Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with William Lynwood Montell, October 17, 1992

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:03 - Introduction and family history

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Partial Transcript: This is an oral history interview with William Lynwood Montell being conducted by Linda Beattie for the Kentucky Writers Oral History Project.

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about his parents and grandparents. He also recounts some of the eccentric habits of his maternal grandfather, whose family had come from England. He talks about the house built by his great grandfather and his wife.

Keywords: Family histories; Samuel Clemens; Union soldiers

Subjects: Authors; Geneology; Monroe County (Ky.)

GPS: Monroe County (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 36.713, -85.703
00:12:30 - Sense of place

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Partial Transcript: That land on which I grew up was taken up as a homestead...

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about the hereditary property - the house in which he grew up - passed on for seven generations in his family. He says that a sense of place is an emotional construct among family members. When he joined the navy in 1951, he took a camera and took pictures of the landscape around his house so that, while away in the navy, he could still look at the pictures and have a sense of his place. He says that this sense of place is shared by many people in the area.

Keywords: Attachment to houses; Hereditary property; Houses; United States Navy

Subjects: Place attachment

00:17:47 - Family relatives--Father's side / anecdotes

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Partial Transcript: Uh, I'm wondering too if aunts--you grew up with aunts and uncles and what you recall about them.

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about his father's half-brother, who was an illegitimate child, and about his father's two half-sisters. He recounts an anecdote about his great grandmother, who he once visited when 8 years old. His aunt, who was 17 years old, predicted the great death of his great grandmother based on the unnatural behavior of doves. He talks about the interpretation of natural omens. On his father's side he had heard many stories about supernatural events. He recounts another anecdote about his great grandmother's husband's death, which was predicted by a doctor.

Keywords: Family histories; Kentucky families; Supernatural stories

Subjects: Genealogy; Kentucky; Supernatural

00:28:26 - Family relatives--Mother's side

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Partial Transcript: And on my mom's side, she had, um, two sisters and a brother.

Segment Synopsis: Montell describes his mother's side of the family. He describes briefly the birth and current locations of his mother's siblings.

Keywords: Family histories; Kentucky

Subjects: Authors; Family history; Genealogy

00:31:04 - Influence of family background in career choice

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Partial Transcript: Well that's just what I was going to ask you.

Segment Synopsis: Montell describes the developments leading to his career choice. He studied history at University of Kentucky. He also took history courses at Western Kentucky University. He describes his disillusionment with the subject. He took a course in the English department that inspired him to take up folklore. He was interested in human stories within history, and studying folklore gave him a chance to focus on that. He received an endowment that allowed him to pursue folklore studies and cultural geography at Indiana University. He talks about the common ground shared by folklorists and oral historians.

Keywords: Folklore studies; Kentucky folklorists; Oral historians

Subjects: Cultural geography; Folklore; Folklorists; Historians; Indiana University; Oral history

00:39:31 - Siblings and childhood

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Partial Transcript: Uh, going back for a moment to your childhood, you've, you've referred to siblings, can you talk about them?

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about his siblings--their births and present situations. He recounts an anecdote involving his brother and sister. He and his brother, in the process of making marbles, hurt their little sister. He talks about the thrill of playing marble games. The house he grew up in did not have electricity. When the radio came into house, he regularly listened to many afternoon programs, including "Lone Ranger."

Keywords: Lone Ranger; Making flint marbles; Playing with marbles; Siblings

Subjects: Electrification; Radio programs

00:50:21 - Childhood stories--School and gun accident

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Partial Transcript: Are there other incidents in your childhood that were particularly memorable or important to you?

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about the school he attended, which was the same his mother and grandmother attended. He talks about a big oak tree under which both he and his mother had sat to eat lunch during their school time. He talks about Halloween nights during his school days. He describes an incident when another 11 year old friend of his had a loaded gun in his arm and accidentally pulled the trigger. Montell narrowly escaped being killed.

Keywords: Childhood stories; Gun accidents; Schools in Monroe County (Ky.)

Subjects: Childhood; Education; Firearms; Firearms accidents; Halloween

00:55:35 - One-room schools

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Partial Transcript: Uh, the sorts of things--back to storytelling, uh, and, and that all attribute to my sense of place...

