These letters (with exception of the 1903-04 letters found in the appendix) were exchanged between Richard Alexander Urquhart (1889-1947) of Woodville (in Bertie County), North Carolina and Kate Nelson Fenner (1890-1956) of Halifax, North Carolina, both small towns on the Roanoke River. When the letters begin, she is 22 and he is 23; he has recently returned from the University of North Carolina (at Chapel Hill) to live with his mother, siblings, and first cousins at the home place (the Thompson-Urquhart house). The increasing frequency of the letters, their primary form of communication over their courtship preceding their June 2, 1915 marriage, reflects their growing devotion. Their days were made or broken by receipt or absence of their expected letters, which – because of changing railroad and postal schedules – often weren’t predictable.
These letters evince their joy and devotion to each other that would endure until their deaths as well as the problems that were to continue through their lives. Alex’s love of the good life – gambling, cards, smoking, drinking, hunting and fishing with his many friends – and Kate’s persistence in trying to "reform" him provide many comical and sad entries. He would bargain and cajole for drinks on many occasions, e.g., trading 2 days of drinking at a cousin’s wedding for a month of sobriety the next year. His pleas with her for a few drinks on their own wedding day, and her adamant refusal ("…you shall not have one single solitary drop. Hear me?") were not resolved in these letters, but he probably won.
Alex pledges sobriety numerous times, but as many times confesses to her he has "unreformed" in many of his habits, once bemoaning, "It’s miserable to be sober with drinking friends." Such remarks as "Do the best praying you can, for cigarettes look mighty good, cards look natural, and to hear the dice roll puts me up in the air; but even if I do fall off for a few days Christmas, what’s New Years but for resolutions?" reflect understanding and a writing flair far beyond most men in their early twenties. His wit emerges, too, in many comments. On hearing that some man had flirted with Kate, he writes, "I’ll beat him up … if he’s not too big."
Kate’s caring reprimands are peppered throughout the letters, too. Alex earnestly believes their love will make him "do right." "You are everything that means for good in my life and I want you and need you right now. I am just as certain that the Good Lord made you for me as I am that I am writing to you for without you my life would be as incomplete and worthless as anyone’s has ever been. Without you I have never had any inspiration to be anything or do anything but now I know I can do something for you because no man ever loved a woman any more than I love you. You are my good angel and my religion and my God and my Heaven and I can do anything you want me to do." Later he writes "I’ve now developed the habit of regrets." These prophetic words followed him with his struggles with alcohol the remainder of his life.
The letters also provide a glimpse into neighborhood life in Woodville and in Halifax in the early 20th century. There are references to the first cars in the neighborhood and various problems with cars/roads that force hours of being stranded and having to walk miles through swamps. Also mentioned are the outbreak of WW1, hunting on the Roanoke River, college football (especially UNC’s performance), shopping in Norfolk, trips to NYC, Richmond, excitement when the circus is coming to town (they all follow the band on "circus eve"), neighborhood gossip, marriages, deaths, dance lessons, acetylene (carbide) lighting at the house, smallpox outbreaks, and politics.
Very few of the letters are dated, so the order has been reconstructed as best it could be. Many letters are missing; there are references to exchanges we no longer have, unfortunately. But what remains allows us to glimpse the hearts and minds of two very interesting young people in love a hundred years ago.
There are many names, places, and expressions referenced in these letters. Some of the more frequent ones are explained in the sections below the bullets.
In 1912 when these letters begin, RAU is living at his home place with 10 family members:
Mama – Alex’s mother lived there until her death in 1936. His father had died in 1903, when he was 14.
Lou(ise) Urquhart – was Alex’s sister, married Charles B. Griffin in 1910 before these letters begin; they lived in the house until 1915 with their son "little Charles" (born 1912).
Burges Urquhart – his brother, still living at home. Unmarried at the time of these letters, he married Emily Mizell (frequently referenced in the letters) in 1920.
