The story behind Gratz Park’s bronze kids, soon headed for repairs

November 21, 2014

141111GPFountain0032Author James Lane Allen’s will left the city $6,000 to build a fountain dedicated to Lexington’s youth. Installed in 1933, it will get a much-needed makeover this winter.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Like horses, stone fences and antebellum homes, the bronze boy and girl in Gratz Park have become frequently photographed symbols of Lexington.

But early this week or next, depending on the weather, a crane will carefully remove the life-size statues from their perch on the fountain across Third Street from Transylvania University.

The kids will spend the winter at Lexington’s Prometheus Foundry for repairs and refinishing. If all goes well, they will return to the park in May after the fountain’s crumbling concrete and Depression-era plumbing are replaced and the stone and brick surrounds are restored.

The fountain “is just falling apart with age,” said Michelle Kosieniak, superintendent of planning and design for the city’s Division of Parks and Recreation. “We figured that since we were moving the statues anyway, we should take a look at restoring them, too, and hopefully get them ready to be enjoyed for another half-century.”

There is an interesting story behind these playful children and their fountain that says a lot about Lexington’s history of tension between progressive thought and conservative religion. But it has nothing to do with the statues’ lack of clothing.

141111GPFountain0024James Lane Allen was born near Lexington in 1849 and graduated with honors from Transylvania University in 1872. After a few years of teaching, he pursued a writing career and moved to New York City.

Allen became one of America’s most popular novelists and short-story writers in the 1890s. His tales, written in a flowery style popular in the late Victorian era, were often set in Kentucky and featured characters taken from early Bluegrass history.

One of his most famous tales, King Solomon of Kentucky, told the true story of how William “King” Solomon, an alcoholic vagrant, became a hero during Lexington’s 1833 cholera epidemic by staying to bury the dead while almost everyone else fled.

Novels such as A Kentucky Cardinal and The Choir Invisible became national best-sellers. But Allen’s 1900 novel The Reign of Law created controversy in Lexington because its protagonist accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution instead of a literal interpretation of the Bible’s creation story.

The Rev. John McGarvey, president of what is now Lexington Theological Seminary, castigated Allen in a widely publicized sermon. The Lexington Herald heaped on, opining that “dirt and dust” were “ruining the author’s mind.”

The criticism stung Allen, who wrote that Kentucky “never did appreciate its best people.” He never returned to Lexington — not even when the Lexington Public Library dedicated a portrait of him in 1916.

“My returning now would seem like vainly attempting to pass over into a vanished land,” Allen wrote his lifelong friend, M.A. Cassidy, the superintendent of Lexington’s public schools.

But Cassidy kept the author connected to his hometown. During the last decade of Allen’s life, Lexington schools celebrated his birthday each Dec. 21 and children would write notes and telegrams of good wishes.

Allen was touched, and he always sent thank-you letters. He ended a 1922 interview at his New York home with a journalism student from Lexington by saying, “Give my love to the Kentucky children.”

When Allen died in 1925, his will left his entire estate to Lexington to build a fountain dedicated to the city’s children. The estate was originally thought to be worth $12,000 — a lot of money in those days. Officials planned to build a swimming pool with a fountain in the middle.

But by the time the city actually got the money, Allen’s estate had shrunk by half because of the stock market crash and waning royalties as his books lost popularity. Lexington’s children had to settle for a fountain and statues.

The statues were sculpted by Joseph Pollia, an Italian-born artist in New York who had a distinguished career creating war memorials.

His sculpture depicts a boy showing his homemade boat to the girl, who expresses delight. The statues symbolize “the spirit of youth, with its tender dreams and delicate and beautiful aspirations, which found so much appreciation in the poetical soul of the author,” the Herald wrote when the fountain was dedicated Oct. 15, 1933.

But time and vandalism have aged those kids. The girl was pushed off her granite pedestal in 1969 and again in 1983, cracking her leg. Although the cracks were repaired, there is concern the statues may have corrosion inside.

“It has been likened to a muffler,” said John Hackworth, president of the Gratz Park Neighborhood Association. “It looks all right from the outside, but if you kick it, it might just disintegrate.”

Restoring the statues will cost $57,000 because their high lead content will require complicated safety procedures. The neighborhood association has given $30,000. Councilman Chris Ford recommended $150,000 in city funds for the rest of the work and restoration of the fountain with a new pump system.

The goal is to have everything finished by Gratz Park’s annual Mayfest celebration on Mother’s Day weekend.

“It’s a symbol of Lexington,” Hackworth said of the fountain, “It’s worth being preserved.”

141111GPFountain0008The fountain stands near Third Street across from Transylvania University’s Old Morrison Hall.


New novel explores race, class in 1940s Central Kentucky

November 18, 2014

In his novel Pickering’s Mountain, Joseph Anthony wrote about the complexities of strip mining and economic survival in Eastern Kentucky, where he lived in the 1980s as an English professor at Hazard Community College.

The New Jersey native has lived in Lexington ever since, and he has looked for a way to use fiction to explore two of Central Kentucky’s overarching issues: race and class.

While reading microfilm copies of the Lexington Leader in the public library, Anthony found his hook. It was a small ad placed near, but not with, a “Colored Notes” column from 1948, when even the news was segregated.

bookThe ad began: “Wanted: Good family with plenty of help … ” It was placed by a farmer needing share-croppers to live in a vacant house beside him and help with his tobacco crop.

It made Anthony wonder: what might have happened if the “good family” that answered that ad was black? And that is how he begins his new novel, Wanted: Good Family (Bottom Dog Press, $18.00).

The book is masterfully written and well-grounded in Kentucky history and mannerisms. It explores issues of race, class, relationship and the potential for change that are as relevant today as they were when this story takes place more than six decades ago.

“I wanted to write about our big drama story in Lexington, race, and how things have and haven’t changed,” he said. “And I had an idea of how to write about somebody who could do terrible things and not actually be a bad person.”

The newspaper ad said interested parties should not call or write, just show up. So that is what Rudy and Nannie Johnson do. He is a World War II veteran looking for work. She cleans houses, but was a nurse’s aide at Good Samaritan Hospital until she applied to train for a better job and was branded as a “troublemaker.”

The Johnsons and their four children — Herbert, Franklin, Eleanor and Harry, all named for people occupying the White House when they were born — live with her mother and sister in cramped quarters off Georgetown Street.

Lexington had a housing shortage in the late 1940s because of veterans returning from war. Things were worse for blacks, who were only allowed to live in certain parts of town and could rarely get credit to buy a house anywhere.

joeDesperate enough to take a chance, the Johnsons pile their children into a borrowed pickup truck and drive to the next county to answer the ad. The farmer and his wife, an older couple who lost their only son in the war, are surprised to see them. But they, too, are desperate. Like all good Kentuckians, everyone tries to be polite.

“We didn’t think to say ‘whites only’,” Wilma Lawson, the farmer’s wife, explains to readers. “We figured anyone who knew our place would know that.”

Indeed, they would. James Lawson has a dark past that everyone in their county seems to know. The Johnsons, being from Lexington, are unaware. But they have their own family secrets and shame.

Everyone’s secrets come out as the book’s major characters alternate chapters of first-person narrative. Readers wonder if any of these people, black or white, can escape the ghosts and prejudices of their past.

The characters are still working through events that occurred two decades earlier, when Kentucky race relations included lynchings and black residents being run out of small towns en masse.

What makes Anthony’s book so interesting is that it doesn’t try to preach or over-simplify. It shows that racism comes in black as well as white, and that injustice can afflict the oppressors as well as the oppressed.

“I’m a much nicer person as a writer than I am as a human being, and the reason is I have to see everybody’s point of view,” Anthony said. “I have to really try to understand their dilemma.”

While racism and prejudice are no longer legal, that doesn’t mean they have disappeared. Human relations are complex and always evolving.

“The book is about change, about the possibility of change,” Anthony said. “As Rudy says, if we can’t change we’re lost, we’re done. And that’s really what I wanted to write about.”

If you go

Joseph Anthony will sign copies of his novel,Wanted: Good Family.

■ 5:30 p.m. Thursday, The Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.

■ 3 p.m. Dec. 13, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington Green.


Montessori school renovates 1840s home with a rich history

November 15, 2014

141110Montessori0099Calleigh Kolasa, 13, left, Maya Pemble, 12, top right, and Gus Glasscock, 13, trim blackberry bushes outside Providence Montessori Middle School, now located in an 1840s house that for 119 years was the Florence Crittenton Home for unwed mothers. The school uses agriculture to teach everything from science to entrepreneurship. Photos by Tom Eblen

When the House of Mercy opened in 1894, the secluded old home at 519 West Fourth Street seemed like a good place to help “fallen” women. It was in an out-of-the-way part of town, near what was then called the Eastern Kentucky Lunatic Asylum.

What became the Florence Crittenton Home did a lot to help pregnant girls and young mothers with infants for 119 years until last November, when changing state social-work policies forced it to close for lack of funds.

Over the past couple of years, that out-of-the-way neighborhood has been experiencing a rebirth, with a heavy emphasis on education.

The former site of what is now called Eastern State Hospital is becoming the campus of Bluegrass Community and Technical College. Transylvania University has turned an old industrial strip into an athletics complex.

So it is fitting that the old House of Mercy, a handsome brick home that dates to around the 1840s, has been beautifully transformed for a new life as Providence Montessori Middle School.

The school recently completed an extensive renovation, accomplished quickly so fall-term classes could begin. The result will be on display from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday during a public open house. The presidents of Transylvania and BCTC are scheduled to attend.

“This summer was a blur,” said Vivian Langefeld, the Montessori school’s director. “We worked day and night.”

Despite a higher offer from Transylvania, the Florence Crittenton Home board last March sold the 2.5-acre property to the Montessori school for $400,100 — well below market value — to make sure the historic structure wasn’t demolished.

With a combination of donations, fundraising and loans, the school did an extensive renovation led by Matthew Brooks, a principal in the Lexington architecture firm Alt32, and Chip Crawford and Drew McLellan of Crawford Builders. Their work recently earned a Community Preservation Award from the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

“It would have been a shame to have lost this place,” Langefeld said.

