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.


As first black senator, Powers gave voice to the powerless

February 9, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

February 4, 2014

djerassiChemist and writer Carl Djerassi. Photo by Karen Ostertag.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you go

Carl Djerassi in Lexington.

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

Warwick: historic Kentucky home meets a scholar’s imagination

January 18, 2014

140116Warwick0041

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you go

Warwick Foundation open house and book sale

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

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


Kentucky poet Jeff Worley talks about his art and craft

January 1, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


‘For on his brow I see that written which is Doom’

December 24, 2013

XmasCarolCover

Today’s reading is from Charles Dickens’ 1843 classic, A Christmas Carol.

“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “ I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides — excuse me — I don’t know that.”

“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.

“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”

***

XmasCarol“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw!”

“It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. “Look here.”

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The bell struck twelve.


John Egerton chronicled the South, from civil rights to barbecue

November 23, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Museum publishes new illustrated Lexington history book

November 13, 2013

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

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

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

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

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


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

November 13, 2013

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

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

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

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


Recording World War II memories before it is too late

November 9, 2013

Elams0001Willie J. Elam, 94, talks with his son, Mark, at the Thomson-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore, where he lives. Mark Elam interviewed his father over eight years about his combat experiences in the South Pacific during World War II, which earned him a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.  Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Mark Elam was sitting in Turfland Mall a decade ago, waiting for his wife to finish shopping, when he struck up a conversation with an old man who mentioned he was a World War II veteran. Elam said his father fought in the war, too.

“Then he asked what outfit my Dad was in,” Elam said. “I had to admit I didn’t know. I was embarrassed.”

That encounter led Elam to start asking his father about the war. Soon he was bringing a tape recorder and a list of questions each Sunday when he visited his father, who is now 94 and lives at the Thomson-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore.

“He was apprehensive at first, but then he opened up,” Elam said. “The more I asked, the more he told me, and it just grew and grew.”

Elams0004After eight years of interviews, plus a lot of research on his own, Elam published a spiral-bound book in June for his sister, Marta Dorton, and their families. He titled the book after the motto of his father’s unit: To the Last Man.

“It was a fun project,” he said. “I spent a lot of time with him, and it brought us closer together.”

Elam, 57, said the project made him realize how important it is to preserve stories, especially those of the rapidly disappearing generation of veterans who fought World War II.

As a graphic artist and printer, Elam knew how to scan old photographs and assemble a book. But he didn’t consider himself a writer, so he told his father’s story chronologically, mixing his own prose with sections of questions and answers from their interviews.

The result is quite readable — and fascinating. It provides a detailed and vivid account of what combat and everyday life was like for American soldiers who fought the Japanese in the South Pacific.

Willie Junior Elam was a farm boy from Morgan County when he enlisted in the Army four months before Pearl Harbor. He was a private first class in the 43rd Division, 103rd Infantry, Company K, serving through 1946. Two brothers also fought in the war.

Elam was a field radio operator who saw a lot of combat, earning the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. The second time he was wounded, in an artillery strike that killed several officers around him, he was so badly hurt that doctors nicknamed him “the miracle kid.”

Elams0005“There was a lot of stuff he can’t talk about and won’t talk about,” Elam said. “He still has nightmares about some of it 70 years later. I didn’t want to push him too much.”

As Elam discovered, the most important part of such a project is simply asking questions and recording answers. When it comes to preserving those stories in a book or other form, a lot of helpful resources are available.

One is a book, A Veterans Legacy: Field Kit Journal ($15. Veteranslegacyjournal.com). It was written three years ago by Jay McChord, a former Lexington Urban County Council member, and offers a step-by-step guide to compiling a service history.

The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning next year will offer several classes that could be helpful. Writing Your Family Stories is a daylong seminar March 8. Another class, Life Writing: Generating and Revising Autobiographical Prose, will meet Tuesday evenings from April 15 to May 20.

The Carnegie Center also offers individual writing mentors and a nonfiction writing group that meets Tuesdays at lunch from Jan. 9 to March 25. For more information, call (859) 254-4157 ext. 21 or go to Carnegiecenterlex.org.

Dorton said she is glad her brother preserved their father’s wartime memories.

“Dad told stories when we were growing up, but I had forgotten a lot of them,” she said. “I think it was good for Dad psychologically to get some of that out.”

Recording family history is important, she said, and not just for veterans. As we spoke by phone, she was driving to Menifee County to visit a 104-year-old aunt, Rella Mullins, who until recently could tell stories about living on a farm during the Great Depression and working in a factory during World War II.

“It’s amazing what all she witnessed,” said Dorton, who gave her aunt a journal several years ago and has written down some of her stories.

