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

March 16, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lecture highlights camera club that produced photography stars

March 13, 2014

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

 

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

The Lexington Camera Club was different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Expert to speak March 19 about iconic Kentucky long rifles

March 11, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Coal miner’s daughter now one of 25 top U.S. women bankers

March 9, 2014

Jean Hale was a coal miner’s daughter, the youngest of four children. When women in her family chose a career outside the home, they became schoolteachers.

But when Hale was assigned a “career day” report in high school, she chose to interview Robert B. Johnson, the president of Pikeville National Bank. She can’t remember much about what he told her, but it obviously made an impression.

Hale, 67, now has Johnson’s job: chairman, president and chief executive officer. The world has changed, and so has her hometown bank.

JeanHalePikeville National then had about $18 million in assets and 20 employees. The bank Hale has run for 22 years was renamed Community Trust Bankcorp in 1997. It now has $3.6 billion in assets, 1,030 employees and 86 offices in 35 counties in Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee.

Community Trust is the largest bank holding company based in Kentucky. American Banker magazine, the industry’s bible, has ranked the coal miner’s daughter No. 24 on its list of the “25 most powerful women in banking.”

Hale will speak about her career March 12 in Lexington at a business and leadership conference sponsored by the group Women Leading Kentucky. The event is sold out, so I called Hale and asked to share her story with a wider audience.

“Neither of my parents had a college education,” Hale told me. “But they were bound and determined their children would, and they did.”

Hale graduated from what is now the University of Pikeville, where she majored in business and minored in math. “I wanted to stay in my hometown and there was limited opportunity, so I needed a backup plan,” she said. “The world always needs math teachers.”

Hale worked for Pikeville National Bank while in college, but quit to finish her senior year because the bank didn’t allow part-time workers. The bank’s chairman, Burlin Coleman, just assumed she would return after graduation.

But when he didn’t specifically offer her a job, Hale signed a contract to teach high school math. Later the same day, Coleman called her home to ask why she hadn’t come back to work.

“I told Burlin that if I don’t have my word I have nothing,” she said. “So I taught for a year, and we had an agreement that I would come back to the bank when that year of teaching finished. That was 45 years ago.”

Hale said the incident taught her important lessons about integrity — and communication. It also confirmed her hunch that she would make a better banker than math teacher.

“A lot of people think banking is somewhat boring; it’s not,” she said. “It’s a constantly changing and evolving industry, and I like that.”

Hale said people often assume it was hard for her to rise to the top because banking and Eastern Kentucky both have male-dominated cultures. But she said her bosses always judged her on her abilities, not her gender.

“A lot of people don’t realize that many times the glass ceiling, so to speak, was not in the workplace. The glass ceiling was in the home,” she said. “You talk about the old cliché that behind every successful man is a successful woman. The reality is that behind every successful woman there at least has to be a tolerant man.”

Hale is a widow now. Her son, Michael, 42, is a successful engineer and corporate executive in Nashville. He also is the father of her two granddaughters.

“I made a conscious decision,” she said. “I wanted to have family and career and I felt like I could do a good job of both with one child.”

What advice would Hale give to women — and men — wishing to emulate her success?

■ Embrace education and continuous learning.

“Formal education is like a tool box,” she said. “Your success is going to be a result of knowing which tools to pull out and use once you get into the job market. And you have to be able to reason and think.”

■ Anticipate and embrace change.

“This is a changing world, and you have to be willing to grasp the changes that occur,” she said.

Eastern Kentucky’s boom-and-bust coal economy taught Community Trust executives the importance of diversification. So as soon as banking laws allowed for regional expansion, the bank did so aggressively. That has been a key to success.

■ Find good mentors.

Hale said her two best mentors were Coleman and Brant Mullins, another former executive at the bank. “They mentored without interfering,” she said. “It was more like planting seeds … and seeing if you could pick up the ball and run with it.”

■ Emphasize communication.