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about his attachment to the place where he grew up. He describes the one-room schools he attended. He thinks they are the best school systems since children of various ages learn together. He recounts anecdotes where older students helped teachers and were good at teaching themselves. He thinks that a lot has changed in the education system since then, particularly in terms of the use of corporal punishment in classrooms.

Keywords: Discipline in classrooms; Educational reform; One-room schools; Punishment in classrooms

Subjects: Corporal punishment; Education; Rural schools

01:02:47 - Public education system

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Partial Transcript: And, and really I don't know when all of this changed...

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about the change in public education and student discipline after World War II. The interviewer contributes to this discussion by giving anecdotes of her own experience going to public schools in the mid-60s and being a teacher in high school. Montell talks about going to high school after graduating from the one-room school.

Keywords: One-room schools; One-room schools in Kentucky; Public education in Kentucky; World War II

Subjects: Education; Public schools; World War, 1939-1945

01:08:08 - Favorite subjects / reading

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Partial Transcript: Did a subject--a particular subject emerge as a favorite or special one for you early on?

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about his favorite subject during school. He enjoyed spelling and history. He loved reading. He recounts anecdotes of his mother and father reading to him and his brother. His parents did not go to high school, but were good readers.

Keywords: Grit newspaper; Reading habits; Reading to children

Subjects: Education; Reading

01:14:33 - Sense of place--Boundaries and identity

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Partial Transcript: What you've just been talking about in terms of liking reading and history...

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about his interest in the sense of place, particularly the ideas of a professor who inspired him. He talks about what he considers to be his home region, which is the upper Cumberland region that includes parts of Tennessee and Kentucky. He discusses the idea of place in terms of geographical boundaries. He thinks cultural affinity should be taken into account instead of political boundaries when considering a region. A county, however, is usually a good representation of a place's identity, while a state isn't.

Keywords: Counties and states; Identity of places; Places; Sense of place

Subjects: Cultural geography; Identity in social context

01:21:23 - Movement of people across counties

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Partial Transcript: So, uh, uh, I guess what all of this is leading down to, uh...

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about how a community is as significant a part of someone's identity as is family. He discusses the movement of people in and out of counties. Most people until the 1930s did not marry or move outside their counties. But after that, when people started getting vehicles and started going to high school, they started moving out a little.

Keywords: Marriages in Kentucky; Movement of people in Kentucky; Upper Cumberland region

Subjects: Monroe County (Ky.)

01:24:10 - High school

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Partial Transcript: Now you, you were one of the few I guess from your immediate community to go to high school at that time.

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about his decision to go to high school and the various schools he attended. He talks about his brother's interest in basketball and his good grades in school. He graduated from Tompkinsville High School. He talks about his favorite subject in high school, which was history, and about the teachers he remembers.

Keywords: High schools in Kentucky; Tompkinsville (Ky.)

Subjects: Monroe County (Ky.)

01:30:57 - First, second, and third marriage / move back to Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: Could you talk a little bit about your--well first of all, after high school, did you go directly to college?

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about attending college after high school and, after working in a bank for a while, joining the navy. He recounts marrying when he was 18 years old and getting a divorce a few months later. He then married Ruth Evelyn Jackson, who he had dated in high school. He talks about his two children with her and their divorce. He then married Barbara Allen, with whom he lived for 10 years before divorcing in 1991. He describes his life after moving back to Kentucky from Notre Dame, where he again started teaching at Western Kentucky University (WKU).

Keywords: Divorces; Marriages

Subjects: Folklorists; Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes; University of Notre Dame; Western Kentucky University

01:46:42 - Service in U.S. Navy

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Partial Transcript: Going back now from...

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about being in the navy, stationed first in Oklahoma and then in Puerto Rico. He describes his experience living in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Keywords: Army base in San Juan; Army service; Authors in army; Historians in army

Subjects: Military Service, Voluntary--United States; United States. Navy

01:52:13 - College

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Partial Transcript: And so, so after that, in terms of college--

Segment Synopsis: After his service in the Navy, Montell enrolled at Campbellsville College in Kentucky and studied for a year, eventually transferring to University of Kentucky and then to Western Kentucky University. Meanwhile, he also taught at Temple Hill High School. At WKU he majored in history and received a fellowship to do his Ph.D. at Indiana University.

