Lettie Walker McKinney

This collection began with the Kentucky Oral History Commission’s effort to establish oral history programs in each of the state’s 120 counties. County libraries worked with local volunteers to collect interviews. Since 1987, county oral histories have been generated primarily by recipients of technical assistance grants from the commission that provide training and equipment to volunteer interviewers. Interviews donated by independent researchers are also included. Original collection held at Kentucky Oral History Commission/Kentucky Historical Society.  Access copies available at Lincoln County Public Library. Authorization must by granted by KHS to use or publish by any means the archival material to which the Society holds copyright.



June 13, 1978 


Ms. Fraas: The following is an unrehearsed interview with Lettie Walker McKinney by Libby Fraas, for the Kentucky Oral History Commission.  The interview was conducted at Ms. McKinney’s home on Mill Street in Stanford, Kentucky on June 13, 1978 at 5:00 p.m. 

(tape goes off and then back on) 

Ms. McKinney :….You can ask me some questions that I don’t mind commenting. 

Ms. Fraas: OK. First of all, tell me your name, where you were born and your parents. 

Ms. McKinney: My name is Lettie Walker McKinney, and I was born in Stanford, Kentucky out on Danville Street in the year…July 31, 1896, which makes me 81 years old.  I’ll soon be 82.  I think that’s a wonderful life.  If I don’t live any longer, I’ve had a wonderful, wonderful life.  I graduated from high school in 1917.  Then I went to North Carolina School for the Deaf to take the training to learn to teach the deaf.  And ah… 

Ms. Fraas: What made you decide to study…. 

Ms. McKinney: Lincoln County furnishes more teachers of the deaf than any place in the world…any place in the world.  We have teachers in nearly every…there’s a state school for the deaf in nearly every state in the United States, and we have teachers almost in every one of them.  And, my sister was a teacher of the deaf.  She and I went to Omaha together and taught there.   And, she married and stayed out there, lived out there nearly 50 years, and then, unfortunately, we lost her.  And, then her husband was brought home for service in March.  So, they are both at rest in our family lot out at the Buffalo Springs Cemetery.  And, I came on home and got interested in the Business Women’s Professional Club and different activities around Stanford.  If they need some things, I’m free, you see, so they call on people who are free and that’s…and I always tell my family, I said, if you have to pretend, always pretend you need me, because I think it’s wonderful to be needed.  So, I’ve been living here since 1961.   

Ms. Fraas: Uh huh (yes). 

Ms. McKinney: Now, I have a companion that stays with me.  She’s a lady, 33 years old, and is very patient, good girl, and she helps me cook and clean house and sometimes she goes to the grocery store, and we have season tickets for the theater over at Danville, and we go over there sometimes.  And, then, if she wants to go…now, she went home last night, just for the weekend, and we get along just fine, and she loves my puppy, which makes it nice, you know. 

Ms. Fraas: Uh huh (yes). 

Ms. McKinney: I don’t know…and I worked my way through college.  I didn’t have very much money.  And, so…let me see if that’s somebody at the door. 

(tape goes off, then back on) 

Ms. Fraas: You said this house that we are sitting in…. 

Ms. McKinney: This was blocked up over there and was moved…this was a vacant lot, and they moved it up here and my mother…they turned it around this way.  Turned it around this way…it used to be this way. 

Ms. Fraas: It used to face Main Street…. 

Ms. McKinney: Yes, ma’am. 

Ms. Fraas: And, now it’s on Mill Street. 

Ms. McKinney: On Mill Street, yes, ma’am. 

Ms. Fraas: When did they move it? 

Ms. McKinney: Oh, my mother bought it way back in about 1927 or something, ’28 or something like that. 

Ms. Fraas: Uh huh (yes); and when was it moved to here? 

Ms. McKinney: It was moved up here, and it faced the other way. 

Ms. Fraas: In 1927? 

Ms. McKinney: About, uh huh (yes), in 1927.   

