Winter’s last gasp reinforces the joy of springtime in Kentucky

April 15, 2014

Mahan-KeenelandA horse is exercised at Keeneland after Tuesday’s snow. Photo by Mark Mahan. Below, snow melts off a tulip at Mathews Garden at the University of Kentucky. Photo by Pablo Alcala.

 

We should have known this winter would not give up easily. But I just smiled when I woke up Tuesday to that little last gasp of a snow storm.

I smiled because I had already seen, felt and smelled the warm promise of spring. I had a sunburn from the weekend. And I knew that there is no better place to enjoy springtime than in Kentucky.

Two Saturdays ago, I saw the new season arrive on the tiny blooms of Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot and rare snow trillium. The rugged creeks that feed into the Kentucky River Palisades harbor a unique array of spring wildflowers, both common and endangered.

Wildflower hikes are offered by such places as the Floracliff Nature Sanctuary, the Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve and the Salato Wildlife Education Center. But opportunities are limited, and the flowers are fleeting.

More common wildflowers can be enjoyed on lawns whose owners eschew toxic chemicals. My yard is awash in purple violets. The grassy median that divides my street has patches of white spring beauties. The grounds at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, have been so covered with spring beauties that it looked as if the snow had arrived there early.

TulipThe lilac bushes beside my front porch have made it a fragrant place to relax on warm evenings and watch my neighbors dust off their bicycles and take a spin.

Last weekend was a perfect opportunity to get reacquainted with some of my cycling friends. Sunshine and perfect temperatures made it feel like late May, although our out-of-shape bodies kept reminding us that it was only early April.

We rode a 35-mile loop Saturday past manicured horse farms in Fayette, Scott and Bourbon counties, then enjoyed a late lunch at Windy Corner Market, where a steady line of customers stretched out the door for hours.

Sunday’s ride was more ambitious: 50-something hilly miles from our Lexington homes to Berea. A few steep climbs and a constant headwind showed who had and who had not kept in shape over the winter. I had not. As we crossed the Kentucky River on the Valley View Ferry, a crew member serenaded us with his guitar. Birds took over the musical duties as we pedaled along Tate’s Creek on the other side, admiring redbud trees in full bloom.

We stopped for lunch at Acres of Land winery, the road up to which required climbing acres of steep asphalt. We needed the rest before continuing on to Boone Tavern for a round of iced tea on the veranda.

Madison County showed a visiting friend from Atlanta a more rugged view of Bluegrass beauty than he had seen the day before. Sadly, though, many back roads were littered with plastic bottles and fast-food cups tossed from passing vehicles. As Forrest Gump would say, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

While we were biking, many others were enjoying one of my favorite spring venues, Keeneland Race Course. Saturday’s weather made it no surprise that nearly 40,000 people attended the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, the second-largest crowd in history.

I haven’t been to the races yet this season, but I have been to Keeneland. When I can manage to pull myself out of bed an hour before daylight, I like to go out there, walk around the backside and watch exercise riders warm up that day’s competitors on the track. It is one of the best free shows in Lexington.

As the rising sun fully illuminates forsythia and dogwood, and as Keeneland’s equine athletes are being cooled off and groomed, I walk to the Track Kitchen for the sort of delicious breakfast cardiologists disapprove of.

As I finish writing this, the last remnants of the snow have melted off my front yard. The budding leaves on my tulip poplar and the giant sycamore across the street look twice as big as they were yesterday. It will be at least six months before they turn color and fall, big as dinner plates.

So long, winter. Don’t be in any hurry to come back.

 


Lexington brothers, classmate win international design contest

April 14, 2014

MTCA rendering of the design for a mobile rural health care clinic for Southeast Asia. The design won Building Trust International’s Moved to Care competition. Below, designers Patrick Morgan, left, Simon Morgan, center, and Jhanéa “Jha D” Williams. Photos provided

 

The email from London looked genuine, but it arrived before dawn on April 1.

“Everybody we told thought it was an April Fool’s joke,” said Patrick Morgan, a young architect from Lexington. “I don’t think Jha D believed me. She just wanted to go back to sleep when I called her at 6:30 in the morning.”

The email was from Building Trust International, a London-based charity that works to improve life in developing countries with good shelter design. It told Morgan that he, his brother, Simon, and his architecture school classmate, Jhanéa “Jha D” Williams, had won the organization’s fifth international design competition, to create a mobile health clinic for use in Southeast Asia.

Their design was chosen from among more than 200 entries by student and professional architects. The best student entry won a small cash prize. “Our prize is that it actually gets built and used,” Simon said.

There were nine professional runners-up in the competition, from India, South Korea, Australia, Italy, Denmark, Ireland and Malaysia.

“It’s still a shock that we won,” Patrick said.

Patrick, 26, has a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and works for Interface Studio Architects in Philadelphia. Simon, 24, has a master’s in public health from Columbia University and works for a firm in Washington, D.C., analyzing health policy.

The brothers have been interested in design and construction since they were boys, helping their parents, John Morgan and Linda Carroll, restore historic houses in downtown Lexington.

“That was quite a bit of it,” Patrick said with a laugh. “Having a wheelbarrow in my hands at 6 months old.”

For their Eagle Scout service projects, they built a patio and landscaping at St. Paul Catholic Church.

As an architect with the Lexington firm Thought Space, Patrick designed the interior of an early 1800s cottage his parents restored on East Third Street. It is beside the offices of their company, Morgan Worldwide, a consulting firm that specializes in reducing the environmental impact of mining.

MTCteamPatrick said he saw Building Trust International’s Moved to Care competition advertised on an architecture blog and suggested developing an entry with his brother and Williams, who works for the architecture and planning firm Sasaki Associates in Boston.

“This sounded perfect for what Simon and I wanted to do together,” he said. “We had always been thinking about trying to work together on projects that would combine our skill sets.”

The idea is that health care services and education can be more effectively delivered in rural areas by bringing small clinics to people rather than asking them to travel to clinics for medical treatment, vaccinations and hygiene education.

“We had been talking about doing something like this for two years,” Simon said. “I studied in South Africa as an undergraduate, and I thought something like this was a much better way to deliver care.”

Patrick said several things about their design seemed to impress the judges. It is easily portable, folding out from a standard tractor-trailer bed. It uses a lot of color, which makes the clinic look welcoming and provides visual clues for usage in a region where dozens of languages are spoken. The design also allows outdoor deck space to be customized for each location.

“The idea is they would fold down from the trailer, but then the community could come in to use their knowledge to build the sun shading and the railings,” Patrick said. “So the local community would feel involved with it.”

Patrick and Simon said they hope to stay connected to the project as it is built and put to use in Cambodia in a pilot project late this year.

“We definitely want to get to Cambodia and stay as involved as possible,” Patrick said. “We’ll get to test the ideas we had in the design and see how they work in the real world, and then be able to tweak it for future models. The idea is that this won’t just be one clinic, but over time they will build more and more of them.”

The Morgan brothers hope to do many more projects together, combining aspects of public health and innovative design.

“It’s just really nice that the first time Simon and I worked together, doing something we plan on doing for a long time, that we were able to win,” Patrick said. “It shows that our ideas meld together nicely.”

 


Warwick nature hike a chance to see rare spring wildflowers

April 9, 2014

If you live in Central Kentucky and like to get out and enjoy its unique natural landscape, you should take at least one early-spring wildflower hike along the Kentucky River Palisades.