Keywords: National Defense Fellowship; Temple Hill High School

Subjects: Campbellsville University; Indiana University; University of Kentucky; Western Kentucky University

01:56:31 - Graduate school

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Partial Transcript: And so when I got my first job then in the fall of '63...

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about his first job as an assistant professor at Campsbellville College. He goes back to talk about his graduate school professors at Indiana University, who were important people in folklore studies. He talks about his master's thesis, which was about supernatural narratives told by blacks and whites in Coe Ridge colony. He talks about his attraction to the historical legend in his studies.

Keywords: D. K. Wilgus; Folklore studies; Historical legend; Richard Mercer Dorson

Subjects: Folklore; Indiana University

02:07:43 - History and legend

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Partial Transcript: Look at a--any--at virtually any supernatural legend, let's say a ghost story--

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about the connection between history and local legends or supernatural legends. He talks about legends that could be historically true, and historical accounts that could be false. He provides an example of the historical account of Abraham Lincoln's birthplace, which is disputed by local legends. He discusses his interest in legends, including those within his family. He talks about his idea of "generational bonding."

Keywords: Abraham Lincoln; Generational bonding; Historical legend; History and legends; Supernatural stories

Subjects: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park (Ky.)

02:15:31 - Generational bonding / sense of place

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Partial Transcript: That, I believe, is why, when you asked earlier what I consider--

Segment Synopsis: The interviewer recounts a family story from her great grandfather's time related to President Ulysses S. Grant. Montell talks about his understanding of the concept of "home" and "sense of place." He talks about his will, that he recently completed, in which he mentioned where the family heirlooms came from.

Keywords: Heirlooms; Home; Sense of place; Ulysses S. Grant; Value of antiques

Subjects: Antiques; Grant, Ulysses S., 1852-1929; Heirlooms; Home

02:23:39 - Membership in professional associations

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Partial Transcript: You're well known and highly respected member of the Oral History Association...

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about his membership in various professional organizations, such as the Oral History Association and American Folklore Society. He talks about the founding of the Kentucky Oral History Commission, of which he is an advisory member. He talks about the crucial role Al Smith - a journalist - played in establishing that commission.

Keywords: Al Smith; Kentucky history; Kentucky oral history

Subjects: American Folklore Society; Kentucky Historical Society; Oral History Association

02:29:55 - Academic career

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Partial Transcript: I'd like to talk about your, your career and your publishing career...

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about his academic career. He started teaching at Campbellsville when in graduate school. He became a full professor at that college before leaving in 1969 to go to Western Kentucky University (WKU). He was also in administrative positions in both schools. He talks about the folklore program at WKU, which became a department after some years. Folklore studies was later subsumed under the Modern Languages department. He taught there until 1989, when he retired. He teaches one course per semester now at WKU. He likes to teach "Roots of Southern Culture" and "Supernatural Folklore."

Keywords: Folklore programs; Folklore studies in Kentucky; Roots of Southern Culture; Supernatural Folklore

Subjects: Campbellsville University; Folklore; Western Kentucky University

02:40:45 - Significance of oral history

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Partial Transcript: Uh, I wanted to, uh, talk about your, your being known for your use of oral history sources in the study of local history and culture.

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about why he uses oral history in understanding local history and culture. He was afraid the history his family and community knew from oral tradition would be lost if he did not take an initiative. He thinks his job is to help people articulate their stories and experiences. The interviewer talks about the significance of Montell's book "The Saga of Oral History." In his writing, Montell imagines his audience to be regular people, not academics. He talks about the appreciation people still show for his books on oral history. He recounts various anecdotes about his readers.

Keywords: Books on oral history; Don't go up Kettle Creek; Local histories; Local legends; Oral history books; Oral tradition; The Saga of Coe Ridge

Subjects: Nevins, Allan, 1890-1971; Oral history

02:52:51 - Writing and creativity

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Partial Transcript: Uh, you've published, I believe it's seven major books...

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about writing books and how he thinks it is a way to achieve immortality. His research and writing occupies most of his time. He discusses his views on creativity. For him it is the ability to draw the best out of people he interviews. Creativity is also bringing the "inner soul" out and putting it on paper. He talks about his childhood fascination with books. What compels him to write is not a desire to progress in his career but an inner creative urge.

