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Oral History Interview with Dr. Paul W. Wehr

 

I am Paul Wehr and I’m from a lot of different places. Born in Hamilton, Ohio lived in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina, and Florida and now resident here since 1969.

Dr. Paul W. Wehr

LISTEN  Part I  (16:01)

What was a typical Sunday like for you growing up?

Sunday? Oh, well, I got up and dressed, had breakfast, go to church, come home have a meal and then go out and do something. We played games or,. I was usually out of the house most of the time. Then I came home and went to bed. That was Sunday. It was not a whole lot different than any other day though in my house. A lot of times, I grew up during the Depression and so my father was home because he didn’t have any work. We were pretty much togetherness for my early years.

What did your parents do for a living?

My mother was a housewife and my father worked in a large plant. He was a supervisor of heavy paper mill machinery manufacturing. We had a garden so we had a couple of acres of land that we farmed. So we had something to eat. Not all the time, but most of the time we had something to eat. So you helped do that? As little as possible. You know how kids are. We did all right. 

I remember one particular instance during the Depression my mother said, “All we kids could have was popcorn for breakfast.” And we thought that was a great idea. And she was in the corner crying because that was the only food that we had in the house. But we liked it.

What was your neighborhood like? Did other people have farms?

Yeah, right across the canal from us, we lived on the old Miami Erie Canal (Ohio). Across the road, yes, we had the big fairgrounds, we had the last street in the community on the west side of the canal. But, oh, we had more places to play than you can imagine. We had streets, too. They came along and paved it during the Depression and we could roller skate in the street.

Where did you receive your education?

I don’t know if I received it. I think they threw it at me. But I went to parochial school for eight grades; one room school house for eight grades. Best education I ever had because I heard what the eighth graders were doing for eight years so I kind of knew by the time I got there.  And then went to public schools in my junior high. I went to high school in public school. We only had one public school in town. And they were kind enough to let me finish. I graduated they said.

Most of the churches had schools. Not all of them. The Catholic Schools, the Lutheran Schools, sometimes the Baptists had one. But they would go to usually other than the public school system was six grades in elementary then 7,8,9 was junior high. And then you transferred to another school to get to high school. 

Immanuel Lutheran

The name of your parochial school? Immanuel Lutheran. I knew it because my grandfather was the pastor. And so I always behaved, particularly at church. 

World War II

And then when I went to junior high, I guess I was in ninth grade when the war broke out. World War II. Then everything changed. Everybody wanted to grow up fast, but everybody was afraid to grow up fast because you’d be in the Army. By the time I got all done, they’d stopped the draft. And then they started again, but I was away in school then. I didn’t do anything. I worked for four years before I went to college. And I wasn’t in the dorm a week before thy called me up for a draft. But they didn’t get me. I’d suffered some injuries in football. In those days, if you couldn’t walk straight they wouldn’t take you in the service. I tried to get in. They kept throwing me out of line for the physicals and I kept getting back in line. And then the guy said, “If you do that one more time we’re going to put you on the bus and lock you in so you can’t get back in line. Because they kept saying I had bad legs. But that’s the way it is. I thought it was bad that I couldn’t, but the war was over by then.

What type of work did you do before college?

At the end of my street, it was only a block long, was a huge cemetery. It started way back in the 1820’s something like this. I didn’t plan to go to college simply because everybody I knew that went to college wore glasses. And I thought this was foolishness to go to school and have to wear glasses. I’m going to work outdoors where you don’t need glasses. So I got a job during the summers mowing grass in the cemetery. And I did such a fantastic job mowing grass that when I graduated they said, “Do you want to work full time?”  Well, it was just a block away from my house. “Sure.” Evidently, they had plans because I kept getting promoted. At the end of four years I was assistant superintendent of the place. But I did everything. I dug graves, I drove trucks. We had a farm, we plowed. I had a great time. Work wasn’t work. It was fun. But I sat at my desk one day and I said, I was talking to my secretary. I said, “I could be sitting here. I could have a beard to the floor and still be here.” And I decided, just like that I decided I wanted to go to college. And you see what happened. Disaster. (Laughter.)

