Astronaut returns for Blue Grass Airport book launch

April 8, 2014

Long before he became a star astronaut, an 18-year-old Story Musgrave passed through Lexington on a cross-country trip and fell in love with the lush horse farms, ancient trees and stone fences.

“I said the first opportunity in my career path that I can return to the Bluegrass, I will,” he said in a recent interview. “And I did. I adopted Lexington as my hometown.”

The farm boy from Stockbridge, Mass., lived here for only three years, but it was a pivotal time. His career literally got off the ground as a pilot at Blue Grass Airport.

BGAcover copyMusgrave, 78, will be back in Lexington on April 15 to sign copies of a new book, Blue Grass Airport: An American Aviation Story, for which he wrote the introduction. He will be at Joseph-Beth Booksellers from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and The Morris Book Shop from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Fran Taylor produced the authorized history of the airport, which has more than 400 photographs and chapters by local writers. (For more information, go to Bluegrassairport.com/book.)

Musgrave moved to Lexington in 1964 for a surgical internship at the University of Kentucky. When he read that NASA was thinking about adding scientists to the astronaut corps, he knew then he had found a calling.

Musgrave had always been interested in flight, soloing a plane at age 16. But he dropped out of high school, joined the Marines and become an aircraft mechanic before finally going college and medical school. After his internship, he stayed at UK to study aerospace medicine and physiology.

He also spent a lot of time at Blue Grass and Cynthiana airports, earning pilot’s ratings and becoming a ground and flight instructor. He also took up parachuting.

Musgrave and his family rented a since-demolished historical house on Georgetown Road. “For $100 a month,” he said, “I had 40 acres and a 10-room house with fireplaces in all the rooms and a porch big enough for the kids to ride their bicycles on it.”

It was a popular place for friends and UK colleagues to picnic. “If there was a big enough crowd, I’d go out to Blue Grass Field, get in an airplane and parachute into my back yard,” he said. “That’s the way I would enter the party.”

Former astronaut Story Musgrave in a space suit in 1993. Photo providedMusgrave left Lexington in 1967 for Houston and an illustrious 30-year, six-mission career with NASA. He is the only astronaut to have flown on all five space shuttle aircraft. He did the first space walk from a shuttle and was the lead spacewalker in the 1993 Hubble telescope repair mission. He has logged 18,000 hours in 160 aircraft and has made 800 parachute jumps.

Musgrave retired from NASA in 1997 after it became clear he wouldn’t fly again. He still misses piloting big aircraft.

“I was on an MD-88 on my way out here,” he said when I interviewed him by phone from California. “I always go back to the restroom in the back of that airplane because that’s the best place to really listen to and feel that motor humming.

“There was no line for the restroom, so I just took my time,” he said. “I was there too long and the flight attendant knocked on the door and said, ‘Sir, are you OK?’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am, I’m just listening to the motors back here. She looked at me with this disdainful look and said, ‘You’re a pilot.’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am, and, by the way, your engines are out of sync.’”

Musgrave said he hopes to return to space someday with Story, his 7-year-old daughter by his third wife. That is if Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic ever succeeds in offering space flights to tourists.

But there has been much more to Musgrave’s life than flight. The high school dropout went on to earn seven graduate degrees — in math, chemistry, medicine, computers, physiology, literature and psychology. He now raises palm trees at his home in Florida, teaches design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and dabbles in writing, art and scientific research.

Musgrave speaks frequently to young people. His message: Follow your passion, take life one step at a time, learn everything you can about everything, and be open to new opportunities.

“The important thing is to continue to go forward,” he said. “Think every day, what’s the next mountain I’m going to climb?”


Ex-UK athlete hopes to replicate anti-poverty program in Lexington

April 6, 2014

mbcStudent art is displayed in the lobby of Manchester Bidwell Center’s performing arts hall in Pittsburgh. Visitors from Commerce Lexington toured the center as part of their trip to Pittsburgh in May 2010. Photos by Tom Eblen

Josh Nadzam grew up as the only child of a single mother in a small Pennsylvania town. He hoped to escape poverty, if only he could run fast enough.

But university track coaches weren’t impressed. The only school that showed any interest in him was the University of Kentucky, which allowed Nadzam to join its team as a walk-on.

“I just wanted somebody to believe in me,” he said. “Not even open the door; just unlock it.”

Nadzam borrowed all the money he could and moved to Lexington in 2007. He ran fast enough to earn a full track scholarship after his freshman year.

NadzamHe became a talented cross-country competitor, but his biggest Southeastern Conference honors were for academics and community service. While earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work, he co-founded a drive that collected thousands of used shoes for charity.

“I grew up in the projects, a very bad situation, so my dream has always been to help people in similar situations,” said Nadzam, 25, recalling how eight childhood friends have died of heroin overdoses.

With his mother’s encouragement, Nadzam became an avid reader. “It opened my eyes to the fact that there was something different,” he said. “The way I ‘got out’ was sports, but that won’t work for most people.”

Then he read Bill Strickland’s book, Make the Impossible Possible. Strickland started the Manchester Bidwell Center in Pittsburgh, an award-winning program that fights poverty through arts education for young people and job-training for adults.

“I was just blown away,” Nadzam said. “It was like learning about a cure for overcoming a disease.”

Strickland, 66, grew up in Pittsburgh’s poor Manchester neighborhood and had his life changed by a high-school ceramics teacher. Art’s transformative power led him to start the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, an after-school youth arts program, while he was still a college student. Success there led him to be asked in 1971 to run the Bidwell Training Center for displaced workers.

Since then, Manchester Bidwell has blossomed into a major Pittsburgh institution. It has been successfully replicated with locally owned and run centers in eight other cities, which tailor their job-training programs to local markets and needs.

Nadzam drove to Pittsburgh to see the center and met Strickland. Then he drove to see the replications in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Grand Rapids, Mich. “I wondered if I could pull this off in Lexington,” he said.

He began early last year gathering supporters for a Manchester Bidwell Replication Project. Then he discovered that others had the same idea. Strickland had inspired several Lexington leaders when he spoke at the Creative Cities Summit here in April 2010. The next month, Commerce Lexington visited Pittsburgh, heard Strickland speak and toured Manchester Bidwell.

The Pittsburgh center’s youth arts program includes a ceramics shop, concert hall and commercial recording studio. Adult job-training programs tailored to Pittsburgh produce lab technicians, horticulture specialists and high-end chefs.

A Lexington replication effort never got off the ground in 2010. That was largely because of the expensive, methodical process Strickland insists upon to make sure replication centers succeed. It requires an initial fundraising effort of about $150,000 for a feasibility study to determine local job-training needs and opportunities, partners and buildings that could be renovated for facilities.

Nadzam and Tom Curren, a longtime manufacturing executive who took early retirement, now co-chair a Lexington steering committee of experienced business people and social work professionals. Strickland flew here last May for a kickoff event at the Lyric Theatre. The event was moved from a meeting room to the large theater when 200 people showed up.

So far, the group has raised $38,000 through the Blue Grass Community Foundation to show potential corporate funders that project organizers are serious.

“This isn’t the answer to everything,” Curren said of the Manchester Bidwell approach. “But it’s a program with a proven track record that would really add to the other things going on in town.”

When Nadzam isn’t at his full-time job at GreenHouse 17, formerly known as the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program, or running, he is focused on fundraising and friend-raising for his Manchester Bidwell dream.

“I want it to be as collaborative as possible, but this is very personal to me,” Nadzam said. “When you get out of poverty, it’s like surviving an avalanche. This would be my way of thanking Lexington for taking me in.”

 


Book combines cross-country unicycle ride, off-the-grid living

February 25, 2014

140219Schimmoeller0010AAMark Schimmoeller, author of Slowspoke: A Unicyclist’s Guide to America,  in the small cabin he and his wife, Jennifer Lindberg, built themselves on a wooded hillside in northern Franklin County. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

PEAKS MILL — Mark Schimmoeller has spent much of his adult life trying to slow down, think things through and contemplate his place in a hectic world.

These days, he does it with his wife, Jennifer Lindberg, in the wooded hills of northern Franklin County. For more than a dozen years, they have lived “off the grid” in a cabin they built themselves, growing much of their food and making time to read, write and reflect.

But as a young man in 1992, Schimmoeller took an even more unusual route. He filled a backpack with camping gear and rode a unicycle from North Carolina to Arizona. Nothing focuses your mind, he says, like traveling very slowly for six months on one carefully balanced wheel.

He has written about both adventures and his unusual life in a touching new memoir, Slowspoke: A Unicyclist’s Guide to America (Synandra Press, $26.95 hardcover, $14.95 paperback).

140219Slowspoke001With a glowing cover blurb from environmentalist and author Bill McKibben, the book is getting good reviews around the country. Schimmoeller will discuss and sign his book at 2 p.m. March 2 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington Green.

