Civil War general’s home featured on annual Bourbon County tour

September 29, 2015
Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford's Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Photos by Tom Eblen

Historic Paris-Bourbon County’s annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford’s Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Photos by Tom Eblen


PARIS — This year’s Historic Paris-Bourbon County house tour Sunday is at the boyhood home of one of Kentucky’s most-interesting and least-known Civil War generals, who ended his short life as an American diplomat in South America.

Nobody is sure when the Greek Revival mansion called Houston Dale was built. The best guess is around 1840, when the farm belonged to Henry Croxton, the son of a wealthy Virginia planter, and his wife, Ann.

For the past 36 years, Houston Dale has been the home of Thoroughbred breeder Phil T. Owens, who restored and added onto the mansion just west of the Paris bypass.

While building Houston Dale, the Croxtons probably lived in a circa 1790s log cabin now restored behind the mansion. The couple would have needed more room: they eventually had 12 children. They also had 20 slaves to work their farm.

John Thomas Croxton

John Thomas Croxton

Slavery was a subject of disagreement between Croxton and his eldest son, John Thomas Croxton, who was born in 1836 and went off to Yale in 1854. They argued about it in letters, with the younger Croxton explaining that he favored the gradual emancipation and deportation of slaves.

Anti-slavery views were not popular among white people in Bourbon County then. Nearly half the population was enslaved blacks, whose labor produced a rich agricultural bounty for their owners.

After graduating from Yale and earning a law degree from Georgetown, Croxton returned to Paris in 1859 to practice law. The next year, he was one of only two men in Paris to vote for the Republican presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln’s election sparked the Civil War, and Croxton was quick to join the Union cause. He recruited troops for the 4th Kentucky Infantry, of which he was elected lieutenant colonel.

Over the next five years, Croxton’s superiors repeatedly praised him as a skilled and fearless officer who fought despite several battle wounds. He was promoted to colonel at age 24, brigadier general at 27 and given an honorary promotion to major general for gallantry

Croxton saw action at many battles, including Perryville, Chickamauga, Nashville and Atlanta. He led a daring raid across Alabama that captured Tuscaloosa and eliminated one of the Confederacy’s last supply centers. After the war, he spent a year as military commander of central Georgia.

In 1866, Croxton returned to Paris, where he had built a house on Cypress Street. He practiced law, farmed, chaired the state Republican party and helped start a Republican newspaper, the Louisville Commercial.

President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Croxton as the United States minister to Bolivia. But a year after taking the post in 1873, he died in La Paz of tuberculosis at age 37. He is buried in Paris Cemetery.

After Croxton’s death, Houston Dale was owned for many years by James Hall, a prominent farmer.

In 1979, Owens was planning to buy a horse farm and build a new “old” house. He had just gone to Colonial Williamsburg to study traditional architecture when his father told him Houston Dale was for sale. He bought it.

Owens renovated the mansion, which has foot-thick brick walls and most of its original floors and woodwork. He added a wing to each side for additional space and bathrooms. Owens also restored the log cabin, where his mother lives.

He also built a swimming pool, a pool house and a garage with an apartment that looks more like a colonial-style guest house from the front.

Between the mansion and Houston Creek is a stone wall along what appears to be an old road. Built into the wall with big limestone slabs are steps and a platform, apparently for stepping out of a carriage or stage coach.

Owens and his wife, Michelle, recently put the 9,665-square foot house and surrounding 31 acres on the market for $1,675,000. She said they want less house and more land to expand their broodmare stock and run cattle.

“It will be hard to leave,” Owens said of Houston Dale, recalling the first time the late Lexington horseman and philanthropist W.T. Young Jr. visited.

“He said, ‘If I lived here, I’d never leave home,'” Owens said. “It is a special house.”

If you go

Historic Home Tour

When: 2 p.m. — 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 4

Where: Houston Dale Farm, 2328 Fords Mill Rd.

Why: Annual benefit for the preservation group Historic Paris-Bourbon County.

Cost: $10 members, $15 public. Children younger than 17 free.