I hiked last Saturday morning in the Jessamine Creek gorge with botanist Julian Campbell, an authority on native plants of the Inner Bluegrass and a terrific guide. Among the wildflowers we saw were tiny “Dutchman’s breeches” and a couple of rare snow trillium.

Campbell is leading another hike this Saturday morning, exploring Shantalaya, the nature preserve near the late architectural historian Clay Lancaster’s Warwick estate along the Kentucky River in Mercer County. The event is sponsored by the Warwick Foundation, which now owns and cares for this remarkable Kentucky landmark property.

Below are details of Saturday’s hike (click on the image to enlarge), plus some photos from my hike last Saturday in the Jessamine Creek gorge.

Jennie-Warwick-flyer-3-14-LIINES.jpg

140405JessGorge0008The Jessamine Creek gorge near Wilmore.

140405JessGorge0032Julian Campbell holds a rare snow trillium

140405JessGorge0040A more common trillium

140405JessGorge0133Dutchman’s Breeches


Dr. Oscar Haber, an unforgettable Holocaust survivor, dies at 104

April 7, 2014

100826OscarHaberTE0117Holocaust survivor Oscar Haber, then age 100, got a hug from one of drama teacher Cindy Kewin’s students at Lafayette High School in 2010 after telling them about his experiences.  Photo by Tom Eblen

I meet a lot of people in my line of work, and some of them I never forget. One was Dr. Oscar Haber, who died Saturday at age 104. 

I met Haber in 2010 when he spoke to a theater class at Lafayette High School. Cindy Kewin’s students were preparing to do a production of The Diary of Anne Frank, and she wanted it to be a lesson in the Holocaust they would always remember. So she invited Haber to speak to them about his experiences as a Jewish dentist in Poland who survived an SS labor camp by caring for the Nazis’ teeth.

Then 100, Haber was one of the few people still living who experienced that horrific time as an adult. He spoke for more than an hour to a crowded room of teenagers, and you could have heard a pin drop. Although it was a painful story for him to recall, Haber said he spoke to school groups whenever he was asked. The Holocaust, he said, should never be forgotten.

When Haber was finished, several students, girls and boys alike, came up to thank him with a hug. I have met few people who were such powerful witnesses to human strength, endurance and grace.

Read my column about Haber here, and his obituaries in today’s Herald-Leader here and here.

 

 


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

April 6, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Lexington couple watches Afghan election with personal interest

April 1, 2014

afghanJudie and Bill Schiffbauer of Lexington pose in 2009 in front of the ruins of the house in Kabul, Afghanistan, where they lived in the 1970s. The couple have spent 14 years living and working in Afghanistan since 1966. Photo provided.

 

When Afghanistan needed rebuilding in 2002 after the U.S. invasion overthrew the Taliban, Bill and Judie Schiffbauer were eager to return to the country where they lived in the 1960s and 1970s.

Now they worry that their 14 years of work there could be undone if war-weary Americans walk away from that complex and confounding corner of the world.

Bill Schiffbauer’s biggest fear is a bloodbath as sectarian extremists and ambitious neighbors fight for control. “If we leave, the worst case is ethnic cleansing,” he said. “What are we willing to stand by and watch from a moral point of view?”

A lot could depend on Afghanistan’s presidential election Saturday, which has been preceded by high levels of violence. Insurgents have targeted foreign civilians, including journalists and Christian missionaries, in an apparent attempt to discredit the election, according to the New York Times.

U.S. combat forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan this year, and so far there is no agreement for a continued American military training and support presence. But that could depend on which of the 11 presidential candidates replaces Hamid Karzai.

“The stabilizing force is education, agriculture and health care,” Schiffbauer said. “I think that’s the long-term solution. The short-term problem is a lack of security and all the people who want to interfere there.”

Afghanistan has been an embattled crossroads of the Muslim world for centuries.

Eight invasions and sectarian strife over the past two and half centuries has left many of the 30 million people living in that unforgiving landscape poor and uneducated.

The Schiffbauers first went to Afghanistan in 1966 to teach high school English in Baghlan as Peace Corps volunteers. Like most Americans, then and now, they knew little about the country when they were assigned there. “Every atlas you go to, it’s in the crack on the map,” he said.

After two years, Schiffbauer was offered a Peace Corps staff job in Kandahar, supervising 60 volunteers scattered across two-thirds of Afghanistan’s rugged geography. Over the next three years, he traveled more than 200,000 miles within the country.

The Schiffbauers returned home to Pennsylvania for graduate school in 1970, but they were back in Afghanistan within three years. They lived two years in Kabul, the capital, where Bill worked with non-governmental organizations.

The couple moved to Lexington in 1983. Judie taught English at the University of Kentucky and he was a salesman in the coal industry. While they were here, Afghanistan suffered hard times: Russia’s invasion and nine-year occupation and power struggles among extremist Muslim factions.

When the Schiffbauers returned to Afghanistan in May 2002, Bill became an operations director with U.S. organizations helping the country’s health ministry get back in business with international aid. Working with Afghan crews, he rebuilt many buildings damaged in the war.

“The country was torn apart,” he said. “It was one of the world’s poorest countries when we went there in 1966, and it’s still one of the poorest countries after 30 years of war.”

Judie Schiffbauer became one of the first faculty members at the American University of Afghanistan, which recently suspended classes during the presidential campaign and encouraged faculty members to travel abroad.

The Schiffbauers have been back in Lexington since 2009, where their home is filled with beautiful carpets and furniture from Afghanistan. They read the news and worry about what will happen to the little-understood country they love.

“The Muslim world is a strange place, and Afghanistan is ever stranger,” Bill said. “The fight with the Russians brought all kinds of not nice folks into Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Still, he said, “There are a lot of smart Afghans dedicated to their country. There’s something about the average Afghan. Aside from Australians, I can’t think of anyone who has a collective personality more like us.”

American politicians are always willing to spend billions on war, but they begrudge every dollar that goes to diplomacy and foreign aid — even though that often would save lives and treasure in the long run.

The United States now has 33,000 troops in Afghanistan. Bill Schiffbauer thinks some kind of continued military presence is essential for keeping the country from descending into a chaos we would pay for in the future.

He noted that America still has 40,000 troops in Germany and 50,000 in Japan. “How long have those wars been over?” he asked.

 


Fourth-generation McMahan Furniture rises from the ashes

March 31, 2014

140319McMahan0023Eugene McMahan, the third generation to operate his family’s business, does most of the wood-turning. Here he makes a finial for a four-poster bed. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

CAMPBELLSVILLE — It was a Friday afternoon and Patrick McMahan had just sprayed lacquer on a few pieces of furniture before heading out for a weekend camping trip. He switched on a fan to clear the fumes, “and the whole room blew up around me.”

“When I ran out, the guys in the back could see fire shooting over my head,” he said. “I could feel it on the back of my neck.”

The fan sucked flames into the attic, where they ignited years of accumulated sawdust. Before the burning ceiling collapsed, McMahan, his father, Eugene, and their employees waded through knee-deep water from firefighters’ hoses to rescue as much as they could of the top-quality furniture their family has been making for four generations.

Eugene McMahan & Son Furniture Co. burned to the ground within 45 minutes on Oct. 15, 2010. But a week and a half later, reconstruction began. Within four months, the largest of Campbellsville’s cherry furniture-makers was back in business.