In addition to the tight schedule, Brooks said the biggest challenge was opening up space and light in the building, which had been added to three times since the late 1800s, without compromising structural integrity. The school’s requirement for big, open spaces was much different from the many small rooms the Crittenton Home needed.

Old carpets were pulled up and hardwood floors, including many of the original poplar planks, were restored. Original fireplaces were kept and structural brick was exposed on many interior walls to add to the charm.

Alt32’s staff also designed and built the school’s furniture and lockers from birch plywood, using a high-tech router capable of precisely replicating intricate shapes.

Brooks had a special interest in the project: his daughter will be a student there next year. He said the light-filled space now reminds him of Lexington’s original Montessori school in the St. Peter Claver Catholic Church Parish Hall down the street, where he attended kindergarten in 1972. (In another bit of neighborhood improvement, the church is now restoring and building an addition to that hall.)

In Montessori schools, children learn by doing in an environment with a lot of freedom and self-direction. This school, which has 38 students in 7th and 8th grades, uses small-scale urban agriculture as a vehicle for teaching everything from science to entrepreneurship.

Langefeld said the next step will be to fill the campus grounds with vegetable gardens, rain gardens, berry bushes and fruit trees. Chicken coops and beehives will be added in the spring so students can care for them and sell the eggs and honey.

“We do an entrepreneurial program where they all learn about supply and demand, profit and loss and so forth,” she said.

The house came with a good commercial kitchen, which students use for baking products to sell and fixing their own lunch once a week. A large room on the back will be turned into a shop with woodworking tools.

The school also hopes to develop cooperative programs with Transylvania and BCTC, and to engage residents and businesses in the surrounding neighborhood.

“Montessori’s vision for the adolescent was a non-institutional setting,” Langefeld said. “So this is perfect for that kind of environment, where it feels like they are more a part of a community.”

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


Award-winning plan for saving bur oak a model for developers

November 9, 2014

141106SchoolOak0058

This bur oak, which tree physiologist Tom Kimmerer thinks is 400 to 500 years old, frames Firebrook subdivision at the intersection of Military Pike, right, and Harrodsburg Road. Ball Homes is developing the property and hired Kimmerer to come up with a conservation plan for the tree. He hopes it will be a model for other developers. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

The most fought-over tree in Lexington is now more noticeable than ever. Cleared of surrounding brush, it dominates the skyline at the intersection of Harrodsburg Road and Military Pike.

The giant bur oak was last in the news 13 months ago, when neighbors cited concerns for its welfare among their objections to Ball Homes‘ plan to develop 25 acres behind it into 42 single-family homes and 196 apartments.

The city rejected another developer’s plan for townhouses on the site in 2008 because the tree could have been lost or damaged.

But Ball Homes’ proposal was approved after the company developed perhaps the most detailed plan yet for conserving one of the giant, centuries-old trees that have been rapidly disappearing.

Last week, that plan won Ball Homes an award from the Lexington-Fayette County Environmental Commission. Tom Kimmerer, a tree physiologist who developed the plan, hopes it will become a model for other local builders and future developments.

141106SchoolOak0037Ball Homes hired Kimmerer, a consultant and former University of Kentucky forestry professor, to work with the company’s regular arborist, Ian Hoffman of Big Beaver Tree Service.

Kimmerer has studied these specimens of blue ash, shellbark hickory and bur, chinkapin and Shumard oak, which grow better and live longer in Central Kentucky than in any other place in America.

Many of these trees were well-established before Daniel Boone set foot in Kentucky nearly two and a half centuries ago. They are icons of the Bluegrass landscape and the oldest living things in Kentucky.

But dozens, if not hundreds, have been cut down or killed in recent decades by development. Because these species don’t reproduce well in urban areas, younger trees have not been growing up to replace them.

Kimmerer last year started a nonprofit organization, Venerable Trees, to research and help people learn how to care for and propagate these trees.

This bur oak had been in the yard of a 1970s house, since demolished. A large driveway was built below its canopy. That kind of soil compaction can be deadly.

So the conservation plan’s first move was to carefully remove the driveway and erect a fence to keep construction equipment at least 72 feet away from the tree. Six inches of wood mulch was then spread on three-fourths of an acre, which will be left open around the tree.

“One of the things I was impressed with about Ball Homes was they didn’t say, ‘This is how much space we’ll give you.’ They said, ‘How much space does this tree need?'” Kimmerer said. “There was some back and forth and a few compromises here and there, but they were quite generous in allocating space for the tree.”

141106SchoolOak0016Rena Wiseman, Ball Homes’ associate general counsel, said the company realized saving the tree was worth the trouble and expense because it would be a symbol for the neighborhood.

“It’s the focal point,” said Lee Fields, Ball Homes’ vice president of development. “Besides, trees going down cost us money. The lots that always sell first are the ones with the trees.”

Kimmerer and Hoffman assessed the tree’s health and removed several damaged branches. They installed a lightning rod to help prevent future strikes.

The tree has long been thought to be more than 300 years old. Kimmerer guesses it is closer to 500 years old. Still, despite lightning strikes over the centuries and hollow spots, the oak is quite healthy.

“There’s no reason in principle why that tree couldn’t live for hundreds of years longer,” he said.

Ball Homes plans to retain ownership of the tree and surrounding land, including the apartment buildings. That should help ensure the tree’s long-term care, Kimmerer said, adding, “Our management plan for this tree goes way beyond just the construction phase.”

Kimmerer is one of only two tree physiologists in Kentucky. As it happens, the other one, UK forestry professor Jeff Stringer, lives in a renovated old schoolhouse next door to the bur oak. For years, he has been closely watching the tree’s health and debates about its future.

“That tree is in really good shape, and this plan should help keep it that way,” Stringer said, adding that its prospects for survival are better than they have been in decades.

In addition to avoiding soil compaction around a tree, Kimmerer said the most important factors in good long-term care include frequent inspections for signs of stress and keeping lawn fertilizers and herbicides away.

“Modern lawn care is anathema to old trees,” he said.

Kimmerer has surveyed many of the open tracts inside Lexington’s Urban Services Boundary, which will eventually be developed.

“There are at least 50 of these ancient trees that are going to get in the way of development or, conversely, could be seen as symbols of a new development,” Kimmerer said. “That’s one of the encouraging things about this project is that the tree will become emblematic of the whole neighborhood.

Award winners

Winners of the Lexington—Fayette County Environmental Commission’s 44th annual awards:

■ Lexington Police Services, for the We Care program.

■ Lexington Women’s Garden Club, for garden on Wellington Way.

■ Idle Hour Neighbors Alliance, for two monarch way-station gardens.

■ Klausing Group, for a vegetative roof, permeable pavers and Pinnacle Home Owners Association Children’s Garden.

■ University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, for Food and Environment Alumni Plaza project.

■ Lakeshore Apartments Association, Andover Management Group and Barrett Partners Landscape Architects, for improvements to the pond at Lakewood Park.

■ Ball Homes, for bur oak preservation plan.

■ FoodChain, for aquaponics project.

■ Pax Christi Catholic Church, for electronics recycling program.

■ Lexington Division of Environmental Policy, for urban tree canopy assessment and planting plan.

■ Bluegrass Greensource, Downtown Lexington Corp., for downtown Trash Bash.

■ Lansdowne Neighborhood Association, for Zandale Park Stream Bank Protection Project.

■ Pinnacle Home Owners Association, for Children’s Garden.

■ Kentucky Utilities, for the Arboretum’s Party for the Planet Celebration.

■ Community Montessori School, Montessori Middle School of Kentucky, for storm water quality improvement and stream restoration project.

■ Clays Mill Elementary School, for Springs Branch storm water improvement project.

 

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


‘Lost Lexington’ a reminder of great buildings and people

November 1, 2014

The cover of Lost Lexington explains why Peter Brackney’s new book is so timely: It shows a mothballed old courthouse in desperate need of renovation beside the gigantic crater that has replaced the city’s oldest business district.

141102LostLexington002Brackney, a lawyer and writer of the local history blog Kaintuckeean.com, said the plight of the old Fayette County Courthouse and the CentrePointe boondoggle were big motivations for writing his book.

So was the University of Kentucky’s controversial demolition this summer of several significant mid-century modern buildings on his alma mater’s campus to make way for new construction.

“Everywhere you see a parking lot, something once stood,” Brackney said in an interview. “I think the more you learn about some of these historic structures, the more you appreciate what we have left.”

Brackney focuses on what is gone, and it is an impressive collection of special buildings and places once central to community life. They include elegant mansions, a racetrack, an amusement park, a football stadium, railroad stations and a private garden that early settlers referred to as “paradise.”

Lost Lexington (The History Press, $19.95) includes a forward by Mayor Jim Gray and many photographs. But what makes it most interesting is Brackney’s thorough research into these places and the remarkable people associated with them. I know a lot about Lexington history, but I learned some things.

Brackney begins with Lexington’s best-known preservation story: the 1955 demolition of the 1798 Hart-Bradford House for a parking lot. That act, and fears that the 1814 Hunt-Morgan House across the street would be next, led to creation of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation and the city’s first preservation laws.

“If you looked at the Hart-Bradford House and didn’t know a thing about who lived there, you would think there was nothing special about it, just a nice two-story brick house,” Brackney said.

brackneyBut, as the book explains, that house was built by Henry Clay’s father-in-law, Thomas Hart, a Revolutionary War veteran and influential land speculator. The next resident was John Bradford, Kentucky’s first newspaper publisher and a major civic leader. Clay was married in that house, and Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan may have been, too.

Few people now remember another longtime resident of the house: Laura Clay, an early champion of women’s rights. She learned about the subject the hard way: watching her father, emancipationist Cassius Clay, cheat her mother out of property after their divorce.

Among the several fabulous, long-gone estates featured in the book is Chaumiere des Prairies, where three U.S. presidents were entertained and the traitor Aaron Burr was held under arrest.

Col. David Meade’s estate was famous for its beautifully landscaped gardens. When he died in 1832, a farmer who bought the property destroyed them with grazing livestock, prompting neighbors to post signs about “paradise lost.”

Brackney tells the stories of such 20th century landmarks as the Phoenix Hotel, Union Station, the Southern Railway depot and Joyland Park. Joyland Park was famous for its amusement rides and the huge dance pavilion where Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw and other big band leaders performed.