I met Schimmoeller, 46, in November at the Kentucky Book Fair after a friend insisted that I had to meet him and buy his book. After reading it, and looking at his website (Slowspokethebook.com), I couldn’t wait for the snow and ice to melt enough to visit the author at his cabin in the middle of a 250-acre woods.

“When we first moved here, we knew it was beautiful, but there were a lot of things we didn’t know about it,” Schimmoeller said as we walked across melting snow.

He showed me their garden and apple trees, the brick oven where they bake bread and the tool shed where his unicycle rests on a hook, gathering cobwebs. And he talked about their seasons of discovery: where the prettiest wildflowers bloom, and where the wild mushrooms flourish.

Schimmoeller grew up in Central Kentucky in a family that valued independence and intellectual pursuits more than money. He graduated from Transylvania University in 1989 with an English degree, and he has published poems and essays. He is working on a novel. Lindberg is a health-related educator.

Slowspoke alternates among three stories: Schimmoeller’s unicycle trip across America and the people he encounters; his personal journey of self-discovery, marriage and homesteading; and the couple’s efforts to buy a neighboring old-growth woods from a neighbor, who plans to log and develop it. His sweet, vivid prose weave an engaging tale, told in bite-size chapters.

Schimmoeller and Lindberg began building their cabin, which they call the Snuggery, in 2000. The home is neat, cozy, efficient and quite pretty, filled with natural wood, sunlight and books. South-facing windows keep it warm on sunny winter days, with help from a small wood stove.

Solar panels on the roof provide electricity. Rainwater is channeled into a stone cistern that Schimmoeller built. Pumps bring the water up to their kitchen and to an old claw-foot bathtub. There is a composting toilet in an outbuilding. Food from their garden is stored in the cellar, along with homemade wine.

“We enjoy being here and working here and having that reciprocal relationship with the land,” he said. “You grow to love the land as you are active on it. We like to be as self-sufficient as we can be, but we’re not purists.”

Schimmoeller and Lindberg’s lifestyle recalls Harlan and Anna Hubbard, a Kentucky couple from a half-century ago. Hubbard, a painter, wrote books about their adventures living on a shanty boat as it floated down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and their decades of homesteading along the Ohio River in Trimble County.

Like his adventure on a unicycle, Schimmoeller’s lifestyle is something many people find intriguing, because they know they could never do it themselves.

Schimmoeller, a shy and private person, said one of the hardest things about publishing his book has been going out to promote it. But he has been rewarded with about 30 letters so far from readers who found it inspiring.

“Generally, people like it that, at a time when we all seem to be rushed, I’m attempting to ease away from that a little bit,” he said. “I have never liked to rush, and I don’t like being rushed.”  

140219Schimmoeller0023The cabin, which Schimmoeller and his wife call the Snuggery, is “off the grid.” Water comes from a rain-collecting cistern, power from solar panels on the roof, and heat from a wood stove and South-facing windows.

 


As first black senator, Powers gave voice to the powerless

February 9, 2014

powers2Georgia Powers posed last month in the study of her Louisville apartment, whose walls are covered with honors amd mementoes. Photo by Tom Eblen. Below, an undated photo of Powers in the state Senate. Photo by Keith Williams/The Courier-Journal.

 

LOUISVILLE — She had worked on two statewide political campaigns and helped organize a civil rights march that brought 10,000 people to Frankfort.

But Georgia Montgomery Davis Powers said she never thought of running for public office herself until she was working a part-time clerk’s job in 1966, processing paperwork in the state House of Representatives.

As she passed around copies of a proposed law that would ban discrimination against blacks in employment and public accommodations, she recalled recently, a newly elected representative from Western Kentucky voiced his views.

“I see no reason to change things from the way they are,” he announced. “If I voted for that, I would never get re-elected.”

Powers was furious. A few minutes later, she said she found the courage to tell him: “You know, Representative, what I need is my own seat here.”

Less than two years later, she would have one. Powers became the first black elected to the state Senate, and the first woman elected without succeeding a husband who had been a senator.

Powers is 90 years old now, still healthy, active and engaged. Her high-rise apartment has a commanding view of the downtown Louisville district she represented for 21 years as a tireless advocate for Kentucky’s underdogs: minorities, women, children and poor, elderly and disabled people.

“When you are placed in a powerful position, whatever it is, you should do everything you can do for people who have no voice and need an advocate,” she said when I visited her recently.

Powers also helped lead civil rights marches across the South, becoming a close confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1989, the year after she retired from the Senate, a book by King’s top lieutenant, Ralph David Abernathy, disclosed that Powers and King had also been lovers. Her secret exposed, Powers told her version of the story in a 1995 autobiography, I Shared The Dream.

“Things happen like that,” she said when I asked her about her relationship with King. “You’re working together and you admire them and they like you and things happen. That’s life.”

powers1Powers’ life has been both accomplished and unlikely. She was born to a poor couple in a two-room shack near Springfield. When a tornado destroyed the shack, her family moved to Louisville, where her half-white father got a factory job, enameling bathtubs.

As an only girl with eight brothers, she quickly learned to be tough. “Just because I was their sister did not mean that they tried to spoil me in any way,” she said. “Just the opposite.”

Powers left home at 18 to follow the first of many men in her life, which would include three husbands. She lived in New York and California, and her many jobs included building C-46 cargo planes during World War II as a “Rosie the riveter”.

She didn’t get involved in politics until 1962, when a church friend pestered her to work for former Louisville Mayor Wilson Wyatt’s unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate. She ended up organizing his volunteers statewide, and was hired for similar duties in Edward T. Breathitt’s successful campaign for governor the next year.

Powers realized she was the “token black” in Wyatt’s campaign, and at times she had to demand equal pay and treatment with other staffers. After Breathitt’s victory, other staff members were given jobs in Frankfort, but not Powers. The next year, Breathitt probably wished he had offered her one.

Powers was one of the main organizers of the March on Frankfort, which brought King, baseball great Jackie Robinson and folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary to the Capitol steps with 10,000 others to demand passage of a bill banning discrimination against blacks in hotels, restaurants and other public accommodations.

Breathitt was a no-show, so after the march Powers brought King and Robinson to his office and asked for a meeting. The governor was non-committal, and the bill failed. But it passed in the next session two years later with his support.

By the 1968 session, Powers was in the Senate, and she wasted no time introducing civil rights legislation. She said it was an uphill battle, but she was eventually successful because her Democratic Party was then in the majority, she was able to get along with other lawmakers and she became good at legislative horse-trading.

“I never got angry with anybody if they didn’t vote for something I had up,” she said. “I figured I would need them for something else someday.”

Powers also knew how to stand her ground. “I never had any fear,” she said. “I figured all they could do was shoot me. I had been marching down in Alabama and everywhere else and never got shot.”

At the end of her first, tough legislative session, King asked her to come to Memphis, where he was trying to win better pay and working conditions for striking black sanitation workers. When he was assassinated, she heard the fatal shot and was among the first to find his body.

She said King had initiated their relationship with the help of his brother, A.D. King, who was then a minister in Louisville. Although both were married to others, she said they met several times and she always feared their secret would get out.

Once it did, so many years later, the revelation angered some people in the black community, especially after she elaborated in her own book. A couple of Louisville ministers gave her a hard time, but she says it didn’t bother her.

“They thought somebody was going to tell on them!” she said with a laugh. “And the women just said, ‘I wish it had been me!’” More laughter.

Despite that bit of scandal, Powers thinks she will be remembered more for her legislative contributions, making life better for Kentucky’s most vulnerable citizens. That work earned her walls full of awards, including honorary degrees from four Kentucky universities.

“Kentucky has been good to me,” she said. “I did what I was supposed to do in life.”


Chemist, writer, father of ‘the Pill’ to speak about his work

February 4, 2014

djerassiChemist and writer Carl Djerassi. Photo by Karen Ostertag.

 

As a chemist, Carl Djerassi developed the first synthesis of a steroid oral contraceptive. It became “the Pill” and changed the dynamics of human sex and reproduction.

Since the mid-1980s, Djerassi has developed a second career as a writer. Most of his five novels and 11 plays are exercises in what he calls “intellectual smuggling” — explaining scientific processes to non-scientists and exploring the ethical and moral implications of science and technology.

Djerassi calls his genre science-in-fiction because, unlike science fiction, the science he write about is real. Bridging the sciences and humanities is critical to understanding the world, he said, but it can be controversial among specialists in both fields.

“Science is threatening to many people in the humanities,” Djerassi, 90, said in an interview last week from his home in California, where he had just returned after a busy lecture schedule in Europe, where he also has homes in Vienna and London.

“Many (scientific) colleagues have criticized me, saying I am washing dirty lab coats in public,” he added. “And I say that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

Djerassi will be in Lexington for four events Feb. 13-15 at the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University. His visit is sponsored by a host of UK academic departments, from Chemistry and Pharmacy to Theatre.

