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Halley's Comet Group Interview, December 8, 1985

Oregon State University

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Geralda Martin: The first speaker is Maybelle Wheeler, and in 1910 she was living in Lincoln, Nebraska, with her family. How old were you at that time, Maybelle, if I may ask?

Maybelle Wheeler: I was 8 years old.

GM: Did you have a lot of brothers and sisters?

MW: I have two sisters and one brother.

GM: Your folks lived on a...you lived on a farm?

MW: No, we lived in the city.

GM: In the city.

MW: Of Lincoln, Nebraska. The city, yes.

GM: What were people saying about Halley's Comet?

MW: Well everybody was up in the air about it, and they all talked about the world coming to an end. This was the way it was in the scriptures, they'd say and this is what was the end of the world. And I'd get all this, and, you know, and how kids are. We'd talk about it. And by then I was really shook up [laughs].

GM: How often did you see it? Only once, or did you see it several times?

1:00

MW: Oh no. I just took a peek at it. I'd go to peek out the window and look at it but I'd run back in and fast. I was real frightened, I can remember that. Mother finally put a cot in her room for me to sleep in there because I was so worried about that comet [laughs].

GM: What did the people say? They said the world was coming to an end. How did they say that the world was coming to an end, and what did your mom and dad think about this?

MW: Oh they didn't think that. They'd keep trying to comment on that it wasn't the end of the world and the world wasn't coming to an end. But I'd says, yes, but I heard so and so say that it was. And I was on that side, because it was more dramatic I think [laughs].

GM: Was it pretty when you saw it?

MW: Scary.

GM: Scary? How scary?

2:00

MW: Well, just probably enough that I would take a quick look at it and run back in [laughs]. I can remember pulling the curtain back and look out the window and seeing that comet, and you'd see it was nothing but a ball and a string. A tail.

GM: Just a ball and a tail?

MW: Yeah.

GM: Was it very large? You could see it quite clearly?

MW: Yes. Uh-huh. You could see it real clear, real plain. It wasn't real hard to see at all.

GM: How long did this go on?

MW: I have no idea, really, how long it was.

GM: How old were you at the time?

MW: Eight, I think. I was born in 1901, that's probably... [laughs].

GM: When it was over, how did you feel?

MW: I was glad it was over. I felt I was still here [laughs]. Now I don't think 3:00I'd be so scared.

GM: It's not supposed to be as bad the next, this time, anyways. It's not supposed to be as clear.

MW: Not as plain as it was then?

GM: That's correct.

MW: It was really plain the last time. There was no strand, we just could see it real easy.

GM: What did... what were the people in the town... were some of them more frightened than others?

MW: Yes. There was... I remember one family they all talked... that's where I got all this, I think. They were all frightened. And they had a little girl about the same age as I was, and she was frightened for it, and I think at that age you wanted something like that, exciting and dramatic. And I played it up I guess, because I was pretty much that way anyway.

GM: So mom put a cot in their room?

4:00

MW: Yes, so, because I was having nightmares. I would wake up screaming about that comet.

GM: Well, these stories that they were telling you must have been pretty...

MW: They were really good, then, and I think they...

GM: What kind of stories were they?

MW: Oh they just kept talking about it was the end of the world and what a terrible thing it'd be and everybody'd be gone.

GM: Did they think the comet was going to hit the earth?

MW: I can't remember them saying that. They just said that it was going to be the end of everything. These people, I didn't know too well, because they had moved in after we had been there for a long time. They moved there and I just got acquainted with this little girl, and of course I just took all that in. I 5:00can remember how frightened I was. I can remember real well looking at the window and seeing that comet.

GM: Okay. Thank you. Next we will be hearing from Bernice Brechbill and she's going to tell us a little bit about her family to start with. Okay, Bernice, tell me about your family and how old you were the first time you saw Halley's Comet.

Bernice Brechbill: Well, I lived with my family in Freeborn, Minnesota, Freeborn County, Minnesota, and I had four brothers and one sister. In fact, I had two brothers and a sister. When I was 5 years old I was the oldest. Then by the time I was 10 we had two more brothers. So you see I have four brothers.

6:00

GM: How old were you when Halley's Comet came through?

BB: Just 10 years old. That was the year that all the little kids in my family weren't even interested, but I was. I thought it was quite a sight to see the sky and this traveling... it was just like a piece of mist filled with little stars moving across the heavens. It was wonderful. And I know my parents thought it was very wonderful. They let us out each clear night to look at that glob of mist up there in the sky moving around.