One interesting story was about how, for 23 years, the afternoon Lexington Leader gave every white kid in town free swimming lessons at Joyland’s public pool. In those segregation days, the newspaper provided free swimming lessons for black children at Douglass Park.

The book tells about two sporting venues that no longer exist: the Kentucky Association racetrack and Stoll Field/McLean Stadium, the home of UK football games and other community events before Commonwealth Stadium replaced it in 1972.

UK’s recent demolitions and the CentrePointe project, which destroyed more than a dozen downtown buildings and 51/2 years later is nothing more than a hole in the ground, were a wakeup call for historic preservation in Lexington.

But Brackney, who lives in Jessamine County, laments that many other communities still haven’t gotten the message. Nicholasville’s oldest Main Street commercial building, built in the early 1800s, was recently demolished.

“While we do have to balance preservation and progress, we have to make sure there’s an understanding that people lived and worked in each of these places; they’re not just bricks and mortar,” he said.

“Drive down Nicholasville Road, drive down Richmond Road, and there’s nothing that separates them from Glendale, Ariz., or any new city,” Brackney added. “There’s nothing that makes them unique. And it’s Lexington’s history and uniqueness that helps make it a great city.”

If you go

Peter Brackney will speak and sign copies of Lost Lexington:

5:30 p.m. Nov. 3: Thomas Hunt-Morgan House, 210 N. Broadway, hosted by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. The event includes a panel discussion about historic preservation in Lexington.

2 p.m. Nov. 9: The Morris Book Shop, 882 E High St.

6 p.m. Nov. 9: Barnes & Noble bookstore, Hamburg Pavilion.

7 p.m. Dec. 2: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington Green.


Kentucky workshop for photojournalists shows power of storytelling

October 28, 2014

141029MtnWorkshop02 copySophomore Mackenzie Alexander is one of four girls enrolled in agricultural power and mechanics classes at Madison Southern High School. To keep the girls’ hair clear of flames during welding instruction, teacher Brent Muncy will often french-braid it for them. His skills impressed another student so much, she asked him to braid her hair for the homecoming parade. During the 39th annual Mountain Workshops last week in Berea, photojournalist Melissa Ripepi of Blacksburg, Va., did a photo story about Muncy. Photo by Melissa Ripepi. 

 

BEREA — Each October, I spend a week in a different Kentucky town with three dozen of the nation’s best photojournalists. We help 75 or so students discover and tell the stories of people who live there.

I got back from Berea on Sunday after five days of hard work and little sleep. The amazing results of those students’ work are gradually being posted on MountainWorkshops.org. A 116-page book was produced on-site and will be published next year.

I keep volunteering for this nonprofit educational enterprise because it’s my annual reminder of the power of storytelling — and of why honest and intimate photojournalism still matters in a media-saturated world.

The Mountain Workshops began as a class field trip in 1976, when I was a freshman at Western Kentucky University. I didn’t get to go, because I was studying to be a writer, not a photographer. But several of my friends were among the small group of photojournalism students who accompanied two professors to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky to document the state’s last remaining one-room schoolhouses.

The next year, the project focused on a poor neighborhood in Bowling Green. Then it began traveling to a different small town each year. WKU started bringing in top professionals as photo coaches. The workshop was then opened to photo students from other universities, as well as professional news photographers who wanted to go beyond daily assignments and learn to tell deeper visual stories.

I joined the workshop faculty in 1995, when writing coaches were added. Workshop organizers realized that even the best photographs need well-crafted words to complete the story. Since then, workshops in picture editing, video storytelling and time-lapse photography have been added.

This year, there was a new workshop in data visualization — print and online techniques for turning complex sets of numbers into graphics that help people understand information.

141029MtnWorkshop01 copy

Mary and Neil Colmer own Weaver’s Bottom Craft Studio in Berea. A shared love of art and craft have been an important part of their long marriage. During the 39th annual Mountain Workshops last week, their story was told by photojournalist Marc Ewell, who lives in Hong Kong. Photo by Marc Ewell.

Coaching at the Mountain Workshops has allowed me to get to know many of the nation’s best photojournalists, people who work for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, MediaStorm, the Washington Post, Time magazine and National Geographic. The all-volunteer crew frequently includes Pulitzer Prize winners, some of whom have unglamorous behind-the-scenes support roles.

One of my most memorable fellow coaches was the late Charles Moore. He made those iconic Life magazine photos of Birmingham police arresting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and turning dogs and fire hoses on civil rights protesters in 1963.

The 39th annual Mountain Workshops in Berea was headquartered in the former Churchill Weavers factory, a light-filled 1920s complex that is on the National Register of Historic Places. Now called Churchill’s, it is being renovated into a beautiful event space. Thanks to the workshop’s corporate sponsors, the building was temporarily filled with computers and camera gear for everyone to use.

Workshop organizers had identified and contacted dozens of potential story subjects in Madison County, and participants literally drew them out of a hat. As they got to know their subjects over the next few days, more complex and interesting stories emerged, as they always do. By Saturday morning, the photographers had told those stories with candid images made as they tried to blend into the background of their subjects’ daily lives.

An award-winning photojournalist from New York City and I coached a team of six participants. They all found stories richer and more complex than what was on the slips of paper they drew from the hat.

An assignment about a beauty school turned into a story about the school’s only male student. The young man’s mother had recently been killed in an accident, prompting him to focus on achieving his dream of becoming a hair stylist.

A story about a couple with a craft shop turned into an intimate portrait of a long marriage nurtured by a shared love of the arts. Another participant profiled a high school farm mechanics teacher who is the kind of mentor his students will remember for the rest of their lives.

For nearly four decades, the Mountain Workshops have created an unparalleled documentation of small-town Kentucky life. But its impact has been much broader.

Each year, instructors who years earlier were participants talk about how the workshop changed their lives and careers, and how it continues to influence the way they photograph big stories around the world.

They talk about having become more thorough, accurate and compassionate storytellers, all because of an intense week they spent focused on “ordinary” Kentuckians who turned out to be anything but ordinary.


House-flipping venture turns Victorian disaster into showplace

October 19, 2014

141009Rehab0027

Left to right, Josh Despain, Bennett Clark, Ryan Clark and Michael Hogan spent 16 months renovating a circa 1889 mansion at 515 North Broadway that was filled with trash and animal waste when a lender foreclosed on the previous owner last year. They sat on the front porch  with a photo of the house taken when they bought it.  After a complete renovation, the house is now for sale for $1.2 million. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

The business venture began innocently enough. Four young men with backgrounds in architecture and real estate decided to pool their money, buy an old house, renovate it and try to resell it at a profit.

They looked for a manageable project; perhaps a 1920s bungalow in need of a little updating.

What they ended up with was a three-story, 5,282-square-foot Queen Anne mansion built in 1889 that was such a disaster it made headlines. Over the next 16 months, this house-flipping project almost flipped them.

But the disaster at 515 North Broadway is now a beautiful, completely renovated showplace, listed for sale for $1.2 million. And the four young men have learned some valuable lessons about construction, historic preservation and business.

“This project literally was the epitome of everything: it took longer, was harder and cost more than what we expected it to,” said Josh Despain, a landscape architect.

140118BroadwayHouse0004Despain, architect Michael Hogan and soon-to-be architect Ryan Clark work together at Ross Tarrant Architects. They spend most of their days behind desks.

“We were interested in the idea of getting our hands dirty and doing some construction ourselves,” Hogan said.

And, as young married men hoping to start families, they were looking for some extra money, too. So they teamed up with Clark’s cousin, Bennett Clark, a single real estate agent and builder who had been thinking along the same lines.

They had looked at several old houses when 515 North Broadway made headlines in February 2013. The Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. foreclosed on the previous owner. Authorities put her belongings on the sidewalk, almost stopping traffic as passersby picked through it.

Everything was filthy and covered in animal waste, prompting city health and code enforcement officers to step in. The inside of the house was even worse. The smell sickened almost everyone who stepped inside.

141009Rehab0007But the mansion was well-located, structurally sound and retained a lot of its original character. The lender got a dozen offers, and the four guys bought it for $195,752.

“Until we started taking out the plaster and some of the damaged areas, we didn’t really know what kind of condition it was in,” Hogan said. “But, structurally, we felt really good about it.”

Also salvageable were most of the original windows, including some stained-glass ones, and most of the woodwork and flooring. There was a magnificent staircase that rose three stories through the middle of the house.

But the partners quickly realized that all of the plaster needed to be removed to make way for new insulation, plumbing, electricity and interior walls.

“We saw it as a unique opportunity to build a new house within the shell of an original Victorian,” Hogan said.

Added Bennett Clark: “Our mindset was to make the house modern in the places that you need for a house to be modern, but bring back the formal areas to their original glory.”

141009Rehab0002To save money, the partners did about 60 percent of the labor themselves — mostly demolition, basic carpentry, landscaping, paint scraping and other grunt work. They hired contractors for skilled work such as electricity, plumbing, HVAC, roofing and window restoration.

Bennett Clark, who was the general contractor, made the reconstruction project his full-time job. The other three worked nights, weekends and vacations there.

“Our wives hate this house,” Ryan Clark said, as the other three chimed in about how their own homes were neglected during the project.

Because the house is in a city historic district, the partners had to follow strict guidelines on the exterior renovation. They weren’t expecting any special treatment, either: the city’s rule book pictures their house on the cover.

But they said it turned out to be a pleasant experience.

“If you’re just up front with them from the get-go and you’re not trying to hide anything, they’re super easy to work with,” Despain said.

The partners’ challenge now is selling the house for enough to recoup their investment and make a profit. Although expensive, the price is within the range of similar downtown mansions, many of which have had less extensive renovations.

So, do they plan to do this again? They think so, but not anytime soon. Since beginning the work in mid-2013, the three married guys have all had their first children. They expect to have less free time in the near future for construction.

The partners said they learned that to be successful in the renovation business, it must be your business, not a hobby you do in your spare time. A property must be chosen wisely, and the cost of purchase and renovation carefully calculated.

“It was the first project we had done together, so we wanted to make sure we did it right,” Hogan said. “Not only were we trying to make money, but we were really trying to learn a lot about historic preservation. It turned out really well.”

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


Here’s the local hero a forward-looking Lexington should celebrate

October 18, 2014

What holds Lexington back? Well, for one thing, we celebrate the wrong member of the Hunt-Morgan family.