Mamie (Mary Norfleet) – his sister, lived at home until her death at age 31 in 1917.
Mog – Margaret, Alex’s sister who lived at home with him, was a nurse and caretaker for all family/neighbors. She figures large in these letters, seems to be the arbiter of social manners, is often found organizing events, card parties, weddings, etc. Was not married at time of these letters but later married Thomas Griffin in 1917.
John Sam Thompson – first cousin to Alex, lived at home (and shared a room) with him after his mother, Virginia Ann Griffin Thompson, died in 1905. His brothers Lewis and Billy lived there, too. John Sam later served in WWI, when gas poisoning ruined his physical/emotional health, leading to his 1940 suicide.
Billy Thompson – John Sam’s and Lewis’ brother / Alex’s first cousin who lived with the family. Often seen as a curiosity to family/friends, he married in 1924.
Lewis Thompson – Alex's first cousin (mother's nephew) and brother to John Sam and Billy, b. 1888, married Sally Lyon in March 1913. Alex’s Other Family / Relatives / Friends
Pattie – Alex’s sister, married Dr. Whitehead in 1907, lived across the road from them. Her son "Rat" (Burgess, b. 1910) is often mentioned in these letters and seems to have been a favorite of Alex.
Richard A. Urquhart (1872-1914) – Alex’s first cousin with his same name – was orphaned at age 9 in Southampton County, Virginia and came to live with the family in Woodville. They educated him there and at UNC (1888-1890), University of Virginia, and John Hopkins Medical College (1894-95); he then practiced medicine in Baltimore until his death, mentioned in an April 1914 letter.
Edgar Powell Norfleet and Joe Pugh – cousins of Alex who roomed with him at Trinity School in Chocowinity 1903/04. Edgar was from Roxobel; Joe from Woodville.
Buffet – school teacher who courted Evie Lee, one of four Mizell sisters.
Archer Johnson – married Lou Urquhart’s sister in law, Sallie Lockhart Griffin in 1904. Lived in Portsmouth. .
Zeke – Zeke Mizell, father of Lala, Emily, Evie Leigh, and Mattie. Married to Elizabeth Davis (Bettie, Bet). Lived in Woodville in the Thomas W. Thompson house, also known as Canady Hill. Letters include many references to this family. Though referred to as "Zeke" in these letters, his name was William Dorsey Mizelle, and he was often called "Doss" and "Dawsie".
"the Zekes" – the whole Mizell family.
Bet – Zeke’s wife, Elizabeth Davis.
Emily Mizell – third of the Mizell daughters, married Burges Urquhart, Alex’s brother, in 1920, but they were not courting in these letters. Sometimes called the "Beaut" in these letters.
Lala (or Lal) Mizelle –youngest of daughters, eloped with Leonard Rawls when she was 17, which caused quite a stir in Woodville
Evie Lee Mizelle – second oldest of the Mizell daughters, she courts teacher name Buffet in these letters, but keeps her options open. Later married Eugene Gaskins in 1917
Mattie Mizell – eldest Mizelle daughter, married Robert Nowell in 1907 and lived in Selma. Robert died 6 years later, and Mattie is referred to as "the Widow" after that, or sometimes, as Mrs. Nowell. Later, to Alex’s chagrin, she married his friend, Fred Dunstan, Bertie County sheriff.
Ann Elizabeth (Nowell) – Mattie’s daughter. Alex refers to her as the "cat."
Dora Bazemore Rawls - Leonard Rawls’ mother (Leonard was married to Lala Mizell).
Florence Spivey – she and Mary Grant Spivey were sisters. Florence married Dr. Frank Garriss
Tom Peele – owned an insurance company with Alex for a few years, beginning in 1914.
Tom(my) Cobb – friend of Alex who lived in Lewiston; courted "Lila," who chased him hard but couldn’t get him to marry her.
Jim Cheshire – UNC friend of Alex. Alex writes "Jim is unreformed, and this time it’s for keeps."
