Nikita Krushchev and Hillsboro High School

by Kenneth Fieth, Metropolitan Nashville Archivist.

The typed letters stand out in stark contrast to the white paper. This is only one of the thousands of documents held by the Metro Archives: most of them are routine; many are interesting; a few are significant. At first glance, this one appears to be nothing more than a standard form sent out from the office of John Koen, principal of Hillsboro High School. However, the date gives it instant significance: October 26, 1962.

In October 1962 the United States and the Soviet Union – the two great powers that had risen from the wreckage of World War II – stood nose to nose, ready to unleash the forces of the third, and arguably final, world war.

Nashville knew little of the events spiraling out of control in the White House and the Kremlin. Here life went on as usual: fifty cents would buy a ticket to see the latest James Bond movie, Dr. No, or to watch Marlon Brando’s Mutiny on the Bounty. A Westinghouse 4-speed phonograph cost $29.95, and a driver could fill the tank of his new $2,500 automobile with gasoline that cost 31 cents a gallon.

School children taking part in a duck-and-cover drill to practice what they should do in case of an nuclear attack.

From all indications, there were few preparations being made in Middle Tennessee for potential catastrophe. Nashville was not the primary target that Oak Ridge, Ft. Campbell, or Memphis would be, but the fallout from an attack on Fort Campbell would be picked up by the prevailing easterly winds. Nashville would be permeated by a mortality that could not be seen, heard, or tasted. Surprisingly, though, other papers in the Archives from the same period – those of Nashville Mayor Ben West, County Judge Beverly Briley, and other city and county officials – give no indication that anything was amiss. The major political concern of the moment seemed to be the conflict over a proposed consolidation of city and county administrations into a single metropolitan government.

But public and private change occurs in subtle ways. During the renovation of the Metro courthouse, many artifacts and records were transferred to the Metro Archives. Among those was a faded yellow sign, installed in the mid-1960s, proclaiming that this particular courthouse hallway was a fallout shelter that would hold 103 persons.

Paul Clements, a local historian and writer, remembers his father filling the car with gas every night that November. The senior Clements kept food and water in the car and developed an escape plan in the event of the unthinkable.

Former Nashville Mayor Richard Fulton also recalls those days in 1962. Newly elected to Congress, he had gone to Washington, D.C., to meet with Bobby Kennedy, Attorney General of the United States. The meeting ended abruptly when Kennedy received an urgent summons to the White House. Because it was raining, Fulton rode with the Attorney General to the White House, after which the driver delivered him to his own destination. The White House meeting, Fulton learned later, was a discussion of the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba.

President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert in conference. (public domain)

Thus, the apparently routine form sent out by Principal John Koen was not a mere formality after all, as it asked parents to indicate what they wanted their children to do in the event of “a real emergency created by any type of attack.” This particular parent’s response specifies that the child should start walking home.

The Metro Archives is a treasure house full of these seemingly unrelated snippets in time – a faded yellow sign, a boy’s memory of his father’s anxiety, a freshman Congressman’s brush with world power, a simple typed form with a child’s name on it. Put together, these examples form a picture of a time when the lights almost went out never to come on again.

“Washed and Dryed after Being Executed”: Historical Humor from the Metro Archives

by Ken Fieth, Metropolitan Nashville Archivist.

Working in an Archives is akin to teaching school: over the years you accumulate favorites. The Archives staff has discovered records displaying both deliberate and unintended humor. Several of the items presented here have proven to be the favorites of many a staff member and visitor.

Some of our earliest records are tavern licenses. These were issued to individuals who had been granted permission to run a tavern or “Ordinary” in Davidson County. Apparently, many such licenses were granted since a form was created and printed for use.

The 1780s language is quite specific as to the business requirements for the budding entrepreneur. In order to run an establishment in Nashville, one must “. . . conftantly find and provide in his or her faid Ordinary good wholefome, and cleanly lodging and diet for travellers . . . nor on the Sabbath day suffer or permit any perfon to drink any more than necessary.” [sic]

We’re still working on what, exactly, that means.

The following handwritten entry appears on the City of Nashville Arrest Blotter, December 31, 1930. “If every body that broke the law was locked up, they would be no body left to carry water. W. A. Gibbons, Lieutenant.” It must have been a long New Year’s Eve. Did the Lieutenant ever get his water?

Moving to the gentler side of things leads us to the honorable estate of marriage. The Court Clerk, William Barrow, sometimes felt duty-bound to inform future generations about his opinion of the happy couple before him. Many marriage licenses bear his often-caustic opinions.

Clerk Barrow wrote on an 1825 license: “. . . solemnized the rights of matrimony between the within parties, the groom’s first wife had been dead for at least five weeks.” Another gives a glimpse through the window of time onto Nashville’s energetic if not entirely wholesome 1820s waterfront district: “I married the within named person and his wife at the upper ferry at Nashville—no person present but a drunk stonemason whose name I do not know.”

A witness is a witness, inebriated or not.

It has been said that a last will and testament is just that. Human nature being what it is, these can make for fascinating reading. Take, for instance, the great aunt from Memphis who was concerned about the wisdom of her nephew’s choices. Her 1920 will granted him a generous portion of her estate provided “he marries no one from Jackson, Tennessee.” It was a large estate – did the prospective bride ever move to Memphis?

It is mostly ordinary people who make up the history of our city, and ordinary people haven’t really changed much in the last 216 years. History can be as dull or as lively as you wish; it just takes a little looking to find the lighter side.

By the way, the title was taken from a (literally) mangled 1830 marriage license. Leaving things in the pockets of clothes to be washed is not a new problem! But we never know what might provide a bit of amusement for later generations.