His trip was arranged by Dr. Sylvia Cerel-Suhl of Lexington, who got to know Djerassi while she was in medical school at Stanford University. She was one of his teaching assistants, and they have been friends ever since.

Djerassi was born in Vienna in 1923, the son of Jewish physicians, and grew up in Bulgaria. He came to America as the Nazis were coming to power, and he eventually earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin in 1945.

After developing one of the first commercial antihistamines in the 1940s, Djerassi went to Mexico City, where he and several colleagues made their contraceptive breakthrough in 1951. He went on to work in both industry and academia, joining the Stanford faculty in 1960 and helping to develop the Stanford Industrial Park.

Djerassi is one of two American chemists to have won both the National Medal of Science (for “the Pill” synthesis) and the National Medal of Technology (for new approaches to insect control). He is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and many foreign academies. He has a long list of honors, from honorary degrees and European medals. Austria put his picture on a postage stamp in 2005.

Djerassi said he had always been interested in literature, but he didn’t begin writing until about age 60 after his girlfriend dumped him. “That really got me going,” he said.

He began writing a novel about their relationship. About the time he was finishing it a year later, the ex-girlfriend sent him flowers and asked to meet.

“Instead of sending her back flowers, I sent her the manuscript,” he said. “She was completely flabbergasted. It brought us together, and we got married.”

The girlfriend who became his third wife was Diane Middlebrook, a Stanford English professor who wrote critically acclaimed biographies of the poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.

Djerassi said he decided to close his Stanford lab and devote full-time to writing and lecturing in 1985, when, soon after his marriage, he got a serious cancer diagnosis.

“I wanted to use fiction to talk about things, scientific and technological, that in my opinion were important,” he said. He survived cancer, but it claimed Middlebrook in 2007.

Many of Djerassi’s novels and plays deal with the ethical and societal implications of science — such as the separation of sex from reproduction — as well as the collegial and competitive way science is practiced.

“Ninety percent of the general public thinks they’re not interested (in science), or thinks they don’t understand it or are afraid of it,” he said, adding that most fiction tends to portray scientists as either geeks or idiot savants.

“I thought if I put it in the guise of fiction, I could make it sufficiently interesting that people would read it,” he said. “And they would have learned something without knowing it.”

If you go

Carl Djerassi in Lexington.

  •  Noon, Feb. 13, UK’s Hilary J. Boone Center. Djerassi will speak about academic and business relationships in science to a luncheon. Cost: $30. Reservations deadline Feb. 5. Email: Sylvia4H.art@gmail.com.
  • 4:30 p.m., Feb. 13, Worsham Theatre, U.K. Student Center. Djerassi gives a free, public lecture, “Science on the Page and Stage.” The first 100 students there will get a free copy of one of his books, which he will sign afterward.
  • 3:30 p.m., Feb. 14, Room 102 Cowgill Center at Transylvania. Djerassi will give a lecture, “The Divorce of Sex from Reproduction: The New Facts of Life.”
  • 3 p.m. , Feb., 15, the Art Museum at UK. Actors will read his play “Insufficiency.” A reception with Djerassi will follow.

Warwick: historic Kentucky home meets a scholar’s imagination

January 18, 2014

140116Warwick0041

Clay Lancaster lived in the circa 1809 Moses Jones house at his Warwick estate. The small but elegant house was built by a successful merchant along the Kentucky River in Mercer County. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

SALVISA — Warwick, the 205-year-old brick cottage that architectural historian Clay Lancaster restored and embellished with “folly” structures from his rich imagination, will be open Sunday afternoon for a rare public tour.

The open house is being given by the non-profit Warwick Foundation, which Lancaster created before his death in 2000 to care for the property and promote his many interests, which included historic preservation and cross-cultural understanding.

140116Warwick0053In additions to tours of his home, drawings gallery and two “folly” buildings, visitors can buy copies of some of the more than two dozen books Lancaster wrote. They include everything from scholarly tomes to illustrated children’s books on subjects ranging from early Kentucky architecture to Asian philosophy.

The event is the first of several the foundation plans this year to help more people appreciate Warwick and Lancaster’s brilliant legacy as a scholar, writer, artist and Renaissance man.

“He had so many interests,” said Paul Holbrook, the foundation’s president and a friend of Lancaster. “He was driven by his interests.”

Lancaster was born in Lexington in 1917 and grew up in the Bell Court neighborhood, where his father built two homes. They sparked Lancaster’s interest in bungalow architecture, which led to his book The American Bungalow (1985).

He studied at the University of Kentucky before moving to New York, where he taught at Columbia University, Vassar College and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also was curator of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

140116Warwick0083Lancaster wrote about architecture in Brooklyn and on Massachusetts’ Nantucket Island, where he restored an 1829 house and lived for several years. He became an influential advocate for historic preservation, both in the Northeast and in Kentucky.

The New York Times said his book, Old Brooklyn Heights: New York’s First Suburb, “provided the historical and intellectual ammunition for the successful argument in 1965 that Brooklyn Heights should become the city’s first historic district.”

Lancaster is best known in Kentucky for his photographs and research documenting antebellum homes. His meticulous scholarship added immeasurably to public knowledge of and efforts to preserve Kentucky’s outstanding early architecture. His books on the subject are the authoritative reference works: Ante Bellum Houses of the Bluegrass (1961), Vestiges of the Venerable City(1978) and Antebellum Architecture of Kentucky (1991).

When a friend, architectural historian and retired Herald-Leader reporter Bettye Lee Mastin, notified Lancaster in 1978 that the Warwick property he had long admired was for sale, he bought it and moved back to Kentucky.

The property along the Kentucky River in Mercer County includes a brick cottage of superb craftsmanship built by Moses Jones, a pioneer entrepreneur, between 1809-1811. The house’s elaborately carved woodwork includes basket-weave patterns on the mantels that were inspired by Jones’ 9-year captivity as a child among the Chickasaw tribe in Tennessee.

Lancaster meticulously restored the Moses Jones house and added a wing for his bedroom, kitchen and library. He furnished it with Kentucky antiques, as well as art and furniture from Asia, a place he never visited but studied and wrote about in such books as The Japanese Influence in America (1983) and The Breadth and Depth of East and West (1995).

Lancaster was a vegan, a yoga enthusiast and a convert to Buddhism who, nevertheless, delighted his many friends each year with whimsical Christmas cards he illustrated.

Thanks to a windfall from the sale of farmland inherited from his father, Lancaster built two architectural “follies,” fanciful structures he had delighted in drawing since childhood. The first was Warwick Pavilion, a small, elegant Georgian tea room connected to a stockroom for books he wrote and published.

The second folly is a three-story, octagonal guest house, modeled after the 1st Century BC Tower of Winds in Athens, Greece. No more than 25 feet at its widest point, the tower is a masterpiece of compact design with three bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen, studio, winding staircase and elegant, elliptical parlor.

The guest house, meticulously built by Calvin Shewmaker and other local craftsmen, is now used for visiting scholars, including UK’s annual Clay Lancaster Scholar.

“It’s such an interesting collection of buildings and a lovely setting,” Holbrook said. “We’re trying to figure out how to get more people there to see it.”

If you go

Warwick Foundation open house and book sale

When: Noon — 4 p.m. Jan. 19.
Where: Warwick is on Oregon Road about six miles off U.S. 127 near Salvisa.
More information: (859) 494-2852, Warwickfoundation.org

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


MLK Day speaker, singer a voice of civil rights for four decades

January 14, 2014

821024BerniceReagon003Bernice Johnson Reagon, right foreground, speaks during a performance by Sweet Honey in the Rock at 50th anniversary festivities for the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tenn., on Oct. 24, 1982. Other members of the a cappella ensemble performing that day were Yasmeen Williams, right, and, hidden behind her, Evelyn M. Harris, Ysaye M. Barnwell and Aisha Kahlil, Yasmeen Williams. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

When Bernice Johnson Reagon thinks back on her childhood in segregated southwest Georgia, she recalls a force more powerful than injustice: music.

“I was born in a culture where music was breath,” she said in an interview last week. “If you start to sing as soon as you start to talk, then there’s no separation between talking and singing.”

Reagon will be doing a lot of both Monday, when she is to be the keynote speaker at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. program at Lexington Center’s Heritage Hall. And that’s a good thing.

In addition to being a much-honored scholar, historian and social activist, Reagon has provided one of the most beautiful and powerful voices of the civil rights movement for 53 years.

Reagon, 71, was born outside Albany, Ga., the third child of Beatrice and the Rev. Jessie Johnson.

“If we weren’t in school, we were in church,” she said, describing how she and her young friends sang grace at lunch and games on the playground. “Music was everywhere in the culture I was born into.”

Bernice Johnson Reagon: singer, civil rights activist. Photo by Sharon FarmerIt was only natural that music would play a central role in the Albany Movement, an anti-segregation coalition that in 1961 focused national attention on racial discrimination in her hometown.