Keywords: Academic publishing; Books on oral history; Creativity; Local legends; Oral history of Kentucky

Subjects: Folklore; Oral history

03:01:21 - Plans to write a children's book

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Partial Transcript: And you know the thing, uh, Linda that I would like to do...

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about his plans to write a children's book that uses historical legend. He talks about his desire to leave something for the younger generation that would give them a sense of history. He also plans to write a novel based on his own family legends.

Keywords: Children's books; Significance of history

Subjects: History; Novels

03:05:20 - Writing habits

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Partial Transcript: Uh, I wanted to ask you about your writing habits.

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about his writing habits and how he chooses his writing projects. He recounts how he was inspired to write a particular book on stories about murders after doing an interview about a hanging incident. He plans to write a book that has a collection of historical narratives. The interviewer talks about various story telling events, including the Corn Island Storytelling Festival.

Keywords: Corn Island Storytelling Festival; Hanging legends; Murder legends; Writing habits

Subjects: Historians; Kentucky--History

03:12:03 - Research and writing methods

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Partial Transcript: Uh, if you would I would like you to discuss from a researcher's point of view...

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about the novelty - in terms of content and method - represented by his book "The Saga of Coe Ridge." He thinks that no one had previously used the oral tradition to reconstruct an historical account. Not many people at that time were interviewing the common people. He recounts an anecdote related to an interview in the Cumberland region. He talks about his good rapport with African Americans he interviewed for the book. But he also recounts a few incidents of interviewing people in Cumberland County in which they misunderstood his goals.

Keywords: African American history; Coe Ridge (Ky.); Conducting interviews; Folklorists; Interviews; The Saga of Coe Ridge

Subjects: African American--History; Folklore; Oral history

03:23:00 - Difficulties involved in collecting oral history

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Partial Transcript: Have you had problems with, uh, people thinking that the very issues...

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about problems involved in collecting oral history. Though he had anonymized names of people and communities, many people still felt uncomfortable talking about sensitive issues, such as murder.

Keywords: Interviews; Oral history of Kentucky

Subjects: Folklore; History; Oral history

03:24:53 - State line killings

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Partial Transcript: Will you discuss your theory espoused in your book "Killings" that violence is...

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about his book "Killings" which documented murder along the state line between Kentucky and Tennessee. He doesn't think the murders have to do with a sense of place in that area, but might have to do with the aftermath of the Civil War. He talks about the high number of homicides on the state line, most of which were unreported to police. Many murder cases were resolved locally, without police. He says that oral history is illuminating in these cases because there are no formal records in many instances.

Keywords: Crime histories; Local legends; Murders in Kentucky; Murders in Kentucky-Tennessee border; Oral history of murders; Sense of place

Subjects: Civil war; Folklore; Homicide; Oral history

03:31:20 - Upcoming book

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Partial Transcript: What about the book that is coming out in '93?

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about his upcoming book about folk life in the upper Cumberland region. Apart from recounting the history of the region, one of the chapters in the book will be devoted to teen culture in the region. It will also contain chapters on social life and on women hunters.

Keywords: Folk Life in South Series; Social life in Kentucky; Teen culture in Kentucky; Upper Cumberland region; Women hunters

Subjects: Cumberland County (Ky.); Folklore; Historians; Oral history

03:36:43 - Folk Life in the South Series

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Partial Transcript: And will this come out University of Mississippi?

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about the series of which this book is a part - the Folk Life in South series. He is also the editor of this series. He talks about the different books that will come out in this series and how he is seeking someone to write about the Native American community in Alabama. He talks about his dissatisfaction with one of the manuscripts submitted for the series.

Keywords: American South; Atlanta (Ga.); Folk Life in the South; Native American tribes; Poarch Creek Indians

Subjects: Kentucky--History; Native Americans; Poarch Band of Creeks

03:41:38 - Ohio River Valley Series / book on Iroquois

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Partial Transcript: Uh, do you have other book series that you would like to do?

Segment Synopsis: Montell talks about co-editing an upcoming series called "Ohio River Valley" with the University Press of Kentucky. One of the books in the series will deal with the prehistory of the Ohio river valley. He also talks about working on an upcoming book on woodland people, particularly the Iroquois.

Keywords: American Indians; Fishing; Iroquois; Native Americans; Ohio River Valley; Prehistory; Woodland people

Subjects: Iroquois and their neighbors; Ohio River Valley; Prehistoric peoples