“A leader has to not only have the vision, but be able to communicate the vision and have people buy into it,” she said. “You also have to be able to look someone in the eye when you’re communicating with them and be able to understand the reaction of their personality. You can say the same thing to two different people and you’ll get two different reactions.”

■ Be passionate about your work.

“Passion instills confidence in other people. No one wants to do business with someone who doesn’t show a passion for what they’re doing,” Hale said. “If you don’t like what you’re doing, then I would encourage you to do something else.”

■ Give back to your community.

“If a community is growing, all the businesses in the community will grow as well,” she said. “It’s not just the donations we make, but the actual leadership (employees) provide in their different communities that’s going to make a difference.”

Hale chairs the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority, which awards state tax incentives, and is a board member of Commonwealth Seed Capital, the Appalachian Regional Health Foundation and the University of Pikeville. She is a former chair of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Kentucky Community and Technical College System Foundation.

■ Operate with integrity, and treat others with fairness and respect.

Hale said Mullins gave her some of the best advice she ever received: “Jean, it doesn’t matter how smart you are or how hard you work; in order to succeed you have to have a lot of people willing to work with you.”

“And you need to focus on the success of your co-workers more so than yourself,” she added. “If you do that, your success will come.”


After this awful winter, spring cannot come soon enough.

March 8, 2014

Spring cannot come soon enough to deliver us from this winter of our discontent.

As I watched mounds of snow and ice all over town melt late last week, I hoped they would be the last I would see for many months. No more single-digit temperatures, please. I have three favorite seasons in Kentucky and winter is not one of them.

We have gotten more than 24 inches of snow since November, nearly twice the normal amount. It has been the second-snowiest winter in 20 years.

Single-digit and below-zero temperatures have been far too frequent and ill-timed, thanks in part to the evil Polar Vortex. Lexington set only one new daily low — a 6 below zero in January — but it was the first one to be set since February 1996, according to WKYT Chief Meteorologist Chris Bailey.

“We didn’t get close to any top-10 winters on record,” Bailey said. “But the cold shots came at just the right time to keep snow on the ground for long periods of time and make it seem especially harsh.”

Bailey said you would have to go back to the late 1970s to find a similar winter. I remember it well. I was in college in Bowling Green, and when the roads got clear enough we drove to Louisville to see the Ohio River frozen over.

“This winter has seemed brutal, because it started early and has gone late,” Bailey said. “The only thing we were missing was a good snowstorm, and we got that last week.”

Plumbers and utility linemen are weary, road crews are running out of salt and we’re all running out of patience.

“They were talking about it at the station the other day,” Bailey said, “and somebody said, ‘Either the snow melts down soon or the parents are going to melt down.”

Fayette County Public Schools have missed 13 days because of snow, ice and cold temperatures — the most in more than two decades. Officials don’t plan to cancel spring break, but who knows when classes will finally let out for the summer.

School systems in Kentucky’s more rural and mountainous counties are in much worse shape.

State legislators, who have been busy all winter avoiding tax reform, are considering legislation that would allow school districts to waive up to 10 of the 177 instructional days required by state law. The bill’s outcome may depend on how many lawmakers’ constituents have Disney World reservations for early June.

Still, you hate to see kids miss valuable instruction days, especially since so much of the school year is now taken up with preparing for and taking standardized tests.

Our misery has plenty of company. Virtually every part of America east of the Mississippi River has had an unusually bad winter, even the Deep South states where snowplows are more scarce than liberals.

My younger daughter keeps reminding me that the weather has been far worse in New York City, where she lives. I tell her that’s why I never wanted to live north of the Ohio River.

During the Winter Olympics, my former Atlanta Journal-Constitution colleagues kept remarking on Facebook that it was warmer in Sochi than it was in Atlanta — and suggesting that their city should become the first to host both the Summer and Winter Games.

My physical and mental health requires a lot of time outdoors, and this winter has made that difficult. I’m sure that being cooped up inside is a big reason I got a two-week sinus infection. That was followed by a terrible cold, which led to coughing fits. I coughed so hard I cracked a rib, which has made me sore and cranky.