GM: So nobody was frightened?

BB: Oh, no. no. I don't think so. They weren't frightened, but there were 7:00several people who were, around there, and they would... I know somebody even sold their farm because they thought they wouldn't need it, they wouldn't be living there much longer, you know. I had letters today from my home place, my hometown. And they say that the farmers are kind of scared, you know. No, because there's so much danger in the world anyway and all these funny things have happened in the sky, you know, flying saucers and all that. You know how people kind of shy away. They don't quite understand it. I don't think that, I 8:00don't think that the sky scares anybody now except these strange things. We do have funny things in the sky, like flying saucers, you know. But I don't think anybody really believes. They don't believe in things like that.

GM: In other words, your parents encouraged you to go out and look at this phenomena of Halley's Comet because it was enlightening? Is this correct?

BB: Yes. Yes. Yes, we all thought it was fine, you know. We all thought it was something unusual and interesting, but...

GM: How bright was it?

BB: But it really wasn't anything scary.

GM: How bright was it?

BB: Well, on a clearer night I could see all the stars, you know, all around, 9:00and I could tell there were the few fixtures, like the North Star. We knew where that was and some of the others like Sirius and the planets and all that. We could see them really in the sky, and I was trying to see Pluto, or the one that has circles around it...

GM: Mars?

BB: What?

GM: Mars? Saturn?

BB: Saturn I think it is. The one that has the little circles around it, and I never could see that. But I know that later on when I was, after I was married, 10:00my husband was very much interested in astronom-ity. Why do I not know the...

GM: Astronomy?

BB: What? Astronomy! And he said that the college there in Missouri had set up a little place to put their, the picture, the photographs, to make photographs of the heavens, you know.

GM: How many times did you get to see the comet when it came through the last time? Do you remember?

BB: No I can't remember. Every clear night, I think.

GM: It was more than once?

BB: It was during the summer, you know. I guess we're not going to see much of it this summer.

GM: But you got to see it lots of times, huh? A lot of times you saw it?

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BB: Oh yes. We saw it. We saw it on a clear night you could see it.

GM: Okay. Thank you very much. The next lady to speak is Verna C. Bennett and she was living in Portland, Oregon, at the time of Halley's Comet. Verna, why don't you tell me a little something about your family and what they were doing in Portland at the time of Halley's Comet? Did you have lots of brothers and sisters and such? Verna Carothers Bennett: I had but my parents died. When I was 5 my mother died and 10 when my father died. So we children were separated and each lived with relatives of the family, you see. But I was living on 8th and Couch with, well, my aunt was Mrs. Saltmeyers, but I don't know that her name 12:00would be known at all but her son that I called Uncle Roy was studying law over in across the river and he became a lawyer in Portland.

GM: What kind of stories did you hear and what kind of... what kind of stories did you hear and what was going on with the people around your neighborhood?

VCB: Well, they all stood outside to watch the comet. I doubt if anyone was on the inside of their house.

GM: Was anybody very frightened? Were lots of stories going around?

VCB: Yes, there were stories but it was awesome. But I don't think anyone talked of dangers.

GM: What'd they talk about?

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VCB: Well, most... a lot of people tried to connect it with some of the things that were told in the Bible, and I don't remember... I wasn't very big at the time so I don't remember just what connections they made. But others had... were old enough that they had seen spectacles in the sky. It was a brand new thing for me to see anything like that, except a shooting star occasionally. But I think that everyone was, they were awed. Some of them might have been just a little frightened.

GM: What did you think?

VCB: I didn't know what to think [laughs]. I was anxious to see it, and I remember when it appeared, what everyone from, there were four corners there, we 14:00were on one of these corners of the street, and everyone came out of their houses and stood around. After a while they all got to talking in the middle of the square and some thought that it was going to be a terrible thing and that it just might strike us because many people were superstitious about it. But my family weren't a superstitious family so we accepted it as one of the wonders of the world and that we had an opportunity to see it.

GM: Did you get to see a lot of it in Portland?

VCB: Oh yes. When it really, when the time came for us to view it, it was... you've seen a shooting star, I'm sure, and have you ever seen a star when you 15:00could see the long, fiery tale on it? Well, it was similar to that, only this stayed in the sky, where a shooting star is on and then off. But the comet was a thing that was right up there and was going to pass over us, it wasn't a shooting star, you see.

GM: I understand that the Earth actually went through the tail of the comet.

