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An Autobiography: Chapter 15, Born in Visalia, Kentucky

It was a dark and stormy night when I was born. Well, actually that is not true, but I had to put this in as I am an avid admirer of the great author, “Snoopy.” 

It was May 5, 1926, when the stork flew low across the Licking River to Visalia, Kentucky, with me aboard, and at 6:30 a.m., presented my proud parents, Calbert Summers and Mila Mae, their 4th child, all boys. Clarence Calbert was born in 1921, Edwin Byron, 1923, and Lewis Franklin in 1925. (Lewis died in infancy.) The log house I was born in was destroyed by arson at the turn of the century.

The most famous magician at the time was named Thurston, more famous even than his contemporary Harry Houdini. He had the largest traveling magic show of the time, more than eight train cars. His card tricks are still talked about by magicians throughout the world.

Thurston Poster 02 

For one trick, he would go into the audience and ask several people to choose cards from his deck. He then shuffled them and placed them into a clear glass. Thurston would then call for the chosen cards. One by one the cards would rise to the top of the deck. When the audience wanted the cards to rise even higher, he was able to make the cards rise directly out of the pack! I had a collection of original Thurston memorabilia, which went to a museum in Florida many years ago.

I’m sure my dad never saw Thurston, but he certainly knew about him and wanted his new son to be named after this famous man. However, the doctor insisted I be named after him and said that he would buy me my first suit when I grew up. So I was named Walter Thurston. The “Walter” I never liked and never used. And, of course, I never got that suit. Thurston and Georgianna was a great team, but Walter and Georgianna … no way! There were many famous people named Walter, like Cronkite, Pidgeon, Wanger, Raleigh, Damrosch, Winchell and Huston, but Walter Thurston just doesn’t cut it.

I was born during the “Roaring Twenties,” and prohibition was in effect for my first seven years. I remember when my father took me to visit his brother, Uncle Homer, who made illegal moonshine in his basement. I tasted it, and that was the last liquor I drank in my lifetime. I grew up during the Great Depression; in 1933 unemployment hit a record 24.75 percent. And a catastrophic dust bowl, caused primarily by a severe drought, affecting 1 million acres, began in 1930 and lasted until the late 1930s. Hundreds of thousands of families were forced to leave their homes, many of them moving to California. 

John Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange created the most memorable portraits of what those families faced. In 1936, Lange snapped photographs of ragged children and parents with faces of despair, living in tents and waiting for jobs of any kind. Her most famous picture, "migrant mother," showed a gaunt young widow holding her three daughters, her careworn face suggesting that hope was running out.

John Steinbeck wrote newspaper articles that year depicting the desperate plight of thousands. Then he sat down to write the book that three years later became The Grapes of Wrath, which won the Pulitzer Prize. His 1939 fictional account of the Joad family, who lost their Oklahoma farm and then set out for the California promised land only to find even greater challenges and hardships, became an instant classic, the publishing phenomena of the decade.

John Steinbeck 

John Steinbeck 

Hollywood followed up with their masterpiece, directed by John Ford. These memorable works of art − by Steinbeck , Ford, Lange, and others − gave the Joads and thousands like them their place in American history − a place that will last indefinitely.

Many historic events happened throughout the world the year I was born, but my favorite is the marriage of George Burns and Gracie Allen. Friends and family used to say Georgianna and I were like them − a great loving couple. In l999, I gave Georgianna a beautiful, very rare signed photo of George and Gracie for Christmas. That framed photo is still on my mantle. The card read:

One of the greatest teams in history –
in the top ten with you and I –
join me in wishing you, my beautiful love 
(like beautiful Gracie), everything  
wonderful for the holidays.  
My love always, 
Good night, Georgie. 


Gracie Allen and George Burns 

Other events of 1926 include the first demonstration of television; three men dancing the Charleston for 22 hours; Walt Disney Studios forming (I don’t think he liked Walter either); the premier of Puccini’s opera, Turondot; the first flight over the North Pole; DeFord Bailey becoming the first black to perform on the Grand Ole Opry; the first talkie movie, Don Juan, at Warner Theatre, New York; the creation of the National Broadcasting Co.; Gene Tunney beating Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight boxing title; the release of Milne’s book, Winnie-the-Pooh; and the premier of George Gershwin’s musical, Oh, Kay.

The only significant happening on the day I was born was that Sinclair Lewis refused the Pulitzer Prize that he was presented for Arrowsmith on May 3!

Sinclair Lewis 

Sinclair Lewis 

In 1926, Visalia had about 300 people; today maybe no more than 100. Visalia is the namesake for its western sister, Visalia, California. The founder of Visalia, California, was named Nathaniel Wise, a man whose ancestral history is traced to the creation of Visalia, Kentucky. 

Visalia lies on the Licking River, 31 miles south of Cincinnati, where the river empties into the Ohio River. Covington, where Georgianna and I grew up, is located at the confluence of the Licking and Ohio Rivers. Visalia is known as the quiet little Kenton County town on the Licking River, but it was once a busy town with a hotel, several stores, a tobacco warehouse, and a railroad depot where trains made regular stops. Twice-a-day train service was only a 40-minute ride from Covington to Visalia. I remember many Sundays, as a child, going to Visalia to visit my grandparents, boarding the train at Covington. The thrill of that ride was when we went through a dark tunnel.

Steam Engine Tunnel 

According to a history, published in The Falmouth Outlook, county records indicate that Nathaniel Wise was granted permission to operate a ferry at Visalia in June 1807. In August 1818, he was allowed to “establish an inspection of Tobacco, Hemp and Flour on his land, and the following November, Wise was given a tavern license at his house.”

I don’t remember any paved streets in Visalia, but an article in the Newport Local in 1878, stated: “At one time there were street names like Madison, Front and Jefferson, three stores, one church, one school, one blacksmith shop, one tobacco warehouse, one flour, saw and grist mill, one beautiful picnic ground of 12 acres, a beautiful summer resort with never-failing water, offices, freight, post, telegraph and Adams Express.”

The church building was further described as serving both Presbyterian and Methodist congregations, with services twice a month. It also served as the home of the Visalia Sabbath School. School attendance was described as a “goodly number.” The writer also remarked that Visalia’s old Catholic Church was in the process of being converted into a blacksmith shop.

The correspondent went on to state: “The city is well represented with intelligent and industrious young men, also, old bachelors are numerous. Dr. Charles Taylor of Covington gave us a lecture on Friday night last. Subject China and the Chinese, which was able and interesting.”

There was an earlier reference that Visalia was incorporated in the 1800s, but no one was able to prove it. So, about 100 years later, Visalia was officially incorporated as a city. Later, a petition was circulated to unincorporate the city. A Kenton County Court ruled the petition valid, and for almost a year, Visalia returned to the status of an unincorporated part of the county. But that ruling was overturned, and Visalia, again, became an official city.

Don’t Miss the next chapter: The Outdoor Privie