A beautiful state, forever challenged to live up to its potential

Indian Fort Mountain, Berea. Photo by Tom Eblen

The view from Indian Fort Mountain near Berea. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Every state is unique. So what makes Kentucky so special?

To begin to answer that question, you must go back to 1750, when the first land-hungry white Virginians crossed the Appalachian mountains to see what was on the other side. What they found created quite a buzz.

John Filson, who published the first book about Kentucky in 1784, boasted that it was “the new Eden … like the land of promise, flowing with milk and honey.” A frontier preacher is said to have explained heaven to his flock as “a Kentucky of a place.”

Of course, this was long before strip mining and strip malls.

Still, people continue to be awed by Kentucky’s beauty: lush mountains, rolling meadows, scenic rivers, vast limestone caves and manicured horse farms.

Kentucky’s fertile land has always made it an agriculture powerhouse. The Bluegrass region’s karst geology and calcium-rich soil is the foundation for two signature industries: strong-boned horses and pure water for bourbon whiskey.

Originally, Kentucky was considered the West. When the Civil War came, this citadel of slavery remained in the Union. Once the Union won, many Kentuckians sided with the Confederacy. Go figure.

But Kentucky has often been a paradox. For example, 95 percent of all bourbon whiskey (and, really, all that’s worth drinking) is made in Kentucky. Yet, you can’t legally buy it in more than one-third of the state’s 120 counties. Of course, that doesn’t mean a lot of it isn’t consumed there.

Kentuckians love to eat, too, from spicy Western Kentucky barbecue to the delicately flavored cucumber spread of Louisville known as benedictine. Ask people on the other side of the world what they know about Kentucky and they are likely to reply: “Ah, Kentucky Fried Chicken!”

Kentuckians tend to be friendly, independent, fun-loving, stubborn and resistant to change. The local cultures we have created vary widely from the Cumberland mountains to the Jackson Purchase. The common denominator seems to be a passion for basketball.

Unless we are from one of the state’s larger cities, Kentuckians tend to identify themselves by their native county. And we have more and smaller counties than almost any state.

But we still love our little towns. We have given many of them colorful names, such as Red Bird, Hi Hat, Cutshin, Mousie and Fancy Farm. Occasionally, imagination has failed us and we have copied the names of European cities, but we have insisted on pronouncing them differently.

During its first decades of statehood, Kentucky was often a national leader and innovator. But the state seems never to have fully recovered from the Civil War and the human slavery that caused it. For a century and a half, Kentucky’s progress has always seemed like three steps forward, two steps back.

Still, some of us think Kentucky is capable of being a national leader rather than a persistent laggard. Kentuckians are hard workers, blessed with a central location, abundant resources and a beautiful place to live — when we don’t insist on messing it up.

The name Kentucky is derived from languages of the American Indian tribes we took this land from, but nobody is sure what it really meant. Some say it meant “dark and bloody ground.” Others say, “the land of tomorrow.” While a lot has happened to support the first theory, I choose to believe the second.

Now, would somebody please pass the barbecue and freshen my bourbon? We have a lot of work to do after dinner.