“It’s an easy thing to do,” Elam said of preserving family members’ memories. “But after they’re gone, it’s too late.”

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

October 5, 2013

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Kimmerer. Photo by Tom Eblen

Tom Kimmerer.   Photo by Tom Eblen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wendell Berry partners with college on sustainable farm program

October 1, 2013

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 28, 2013

Indian Fort Mountain, Berea. Photo by Tom Eblen

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


New book showcases Kentucky’s antebellum decorative arts

September 15, 2013

Gigi Lacer

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

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

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

130806CollectingKy-TE0001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kentucky poet Maurice Manning gains a national reputation

August 20, 2013

Manning1

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Exhibit honors pioneer publisher, entreprenuer John Bradford

June 11, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To read the full essay on Bradford, click here.

If you go

John Bradford’s Kentucky Gazette

Where: Cardome Center, 800 Cincinnati Rd., Georgetown

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

Admission: Free

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


Essay: John Bradford, Kentucky’s pioneer journalist

June 11, 2013

This essay was originally written for the May 22 symposium, Words in a Changing World: from Bradford to Bloggers, at the Center for the Written Word at Cardome Center in Georgetown.

 

On August 11, 1787, the first newspaper to be published west of Pittsburgh hit the streets of Lexington, Kentucky.  It was a modest thing, printed on a four-page fold about the size of letter sheets. The Kentucke Gazette carried a few news items from elsewhere, an advertisement and an apology from its publisher. The 38-year-old publisher had little or no training as a printer, reporter, writer or editor. But he did understand deadlines.  “My customers will excuse my first publication,” he wrote, “as I am much hurried to get an impression by the time appointed.”  The rookie journalist then offered excuses.  Most of his type had been jumbled on its way to Lexington, he wrote.  His brother had purchased the type and a printing press in Pennsylvania and accompanied it down the Ohio River on a flatboat. The equipment made the final leg of its journey to Lexington over a rough road from what is now Maysville. If jumbled type were not bad enough, the publisher complained that his “only assistant” —his brother — had been sick for 10 days and was of no help whatsoever.

The Kentucke Gazette may have had an rough start 225 years ago, but it began a long and illustrious newspaper tradition in Kentucky. The Gazette’s publisher was Kentucky’s first journalist — and so much more.  John Bradford was a Renaissance man of the early Western frontier: a land surveyor, Indian fighter, politician, moral philosopher,  tavern owner, sheriff, civic host, community booster, postal service entrepreneur, real estate speculator, subdivision developer, mechanic and mathematician. And all of that was in addition to his primary work, which made seminal contributions to development of the written word in Kentucky.  In addition to writing and publishing the state’s first newspaper, Bradford produced Kentucky’s first books, was an organizer of the first public library and operated one of the first bookstores. He also was one of the first historians of Kentucky’s pioneer era and the chief advocate for, and longtime chairman of, Kentucky’s first institution of higher learning, Transylvania University.

So, it seems fitting that as we gather at Cardome today to reflect on the past, present and future of journalism and the written word in Kentucky, we begin by remembering John Bradford. For 45 of this state’s most formative years, he was in the middle of everything.

John Bradford was born in June 1749 near Warrenton in Northern Virginia, the second child and eldest son of Daniel Bradford and Alice Morgan. At the age of 21, he married Eliza James, the daughter of a respected Virginia planter. They had five sons and four daughters. Like his father, Bradford became a land surveyor. He practiced his trade in Virginia for eight years, except for possible brief service in the Revolutionary War in 1776. Like many Virginians, he was hungry for land and he had heard about the bounty that lay across the Appalachian mountains. So, in the fall of 1779, Bradford left his family and went to the western reaches of Virginia — then called Kentucke with an “e” at the end — where he worked as a surveyor. During this time, he also became an Indian fighter, taking part in the campaign against the Native American towns of Chillicothe and Piqua in what is now Ohio.

While in Kentucky, Bradford and his younger brother, Fielding, made claims on 6,000 acres of rich Bluegrass land along Cane Run and North Elkhorn creeks in what is now Fayette and Scott counties. That land is said to have included what is now the campus of Cardome. Bradford then returned home, and, in the spring of 1785, moved his family west. They lived in a cabin, and later a handsome brick home, near the corner of what is now Russell Cave Road and Ironworks Pike north of Lexington. But John Bradford wasn’t cut out to be a farmer. He soon sought out a new business opportunity — something he would do frequently for the rest of his life.