140319McMahan0001Recovery has been tough because of the sluggish economy and furniture-buying trends. But the McMahans are exploring new products and sales venues, determined to continue the business Eugene’s grandfather and his eight sons started in the early 1940s.

Prized Kentucky antiques were becoming scarce in the 1930s, creating a market for reproduction furniture made of native cherry and walnut. Campbellsville became the center of that industry. At one point, McMahan Furniture had 38 workers. There were six other furniture-makers in town, too, a couple of them from branches of the McMahan family.

“Campbellsville cherry” became popular throughout the region. As textile factories came to small Kentucky towns in the 1960s, many women worked outside the home for the first time.

“They would save up enough money to buy a piece,” said Eugene’s wife, Linda McMahan. “And then they would come back and keep coming back until they got their whole home furnished. That’s mostly how it sold.”

But styles and circumstances change, and the number of Campbellsville cherry furniture shops has dwindled since the 1990s. McMahan Furniture is down to four full-time workers, including Patrick, who does the finishing, and Eugene, who selects the wood and does all of the turning. In addition, Linda keeps the books and Patrick’s wife, Leah, manages the website (Cvillecherry.com) and social media.

“Some people think we closed,” Eugene said. “They say, ‘I heard you all burned down.’”

One effort to rebuild the business is a new line of Shaker reproduction furniture and wooden gift items for Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. The company also is making furniture to refurbish rooms in some of the village’s early 1800s buildings.

140319McMahan0097The McMahans also hope to cash in on the popularity of mid-century modern furniture from the 1940s-60s. Patrick, 34, understands the trend. His house in Louisville is furnished with mid-century modern, and he and his wife have a business, The Retro Metro, that deals in the originals (Retrometro502.com).

Patrick recently designed several mid-century modern pieces for McMahan Furniture to produce. They look like originals, but the quality is better: solid walnut rather than veneer.

But he knows styles inevitably go in and out of fashion.

“When every TV commercial has mid-century furniture in it, you kind of know it’s on its way out,” he said. “It’s going to reach its peak and something else will turn around. But there’s always going to be a need for traditional.”

The McMahans make a lot of traditional cannonball and four-poster beds, chests of drawers, bookcase desks, drop-leaf tables, corner cupboards, sideboards and sugar chests. Their most popular pieces range in price from $1,100 to $3,500.

But about half their work is custom. People bring in pictures of something they have seen, or they want to copy a family piece they remember from childhood.

“We don’t charge any extra just to make it different,” Patrick said. “We charge you based on what it costs us to make it. If you’re a good furniture-maker, you should be able to sit down in a few minutes and figure out measurements.”

McMahan Furniture’s selling point has always been quality. Every piece is hand-crafted from solid Kentucky cherry and walnut using traditional joinery — mortise and tenon and dovetail joints. Modern lacquers make the wood virtually waterproof.

Linda said a New Orleans customer sent in a picture of her house after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

“It destroyed the house,” she said. “But there was our cannonball bed sitting in the middle of everything. It made it through.”

McMahan Furniture doesn’t take credit cards and doesn’t require deposits for custom work.

“We want to know they’re satisfied before they pay us,” Linda said. “We have never had a cold check in all those years. That says something for the type of people we deal with.”

Eugene just turned 73, but isn’t putting down his wood-turning chisels anytime soon. Patrick wants a career in the company, and for it to be around in case his 5-year-old son, Walt, wants to take over someday. “I’m not going to push him,” he said.

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

 


Out & about in Lexington: March snow showers cover the flowers

March 25, 2014

140325GratzParkBW copyA dog-walker takes shelter beneath an umbrella in Gratz Park as a brief snow shower Tuesday afternoon gave Lexington a light coating. Below, jonquils in my yard. Photos by Tom Eblen

web2

 


Lexington family and friends do good during ‘volunteer vacations’

March 18, 2014

130319Heitz-India0006Mike Heitz, left, and his wife, Janette, second from left, pose at Mother Clarac Matriculation School in Kumbakonam, India, where they worked with friends last month. Others, from left, are Sister Gladys; Sister Rosaria, the school’s founder, and Dan Lee from Singapore, a member of their volunteer group, which they call Fix-it Friends. Photo provided

 

Janette and Mike Heitz of Lexington love to travel, and they keep finding new ways to combine it with two of their other passions: bicycling and volunteer service.

The Heitzes organize bike trips to Europe with friends, and they have bicycled on their own in such far-flung places as Laos and Egypt. In 2006, Mike and their son, Cory, biked 7,435 miles down the length of Africa. The next year, Janette and their daughter, Jordan, biked 4,500 miles from Paris, France, to Dakar, Senegal.

A couple of weeks ago, the Heitzes returned from a different kind of trip. They, their daughter and more than a dozen friends from across this country, England and Singapore met in Kumbakonam, India. The group spent a week building basketball and tennis courts, painting a block wall and improving a computer lab at the Mother Clarac Matriculation School, run by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Mary.

This was the 13th such trip the Heitzes have taken in as many years.

“I don’t like to call it a mission trip,” Janette said. “I call it a volunteer vacation, because it’s not religion-based. We are just a group of people who have a little extra money and a little extra time and we like to travel. So each year we pick a third-world country and we all meet there.”

Mike started the tradition by participating in a Habitat for Humanity home-building trip to Ghana in 1999. He liked it so much, Janette joined him the next year.

“He thought he would ease me in,” she said, so they did a Habitat build in New Zealand. “I loved it. So the next year we jumped in the deep end and went to Mongolia.”

After that, the couple did annual Habitat builds in South Africa, Mexico, Costa Rica, Romania, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Then they decided to find their own projects along with friends they had met through Habitat and bicycling. Their group, which calls itself Fix-It Friends, includes a variety of faiths — Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Quaker and atheists.

The first Fix-It Friends trip was to Egypt. Then they went to Laos and Argentina, where they also worked with the Sisters of Charity. That led them to their recent trip to southwest India.

“We think education is the key to a better life,” Mike said. So, in addition to basic facility improvements, the group likes to provide computers to schools and orphanages where they work that have electricity. In addition to fixing old computers at Mother Clarac School and setting up a wifi network, the friends are buying 20 rugged $100 tablet computers for the school.

The Heitzes said they enjoy interacting with local people where they work. One day in India, while making the hour-long walk back to their hotel from the school, they came upon a wedding in progress.

“They saw us as some sign of good luck,” Janette said. “Here we were in our work clothes, I had paint splattered all over me, and they invited us in and took photos with us.”

The Heitzes arrived early to see some of India’s sights, including Gandhi’s tomb and the Taj Mahal. Then, after their week of volunteer work, they biked 30-40 kilometers a day for six days in the Kerela state of southeast India.

“It is the flattest part of India, and beautiful,” Janette said, but riding was tricky because “traffic laws are regarded as only a suggestion.”

The couple met at West Virginia University, where he was the basketball team’s first 7-footer (1968-72). Heitz’s younger brother, Tom, played for Kentucky (1979-84).

Mike is an investment banker who specializes in taking companies public. When the IPO market slowed five years ago, he also started a company that buys environmentally distressed industrial properties, restores and re-sells them. Their children work in his companies. Jordan Hurd and her mother also write a popular lifestyle blog, The Two Seasons (The2seasons.com).

Next year, the Fix-It Friends plan to meet in Colombia.