That may sound trivial, but it’s not.

In my work, I talk with some of Lexington’s most innovative people. They are behind many of the exciting things now happening in this city. Privately, though, many say they feel as if they are swimming against the tide. Lexington resists change, is too comfortable with the status quo.

Lexington loves to celebrate its history, and rightfully so. But the value of studying history is not to dwell on the past; it is to better understand the present and find inspiration for the future.

As a boy growing up here in the 1960s, I considered Gen. John Hunt Morgan a local hero. The Confederate cavalry raider was the star of the Hunt-Morgan House museum, his mother’s home on Gratz Park. His statue was on the courthouse lawn.

But the more I learn about Morgan, the less I respect him. He stole horses and burned towns, all to further a cause that wanted to break up the nation and keep black people in slavery. To my adult mind, that’s not hero material.

Morgan was a colorful, controversial character, and if Civil War buffs want to celebrate him, that’s fine. I would never want to see his statue removed from what is now the old courthouse lawn, because he is a significant figure in our history.

THMBut it is a shame he is more famous and celebrated here than his nephew, Thomas Hunt Morgan, a pioneering scientist and the first Kentuckian to win a Nobel Prize.

Thomas Hunt Morgan came along two years after his uncle’s death in a Civil War ambush. He was born in the Hunt-Morgan House on Sept. 25, 1866 and grew up behind it, in another family home facing Broadway.

That house was in the news last week. The Woman’s Club of Central Kentucky has deeded it to the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which plans to restore it for programming and events.

I was vaguely aware of Morgan’s accomplishments, but I didn’t fully understand his significance until I read an essay Tom Kimmerer, a Lexington forest scientist, wrote recently for the website Planetexperts.com.

“Thomas Hunt Morgan was to become the most important biologist of his time, and laid the foundations for all of modern biology,” he wrote.

After a childhood of collecting birds’ eggs and fossils, Morgan earned degrees from the University of Kentucky and Johns Hopkins University. He spent 24 years doing pioneering embryology research at Bryn Mawr College. He joined the faculty of Columbia University in 1904 and the California Institute of Technology in 1928.

Morgan exhibited the best traits of scientific skepticism. He didn’t just theorize, he experimented. His work challenged, and eventually affirmed, two major concepts of biological science: Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Mendel’s ideas about genetics.

At Columbia, Morgan used fruit flies in sophisticated experiments to explain how genetics and evolution work. He showed that chromosomes carry genes and are the mechanical basis of heredity.

“He did not believe any biological theory unless he could test it,” Kimmerer wrote. “Almost every biological scientist working today is the beneficiary of Thomas Hunt Morgan’s approach to research.”

Morgan won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1933 and wrote seven books, all now classics of science. He died in 1945.

Kimmerer and I were talking recently about how Morgan may be one of the most accomplished Kentuckians in history. UK’s biological sciences building is named for him, and there is a state historical marker outside his boyhood home.

But I’ll bet if you asked most people in Lexington who Thomas Hunt Morgan was, they wouldn’t know.

Kimmerer has a great idea: Lexington should start planning now to celebrate 2016 as the year of Thomas Hunt Morgan, because it will be the 150th anniversary of his birth. This celebration could showcase Lexington as a city of modern scientific education, research and commercialization.

There could be Thomas Hunt Morgan banners on Main Street, exhibits and school science fairs. There could be a lecture series about his work, as well as the scientific research now being done in Lexington or by Kentuckians elsewhere.

Perhaps the Kentucky Theatre could show The Fly Room, a new scientifically accurate movie set in Morgan’s Columbia University lab, and invite filmmaker Alexis Gambis to come and speak. The film’s set, a recreation of that lab, was on display in New York this summer. Could it be brought here?

Could this attention help the Blue Grass Trust raise money to restore Morgan’s house? Could the Fayette County Public Schools’ STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics) Academy be named for him?

A statue of Thomas Hunt Morgan on the new Courthouse Plaza would certainly be appropriate. He should be a local hero, an example to future generations that a kid born in Lexington can grow up to change the world.


Frontier Nursing University marks 75 years, from horse to Internet

October 7, 2014

141001FrontierU0003

A Frontier Nursing Service nurse visits a family in the 1930s. Photo provided. Below, Frontier Nursing University President Susan Stone. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

HYDEN — In her 1952 autobiography, Wide Neighborhoods, Mary Breckinridge told how she started Frontier Nursing Service here in 1925 to show how nurses also trained as midwives could make a big difference in rural health care.

Breckinridge, who died in 1965 at age 84, could not have imagined just how wide her old neighborhood would become.

The nurse-midwives she sent out on horseback to remote cabins in the mountains of Leslie and Clay counties were trained in England until World War II made travel there impossible. So, in 1939, Breckinridge started a small school for midwives, who deliver babies.

That school is now Frontier Nursing University, which is celebrating its 75th year as the nation’s oldest and largest school for nurse-midwives. Its graduates work in all 50 states and seven foreign countries.

Frontier also is marking 25 years as a distance-learning institution. It pioneered many of the online methods now beginning to revolutionize all higher education.

Many students, faculty, alumni and supporters were in Kentucky over the weekend for anniversary festivities. Events included a gala in Lexington, where Frontier has its administrative offices, and tours of the campus in Hyden, which coincided with the town’s annual Mary Breckinridge Festival.

The celebration not only marked an illustrious past, but also a promising future.

141001FrontierU0008Mary Breckinridge would seem an unlikely pioneer of health care for the rural poor. She was a society lady, born into one of Kentucky’s most distinguished families. Her father was a congressman and ambassador to Russia; her grandfather was Vice President John C. Breckinridge, whose statue stands in Lexington’s Cheapside Park.

But Breckinridge was living in rural Arkansas when her two children died young, and she blamed inadequate medical services. Already trained as a nurse, she volunteered in France after World War I and saw the difference nurse-midwives made there.

Breckinridge went to England for midwife training, then dedicated the rest of her life to improving public health in Eastern Kentucky by focusing on young children and their mothers.

Because there were few good roads here then, Frontier Nursing Service’s uniformed nurse-midwives rode horses to places such as Confluence, Cutshin and Hell-for-Certain. They carried medical equipment in their saddle bags, delivered babies and staffed community clinics. For serious cases, there was a doctor at the small hospital Breckinridge helped build on Thousandsticks Mountain overlooking Hyden.

After World War II, Eastern Kentucky’s population declined as the region modernized. Jeeps replaced the last Frontier horses in the 1960s. After the area hosted clinical trails for the birth-control pill, the birth rate plummeted.

By the 1980s, Frontier nurses mostly provided home health care to elderly people and staffed Mary Breckinridge Hospital, which was sold to Appalachian Regional Healthcare in 2011. The school for midwives struggled until it ventured into distance learning in 1989.

Susan Stone was a student in that first distance-learning class for midwives. She became a faculty member in 1993, remembering how she was told to buy a bigger mailbox because distance learning then meant a lot of packages and postage.

Stone has been president of Frontier Nursing University since 2001, and she has led dramatic growth made possible by the Internet, an expansion of degree programs and an increased demand for graduates.

Frontier had about 4,000 graduates in the first 75 years. Now it has 1,500 students enrolled in several master’s and doctoral nursing programs in addition to midwifery. Annual admissions have had to be capped at 700.

The average Frontier student is a 35-year-old registered nurse. More than 90 percent are women, and 70 percent live in rural areas. They come to the Hyden campus only two or three times: for a few days of orientation, a few days of clinical simulations and, if they wish, for their graduation ceremony.

“Our target is nurses who live in rural areas and want to stay and serve in those areas but want a graduate degree,” Stone said.

Students study online with 96 faculty members scattered across the country and do clinical work in their own communities. “We’ve been able to recruit a high-quality faculty because we don’t make them move,” Stone said.

Stone thinks the demand for nurse-practitioners and nurse-midwives will continue to increase because of trends in the health care industry. She sees Frontier continuing to change to meet needs.

“One of the things we teach our students is entrepreneurship,” she said. “Sometimes what is needed is just not there and you have to create it.”

For example, one of Stone’s future goals is to offer training for psychiatric nurses, who are in big demand but short supply in rural America.

“Mary Breckinridge’s whole idea was that this would be a pilot project and there would be replications,” Stone said. “It’s just amazing when you look at what our graduates are doing. They really are going to change the face of health care.”

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


New book tells sad, fascinating story of madam Belle Brezing

October 7, 2014

140929BelleBrezing0002Belle Brezing’s last and most famous house of ill repute, at 59 Megowan Street (now Eastern Avenue at Wilson Street).  The third story was added after an 1895 fire. She died there in 1940. Below, two undated portraits of Brezing. Photos courtesy UK Special Collections.

 

Belle Brezing closed her house of prostitution nearly a century ago. She died in 1940. So why is she still famous, the subject of endless fascination?

That question helped prompt Maryjean Wall to finish a biography of the notorious Lexington madam that she started as a University of Kentucky history student in the early 1970s.

“The more I heard about her, the more I wanted to do a book,” said Wall, who returned to UK and finished her doctorate in history after a long career as the Herald-Leader’s award-winning horse racing writer.

140929BelleBrezing0003“Here’s a person who lived in the shadows, but was so integral to this community that there is a big collection about her life in UK special collections,” Wall said in an interview. “The first thing you have to ask is why? Well, it’s because she was at the center of power in this community.”

Wall’s new book is Madam Belle: Sex, Money and Influence in a Southern Brothel (University Press of Kentucky, $24.95).

Brezing has long been a popular subject. The late E.I. “Buddy” Thompson, an auctioneer and local historian, wrote a biography of her in 1983 that went well beyond an earlier sketch by another local historian, lawyer William Townsend.

Brezing was clearly the model for Belle Watling, the generous madam in Margaret Mitchell’s classic Civil War novel, Gone With The Wind. Mitchell never confirmed her inspiration, but her husband, John Marsh, ate breakfast many mornings in Brezing’s kitchen while he was police reporter for the Lexington Leader.

Wall’s book adds new details about Brezing’s sad but financially successful life, most notably that she attempted suicide at least twice. Even as a 19-year-old prostitute, she was well-known enough in Lexington that her botched effort to swallow too much morphine in a suicide pact with another woman made the newspapers.