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

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

Kentuckians have always loved to complain about the government. Many prominent pioneers of the 1780s thought that Virginia’s government was ignoring their needs, especially when it came to security from Indian attacks. Meeting in convention at Danville on December 30, 1784, these settlers decided it would be in their best interests to begin the process of separating from Virginia and forming their own state.  They also decided that, to be successful, they needed public opinion in Kentucky on their side. They needed information. They needed publicity. They needed a newspaper.

A year later, the convention appointed Gen. James Wilkinson, future governor Christopher Greenup and John Cobern to form a committee to find a printer from the East willing to move to Kentucky.  The committee tried to recruit printers John Dunlap in Philadelphia and Miles Hunter in Richmond, Va., but both declined. It was at this point that John Bradford stepped forward and offered to do the job if the convention could promise him public printing work. With this assurance, the Bradford brothers went to Philadelphia to buy a printing press. On their way home, they stopped in Pittsburgh and bought some type from John Scull, who had recently established the Pittsburgh Gazette, the first newspaper west of the Allegheny Mountains. John Bradford then headed home, leaving his brother in Pittsburgh for three months to learn the basics of printing. (It may not surprise you to learn that, after a couple of years, Fielding Bradford decided he no longer wanted to work for big brother and left the business.)

Some statehood convention delegates assumed that Bradford would set up his printing shop in Danville, where they met each year. But in what we now would call an economic-development incentive, the trustees of Lexington promised to give Bradford the use of a prime piece of downtown real estate for as long as he operated his press and newspaper in their town. Bradford accepted the offer, and, as there was no building on the promised property, also accepted the town’s offer to set up his print shop in the back room of the log courthouse at the corner of Main Street and Broadway, where Victorian Square now stands.

The Kentucke Gazette began publication in August 1787 with 180 subscribers. Bradford charged 18 shilling per year for a subscription and three shillings for an advertisement of moderate length. Because hard cash was scarce on the Kentucky frontier, Bradford wrote that he also would take the following goods as payment: “corn, wheat, country-made linen, linsey, sugar, whiskey, ash flooring and cured bacon.”  The Kentucke Gazette patterned itself after the Pittsburgh newspaper, with three columns of type on its small page.  The newspaper changed the spelling of Kentucky on its masthead — ending it with a “y” instead than an “e” — in 1789 after the Virginia General Assembly officially did so.

Early on, the Gazette was the only newspaper within 500 miles of Lexington, which made it a must-read, at least for those who could read. A year before the government provided postal service in Kentucky, Bradford employed a small network of “post riders” to deliver the Gazette to Limestone (now Maysville), Harrodsburg, Danville and other Central Kentucky towns. The post riders also carried letters and small packages as their saddle bags allowed. Bradford kept a letter box at his Lexington office where correspondence carried by the post riders could be picked up by the intended recipients.

The Gazette was first published weekly, then twice and later three times a week. Paper was scarce, since it had to be imported from the East during the newspaper’s early years. But by 1793, the Gazette’s paper was made in Georgetown by another early Kentucky entrepreneur, Elijah Craig, whose other claims to fame were as a Baptist minister — and as an early distiller of bourbon whiskey.

Historians who have studied the surviving issues of Bradford’s Gazette have often remarked on the lack of what we would now call local news. There was little in the way of information about everyday life and happenings in Lexington and around the Bluegrass frontier. Perhaps, some historians have speculated, that was because the place was so small and sparsely populated at the time that everybody already knew the local news by the time the paper came out.  The Gazette’s pages were filled instead with weeks-old, and sometimes months-old, accounts of national and international happenings, as well as with stenographic accounts of local and state government activities.  Unfortunately, Bradford’s coverage of Kentucky’s quest for statehood mostly consisted of publishing the official resolutions of the separation conventions. While the Gazette’s pages occasionally included philosophic discussions about Kentucky’s political needs, historians have noted that Bradford provided little journalistic detail or insight into the process of seeking statehood or personalities who were involved in the movement.

Bradford was a Democrat in the mold of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and the Gazette reflected his political views. An Episcopalian, he also was a man of liberal religious views. He refused to allow the Gazette to be drawn into the sectarian theological disputes that raged among Protestant Christian denominations in early Kentucky. Bradford, whose nickname in later years was “Old Wisdom”, would occasionally offer bits of moral philosophy in print, a la Benjamin Franklin. Here is one example: “Narrow minds are like crooked bottles; the less they have in them, the more noise they make in pouring it out.”

Bradford had his pet issues, as every editor does, and they were given considerable coverage: He was very interested in horses. He hated the federal government’s excise tax on whiskey. He was outraged by John Jay’s proposed treaty that would have given Spain navigational control of the Mississippi River. And, most of all, he was obsessed with Indians and the threat they posed to settlement of Kentucky. This was the era of Manifest Destiny, and nobody embraced that philosophy more than John Bradford.