“To me, the important part of this is that we’re promoting goodwill,” Janette said. “People in these places don’t always have the most positive attitude about Americans. But my hope is that in the future when they think of Americans they will think of us and they will think of love. It’s like my little answer to world peace.”

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


Making a second career from publicizing Kentucky’s ‘map dots’

March 16, 2014

mapdotCory Ramsey and his car’s license plate. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Cory Ramsey was a governor’s scholar who went on to earn a broadcasting and political science degree from Western Kentucky University. Then he discovered there was more money to be made welding truck frames at a factory in Bowling Green.

But in 2009, when the economy was on the ropes and Ramsey was given a layoff he knew would last only two months, he had some time to explore another passion — Kentucky’s outdoors.

CoryRamsey grew up in Hickman, a small county seat that hugs the Mississippi River at the far western edge of Kentucky. He spent his youth fishing, hunting and hiking.

Those two months off made him think there might be a way to use his communications skills to turn his love for Kentucky’s outdoors into a business opportunity.

Since then, Ramsey has built his own little media enterprise while crisscrossing the state to visit all 120 counties and every state parks.

Ramsey writes about his adventures and offers hiking advice for the state tourism department’s Outdoor Adventure blog (Getoutky.com). He posts videos on his own website (Coryramseyoutdoors.com). And he does monthly outdoor video segments for WBKO-TV in Bowling Green and radio shows for little stations across the state.

“My emphasis is on exploration made easy,” he said recently when he passed through Lexington after spending a weekend hiking in Red River Gorge. “I tell people the best places to go for a fun day outdoors.”

His latest media venture explores another passion — Kentucky’s crossroads communities and small towns, which he calls “Map Dots.” Last August, he launched the Map Dot, Kentucky Facebook page to celebrate them.

“I wanted to prove that if you take a back road you’ll see things you never knew about,” said Ramsey, who visits and photographs each place he features on the page. “What makes it work is the personal touch.”

Ramsey said he hopes to eventually cover every “Map Dot” in Kentucky, “although that may take me a few years.”

Recent Map Dots he has visited include Glendale in Hardin County, Tomahawk in Martin County, Irvington in Breckinridge County, Danville in Boyle County, Rowletts in Hart County and Columbus Belmont State Park in Hickman County.

“My message is, I have seen so much more in Kentucky than horses and bourbon and Daniel Boone and Lincoln,” he said. “You’re brought up in Kentucky with state pride, but many folks are ignorant of so much the state has. They have never taken the time to explore even the next county over.”

The Map Dot, Kentucky Facebook page so far has gotten more than 5,500 “likes.” It has steady interaction from regular readers, most of them in Kentucky or originally from the state.

“I would like to be able to travel all the time,” Ramsey said, but added that he hasn’t yet figured out how to turn his media business into a career that pays much more than enough to cover the cost of his gas.

To do that, Ramsey will have to find more freelance opportunities, sell more Map Dot T-shirts and figure out new ways to generate revenue.

Until then, he plans to keep welding for Bowling Green Metalforming, a division of Magna International that makes Explorer frames for Ford’s Louisville assembly plant. That business is booming, which has meant a lot of overtime pay for Ramsey but less time for him to explore and share the wonders of Kentucky.


Lecture highlights camera club that produced photography stars

March 13, 2014

Coke1Van Deren Coke (1921-2004) made this photo in 1952 in Lexington’s old Union Station, which was on Main Street where the Helix garage, Lexington Police Department and Fayette County Clerk’s office are now located. Photo: UK Special Collections.

 

Before there were pixels and iPhones, back when photography required film, darkrooms and chemicals, almost every American city had a camera club. Most members were hobbyists who wanted to learn how to make pretty pictures.

The Lexington Camera Club was different.

From its founding in 1936, Lexington Camera Club members, who included doctors, lawyers and businessmen, were unusually serious about developing their craft and exploring artistic expression.

By the time the club disbanded in 1972, it had produced two major figures in the art photography world and many more accomplished photographers.

James Birchfield, the retired special collections curator of rare books at the University of Kentucky, will give a free lecture about this remarkable camera club at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Presidents Room of UK’s Singletary Center for the Arts.

“It was not a provincial outlook,” Birchfield said of the club. “It was a big vision of the history of photography and what contemporary photography was doing. This particular cluster of people seemed to generate an extraordinary flowering of fine photography.”

Birchfield’s lecture is in conjunction with an exhibit at the university’s Art Museum of prints from an impressive photography collection it has assembled since the 1990s, thanks to one of the camera club’s members.

When Robert C. May died in 1993, he left the museum 1,200 of his own photographs and his collection of original prints from some of photography’s greatest names. He also left a substantial bequest so the museum could purchase more photography and create an annual lecture series that brings major photographers to UK’s campus. Eugene Richards, the noted documentary photographer, speaks at 4 p.m. Friday in Worsham Theater in the UK Student Center.

The museum exhibit, Wide Angle: American Photographs, continues through April 27 and features prints by famous photographers including Ansel Adams, Elliott Erwitt, Edward Weston, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, Harry Callahan, Russell Lee, Doris Ulmann, Robert Frank, Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman.

The exhibit also includes nine photographs by Lexington Camera Club members, including its two biggest stars: Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-1972) and Van Deren Coke (1921-2004).

140316CameraClub-a2The club began in 1936 with monthly meetings that included formal critiques of each member’s prints. Guest speakers included Ansel Adams, America’s most celebrated landscape photographer.

Many early club members were interested in landscape and travel photography, while others focused on historical and documentary pictures. Among the documentarians was lawyer and historian J. Winston Coleman, who photographed throughout Kentucky and collected nearly 6,300 historic images that are now at Transylvania University.

The club took an artistic turn under the leadership of Van Deren Coke, who was then president of his family’s Van Deren Hardware Co. on Main Street. Coke’s early photographs of Lexington scenes soon gave way to abstract, artistic images.

Coke got to know many celebrated photographers and became one himself. After graduate school, he went on to be photography curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and director of the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.  He taught for many years at the University of New Mexico and started its art museum.

Meatyard was an optician who joined the club in 1954. He became famous for his unusual photographs, which often involved people wearing masks or posing in abandoned Central Kentucky farmhouses.

Over the years, his images were acclaimed for their unique expression. He also was a major influence on other club members who became well-known photographers, including Robert May, James Baker Hall and Guy Mendes.

Meatyard was president of the club when he died of cancer at age 46 in 1972. The club disbanded within a few months.

“Meatyard fostered exploration and discovery within the Camera Club,” May wrote in a 1989 essay. “As photographers, the members did not look just for new things but for new ways of seeing.”

Meatyard’s photographs are still published frequently in books, and his prints command big prices at galleries and auctions. As recently as 2005, the International Center of Photography in New York mounted a major retrospective of his work.

Mendes was one of the club’s youngest members when he joined in 1968. A retired producer for Kentucky Educational Television, he remains an active photographer.

In an interview last week, he recalled that writer Wendell Berry introduced him to Meatyard. “Gene was something else,” Mendes said, adding that Berry’s young son told him: “He makes really strange pictures.”

Mendes accompanied Meatyard and May on weekend photography outings in the countryside around Lexington. He said they and other club members showed him how photography could do more than record reality; it could express feelings and be a medium for artistic experimentation.

“They taught me lessons I still use today,” Mendes said. “For all of the changes photography has gone through, the basics are still the same.”