But the main contribution of Wall’s book, aside from a well-told tale, is that it adds context and perspective about the red-haired madam’s place in the power structures of both Lexington and the horse industry.

When Brezing died at age 80, copies of the Lexington Herald with the news quickly sold out. Time magazine even published an obituary.

She is buried beside her mother at Calvary Cemetery on West Main Street. Even now, her grave looks especially well-tended and is often decorated with flowers. The Catholic Diocese refused to let Wall see records related to Brezing’s grave, she said.

Looking back on Brezing’s early life, it is a wonder she succeeded at anything.

She was born Mary Belle Cocks in 1860 to a single, heavy-drinking prostitute in a rented house on Rose Street. When Belle was 18 months old, Sarah Cocks married George Brezing. He ran a saloon and grocery when he wasn’t beating his wife.

Belle was shunned at school, lost her virginity at 12 and had a child at 14. Sarah Cocks died when Belle was 15, leaving her alone with a mentally handicapped infant daughter, who would spend most of her life in institutions under an assumed name. After a brief marriage and divorce in her teens, Belle started working the streets.

Brezing then went to work for Jenny Hill, who operated Lexington’s most high-class house of ill-repute. It is now the Mary Todd Lincoln House museum, because Abraham Lincoln’s wife spent her childhood there a few decades before Hill arrived.

140929BelleBrezing0001“I’m very intrigued why she went from being a street prostitute on North Upper, which was then a bad neighborhood, trying to commit suicide with another woman — what was that about? — and then the same year she gets into Jenny Hill’s house,” Wall said. “She must have had to clean herself up.”

Brezing left Hill’s house in 1881 and opened her own on North Upper Street — a building now part of a Transylvania University athletic complex.

“I think in Jenny Hill’s she probably learned good language, good style, became sort of educated,” Wall said. “And she had a client list when she left, because she went back to North Upper under very different circumstances.”

Brezing moved to another North Upper house, then in 1890 to 59 Megowan St. — now Eastern Avenue — at the corner of Wilson Street. It was a mansion outfitted in elegant style that became the talk of the town and racing circuit.

Trotters were the popular sport then, and Brezing’s clients included many influential horsemen who passed through town. She had several wealthy patrons, most notably one — or perhaps both — of the Singerly brothers.

William and George Singerly of Philadelphia had inherited an industrial fortune. They fancied race horses and Belle Brezing. Singerly money not only bought and outfitted the Megowan Street house, but it allowed her to buy rental property around town. Brezing didn’t get rich on prostitution, Wall said, but with real estate investments.

Lexington had a large red-light district during this era of Victorian morality. Wall cites one grand jury report that said the city had 158 brothels. Brezing’s was fanciest, from its antique furnishings to the lavish parties she gave for wealthy customers.

When anti-vice crusaders periodically tried to close the red-light district, Brezing’s house would be shuttered briefly. But when Lexington filled with soldiers training for World War I, the Army did what city politicians would never do — put her out of business.

She lived her last two decades as a drug-addicted recluse in a crumbling mansion.

Brezing’s previous biographers were men of an earlier generation, who Wall says tended to portray her as a victim and social outcast.

“She was shunned by the women in this town for sure, but I don’t see her as ‘poor little Belle’ at all,” Wall said. “I see her as a person who could take circumstances and work them to her advantage. She did that all her life.”

The book tells how Brezing clawed her way to the top by using men, investing wisely and playing politics. It also explains how so many others made money from her illicit business: the liquor merchants, grocers, clothing retailers, furniture dealers and horse traders.

Wall said she tried to avoid glamorizing either prostitution or Brezing’s life choices.

“Never would I do that,” she said. “Belle fit a lot of the stereotypes we have of prostitutes. She was a drug addict. She had worked the streets. Because she was smart, she managed to succeed in spite of the gender prejudices of her time.”

Book signings

Oct. 11 — Cincinnati Books by the Banks Festival

Oct. 14 — Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington

Oct. 15 — Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort

Oct. 16 — Filson Historical Society, Louisville (Oxmoor Farm)

Oct. 23 — Paul Sawyer Public Library, Frankfort

Nov. 15 — Kentucky Book Fair, Frankfort


Bourbon tour town’s founders escaped years of Indian captivity

September 30, 2014

140922RuddlesMills0064Philip and Michele Foley on the porch of their house in Ruddles Mill, which was built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It will be open for tours Sunday. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

RUDDLES MILL — Since Philip and Michele Foley moved here 35 years ago from Cynthiana, they have worked to restore not one but two houses built in the 1790s.

Few people would be that tenacious — or, as the Foleys say, that foolish. But tenaciousness comes naturally to this town. Its founders returned here after surviving a bloody attack and years of captivity in Shawnee villages near Detroit.

Both the elegant home where the Foleys live and a rough, stone house the town’s founder built for his son will be on tour 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday during Historic Paris-Bourbon County’s annual Fall Open House.

The tour also includes nearby Moore’s Chapel, the 1850s Greek Revival sanctuary of Ruddles Mill United Methodist Church. Tickets are $15, $10 for HPBC members. More information: hopewellmuseum.org.

Even today, few people agree on how to spell this unincorporated community of about 75 households at the confluence of Hinkston and Stoner creeks in northern Bourbon County. It goes by various singular, plural and possessive forms of Ruddle, Ruddel, Ruddell and Mill.

But there is no uncertainty about the town’s founder and namesake. Capt. Isaac Ruddell, a pioneer and Revolutionary War officer, is buried here, too, at Mouth of Stoner Presbyterian Cemetery.

140922RuddlesMills0021In 1779, Ruddell enlarged and fortified pioneer cabins built a few years earlier in a nearby area of what is now Harrison County. But the next summer, a thousand Shawnee warriors and Canadian soldiers under the command of British Capt. Henry Bird attacked Ruddell’s Station and other nearby settlements.

More than 20 settlers were killed, and dozens more men, women and children were taken prisoner, marched to Detroit and held captive for years. After their release, Ruddell and most of his family returned to Kentucky and built a mill here in 1788.

But two of Ruddell’s sons, Stephen and Abraham, had been adopted by the Shawnee and stayed with the tribe for 15 years. Stephen, who married a Shawnee woman and was a chief, rejoined white civilization and became a Baptist preacher and missionary among the Shawnee, Delaware and Wyandot tribes in Ohio and Indiana.

Abraham returned to Kentucky in 1795, and his father built him the stone house the Foleys are gradually restoring near the creek banks. Abraham Ruddell operated a saw and grist mill there for several years before moving to Arkansas and fighting in the War of 1812.

The Foleys have removed wooden additions to the house, rebuilt the chimneys and put a steel frame in the basement to keep the cellar from collapsing. “All I can say is it’s not going to fall down,” she said. “We hope to do more one of these days.”

Things are much nicer up the hill, at the Federal-style house where the Foley’s have lived since 1979. They think the main rooms, each built as a separate unit with thick brick walls, were constructed in the 1790s and early 1800s.

Making the place habitable and comfortable was a long process for them and their two daughters, who are now grown and living near Nashville and Cincinnati.

The biggest chores — aside from electricity and plumbing and restoring the original woodwork — were undoing previous owners’ “improvements”. The Foleys found the house’s original wooden mantles in a barn, but one was badly warped from years of storage. A neighbor built a wood frame to gradually bend it back into shape so it could be returned to the house.

“Every morning we would water it down and tighten the clamps until it got straight,” she said. “At one point, all of the oil paint and buttermilk paint just started popping off.”

The Foleys are retired from state government jobs. They have planted their big yard with more than 20 varieties of magnolia trees, gardens and beds for their business, Ruddles Mills Perennials and Native Plants.

It is one of the few businesses left in Ruddles Mill, which once had several mills and distilleries. The town has many early 19th century structures, most of which are still in use after multiple renovations. People here don’t give up easily.

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


Uniquely Kentucky: Closing essay from Friday’s special section

September 30, 2014

abeEduardo Kobra’s mural of Abraham Lincoln in downtown Lexington, with the moon over his shoulder. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Kentucky has always been at a crossroads. Buffalo came looking for food and water. Native Americans came looking for buffalo. Pioneers and settlers came looking for land and opportunity.

Originally the Western frontier, Kentucky has been more or less at the center of the country geographically since the 1830s. Culturally, though, it remains a place unto itself. Many places, actually.

Early settlers came to the Bluegrass for fertile land and pure water to produce hemp, tobacco, strong-boned horses and good whiskey. Eastern Kentucky developed a rich, complex Appalachian culture as newer immigrants joined Anglo-Saxon settlers when railroads opened the mountains for timber and coal harvesting.

Communities along the Ohio River, long nourished by commerce, have created personalities all their own, as have those amid the farms of Southern Kentucky. Western Kentucky rolls out like a rumpled green carpet to the Jackson Purchase, encompassing many unique local cultures.

Ask someone in China what they know about Kentucky and they are likely to reply, “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” I went to church once with friends in a small Australian town and was introduced to the minister afterward. He immediately said, “Ah, the Kentucky Derby!”

The recent popularity of bourbon has given Kentucky another international claim to fame. Jimmy Russell, the master distiller at Wild Turkey, told me that when he travels to Asia, Europe and Australia he is treated like a rock star. As he should be.

Kentuckians know how to eat well. Nothing is better than Western Kentucky barbecue in the summer or spicy burgoo in the winter. Any morning that begins with country ham and biscuits is a good morning.

Louisville has the calorie-packed Hot Brown sandwich, otherwise known as “heart attack on a plate.” Want something lighter? Try benedictine, a cucumber spread long popular with Louisville ladies who lunch.

Immigration continues to enrich Kentucky’s culture and palate: Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and African. The newest menu item at the 134-year-old Fancy Farm Picnic in Graves County is barbecue nachos.

Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky, as was his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis. America’s greatest sports car, the Corvette, is made in Bowling Green. The stoplight was invented Garrett Morris, a black man from Paris.

Country music owes much of its sound to old-time Kentucky fiddlers and the hard-charging mandolin of Kentuckian Bill Monroe. And don’t forget Loretta Lynn, Jean Ritchie, Ricky Skaggs and Sam Bush.