When you entered college did you know that you wanted to study history?

No. It came easy to me. We used to have a system in the high school that if you averaged above 90 which was an “A” in those days, you didn’t have to take the exams. Well, there was a goal you could really relish. I didn’t work hard at it, but it came pretty easy. And in my sophomore year, the first year in high school, they changed the rule that everybody now had to take the exam. So I said phooey on the 90’s. I got down in the 70’s because I was learning just as much. I just didn’t worry so much about it. But I had a good education.

But when I went to work at the cemetery, it was a large cemetery, I used to brag about how many people we buried there every year. It was strange, but you get these things you know. But I nearly quit there once. It was right across the canal from us. The Miami Erie Canal which wasn’t working anymore. When I was there they turned it into a highway. But there was a tractor and farm place right behind us so I used to go up and they had hatcheries and I’d get the chicks. And I’d raise chickens and things and I nearly bought it. If I had bought that tractor – a beautiful thing with all the equipment – I’d have gone out and been a farmer. But I went home to get the money and before I could clear it with the bank somebody went and bought it. So I was left without a tractor and I got pretty disgusted with it all. So I had to go to college and that’s what I did.   

Where did you go to college?

A lot of places. I went to a small church school in Indiana called Huntington College, now Huntington University. Then I transferred to Manchester College, now Manchester University. And I can brag on Manchester, we have a couple graduates here on this street from Manchester. They had a high percentage of graduates of Manchester went on to become Ph.D.’s in different fields and Standard Oil picked up a lot of our chemical and physics majors. Good school, good school which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s a brethren school. But I graduated there and got my Master’s at Miami University of Ohio, Oxford Ohio. And then I received a PhD from Ball State University which is right across the state line from where I lived. and here I sit.

Dr. Wehr in his library. Photo by Shirley Cannon.

Did you see yourself becoming a historian when you were going to college?

Only when I looked in the mirror did I see myself. No, I had a foreign language and a literature major. But the amazing thing is I took more courses in history than I did in my two majors. Because I was going to use, I was working at some part time at interpreter’s table which they use to sell that manufacturers at the little town I lived in because I taught when I got out of school. But I was doing a lot of commercial work in overseas, Latin America in particular and so I was used in that way. And I had a chance to get a scholarship to Columbia, South Carolina but my wife didn’t like snakes. I told her there were snakes down there and she didn’t like the idea, so I gave that up.

Master’s in History

See, I was getting old by this time, because I was four years older than all the graduates at college, because I’d been out four years. And, I might add that was an advantage. Because once you go to college you know you don’t go because your parents are paying your way. You go there because there must be a reason and dollars are short. So I had that advantage a little bit being elderly at a four year school. And then I stayed out and I didn’t get my Master’s until four years later. I taught for four years and going to night classes and got my Master’s in history. I went to Miami of Ohio. They asked me to take a scholarship, but I was making more money in the public school than the scholarship so I said no…. So I went into history, American history.

Treaty of Fort Finney

And, of course, I lived in an area that was very historic: Arthur St. Claire, Simon Girty, Indian Country. And so, I got very much involved in that. And I did my Master’s thesis on an Indian treaty 30 miles from where I lived. Treaty of Fort Finney on the banks of the Ohio. Then later on they gave me a job going down and digging it up if I could find it. And I would spend about two to three weeks down there digging it up. But I never found it. I found a lot of other things because of the river flows and the 1937 flood. But I did see them knock down Scott Harrison’s house which was, that was the Harrison of Benjamin Harrison, William Henry Harrison. He lived there and he went to Washington from there as president for about a month, that’s where he died. The first one to do that. So I enjoy history. I find history’s fact is much stranger than fiction and it’s fun. If it isn’t fun then I don’t think I would have done it. But it was fun.