While in high school, Reagon was secretary of the junior chapter of the NAACP. She later participated in some of the first civil rights demonstrations in Albany, which got her expelled from Albany State College and put in jail.

She joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and became a member of the famous Freedom Singers, a touring quartet formed by Cordell Reagon, the man she would marry.

“I didn’t go back to complete college until after my second child was born,” said Reagon, who graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta and earned a doctorate in history from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

“But I continued to do the work that got me put in jail,” she said. “I didn’t have to change who I was to do that.”

In 1973, while a graduate student and vocal director of DC Black Repertory Theatre, Reagon formed Sweet Honey In the Rock, a black women’s a cappella ensemble that has toured the world and has made acclaimed recordings ever since. Reagon led the group until her retirement from it in 2004.

“I came out of the civil rights movement with an understanding of and a respect for strong-harmony, unaccompanied singing,” she said. “And singing that in terms of text spoke to injustice and the importance of believing that you can change the world.”

Reagon is a history professor emerita at American University in Washington D.C. and curator emerita of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Her scholarship has focused on American black music traditions.

She was the principal scholar and host of Wade in the Water, a Peabody Award-winning series produced by the Smithsonian and National Public Radio in the 1980s. She was the score composer for Africans in America, a PBS documentary film series in 1998.

Reagon has been a music consultant, composer and performer for several film products, including BelovedEyes on the Prize and We Shall Overcome. In 2003, she wrote the music and libretto for Robert Wilson’s production, The Temptation of St. Anthony, which has been performed around the world.

Reagon’s many awards include a MacArthur Fellowship (1989) and a Presidential Medal for contribution to public understanding of the humanities (1995). She has a long list of solo and ensemble recordings. She has collaborated with many other musicians, including her daughter, Toshi Reagon.

Although much progress has been made since she began working in the civil rights movement more than a half-century ago, Reagon sees many challenges of injustice, imbalance and inequity, such as environmental justice and the very survival of the planet.

“My sense of injustice is much broader now,” she said. “I’ve found myself pulled to listen and learn, and I think that has kept me true to the young girl who was the secretary of the first junior chapter of the NAACP in Albany, Ga. I guess I’m describing a great life.”


Clay Lancaster’s Warwick open Sunday for a rare tour

January 14, 2014

Warwick1Clay Lancaster’s Warwick estate. Photo by Helm Roberts/Warwick Foundation.

 

There is a special place in Central Kentucky that I have wanted to visit for years. I will finally get a chance Sunday, and so can you.

Warwick, on Oregon Road in Mercer County, is an estate near the Kentucky River where Moses Jones built a brick house in 1809. In more recent years, it was the home of Lexington native Clay Lancaster, a noted architectural historian, prolific author and all-around Renaissance man.

Lancaster (1917-2000) spent much of his career in New York City, but he moved back to Kentucky in 1978 when a friend, former Herald-Leader reporter Bettye Lee Mastin, let him know that Warwick was for sale.

Lancaster had always loved Warwick, and he bought it, restored it and moved there.

Lancaster

Clay Lancaster at Warwick’s Guest House.

Warwick has Lancaster’s library, as well as two “follies” he built: the Tea Pavilion, which has 18th-century architectural features and a large banquet table, and the Guest House, a three-story octagonal structure modeled after the first-century B.C. Tower of Winds in Athens, Greece.

Lancaster wrote more than 20 books and 150 articles, from scholarly tomes to children’s books. His books include, Old Brooklyn Heights: New York’s First Suburb, which the New York Times said “provided the historical and intellectual ammunition for the successful argument in 1965 that Brooklyn Heights should become the city’s first historic district.”

Lancaster is best known in Kentucky for his photographs and research documenting antebellum homes in the Bluegrass. His scholarship added immeasurably to public knowledge and efforts to preserve Central Kentucky’s pre-Civil War architecture.

I never got to meet Lancaster, but I have read several of his books. I use them frequently as reference, especially these three: Ante Bellum Houses of the Bluegrass (1961), Vestiges of the Venerable City (1978) and Antebellum Architecture of Kentucky (1991)

Lancaster grew up in Lexington’s Bell Court neighborhood, where his father built two homes. They helped spark Lancaster’s interest in that era of residential architecture, which led to his book The American Bungalow (1985).

In 2007, James Birchfield at the University of Kentucky put together Clay Lancaster’s Kentucky, a book of Lancaster’s photos of historic Kentucky homes, many of which are no longer standing.

Lancaster’s wide-ranging scholarship included 19th- and 20th-century architecture in Kentucky, New York and Massachusetts. His other enthusiasm was art and ideas from the Far East. His 1983 book, The Japanese Influence in America, remains a classic. He taught about art and architecture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Columbia University, Vassar College, UK, the University of Louisville and Transylvania University.

After Lancaster’s death, the Warwick Foundation was formed to manage Warwick and perpetuate his legacy of education, cross-cultural understanding and advocacy for historic preservation.

The foundation will open Warwick for a free open house, tour and book sale from noon until 4 p.m. Sunday. Warwick has rarely been open to the public in recent years, but foundation members hope to change that with several events in 2014.

Warwick is on Oregon Road, about six miles off U.S. 127 near Salvisa. For more information about Sunday’s event, email jkl@qx.net or call (859) 494-2852. For more information about Warwick, go to Warwickfoundation.org.

 

 


Author’s talks will focus on making cities more walkable

January 13, 2014

Urban planners, who in the decades after World War II helped redesign America’s cities and towns around the automobile, have been trying to warn people ever since then that they really screwed up.

Finally, most people are beginning to agree, says Jeff Speck, a veteran city planner and author of the 2012 book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time.

Health professionals cite car culture as a big reason an epidemic in obesity and related physical problems. Economists note that suburban sprawl has become costly to taxpayers because all of the new infrastructure rarely pays for itself. Plus, a lack of public transportation in many areas has put costly burdens of car ownership and maintenance on the working poor.

bookcoverThe environmental movement has had an anti-urban bent since the days of Thomas Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau. But that has changed dramatically.

“And all of a sudden environmentalists discovered that if you live in a city your footprint is much lighter than if you live in sprawl,” Speck said. “In fact, cities are a solution to our environmental crises, both locally and globally.”

Most of all, Speck says, average citizens, from young adults to their empty-nester parents, have embraced cities again. Across the country, home values in walkable, urban neighborhoods are rising much faster than those in the kinds of car-dependent suburbs that have dominated American development since the 1950s.

“Walkable cities actually save us money, make us money and are poised to thrive in the next couple of decades while unwalkable places aren’t,” Speck said in a telephone interview last week from his home in Washington, D.C.

Speck will be talking about these trends — and giving advice to community leaders about how to make their towns more walkable — at a lecture and workshop this week in Frankfort.

Speck will give a lecture at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Grand Theatre on St. Clair Mall, with a book signing to follow. Tickets are $10. On Friday, he will lead a two-hour workshop, beginning at 9 a.m., at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Auditorium, 200 Mero St. Admission is $25.

His visit is part of a conference sponsored by the Kentucky Heritage Council in conjunction with the annual winter meeting of the Kentucky Main Street Program, which works to improve life in the historic centers of the state’s towns and cities. Conference registration, including both of Speck’s sessions, is $100. More information: Heritage.ky.gov.

Most people don’t need convincing about the importance of walkability, he said, but they do need help with strategies for making it happen.

speckSpeck’s book notes that many communities made walking more difficult because they were being designed for other considerations. For example, many streets and intersections are oversized to accommodate the largest-possible emergency vehicles. Fewer but bigger schools and parks have been built because they are easier for officials to maintain and show off than the alternative, which often would be easier for citizens to get to and use.

“The twin gods of smooth traffic and ample parking” took the life out of many once-thriving downtowns, Speck writes, turning them into places that are “easy to get to but not worth arriving at.”

Speck writes that there are four criteria for successful pedestrian areas: walking must be safe, comfortable, interesting and useful. By useful, he means that necessities of daily life — shopping, restaurants and workplaces — must be close and arranged so they can be easily accessed by walking.

Speck’s book outlines 10 steps for city walkability. Those include mixed-use neighborhoods, good mass transit, well-designed and affordable parking facilities, ample trees and bicycle-friendly streets.

The biggest challenge many American cities and towns will face in coming years will be retrofitting mid- and late-20th century suburbs to make them more accessible for aging Baby Boomers and the working poor.

“We’ve laid the groundwork for a major social crisis,” he said.

The best hope is often restoring traditional downtowns and making new developments better for walking, biking and mass transit. That will require changing many ingrained rules and attitudes about traffic and street design.

“Most traffic engineers are really nice people,” Speck said. “But they will wreck your city.”  

Watch Jeff Speck’s TED Talk on walkable cities:


Kentucky poet Jeff Worley talks about his art and craft

January 1, 2014

WorleyJeff Worley, a Kansas native who moved to Lexington in 1986, has published six book-length poetry collections and three small chapbooks. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

When Jeff Worley was young, he loved word games, puns and puzzles. He was certainly the only kid in English class who thought diagramming sentences was fun.