Ms. Fraas: Why did they decide to move it? 

Ms. McKinney: Standard Oil bought the lot. 

Ms. Fraas: Was that one of the first service stations? 

Ms. McKinney: No, no, but they wanted a corner lot. 

Ms. Fraas: I see. 

Ms. McKinney: The big corner lot.  And, then, there were fifteen feet between us and the Standard Oil Station and we had to buy that additional.  They were going to put a hot dog stand in there.  We didn’t like that idea, so we just bought the extra fifteen feet. 

Ms. Fraas: Uh huh (yes). 

Ms. McKinney: I had one brother and one sister.  My father died or passed away when he was only 32 years old and left mother with a baby in her arms.  I wasn’t much larger, and my sister hadn’t started school.  So, we lived on a farm out in the country, but we moved into town and then we all went through high school.  My brother went down to Georgia to get special training so he could enter the Naval Academy.  He was appointed by our congressman. 

Ms. Fraas: Who was the congressman? 

Ms. McKinney: Harvey Helm; Mr. Harvey Helm.  Up here is the Harvey Helm home.  And, appointed John Reed and he was the only Admiral, as far as I know, ever from Lincoln County. 

Ms. Fraas: You were telling me a little bit about your brother’s service during World War II, was it? 

Ms. McKinney: Yes, ma’am…wait just a minute…wait just a minute.  He was a very modest gentleman. 

Ms. Fraas: You say he’s living in California now? 

Ms. McKinney: He’s living in San Diego, yes, ma’am, he and his wife.  Now, here he was decorated with the Legion of Merit.  That’s his wife, and that’s Admiral Davis, and that’s somebody else in the family there. 

Ms. Fraas: Uh huh (yes). 

Ms. McKinney: This is a favorite picture here.  There he is…there he is on duty in the Philippines, getting a haircut, out in the palms.  There he is getting decorated.  That’s Admiral Davis.  I wish I had the account of it for you.  There he is on the USS Turner.  He was the commanding officer.  There he is being decorated.  I wanted to go, but they wouldn’t let me.  They just had the family.  There he is…that’s the same picture.  There he is at his desk. 

Ms. Fraas: I see you did your own part in the war effort out in California. 

Ms. McKinney: Well, just little…I mean, working the fields.  I didn’t feel that I could give up my job, and then I was too old…almost too old to go.  There he is as commanding officer.  He’s right there, and that’s the officer…I think this is the USS Turner.  Here he is in his war outfit. 

Ms. Fraas: Uh huh (yes). 

Ms. McKinney: We look exactly alike.  We even suntan alike.  That’s true.  And, he’s so good to me.  Oh, he’s so good to me.  There’s Jimmy Roosevelt.  Jimmy was in the same group with my brother.  My brother’s name is John Reed McKinney. 

Ms. Fraas: That’s FDR’s son? 

Ms. McKinney: Uh huh (yes), uh huh (yes). 

Ms. Fraas: And, that’s a picture there with…both of them…. 

Ms. McKinney: Yes, it is. 

Ms. Fraas: And, your brother is there? 

Ms. McKinney: No, that is my brother right there, however, he says, I want you to come over and meet dad.  John Reed told him how pleased he would be. 

Ms. Fraas: When did you go to California yourself? 

Ms. McKinney: 1944, I believe it was. 

Ms. Fraas: And, that’s where you worked in the fields? 

Ms. McKinney: Yes, ma’am; that’s Jimmy Roosevelt.  There he is thanking Admiral Davis for the decoration.  I have spent my life playing golf, tennis, swimming, hiking, shooting…these are the Yosemite valley.  I wish I had an account…I don’t have it off-hand, and I don’t know where it is, what is a beautiful citation, and…. 

Ms. Fraas: You…during the war, the Japanese were…. 