LISTEN  Part II  (17:39)

 

Coming to Orlando

It was a wilderness. There were Indians all over – no, I’m kidding you… I saw that there was going to be a new university here.

  VIEW

An aerial view of the cow pasture later developed into The University of Central Florida.

It hadn’t open yet. And so I thought this would be great. I could come down and grow up with the university. And so I came and I was interviewed in ’68 and took over, three of us in the department in ’69. I was at the first graduation down at Bob Carr. Because they only took juniors and freshmen and so the second year we had a graduating class. It was down at Bob Carr and it was crowded and it was hot…. And I’ve been here ever since. I retired in 1995. The students were getting smarter than I was. You can’t allow that.

Florida Technological University – University of Central Florida

When it first opened were most of your students engineers? It used to be FTU [Florida Technological University], and everybody thought it was that. But we had an awful lot of regular students. It was a great thing because a lot of women and men are place bound. They’re stuck and there wasn’t any – you had to either give up your job or work out a thing- I mean there wasn’t any schools to teach the courses they wanted. And so when this opened up we had a reserve of a lot of good people who really wanted to go to school and looked forward to the change of going to school and now they had it. So that was enjoyable. I mean, boy, did they come to school to learn. I mean, these students, they had a mission and it was nice to be able to help them out in that way. And it was smaller and the door was always open. They’d come into my office and we’d have bull sessions where I insisted students learn more in bull sessions than they do in the classroom. They hear what they hear in the classroom. They carry it out and discuss it. So that was the good part. But I think it was very exciting in the early days, different kind of environment.

How many students would you have in your class in the early days?

Well, there were some classes where we had a large number. We had a program where we encouraged students to take classes outside their field just to see what it was. To have the experience of taking a course in psychology or a course in history or literature. And, I taught a seminar, which was a senior seminar. But it was just to get an immersion and that was about 300 students. But that was the only time. I had an experience with large classes in other places like Ohio State and Ball State and I didn’t like them. You might as well go to the library and read because you didn’t have any chance to ask questions…. But in the early days of FTU, it was exciting! I don’t know if the students found it that way, but the faculty did. 

Teaching U. S. History   

At Ohio State I taught U.S.. in the world setting which was a wonderful, it was a survey course where we used two texts, crutches for the students. One we’d pick it up at 1500 and we’d cover the Atlantic side of Europe and the American side of the New World. And so they got what we called The Day of the Atlantic World which was really a nice approach. But it depends a lot on what the students had before they got there. They got lost. They didn’t know which side of the Atlantic they were on sometimes.

No, I stayed with U.S.. History. My field, my specialty field, was Frontier Indian White Relations so I got into the Indian story which is what I did my Master’s work in. And I still like it very much.

Has that area of work changed as our culture has changed?

Oh, absolutely. I would say it’s changed because attitudes have changed. And if you in early movies or early stories, novels, Ned Buntline that kind of bunch, the only good Indian was a dead Indian and that’s certainly changed. But I think that’s true for all of society. We appreciate, I hate to call it diversity, but we appreciate other people’s contribution. And a lot of writers now call them Indian haters during that period because that’s basically what they were. And they were because they were taught that. So, we move on. Hard to convince some of them though. I had one of my students come to me and say, “What you said is not true.” I said, “Why is that?” “Because John Wayne, I saw in a movie last night, he did it differently.” So you do have that resistance there but it’s fun to resist it.

The Joy of Teaching

I like to think of teaching as, if you remember, the old filing, index filing for books? I used to pull out a drawer with all these little cards in there, take the rod out of the middle, turn it upside down, dump them on the floor, and, throw out about 50 new cards in there, and reshuffle them because that’s what it takes. You got to get rid of some old, and you got to put some new in and that’s always the joy of it. Because suddenly the light goes on and it’s not changing their opinion, just let them change their own if they want. 

What types of sources would you use for the Indian perspective?