The Gazette also served as a valuable forum for public notices, some of which could be quite humorous, such as the one from Jan. 29, 1791, in which a Charles Bland wrote that he would not pay a note given to William Turner for three second-rate cows until Turner returned a rifle, blanket and tomahawk he had borrowed. My favorite public notice is this one from April 6, 1793: “Taken up by the subscriber, on Clear Creek Fayette County, a dunn mare two years old last spring; her mane and tail black with a black list along her back, a natural trotter, 13 hands 1 inch high, apprised at £3.10. Hawkins Kearby.”  Unlike the other notice, this one is not humorous, or of any importance except to the owner of the lost horse. But it is my favorite because Hawkins Kearby was my great-, great-, great-, great-, great-grandfather and this Kentucke Gazette notice is the only written record I have of him.

After a couple of moves, the Gazette’s offices came in July 1795 to spacious quarters in a two-story brick building on Main Street that had been Kentucky’s first statehouse. At this location, where it would remain for 40 years, Bradford published Kentucky’s first books. After a compilation of state laws, he produced many other books, including an annual Kentucky Almanac and the work of Kentucky’s first poet, Thomas Johnson. Bradford’s offices also included a bookstore, which became a popular gathering place for white men to discuss news, politics and public affairs.

The Gazette’s first newspaper competitor appeared in 1795, when Bradford’s former employee, Thomas H. Stewart, started the Kentucky Herald. (And in the first example of monopoly newspaper consolidation in Kentucky, Bradford bought out Stewart in 1802 and shut down the Herald.) As Kentucky grew in the late 1700s, four more newspapers opened in Frankfort and the town of Washington, near Maysville. By the end of 1811, some 30 newspapers had been established in Kentucky. In addition to Lexington, Frankfort and Washington, their locations included Bardstown, Shelbyville, Danville, Russellville, Louisville, Paris, Lancaster, Stanford, Richmond and Georgetown.

Bradford trained several of his five sons as printers and journalists, and the family holdings expanded. Son Daniel took over the Gazette from April 1802 until it was operated by others between late 1809 and 1814. Bradford’s eldest son, Benjamin, bought the Kentucky Journal in Frankfort in 1795. Bradford and son James operated the Guardian of Freedom in Frankfort from 1798 until 1806. Both of those Frankfort newspapers essentially republished the Gazette’s content, but may have given the Bradford family a measure of influence in the state capital.

After several changes in management and ownership at the Kentucky Gazette, Bradford returned as editor and publisher late in his life, from April 1825 until June 1827. Perhaps that was because he had one last job to do.  Between August 1826 and January 1829, Bradford published 66 essays in the Gazette that he simply called “Notes on Kentucky.”  These articles were Bradford’s journalistic memoirs, his chronicle of a pioneer era that was slipping away from Kentucky’s collective memory as others of his generation died off.

The historical value of Bradford’s “Notes” was realized immediately. George Washington Stipp got to know Bradford while living in Lexington as a medical student at Transylvania University. Stipp was so impressed with Bradford’s essays that, after returning home to Xenia, Ohio, in 1827, he published the first 23 of them in a small book he called: The Western Miscellany, or, AccouGazettents Historical, Biographical, and Amusing. The full “Notes” were edited by historian Thomas D. Clark and published in 1993 by the University Press of Kentucky in a book titled: The Voice of the Frontier: John Bradford’s Notes on Kentucky.

Bradford’s “Notes” still make interesting reading, especially his tales of early exploration and the settlers’ battles with Indians. As I mentioned, Bradford had always been obsessed with the threat Native Americans posed to the settlers who came in and took their land. In his book, Clark takes a shot at Bradford’s journalistic objectivity on this subject, noting that Indian atrocities against settlers were always portrayed as heinous, criminal acts. But when it came to the atrocities settlers committed against the Indians — of which there were many — the same value judgments never applied. “One can only speculate,” Clark wrote, “on what a literate ‘Indian Bradford’ might have written had he published a series of notes on settler-Indian relations in the last quarter of the 18th century. In reality, they had more to fear from the ‘Long Knives’ than the ‘Long Knives had to fear from the ‘Braves.’”

John Bradford packed a lot more than journalism into his long career. He spent many years as the equivalent of Lexington’s mayor. As the longtime chairman of the town trustees, Bradford was the official host to visiting dignitaries, such as in 1792, when Isaac Shelby was sworn in as Kentucky’s first governor, and in 1825, when President James Monroe and the Marquis de Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolution, visited Lexington.  Bradford also served as a state legislator from Lexington and as the High Sheriff of Fayette County.

