Hail February, the month of roses and lace and stamps on Valentine cards; a prime time for a story of Northern Kentucky Love!
Here’s one: Bernard Wright Southgate Jr., son of Bernard Wright Southgate Sr. and Lallie Kennedy, married Virginia D. Hilton on the 17th of September in 1929.
Romantic, I suppose, if a bit dry. One can sit at any of our computers and find that information on Ancestry.com for free, like I just did.
However, what Ancestry doesn’t have is much more interesting. Now available on geNKY, the Southgate courtship letters tell a much more relatable tale. Virginia Southgate (at the time, a Hilton) kept all the letters Bernard sent her through their extensive five-year courtship, even as they both attended school and changed residences. Even though we can only hear his half of the conversation, we have a unique look into the fancies and follies between postmarks and biographical milestones.
The first letter is dated the 11th of May, in 1924, from Buffalo, West Virginia, and in it, he writes that he was surprised to receive her letter. It is quite possible (and in fact, likely, from the way he describes her personality in his future notes) that Virginia wrote first. He does tell us she even illustrated her letters! Unfortunately, we do not possess any of those, though there are a few doodles to be seen at the bottom corner of some pages, like a Tokyo sunrise, and a black cat in a dark cellar at midnight. Bernard is modest about his artistic talents.
Virginia, or, as he refers to her, “Ginny”, starts out in her family home at 15 Calhoun St., in Cincinnati, which is now a parking lot. Most of his letters are addressed to her here, and the first six of them in the collection are postmarked from towns in West Virginia, including Buffalo and St. Albans. Up until August 1924 Bernard moves around a bit, writing once from Hamlin, once from Louisville, and thrice more from his place in Paducah. Starting in September, Bernard writes faithfully from the University of Kentucky in Lexington, mentioning that he does come to visit for holidays and dances. It is sometimes hard for them to coordinate visitation, but they seem to manage. Each written goodbye seems more painful than the last as he leaves her after holidays every year. Still, the letters find him in some very interesting places.
Each time Bernard comes from or goes back to college in 1925, he stays at Lexington’s famed Phoenix Hotel, and uses their stationary to write Virginia. The Hotel had a deeply established history as an inn and tavern. Noted for a visit by Col. Aaron Burr in 1806 (when it was still the Postlethwait Tavern), it is more famous for its revival in 1820 after a devastating fire, and named for a suggestion in the Lexington Public Advertiser, where it was hoped that “a hotel would rise from the ashes, like a Phoenix” (Brackney, 2014). It would enjoy even more notoriety as a headquarters during the Civil War, for such names as Generals William “Bull” Nelson and Braxton Bragg, and later as a party venue for the Kentucky Association Track (Brackney, 2014). By the time Bernard Southgate Jr. frequented the Phoenix, it had been rebuilt after another fire in 1879, and was being used for social gatherings, especially for business clubs and fraternities from UK. Unfortunately, it would be demolished in 1981, to make way for a World Coal Foundation building that would never be built, and the land was repurposed as Phoenix Park, which can be visited today.
Virginia does not move around as much as Bernard, but there are some address changes on her end. The first time is in April of 1925, where she takes up residence in a long-gone building on Vine Street, not far from her place on Calhoun St., and then in late May of the same year, she moves into a little house on Marburg Ave., which is still standing. Bernard asks her about her move, but the circumstances are not abundantly clear.
As time goes on, we learn more about Virginia through Bernard. On one envelope, he prints her full name, and we learn that her middle initial stands for Druzella. As she is in school when they’re writing, he shows concern for her studies, noting that she likes Chemistry a little too much, and that she also might not be all that good at French (We all have our failings). He asks her about dances at home, reassuring her of the drabness of the ones at school he was, of course, obligated to attend without her. An avid fan of football, he’s always telling her the scores and the games at UK, leading one to wonder whether she inquired or he simply volunteers this information on his own. There is an air of devotion in his words, though he concedes more than once that women sometimes confuse him. She seems, however, to reciprocate his feelings for her, as he also divulges that she sent him a sample of her perfume, a popular way, at the time, to remind him of her, and a needle and thread, which he mentions he’ll find quite useful.
We have less from 1926, 1927, and 1928, meaning either they were closer in contact and had no need for letters, or any correspondence was lost. In fact, one year, we only have one card or letter, and, of course, it was a Valentine.
There’s little we know except that Virginia changed address, a few times, from her address on Marburg Ave. to The Western College for Women, in Oxford, OH, though only one letter was received there. The rest go to Room 964 in the old YWCA building on 9th & Walnut St. It is in this period of time that we start seeing more of Bernard’s affection. One envelope says “SWAK”, or “Sealed With A Kiss”. He asks, in one letter, that she not telegraph him, but use the phone to call him, as there’s no “big kick” from being read your telegraph over the phone, and a phone call is more “intimate”. He also sends her holiday cards, but the ones of which she’s kept the most are his Valentines. Looking at these, we can see what love was like for a woman in the 1920s.
The collection draws to a close in 1929, but you won’t want to miss the flood of postcards from the West, when Bernard and friends head out to Colorado in May. He sends stunning vistas of the Garden of Gods and Rocky Mountain National Park to Ginny. Even though it would be the last trip he took with his friends before he married September of that year, he says he still wished she were there.
So, if you’re feeling sentimental this Valentine’s Day, looking back at old love letters, or making new Valentines, it’s worth it to come see the Southgate collection. It’s a five-year friendship as much as a courtship, and an organic flowering of trust and devotion. Unique, handwritten, and personal, it’s a rare collection by today’s standards, because you won’t find Ancestry data sealed with a kiss.
This blog was written by Stephanie Zach of the Local History and Genealogy Department in Covington.
Letters are courtesy of the Virginia Southgate Collection.
Ancestry.com. Ohio, County Marriages, 1774-1993 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016.
Brackney, Peter. Lost Lexington, Kentucky. The History Press, 2014.