More info: (859) 987-7274 or


Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford's Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Since the late 1970s, the house has belonged to Thoroughbred breeder Phil Owens. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Thoroughbred breeder Phil Owens bought the house in 1979 and renovated it.


Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford's Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Since the late 1970s, the house has belonged to Thoroughbred breeder Phil Owens. This is the dining room. Photo by Tom Eblen |

The dining room at Houston Dale includes original woodwork.


Phil and Michelle Owens and the youngest of their three children, Jack, 4, pose in the dining room of Houston Dale, their circa 1840 house near Paris. The house was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Phil and Michelle Owens and the youngest of their three children, Jack, 4, pose in the dining room of Houston Dale, their circa 1840 house near Paris.


Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford's Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Since the late 1970s, the house has belonged to Thoroughbred breeder Phil Owens. This is a dining area in the kitchen, which features an original stone fireplace. Photo by Tom Eblen |

This is a dining area in the kitchen, which features an original stone fireplace.


Steps and a landing to help passengers get on and off carriages and stage coaches was built into a stone wall beside Houston Dale, site of Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Steps and a landing to help passengers get on and off carriages and stage coaches was built into a stone wall beside Houston Dale.


Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford's Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Since the late 1970s, the house has belonged to Thoroughbred breeder Phil Owens. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Houston Dale was the boyhood home of Union Gen. John T. Croxton.


Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford's Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Since the late 1970s, the house has belonged to Thoroughbred breeder Phil Owens. He built the back of the garage, which faces the house, to look like a guest house. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Owens built the back of the garage, which faces the house, to look like a guest house.


Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford's Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Since the late 1970s, the house has belonged to Thoroughbred breeder Phil Owens. Photo by Tom Eblen |

The dining room at Houston Dale.

Lectures show some Civil War issues still fresh as today’s headlines

February 28, 2015

abeEduardo Kobra’s Lexington mural of Abraham Lincoln. Photo by Tom Eblen


One great thing about living in this university city is that a lot of smart and interesting people come here to speak and you can hear them for free.

Two of my favorite annual events are the Kenan Lecture at Transylvania University and the Bale Boone Symposium, sponsored by the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center for the Humanities.

Last month, the Bale Boone’s three speakers discussed the Civil War, which ended 150 years ago. Or did it?

Historian Ed Ayers, president of the University of Richmond in Virginia, gave a fascinating talk about the Civil War and how his school’s Digital Scholarship Lab is using technology to better illustrate and explain history.

Coleman Hutchison of the University of Texas talked about the history of the word and song Dixie, with all of their cultural symbolism and baggage.

The third talk was by David Blight, a Yale University history professor and acclaimed author, whose lecture title was a trick question: When Did the American Civil War End?

Blight’s answer was that it hasn’t. Sure, the shooting war stopped a century and a half ago. But the underlying issues — race, class, civil rights, social and economic justice, states’ rights and federalism — remain as fresh and raw as today’s headlines.

These lectures were not the familiar territory of Civil War buffs: armies, generals, battlefield maneuvers and what-might-have-beens. They explored how this epic conflict and its causes are still deeply embedded in our national psyche.

Consider, for example, states’ rights. Politicians in some states still try to “nullify” federal legislation, regulations and court rulings they don’t like. The Constitution’s intended balance between state and federal authority remains a source of dispute.

Now, as then, these disputes often boil down to whose rights are being served and whose are being ignored, Blight noted. At various times since the Civil War, the federal government has overruled state authority to protect civil rights, the environment and public health.

Liberty may be our most cherished freedom. But what does liberty mean? What happens when one person’s idea of liberty infringes upon the liberty of others?

For example, is government regulation of business an infringement on the liberty of business owners? Or is regulation necessary to keep some businesses from infringing on the liberty of other businesses, workers, citizens and communities?

The Federal Communications Commission’s decision last week on Internet regulation is a good example. Does “net neutrality” infringe on the liberty of Internet service providers, which often are monopolies, to maximize their investment? Or does it protect the liberty of consumers to access information and the liberty of other businesses to have a level playing field so they can compete in the marketplace?