Bradford had many business interests beyond publishing. He was an active land speculator — and, like many early Kentucky land speculators, was often involved in lawsuits over claims and titles. He also was an entrepreneur with broad interests. In 1801, he purchased a tavern in Frankfort that he owned for several years. He developed a subdivision off North Limestone Street in 1812. The next year, he built a steam-operated flour mill and cotton factory on Vine Street in Lexington, just west of Broadway.  One account says that Bradford, a talented mechanic and mathematician, designed and built the machinery himself.  In 1816, Bradford partnered with Robert Wickliffe to build a large public warehouse on Broadway, between Vine and Main streets, leasing the land from the town trustees.

Throughout his career, Bradford was a tireless booster of Lexington. In 1796, he was one of the founders of the Lexington Public Library. The next year, he called a meeting to organize the Lexington Society for the Promotion of Emigration. Bradford enticed John James Dufour to come to Lexington to set up the Kentucky Vineyard Society, of which he was one of the incorporators in 1799, in the hope of developing a local wine industry. Bradford also was an early advocate for the emancipation of slaves — a very unpopular idea among white men in Lexington at that time and for several decades to come. Even so, Bradford was also a slave owner.

Of all Bradford’s public roles beyond journalism, perhaps none was more influential than his longtime positions as trustee and chairman of Transylvania University.  In the book, Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852, which was published last year by the University Press of Kentucky, my daughter, Mollie, and I wrote a chapter about Transylvania — its meteoric rise under President Horace Holley and its subsequent fall after he left Kentucky. Who was the man behind the scenes of Holley’s success story? John Bradford.

After the steamboat’s invention made two-way river navigation possible, Lexington lost its economic edge to the river cities of Louisville and Cincinnati. Desperate for economic development, Bradford championed making Lexington the “Athens of the West” by investing in education and culture. The key to doing that, he believed, was turning tiny Transylvania into the great university of western America. That would require an outstanding president with vision, he believed. The man Bradford wanted was Horace Holley, a Yale graduate and up-and-coming minister in Boston. Against all odds, including a bitterly divided Transylvania Board of Trustees, Bradford convinced Holley to move to Lexington in 1818. Within a few years, Holley transformed Transylvania into one of America’s most acclaimed universities. When, late in life, Thomas Jefferson was seeking models for his new University of Virginia, he looked to Holley’s Transylvania. Despite this success, though, Holley was run out of Kentucky by religious conservatives, anti-intellectualism and a governor, Joseph Desha, who wanted to spend state money on roads rather than higher education. Bradford’s success and failure with Horace Holley would echo through Kentucky history for nearly two centuries.

Although Bradford kept his rural home “Fairfield” until the year before his death, he spent most of his years as publisher living in a handsome house on the corner of Second and Market Streets in Lexington. He bought the house from Thomas Harte, a prosperous early settler and father-in-law of Henry Clay. It was in that house that John Bradford died on March 22, 1830. His burial place is uncertain.

I mention Bradford’s downtown home, because it would play an important role in Lexington’s modern history 125 years after the publisher’s death. In 1955, Bradford’s house was demolished for a parking lot. The ensuing outrage led to the creation of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Kentucky Gazette was sold out of the Bradford family in 1840, a decade after the pioneer publisher’s death. It ceased publication in 1848 after its fortunes and influence declined under an owner from Louisville.

Unfortunately, no complete file of John Bradford’s Kentucky Gazette remains. The Lexington Public Library has perhaps the best collection of original copies, although it does not include the first one. The last known first issue was destroyed in a fire more than a century ago at the Cheapside office of H. Howard Gratz, who revived the Kentucky Gazette after the Civil War and published a newspaper by that name for nearly 50 years. Thanks to modern digital technology, you can read the surviving copies of John Bradford’s Kentucky Gazette on your computer at the Kentucky Digital Library site.

SOURCES

The Voice of the Frontier: John Bradford’s Notes on Kentucky, Thomas D. Clark (University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1993)

The Pioneer Press of Kentucky, William Henry Perrin (J.P. Morton & Co., Louisville, 1888)

John Bradford Bicentennial, C. Frank Dunn (The Filson Club History Quarterly, Louisville, 1947)

John Bradford and the Kentucky Gazette, J. Winston Coleman (The Filson Club History Quarterly, Louisville, 1960)

The History of Pioneer Lexington, 1779-1806, Charles R. Staples (University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1939, republished with a foreward by Thomas D. Clark, 1996)

Liberal Kentucky, 1780-1828, Niels Henry Sonne (Columbia University Press, New York, 1939)

Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852, edited by James C. Klotter and Daniel Rowland. Chapter 9: Horace Holley and the Struggle for Kentucky’s Mind and Soul, by Tom Eblen and Mollie Eblen. (University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2012)

Kentucky Settlement and Statehood, 1750-1800, George Morgan Chinn (Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort, 1975)

Stories of Kentucky from the Life and Works of John Wilson Townsend, Dorothy Edwards Townsend, The Keystone Printery, Lexington, 1972

The Kentucky Encyclopedia, John E. Kleber, editor (University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1992)


Writers celebrate 40 years of Kentucky’s unique Larkspur Press

June 4, 2013

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The University of Kentucky honored Gray Zeitz, center, last Friday on the 40th anniversary of his Larkspur Press in Monterey, which publishes hand-crafted books by  Kentucky writers. Before the ceremony at Margaret I. King Library, Zeitz, center, talked with Gay Reading, left, whose aunt, Carolyn Reading Hammer, taught Zeitz the art of printing at the King Library Press at UK. At right is Zeitz’s wife, Jean.  Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Richard Taylor recalled that when Gray Zeitz was establishing his Larkspur Press in the mid-1970s, he received a printing commission from the Kentucky Arts Council. Anxious state officials asked for a deadline, but Zeitz would not be rushed.

He replied to them with a metaphor drawn from his love for Kentucky’s native plants: “Who knows when the phlox will flower?”

Taylor, a former Kentucky poet laureate, told that story last Friday evening as more than 130 writers, artists, friends and fans gathered at the University of Kentucky’s Margaret I. King Library to honor Zeitz for four decades of continuous flowering.

Zeitz was lauded by Taylor and eight other writers and artists whose work the small press in rural Owen County has published over the years: Wesley Bates, Gabrielle Fox, Nana Lampton, Ed McClanahan, Maurice Manning, Maureen Morehead, Mary Ann Taylor-Hall and Jeff Worley.

The ceremony opened an exhibit of pieces produced by Larkspur Press, which has published more than 100 handmade books and countless broadsides since 1974. The free exhibit will be up through August. The library at 179 Funkhouser Dr. is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday.

Larkspur Press, on Sawdridge Creek Road near Monterey, has a public open house each November, on the Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Last Saturday, Zeitz led a letterpress printing workshop at the King Library Press on UK’s campus. That was where he learned his art and trade, first as a student and then as an apprentice to director Carolyn Reading Hammer.

In the 1950s, Hammer and her husband, Austrian artist Victor Hammer, began a Kentucky tradition of fine letterpress printing using hand-operated presses, hand-set type and woodblock engravings.

130531GrayZeitz-TE0043Zeitz, 63, is one of their most successful protégés. Using century-old presses and thick, creamy paper, he prints elegant books that are hand-stitched and bound, in both fancy collector’s editions and affordable paperbacks.

“Gray is stubbornly and endearingly independent,” Taylor explained in his remarks. “He has steadfastly refused to become ensnared by the Internet. One of his friends designed a web page (larkspurpress.com) that Gray has no means or desire to see.”

But, as the writers and artists explained, Zeitz is much more than a printer. A poet himself, he carefully selects the writers, artists and works he wants to publish. Most are from Kentucky.

In addition to those who spoke Friday, they have included Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, Silas House, Erik Reece, Gurney Norman, Frederick Smock and the late Guy Davenport and James Baker Hall.

Bates, a Canadian wood engraver, said he first encountered Larkspur Press nearly two decades ago and was impressed by the quality of the printing, the large volume of books produced and Zeitz’s curatorial skill in choosing work to publish.

“It was above and beyond the idea of book as art,” Bates said. “It was book as communication, as preservation of culture.”

As for Zeitz, a burly man with a long beard who always wears blue jeans and suspenders, Bates said, “I thought he looked like he was part of the band ZZ Top.”

Taylor-Hall talked about how Zeitz consults with writers about how their books should look, down to such things as the color of ink. Worley joked that even if readers hate his poetry, they won’t throw away his Larkspur Press editions because the books themselves are too beautiful.

Several others remarked on Zeitz’s craftsmanship, exacting standards and placid demeanor. “Every time I see him, he seems filled with joy,” Manning said.

When it finally came time for Zeitz to speak Friday, he was, as always, a man of few words. He introduced two longtime collaborators, Carolyn Whitesel and Leslie Shane, and thanked audience members for writing and illustrating his books, buying and reading his books and even helping him on occasion move heavy, iron presses.

Then, Zeitz read a poem he had written, which the King Library Press printed as a broadside to give those in attendance:

Printer’s Note

Sweet rain yesterday.