I know things will get better when the snow melts, temperatures warm, my rib heals and I can spend some quality time on my bicycle.

There’s nothing like spring to lift your spirits and make you glad you live in Kentucky. Horses racing and forsythia at Keeneland.Redbuds and dogwood in the Eastern Kentucky mountains. Wildflowers along the Kentucky River Palisades.

But don’t get your hopes up yet.

“I hate to say it, but I think we’ve got another snowfall or two before it’s all over,” Bailey said. “I like my snow, but I’m ready for baseball.”


Old menus up for sale recall long-gone Lexington restaurants

March 4, 2014

Lexington antiques dealer Betty Hoopes loves her work, which she says is about preserving history and memories. It is not just what we furnished our homes with, but where we went and what we ate.

Over the years, Hoopes has collected mid-20th century restaurant menus, mostly from Lexington but also from New Orleans, Atlanta, New York and other cities she and her clients have visited.

Her first Lexington menu was from Canary Cottage, a popular Main Street restaurant and bar in the 1930s and 1940s. It was literally one of the coolest places in town, at least after the owners installed one of Lexington’s first air conditioners. Hoopes has that menu framed in her home.

Hoopes has donated several dozen menus to the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which will be selling them in the silent auction at its annual Antiques & Garden Show at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Alltech Arena, March 7-9.

Menus“I just collected them because I love the history of Lexington,” Hoopes said. “I want somebody to get them who will keep them.”

My wife, Becky, was organizing items for the auction and brought home the box of menus, which I started looking through. They were an interesting snapshot of what once passed for the high life in Lexington. And, oh, the prices!

The first menus that caught my eye were from La Flame on Winchester Road, which Kilbern A. Cormney opened in 1959. He later owned the Campbell House Inn, and at one time he had so many local clubs that he held 27 liquor licenses, according to his obituary. He died in 2009 at age 93.

La Flame was Lexington’s “first real nightclub,” recalled retired Herald-Leader columnist Don Edwards. In a 2005 column, he wrote that La Flame’s entertainers included “Frank Sinatra Jr., mind readers, magicians, stand-up comics and, yes, classic strip-tease artists.”

The strippers didn’t go on until late at night “so the mayor’s wife wouldn’t get upset — that’s what I promised her,” Cormney told Edwards.

These La Flame menus appear to be from the early 1960s. The cover illustration shows the kind of shapely young woman in a tight skirt that “Mad Man” Don Draper would have been quick to chase. Most La Flame cocktails were 75 cents or 90 cents then, although a Zombi would set you back $1.95. The most expensive entree was the La Flame Sirloin strip steak, at $6. Lobster tails were $3.95 and lamb fries with gravy were $2.95.

The Little Inn at 1144 Winchester Road opened in 1930 as a Prohibition road house just beyond the city limits, which were then at Liberty Road.

“It grew into a crowded, popular place with a free-flowing bar and a jovial reputation,” Edwards wrote in a 1990 column when the building was demolished.

“By 1945, it had a back room filled with nickel slot machines and was known for great steaks and the best blue cheese salad dressing around,” he wrote. “Lots of people would have dinner there, then go dance to Big Band music at the Springhurst Club or Joyland Park.”

Judging by prices on these two menus and three wine lists, they are from the 1970s, when a “man size” prime rib cost $11.95 and a bottle of French wine went for $8.75. The Little Inn moved to Chevy Chase in 1989, but closed a few months later.

There are a couple of menus and a wine list from Levas’ restaurant. For most of its time (1956-1988), this Lexington institution was housed in an 1880s building at Limestone and Vine streets, which was demolished in 2008 for CentrePointe.

These menus appear to be from the 1960s, when a plate of fried oysters or sea scallops cost $6 and filet mignon was $8.95. The Levas family started with a hotdog stand in 1920. They were Greek, so customers could always count on the Grecian salad ($1.75) or lamb souvlaki ($7.50).

Other menus include Stanley Demos’ Coach House, the Imperial House Motel’s restaurant, the Lafayette Club, Old Towne Inn, Bagatelle, Merrick Inn and Bravo Pitino.