Liberty’s double-edged sword is central to an issue many people think threatens the very survival of representative democracy in America since the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision in 2010.

Whose liberty should prevail? Is it the liberty of wealthy individuals and corporations to use unlimited funds to amplify their speech and buy influence? Or is it the liberty of everyone else to have a political process free of money’s corruption?

As the Civil War entered its final year, on April 18, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln discussed this philosophical question in a speech in Baltimore. He talked about liberty in the context of slavery, but his words speak eloquently to many of the political issues that bitterly divide us today.

“The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one,” Lincoln said. “We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.

“With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor.

“Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names — liberty and tyranny.”

Mansion of Mary Todd Lincoln’s sister to become a museum

August 28, 2012

Helm Place on Bowman Mill Road. Photos by Tom Eblen


Do political disagreements make things tense in your family? It could be worse. You could have been Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln.

They were in a tough spot: He was leading the Union through the Civil War. She had 14 brothers and sisters from Lexington; most were Southern sympathizers, and three were killed in Confederate service. Lincoln threatened to jail one of his wife’s sisters when she came to visit, but she still kept smuggling contraband to the South.

Hardest of all was the strain war created between the Lincolns and their favorite Todd relatives: half-sister Emilie Todd Helm and her husband, Benjamin Hardin Helm, a Confederate general.

After Helm was killed in battle, his grieving widow and her three children made tense visits to the White House. Lincoln’s political enemies howled that he was sheltering a traitor. Even the children quarreled: Tad Lincoln said his daddy was the president, but little Katherine Helm insisted the real president was Jefferson Davis.

You know how most of this story ends: The Union prevails; Abraham Lincoln is assassinated; Mary Todd Lincoln struggles with mental illness. But what about her favorite little sister, Emilie, the prettiest of the Todd daughters? The Kentucky Mansions Preservation Foundation will soon be able to tell that story.

Helm Place, the Greek Revival mansion on Bowman Mill Road where Emilie and her children spent the last decades of their lives, has been donated to the foundation to become a museum. There is a lot of renovation and fund-raising ahead, but the mansion already contains enough Lincoln, Helm, Todd and other local artifacts to get off to a great start.

The foundation will celebrate the gift at a dinner and presentation about Helm Place on Sept. 18 at Malone’s Banquets, 3373 Tates Creek Road. Tickets are $38 for members, $42 for others. For reservations, call (859) 233-9999 by Sept. 10.

“This place is a treasure, and we’re excited about the possibilities,” said Gwen Thompson, executive director of the Mary Todd Lincoln House, which also is operated by the foundation.

Mary Genevieve Townsend Murphy, a co-founder and longtime board member of the foundation, left Helm Place to it in trust after her death in 2000 and the death of her husband, Joseph, in April 2011. The foundation took control of the 150-acre property in March and has spent the past few months installing a high-tech security system and live-in caretaker.

Oddly enough, the first white settler on the property was the Todd sisters’ grandfather Levi Todd, who built Todd’s Station fort there in 1779. But because of Indian attacks, Todd abandoned the claim and moved closer to Lexington.

The land later went to Abraham Bowman for his service in the Revolutionary War. In the 1850s, one of Bowman’s descendants built the mansion, originally called Cedar Hall, which sits on a hill at the end of a majestic lawn.

Emilie Todd Helm and her grown children bought the mansion in 1912 — almost exactly a century before the foundation acquired title. Katherine, an accomplished painter, did several family portraits for the house and painted a dining room mural depicting nearby South Elkhorn Creek at sunset. One of her portraits of Mary Todd Lincoln now hangs in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House.

Emilie Helm remained an unreconstructed Confederate until her death in 1930. When Elodie, her youngest daughter, was getting old, she sold the house in 1946 to William H. Townsend, a Lexington lawyer, author and accomplished Lincoln scholar and collector. His daughter Mary moved in with Elodie, who died in 1953. Mary married Joseph Murphy in 1960.