We have put your book on the press.

My hands do not tremble

because I’m unsure,

but shake in the finalizing of page

as a foal, newborn,

begins to stand.

It should be said

there will be absolutely no deadline.

Who knows when the phlox will flower? 


Poet Nikky Finney credits Carnegie Center’s role in her success

May 29, 2013

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Poet Nikky Finney poses on the marble steps of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. It is a place she will miss when she returns to South Carolina to be closer to her aging parents. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Nikky Finney has always been drawn to buildings and neighborhoods with a sense of history and community. When she joined the University of Kentucky’s English faculty in 1993, she got to know Lexington by walking and biking through the city’s historic districts.

One day, Finney happened upon the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Gratz Park. She thought it was the public library, which, until recently, it had been. It reminded her of the Carnegie library in Sumter, S.C., where she spent so much time as a girl falling in love with literature. After looking around the beautiful old building and being warmly greeted by the Carnegie Center’s staff, Finney realized she had found a home away from home.

There were several study carrels in the Carnegie Center, and she claimed one as an informal office. Each morning that she wasn’t teaching, Finney sat in the carrel writing her second book of poetry, Rice, published in 1995.

So it seems almost poetic that as Finney prepares to leave Lexington after 20 years to take a faculty position at the University of South Carolina, where she can be closer to her aging parents, her last scheduled public appearances will benefit the Carnegie Center.

Finney, who won the 2011 National Book Award in poetry for her fifth poetry collection, Head Off & Split, will be the keynote speaker June 7 at the Carnegie Center’s Books-in-Progress Conference. The next day, she is to speak at a literary luncheon benefiting the center, whose mission ranges from showcasing Kentucky’s most accomplished writers to teaching children and adults how to read.

“For many reasons, the Carnegie Center is one part library and one part community center,” Finney said last week. “I believe really passionately that public spaces should also have at their heart a sort of intimacy for other things. And here I found the intimacy of the imagination, the intimacy of books.”

Besides finding it a peaceful place to write, Finney was inspired by the literary community that gathered in the building for readings, classes and celebrations.

“It was a hub of activity, and this activity seemed to have an artistic drive and also a community drive,” she said. “In its own way, it feeds back around to the quiet work we do in the carrel the next morning.”

It is amazing, Finney said, “for a city this size to have a place like the Carnegie Center, not just here but more viable today than I’ve ever seen it.”

Finney has gained fame since winning the National Book Award and giving what actor John Lithgow, the award ceremony’s host, called “the best acceptance speech for anything that I’ve ever heard in my life.” The video of that speech became an Internet sensation, introducing many people who don’t often read poetry books to the power and mastery of Finney’s writing.

Earlier this year, the National Civil War Project commissioned Finney to write a piece with jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard that they will perform in October 2015 on the Antietam battlefield in Maryland, with the Kronos Quartet and a 500-voice choir.

Another big project is a memoir of essays that she is calling The Sensitive Child. The title is how her mother often referred to her, “which did not always have good connotations.” But that sensitivity is what led her to writing, she said.

Finney has described her move back to South Carolina as “a daughter’s decision.” In addition to the Carnegie Center, she said, there are many things about Kentucky she will miss. She plans to keep her home and studio in the Bell Court neighborhood.

Finney said living in Kentucky for two decades helped give her the distance and perspective she needed to write about South Carolina. Once she’s in South Carolina, Finney said, she wouldn’t be surprised if she starts writing about Kentucky. She already has some ideas.

As she was moving into her UK office two decades ago, fellow writer and professor Gurney Norman, whom she had never met, welcomed her with a box of books and manuscripts about the black experience in Appalachia. It is a rich but little-known legacy.

“That’s one of the questions I’ve wanted to pursue: Why is that not at the heart of some great American novel?” Finney said about black Appalachia. “There is a bounty of information and history there to pull from. I’m leaning there.”

If you go

Carnegie Books-in-Progress Conference

When: June 7-8

What: Keynote address by Nikky Finney, workshops and activities for those considering a book project or engaged in one.

Where: Carnegie Center, 251 W. Second St.

Cost: $175.

Registration: Call (859) 254-4175, Ext. 21, or go to Carnegiecenterlex.org.

Literary Luncheon with Nikky Finney: Benefiting the Carnegie Center.

When: 1 p.m. June 8.

Where: Elmendorf Farm, 3931 Paris Pike, Lexington.

Cost: $80 (includes lunch).

Registration: Call (859) 254-4175, Ext. 25 or email jmattox@carnegiecenterlex.org.