VCB: I heard that, yes.

GM: Did you... were you out there? Did you get to see anything when it supposedly went through the tail of the comet?

VCB: No. No. No, all I can remember that we saw was the star and this long tail that started just about a, I say, a foot, but of course that's just my measurement, my eye, from the star and it started and then as it went out it broadened so that it was quite a fiery tail, but when it came from the star just 16:00a little distance, not right at the star, it started just at the star and then it began to broaden until it was disintegrated.

GM: Was it white?

VCB: Yes, I suppose so, but our thoughts of it were that it was fiery. I don't know...white, no, it hardly... you know what a shooting star seems like. Well, this is like a whole bunch of shooting stars together, you see. Because it was quite a flare in the sky.

GM: Do you remember what people who were afraid, what they were saying about it?

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VCB: Some of them wouldn't go outdoors to look at it, and we had some neighbors who spent their time in prayer because they were afraid that the end of the world had come.

GM: How did this end of the world story start?

VCB: I don't know. I don't know.

GM: Just through the Bible, maybe?

VCB: I would have said through the Bible and I don't recall any scare items that came in the paper. But I wasn't very old at the time so I wouldn't be remembering all of it. But my family were not frightened. It was wonderful and we stood out there and saw a wonder of the world. That's the way that it affected our family.

GM: Alright. The next person to speak is Ethel Bruget, and she was living in 18:00South Dakota, a northeast corner on a farm. Ethel would you tell me a little bit about...

Ethel Bruget: In the southeast...

GM: South... okay. Tell me about it. Tell me about the farm a little bit and about... how about your family? Were there lots of parent, kids?

EB: We had moved into this home the first part of January and there were, at that time it was my grandparents and my parents and three children. I had two sisters older than I and then me. Oh I had two sisters younger than I was.

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GM: A pretty large family, huh?

EB: There's five children, and two grandparents and two parents.

GM: It means you were living with your grandparents. What did your grandparents think about Halley's Comet?

EB: I really don't remember what their remarks were but they were with us of course as we were watching this strange light across the sky.

GM: What'd you think of it?

EB: Well, I think it was a little bit scary to some of us and still being our parents didn't act overly anxious we kind of followed their way of thinking, so we weren't very alarmed but it was something that we had never seen or thought of and we heard our parents and grandparents talking about it of course and that 20:00of course kind of instilled a... I think a touch of a little scare because what is the world coming to? Nothing like this has happened before. And remarks of that kind.

GM: What'd you think was going to happen?

EB: I have no idea as I remember now. I don't remember, but I felt very secure with my parents and grandparents so I figured if they didn't act too alarmed they wouldn't, it wasn't too dangerous so...

GM: Was it exciting to see?

EB: Yes. It was very strange because anything like that moving across the heavens, we had never seen anything like that before.

GM: Tell me what you saw, that you remember you saw.

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EB: Well, as I remember it the, it seems to me one end, I believe that was the last end. I think the first end was wider and then it kind of tapered down to a smaller tail and then it sailed across the heavens.

GM: Were there lots of farms in your area where lots of people could see it? Did they have...?

EB: Yes there were. It was a farm community.

GM: Did people gather like to watch it in a group?

EB: I don't remember that. It was just my family that was at that time. You see there was a little distance between each farm and it had taken some boons to have gotten to different places because I don't think there were any cars in the 22:00area as yet, so we'd a had to either gone on foot or else had some horses and I remember our horses and we had a team of ponies and they... surrey of course, that was what people rode in.

GM: Did...let's see I was going to ask something and I then I forgot what. Did your grandparents and parents encourage you to watch?

EB: Oh, we would watch, being they were watching. That was enough encouragement for the rest of us, you know?

GM: Did you hear any strange stories about any of the other farmers? Or people?

EB: No I didn't. I don't remember anyway. I had two older sisters and I suppose 23:00I just followed...

GM: What'd they think?

EB: I just can't remember what their remarks were.

GM: Were they just as excited about it as you were?

EB: Oh yes, I think we were all equally excited, and you know this was something different than we'd ever seen and anything like that was pretty exiting in that humdrum farm community. Not too many exciting things happened.

GM: I was talking to one lady earlier and she said that somebody had actually sold their farm.

EB: I heard talk of it but I don't know of anyone do that in the area, because that was their livelihood, that was their homes and most of them had good-sized families around there. There was five children and my parents and grandparents 24:00in our family and the next door with parents and five children. They were older than my sisters and brothers. In fact, their youngest child was the same age as my oldest sister, so there was more so-called grownups in that family than in ours. But it was a talk of the area, I remember that.