Well, first, let’s go to the first one. Treaties were made and usually it was done with interpreters. Now you have to wonder about the interpreters. Are they really interpreting it? How do you get a language that has concepts which aren’t congruent with the concepts? I like to use the example that we were in a deep jungle some place and you didn’t have any word for a big plane flying over so it was called a big silver bird. So we have this problem. But, no, we have enough records, diaries, journals, things of this nature, but they have to be interpreted. What do you mean when you say this? What was their understanding when they agreed to it? What was their customs? I mean one thing we have real trouble with with the Indians is the present – giving, the exchange of presents to open the path between societies. If you don’t have those where are you going? Well, that’s the difficulty.

Wisdom

But we are getting much, much more – later students are able to deal with this much better. Ours isn’t the only way to do things. Because of what we’re learning. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. If they didn’t do it, maybe it was our job to do it, but somebody has done it and we go from there. I used to tell my graduate students, I don’t worry about you. Once I have you hooked in history I can turn you lose and you’ll stay with it. I don’t need to stand over your shoulders and beat on you. This is education, not training. Well, it’s wisdom. Wisdom is knowing what to do with knowledge. If we don’t know what to do with it, we’re no better off.

LISTEN  Part  III  (16:26)     

 

Indian Clubs

I have a good friend in town who is a Chippewa… There was a dear lady in town who took every course I offered. she’s dead now. She died about a year ago. Mary McGregor. Maybe you knew her? She was a great friend of the library…. She was into the Indians. She had a remarkable story to tell and she didn’t tell it enough. But when you meet people like this, you find out there used to be an Indian Club. Since I’ve retired I don’t know if it still exists but they were – everyone that was there was an Indian except me… So there’s more around than you think. There’s a lot of Indians that you wouldn’t know they’re Indians. We had an Indian club out at the university. It was for Indians and non- Indians. It was a good group. And they were just getting to the stage where they were getting into sufficient numbers to do some active work. But it’s an exciting field and we just don’t look around…

Wounded Knee

I can tell you one experience. I had a young fellow, he was a full blooded Delaware Indian. In class, he took most of my classes, I had just come back from a visit to Wounded Knee, Mr. Gillycuddy’s little place out there. It was about a week before the second uprising and I was commiserating with him about my experience just a couple of weeks before that. And he came to class one time and said, “I’m sorry I’ve been called up.” He said, “Wish me well. I’m a helicopter pilot and I’ve been sent to Wounded Knee to the conflict. He said, “if anything happens to me, here I am Delaware flying a helicopter for the 7th Calvary which is Custer’s old group.” Anyway, I heard a couple times from him since he graduated, but he’s no longer in this area. But you meet these kind of people.

Bureau of Indian Affairs

We had a meeting, in fact when they hit the Bureau of Indian Affairs, I don’t know if you remember this, but the Indians sat in and stripped the place and put it on trucks and carried it back, a point of defiance. But one group stopped by our meeting when it happened on an evening. They stopped and we thought ooh. But a lot of things happened that fit into what is unplanned – but it adds experience to the situation…

Viewpoints         

I would almost intentionally always take a different view whether I held it or not is unimportant. But the point is to make them think about the other positions. There’s more than one side or two sides or three sides to a situation. And they got wise to me a couple times. I felt pretty good. We nearly had a fight between two students over the War of 1812. I didn’t want them to get into a fist fight, but they disagreed over why we went to War in 1812. But they internalized it sufficiently enough to say, yeah, okay, you’re wrong. But I worked at that. Go to class and agree – you don’t see the their side, the other point of view. So, I always took the other one whether I liked it or not. 