Then-Wildcat basketball Coach Rick Pitino opened Bravo Pitino in 1990, but two years later cut his investment and removed his name. It became Bravo’s and closed in 1998, long before Pitino became a Cardinal.


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

March 3, 2014

codethree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Building movie complex in historic district would set bad precedent

March 1, 2014

House1The theater developer’s plans call for moving the John Lowman House from the West High Street bluff, where it has been since 1808. Photos by Charles Bertram.

 

The good news is that a proposed 10-theater IMAX movie and restaurant complex would be a great addition to downtown Lexington. The bad news is that the developer wants to build it in the wrong place.

Dallas-based Look Cinemas is proposing this huge complex for the southeast corner of West High Street and South Broadway. The site is within one of Lexington’s most significant historic districts, which homeowners have painstakingly restored after decades of demolition, abuse and neglect.

If city officials approve Look’s plan without substantial changes, it could undo a half-century of preservation efforts and undermine legal protections for all 15 Lexington historic districts.

Look has yet to make a formal application to the city, but it has been working on the project for a year. It has met with the South Hill neighborhood and others to try to address concerns and minimize the impact on adjacent homes.

The complex is well-designed, but it is too massive for that location. It fills virtually the entire one-acre site and rises as high as 70 feet above street level. Plans would require moving a 206-year-old house that is one of the last remaining on the High Street bluff.

At an informal design review last Wednesday, the three architects and one engineer who serve on the city’s Board of Architectural Review made it clear that this project, as now envisioned, meets none of the legal guidelines for construction in a Lexington historic district.

Board members all but rejected the developer’s plan to move the 1808 John Lowman House a half-mile away to the Western Suburb historic district. They also expressed skepticism about moving it within South Hill to one of two parking lots across from Dudley Square at Mill and Maxwell streets.

Board members noted that much of the house’s historic significance has to do with its location on High Street. They also expressed concern about the movie complex’s proximity to the 1895 George Lancaster House on South Broadway. Both houses are some of the last examples of the 19th century mansions that once lined both streets in that neighborhood.

Board member Graham Pohl, an architect, said moving the Lowman House off High Street is a “non-starter,” and he warned that this entire plan has serious implications beyond South Hill. “It sets a terrible precedent for every historic district in town,” he said.

Indeed, this would be the first case of moving a house in a historic district since the early 1980s, when legal protections were more lax. A few houses were moved before city historic districts were created, to keep them from being demolished. They include the circa 1784 Adam Rankin House, Lexington’s oldest house, which was moved off High Street to South Mill Street, directly behind where Look Cinemas now wants to build.

“This area has been gnawed on since the ’60s,” said board member Sarah Tate, an architect. “I think there’s a time when you just have to say, ‘Stop. This neighborhood can’t be infringed on anymore.’”

Here’s what Tate was referring to: When Rupp Arena and Lexington Center were built 40 years ago, most of the historic South Hill neighborhood was demolished to create a massive parking that lot city officials now want to redevelop. The fraction of the neighborhood that remained was given city historic district protection.

Most of those old buildings have since been restored into valuable, owner-occupied homes and condos. Many South Hill structures date from the early 1800s and are architecturally significant. If this incursion is allowed, what will be next?

The Board of Architectural Review is unlikely to approve Look’s plan unless the 1808 house stays and the cinema complex gets smaller. But the board could be overruled by the Planning Commission, which is more susceptible to economic and political pressures. That would be a tragedy.

The good news is that there is a much better site for this complex: across South Broadway on the huge city-owned parking lot where the rest of the South Hill neighborhood once stood.

Look Cinemas’ complex is just the kind of private development Mayor Jim Gray wants and needs on that lot to help pay for the proposed $328 million renovation of Rupp Arena and Lexington Center.

Look officials told the board they prefer their site, in part because the Rupp redevelopment process is still in its early stages. They said they can’t wait. Developers always say they can’t wait.

