Monday, December 15, 2014

The Cowboy and the Congressman

or, how Will Rogers riled up a small Southern town

By John B. Green III

Will Rogers
It's hard for people today to understand just how popular and influential Will Rogers was in Depression-era America.  Vaudeville and movie star, writer and humorous political commentator - his was the voice of the common man.  Always on the prowl for government waste and extravagance, in August 1933 he latched onto the cost of the new Federal building in New Bern.  Making it a subject
Congressman Charles L. Abernathy
of one of his national newspaper columns, he lambasted local resident and congressman Charles L. Abernathy who had secured the funding for the new courthouse and post office.  Although his humorous criticism of Abernathy was biting, it was his skewering of New Bern and its importance, or lack thereof, that ruffled the feathers of many a proud and loyal resident.  The resulting whirlwind of letters caused Rogers to write a second column which he may have intended as an apology but which fell considerably short of the mark.

Artist's rendering, proposed U.S. Courthouse and Pst Office, New Bern, N.C.
The first column appeared August 27, 1933. 

I thought I had prowled the width and breadth of that wonderfully progressive state of North Carolina.  Their citizens have been mighty good to me in time of need.  I have sold 'em a mighty poor grade of jokes, but which they always seemed to accept either out of sheer generosity, or simply because they had nowhere else to go.  They always patronized my single hand endeavours most bountifully, and how I ever overlooked a town that would demand a mail structure costing $260, 249! Well it just shows that I evidently overlooked the metropolis of that fine old state.  This name may hit you too as rather unique as your thoughts.  Go to a roster of North Carolina citadels.  It's New Bern, N.C.  I repeat that, New Bern.

Now I can tell by my mail, there is an awful lot of people that like to write letters for no reason at all, and they seem to be in doubt as to who to write to, so I will ask anyone in that state of mental incapacity to please write to New Bern , N.C.  I hate to see a $260, 249 post office not be slightly used anyhow.  Now naturally the town (or city rather) being new to you, you won't know who to write to.  Well in that case I would write to their Congressman.  I don't know his name now, but he will become famous in a very short time, for he will no doubt have the capitol at Washington moved there.  So just write and compliment this Congressman, and if North Carolina don't properly appreciate him, Claremore Oklahoma, hereby make him an offer.  Why with him as our representative, and a town the size of Claremore, we could have gotten a million dollar P.O., a three quarter million bucks Passell post shack, a quarentine dipping vat, and a two hundred thousand smackers comfort station.

The reaction was swift and predictable.

New Bern Tribune, 29 August 1933

Sun-Journal, 29 August 1933

New Bern's newspaper editors replied with good-natured wit, declaring that the "sage of Claremore" and the "gum-chewing cowboy" was sadly misinformed as to the need of such a building in the town and then reported that numerous citizens had extended invitations to Rogers to visit New Bern.  They had also supplied Rogers with the name and address of Congressman Abernathy since Rogers seemed unable to gather this information on his own.  The best response came from New Bern alderman John F. Rhodes, Jr., whose message to Rogers was reprinted on the front page of the New Bern Tribune.

New Bern Tribune, 29 August 1933

A second and longer column by Rogers was published September 17, 1933.

Well, sir, I like to be confused about a town or place, and ask about it.  For every guy that lives within coon dog sound will send in his historical version of the place.  New Bern, N.C. (or is it just South Carolina?)  Well, I wrote a few weeks ago about 'em getting a Post Office costing $260,000.  Well, that will house an awful lot of chain letters and oil prospectuses, and I figured the boys had had something on the Democrats in Washington, and reached in and got quite a whack of loot money.  And I complimented their Congressman.  I figured that he was a man that Al Capone could use some time.  But now after cotton sacks full of mail, I find I have libeled New Bern, (either North or South Carolina).  It's an old historical town, and if I printed all these letters it would be more historical, for it's got more different kinds of early history that Greta Garbo.

There is two things you musent stir up, one is a gentle looking old Jersey Bull, and the other is a southern historian.  Now I am not belittling 'em, for I come from below that corn pone and chitlin belt myself.  But every one of us write our own history.  If it sounds better the way we want it than the way it might have been why that don't stop us any more than an amber light.  So don't send me any more historical sketches of New Bern.  All I want to know was it settled by Columbus and the Italians, Columbus and the Spaniards or Al Smith and Pocohontas.  Gov. William Tryon, who was called by my people "The wolf of Carolina," well if he mistreated the Cherokees he goes right in the dog house with Andrew Jackson with me.  One historian says he took all the money and built a palace there.  This looks like this old boy left some descendants there.  They claimed he kinder turned his lady friends loose on reluctant tax payers.

Now here is an awful nice one from the Congressman who brought home the bacon.  Charles L. Abernathy, the modern Tryon.  He don't give much history.  He brought home concrete.  He does however say it was settled by the Swiss, who brought Hill Billy yodeling to America.  Well if that fact had come out that they was responsible for this yowling over the radio, New Bern wouldent have gotten an R.F.D. box.

Now let's see what the next historian sicks onto us.  "New Bern was settled by Baron De Graftenreid."  See how history will repeat itself, "Graftenreid?"  There was a promoter who was honest enough to go under his right name.  Now here is another one.  I knew this had to come.  It's almost impossible to have a town in the south, if it's got a school teacher at all, without somebody calling "The Athens of the South."  And sure nuff they did.  Here is another thing I knew was coming, and bet you readers guessed it too.  Yep, "Washington stayed all night there."  Here is another collosal blow to it.  The first Provisional Congress assembled."  So that's the town we been looking for that started Congress.  Well, that's all we want to know.  But here is where he squares it all.  It's where Sam Houston met a Cherokee girl named Rogers,  That was my great, great, great, great Aunt.  But you all want to look this little eastern seaport of North Carolina up.  I doubt if they need a post office, but brothers it is mangy with history.  There was a lot of things took place there before the Revolution, it was the Hollywood of its day.  But don't write and tell me any more about it.  I know more about it now than anybody in North Carolina.

What Will Rogers probably didn't know was that New Bern had been struck on the previous day by the great Hurricane of 1933.  While distracted by the worst flooding and wind damage in generations, New Bernians were still able to respond to the columnist.

New Bern Tribune, 19 September 1933

Sun-Journal, 19 September 1933

They seemed to conclude that Rogers had thrown in the towel and that, with all the free publicity, it was time to declare victory.  Will Rogers never did come to New Bern but the story of how he insulted the town, the post office, and the congressman was remembered and retold for years.