Perspectives

It Came from the Archives: 20th century Dothan socialite Pauline Burdeshaw

August 28, 2019

Pauline (neé Byrd) Burdeshaw was an anomaly.

In an era when few women traveled far and most did not travel without their husbands, Polly, as she was known to her friends, made multiple trips in North America, South America, and Europe.  Staying in high-end hotels and traveling by luxury steam liners, she met the famous and high-born, even garnering a personal photo from actress Jane Russell and a correspondence with Winifred, Viscountess Mills, until the latter’s death in 1974.

Polly was born in Ozark, AL, in 1897, daughter of J. B. (Ben) and Mattie Byrd.  Ben Byrd went from his family’s farm to Ozark as a warehouse laborer, but soon bought a mercantile store, acquired property, and bought stock in banks and businesses.  He sat on the city council until moving the family to Enterprise, AL, in 1904 to oversee his new business, the Enterprise Banking Company.  There, he and Mattie had a second daughter, Mildred, who later traveled with sister Polly.

After graduating from Agnes Scott College, Polly “specialized in voice and piano in New York and Washington” and gained a reputation for having “traveled extensively” (Dothan Eagle, April 15, 1927).  She was a socialite who visited Dothan society friends often enough to meet and marry Dr. Henry Beechum Burdeshaw, a Tulane medical graduate who served in World War 1 and was a major in the Alabama National Guard.  The newlyweds toured the Pacific Northwest in the spring of 1927, but “Beechie” was not much of a traveler so Polly toured the western world frequently alone or with her sister for the following three decades.

Polly Byrd, ca. 1917-1922
Polly Byrd, ca. 1917-1922
Dr. H. B. Burdeshaw as a 1st Lieutenant, AEF, 1917
Dr. H. B. Burdeshaw as a 1st Lieutenant, AEF, 1917

Her collection of travel diaries in the Wiregrass Archives begins in 1931 in a school composition book titled “Travel Diary No. 1.” Her first entry tells the tale of her peripatetic life:

Sun. July 5th 1931.  Left on noon train for western trip.  Dr. B. went as far as Montgomery with me on way to camp [ed. note: possibly annual National Guard training].  We had dinner together in Mont., he gave me candy and put me on train for Chicago.  Night on train.

That trip ended on July 31, 1931 with her return to Dothan by train.  She wrote, “Glad to get home.”

She continued to document her travels, whether for a night in Atlanta, a week in New Orleans, two weeks in Mexico City, a month in California, or two months in Europe.  She regularly attended football games, and recorded her hotels, shopping trips, cocktail hours, and almost every menu of every meal.  Reading her diaries is like looking at Facebook in longhand.

Major world events did not escape her notice.  Polly and Mildred were on a trip to New York, Philadelphia (where they watched the Army-Navy game), and Washington DC when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  Obviously agitated by the news, Polly cut her trip short, leaving DC on December 7, 1941, and returning to Dothan on December 8.  She wrote:

Sunday, Dec 7th ’41. . . . Douglass Brown came at 11 a.m. and took us to ride. . . . We passed the Japanese Embassy just before the bondfire (sic) burning their papers.  Amy, Mildred, and I had lunch at the “Oriental,” next door to the Willard [Hotel].  It was 3 pm when Amy left us.  Ten minutes later Douglas called our room to tell us Japan had declared war on the U.S. and bombed Pearl Harbor.  We left Washington – Douglas took us to the train at 5 p.m.  It was such a beautiful, bright day, so peaceful looking and to think we are at war. . . .

Burdeshaw travel diary entry, Dec. 7, 1941
Burdeshaw travel diary entry, Dec. 7, 1941

War did not stop Polly’s travels.  She was off again in late February 1942, and many other times after that.  Her diaries, twenty in all, continue to 1962 when she turned 65 years old.

Polly Burdeshaw, recently returned from a European tour showing a set of gold spoons, Oct. 9, 1949.

Polly Burdeshaw, recently returned from a European tour showing a set of gold spoons, Oct. 9, 1949. Courtesy The Dothan Eagle.

Pauline Budeshaw’s diaries, photos, letters, and other materials came to the Wiregrass Archives by way of Dothan‘s Elaine Johnson.  She and artist Dale Kennington purchased them and many of Polly’s dresses and jewelry after she passed away in 1982.  The diaries tell Polly’s story, but are also a trove of information about upper-class American lifestyles and travel in the mid-twentieth century that are just waiting for deeper research.

You can see more about the Pauline Burdeshaw Papers, 1917-1975, at https://resources.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives/inventories/232.html and access her diaries by vising the Wiregrass Archives.

It Came from the Archives is an ongoing series spotlighting the fascinating collections at the Wiregrass Archives. To find out more, visit online at https://www.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives or in person in Everett Hall on the Dothan Campus.