But what opened his eyes to the power of language was a Christmas gift from his mother when he was 9: a collection of stories by Mark Twain.

“I thought it was magical how these words could make me feel like I was with Becky Thatcher in that cave,” he said. “And that I was Tom Sawyer. He was so much cooler than me.”

Reading led Worley, 66, to earn bachelor’s and master’s of fine arts degrees in English from Wichita State University in his Kansas hometown. That led to careers as an English teacher, an academic journalist and a persistent poet.

Worley has published six book-length poetry collections and three small chapbooks, the first of which won a national award in 1991. He edited the anthology, What Comes Down to Us: 25 Contemporary Kentucky Poets, published by University Press of Kentucky in 2009.

worleybookWorley’s most recent collection, A Little Luck, won the 2012 X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, the latest of several national and regional awards he has received.

Like many of Worley’s books, A Little Luck includes a mix of lyrical and storytelling poems. A reviewer once used James Joyce’s made-up word jocoserious to describe Worley’s poems. They are serious and funny, and sometimes seriously funny.

The subjects Worley chose to write about in A Little Luck range from an awkwardly humorous “facts of life” discussion with his father at age 13 to his first evening after retirement and watching birds from the porch of his cabin on Cave Run Lake.

His poems resonate with readers because they often are about personal experiences others can relate to, such as playing Little League baseball or coping with the death of a parent.

“He’s a wonderful poet who has a terrific sense of humor,” said Gray Zeitz, the notoriously choosy publisher of Larkspur Press in Monterey, who in 2000 produced a handmade edition of Worley’s collection A Simple Human Motion. “He should be more popular than he is. He’s one of the state’s best poets.”

Worley moved to Lexington in 1986 when his wife, Linda Worley, an associate professor of German studies, was hired at the University of Kentucky.

They met in 1977 when both were teaching university classes for American military families in Germany. When they came to Lexington, she had just finished her doctorate and he was teaching English at Penn State Altoona in Pennsylvania.

Jeff Worley said he quickly realized two things: Lexington was a much nicer place to live than Altoona, and if he kept teaching English 101 to undergrads, “I would start eyeing open windows in tall buildings.”

After a couple of years of free-lance writing “that was amazing un-lucrative,” Worley was hired as a writer for Odyssey magazine, which covers innovative research at UK. He became the editor when Susan Stempel retired in 1997.

Since Worley’s own retirement three years ago, he has devoted more time to poetry. He writes and reads for a few hours each morning in the upstairs study of the couple’s 1930s cottage near Commonwealth Stadium. He also teaches poetry classes at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

“As a poet, it’s been wonderful for me to be in Kentucky,” he said, “It is so rich with writers.”

After years of declining popularity, poetry is big again. So I asked Worley what advice he would give to aspiring poets.

He suggested they read widely, and not just poetry. They should write a lot of poems, because many of them won’t be any good. They should travel, if possible, to expand their minds. And although writing is a solitary business, writers need company.

“Find other poets who have some sense of what you’re trying to achieve, and form some kind of group that meets regularly or at least exchanges emails,” he said.

Worley and Marsha Hurlow, who teaches English at Asbury University, formed such a group of poets in 1989 that is still meeting.

“These poet friends of mine have frankly saved me a lot of embarrassment, and they always make useful comments about how to make a poem better,” he said.

“What I encourage students to do … is to simply get something down on the page, some line or sentence, and see where it wants to take you,” he said. “Then you can always go back and throw some out and polish.”

Polishing through multiple revisions is key to any good writing, he said.

“It reminds me of the quote by Paul Valéry, that a poem is never finished, only abandoned,” Worley said. “I am always writing new poems and I have got a thick folder full of drafts that I go back to that are in the process of being abandoned, or not.”  


Berea College archive preserves the sounds of Appalachia

December 29, 2013

131120Eblen-Berea0006

Renfro Valley radio show cast at the old barn stage in the early 1950s. Left to right are Ray Sosbyee, Linda Lou Martin, Claude Sweet and Glenn Pennington. Photo courtesy Berea College Special Collections and Archives.

 

BEREA — As soon as sound recording equipment became small enough to fit in a car trunk in the 1950s, academics began racing around the mountains, trying to preserve the music and stories of a disappearing Appalachian culture.

Now archivists at Berea College are in another race against time: to preserve those old recordings for the 21st century and beyond and make them more widely available through the Internet.

Over the past eight years, sound archivists John Bondurant and Harry Rice have digitized more than 3,000 hours of recordings. Bondurant figures they are about halfway through the archives’ current holdings.

Some of that material, as well as a more limited collection of digitized video and photos, can be seen and heard on the archives’ website:Libraryguides.berea.edu/soundarchivesguide.

131120Eblen-Berea0001The collection includes an impressive array of traditional Appalachian music, oral-history interviews, ballads, folk tales, old radio programs and black and white religious music. Plus, there are recordings of events, speakers and performances at the college going back to at least the 1960s.

Many of the recordings came from a collection started by Loyal Jones, who from 1970-1993 headed the college’s Appalachia Center, which is now named for him. But, over the years, many more collections have been donated to the college, providing a rich tapestry of authentic, one-of-a-kind sound.

The Appalachian music archives includes collections of fiddle, banjo and dulcimer tunes, band performances and recordings of Berea’s annual Celebration of Traditional Music, which began in 1974. Several collections focus on religious music, from Old Regular Baptist hymns to gospel music radio performances and Sacred Harp singing in rural black churches.

The archives also include broadcasts of John Lair’s Renfro Valley Barn Dance and related radio programs, which were broadcast between the late 1930s and the late 1950s on Cincinnati’s WLW-AM, Louisville’s WHAS-AM and the CBS Network. Although less famous than the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville’s WSM-AM, the shows had a huge impact on the development of country music.

131120Eblen-Berea0002Much of the radio collection was donated to Berea in the 1980s, when WHAS changed ownership and moved studios after the breakup of the Bingham family’s Louisville media empire.

“They called here and offered us these, implying that if we didn’t take them they would be thrown out,” Bondurant said. That archives included 1,500 16-inch transcription disc from the 1930s through the 1950s that were meant for short-term rebroadcast or advertiser verification.

“Like most media, it was never intended to be saved,” Bondurant said, so the transcription discs have been a challenge to copy before they disintegrate. “For most of these old programs, these are the only copies that exist.”

Those discs included episodes of Circle Star Ranch, a children’s radio show from the 1940s that featured a cowboy singer and the predecessor of WHAS-TV’s famous kids’ show, T-Bar-V Ranch, which had a loyal following among Louisville baby boomers.

Bondurant works in a tiny studio with a reel-to-reel tape player and a specially a specially modified turntable with a variety of sizes of phonograph styluses. Both are hooked up to a computer with digital sound software.

“Some of these materials, you have one shot; we play it to copy it and it should never be played again,” he said. “I’m trying to get the cleanest signal so it sounds like the original document.”

Bondurant, an amateur guitar player, worked in music licensing for Broadcast Music Inc., better known as BMI, in Nashville before earning a master’s degree in library science at the University of Kentucky.

Bondurant said the digital technology he uses to copy archival recordings has improved dramatically since he joined Berea College in 2005. And, unlike other preservation methods, digital copying makes it safe and easy to share material with researchers and other interested listeners more widely.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that digital technology is changing so fast, it will be a constant challenge to keep material preserved and accessible.

“The digital life cycle is a lot shorter than the analog life cycle,” Bondurant said. “We can still play recordings that are century old easier than we can play some DAT (digital audio tape) recordings from the 1990s that have essentially erased themselves.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:

 


John Egerton chronicled the South, from civil rights to barbecue

November 23, 2013

For a young Southern journalist getting started in the 1980s, there was no better role model and mentor than John Egerton, who died unexpectedly last Thursday at his home in Nashville. He was 78.

I got to know John while I was covering Tennessee for The Associated Press. When I started traveling the upper South for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he became a friend and valuable resource.

As a freelance journalist since 1971, John’s award-winning books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles chronicled in-depth so many things that fascinated me about Southern history, culture, politics and food.

I often called John for information and advice, which he modestly dispensed in a soft drawl. And I knew that if he was in town whenever I came to Nashville, he would take me to some memorable hole-in-the-wall for a delicious breakfast or lunch.

JohnEgerton-webJohn was born in Atlanta but his family soon moved to Cadiz, Ky.. He graduated from the University of Kentucky, which inducted him into its Journalism Hall of Fame and Hall of Distinguished Alumni. UK Libraries honored him last April with its Award for Intellectual Achievement.

I first knew John through two of his early books, A Mind to Stay Here (1970) and The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America (1974). When we met he had just published Generations: An American Family (1983), the engrossing story of nine generations of Kentucky’s Ledford family.