Here is what needs to happen: City officials must quickly figure out how to speed up their process and relocate Look Cinemas to the Rupp lot or some other downtown site. What they cannot do is further damage South Hill and risk setting a precedent that could jeopardize the investments made in all Lexington historic districts.

Yes, downtown needs new development like Look Cinemas. But Lexington will never “save” downtown by continuing to destroy the irreplaceable historic fabric that makes it unique.  

lotDevelopers hope to build an IMAX theater in this block bounded by West High Street at the bottom, South Mill Street on the left, and South Broadway on the right. 


Two men’s passing a reminder of small gestures, big impact

February 26, 2014

I was interviewing a prominent business leader  Tuesday for a future column, and we got to talking about the important role adults in a community play in young people’s development.

Of course, there are parents, teachers, scoutmasters, coaches, close friends and mentors. But there also are men and women who children encounter regularly and who do nothing more than take a few moments to notice, take an interest and talk with them.

With that discussion fresh in my mind, I noticed in Wednesday’s Herald-Leader the obituaries of two men who played such roles in my life. They were people I didn’t know well, but I will always remember them fondly.

The first was J. Wiley Finney, a prominent Lexington engineer who was one of many adults important to my young life at Southern Hills United Methodist Church. In recent years, I saw Mr. Finney a couple of times when I spoke to his Kiwanis Club, where he was a faithful member at age 102. I also received several emails from him about columns he especially liked.

The other obituary was for someone I probably haven’t seen since I was six or seven. Chester Goins, 92, managed the A&P grocery on East Main Street (where Goodwin Square is now, across from the Herald-Leader building). My mother took me to the A&P every week until we moved to the country when I was in second grade. Mr. Goins always had a few minutes to stop and say hello as I rode in the front of the grocery cart and to ask what I had been up to.

These two men’s passing is another reminder for me that, so often in life, it’s the little things that count.


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

February 25, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


1910 Coal & Feed Co. building redone as corporate headquarters

February 24, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Like much of local black history, 1920s blues song a surprise

February 23, 2014

February is Black History Month, and this is the third year I have written one column a week during the month about Kentucky black history.

I’ve always found history interesting, but working on these pieces has been a special treat, because much of this information is new to both me and most Herald-Leader readers.

While I do some of the research myself, I get a lot of help from professional and amateur historians, both black and white. Like me, they have become fascinated with this rich vein of history that until recent years was rarely explored or publicized.

Special thanks this year to these sources for research, ideas and other information:

  • Yvonne Giles, an amateur historian who has become an authority on Lexington black history. Her extensive research on the Lexington Colored Fair was invaluable.
  • Maureen Peters, a Lexington architect, who pointed me to outstanding research that she and her friend, the architectural historian Rebecca McCarley, had done on brick mason and entrepreneur Henry Tandy and his son, architect Vertner Woodson Tandy.
  • Thomas Tolliver, a former Herald-Leader reporter who lives in the East End and is passionate about preserving its history.
  • Former State Sen. Georgia Powers of Louisville, who generously shared her own story and information about how the 1964 March on Frankfort was organized.
  • Former State Sen. Joe Graves of Lexington, another March on Frankfort organizer, who candidly discussed how the civil rights movement influenced his life and the white community.
  • The Kentucky Historical Society.

As a postscript, Kakie Urch, an assistant professor in the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Telecommunications and a radio host on WRFL, sent me a 1920s blues song I had never heard of before: The Lexington Kentucky Blues, by Papa Charlie Jackson.

Click on the video below to hear Jackson singing about coming to Lexington to play at the Colored Fair, seeing the great racehorse Man O’ War, going to the races, spending time on Limestone Street and meeting J. Rice Porter, the Colored Fair’s president from 1926-28. It sounds as if he had a great time.

Like much of local black history before I started this project, the Lexington Kentucky Blues was new to me.

 

 


Lexington Colored Fair was once a top national event

February 23, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

140218ColoredFair0004A

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


Transylvania transition offers fresh start, important lessons

February 18, 2014

Transylvania University has the opportunity to make a fresh start with a new president. How well everyone seizes that opportunity will determine the institution’s future for many years to come.

