Two and one-half linear feet of papers, 1906-1930, added to the archives of Columbia resident Irvine Furman Belser (1889-1969) primarily document the courtship of Belser and May Heyward, 1912-1914. The bulk of the letters were written by Belser while a Rhodes Scholar at Christ Church College, Oxford University.
Belser’s life at Oxford was filled mainly with studying, playing rugby, tennis, and rowing. He was a member of several clubs, including the American Club and the Twenty Club. Belser’s letter of 19 November 1911 contains a plan and description of Christ Church. He often compares English food, manners, and clothing styles to their American counterparts. His mother kept him informed of family happenings in Columbia, Sumter, and Clarendon County, S.C. Belser kept up with South Carolina politics and was sorely disappointed in Coleman Blease’s gubernatorial win in 1912. Letters written in August, November, and December express concern about the political climate and hope that May’s father, former governor Duncan Clinch Heyward (1864-1943), would run against Blease in two years.
These courtship letters are a prime example of the difficulties of long-distance relationships, especially considering it took about two weeks for trans-Atlantic mail to be delivered. Most of the early letters were written by Belser to May and often in response to something he wrote her a month before. Things were so strained between them that Belser made a special trip home in the summer of 1912. However, as his graduation and the 7 July 1914 wedding date drew nearer, both May’s and Irvine’s letters became more passionate and full of hope for their future.
War broke out in Europe while Irvine and May were on their honey¬moon. Letters from May’s mother, Mamie Heyward, express concern for their safety and desire that they remain in England instead of continuing to the continent. She also tells May about Columbia people vacationing in Europe who were stranded there. Irvine received a few letters from former Oxford friends. The mother of a British friend wrote on 6 April 1915 to say that her son was at the front and to share her feelings about the war. Ian A. Clarke wrote Irvine twice, 19 June 1915 and 16 January 1916, and described life in the British trenches. Clarke served in the 4th Gordon Highlanders and was wounded at least twice.
By May 1916 Irvine was at the United States Army Southern Military Training Camp at Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia. He returned home from training, but not before May broke her wrist trying to crank her new car. A year later Irvine was stationed at Branch Military Training Camp in Chattanooga, Tenn. This time May and her two little children moved to Georgia to be nearer him. Most of the correspondence during 1917 is from May’s mother. She expresses concern for May and the children and includes news about the cantonment at Columbia – Camp Jackson (present day Fort Jackson). Other correspondents include May’s father, her sister Katherine, and Irvine’s brother W.G. who sent homefront news and updates on Katherine’s art shows in Spartanburg, S.C., with Miss Law and in New York. May stayed five months, then returned to Columbia, S.C. Irvine returned to Columbia in February 1918.
The papers also contain some snap shots of Belser and friends in England and a studio portrait of J. Rion McKissick in his Asheville Military School uniform taken by Brock, of Asheville, N.C., about 1895.