then.  

Uncle Lewis came Sun.  He said they were well as usual. 

Do you all have a good crop?  We will get twelve or thirteen bales of cotton and more corn than we’ll need.  We have out nearly ten bales of cotton.

I must hush and get to sewing.  Excuse such writing.  Will try to write more next time.  

Hoping this will find you all well and happy.  I am,

Your Cousin,

Lizzie Hancock.


The next letter comes from Lizzie two months later, after the family moved to their new farm:


Piedmont, Ala. Rt4,

Dec. 30, 1919.

Dear Cousin Stella:-

I rec’d your letter.  I was glad to hear from you.  

How are you all?  I have an awful cold now.  I went home and spent Xmas week.  That almost made me sick too.

They have moved.  I like our new home.  They all like except Papa.  He has been trying to sell the place every since he bought it.  I hope he will get to liking better.  He wants to go to Okla.  If he ever sells he will go too.  We can all go to school from home.  I’m going next year.  I’m teaching this year.  I like teaching better each day I teach yet I want to go to school and get first grade and later lifetime.  I don’t know that I shall always teach but I would like to get so I wouldn’t be always taking examinations but could teach anytime.  

Mamma is not well.  She has an awful cold and cough.  I hated to leave her but I had to come back to my school.  She was better than she had been.

Yes, I picked cotton about a month last fall.  I was busy teaching and sewing most of the time.  We made 16 bales that averaged 522 lbs. each.

You aught to see my Xmas presents.  I can’t tell you about all of them.  I got a nice vanity case and watch.  I was glad to get them as I needed them so bad.  

The boys are mean as ever.  They are no longer babies but are going to school. 

I would write more but I haven’t time.

Best wishes to all.


Your Cousin Lizzie.


What I find most interesting about these letters is that it seems life is going well for the Hancocks.  Their crops are more fruitful than they will actually need, Lizzie is studying and growing in her career, and they have enough to buy a new farm and nice presents for each other.  But even with all that, they still find ways in which life could be better, easier, and more enjoyable.

I know I am guilty of this too, as many of us are.  These letters were written 100 years ago, and yet humanity has not changed much.  We still are driven by our future desires, ultimately unable to experience “The Peace of Wild Things.”



Bernadine’s Happy Ending: A War Widow’s Story

This week I thought I would do something a little different.  I’m not posting a letter, but rather a LIFE magazine article from April 15, 1946 about a war widow named Bernadine Doyle.  I admittedly rolled my eyes upon reading this headline because it seemed to me that the author would be interviewing everyone BUT Bernadine regarding her situation. As I went on to read more, I was impressed with Bernadine’s candid explanation of her experience as a young widowed mother of two sons.   I wanted to share this article with some like-minded people, so I posted the first page of the article on a Facebook group for history lovers of which I’m a member (shout out to the “History Loving Murderinos”).

And then something really cool happened.

It sparked a discussion among some really smart women on the internet who tracked Bernadine down to see if she ultimately ended up with her happy ending.  A huge thanks to Kacie Brown who found both a video interview with Bernadine and her obituary, which are posted below.

First, the article:


And now, a video interview with Bernadine and Al via Getty Images:



And finally, Bernadine’s obituary:



Langfield, Bernadine Mary, 95. Bernie Langfield, was awarded her wings on January 17 at home surrounded by her loving family. Bernie is fondly remembered as Mom, Mother, Sammy, Gram, and Cinderella. Rosary will be held on Sunday, January 22 at 7:00 pm and a Mass of Christian burial will be held on Monday January 23 at 10:00 am both at Holy Family Catholic Church, 4377 Utica Street, Denver, Colorado. In lieu of flowers donations can be made to Holy Family Catholic Church 4377 Utica Street Denver, CO 80212 & Holy Family High School, 5195 W 144th Avenue, Broomfield, CO 80023 in care of Patty Gabriel. Bernie is survived by her loving sister Loretta (Secord) Domenico Rieckhoff, her children, Jim (Karen) Doyle, Bill (Bonnie) Doyle, Bob (Lynn) Langfield, Bernie (Dick) Treat, Patty (Mike) Gabriel, Jeanne (Blake) Norville, Julie (Dave) Lobato, Kris Langfield, Rick (Tess) Langfield, Scott (Lisa) Langfield, Wendy (Tom) Wessling Her Grandchildren are: Andrew, Emily, Nathan+, Jacob, and Peter Wessling; Adam, Grace, and Josh Langfield;Daniel, Michael, Justin (Megan), Zachary, Samuel+, Shannon and David Langfield; Michaela (Rob) Hill, Lynn (Ray) Medina, Stacey Heronema;Chad (Jenni) Lobato, Carly (Ryan) Schnabel; Aaron (Sandra) Pughes, Jenae (Josh) Niday; Mike (Crystal) Gabriel, Gwen (Andy Berens, Mark, Matt Gabriel; Dianne (Paul) Taylor, Kim (Dell) Taylor, Michelle (Bill) Bishard; Todd Langfield, Cari (Matt) Griffin, Danielle Langfield; Kecia (Dan) Doyle-Green, Bill (Pam) Doyle; Brion (Christina) Doyle, Kevin (Sheri) Doyle, Ami Doyle, Barry (Lauren) Doyle Great Grandchildren John Paul, Mary Katherine, Henry James, Michael Patrick+, and Charles Joseph Doyle; Jack and Morgan Doyle; Connor Doyle-Green; Taryn Doyle; Reily Langfield; Graeme and Declan Griffin; Zach (Caitlyn) Taylor, Travis, and Brenna Taylor; Kyle (Christy) Taylor, Corey, Cody, and Caleb Taylor; Anthony and Alex Bishard, Rocco and Dominic Gabriel; Drew and Gabriel Berens; Nick and Katelyn Gabriel; Neveah, Jared, Emily, Caley, Melanie, and Derek Niday; Austin and Ashlyn Lobato; Lily Schnabel; Kason and Kenzi Hill. Bernie was looking forward to the arrival of her first great-great grandchild later this year. Bernie was preceded in death by her husband Al Langfield, her husband Shelton Doyle; by her parents, Bill and Alice Secord; her sister Beverly Hart and her brothers Don, Bill and Ken Secord.


As we enter into 2019, nearly 73 years after Bernadine’s article was published in LIFE, I hope you remember that second chances and happiness are possible, even under complicated circumstances.

Happy New Year!

Unrequited Love in the 1930s

J.W. Key lived to be 101 years old.  He was born February 4, 1878 and died July 9, 1979.  His wife, Vivian Davis, died in 1932 at age 24 from a complication with her first and only pregnancy.  He did not marry again, though it seems he had several admirers after her death.

The letters today are from one of those admirers, a woman named Annie Kate.  Judging by the context of these letters, one can surmise that she wrote him more frequently than just twice, but so far I have only found these two letters from her.

This letter is stamped October 11, 1935:


Odum, Ga.


Dear Mr. Key,

Well, I have written you once before, and I doubt if you got the letter.  If you did you just wouldn’t answer.  Do you honestly never want to hear from me again?  but until I know you don’t care one thing about me I’ll keep on worrying you.  please, answer and tell me just how you feel about me.  I’m coming home some day, and then will be soon enough for you to give me up completely.  

I may not hear from you, but I’d like to.

Annie Kate.

The second letter from Annie Kate is almost three years later.  It is stamped January 8, 1938, which is strange because it reads as if it is her first letter to him.  It is written on a Seale High School letterhead, leaving me to wonder if perhaps Annie Kate was a teacher there.  She never signs a last name, so I may never be able to research who she was.  A few aspects of these letters are interesting to me.  First, she refers to him formally as “Mr. Key” in a love letter.  Second, her honesty and transparency are bold, and not representative of the stereotypical 1930’s woman.  Lastly, I have so many unanswered questions about how they met and what their relationship was like (or if there was ever a relationship at all).

Keep in mind J.W. Key was 60 years old when he received this letter in 1938:



Dear Mr. Key,

I’m sure you will be greatly sur-prised when you get this letter, but for a long, long time I have tried to get up this much nerve.  you may not even answer it, but you’ll be breaking a bigger heart than you know of.  I guess I should just tell you what I want to and not try to fill in with some-thing that will never amount to a “hill of beans”  Here goes the thing that I want you to rest assured that is quite true and right str-aight from my heart.  

Mr. Key- I want you to please be frank with me and promise to write me just how you feel.  I have known so long that I loved you and I’ve never been bold enough to come out and tell you.  Do you think you could ever love one whose whole life is wrapped up in you?  If you will I shall be most happy.  If you don’t and never want to hear from me again then I ask you to write just what to expect.  I know you must love others much better-and I ask you never to mention this letter- and if you do love others better just for get that I ever existed-But I shall always love you-

Annie Kate.

World War I Era Letter

This week I am jumping ahead twelve years to 1917 because I found a World War I era letter with some rich history that I’m excited to share.