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


Expert to speak March 19 about iconic Kentucky long rifles

March 11, 2014

140307KyRifles0002Two of the finely crafted Kentucky long rifles and a powder horn that were part of the Kentucky Treasures exhibit last weekend at the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation’s Antiques & Garden Show. Below, Mel Hankla.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

The Kentucky long rifle has been an icon for two centuries, thanks in part to the myth and folklore that grew up around the taming of America’s early Western frontier.

But recently, the best surviving examples of these weapons have been attracting attention for another reason: They are impressive works of art and craftsmanship.

“For art collectors, this represents a new frontier,” said Mel Hankla of Grayson, who has been researching Kentucky rifles for more than three decades.

He will give a lecture about them at noon on March 19 at the Kentucky History Center in Frankfort. Admission is $25, or $20 for Kentucky Historical Society members. Reservations must be made by March 14; call (502) 564-1792, ext. 4414.

140307KyRifles0001Most of the long-barreled flintlocks that pioneers and settlers brought into Kentucky during the last half of the 18th century were made in southeastern Pennsylvania, where German gunsmiths pioneered the technology. They were called “Kentucky rifles” because that was where they were used.

But Hankla’s research has focused the fact that some of finest of these rifles were actually made in Kentucky, between about 1790 and 1840.

Hankla, 56, is a broker in early Americana and an actor who portrays pioneers George Rogers Clark and Simon Kenton in the Kentucky Humanities Council’s Chautauqua series. He also starred in Michael Breeding’s film, Cassius Marcellus Clay: An Audacious American, on Kentucky Educational Television last year.

Hankla has always been fascinated by firearms and Kentucky’s pioneer era. As a graduate student, he learned how to make black-powder guns. Since then, he has investigated the handful of gunsmiths who made long rifles, tracing their development and movement into Kentucky from Virginia and North Carolina.

“It is an art form that is unknown even to most experienced collectors,” said Bob Noe, a major collector of early Kentucky furniture whose pieces are now at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville. “Mel has pioneered this work.”

“These are decorative arts,” said Mack Cox, another major collector of early Kentucky furniture and paintings who owns several rifles. “This artistic tradition is important to Kentucky culture, and more Kentuckians should know about it.”

Cox said Kentucky rifles are especially impressive as art objects because gunsmiths had to master many different skills, from steel-making to wood-carving to brass, gold and silver inlay work.

Kentucky rifles were essential tools of survival for frontiersmen. They also became status symbols; a man’s most valued possession.

There were families of Kentucky gunsmiths: Rudolph Mauck and his sons, Henry Peter Mauck and Daniel Mock; Conrad Humble and his brother, Michael, who made Daniel Boone’s rifle; William Young and his son, Jacob; and William Bryan, a founder of Bryan’s Station, and his son, Daniel, who owned Waveland.

Only two guns signed by Daniel Bryan, who was Boone’s nephew, are known to exist, Hankla said. Other Bryan-style guns are unsigned because the family had a large shop with as many as 25 gunsmiths, each making a different part of rifles, much like a modern assembly line.

Hankla has studied geography, genealogy and similarities in rifle design to figure out how gunsmiths were related and who may have apprenticed with whom.

As with the gunsmiths, families sometimes fabricated the elaborate scrimshawed cattle horns that were used to store gunpowder. The most famous family of powder-horn makers was the Tansels of Scott County.

At the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation’s Antiques & Garden Show last weekend, Hankla showed perhaps the largest display of fine Kentucky rifles ever assembled: 18 guns and 12 powder horns borrowed from eight collections.

Hankla said there are probably fewer than 50 surviving examples of early, fancy Kentucky-made rifles. At least two of those in his display last weekend had histories as impressive as their craftsmanship.

One was the state-owned rifle that Jacob Young made about 1800 for pioneer leader William Whitley. An eyewitness says Whitley used it to kill the Indian chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames during the War of 1812. Whitley also died in that battle. His horse, rifle and carved powder horn were returned to his widow, Esther, who was said to have been as good a shot as he was.

Thomas Simpson, who likely was Jacob Young’s teacher, made a rifle for Col. Gasper Mansker in 1791 that may have been the result of a boast Simpson made in the Kentucky Gazette the year before. He wrote the newspaper that he could make a rifle as fine as any man in the United States. Hankla now owns it.

The Chickasaw chief Piomingo was so impressed with Mansker’s rifle that he wrote Gen. James Robertson, the Indian agent and founder of Nashville, asking if the U.S. government would have Simpson make him one in return for his peace efforts. When Piomingo died in 1799, that rifle was buried with him.


What did Code for America fellows think after month in Lexington?

March 3, 2014

codethree

Livien Yin, left, Erik Schwartz and Lyzi Diamond spent February in Lexington as Code for America fellows. Photo by Tom Eblen

Three young technologists spent February getting to know Lexington. They met with city employees, business people and non-profit leaders. They walked streets, rode along with code enforcement officers, held meetings in coffee houses and hosted happy hours with community activists. They spent “quality time” along Nicholasville Road. They ate a lot of local donuts.

On Saturday, Lyzie Diamond, Erik Schwartz and Livien Yin flew back to San Francisco, where they will work until mid-November creating technology tools that citizens can use to improve life in Lexington.

The three are on fellowships with Code for America, a nonprofit organization that calls itself the Peace Corps for Geeks. Lexington was selected this year as one of eight cities to host fellows, who also are working in Rhode Island and Puerto Rico.

The fellows’ goal is to leverage technology to empower citizens to improve their communities. Lexington’s participation is supported financially by 30 local people, businesses and organizations, including Mayor Jim Gray, the Urban County Council and Commerce Lexington.

In addition to the fellows’ technology expertise, sponsors wanted their fresh eyes on Lexington’s progress, problems and potential.

“They can help us see what we maybe cannot see,” said Bob Quick, president of Commerce Lexington.

At the end of their month here, I met with Diamond, Schwartz and Yin to find out what they discovered about Lexington, and what they hope to accomplish.

“It went by fast,” said Yin, adding that they plan to return to town for a couple of weeks in April. By then, the snow and ice will be gone and the pace of life will be quickened by Keeneland and other spring activities.

They will spend this week debriefing with the other Code for America fellows and narrowing the focus of their project. They will be listening for common themes and additional ideas from other fellows. But their thinking at this point is to focus on tools to improve communication and collaboration in Lexington.

They said “data visualization” tools could help Lexington residents better understand information already collected by many local organizations and government agencies.

“Sometimes it’s just shining a light on things that already exist and providing tutorials, examples to get people to use existing tools,” Diamond said. “Trying to find ways to get people excited about new things is one of the challenges of the fellowship.”

One example of such a tool is What’s My District?, which was developed by Open Lexington, a volunteer group of local technologists that is nonprofit, nonpartisan and dedicated to more transparent government. To see that tool and others in development, visit its website: Openlexington.org.

Diamond, 24, is originally from New Jersey and also has lived in Hong Kong, Oakland, Calif., Philadelphia and Portland, Ore. Her expertise is digital map-making, and one of her favorite activities while in Lexington was teaching a group of Girl Scouts the basics of how to do it.

Yin, 24, is from Lincoln, Mass., studied art in college but learned technology skills after moving to San Francisco to pursue her interest in neighborhood-based urban revitalization.

Schwartz, 33, grew up in Albion, Mich., and graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio. Since playing in Chicago rock bands, he has worked for several years developing web applications for businesses. His wife, Sarah Smith-Schwartz, is from Lexington.