The book that made Egerton famous was Southern Food, a combination cookbook, travel guide and social history that was named the 1987 book of the year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

John had spent more than a year eating his way across the South without adding much weight to his tall, lanky frame or, he said, raising his cholesterol. His book chronicled the evolution and role of food in Southern culture, including the substantial contribution of black culture.

I wrote one of the first articles about the book, for the Journal-Constitution. We met for the interview at Hap Townes, a long-gone Nashville “meat and three” where musicians, executives and factory workers sat elbow-to-elbow enjoying house specialties that included stewed raisins.

“If I had been braver, I would have called the book The Stomach of the South; I think W.J. Cash would have understood,” he told me, referring to the author of the 1941 classic, The Mind of the South.

John followed Southern Food with, Side Orders: Small Helpings of Southern Cookery and Culture (1990). He helped start the Southern Foodways Alliance, and he edited the first volume of Cornbread Nation 1: The Best of Southern Food Writing (2002). But John was always amused at his fame as a food writer, claiming his only culinary expertise was eating.

He published several other books: a history of Nashville, an exploration of Tennessee’s 19th century utopian communities and a collection of his magazine essays that explored the South’s complexity.

His masterpiece was the 700-page book Speak Now Against The Day: The Generation Before The Civil Rights Movement in the South (1994). It drew on his nearly three decades of reporting on Southern race relations, beginning in 1965 for the magazine Southern Education Report. It won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and it deserved a Pulitzer Prize.

John’s soft voice, gentle humor and modest demeanor masked a moral compass that compelled him to speak out against things he believed were wrong.

When the Tennessee Valley Authority condemned his Trigg County farm and others in the 1960s to build the Land Between the Lakes outdoor recreation area, John became the lead plaintiff in a federal court battle. With Justice William O. Douglas dissenting, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal.

In 2006, John wrote a book of political satire, Ali Dubyiah and the Forty Thieves. He described it, only half seriously, as his only work of fiction.

John’s most popular writing celebrated what was good about the South, but his biggest contribution as a journalist and historian was his examination of what held the region back: race, class, poverty, inequity and corruption. He was a masterful storyteller who had the courage to not only report facts, but explain what those facts added up to.

 


Museum publishes new illustrated Lexington history book

November 13, 2013

Historic Lexington: Heart of the Bluegrass is a new illustrated history book published by the Lexington History Museum.

The book includes a 64-page history narrative written by Lexington lawyer Foster Ockerman Jr., followed by articles about 20 local companies and institutions bookcoverwhose sponsorship paid for the publication. All proceeds from the book, which sells for $50, will benefit the museum.

“What I wanted to write was a popular history,” Ockerman said of the one-chapter, chronological overview illustrated with historic and modern images. About 100 books were sold by pre-order, and 400 more are available.

Ockerman will be signing the book at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Central Library, 140 E. Main St., and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.

The Lexington History Museum has been reinventing itself since its home, the old Fayette County Courthouse, was closed in July 2012 because of lead paint hazards. The organization has opened several small “pocket museums” around downtown and plans more there and in Chevy Chase. Also, the museum is rebuilding its website to be more of a local history database.  


UK historian Ron Eller leaves big shoes to fill; who will?

November 13, 2013

Ronald Eller, a University of Kentucky history professor and outstanding writer who has focused on Appalachia, was honored last Friday as he donated his papers to UK Special Collections in preparation for his retirement at the end of the year.

ellerEller came to UK in 1985, succeeding Harry Caudill, the Eastern Kentucky lawyer whose 1962 book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, focused national attention on the exploitation of Appalachia. Eller picked up where Caudill left off, analyzing the forces that have shaped Appalachia’s evolution.

Eller’s 1982 book, Miners, Mill hands and Mountaineers: The Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A 2008 book, Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, is the best book I know of about the region’s modern history.

No word yet on the Appalachian scholar UK will hire to succeed Eller in the history department, but he or she had better be good. We cannot really understand modern Kentucky without understanding Appalachian history.


Forester’s new non-profit aims to save ancient Bluegrass trees

October 5, 2013

An ancient blue ash tree on a Fayette County horse farm.  Photo by Tom Kimmerer

An ancient blue ash tree on a Fayette County horse farm.  © Photo by Tom Kimmerer

 

What makes Central Kentucky’s landscape unique? Rolling pastures. Grazing horses. Stacked-stone walls. Four-plank fences. Antebellum mansions. Black tobacco barns.

But one distinctive feature is often overlooked: centuries-old trees.

Many of the enormous oak, hickory and ash trees scattered throughout the Bluegrass were here before Daniel Boone ever heard of Kentucky, much less explored it in the mid-1700s.

“I believe that we have more old, pre-settlement trees than any other urban and agricultural landscape in the country,” said Tom Kimmerer, a tree physiologist with a doctorate in forestry and botany.

But these leafy giants are rapidly disappearing, and Kimmerer thinks neglect and mismanagement are as much to blame as developers’ chainsaws.

“As we lose these trees,” he said, “I think we lose an important characteristic of the Bluegrass.”

Tom Kimmerer. Photo by Tom Eblen

Tom Kimmerer.   Photo by Tom Eblen

Kimmerer is writing and photographing a book to raise awareness of these trees, many of which are more than 300 years old. He also is creating a non-profit organization, Venerable Trees Inc., to identify remaining specimens, research the best ways to take care of them and teach landowners how to do it.

“I believe that these trees could easily live another 500 years, many of them,” he said. “We know that some oaks can live beyond 1,000 years.”

Kimmerer has created a webpage (Venerabletrees.org/locate) for citizens to report “venerable” trees they know of. He will have a workshop Oct. 12 at Floracliff Nature Preserve for people wanting to know more about these trees. Details: Venerabletrees.org/classes.

And because many slow-growth tree varieties do not reproduce well naturally in an increasingly urbanized environment, Kimmerer hopes to propagate seedlings branded as progeny of some of Lexington’s most iconic specimens.

“I would like people in the Bluegrass to identify with these trees more,” he said. “So instead of just planting any old thing you can get from the nursery, we develop a tradition of planting our native trees, because they are so magnificent and so long-lived.”

When settlers arrived in Central Kentucky in the 1770s, they found a unique landscape with fields of cane and grass dotted with bur, shumard and chinkapin oaks, blue ash and a hickory they called kingnut, shellbark or shagbark.

“These old trees were kept because settlers had compelling reasons to keep them,” Kimmerer said, noting that they helped shade livestock pastures and decorate the estates of wealthy landowners.

There is no way to tell the age of a tree by looking at it; a core sample must be drilled and growth rings counted. It is a time-consuming process. But very old trees give visual clues: cylindrical, rather than tapered, trunks; stout, twisted branch patterns; tufted groups of leaves at the ends of branches.

Not all giant trees here are very old. For example, there are many huge sycamores, but Kimmerer thinks they came after settlement when much of the cane had been grazed off. Scientists know that many of the large ginkgo trees around Lexington descend from Japanese specimens Henry Clay planted at his Ashland estate.

Many old-growth trees have been lost to suburban development. A 1950 survey of bur oaks in Fayette County found about 400. A similar survey in 1978 found 180. When Kimmerer replicated the survey last spring, he found 43. (However, he found about that many more by surveying along roads built since 1950).

A few years ago, Kimmerer found the most magnificent blue ash he had ever seen at a development site off Winchester Road. It had survey markers around it, which he thought meant the developer was planning to keep it. When he returned a few days later, the giant tree was a pile of mulch.

Some people take down old-growth trees because they incorrectly think they are dying and could pose a liability. Blue ash usually continue to thrive despite dead tops or hollow spots from lightning strikes. Even the emerald ash borer, a beetle now decimating many varieties of ash, usually doesn’t kill blue ash, Kimmerer said.

He recalled talking with a farmer who thought his damaged blue ash needed to be cut down. “I told him, yea, I doubt it’s got more than 300 good years left,” he said. “He was surprised.”

Because Lexington’s venerable trees are living historical markers, they often are found in what now seem like odd places. Kimmerer took me to one such tree along South Broadway, in front of an Avis rental car office. Previously, it was part of the vast lawn of Ingleside, a mansion built in 1852 and demolished in 1964.

Another example is the huge bur oak surrounded by a parking deck at the medical office complex across Harrodsburg Road from St. Joseph Hospital. It was the largest of a grove of bur oaks there as late as the 1950s. Only public outcry kept it from being cut down.

Kimmerer said some Lexington builders now realize that preserving these trees can create valuable amenities for their developments. Ball Homes kept a giant bur oak, the Blackford Oak, in a development near Hamburg. The neighborhood is called Blackford Oaks.

Many ancient trees have been saved from the chainsaw only to decline and die because landowners neglect or mismanage them.

“In England, where they have a long tradition of taking care of old trees, they have a huge manual for managing what they call veteran trees,” Kimmerer said. “We need something comparable to that. We know that good care can make a big difference.”