GM: What kind of talk?

EB: Well, did you see the comet, you know? What do you suppose it means? And all these things. But I didn't have time I imagine to listen to the whole story.

GM: What'd they think it was going to mean?

EB: Well, some of them thought it was the beginning of the end of the world, I remember that. But that didn't alarm me very much.

GM: I found something interesting out about interviewing you ladies. I've found 25:00that of all the ladies that I have interviewed today, everyone was excited about seeing it. None of you women were afraid.

EB: No, I don't... I don't think there was fear. We followed, as I say, being that our parents, grandparents didn't seem especially afraid, naturally it didn't instill any fear in us.

GM: It appears as if the fear and the talk of the fear came from more unstable family situations.

EB: I think so too.

GM: What do you think about that?

EB: Yes, I definitely think that. Because all of our area there, there were good, stable god-fearing people. They were all church people. I think they had a 26:00more stable thinking than [...].

GM: I think this is what I've discovered, because it seems as though the more radical, if you will, men who were drinking and what have you were giving more substance to the fear stories than were the people who had, from what I said, from the women that I've talked to so far to date, their mothers and fathers were excited about it and were encouraging their children to look and see this is a great phenomena this is something you won't see, and not the fear.

EB: No. we were all outdoors. I remember that, and out in the yard [recording 27:00cuts out].

GM: Applegren. Marjorie is 97 years old and like a spring chicken. Go ahead Marjorie. Would you like to tell us where you lived and can you tell us anything about Halley's Comet? Marjorie Applegren: Well, let's see. I was living in Missouri at the time. We lived on a big farm back there, and my folks weren't so bad, but my neighbor lady's folks were. My neighbor friend, she was just a little girl then. We weren't very old at all. I think we were about maybe 11? We 28:00just had the best time. We had a really good time when we were little girls. Oh, Halley's Comet. Okay, well, she, my momma and dad they encouraged me to look at things and I was really interested in it, but my friend's parents were just terrible. They scared her to death. Do you know he even shot his prize cow because they thought that that gas was going to poison everybody and nobody would live through it? It was just terrible. They had all us kids to scared to death. My mom and dad weren't so [coughs] wonderful and such great people, they just wouldn't even... I wouldn't have... I'd a been so frightened it would've been just terrible. But it was funny [laughs]. You know? We used to, she used to 29:00come over to my house and we'd sneak outside and go look at it, because her mom and dad were so scared and they didn't want her to see anything. So she'd come stay at my house and we could watch it. It was beautiful, just beautiful.

GM: Well, Marjorie, what did it look like? Tell me what it looked like. Tell me something really exciting about it.

MA: Okay, it had the tail. The tail was so long and so bright. It just seemed to go on forever and ever and ever. They said when the earth was going to pass through it that the gasses were going to kill everybody on earth. But my mom and dad, they didn't believe them. Because my dad did some reading on it and I forget who he read about. But he wasn't afraid, and he always encouraged us kids to do anything we wanted anyway, I mean as far as well, you know, what was 30:00allowed. We were not allowed, you know, we were only allowed to do so many things. But he let us do a lot of things and watching Halley's Comet was one thing he let us do. He liked to let us watch things like that. He thought it was good for us to grow. And I liked it too.

GM: We'll take a little break here a moment or two. Marjorie, is there anything else you could tell us about Halley's Comet?

MA: Well, let's see. It seemed that it was around for a long, long time. It just lit up the sky forever. It was like almost like daylight out there, like there was little crystal sparklies out. You know those sparkles those kids hold nowadays? Well, that's about what the tail looked like only it was real long and 31:00it just lit up everything.

GM: How did the rest of your neighbors feel about it and the rest of the county?

MA: Well, they were kind of split on their feelings. Lot of the church people, the church, they got really, really scared because the preacher was even telling them that it might be the end of their-I couldn't imagine him telling the... and my momma said that it was wrong for the preacher to say that at all. It just wasn't very nice of him to do that because he scared a lot of us little kids. My mom was good. She didn't want me to be scared so she held me a lot with it. But I...it was just so long ago that it's hard for me to remember any more than that. But I know that farmer friend, my girlfriend's dad, he shot his cow. His 32:00prized cow! Because he didn't want that cow to die in that dust, in those gases.

GM: Thank you very much, Marjorie.