Lexington neighborhood project results in history book

Every place has a story. When residents of Lexington’s Fairway neighborhood began researching the story of their place, they got a lot more than they expected.

They chronicled some fascinating history. But they also grew closer as neighbors, and they created a model for other neighborhoods interested in doing the same thing.

The idea began when Robert Figg was president of the Fairway Neighborhood Association in the late 1990s. He moved to the subdivision off Richmond Road in 1965, thinking he had found his family a starter home. That was 48 years and three home renovations ago.

Figg had heard many colorful stories about the neighborhood and its history, and he wanted to record interviews with longtime residents before the memories faded.

In 2008, the neighbors discovered that the Kentucky Historical Society offers technical assistance grants to train oral history interviewers and loans recording equipment. After training, the interviewers gathered some great material, now archived at the University of Kentucky’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History.

But some memories conflicted, and the more information interviewers gathered, the more they realized they needed to fill in gaps to complete the neighborhood’s story. That process turned into a book, Fairway, A Living History ($35 hard cover, $20 paperback. More information: Fairwayneighborhood.org.)

I have seen other neighborhood histories, but none that are as well-researched, well-written and well-illustrated. Even for readers with no ties to Fairway, it offers a fascinating glimpse into Lexington’s rich history.

The neighborhood historians had some good help: a five-member advisory board included four professional historians and archivists and one of the nation’s most respected journalists: Fairway resident John Carroll, retired editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Baltimore Sun and the Los Angeles Times.

“In many ways, this little piece of land is a microcosm of more than two centuries of American history,” said Valerie Askren, a member of the five-person committee that researched and wrote the book.

In examining the neighborhood’s 118 acres, the book outlines the early history of much of southeast Lexington. The story begins with a 1779 Virginia land grant to John Todd, one of three brothers who were among Lexington’s first settlers. Their descendants included Mary Todd, wife of Abraham Lincoln.

The land changed hands several times during the 1800s, including one time that underscored Kentucky’s racial and gender politics before the Civil War.

John Todd’s daughter and heir, Polly, was forced to give title to her land to her second husband, Robert Wickliffe, to secure freedom for her mixed-race grandson, Alfred Russell. That was because, upon her marriage to Wickliffe, Russell had legally become his slave. Once freed, Russell left Kentucky for Africa, where he later became president of Liberia.

Wickliffe’s heirs eventually subdivided and sold the land for residential development, creating the neighborhoods of Mentelle Park, Kenwick and, beginning in 1926, Fairway.

Fairway’s mix of traditional-style homes, built in the 1920s to 1950s, range from modest apartments and ranch houses to mansions. Several were designed by three well-known Lexington architects who built their own homes in Fairway: War field Gratz, Hugh Meriwether and Robert McMeekin.

Fairway’s development included two Kenwick elementary schools, the second built in 1937 and renamed in 1963 for its longtime principal, Julia R. Ewan. It is now the Lexington Hearing and Speech Center.

One little-known chapter of Fairway’s history is the military base that once occupied 12 acres north of the school along Henry Clay Boulevard. The Army Remount Station bought and processed military horses from 1920 until the cavalry was mechanized during World War II. It was also home to Troop B of the 123rd Kentucky Cavalry, a National Guard unit.

The Fairway Neighborhood Association paid for the book’s printing by soliciting $250 and $100 sponsorships from residents and others and from businesses with ties to the neighborhood. More than 400 books have been sold, with proceeds generating several thousand dollars for the neighborhood association.

Figg, Askren and Sandra Ireland, the book’s three principal authors, said their effort was particularly successful because Fairway has many longtime residents, including several generations of some families. But they encouraged other neighborhoods to follow their example.

“While working on this project,” Askren said, “I got to know my neighbors so much better.”