The most frequent problem Kimmerer sees is old trees whose lives are being shortened by compacted soil and the use of herbicides and fertilizer around them. “You would think fertilizer would be good for trees,” he said. “But the faster a tree grows, the shorter its lifetime.”

Kimmerer said landowners could learn a lot about managing old-growth trees from Keeneland, the Kentucky Horse Park, several area horse farms and neighborhood associations such as Squire Oak.

Perhaps the best local steward, he said, is Lexington Cemetery. Begun in 1849 in a grove of old-growth trees, the cemetery has been nurturing and planting bur oaks and other native varieties ever since. The beautiful cemetery uses no herbicides and little fertilizer, and its ancient trees are thriving.

Kimmerer hopes Venerable Trees Inc. can have a big impact on preservation efforts, because many old-growth trees are in the areas near Hamburg now slated for development. With good planning, those ancient trees could survive and thrive as neighborhood icons for generations.

“There are so few of these trees left now,” Kimmerer said. “We need to be more conscious of them and do more to preserve them.”


Wendell Berry partners with college on sustainable farm program

October 1, 2013

130920BerryAg0094Jonas Hurley, right, owner of River Run Farm & Pottery in Washington County, shows students in St. Catharine College’s new Berry Farming Program his array of solar panels, which provide about 60 percent of his farm’s power and should pay for themselves within a dozen years. In the center is the Berry program’s director, Leah Bayens. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

SPRINGFIELD — Agriculture economists have been sounding a death knell for the American family farm for decades. Since World War II, farming has been all about machinery, chemicals and the idea of “get big or get out.”

More recently, though, the sustainable-agriculture movement has shown an alternative path. It is based on creating new markets and innovative farming techniques rooted in the wisdom of nature.

The movement has been fueled by consumers who want fresher, tastier produce and meat that isn’t sprayed with chemicals and pumped full of hormones. Many consumers are willing to pay more for better quality.

Sustainably produced local food nourishes communities as well as bodies. Many farm families want to stay on their land, finding that the rewards are worth the hard work. They also want to make sure the land isn’t poisoned and eroded, so future generations can keep farming.

With its fertile soil, temperate climate and central location, Kentucky would seem to be a great place to capitalize on this trend. Plus, Kentucky is the home of writer Wendell Berry, one of the global gurus of sustainable agriculture.

This fall, St. Catharine College, a Catholic school founded by the Dominican Sisters in Washington County, started offering bachelor’s degrees in farming and ecological agrarianism.

St. Catharine’s Berry Farming Program incorporates Berry’s sustainability philosophies and was developed in conjunction with his family’s Berry Center in the Henry County town of New Castle.

(Berry’s alma mater, The University of Kentucky, where he taught English for many years, has developed a respected sustainable agriculture program. But Berry had a very public breakup with UK in December 2009, when he withdrew his papers after the university named the new basketball players’ dormitory Wildcat Coal Lodge in return for millions of dollars in coal industry donations.)

Assistant Professor Leah Bayens developed St. Catharine’s four-year Berry Farming Program, which combines interdisciplinary study in agriculture, ecology, business, marketing and community leadership with hands-on farm internships.

The-Unsettling-of-America (1)Bayens launched the program this fall with four students in the introductory class, which uses as a supplementary text Berry’s landmark 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, which helped spark the sustainability movement.

Three international students will join the program in January, thanks to scholarships from Eleanor Bingham Miller, whose Louisville family once owned The Courier-Journal. Bayens will choose those students from the more than 60 applicants from sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Latin America, where sustainable agriculture is desperately needed.

The Berry Farming Program’s first four students represent an interesting mix of the sons and daughters of Kentucky farm families.

Freshman Marshall Berry is Wendell Berry’s grandson, and he is trying to figure out whether he wants to make a career of farming, as his father, Den Berry, did. Does he feel any family pressure? Maybe a little, he said.

“I know I want to live and work on a farm,” said freshman Winifred Chevront, who grew up on a Taylor County farm. “I think this could help me achieve my goals.”

Pamela Mudd, a junior who transferred here after studying food science at UK, comes from a large Washington County farming family.

“I want to get some new ideas for keeping our family farm in the family,” she said.

Jacob Settle, a junior, comes from a Washington County farm family and has built a regionally successful freezer-beef business with his brother, Jordan. Rising Sons Beef sells locally bred, born and raised beef that is free of antibiotics, steroids and hormones.

Bayens has taken her class on several field trips to see area farms. Last month, I joined them on a tour of Jonas and Julie Hurley’s River Run Farm & Pottery near Springfield.

The Hurleys raise sorghum and vegetables, hogs, chickens, goats, turkeys, ducks and sheep. They also have a dairy cow and a llama. They produce almost all of the food they and their two young sons eat, selling the surplus at a local farmer’s market. Jonas Hurley also sells his pottery and teaches classes.

A few months ago, Hurley installed solar panels that produce about 60 percent of his farm’s power. The $14,000 investment should pay for itself within 12 years, he said.

“I want the students to get opportunities to meet, mingle and work side by side with different kinds of farmers so they can see what kinds of creativity and inventiveness are at work,” Bayens said. “There is a lot of opportunity out there for farmers willing to find it.”

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New book showcases Kentucky’s antebellum decorative arts

September 15, 2013

Gigi Lacer

SIMPSONVILLE — When journalists Genevieve Lacer and Libby Howard began collecting Kentucky antiques more than a decade ago, they were surprised by how little information was readily available.

A few monographs had been written and some museum catalogs published. The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., had collected some scholarship. The Magazine Antiques had featured Kentucky pieces in special issues in 1947 and 1974.

But there were no comprehensive books about Kentucky-made furniture, silver and textiles, even though they were some of the finest produced anywhere in antebellum America.

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Libby Turner Howard, left, and Genevieve Baird Lacer. Photo by Tom Eblen. Photos from their book by Bill Roughen.

What the friends soon discovered was that considerable scholarship had been done on early Kentucky decorative arts, but most of that knowledge resided in the heads and notebooks of a few dozen passionate collectors.

That prompted Lacer and Howard to write and publish Collecting Kentucky 1790-1860. The 360-page book is detailed and exacting, yet readable and beautifully designed, with 600 illustrations by Lexington photographer Bill Roughen. State historian James Klotter wrote the forward.

“The book gives you a visual entryway into things you’ll never see, because they’re in private homes,” Lacer said, and only a few pieces from historic house museums are included “because we literally ran out of room.”

The book’s 270 “subscribers,” who paid $275 early in the process to get leather-bound special editions, receive their books Sunday at a private reception. A $75 “collector’s” edition goes on sale Monday at bookstores and antique shops around the state (for more information, go to Collectingkentucky.com).

Lacer, who lives in Shelby County, wrote an award-winning 2006 biography of Swiss artist Edward Troye, who painted America’s greatest racehorses in the mid-1800s. Howard, who lives in Henry County, is a former editor of Kentucky Homes and Gardens magazine.

In approaching their book project, Lacer and Howard wanted to document Kentucky antiques and explore their histories, relationships and craftsmen. They also wanted to explain the goals and objectives of serious collectors they knew about, all of whom live in Kentucky.

“These are people who have spent 30, 40, 50 years refining a viewpoint about their collections,” Howard said. “They all have a focus. We became fascinated with how, visually, they are telling the story of antebellum Kentucky as they understand it.”

Book Jacket w-flaps_cmyk.inddTen major collections are profiled in separate chapters. Objects from 40 more private collections are gathered by object type in an 83-page “archive” at the back. Between each chapter is a small essay that tells an interesting story about an object, its maker or the time and place in which this work was created.

Only one collection is identified with its owners’ names, because it is the only major collection now in the public domain. Over three decades, Garrard County natives Bob and Norma Noe assembled one of the most impressive collections of early Kentucky antiques. They recently donated it to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville.

The Speed is now closed for a major renovation and expansion. But when it reopens in 2016, the Noe Collection will be the foundation of a new Center for Kentucky Art, the first permanent museum space devoted to Kentucky works.

Bob Noe encouraged Lacer and Howard to write Collecting Kentucky as both a primer and a reference book, and he said in an interview that he is pleased with the result.

“I think the book will do wonders to add context in an area too often neglected,” Noe said. “Kentuckians need to know more about our early culture.”

The six decades covered in this book were exciting times in Kentucky. After statehood in 1792, Kentucky transitioned from America’s frontier to being a prosperous and influential region of agriculture and trade.

Prosperity created demand for decorative art and utilitarian items that were both beautiful and functional. Because Kentucky had little colonial tradition, early decorative arts often featured motifs of patriotism, and native flora and fauna.

Craftsmen in all parts of Kentucky produced remarkable work. Some, such as silversmith Asa Blanchard and cabinetmaker Porter Clay (brother of Henry), created pieces as fine as anything then being made on the East Coast.