Ms. McKinney: Well, as soon as the war was declared, all the Japanese in California were put behind barbed wire, and they couldn’t get out, so the crops, you see, especially the apricots and things like that, they were ripening, and they didn’t have anybody to harvest them.  So, they organized this…it was called the Women’s Land Army…that was not the exact title, I don’t believe, but I volunteered, and then on Friday afternoon, as soon as school closed, I would get my slacks and big hat…oh, it was beastly hot…oh, it was awful, they would give us a ten minute rest, and we would just fall down on the plowed ground and just fall sound to sleep, you know.  It was hard work. 

Ms. Fraas: Did you work every weekend? 

Ms. McKinney: We worked every…yes, nearly every weekend. 

Ms. Fraas: Where did you stay? 

Ms. McKinney: They let us stay in the gym of a high school, and they furnished us with army cots, and then we went out in the field and got straw and made us some mattresses.  And, they had this Swedish lady who cooked for us.  We had good food; we had awfully good food.  And, the people that were there, they were country people.  I mean, they weren’t just the scum of the streets, you know.  They were a nice class of people. 

Ms. Fraas: Just volunteers? 

Ms. McKinney: Yes, volunteer work; volunteer work. 

Ms. Fraas: Were they all women then? 

Ms. McKinney: Yes, all women, all women, uh huh (yes).  And, it was hard work.  We would take our ladders and…I wish I had another picture…I’ll go back in the other room and see…we had to lug ten foot ladders and study the tree for the best place to put our ladders so that we could pick more apricots in one section than we could in another, and each one of us was assigned to a tree, or several of us to a tree, and we could move our ladder around as we wanted to. 

Ms. Fraas: Did you…. 

Ms. McKinney: Each one of us had a number on our box, and that way, at the end of the day, they would average it up and see what we had picked, you know. 

Ms. Fraas: How… 

Ms. McKinney: And, the 4th of July, I fell out of the tree and they took me to the hospital immediately….just (smacks hands) like that, they thought I was broken all to pieces, and I thought I was too. 

Ms. Fraas: Uh huh (yes). 

Ms. McKinney: They stripped me down to the waist and this doctor says, lady I don’t know, but says, are they all as dirty as you are?  I said, no, I’m just a drop in the bucket; get me out of here. 

(both laughs) 

Ms. McKinney: So, we had fun over it.  But…. 

Ms. Fraas: Did you get paid for picking? 

Ms. McKinney: Yes, we got paid about…oh, I don’t think I ever made over a dollar a day, like that, you know; just barely enough to pay for our food, you know.  And, we carried jugs with water in them, and then we would get near the creek and we would make a pat (sic) of mud, you know, to…. 

Ms. Fraas: Keep the jug cool? 

Ms. McKinney: Keep the jug cool, and then, oh, we ate like horses.  It was nothing to drink like a quart of milk a day, you know.  We were just starved.   

Ms. Fraas: Uh huh (yes). 

Ms. McKinney: Oh, it was hard work. 

Ms. Fraas: How many apricots did you pick in a day? 

Ms. McKinney: Well, once I picked a ton…only once…. 

Ms. Fraas: Whew! 

Ms. McKinney: But, I picked a total of over ten thousand pounds; a total of over ten thousand pounds. 

Ms. Fraas: Do you have a sack or something, or do you throw them down in baskets…. 

Ms. McKinney: You have a bucket…you have a bucket.  And, you fill your bucket and then you come down and put it in that…put them in the carton.  And, then you come back up and you decide whether you should move your ladder this way or this way or whether you should leave it alone there.  And, the apricots had to be a certain size and a certain ripening.  At first, it was very baffling.  I mean, but, pretty soon, you got so that you could tell.  Then, I worked in the green bean patch.  These green beans would come way up here, you know, and they would give you a banana hamper…you know, one of those big things like that, and you’d fill that, and you’d take it to the station and empty it and then come back.  So, a Mexican was the straw boss there.  They’d bring their children there with nothing on but a dress and sit them out in a box, and the poor little things would sit there most of the day.  But, one day he came by and he said, “you work here?”  I said, “yes, sure”.  “Get going”  I said, “what’d you say?”  He said, “I said get going”.  I said, “come here, look, all these people, my friends, do you know them?  Friends, they are all my friends; you better be good to us or we’ll leave you”.  “oh, no, no, lady, no, no.” 