Lexington’s Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning has started calling Kentucky the “literary capital of mid-America.”  Sure, it’s a big boast. But consider the evidence: Robert Penn Warren, James Still, Wendell Berry, Harriette Arnow, Bobbie Ann Mason, Barbara Kingsolver, Sue Grafton, Jesse Stuart, Silas House, William Wells Brown, Hunter S. Thompson, C.E. Morgan and too many more to mention. Outsiders may still joke that Kentuckians don’t wear shoes, but we sure can write.

That’s the good news. Now for some bad news: Kentucky lags most other states in many measures of health, education, social welfare and economic innovation.

Kentuckians tend to cling to what worked in the past rather than leveraging their unique assets, heritage, culture, location and know-how for a brighter future. We carelessly spoil beautiful landscape with strip mines and strip malls. We focus on fears instead of possibilities.

Remember what I said about Kentucky being at a crossroads?  It has never been more true than today.


Lessons for Appalachia in Wales’ recovery from coal’s collapse

September 29, 2014

SouthWalesThe Tower Colliery near the village of Hirwaun, in Glamorgan, South Wales, in 2009. Tower Colliery was the oldest continuously worked deep-coal mine in the United Kingdom, and possibly the world. Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press. 

 

People in the remote hills and valleys were subsistence farmers before the mining industry came. For generations afterward, King Coal provided most of the decent jobs and dominated almost every aspect of life.

But mechanization gradually eliminated tens of thousands of mining jobs. When economic and political conditions suddenly changed, most of the coal industry shut down. Communities were left with high unemployment, a ravaged landscape and an uncertain future.

This is the story of Eastern Kentucky. It also is the story of South Wales.

These two regions separated by the Atlantic Ocean share many traits and experiences. Community leaders working to create a post-coal economy in Central Appalachia think there are lessons to be learned from Wales, which has been dealing with many of the same challenges for three decades.

Two longtime coal community leaders from Wales will be in Eastern Kentucky on Oct. 7 to speak about their experiences. The 7 p.m. program at Appalshop Theatre, 91 Madison Avenue in Whitesburg, is free and open to the public.

Hywel Francis and his wife, Mair, are no strangers to Kentucky. They have been coming here for years as part of a community exchange program started in the 1970s by Helen Matthews Lewis, a well-known Appalachian scholar and activist.

“The interest between these two areas has been there for a long time, but it has really picked up as we’ve seen the sudden decline of mining jobs here,” said Mimi Pickering of Appalshop. “We think this is an exciting opportunity for folks to talk with people from another place who have been though this.”

Francis is a member of the British Parliament, a college professor and labor historian. His wife is a founder of Dulais Opportunity for Voluntary Enterprise, known as the DOVE workshop, a women’s education and job-training organization.

South Wales was a few decades ahead of Central Appalachia, both in the development and collapse of its coal economy.

Beginning in the early 1800s, coal mines in South Wales fueled Britain’s industrial revolution and, in many ways, the British empire. At the industry’s peak just before World War I, more than 250,000 men labored in nearly 500 Welsh deep mines and open pits.

As in Appalachia, mechanization steadily reduced mine employment. After World War II, British mines were nationalized. In the mid-1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher closed unprofitable mines, sparking a bitter miners’ strike. The industry all but collapsed and 85,000 miners lost their jobs. Only a few hundred miners still dig coal in South Wales.

Tom Hansell, a filmmaker and professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., is finishing After Coal, a documentary comparing the experiences of coal communities in South Wales and Central Appalachia. He said it will be shown on Kentucky Educational Television next year or in 2016.

Hansell also helped organize a program in Elkhorn City two weeks ago about what Eastern Kentucky could learn from Wales’ tourism industry, which now employs 30,000 people.

A third forum will be at 6 p.m. on Oct. 28 at the Harlan campus of Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College. Richard Davies of College Merthyr Tydfil in Wales will lead a conversation about the role of youth and the arts in preserving vibrant coalfield communities.

While working on his film, Hansell said he made three trips to Wales. He noted that some of its circumstances are different than in Central Appalachia.

Because Welsh mines were owned by the government, laid-off miners got good severance payments to help them start businesses or train for new jobs. Britain also has a stronger social safety net than the United States, including a public health care system.

But Hansell said there is one smart thing Britain did that the United States could emulate: the government invested heavily in environmental reclamation, cleaning up the mess from generations of coal mining.

“There were jobs created with that, but more importantly it provided a foundation for future economic development,” he said.

Another good strategy: community funds have been created around major industrial investments, such as a wind turbine farm built by a Swedish company. The funds are similar in some ways to Kentucky’s coal severance tax, but transparently managed by local community boards rather than state and local politicians.

Wales has a focus on entrepreneurship and small-business development, which organizations such as Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. have done here. Everyone realizes that the future is lots of small employers rather than a few big ones, Hansell said.

“It would be misleading to say that Wales has solved all their economic problems,” he said, noting that unemployment remains high and many people in former mining communities commute to jobs in coastal cities. “But towns have found ways to survive and find creative ways to re-invent themselves.”


Concerns about militarized police ignore bigger, underlying issues

September 27, 2014

Should Andy Taylor and Barney Fife be equipped like Rambo?

That has been a much-debated topic since police in Ferguson, Mo., responded with paramilitary aggressiveness to protesters after one of their white officers shot and killed a black teenager.

The situation focused public attention on the U.S. Defense Department’s 1033 program, which has given away hundreds of millions of dollars worth of “surplus” military equipment to state and local police forces, whether they need it or not.

Kentucky’s House Local Government Committee held a hearing last week on this issue. The 1033 program has furnished 33,000 military weapons and supplies, valued at more than $44 million, to Kentucky police agencies over the past decade.

That includes the Lexington Police Department’s two helicopters, hundreds of automatic rifles for the Kentucky State Police and a $689,000 mine-resistant vehicle for the Owensboro Police Department. And you know who is paying to buy, operate and take care of all these goodies. You are.

This trend raises many issues, but I haven’t seen some of the biggest ones discussed.

Access to this kind of firepower only increases the chances for abuse of power and tragedy among badly managed police forces. But problems such as those in Ferguson have more to do with what is in officers’ hearts than what is in their hands. Bull Connor’s Birmingham cops needed only fire hoses to show their moral bankruptcy in the 1960s.

Besides, I understand why police officers want and sometimes need military-style weapons. Thanks to the NRA and other gun-rights radicals, any Tom, Dick or lunatic now has easy access to military-style weapons, and many think they have a constitutional right to flaunt them in public.

It is no wonder the FBI reported last week that the number of mass shootings has increased dramatically in recent years. Authorities studied 160 shootings that killed or wounded 1,000 people, many of which occurred in schools or businesses. In one-fourth of those cases, the shooter committed suicide before police arrived.

Do we really have more crazy people than in the past? Or is it simply that society’s gun lust has made it easier for them to inflict maximum carnage? Until the United States is mature enough to enact common-sense gun control measures, police will sometimes need serious firepower to keep themselves and the public safe.

But the issues go much deeper. When I read about the Defense Department doling out all of this “surplus” equipment, I wonder why they have it all to give away.

As Dwight Eisenhower was leaving the presidency in 1961, he gave a famous farewell speech that warned about the corrupting influence he saw in the rise of America’s “military industrial complex.”

Eisenhower, a Republican and the greatest general of World War II, was no wild-eyed pacifist. But he clearly saw what was happening.

“The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist,” Eisenhower warned. “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Eisenhower’s fears have been realized, and the 1033 program is just a small example.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies in 2012 estimated U.S. military spending at $645 billion, more than half the government’s discretionary spending. It was 40 percent of the world’s total military spending — more than six times China’s $102 billion and 10 times Russia’s $59 billion.

Stories of wasteful, unnecessary and even fraudulent military spending are legion. In an unholy alliance with corporate “defense” contractors, Congress continues to appropriate billions for high-tech planes, ships, weapons systems and equipment the military doesn’t need and may never use.

In another speech, in 1952, Eisenhower said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

So the next time your congressman tells you we can’t afford better health care, better schools and better infrastructure, you will know why. That $689,000 mine-resistant vehicle in Owensboro is only the tip of the iceberg.


Ashland estate marks War of 1812 with artifacts, re-enactors

September 23, 2014

If you hear cannon and musket fire near downtown Saturday, don’t be alarmed. The colorfully costumed soldiers and Native Americans aren’t invading Lexington; they’re just performing for Living History Day at Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate.

Ashland this year is marking the bicentennial of the War of 1812. And, no, it’s not two years late. Among the many little-known facts of this often-overlooked war is that, while it began in June 1812, the fighting didn’t stop until February 1815.

Ashland is commemorating the Treaty of Ghent, which Clay, John Quincy Adams and other American representatives negotiated with the British and signed on Christmas Eve 1814.

ghentjacketAs the congressman from Central Kentucky and speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Clay was a politician for all seasons. He not only helped end the War of 1812, he helped start it, too. That dual role helped launch one of the most illustrious American political careers of the 19th century.

But Clay was hardly the only Kentucky connection to the War of 1812.

“Kentucky doesn’t have any battlefields for this war; the war itself didn’t happen here,” said Eric Brooks, Ashland’s curator. “But more than any other conflict this nation has fought, the War of 1812 was a Kentucky war.”

Kentucky contributed 25,000 soldiers to the War of 1812 — more than all of the other 17 states combined. About 60 percent of the war’s casualties were Kentuckians. At the battle of Wild Cat Creek in northern Indiana, almost every U.S. soldier was from Hopkinsville.

Much of the gunpowder used by American forces was made from saltpeter mined in Kentucky, including at Mammoth Cave. Newport was the U.S. Army’s major supply depot. Twenty-two of Kentucky’s 120 counties are named for War of 1812 veterans.

In 1812, Clay and other “war hawks” pushed for declaring war on Great Britain, which despite its Revolutionary War loss continued to mess with the new nation. Of greatest concern was Britain’s arming of Native American tribes, who were attacking white settlers who had taken their land.

While the War of 1812 settled most of those issues, it ended up being a military stalemate that came at high cost: British troops invaded Washington, D.C., and burned the White House and the Capitol.

“We as a state need to understand the role we played in solidifying this nation as a legitimate and survivable nation in the world,” Brooks said. “Prior to the War of 1812, there were a lot of countries that thought the United States was a flash in the pan, that democracy would never work.”