Lunsford Long – family friend from Garysburg, NC. Was at UNC with Alex.
Frank Winston - Judge Francis D. Winston, prominent and revered man living in Windsor Castle in Windsor.
Fenner Family Living in Halifax at Kate’s Home (the Fenner Home was across the street from the present day Methodist Cemetary)
Lillie Lee Nelson – Kate’s mother, postmistress of Halifax.
Dixie Coddington Fenner – Kate’s father, nicknamed "Dix."
"Little Sister" ("LS") – Florence Fenner, Kate’s younger sister and closest companion. There is a mention of Conrad (Howard Conrad) as a suitor late in the letters, but she doesn’t marry him until later.
Brother – also known as "Bud," was Kate’s brother, Robert Lee Fenner, who later brought much heartache to family with his wastrel living.
Family / Friends / Relatives Not Living at the Fenner House:
Sister or Big Sister – Elizabeth Fenner, Kate’s older sister, who had married Wallace Patterson and had a son, Wallace, all of whom lived in Chapel Hill at the time of the letters. The letters reference many family visits between Halifax and Chapel Hill
Will Fenner – Kate’s first cousin.
Dr. Powell – Jesse Averett Powell, married Nell Nelson.
Nell Nelson Powell – Kate’s first cousin.
Harry Shaw Fenner – Kate’s first cousin.
Aunt Clara Ferebee Fenner – Harry's mother.
Uncle Johnny Fenner – Harry's father.
Cousin John Fenner – Clara and Johnny’s son, Kate’s first cousin.
Aunt Susie – Kate’s aunt, m. Henry Ferguson (owned a drugstore in Halifax; Kate often wrote on his stationery).
Fletcher – Fletcher Gregory, friend in Halifax.
Duck – alcoholic cook for Kate’s family, many references to her and her antics throughout the letters.
cousin Ida (Nelson) in Norfolk – Kate’s first cousin.
Uncle Mac Clark – married Cora Fenner, Kate’s aunt.
Virgie – probably Virginia Summerfield Nelson, Kate’s first cousin, m. Joseph Weller.
Places / Names / Expressions
Ocra and Duckie – coon dogs.
John Urquhart – Alex’s horse.
Bobs – popular hotel / restaurant in Lewiston, often referred to as "de la Bobs." Burned in March 1914.
The office – the "old office," a dependency at the homeplace. Alex’s Thompson cousins lived there after they were orphaned. After that, was used as a gathering place for guys to drink and play cards until 1960s, when used for storage. In 1992 was renovated as rental property.
Freshet – a flood. Floods were frequent on the Roanoke River before the dam was built at Kerr Lake in the early 1950s.
Quanky Creek – a beautiful geological anomaly in a deep ravine near the Roanoke River in Halifax. Owned by the Fenner family then, but now by International Paper.
Panacea Springs – in Warren County. This hotel / resort had more than 100 rooms, and people came from miles around to "seek the cure" of the restorative mineral spring water. Others came for the hunting, fishing, excellent food, dancing, and Southern Hospitality. The hotel had its own lighting system, unusual for those days; the verandah was said to have been a half mile long, and the dining room-ball room had solid hardwood floors. There was a gallery in which the orchestra sat. A number of orchestra leaders and a vocalists are said to have received their start at Panacea, among them Jan Garber, and Sully Mason, who for years sang with Kay Kyser's band. John Phillip Sousa is said to have come to Panacea several times for hunting. Interest in Panacea waned and the Inn was sold off to several individuals who moved the inn to somewhere near Roanoke Rapids and had 15 small houses made from it. Water was still bottled / sold from Panacea until the early 1950s. Alex mentions ordering some water from them when he is ill.
Pavlova – Anna Pavlova was a famous Russian ballerina in the early 1900s. Whist – a popular card game dating to the eighteenth century, forerunner of bridge.
Jonah day – common expression then, meaning "bad luck day."
blind tiger – place to buy or drink moonshine.