Ms. Fraas: (laughs) 

Ms. McKinney: From then on, we got along all right. 

Ms. Fraas: Uh huh (yes). 

Ms. McKinney: Yeah. 

Ms. Fraas: So, there were some Mexicans there working. 

Ms. McKinney: They were the straw bosses.  You’d see them following the crops, just like groups of rats, you know, they’d follow the crops, and they picked like lightening.  They could outpick us ten to one.  But, we were there for fun.  It was a wholesome group of people.  We sang and we ate together, and we had showers in the gym, you see.  We ate, like, as I say, we were starved, most of the time.  And, we had…I had on jeans, I guess, and we’d  cut ‘em, just keep on cutting ‘em, and finally they wasn’t much more than a g-string, you know, because it was so hot, we just couldn’t stand it.  

Ms. Fraas: Uh huh (yes). 

Ms. McKinney: But, I look back on it as a marvelous experience in my life.  It was just beautiful.  And, one lady was a lawyer.  Pam is a very brilliant woman.  She married a lawyer, and after a few years of married life, lost him.  I had a letter from her just about three weeks ago, wanting to know, “Mac”…they called me Mac there, and they was wanting to know when I was coming out to California.  For a while, I went every three years.  Now, it’s difficult for me to go, because of…frankly, I’m just out of the hospital.  I’ve been 49 days in the hospital, just recently.  I was there in January and most of February.  I was walking downtown on Monday, and I didn’t feel too well, and Tuesday, I decided I’d better go to the doctor, and so I went to the doctor, and he says, “Ms. Lettie, I’m going to have to put you in the hospital for a few days”.  I said, “Oh, no, you’re not, I’m going home”.  He said, “Go home and get your toothbrush”, but he said, “now, you come back up here, I’ve got to put you in the hospital for observation”.  I stayed there for 49 days.   

Ms. Fraas: Mm mmm, goodness. 

Ms. McKinney: And, my hospital bill was over five thousand dollars.  Fortunately, I had insurance; fortunately.  Now, I had to learn to walk again, and I painted the mantelpiece yesterday, with help.  And, I love to keep active…love to keep active.  I don’t cut the grass or anything like that, but I’m always hammering and nailing and sawing and mending and doing things like that. 

Ms. Fraas: Uh huh (yes). 

Ms. McKinney: But, it’s fun; it’s fun.  I went to the University of Kentucky for a year, their summer school…I got leave of absence in 1948, I believe it was…no, ’36…’36 I got a leave of absence.  And, I took courses that were prescribed for me by the State Board of Education in San Francisco, because I didn’t have a college degree and I…so, I took psychology and history of Kentucky and physical education.  I was the pitcher on the baseball team; loved it, just loved it.   

Ms. Fraas: (laughs) 

Ms. McKinney: Then I went back to San Francisco and took up my job again, it was still waiting for me, and I went to night school about three nights a week.  It took me almost six years to get my degree but I got it.  And, they said when I walked across the platform it looked like I was going on a hike. 

(both laugh) 

Ms. McKinney: So, I’ve had a lot of fun in my life.  I’ve ridden horseback, and I’ve taken shooting and hiking, and tennis and golf and outdoor…now, I can look back on that as a beautiful experience in my life and I don’t miss it, because other things compensate.  Do you understand what I mean?  There are different…your interests change. 

Ms. Fraas: Uh huh (yes). 