All three said they enjoyed their time in Lexington. They were impressed by the amount of grassroots community improvement they saw, as well as the community spirit and strong personal networks.

“In every meeting we’ve had, the person we’re meeting with will mention a name of someone we already have met with or know and someone we haven’t met with yet,” Diamond said. “People are really connected to each other here, which is awesome. For a town of 300,000-plus, that’s impressive.”

“Lexington seems to be changing so fast,” Yin added. “I’m excited by the level of engagement that’s already happening.”

Whatever technology tools the three develop, they are likely to be geared toward small-scale action, because many Lexington neighborhoods are already engaged and tend to have different needs and issues.

“How can we help people have more impact, know about more stuff they care about and communicate with others more effectively?” Schwartz asked.

“So many connections happen by word-of-mouth and face-to-face interaction,” Diamond said. “We’re trying to find ways not to replace that but to boost it and facilitate it.”


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

February 25, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


1910 Coal & Feed Co. building redone as corporate headquarters

February 24, 2014

140218BCWood0016Brian C. Wood, founder and CEO of BC Wood Properties, stands in the lobby of the company’s headquarters as Jeannette Crank works behind the front desk and a meeting is conducted in a second-floor conference room. Wood said the renovated circa 1910 Elmendorf Coal & Feed Co. building has been a perfect space for the business. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

A couple of years ago, Brian Wood, the founder and CEO of BC Wood Properties, took the company’s president, King Offutt, down West Fourth Street to show him where Transylvania University, his alma mater, was building new athletic fields.

That part of town was beginning to see dramatic change, including conversion of the huge Eastern State Hospital property into a new campus for Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

While driving around, they turned down Henry Street, a byway that connects to West Third Street. It runs along railroad tracks and old grain elevators near Newtown Pike.

Then they saw it: a hulk of a brick building. It had been built in 1910 by the legendary millionaire horseman James Ben Ali Haggin to house his Elmendorf Coal & Feed Co. Since then, though, it had suffered at least two fires and years of vacancy.

“We had been looking for a building for a couple of years” to house the growing company’s headquarters, Offutt said. “We wanted a building with character.”

140218BCWood0032At the time, the company worked out of Eastland Shopping Center, one of more than 30 retail properties with 5.5 million square feet of space that BC Wood Properties now owns and manages in eight states.

“It was love at first sight,” Wood said of the three-story building. “A diamond in the rough.”

After they looked around the outside and in a few windows, Offutt reached for his cellphone and called the owner. “We want to buy your building,” he said.

Considerable work and a couple of million dollars later, BC Wood Properties has one of the coolest office spaces in Lexington: foot-thick, exposed brick walls; warm wood everywhere, including massive hewn posts and beams; big windows that fill the space with natural light.

The company’s in-house construction experts did most of the renovation. Local craftsmen made long trestle tables for shared conference space between offices and custom metal signs.

140218BCWood0025A huge wooden sliding door was preserved on one wall. Casual seating around the building includes old wooden pews bought on eBay from a Wisconsin church. The façade along Henry Street preserves the painted sign for another long-ago tenant, Central Kentucky Blue Grass Seed Co.

“It works really well,” Offutt said of the building. “It’s certainly improved morale among our employees. They love the building and coming to work in it.”

The building had a modern metal addition on the back, which Wood turned into an employee gym and basketball court. The company pays for a fitness trainer to come in three times a week to work with employees, and the benefit has proven popular, he said.

Preserving the building’s industrial character was their approach to the renovation, Wood said.

“We wanted to keep the essential historical nature, and not try to turn it into something it’s not,” Wood said, noting that is a key principle of the company itself.

Wood started BC Wood Properties 20 years ago and has focused on a specific niche: modest shopping centers in high-traffic locations where middle-class people shop regularly for things they need to live. He said the strategy has worked well: its properties remained more than 90 percent leased throughout the economic slump.

It also helps that the company handles all management, construction and maintenance in-house, rather than outsourcing it, to ensure that properties stay in good shape. That requires a strong team, Wood said, which includes a full-time staff of 18 in Lexington and another 14 employees elsewhere.

Last year, the company raised a $43 million private equity fund for acquisitions, about one-third of it from local investors. That allowed it to purchase 11 shopping centers in five states last year, Wood said.

Wood and Offutt are both 41-year-old Lexington natives, and they said they enjoy being part of the revitalization of Lexington’s northwest end.

“This building reflects who we are,” Wood said. “We didn’t want a high-rise presence. We enjoy being on Henry Street beside grain bins and Blue Stallion Brewery. This is us.”

Added Offutt: “This area is going to change so much in the next five years, it’s going to be fun to watch.”

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

 


Lexington Colored Fair was once a top national event

February 23, 2014

A photo of the 1920 Colored Fair was found by Lonnie Winn of Lexington among family items. File Photo. Below, program from the 1882 fair. Courtesy Kentucky Historical Society.

 

Three and a half years after Kentucky abolished slavery, a group of black Lexington men led by Henry King decided they wanted to showcase the progress their race was making with freedom.

They called a mass meeting for Aug. 11, 1869, and organized the Agricultural and Mechanical Association of Colored People. Selling 50 shares of stock for $10 each, they raised enough money to organize the first Lexington Colored Fair.

Fairs and expositions were popular events after the Civil War, providing entertainment, sport, socializing and a showcase for people’s agricultural, mechanical and artistic accomplishments. But in the South, blacks were often excluded.

“So they decided to have their own fair,” said Yvonne Giles, an authority on Lexington black history who runs the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum at the Robert H. Williams Cultural Center, 644 Georgetown Street.

Because the Lexington Colored Fair ended during World War II, many people have forgotten about it. But Giles’ research has discovered that it was one of the nation’s largest and most successful black fairs, attracting as many as 40,000 people each year.

140219ColoredFair1The first fair was held Oct. 6-9, 1869, in “Mrs. Graves’ Woods” — 25 acres of rented farmland between Newtown and Georgetown roads. The association’s charter specified that no drinking or gambling was allowed at the fair.

Fair organizers tried to lease the Kentucky Association racetrack for the same price as the annual white fair paid, but the track’s board refused. Lexington’s white newspapers were initially dismissive of the fair, opining that blacks had little time or money for such frivolity.

“We hope for the sake of all concerned that sobriety and good order will prevail,” the Lexington Observer & Reporter wrote. But when the fair ended, the newspaper reluctantly acknowledged its success: “Everything went on peaceably and pleasantly.”

The first fair made a profit of $1,368 — big money in that era — and each year’s event got bigger and better. By 1872, the fair had expanded from four to five days and added horse racing.

The association took a 15-year lease on a larger parcel on Georgetown Road, now a commercial neighborhood near Oakwood subdivision. A state historical marker commemorates the spot.

The association built an exhibit hall, a 2,500-seat amphitheater, stables and a half-mile racetrack. But the fair quickly outgrew that site, too, as railroads offered special fares to Lexington for fairgoers throughout Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana.

The association negotiated a lease with Lexington’s white fairgrounds, now the site of The Red Mile trotting track and Floral Hall. These fairgrounds had an 8,000-seat grandstand and were served by streetcar lines. Beginning in 1887, this would be the Lexington Colored Fair’s permanent home.

The fair flourished in part because it paid generous prizes for exhibit entries, and big purses for Thoroughbred and trotting races, Giles said.