Saturday’s festivities at Ashland will include re-enactors from Ohio and Michigan portraying the 2nd Kentucky Militia. There also will be Native American re-enactors, who will demonstrate tomahawk throwing at their encampment on the 17 acres that remain of Clay’s 600-acre estate, most of which is now the Ashland Park and Chevy Chase neighborhoods.

There also will be farm animals, crafts, special activities and an actress portraying Charlotte Dupuy, a slave who filed a highly publicized lawsuit against Clay trying to win her family’s freedom.

Ashland has several important relics related to the War of 1812 that will be on display. They include a copy of the Treaty of Ghent in Clay’s own handwriting, his place card at the negotiating table and an ivory cane he received as a gift.

The mansion also has one of two paintings Clay won while playing cards with his fellow negotiators. (In addition to being a masterful politician, Clay was a party animal who loved to drink and gamble.)

Ashland’s most important War of 1812 relic is the military-style coat Clay wore during treaty negotiations in Ghent, which is now in Belgium. Clay’s coat set the style for American diplomatic attire for decades. It was last worn by a Clay descendant when Ashland opened to the public as a museum in 1950.

“That’s the last time it will be worn, too,” Brooks said. “If for no other reason than there are not a lot of 6-foot-2, 145-pound men around anymore. And, obviously, it’s very, very fragile.”

If you go

What: War of 1812 Living History Day

When: 10 a.m. — 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27

Where: Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate, 120 Sycamore Road.

Cost: $14 adults; $7 younger than 18; $35 family.

More information: Henryclay.org, (859) 266-8581


Author of new William Wells Brown biography speaks in Lexington

September 16, 2014

William Wells Brown is a name few people recognize today. He may be best known in Lexington as the namesake of an elementary school and community center in the East End.

But Brown (1814-1884) became a celebrity in the 19th century as the first black American to publish a novel, a travelogue, a song book and a play. He wrote three major volumes of black history, including the first about black military service in the Civil War.

The Central Kentucky native, who spent much of his adult life as a fugitive slave, spoke widely in this country and Europe against slavery. After emancipation, he was an important voice for black self-improvement. He also became a physician.

But that summary of accomplishments gives no clue about the fact that Brown’s own life story was as complex and fascinating as any work of literature.

wwbEzra Greenspan, an English professor at Southern Methodist University who has edited two collections of Brown’s writing, next month will publish a groundbreaking biography of America’s first black literary giant, William Wells Brown: An African American Life (W.W. Norton & Co., $35).

As part of a national tour celebrating the bicentennial of Brown’s birth, Greenspan is in Lexington this week to talk about his biography, which sheds new light on a man whose life and work were often surrounded by mystery and controversy. Greenspan plans to speak to students at four Lexington schools, and he has two free public events Thursday: a 4 p.m. talk at Third Street Stuff coffee shop and a more extensive presentation at 6:30 p.m. at the Lyric Theatre.

I had been eager to read Greenspan’s book since last year, when I interviewed him for a Black History Month column about Brown. I recently got a draft and found it to be an engaging, well-written story, filled with new information from years of painstaking research.

Greenspan’s work was difficult because Brown left no personal papers — perhaps because of scandals involving his first wife and a daughter — and the fact that he often mixed fact with fiction when writing about himself. Because Brown was born a slave, early records are sparse.

Greenspan first came to Lexington in 2009, when he and his wife were traveling around the United States and Britain to places where Brown spent time. They came here because Brown’s first published work — a narrative about his life in slavery — began: “I was born in Lexington, Kentucky.”

Brown may have thought that, because he was taken from Kentucky when he was only 3. But Greenspan discovered that Brown was actually born in Montgomery County, the child of a black slave and his owner’s white cousin, George W. Higgins. Called “Sandy” as a youth, Brown later adapted his chosen name from that of a subsequent owner.

Greenspan’s book traces Brown’s life from Kentucky to Missouri, where he lived on a farm next to Daniel Boone, to his work on Mississippi River steamboats for various masters, including a notorious slave-trader. All this time, Brown was observing much that would eventually find its way into print.

Brown’s third and successful escape from slavery came in 1834, when he was 19, after he saw both his mother and sister “sold down the river.”

His accomplishments were remarkable on many counts. He taught himself to read as an adult. With no formal education, he became a stylish, sophisticated and unusually prolific writer and a speaker of such skill that he attracted huge audiences.

Brown also was a resourceful entrepreneur. He profitably managed most of his own publishing, and he fiercely guarded his creative and financial independence despite persistent racism.

As Greenspan’s book recounts, Brown took considerable literary license with facts and indulged in bold examples of using others’ material in his own work. As both an activist and writer, he was fearless.

Brown’s most famous book was the novel Clotel, or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, first published in London in 1853. It boldly cast its title character as the daughter of Thomas Jefferson, whose relationship with his slave Sally Hemings had long been the subject of gossip.

Clotel was heavily influenced by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was then an international sensation. Brown was always savvy about writing and rewriting his work to sell. But Stowe’s novel, which also was deeply rooted in Kentucky, had a profound impact on Brown.

“It was basically a retelling of his own life story,” Greenspan said. “It hit home in a very powerful way.”

 


Labor Day a reminder of how working people are falling behind

August 31, 2014

Each year on Labor Day, I think of Myles Horton and something he once told me.

Horton started Tennessee’s Highlander Center in 1932 and spent most of his 84 years crusading for racial, environmental and economic justice. Rosa Parks called him, “the first white man I ever trusted.” He was a mentor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

During an interview in the 1980s, I asked Horton about his focus. “Working people,” he replied. “People who work for a living rather than own for a living.”

Labor Day celebrates Americans who work for a living, which is most of us. But each year there seems to be less to celebrate. Stock markets, corporate profits and executive compensation are hitting record highs. But at the other end of the spectrum, there aren’t enough good jobs for people who want to work.

There has been a lot of political talk about job creation, but a more important issue is the quality of jobs. More and more people are working hard at full-time or several part-time jobs and still can’t earn a decent living.

The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a non-profit think tank in Berea, issued a report last week that offers a gloomy assessment of recent trends. The full report is at Kypolicy.org, but here are some key findings:

Kentucky is experiencing job growth, but still needs 80,800 jobs to get back to the pre-recession 2007 level and accommodate population growth since then. Nearly one in four Kentucky part-time workers say they would rather have full-time jobs.

A lack of jobs has led to a decrease in the labor force as many Kentuckians have given up looking for work. One third of Kentucky’s unemployed people have been that way for a long time.

Wages are depressed by high unemployment levels. The late 1990s, when the unemployment rate was below 4 percent, was the only time in the past 35 years when Kentucky workers’ real wages actually grew.

The inflation-adjusted median wage has fallen 8 percent since 2001, and low-wage workers’ pay has fallen by 7 percent. Much of that is because higher-paying jobs that produce goods — especially in manufacturing — have been replaced by service jobs. Many service jobs pay low wages, which have been further depressed by a $7.25 hourly minimum wage that hasn’t been raised since 2009.

What are some solutions? First, the center recommends long-needed reform in Kentucky’s 1950s-era tax code to reflect the modern economy. That would provide more revenue for the state to invest in education and infrastructure, both of which would create jobs and spur economic development.

Another good idea the center recommends is raising the minimum wage. The value of the minimum wage has been eroded by inflation to the point that it is too little for an individual, much less a family, to live on.

What is especially obscene is huge, profitable corporations that pay workers so little they are eligible for public assistance. That leaves taxpayers subsidizing the profits of companies such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. Raising the minimum wage would save taxpayers money.

Opponents argue, as they always have, that increasing the minimum wage costs jobs and raises prices. But evidence shows those effects are minimal. A higher minimum wage, which also pushes up pay for workers just above it, puts more money in the pockets of people who will spend it, which boosts the economy.

Conservatives argue that Kentucky could spur economic growth by enacting anti-union laws and loosening environmental regulations. But that kind of growth does more harm than good. Pollution creates health problems and lowers the state’s quality of life. Anti-union laws boost business profits at the expense of workers.

Cynically named “right to work” laws make it harder for workers to organize for higher wages and better working conditions. States that enact those laws generally have lower average wages and more poor people than those that do not.

Similarly, repealing “prevailing wage” laws would make public construction projects cheaper, but only by taking money out of the pockets of the people doing the work.

It is no accident that the decline of the middle class since the 1970s has mirrored the decline of organized labor, which had a big role in creating the middle class in the first place. More and more of this nation’s wealth is rising to the top at the expense of everyone else.

Yes, we need to create more jobs. But we need to do it in ways that will improve the fortunes of people who work for a living and not just those who own for a living.

 


Funeral home’s beautician still going strong at almost 92

August 30, 2014

margarethunterMargaret Hunter, who turns 92 on Sept. 2, at Kerr Brothers Funeral Home, where she has been the beautician for 52 years. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

When she tripped on a power cord at work and fell and broke her hip, Margaret Hunter said she thought, “Well, this is going to be it for me!” She wasn’t alone.

“We thought Margaret’s career was done,” said Tom Morton, a funeral director at Kerr Brothers Funeral Home on East Main Street.

But after surgery and a month of recuperation, Hunter got bored just sitting around her house. So, with her doctor’s permission, she started driving herself back to work at Kerr Brothers. That was a year ago.

This week, Kerr Brothers will help Hunter celebrate two big anniversaries: her 92nd birthday and her 52nd year as the funeral home’s staff beautician.

“I like what I do, and I’m good,” Hunter said with a wry grin. “I’m not ready to throw the towel in. And I’m not ready to go to a nursing home. No way!”

No way, indeed.

“I think she’s got more energy now than before she broke her hip,” said Brandon Haddix, another Kerr Brothers funeral director.

As a child growing up in Lexington, Hunter says she cut friends’ and neighbors’ hair with scissors and a straight razor and did home permanents. “I love doing hair,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to be a beautician.”

After beauty school, Hunter had her own shop at several downtown locations for about 15 years. Then one day someone asked her to do the hair of a deceased relative for the visitation. That first time was uncomfortable, she said, but then she realized what an important service she was providing for the family.

“Then some of my customers or their mothers would pass away and they would want me to do their hair,” she said. “Kerr Brothers saw my work and they offered me a job.”