Holler Poets celebrates 5 years of showcasing Kentucky writers

May 25, 2013

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Eric Sutherland, founder of the monthly Holler Poets series, poses outside Al’s Bar at the corner of North Limestone and East Sixth Streets. The series will celebrate its fifth year, and 60th session, on May 29. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

As the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War approached in March 2008, Eric Scott Sutherland was frustrated and angry. So he fought back the best way he knew how: with poetry.

The writer organized Poets for Peace, a protest reading in the newly reopened Al’s Bar at the corner of North Limestone and East Sixth Street. The event featured an all-star lineup of local literary talent, including Jane Gentry Vance, who was then serving as Kentucky’s poet laureate. Nearly 100 listeners packed the house.

“It was just electric,” Sutherland recalled. “You could sense it.”

Sutherland had tapped into more than public outrage over a tragic, costly and unnecessary war. People seemed hungry for poetry and a venue for self-expression.

“There was pent-up demand for what this guy was doing,” said Josh Miller, one of the bar’s owners. So Miller’s brother, Lester, asked Sutherland if he would organize an event like that at their bar every month.

The Holler Poets Series was born.

The series celebrates its five-year anniversary, and 60th session, on Wednesday. The free event will begin, as always, with an open microphone for any writer wanting to share his or her work.

Then there will be the featured writers. This month’s are Frank X Walker, Kentucky’s current poet laureate, and his fellow Affrilachian poet, Mitchell Douglas. The evening concludes with a musical act. This month’s is Christian hip hop artist Justin Long, who performs under the name JustMe.

Holler’s format has changed little since the series began in 2008 with the award-winning poet Maurice Manning, who now teaches at Transylvania University. Since the beginning, events have been promoted with unique posters created by artist John Lackey, whose Homegrown Press Studio is a couple of doors down from the bar.

About 80 writers have been featured at Holler, including other well-known Kentucky names such as Nikky Finney, Silas House, Richard Taylor, Erik Reece, Ed McClanahan, Gurney Norman, Crystal Wilkinson, George Ella Lyon, Rebecca Gayle Howell, Bianca Spriggs and Leatha Kendrick.

Lexington’s poetry scene has flourished in recent years. Holler Poets — some of whom were born in mountain “hollers” or like to speak loudly — is a big reason why.

Since the beginning, Holler’s goal has been to both raise the profile of experienced poets and encourage the development of new ones. “The open mic has inspired a lot of people to develop their craft, given them something to work toward every month,” Sutherland said.

“Holler Poets has been extremely important in encouraging new voices to emerge, to go from writing for themselves to writing for an audience,” said Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, a Bulgarian-born poet, WRFL radio host, and owner of the Lexington poetry book press Accents Publishing.

“I thought I would go and mingle with like-minded people,” said Tina Andry, who had written poetry all her life but mostly kept it to herself. “Everyone was so welcoming, and the next thing I knew I was publishing a book.”

The Poets for Peace event on March 30, 2008 was followed a year later by Peace in the Mountains, where writers decried what environmentally destructive methods of surface mining for coal is doing to Kentucky’s land, water and air. Holler readers frequently critique an American society that values money more than people. Several of the events have been fundraisers for peace and environmental groups.

“For me, everything is political,” said Sutherland, 41, a Shelbyville native who studied natural resource conservation at the University of Kentucky and has earned his living as a baker and arborist. “It has been rewarding to use art as a way to inform people about what’s going on.”

Sutherland has been surprised by Holler’s popularity. He can’t remember an event where Al’s Bar wasn’t filled with people.

“I knew that our literary heritage would support it and that it was needed,” he said. “But I didn’t know it would catch on. I think the time was just right.”

Sutherland knew he had arrived when, at Holler’s three-year anniversary, Lester Miller surprised him on stage with a fancy certificate proclaiming him as the poet laureate of Al’s Bar.

Accents Publishing will soon publish Sutherland’s fourth poetry collection, Pendulum, inspired by his experiences working at the lobby café of Lexington’s downtown Central Library. Books are important, but Sutherland thinks Holler shows that performance can make poetry a more powerful artistic medium.

“When you hear people up on stage baring their soul, which takes a lot of courage, it ignites something in the listener,” he said. “I think people yearn to feel connected to other people. Poetry is really the last vestige of a direct expression of humanity.”

If you go

Holler Poets 60Five-year anniversary

When: 8 p.m., May 29

Where: Al’s Bar, 601 N. Limestone

Who: Affrilachian poets Frank X Walker and Mitchell Douglas, hip hop performer JustMe. Open microphone for other poets, with sign-up beginning at 7 p.m.

Cost: Free.

More information: EricScottSutherland.com

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