By: Nathan Blake Lynn, McCracken County Public Library
The McCracken County Public Library is thrilled to unveil the Mary Wheeler Collection, an original, private collection of scrapbooks, letters, manuscripts, theses, photographs, and awards that commemorate the life and work of American musicologist Mary Wheeler. The Mary Wheeler Collection is housed in the McCracken County Public Library’s Special Collections and provides patrons and researchers with a glimpse into the life and times of Mary Wheeler and her study of the lives and music of the roustabouts, the men and women who lived and worked along the rivers during the Riverboat Packet Era.
The collection includes more than 140 typed or handwritten songs that Wheeler transcribed from interviews with former Roustabouts along the rivers of the Jackson Purchase during the early 20th century. It also includes numerous scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, show bills, letters, pictures, awards, and invitations documenting Wheeler’s life and travels. Of particular note are the photographs and negatives of the former Roustabouts, steamboats, structures, and the Paducah riverfront taken by Wheeler and Walter Beasley. This collection gives patrons a rare and unique glimpse into the life and songs of the Roustabouts of the lower Ohio River Valley.
American musicologist Mary Guthrie Wheeler was born to Charles K. Wheeler and Mary Kirkpatrick Guthrie in Paducah, Kentucky on April 1, 1892. She raised in Paducah, but spent time away from home studying at private schools before receiving her Bachelor’s and Master’s in Music from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. In the midst of her studies, she also spent time working for the Women’s Overseas League in Toul, France during World War I and teaching at the Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, Kentucky.
Wheeler’s experience at the Hindman Settlement School would later inspire her to publish her book, Kentucky Mountain Folk Songs. While the majority of Wheeler’s notes from her studies at the Hindman Settlement School are housed at Berea College, the McCracken County Public Library’s Mary Wheeler Collection contains nearly 200 mountain songs transcribed by her during her time at the Hindman Settlement School.
During the 1930’s, while teaching at Paducah Junior College, Wheeler began to document and study the songs of the former Roustabouts who worked on the Cumberland, Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee Rivers during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After submitting her dissertation, Ohio River Folk Songs of the Packet-Boat Era, Wheeler went on to publish two books. The first, Roustabout Songs: A Collection Of Ohio River Valley Songs, was written and arranged by Mary Wheeler and William Reddick and published by Remick Music Corporation, NY in 1939. Her next book, Steamboatin’ Days: Folk Songs of the River Packet Era, was published by Louisiana State University Press in December of 1944. She became acquainted with Fredrick Way Jr., Sarah Gertrude Knott, Alan Lomax, Conrad Talbout, and many other notable Americans. Mary Wheeler passed away on July 26, 1979 and is buried in the family plot in Oak Grove Cemetery in Paducah, KY.
McCracken County Public Library | 555 Washington Street | Paducah, KY 42003
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