SeamusCarey

Seamus Carey

Seamus Carey, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., was chosen Monday to become the 26th president of Kentucky’s oldest university, chartered in 1780. He was one of four finalists brought to campus to meet with faculty, staff, students and alumni.

Transylvania has been in turmoil since soon after Owen Williams, a former Wall Street banker with impressive credentials but little academic leadership experience, was hired as president in 2010.

Williams took over after the retirement of Charles Shearer, who earned a lot of affection and respect during his 27-year presidency for rebuilding Transylvania, nearly tripling its endowment and doubling enrollment.

Williams impressed Transylvania trustees with his intellect, his diverse accomplishments and his plans for taking the liberal arts college to the next level.

Owen Williams

Owen Williams

But Williams’ arrogant and autocratic style rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, both on campus and around town. Williams antagonized Transylvania’s faculty to the point that it voted 68-7 last May to express no confidence in his leadership.

Trustees responded by giving Williams a unanimous vote of confidence and blaming the faculty. Still, within weeks, Williams announced he would leave at the end of this academic year. Carey takes over in July.

Transylvania’s turmoil offers lessons the university community — or any large organization, for that matter — should take to heart.

The first lesson is that it matters how you treat people. However intelligent or visionary a leader may be, he can’t accomplish much if people won’t follow him.

The second lesson is that governing boards make better decisions when they are diverse and aware. When mounting dissatisfaction with Williams exploded into faculty rebellion last year, trustees were surprised. Had they been plugged into the broader Transylvania and Lexington communities, they would not have been.

The final lesson will be more of a test. How well can Transylvania’s faculty, trustees, staff and students work together with the new president to try to achieve some of the worthy goals Williams sought?

Transylvania reached the top echelon of American universities for a brief period in the 1820s. The rest of its history has been a series of ups and downs. Can Transy become a national player again? Improvement requires change, and change is hard.


Mayoral mystery: So far, challengers’ strategies remain unclear

February 18, 2014

Mayor Jim Gray attracted two challengers to his re-election when the filing deadline came Jan. 28. So far, those challengers have offered few clues about why they are in the race or how they hope to win.

The first challenger is Danny Mayer, an associate professor of English at Bluegrass Community and Technical College. He also was the publisher of North of Center, an alternative community newspaper that closed last fall after four years.

North of Center criticized some of Gray’s downtown development strategies. But, more often than not, the newspaper seemed more interested in being a cheeky gadfly than a community voice that many people would take seriously.

Mayer, 38, is a smart guy, but he has no obvious qualifications or experience to be mayor. If he entered the race to raise issues he thinks need to be discussed, it will be interesting to see how he handles the opportunity.

Gray’s other opponent, Anthany Beatty, has both the qualifications and experience to be mayor. He spent his career in the Lexington Police Department, and he was a successful chief for six years before retiring and becoming the University of Kentucky’s vice president for campus services and public safety. Beatty, 62, is smart, well-liked and has excellent people and management skills.

Were Gray not an accomplished, popular, visionary and well-financed incumbent with few liabilities, Beatty would be a strong candidate. As it is, Beatty is a long shot, unless Gray screws up big in the next eight months.

Beatty must make a compelling case for why Gray, 60, should be turned out of office. How does he hope to do that? What issues will he focus on? So far, he hasn’t said.


Voters should push back against pro-pollution politicians

February 17, 2014

Politicians say a lot of dumb things. What’s puzzling, though, is how much we listen to them.

Some of the dumbest things politicians say these days involve criticism of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other state and federal environmental watchdogs. These politicians are indignant that “regulators” are enforcing the laws they and their predecessors passed to keep air fit to breathe and water safe to drink.

The Democrats and Republicans who passed those environmental laws and created the watchdog agencies during the last half of the 20th century were smart enough to realize that pollution spoils our nation, makes us sick and, in the long run, is bad for business.