The book features many outstanding examples of chests, cupboards, desks, case clocks, tables and chairs made of native cherry and walnut with poplar inlay, as well as imported mahogany. The authors tried to pull together available research on the craftsmen who made these items, linking pieces to regional styles.

Early Kentucky silver, often made from melted coins, has long been prized. Lacer said one of the most fun experiences in compiling the book was when several collectors brought more than $1 million worth of silver to her home to be photographed. Roughen was able to create images comparing large groups of work that had never been brought together before.

The book includes a section about one of Kentucky’s most famous products of the era: the long rifle. Kentucky rifles were not only accurate and dependable weapons; they often were highly decorated works of art.

Lacer and Howard said they hope their book will spark more public interest and scholarship in early Kentucky decorative arts.

“We just scratched the surface,” Lacer said. “We left out big collections we know about, and I can only imagine the ones we don’t know about. This is a lot bigger idea in our state than I ever dreamt.”

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Why is small-town, rural Kentucky suffering? Wendell Berry explains

August 20, 2013

Ok, I’ll warn you up front that this will take some time. Wendell Berry, Kentucky’s most important living thinker and writer, doesn’t talk in sound bites. But it is worth every minute.

This video is of a talk Berry gave last Friday at the annual meeting of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, the grassroots citizens group. Berry’s message has been the same for decades. It isn’t a popular message, but we ignore it at our peril. (If you’re really in a hurry, here’s a summary of his main points.)

Wendell Berry at the Annual Meeting from Kentuckians For The Commonwealth on Vimeo.


Kentucky poet Maurice Manning gains a national reputation

August 20, 2013

Manning1

 Poet Maurice Manning lives in an 1850s farmhouse on 20 acres near Springfield, fulfilling a pledge he made when he was in graduate school in Alabama. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

SPRINGFIELD — Clouds were gathering for an early evening shower as Maurice Manning leashed his three big dogs and took off down one of the mowed paths that criss-cross almost 20 acres behind his 1850s farmhouse.

“One of my vows when I was in grad school in Alabama was that if I ever made any money from writing, I would buy land in Kentucky,” he said as we ambled through woods, past a stream and across meadows of wildflowers in full August bloom.

“Most farmers wouldn’t think much of what I’ve done with the place,” Manning said of his land, which was grazed and cultivated before nature started reclaiming it. Manning’s daily two-mile walks help his mind harvest a different kind of Kentucky crop.

Manning, 47, who pronounces his first name “Morris,” is attracting national attention as a poet. His first book, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, won the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 2001. His fourth book, The Common Man, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 2010.

Manning3Manning was a National Book Awards poetry judge last year and has been a Guggenheim fellow. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Southern Review and The Virginia Quarterly Review. His fifth poetry collection,The Gone and the Going Away, was published in April to good reviews.

The Danville native, whose ancestors helped settle Clay and Rockcastle counties, had divided his time between the Washington County farm he and his wife, Amanda, bought in 2001 and Indiana, where he taught English at Indiana University and, before that, DePauw University.

“For a long time, I felt like I had one foot in Kentucky and one foot in Indiana,” said Manning, who earned his undergraduate degree from Earlham College, a Quaker school in Richmond, Ind.

So two years ago, Manning gave up the security of tenure at Indiana to become an English professor at Transylvania University. He also is a writer in residence, along with another distinguished Kentucky poet, Richard Taylor.

“I love teaching, and teaching at Transy is especially enjoyable because the classes are small and you can get into intense conversations with students,” he said. “I knew I wanted to teach Kentucky students for a variety of reasons. I just feel like I owe a debt to this state since everything I write about is Kentucky.”

The poems in Manning’s most recent book are like tiny short stories with colorful characters from “Fog Town Holler” in the Kentucky of his imagination. His carefully crafted verse is filled with wry humor, evocation of traditional ways of life and a reverence for nature.

“There’s something about the organized rhythm of a poetic line that is a real source of meditation,” said Manning, who plays guitar and is learning the banjo.

Manning has finished another book of poetry, as yet untitled, that includes “intense descriptions of the natural world,” he said. “The motive for that is recognizing how thoroughly we are destroying the natural world.”

Manning said he began writing poetry privately in junior high. He assumed that nobody else was still writing poetry, because all of the poets he studied in English class were dead. That changed when poet Denise Levertov visited a class he was taking at Earlham.

“It made everything seem less mysterious,” he said. “She wasn’t an aloof, obscure person.”

Later, Manning got to know James Still, the celebrated Eastern Kentucky writer and poet, when he was in his 80s. And he found ways to connect with dead poets whose work he admired. In 2009, Manning visited England and walked the landscape that inspired the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge.

Another inspiration was fellow Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren, the only person to win Pulitzer Prizes for both poetry (twice) and fiction. On April 24, Manning was invited to the Library of Congress in Washington to read Warren’s poetry during a celebration of what would have been Warren’s 108th birthday.

Manning said Warren was one of the last prominent American poets who thought poetry was a place for philosophical meditation, for asking profound questions about life. That, he said, is where he hopes his own poetry is heading.

“One of the nice things about being a poet is there’s no money in it,” Manning said. “Believe it or not, that gives you a lot of freedom.”

Manning2Maurice Manning has cut four miles of walking paths through his 20-acre farm. 

 


Exhibit honors pioneer publisher, entreprenuer John Bradford

June 11, 2013

Many people go through school hating history. All of those dates to remember! Besides, people from the past are usually portrayed as one-dimensional heroes or villains, their claims to fame reduced to a sound bite.

A good example is John Bradford, who published the state’s first newspaper, the Kentucky Gazette. That’s all I remember about him from Kentucky History class.

Then my daughter, Mollie, and I wrote a chapter for the book Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852. We told the story of Transylvania University’s dramatic rise and fall in the 1820s under President Horace Holley. In our research, we discovered that the man behind the scenes of that “rise” was Bradford, the longtime chairman of Transy’s Board of Trustees.

John Bradford portrait in the collection of the Bodley-Bullock House, Lexington Junior League. Image courtesy of University of Kentucky Special Collections.

John Bradford portrait in the collection of the Bodley-Bullock House, Lexington Junior League. Image courtesy of University of Kentucky Special Collections.

I learned much more when the Cardome Center in Georgetown asked me to research and write an essay about Bradford for a symposium last month. The symposium, which featured a dozen prominent Kentucky journalists, was about the history and future of the news media.

The city of Georgetown owns Cardome, a former Catholic girls’ school. A non-profit association has a long-term lease and ambitious plans to create the Center for the Written Word, a writers’ retreat and museum.

The symposium, Words in a Changing World: From Bradford to Bloggers, opened the museum’s first exhibit, a display of original and facsimile copies of the Kentucky Gazette, which Bradford published off and on from 1787 until his death in 1830. The free exhibit runs through July 5.

The old Gazette copies make for some interesting reading. But they reveal little about their publisher, who was a Renaissance man of the Kentucky frontier. Bradford’s legacy continues to shape Lexington in ways that might surprise you.

Bradford was born in 1749 near Warrenton, Va. A surveyor like his father, he came to Kentucky to seek his fortune. In the 1780s he and his brother, Fielding, laid claim to 6,000 acres, mostly along Cane Run Creek between Lexington and Georgetown.

Kentucky leaders who wanted to break away from Virginia and form a new state decided they needed a newspaper to publicize their cause, but they were unable to attract a printer from back East. So, on the promise of future state printing work, Bradford and his brother bought a press in Pennsylvania and brought it down the Ohio River on a flatboat and overland from Maysville on pack horses.

During its early years, the Gazette was the only newspaper within 500 miles of Lexington. It published weeks-old reports of national and international news and a smattering of local happenings. There was special emphasis on reports of Indian attacks on settlers. Bradford himself participated in attacks on Native American settlements in what is now Ohio.

Like most small-town publishers, Bradford became involved in many aspects of civic and business life. He chaired the town trustees for many years and was a legislator and sheriff. But he was more businessman than politician.

In addition to running newspapers in Lexington and Frankfort, Bradford was the state’s first book publisher and owner of an early bookstore. In 1796, he was a founder of the Lexington Public Library. He started the first mail service between Central Kentucky towns as part of newspaper delivery.

Bradford promoted emigration to Kentucky and helped start the Kentucky Vineyard Society to try to develop a local wine industry. He owned a tavern, a warehouse and a steam-powered flour mill and cotton factory on Vine Street. A mechanic and mathematician, he designed much of the machinery.

Bradford lived at the corner of Second and Mill streets in a house he bought from Henry Clay’s father-in-law, Thomas Hart. The house was torn down in 1955, 125 years after Bradford’s death, to create a parking lot. Public outrage over the demolition led to creation of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

To read the full essay on Bradford, click here.

If you go

John Bradford’s Kentucky Gazette

Where: Cardome Center, 800 Cincinnati Rd., Georgetown

When: 9 a.m. — 5 p.m., Tues.— Sat. through July 5.

Admission: Free

More information: (502) 863-1575, Cardomecenter.com.