By the early 1900s, the big race was the mile and one-sixteenth Colored Fair Derby, which attracted top trainers and jockeys. The winner received $400 and a silver trophy. The association became the first black organization admitted to membership in the National Trotting Association, that sport’s governing body.

Good prizes attracted top competitors, and the Colored Fair didn’t discriminate.

“Often the exhibits of the best white people compete for the prizes,” W.D. Johnson wrote in his 1897 book, Biographical Sketches of Prominent Negro Men and Women of Kentucky.

When its charter expired in 1896, the association reorganized to allow the original stockholders or their widows to cash out shares at more than 10 times their purchase price. The reorganization also attracted a new generation of black men and women to invest their money and energies in the fair.

“The display booths, livestock shows, prizes and sporting events served to demonstrate black achievement, thereby enhancing racial pride,” Marion Lucas wrote in his 1992 book, A History of Blacks in Kentucky.

Adults competed for prizes in livestock, fruits, vegetables, wines, honeys, hams, workmanship and manufacturing skills. For women, there were contests for sewing, baking, canning, floral displays and needlework. There were three educational categories for children: essays, penmanship and painting.

Over the years, the fair offered airplane rides, balloon ascensions, military bands, beauty contests, bicycle races, trained dog acts and daredevil shows, such as one in 1907 called the Double Death Gap Flumes and Loop.

In 1910, the black historian and activist W.E.B. DuBois wrote that the Lexington event was “one of the most successful colored fairs in the United States.”

The fair attracted black celebrities, including heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson and Oscar DePriest of Chicago, the only black member of Congress when he attended in 1929.

The biggest star of all was educator Booker T. Washington, who attracted a record crowd and front-page coverage in the white-owned Lexington Leader when he spoke at the fair in 1908.

The fair was called off as World War I was ending in 1918, because soldiers were being housed in Floral Hall. It reopened the next year, adding a sixth day of events.

With the onset of the Great Depression in 1930, the fair suffered financial losses and was called off from 1931-1934. The fair reopened in 1935, but closed for good after 1942. World War II was absorbing the nation’s resources and attention, and it would begin the slow process of racial integration.

140218ColoredFair0004A

A state historical marker along Georgetown Road recalls the second location of the Lexington Colored Fair. Photo by Tom Eblen


Freed slave left his mark on Lexington; his son went even further

February 15, 2014

140212Tandys0002Henry Tandy and Albert Byrd, two black bricklayers in Lexington during the late 1800s and early 1900s, formed a partnership that did the brick work on many notable local buildings. Tandy & Byrd’s biggest job was the Fayette County Courthouse. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

 

Henry A. Tandy was one of many newly freed slaves who moved to Lexington at the end of the Civil War. He would leave marks on this city that are still visible, and his son would do the same in New York.

Tandy was born in Kentucky, but it isn’t known exactly when or where. He came to Lexington in 1865 at about age 15 and made a name for himself as a craftsman, business executive and entrepreneur.

After two years as a photographer’s assistant, Tandy went to work in 1867 as a laborer for G.D. Wilgus, one of Lexington’s largest building contractors. Within a few years he was a skilled bricklayer and a foreman, according to architectural historian Rebecca Lawin McCarley, who researched his life and wrote about it in 2006 for the journal Kentucky Places & Spaces.

HenryTandy

Henry A. Tandy

Tandy saved money and, after marrying Emma Brice in 1874, bought his first real estate from George Kinkead, an anti-slavery lawyer whose mansion is now the Living Arts & Science Center. Tandy built the only two-story brick house in Kinkeadtown, a black settlement now part of the East End.

By the time their son, Vertner, was born in 1885, the Tandys had sold their home in Kinkeadtown for a profit and moved in with her parents at 642 West Main Street. Tandy is thought to have built the brick house there, and he lived in it for the rest of his life.

In the 1880s, Tandy began buying investment lots around town. He built and rented some of the best houses in Lexington’s “black” neighborhoods at the time.

Among the Wilgus projects that Tandy worked on were the Opera House, St. Paul Catholic Church and First Presbyterian Church. When Wilgus’ health deteriorated in the 1880s, Tandy took over many of his duties. It was then unheard of for a black man to run a white man’s business.

When Wilgus died in 1893, Tandy and another black bricklayer, Albert Byrd, formed their own company, Tandy & Byrd. It became one of Lexington’s largest brick contractors, with as many as 50 workers.

Tandy & Byrd’s biggest project was the old Fayette County Court House. Others that remain standing include the First National Bank building on Short Street, Miller Hall at the University of Kentucky and the Merrick Lodge Building, where The Jax restaurant is now at Short and Limestone streets.

Tandy & Byrd also built the annex for the Protestant Infirmary at East Short Street and Elm Tree Lane. The infirmary was the forerunner of Good Samaritan Hospital. Until recently, the annex housed Hurst Office Furniture.

Tandy & Byrd constructed the Ades Dry Goods building on East Main Street, which now houses Thomas & King’s offices and Portofino restaurant. The partners did a lot of brick work for Combs Lumber Co., which built many turn-of-the-century Lexington homes (including mine).

Tandy was one of 49 people profiled in W.D. Johnson’s 1897 book, Biographical Sketches of Prominent Negro Men and Women of Kentucky.

“Opportunity came to him, and he seized it,” Johnson wrote of Tandy. “Through his indefatigable efforts a large force of Negro laborers have found steady employment, and thereby obtained comfortable homes for their families.”

Tandy was prominent in the black community, with leadership roles in the “colored” YMCA, the A.M.E. Church, black fraternal organizations and the Colored Fair Association, which organized Kentucky’s largest annual exposition for blacks. He was active in the National Negro Business League and spoke at its national convention in 1902.

Byrd died in 1909, and Tandy retired in 1911 after finishing Roark and Sullivan halls at Eastern Kentucky University. But he continued dabbling in real estate and got into the livery and undertaking business. Tandy died in 1918, and he has one of the biggest monuments at Cove Haven Cemetery.

Although Tandy got little formal education, he made sure his son did.

Vertner Woodson Tandy

Vertner Woodson Tandy

Vertner Woodson Tandy studied under Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He finished his studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where he was one of seven founders of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first black college fraternity. He was the first black to pass the military commissioning exam, and he eventually became a major in the New York National Guard.

Tandy would become New York’s first black registered architect, and the first black member of the American Institute of Architects. Among many buildings he designed was St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Harlem and two mansions for America’s first black woman millionaire, the hair-care products pioneer Madam C.J. Walker.

The Villa Lewaro mansion Tandy designed for Walker in exclusive Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y., was restored in the 1990s by Harold Doley, the first black to buy an individual seat on the New York Stock Exchange.

Tandy designed one building in Lexington that still stands: Webster Hall, which housed teachers at Chandler Normal School for blacks on Georgetown Street, which he had attended.

Vertner Tandy died in 1949 at age 64. A state historical marker honoring him stands beside the family home on West Main Street, which is now used for offices.

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

 


UK shouldn’t destroy unique teaching garden with 350 species

February 11, 2014

140210MathewsGarden0009AJames Krupa, a UK biology professor, stands in the dormant, snow-covered Mathews Garden beside the now-vacant Mathews house. The garden contains about 350 species of native plants, including many rare ones. Below, a rare American elm tree stands in the garden near the College of Law building. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Mathews Garden at the University of Kentucky doesn’t look like much in its winter dormancy, covered with snow.