There’s a misunderstanding, I think, about history. When you think about history, people say, well, I hated it. Well, probably because they dealt with dates and that’s it. But to be an historian takes nothing more than interest and a promise to be faithful to what you are doing. We like to call it the scientific method. We know we’re going to be biased. If I say I’m not biased, I’m lying because you do have feelings. You have cultural baggage which you carry along with yourself. But if you strive to be your best… if you’re going to look at one side of the story you better look at the other side of the story. Some stories are false, but they’re too good of stories not to talk about. And so, sure, bring up the stories. And many times, stories are based in fact some place along the line, maybe not entirely, but at least a perspective. I try to get my students to understand what I’m interested in is what you believe. Because what you believe is what you act upon. If you believe it’s true, you’re going to act upon that belief. You may be entirely wrong.

I used to give examples of putting people in different places on the campus and say watch four corners of the street. And, they always see something different. Same event, but it’s different. I said, “Which one are you going to believe?” So learning is not easy. You dump that file out now you got to put it back together. But we’ve got to admit that there’s other sides to the picture.

Perspectives on Orlando Development

Disney hadn’t come out yet. If you want to talk about a difference, pre Disney, post Disney. My lance, and just think of the influx, the immigration. I’m working on a volume now that the state wants immigration. They complained because the name was Mosquito. We can’t attract people because you have the wrong name. Well, you can imagine the influx that we’ve had since that time and all these different ideas on how to approach a given situation. Yeah, it’s exciting….

Let me give you an example of just some of the things I have put aside for somebody else to do. There’s plenty to do and I don’t want to do it all myself. Share in the fun because it is fun.

Jonathan Jacoks

There was a gentleman in the town… by the name of Jonathan Jacoks [Orange County Treasurer] and he used to live where the Florida Hospital is. And he kept a diary and I found the diary in the Southern Historical Collection in North Carolina and it’s now, I got a microfilm copy of it at the University Library [University of Central Florida]. Somebody please do it. It’s just tremendous….

Carey Hand Funeral Home

I was sitting on the steps of the Carey-Hand Funeral Home, little light hanging down from the ceiling by a cord. And I was doing some research and the fellow who was in charge of the place, these were cellar steps half way down the cellar steps he says, “Are you interested?” I said, “Yes, very much.” He said, “Would you like them?” You know you’re taken off guard. “Yes. yes.” All of them are at the university and they’re now on digital… So I had the students do research on where did those people die and where are they buried here or somewhere else.

The Bucket & Dipper Club

There was an English family at Fruitland Park. I spent much time there. They were Huguenots and got chased out of France in St. Bartholomew’s Massacre. They went to England. They became very important people: judges, and members of the church, bishops and what have you. They moved over here. Well, this is back in the 70’s when I first met them. The little church there is a jewel. You must go to see it to appreciate it. But these people, Englishman came over, fourth or fifth children that didn’t go into the church or the military or the primogeniture land owner. They came over here to become citrus growers. That was a way to get them out and get them to do something. But they formed a club up there called the Bucket & Dipper Club. And they kept their minutes. They’re in The University Library on microfilm. So there’s a project, somebody can do it.

The Lawson Papers

The turtle man, I can’t think of his name [Peter Pritchard]. He was the turtle man for the Smithsonian. He wrote articles for the Smithsonian. He lived behind a white picket fence on the way to Oviedo on Alafaya. He called me up one day and said, “I need room for my turtles.” Because he had turtle shells. He says I went up on the third floor and I got room because I found the Lawson Papers of the store in Oviedo. All the minutes 2 and a 1/2 cents for a thimble. They’re in the University Library.

We got a student of mine, a graduate student of mine had a relative with the Boomers. He was there when they opened up the Oklahoma Territory… He became a state legislature and a judge. We got some of his papers down here in the library when he died. So there are things to do. There are stories behind the Confederate monument where it used to sit at Central. What’s the story behind the Rosalind? I ran across where they had to take boards and put them down because the lake came up and they couldn’t get to their building and they had to work on these boards to get to it. Stories just abound. Somebody do it. There’s a story about The Shakers in Kissimmee. Do it. They never cease….

