Doc and Katy Abraham are best remembered as gardeners. However, they left a treasure trove of photos, letters, manuscripts and other materials giving a glimpse into such esoteric areas as West Africa in the 1940s, love letters and film footage of FDR.
The Army assigned Sgt. George "Doc" Abraham to document life in an African country during World War II, but much of his work never came to public light until recently.
As far as the Army is concerned, that's probably just as well. Not only did the military journalist show witch doctors at work and soldiers holding a huge dead snake, a black mamba, but also Army-sponsored brothels for the troops.
Now, all that material is part of a nationally regarded archive, at Cornell University in Ithaca.
Doc Abraham and his wife, Katy, spent most of their lives in Naples. Both died in 2005 after gaining renown during six decades as "The Green Thumb" duo on radio and TV and in a syndicated newspaper column. The two married on July 4, 1942 during a 36-hour leave before Doc shipped out for Africa. Now, the couple's love letters, Doc's complete war documentations, and hundreds of materials from their years as horticulturists are being preserved at the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University, the couple's alma mater.
While apart during the war, Doc and Katy wrote each other daily. Katy kept many of the letters, which were found after her death inside a cedar chest and in a purse. A Western Union telegram Doc sent Katy Aug. 13, 1942 (on which 51 cents was due) stated: "Habeebay. Promoted to Staff Sergeant Will Be Home Soon Am In Love. Are You? Will have Nursery and Farm and Plenty Papooses. Chief Likum His Wife Plenty. Staff Sgt. George Abraham."
In fact, they had two children, plus the plant nursery. Although "farm" might be a bit of stretch in describing their operation, they certainly grew a lot of stuff and harvested thousands upon thousands of words sold to various media.
The material will be accessible to anyone who wants to view it in the division's archives at Cornell's Carl A. Kroch Library, and eventually much of the materials will be digitized so it can be viewed online.
The Abraham family donation adds an unmatched collection to the university's holdings, said Elaine Engst, director and archivist for the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.
The collection is split in half. The Green Thumb collection celebrates regional history and expands Cornell's agriculture library, said Engst.
As for the Africa collection, it's rare.
"We don't have many collections that deal with Africa during World War II, said Brenda Marston, a historian and curator for the division's human-sexuality archives.
It wasn't until recent years the public learned all the details of Doc Abraham's photos and notes while serving in Liberia with Task Force 5889, one of the Army's first racially integrated units.
His book, "The Belles of Shangri-La and Other Stories of Sex, Snakes, and Survival from World War II," was published by Vantage Press in 2000. It contains explicit photographs and descriptions, many of which Doc smuggled home to Katy while working with a military press pass and using an Army-issued camera. As for Katy, she worked on the home front, inspecting military equipment for the Army Ordinance branch.
Along with sublime shots, such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt greeting the troops, Doc also documented female sexual mutilation taking place within the African tribes and the Army-built prostitution camps aimed at curbing sexually transmitted diseases. The women were screened by Army doctors.
Hundreds of items not in the book, or seen in a subsequent History Channel documentary, "Sex in World War II," are in the Cornell collection. "There is such potential for historic value here," said Chris Metzger of Middlesex, a researcher and photography expert who is helping assemble the African collection.
Metzger and Doc's and Katy's daughter, Leanna Landsmann, spent a recent day at Cornell - Landsmann going through a stack of letters Doc wrote Katy during the war; Metzger, filing photos for the Africa collection and labeling folders.
The Cornell archives are extensive and hold works in such fields medieval and Renaissance studies and American history. The archives include one of only five copies of the Gettysburg Address written in Abraham Lincoln's hand.
"Doc would be over the moon to think his stuff is in a collection with the Gettysburg Address," said Landsmann.
Julie Sherwood can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 263, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.