Dr. James Krupa, a biology professor, says UK administrators have long complained that the garden doesn’t look like much any time of the year. But that’s not the point.

The century-old garden may be the most biologically diverse half-acre in Kentucky, Krupa said, with about 350 species of mostly native plants and trees. The garden provides a unique teaching facility, allowing students to see and compare many unusual plants that rarely grow together.

But like some of its plant species, Mathews Garden is endangered. A proposed renovation of UK’s College of Law building would destroy this unique garden, as well as two adjacent houses, built in 1900 and 1920.

When the $65 million law school renovation was announced in 2012, administrators said the project would claim both houses and the garden. Krupa said he was told recently that the garden is doomed.

But UK spokesman Jay Blanton said no decision about the fate of the garden or houses has been made and won’t be made until after state and private funding are secured for the much-needed renovation. “Those decisions would be part of the design process,” he said.

140210MathewsGarden0004AWhen the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation last month released its annual list of Central Kentucky’s most-endangered historic places, every one was owned by UK. Mathews Garden and the two adjacent houses were on the list for the second straight year. The group also complained that UK had demolished a circa 1800 house at Spindletop Farm without notice or warning.

UK trustees have approved plans to demolish several buildings designed between the 1940s and 1960s by noted architect Ernst Johnson, as well as a circa 1880 Italianate mansion, to make way for new dormitories that will be built and leased by a private contractor.

Architects have complained about the loss of the “architecturally significant” buildings, as well as poor design and construction quality of the new dormitories.

Clarence Mathews, a UK professor of botany and horticulture, created the garden in his back yard after he built a frame house at the edge of campus in 1900. Mathews’ daughter, Ruth, transferred the property to UK in 1968, but continued to live there. She died in 1986.

The Mathews house and the Ligon house next door have been used for UK offices. But the Mathews house is now vacant and showing signs of exterior decay from lack of maintenance.

Krupa said he volunteered to restore the garden in 2000. He said he began by removing 20 truckloads of honeysuckle and other invasive species.

Over the years, Krupa said he has spent countless hours and more than $41,000 in UK funds and his own money improving and maintaining the garden, which he said is used by classes with 1,500 students each year. He has added plants, trails, benches and plant identification markers.

Krupa said the garden is a living botany textbook, with every Kentucky variety of dogwood, azalea, hydrangea and viburnum and other plants. It has dozens of native wildflowers and several rare trees, including roundleaf birch, Georgia oak and striped maple.

The garden has a rare reproducing American elm tree. More than 75 percent of the once-ubiquitous American elms were lost to Dutch elm disease in the mid-20th century. Krupa thinks this may be the last one on campus.

“It’s really amazing that so many species are here in this one place,” Krupa said.

But Blanton said: “The question now is should a facility of dense undergrowth be in the center of campus or more appropriately relocated to a research tract on farms owned by the university?”

Krupa said the garden could not be relocated successfully. “Half of the biological diversity is in the soil,” he said.

Rather than expand sideways and take the garden and old houses, Krupa suggests that the law school expand back, which would displace a parking lot and a small, non-descript 1950s building.

“Administrators have always called this a weed patch,” Krupa said of Mathews Garden. “But it’s only a weed patch if you’re ignorant. I’m up against ignorance, arrogance and a lot of faculty that are afraid to take on the administration.”

For an institution of higher learning that trains many of Kentucky’s architects and historic preservation specialists, UK administrators are showing little regard for either discipline. Let’s hope they don’t flunk botany, too.

 

140210MathewsGarden0026A

The entrance to Mathews Garden. The century-old home and garden were built by Clarence Mathews, a UK botany and horticulture professor.

 


Lexington’s Fayette Cigar Store a downtown retail survivor

February 10, 2014

140206FayetteCigar0060

Fayette Cigar Store has been at 137 E. Main St. since Dale Ferguson bought the building in 1977. He resisted attempts by the city to buy the building when it purchased other property on the block, which now includes the Fayette County Court Houses, left, and the Downtown Arts Center, right. Below, Ferguson and a daughter, Dee Bright. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

With all of the talk about the need to attract retailers back to downtown Lexington, I thought it would be good to talk with one who never left.

Dale Ferguson, 75, and his family have been selling newspapers, magazines, tobacco products and sundries downtown since 1928.

That was the year his father, H.C. Ferguson, opened a newsstand on Mill Street. Soon after World War II started, he bought Fayette Cigar Store at 151 West Main Street “when the owner got drafted,” Ferguson said.

When that building was scheduled for a renovation that would have forced him to close for several months, Dale Ferguson bought a bigger building at 137 East Main in 1977 and moved the business. Fayette Cigar Store has been there ever since, despite the best efforts of developers and city officials to buy his property.

Surrounding buildings were bought in the 1980s for a proposed World Trade Center and cultural complex. Eventually, the new Fayette County Court House complex was built on his west side and the Downtown Arts Center on his east side.

At one point, Ferguson said, he agreed to city requests to swap his building for a similar one in the next block, but financial terms couldn’t be reached with its owner. So Ferguson stayed put, through thick and thin, trying to make a living on his 32-foot-long slice of Main Street.

140206FayetteCigar0023Ferguson’s three-story building dates from 1864, with central and rear sections added in the early 1900s. Before he bought the building, bookies operated in the upper floors, which was connected to an adjacent building by a hole in the wall. Now, the upper floors are accessed by an antique elevator.

Modern fire codes would keep Ferguson from using the upper floors for anything but storage and an office unless he could figure out a way to build a staircase.

“That stops a lot of downtown development,” he said, “A lot of these old buildings don’t have fire escapes.”

Ferguson said making Main Street one-way in 1971 hurt business, as did eliminating more and more street parking over the years.

“It was a mistake to do it,” he said of the one-way conversion, but added that he isn’t convinced making Main Street two-way again would do much good. “It’s too late.”

A bigger improvement, he said, would be adding more street parking, preferably angled or perpendicular spaces that would be easier for people to use and accommodate more cars.

During the last streetscape renovation in 2010, Ferguson lost a loading zone in front of his store, which hurt business.

“People would pull up, run in and buy a $200 box of cigars, and be gone in a few minutes,” he said. “They can’t do that anymore.”

But the biggest obstacle Ferguson sees to getting more retailers back in downtown Lexington is high per-square-foot rents.

“If I didn’t own my building, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I blame a lot of it on the Webbs, who overpaid for property and then had to get a return on their investment.” But the biggest problem, Ferguson said, is that too few people work downtown — he suspects less than a fifth as many as did two or three decades ago. The addition of downtown condos over the past decade hasn’t made much difference, he said. But he thinks more big apartment complexes like Park Plaza would help.

Ferguson now runs Fayette Cigar Store seven days a week with help from one of his four daughters, Dee Bright. Thanks to a resurgence in cigar smoking, customers come to the store for its extensive selection of high-end smokes, which are kept in a former bank vault in back. Pipe smoking also is on the rebound as cigarettes decline.

Cigars and fine pipe tobacco are the store’s biggest profit centers. But Ferguson says he doesn’t know what the future holds, noting that all of his main wares — tobacco, magazines, newspapers and greeting cards — have been in decline for years.

Ferguson has tried to fight back by adding niche products such as basic drugstore items and local honey. Still, business is tough.

“I have a pretty loyal customer base,” he said. “Thank God for that.”

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


As first black senator, Powers gave voice to the powerless

February 9, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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