Eventually, Hunter closed her shop and worked only for Kerr Brothers. She usually handles about 25 clients a month, but has done as many as seven in a day.

“I’m on call 24/7,” Hunter said. “I’ve missed a lot of reunions, a lot of get-togethers. I’m here when they need me, because when they have to be out they have to be out.”

Hunter said she works from photos, or meets with family members to get their suggestions. Hunter has a small, third-floor workroom at the funeral home, just big enough for a long table, some cabinets and a couple of hair dryers.

She does about 90 percent of Kerr Brothers’ clients; the rest have their own beautician fix their hair one last time.

“When I do a lady’s hair here, I want her looking nice, because that’s the last time her loved ones are going to see her,” Hunter said, adding that she often gets cards or kind comments from family members.

Hunter said her accident last August hasn’t slowed her much. Her only concession to the new, artificial hip joint is a walking cane, which Kerr Brothers’ employees have named Charlie.

“I’d go crazy if I stayed home every day,” said Hunter, who also takes pride in doing her own house cleaning. She has lived in her home in the Deepwood subdivision since it was new in 1962. Her husband, John, who was a maintenance worker for the city, died in 1996. She has a son, Garrett, who lives in Cynthiana.

Hunter doesn’t cut her own hair — although she says she could — but she mixes the coloring for her beautician to use. “I wouldn’t want to be your beautician,” Morton tells her.

In her free time, Hunter enjoys meeting friends for meals at Loudon Square Buffet, a longtime restaurant on North Broadway.

Kerr Brothers’ management has promised Hunter a job as long as she wants it, Morton said. She has no plans to retire.

“I love what I do,” she said. “I love working at Kerr’s. They’re just like family. To me, they are family. I call this my second home, because this will probably be the last door I go out of.”


A century later, passenger pigeon’s extinction still offers lessons

August 26, 2014

passpigeons

Juvenile, male and female passenger pigeons, by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927)

 

One hundred years ago next week, a bird named Martha dropped dead in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo. She was the last known passenger pigeon, a breed that just a few decades earlier had been the most numerous bird in America.

It was the first big wakeup call about society’s potential to destroy the environment. Extinction was no longer just about Do-do birds or other rare species; it could happen to a creature once so plentiful that it was both a major food source and a pest of biblical proportions.

The Cincinnati Zoo is marking the anniversary with a series of events. (More information: Ohiobirds.org). The keynote speaker is Joel Greenberg, who recently published the acclaimed book A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (Boomsbury USA).

Greenberg, a naturalist, author and lawyer, also helped start Project Passenger Pigeon, a non-profit organization to raise awareness of current extinction threats and to promote environmental sustainability.

Unlike today’s rock pigeon, which was brought over from Europe, passenger pigeons were native to North America. They ranged from Canada to Mexico, and the immensity of flocks once seen in Kentucky is hard to imagine. Alexander Wilson, America’s first ornithologist, wrote of an 1805 nesting area near Shelbyville that covered almost every tree for 40 square miles.

Passenger pigeons were so notable in early Kentucky that Project Passenger Pigeon reports 44 places in the state named for them, from Pigeon Roost Creek in Boyd County to Pigeon Hollow in Edmonson County.

John James Audubon, the famous naturalist and bird painter, wrote about flocks he observed in 1813 while traveling from Henderson to Louisville. During his journey’s last 55 miles, “The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow. The pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers and continued to do so for three days in succession.”

Throughout the 19th century, many people reported similar events: sky-darkening flocks in the billions. When passenger pigeons chose to land, they could strip a field of crops or a grove of nut-bearing trees in no time.

But the docile birds had two great qualities: they were delicious and easy to kill. Long an important food source for Native Americans, a flock is said to have saved most of New Hampshire from starvation after a crop failure in 1781.

“The banks of the Ohio were crowded with men and boys incessantly shooting at the pilgrims, which there flew lower as they passed the river,” Audubon wrote of his 1813 sighting in Louisville. “For a week or more, the population fed on no other flesh than that of pigeons and talked of nothing but pigeons.”

So how did the pigeon population go from billions to zero in less than 50 years? Many questions remain, but scientists think one factor was widespread logging that destroyed forest habitat the huge flocks needed to reproduce.

But the biggest factor was excessive hunting. Once railroads and telegraph lines spread across the country, flocks could easily be tracked by commercial hunting crews and decimated.

kemper

Joseph H. Kemper

About this time, sportsmen hunters began adopting the conservation ethic that has made huge contributions to wildlife and habitat preservation. But it came too late for the passenger pigeon. After the 1870s, populations plummeted.

The Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, pastor of New Union Christian Church in Woodford County and retired executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, said family lore held that her grandfather, Joseph H. Kemper, a champion marksman, killed one of the last passenger pigeons near Mt. Sterling.

“It was an accident,” Kemper said. “He was hunting doves. Daddy always said (his father) was sad about it.”

The journal of the Wilson Ornithological Society in 1925 quoted a Lexington Herald report saying Kemper accidently killed passenger pigeons twice, in 1892 and 1893, while dove hunting on Slate Creek in Montgomery County. Others reported similar isolated shootings around the country as late as 1902.

The last captive passenger pigeons were at the Cincinnati Zoo. By 1910, only Martha remained. Upon her death, she was frozen in a 300-pound block of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution, where she was skinned, stuffed and put on display.

This centennial of the passenger pigeon’s extinction is a good time to reflect on how little humans really know about nature. And to think about how society’s actions have consequences we often can’t begin to understand until it is too late.


Ale-8-One president sees a lot of opportunity to grow the brand

August 24, 2014

140818Ale8One-McGeeney-TE0024Ellen McGeeney, president of Ale-8-One Bottling Co., in Winchester. Photos by Tom Eblen  

 

WINCHESTER — As an 8th generation Kentuckian, Ellen McGeeney knew she was taking on something special when she became president of Ale-8-One Bottling Co. But the Louisville native, whose family is from Henderson and Owensboro, didn’t realize just how special.

Her first week on the job, a 20-something Lexington store clerk tearfully told her about his grandmother’s recent death from dementia, and how, in her last months, the only thing that made her smile was Ale-8-One. Then he hugged McGeeney.

And there was the businessman McGeeney met at a networking event a few weeks later. When she introduced herself, he dropped to one knee and kissed her ring.

“There’s a fervency about the brand in Central Kentucky,” she said of Ale-8-One, the ginger-and-citrus soft drink that has been made in Winchester since 1926. “So many people speak about it as if it’s theirs.”

140821Ale8One-TE0083The Rogers family took a big step a year ago when it hired an outsider for the No. 2 spot in the company now run by Fielding Rogers, 33, the great-great nephew of Ale-8-One inventor G.L. Wainscott.

McGeeney, 52, brought a lot to the company besides Kentucky heritage. A Brown University graduate with an MBA from Yale, she was a business consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton and other firms in New York and Boston, specializing in logistics, branding, marketing and online strategies.

Between the births of their second and third children, she and husband Christian Thalacker moved back to Louisville to be closer to her family. She helped start Grasshoppers Distribution LLC, which sold fresh food from local farmers to customers around Louisville, and did strategy work for Rooibee Red Tea.

It was through the Louisville-based beverage company that she met Rogers, who was looking for someone to help him take Ale-8-One to the next level. McGeeney said the job is a perfect fit because it draws on all her skills.

“Literally, this is my dream job,” she said. “I was ready to have a real career again, and I really wanted it to be in Kentucky.”

McGeeney said another big attraction was the Rogers family’s business values. While the family wants growth, she said, it must be steady growth, without peaks and valleys, because Rogers doesn’t ever want to have to lay off any of his 100 employees. “He’s extremely cognizant of the importance of good jobs in this community,” she said.

140821Ale8One-TE0049Wainscott started in the flavored drink business in 1902. He launched RoxaKola in 1906, naming it after his wife. But when Coca-Cola started suing small cola competitors, he realized he needed a special flavor all his own.

Wainscott went to Europe after World War I and bought ginger beer recipes to experiment with. He launched his new drink at the Clark County Fair in 1926 without a name. After a customer remarked that it was “a late one” in the already crowded carbonated drink market, the name Ale-8-One stuck.

Ale-8-One has more caffeine and less carbonation than many soft drinks. Only four people know the secret recipe: Rogers, his brother, sister and father. Rogers now mixes the concentrate himself using his great-great uncle’s handwritten notes.

Ale-8-One distribution is focused on Central Kentucky, where its own delivery fleet covers 27 counties. It is one of the few bottlers in America that still uses some returnable bottles, a popular tradition the company plans to continue.

“I like to say we’re on the bleeding edge of obsolete technology,” McGeeney said. “And we’re very proud of it. We have invested a lot in making sure that that process is extremely safe and high quality.”

Through contracts with other distributors, nonreturnable bottles and cans also go to most of the eastern three-fourths of Kentucky and parts of Ohio and Indiana. McGeeney hopes to gradually expand distribution, at least to all of Kentucky’s 120 counties.

In addition to the original formula, Ale-8-One comes in caffeine-free and diet versions. While the original formula will “never, ever, ever” change, McGeeney said, she sees opportunities for additional beverages. She wouldn’t disclose specifics, but said she would love to do a seasonal beverage made with Kentucky ingredients.

“If you’re at a big company, you can throw a lot of stuff at the wall and see what sticks,” she said. “We can’t do that. We’re David in an industry of Goliaths. We have to do it differently.”

McGeeney said revenue growth has been up in her first year, to about 5 percent. Her goal is annual growth of 5 percent to 10 percent to keep the company financially resilient as the economy rises and falls. Ale-8-One doesn’t disclose revenues or profits, but McGeeney said the balance sheet is strong and future expansion will be self-financed.

“One of the real luxuries of being a private company, from my perspective, is the long-term view,” she said.

This spring, Ale-8-One did its first promotional packaging with a horse-racing theme. Football tailgate packaging will hit store shelves this week. Basketball packaging will follow that.

McGeeney hired a consultant to help refine Ale-8-One’s brand strategy. It revolves around the ideas of Kentucky pride, family ownership and independence. The working slogan: “The best of the Blue Grass in green glass.”

“I think there’s a proud story there,” McGeeney said. “We should be as much of a jewel of Kentucky as bourbon is. My fantasy is to get everybody in Kentucky to feel that way.”

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