Ms. McKinney: And, I know just about how much I can do, and just about what to eat and then I have a doctor who periodically checks me to see that I’m doing…oh, they’ll take a blood test, or urinalysis or cardiogram or something like that, to see if my body is in tune with the things that they believe it should be.   

Ms. Fraas: Uh huh (yes). 

Ms. McKinney: So, I’m a member of the Presbyterian Church, and…. 

Ms. Fraas: You say you go down to Arkansas every year? 

Ms. McKinney: Yes, yes, I do; I go every fall.  I go either September or October and I stay about six weeks, in the same little hotel, the same people are there.  I had a letter from a friend of mine who is just past 92, she is one of the most delightful persons I think I’ve ever met, spry as a kitten, and comes to Bingo every night in Japanese pajamas.  And, there are people there that we centralize or are there almost the same time every year, so it’s just… 

Ms. Fraas: Like a family. 

Ms. McKinney: Just wonderful; just wonderful. 

Ms. Fraas: Do you think, then, that helps with your arthritis. 

Ms. McKinney: Oh, oh, definitely. Now, this lady, when she was married, she and her husband hiked from San Francisco to Oregon…I mean up to Canada, that was their honeymoon.  And, she’s lived all over the world.  Now, I have two of these.  I said, “oh, Ms. McDonald, they are just beautiful.”  She says, “I want to give them to you.”  I said, “oh, no, you mustn’t give these away”.  She was living in Trinidad and stood on the street corner and watched the craftsman make these.  They’re silver. 

Ms. Fraas: Silver bracelets? 

Ms. McKinney: Yes, two of them. 

Ms. Fraas: They’re beautiful; uh huh (yes). 

Ms. McKinney: I got a letter from her last week.  She said, “I just passed my 92nd birthday”.  So, that’s about it, I guess.  I showed you these, didn’t I…yes. 

Ms. Fraas: What about your…the dolls that are setting around in this room looking at us while we are talking.  You have some old dolls. 

Ms. McKinney: I had an aunt name Lettie, and when she was fourteen years old, she passed away.  This was Lettie’s doll.  And, when my grandmother and my aunt passed away, they lived across the street, and the only thing I asked for was Lettie’s doll.  There were four of us to divide the estate, not a large one, but the only thing I asked for…well, she was beginning to deteriorate, so I took her to Hot Springs and I went down in the park one day, the Magnolia trees, and they were having a Bazaar, and everybody had a booth and I ran into this lady, and I said, “do you have dolls”?  And, she said, “oh, do I have dolls?”  She says, “I repair them, I make them, I clothe them.”  I said, “would you let me come to see you?”  So, the next time I went to Hot Springs, I took Lettie with me.  She touched her up just a little bit…. 

Ms. Fraas: Uh huh (yes). 

Ms. McKinney: And, made her hands over just a little bit, her shoes came from Cairo, Egypt…my brother was on duty over there…no, my nephew.  I had a nephew in the Naval Academy, too. 

Ms. Fraas: How old is that doll? 

Ms. McKinney: 104; so, she said, “would you let me dress her as I think she should be?”  And, I said, “Oh yes, Ms. Penny, please do”.  Well, she dressed her like this.  And, these were from Cairo, Egypt. 

Ms. Fraas: On her feet? 

Ms. McKinney: And, her gloves. 

Ms. Fraas: From Egypt? 

Ms. McKinney: Uh huh (yes); and, she’s 104 years old, and I’ve already been offered five hundred for her, but no money could buy her. 

Ms. Fraas: What kind of doll is that?  What kind of material? 

Ms. McKinney: I call it bisque. 

Ms. Fraas: Uh huh (yes). 

Ms. McKinney: Yes, ma’am. And, the high chair belonged to my…was my brother’s when he was a little boy. 

Ms. Fraas: Where did the doll come from originally? 

Ms. McKinney: Originally, I don’t know. 

Ms. Fraas: Uh huh (yes). 

Ms. McKinney: And, this had a thing that come over…a tray, you know….



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