Shirley Cannon and Dr. Paul W. Wehr at the Pine Castle Historical Society

Shirley recently edited and designed a book by Dr. Paul W. Wehr, Dateline Pine Castle, which is based on articles written by Pine Castle founder, Will Wallace Harney, in the 1870s and 80s. She edited and designed Dr. Wehr’s most recent book: From Mosquito to Orange, the Making of a County.

LISTEN  Part IV  (19:02)

 

The Pine Castle Historical Society

I was told there was a roll of microfilm of The Cincinnati Commercial written by a fellow from Orlando [Will Wallace Harney]. And so, I guess, maybe the chair told me at the time that they wanted to contact me. Well, basically, it used to be called the Pine Castle Center for the Arts. And so I would go down there and I found it just delightful. But they had these and we have a copy of The Cincinnati Commercial now. All the files that I used are in the library if somebody wants to do something else.

Published by the Pine Castle Historical Society

Do you realize the Orange County Regional History Center, they have reels of the early commercials of the Channel 9. I’ve been trying to get students to go out there and just talk about the change in commercials down at the historical society because that;s not hard to get a hold of. Mr Tucker was very good to me. He used to be in charge down in the basement at the courthouse. That’s before the shootings when you could get in and out easier. But we have all the court minutes. We have all the deed books on microfilm, that’s what I used. Just waiting to be used.

Oh, I didn’t finish the story about the little church up at Fruitland Park. It’s a small little structure with no ceiling, just the bare rafters. And from these rafters hang flags of all the dominions at the time of Queen Victoria’s jubilee. There’s a big candelabra, celebrating the year of jubilee of Queen Victoria. Somebody do it. There are just countless stories. The Jim Crow era in Winter Park is fascinating; that needs to be explored. So many good stories….

Letter Books

Nobody writes anymore. So we go to the narrative of what one person’s writing to another person in reply. They used to call them letter books. We don’t have that anymore. And so somebody better do it. And this is where today we better do – maybe we need the people to do the taping. This is what’s needed. That’s the only thing we have. There’s nothing like a contemporary account. This is the one thing about The Harney work I did, that was current. It isn’t somebody’s memories. It’s what happened at that date.

The Good Road Society

Do you know Orlando was the center of the universe for a while? The transportation universe. The Good Road Society met in Orlando for two years. They built a big arch across Orange Avenue. Nobody does anything with it. All good stuff.

  VIEW

Aerial View of Ben White Raceway, circa 1963

Ben White Raceway

You could do something on Mary McGregor. Her husband was a harness maker down at Ben White. He’s dead unfortunately. But he made the first harness for the Budweiser six. What do you know about that? Who’s done a history of Ben White Raceway? Nobody. So there’s plenty to do. Get somebody to do it.

I don’t care whether I’m right or wrong. Oh, I’d like to be right, but if somebody comes along and proves me wrong and shows the truth. Good. That’s what it’s all about. But do it. We’re losing all this if we don’t write it. We’re losing it. I mean, have you ever tried to find a good story about The Armory downtown? No. That was one of the most important buildings in the community for a while. The Armory. Sometimes, you know, we can’t find material, but we ought to see if we can. Good stuff: History.

  VIEW

The Armory built in 1886.

Speaking of good stories, in your book, Dateline Pine Castle Stories of Orange County From 1870 to 1890, you write: “So the new day began in Florida and perhaps allegorically Harney was saying to his readers that his new life began in Florida and thier’s could begin anew here as well.”     

Do you see the future of our area with such optimism today?

Well I can’t imagine anybody being other than optimistic. How can you be less than optimistic? I mean, are you going to crawl in the corner and who pooh in the fetal position, and say, oh my, no. There’s good things out there. Maybe it’s waiting for us to do it.

Interview:  Dr. Paul W. Wehr

Interviewer: Jane Tracy

Date: April 4, 2016

Place:  Dr. Wehr’s residence.

 

 

 

  

    

 

 

 

 

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Dr. Paul W. Wehr

Author, historian, and Professor of History at the University of Central Florida for 25 years, Dr. Paul W. Wehr. Listen as Dr. Wehr...

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