This letter was written to J.W. Key from a friend of his, Private Seth Mitchell. If you’ve been following the site thus far, you’ll remember Cora Key and her father, J.C. Key from the two previous letters. J.W. (or Will, as he was called) was Cora’s brother and J.C.’s son. Will was also my grandmother Jane’s uncle.

This letter from Seth to Will was written October 3, 1917 from the Marine Barracks in Parris Island, South Carolina, which has been a site of Marine Corps recruit training since 1915. If you notice the letterhead, it reads “War Work Council” and then below, “Army and Navy Young Men’s Christian Association,” or the YMCA as we know it today. The YMCA has an extensive history of providing aid to the military since the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. In 1914, two years before this letter was written, the YMCA established 31 Army and Navy YMCA branches across the United States. In 1917 when this letter was written, the YMCA had just launched a tremendous initiative to provide aid to World War I soldiers. If you’re interested, you can read more about their history here.

Without further ado, the letter:

War Work Council

Army and Navy Young Men’s Christian Association

“With the Colors”

Paris I.S.C. 10/3/1917

Mr. J.W. Key

Tallapoosa, GA.,

Dear Will!-

How is everything out there? The Marine Corps is alright I suppose, it is not any worse than I thought it would be. And there is certainly a higher class of men here than I expected. In my Co, the 43, we have fine men all of them and of course we are going to try to make a record.

I do not know all of them and will not as we are in two bunk houses but the men in mine are mostly from the north & middle west though we have them from the west and some few from the south. I am the only farmer in the whole set. Most of the men here think that why they treat them so bad is that they are preparing them for the warmer country Ha! Ha! Though you will remember that most of the men never knew what manual labor was–

Have to tote oyster shells from the beach over a bridge for about 260 yards over a lagoon. The bridge is only about 3 ft wide & most of the time it is broken & only one 12 inch plank to walk on. Think of 2 or more companies on that thing at once!!

Lucky that we do not have to bring out more than 6 buckets full in two or three days which is only about 1 hrs work, of course that is not the only work [over]. I have done almost everything in the week I have been here. Though I do not work near as hard as I have done at home.

Won’t you write me sometime & let me know how things are going around home? Would be glad to hear from civilization again. You see we do not get to see anybody but a few marines–no girls whatsoever.

Your Friend


If you should write address:

Pvt J.S. Mitchell

Co 43 Marine Barracks

Paris I.S.C.

Haven’t got homesick yet and in good health but it hot!

More about Cora Key and the Georgia Academy for the Blind

In my previous post, the letter from Cora’s principal at the Georgia Academy for the Blind to her father, J.C. Key, was dated May 12, 1905.  I happened to find another letter written by Cora’s mother Edith the same exact day.

J.C. Key was my grandmother Jane’s grandfather.  He was born June 29th, 1856 and married Edith Jane Fincher February 13th, 1873.

The following is a letter to Cora from her mother, Edith:


Tallapoosa, GA.  May 12th, 1905

My Dearest Daughter,

Your sweet letter is at hand.  Was very glad to hear that you were getting along all right.  

This leaves us all quite well and trusting that you are still in very good health and high spirits for it takes this to make life a pleasure.

Cora, we are having some fine weather now-it is almost like summer-and everything is growing rapidly.  Cotton is up and will soon be ready to chop.  The first corn we planted will soon be large enough to be worked.  Your papa lacks a little, being done planting corn, so you see it is bustling times with us now.  

Well Cora, my young chickens are pretty now.  They will be about large enough to fry by the time you get home.  My hens are still doing well.  I get from 2 to 3 dozen eggs a day, and I get from 12 to 12 1/2 cents a dozen for them.  Our pig is doing all right too.  My garden is late but it is looking fine now.  We are going to have turnips and turnip salid for dinner to day.  Wish you could take dinner with us, it would be so nice.  

Had a letter from Moses and Laura the other day, which stated that they were well.  They have not been down here since they moved and said they would not get to come untill summer now.  

Oh? Yes. Cora.  We are fixing for the big singing Sunday at Tomlin.  Wish you could be with us.  

There is going to be a big show in Buchanan next Thursday.  Don’t know whether we will go or not.  

Cora, write when you are going to have your commence-ment and if you want a white dress.  

With much love, I close

Your Mama.

While reading letters to Cora, I can’t help but feel bad for her.  My grandmother told my mother that Cora was not born without vision, but had accidentally blinded herself while playing with a pair of scissors as a child.  I have yet to find a letter from Cora to her family, but I am hoping the principal who wrote home for her in the last post transcribed her own words at some point.

Below is an image of the Georgia Academy for the Blind, which was founded in 1852 and is still operating today.