By Eleanor W. Cunningham - 2000
Editor's Note: This series of articles are excerpted from a book manuscript, "From Maine to Kentucky: Letters of a Maine Teacher, 1920-21." Sources are personal letters and records of Ethel V. Applebee, interviews, the Lexington Leader newspaper, 1889-1920, and several books on the history of the American Missionary Association.
The children and parents of Chandler Normal School, Lexington, Kentucky, 1920-21. All photos courtesy of the author.
The three Maine teachers at Chandler Normal School, Lexington, Kentucky, were weary with teaching through the 1921 winter and were ready for a break. Ethel Applebee, Lena Spencer, and Sara Leighton had heard much about the famous Mammoth Cave of Kentucky and decided to visit the cave during the upcoming Easter vacation. They invited Laura Carroll, one of the black teachers, to go along, and she agreed.
They boarded the Louisville & Nashville train out of Lexington on a Friday morning headed for Glasgow Junction, and then took a trolley for nine more miles to Mammoth Cave.
Ethel had picked up a little book in the school library entitled Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: An Historical Sketch, written and published by John Thompson in 1909, and decided to take it along. While on the train, Ethel entertained the other girls by reading the following excerpt:
"Wonderful Mammoth Cave. Wonderful, it surely is; grand, weird, and yet strangely fascinating. The realm of perpetual silence and everlasting night. Undoubtedly the greatest natural wonder in the Western world.
"Human intellect is unable to realize or estimate the time required by the Almighty Architect of the universe to chisel out this gigantic cavern. The brain reels when one tries to fathom some of the mysteries to be seen on every hand. Pits, domes, hills, valleys, pools, and rivers are to be found in this strange place, all shrouded in Stygian darkness.
"This, the largest of all caves, is situated in Edmonson County, about 90 miles south of Louisville, near the main line of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. It is claimed that about 152 miles of avenues have been explored, but the tourist visiting the cave only sees those parts that are most easy of access.
"Volumes could be written about this remarkable cave region of Kentucky, embracing four or five counties where hundreds of caves are situated. In the Great Salt Cave some of the rocks are worn smooth, where people have passed to and fro, wandering about in this underground world long years before the white man ever set foot on this continent.
"Human bones are occasionally unearthed in some of the caves, testifying many an unfortunate being has met his death in the early days, when the outlaw and Indian roamed through this country.
"Mammoth Cave was first discovered by the white man in the year 1809. In 1837 it was opened to the public."
On April 1, 1921, after returning from the trip, Ethel wrote her longest letter to her mother in Bucksport, Maine, describing their trip. Mrs. Mabel Applebee took it down to the editorial offices of the Bucksport Enterprise, the hometown newspaper, which published it on April 12th, as follows:
Dear Mama: Our vacation is about over and it's school again Monday morning. Guess I wrote you that we were going to Mammoth Cave for a trip. Well, we left here Friday morning and got to a place called Glasgow Junction that night at 5:30. We spent the night at a common little hotel there, then in the morning went on to the cave, a distance of nine miles, but taking 50 minutes on a little engine and one car.
When we reached the cave we found another hotel, where we left our pocketbooks and clothes and changed into a brown drilling coat and bloomers. We took old shoes to wear and also an old hat.
After that, we bought tickets for $2.10, which paid for the first trip called Route #1. A man over 60, who has been there over 30 years, was our guide. He carried a gasoline lantern, but the rest of us had a sort of torch or lantern with open blaze, one torch to a couple.
To enter the cave we went down a lot of steps till we came to a sort of hollow in the ground with a shelf-like rock over the top, from which was flowing a stream of water. When we were just at the entrance, there was an iron grating gate, which the guide unlocked for us to go in. There was such a draft that some of the lights went out, but we lighted them up again. He then locked the gate, and there we were.
Every place has its own name. For instance, a big, deep pit beside the path is named Bottomless Pit. A very narrow passage between rock walls is called Fat Man's Misery. You will see in the folder a picture of the boat ride on Echo River, 360 feet below the surface of the earth.
In another place there is quite a pool of water which is 30 feet deep. This is known as the Dead Sea. They say here are fish without eyes or even a place for an eye; a kind of catfish.
The temperature is always the same; 54 degrees, but is warm enough for walking and climbing by torchlight. We went in at nine o'clock and got out just before noon.
There is another cave nearby and two more trips that can be taken in Mammoth Cave. Lena and Laura Carroll took in the cave trip, but Sara and I decided to go to Lincoln's birthplace instead, as the cost was about the same. None of us could afford both trips.
So, we went back to Glasgow Junction and took the Saturday afternoon train to Elizabethtown and changed there for Hodgenville, which place we reached about 7:30. There was a very good little hotel there, and we had a hot bath and a good night's sleep. We then spent Sunday seeing the town and the Lincoln Memorial.
We went to church in the morning. After dinner we got a fellow with a girl and a Ford to drive us out, then back to Elizabethtown, where we joined the other girls. We all went on to Louisville and spent the night at a YWCA, arriving home about 7:30 Wednesday night. Love, Ethel.
P. S. - I was sick with my stomach all day, but got along without throwing up till I got home. Yesterday I spent in bed and ate nothing and chewed it fine. Today I got up, ate a little toast for breakfast, got dressed, and had a bath and shampoo. I ate toast for lunch with hot milk and a few strawberries without the shortcake. I've been out most all afternoon, bought a ukulele, which I hope to be able to learn something about, but it just about takes the skin off a fellow's fingers to play it.
I ate a big dinner and now feel first-rate, except for the pain in my back, caused by writing such a long letter. Well, I don't write very often, but when I do, you must admit they are long ones, at least.
Tell Mrs. Buck I got her Easter card. Better let her read this letter, for I can't write many more to equal it. Lovingly, Ethel.
It was late April. Spring was in full bloom. In six weeks school would be finished for the year. Ethel was in her room thinking of the year past and what she would be doing that summer. As she picked up her pen and dipped it in the ink bottle, a wave of nostalgia swept over her. For the first time since coming to Chandler, tears of homesickness overflowed. She lay her head on the desk and wept.
She missed her brothers and Papa, but Mama most of all. She had to admit, too, that she missed Maine with its aroma of pine trees, the lakes, and the distinctive Northern accent that people in the South ridiculed. She guessed she would always be a Maine girl; outspoken, frugal, simple, and bound by duty before pleasure. She longed so much for home that afternoon.
Those big boys, taller than she, finally learning their parts of speech and multiplication tables, had also made her proud. She had loved the challenge of teaching here, and she knew Sara and Lena as well as the Werkings, would want her to return.
Maggie and Laura also had become her good friends. They had warmly accepted these Northern girls with the strange accent. They had laughed together, borne their school's trials together, played games, popped popcorn, and pulled taffy on many a Sunday evening.
In the midst of ostracization by the white people of the South, these Negro teachers had eased the pain of discrimination. They, too, were part of the Chandler family that she loved.
As she sat at her desk that afternoon, little did Ethel know that, very shortly, events would transpire that would change her life forever.
(Series continues next month)
Eleanor W. Cunningham, 221 Hutton Street, Gaithersburg, MD 20877, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, shares this series and photos with our readers.