So why are many politicians today fighting for more pollution? It’s really very simple: Companies pay them to.

If you look at these politicians’ campaign funds, you will see big contributions from polluters: coal companies, chemical companies, electric utilities and other corporations that make more money when they can push the environmental costs of their businesses off on the public.

The politicians who complain loudest about environmental regulation tend to get the most money from polluters. Funny how it works that way.

When these politicians can’t repeal or ignore environmental laws and regulations, they argue that they should be enforced by state rather than federal agencies. That’s easy to understand, too: the smaller the watchdog, the easier it is to muzzle.

Federal prosecutors last week launched a criminal investigation into the relationship between North Carolina regulators and Duke Energy after 82,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water spilled into the Dan River on Feb. 2. It was the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

The Associated Press reported last week that North Carolina regulators repeatedly thwarted attempts by environmental groups to use the federal Clean Water Act to force Duke to clean up leaky coal ash dumps near its power plants.

Two recent incidents in West Virginia, another state where politicians are frequently hostile to environmental regulation, also has raised questions about cozy political relationships with polluters.

The water supply for more than 300,000 people in nine counties around Charleston hasn’t been right since Jan. 9. That’s when storage tanks owned by Freedom Industries leaked as much as 7,500 gallons of coal-processing chemicals into the Elk River.

Freedom Industries has filed for bankruptcy protection to avoid lawsuits. The spill will cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Then, last Tuesday, a pipe ruptured at a Patriot Coal processing plant about 18 miles from where the chemical spill occurred. It sent more than 100,000 gallons of coal and chemical slurry into Fields Creek, a Kanawha River tributary. State officials said the spill “wiped out” six miles of stream, causing “severe, adverse environmental impact.”

We’ve heard these stories many times before. Remember the 2008 coal ash pond collapse in East Tennessee that released 5 million cubic yards of ash and cost $1.2 billion to clean up? Or the spill in Martin County, Ky., in 2000 that sent 306,000 gallons of coal sludge into two tributaries of the Tug Fork River? And there are many more smaller incidents that never make headlines.

Does this sound like environmental regulation that is too strict, or too lax?

Many Kentucky politicians like to complain about the “war on coal” — a phrase coined for a well-financed industry propaganda campaign. But the real war is being waged against Kentucky’s land, water, air and public health by companies that want more freedom to blast mountains, bury streams and release toxins into the environment.

Many people support polluters because they buy into the argument that you can’t have both a strong economy and a clean environment.

Sure, sometimes environmental regulation does cost jobs and raise costs in the short run. But history has shown that it has always been good for the economy in the long run because it creates a healthier environment and sparks job-creating innovation. Perhaps the best example is government fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, which over several decades have given us better cars and cleaner air.

How long will some politicians keep fighting for more pollution? As long as polluters keep paying them to. And as long as we keep listening to and re-electing them.


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

February 15, 2014

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

 

 

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

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

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

HenryTandy

Henry A. Tandy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vertner Woodson Tandy

Vertner Woodson Tandy

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

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

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

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

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

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Don Wilson, Lexington’s generous Music Man, dies at 92

February 15, 2014

donwilson001Today’s Herald-Leader obituaries include Donald Eugene Wilson, who died on Thursday at age 92.

Don Wilson moved to Lexington after World War II and started work as a musical instrument repairman. He soon became famous as the baton-twirling drum major of the University of Kentucky’s Wildcat Marching Band, performing with his young daughter, Donna, from 1949-1955.

Wilson later opened Don Wilson Music on Southland Drive, which for decades has sold and rented the instruments that have helped make Central Kentucky’s high school bands some of the nation’s best. His spirit and generosity became legendary in Kentucky music education circles. I wrote this column about him when he turned 90 years old.

Rest in peace, Don Wilson. You brought the joy of music into so many Kentuckians’ lives.


UK shouldn’t destroy unique teaching garden with 350 species

February 11, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 


Lexington’s Fayette Cigar Store a downtown retail survivor

February 10, 2014

140206FayetteCigar0060

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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