William Townsend, who died in 1964, amassed an amazing collection of Lincoln and early Kentucky artifacts, many of which remain in the house with the Helm family’s possessions. They include several portraits by Matthew Jouett; a table made by Abraham Lincoln’s father; writer James Lane Allen’s desk and documents signed by Lincoln and Henry Clay.

The foundation’s next step is to conduct a study of the mansion’s possibilities as a museum, decide on a plan and raise the money to make it happen. Thompson said she didn’t know how long it would be before Helm Place could welcome visitors.

“Our big priority since March has been making sure the property is secured and cared for,” she said. “We’re just taking it a step at a time.”

Click on each thumbnail to see larger photo and caption:


A short walk shows Lexington’s Civil War divisions

May 29, 2012


I first became fascinated with Civil War history as a boy in the 1960s, soon after the centennial celebration.

Many of the books I found in the Lexington Public Library — then located in the Carnegie building in Gratz Park — made that history seem remote. They told of epic battles in Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland and Pennsylvania. They showed pictures of Atlanta, Charleston and Richmond — the one in Virginia, not the one down the road.

I had no idea then how much Civil War history lay just beyond those library walls.

America is now in the midst of a more nuanced commemoration of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. There is less focus on gallant cavaliers and more reflection on the causes and legacies of that terrible, transformative war.

That makes this the perfect time to take a short history walk through downtown Lexington. There are no forts or battlefields to see. But it would be hard to find another few blocks of American soil so intimately associated with the Civil War’s key political figures, central issue and deep divisions.

Begin your walk in Gratz Park at the James Lane Allen fountain. This is where Transylvania’s main building stood in the 1820s when Jefferson Davis was a student. After a couple of years, Davis transferred to West Point. He later became a U.S. senator from Mississippi and the only president of the Confederate States of America.

Transylvania’s main building burned in 1829. Years later, former student Cassius M. Clay revealed that the mysterious fire was started by his slave, who fell asleep with a candle burning while polishing his master’s shoes. Clay, the son of one of Kentucky’s largest slaveholders, became one of slavery’s most outspoken critics. In the 1840s, he published an abolitionist newspaper, The True American, from an office on Mill Street near the corner of Main.

Walk through Gratz Park to the corner of Market and Second streets. There is the Bodley-Bullock House, an 1814 mansion that served alternately as Union and Confederate headquarters when each army occupied Lexington during the Civil War.

Walk across the park to another 1814 mansion, at the corner of Second and Mill streets. It was the home of Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a cavalry raider known as the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy.” It is now a museum owned the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. (Hours and information:

Before proceeding on Second Street, look down Mill Street toward First Presbyterian Church. It surrounds a small brick building that was the law office of Henry Clay, America’s most influential politician of the early 19th century.

Clay negotiated political compromises over the expansion of slavery that delayed the Civil War for nearly four decades. (Learn more about Clay at his Ashland estate:

At the corner of Second and Broadway, you will see a parking lot that was the site of Transylvania University’s renowned medical school, which closed in 1857. The building burned in 1863 while being used as a Union Army hospital.

Look down Second Street and you will see a marker outside the last home of John C. Breckinridge, whose career illustrates how the Civil War divided the city and the nation. This Lexingtonian was the 14th vice president of the United States, then a presidential candidate in 1860. When war came, Breckinridge sided with the South, becoming a Confederate general and secretary of war.

Walk down Broadway toward Short Street. You will see the Opera House, built in 1886. Before the Civil War, this was the site of a business operated by W.A. Pullum, one of the city’s many “negro dealers.” Lexington was one of the South’s biggest slave-trading centers.

Take a right on Short Street, past Saints Peter & Paul School and St. Paul’s Catholic Church, and you will see a marker noting the birthplace of Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln. Her grandmother, Eliza Parker, lived next door. Neither house remains.

Lincoln visited his wife’s family in the fall of 1847. The man who would later abolish slavery was then a freshman congressman from Illinois, just beginning to grapple with the issue. That visit to Lexington might have given Lincoln his most close-up look at the South’s “peculiar institution.”

From the Parker house, historian William Townsend wrote, Lincoln easily could have looked past the spiked fence into Pullum’s compound, which had rows of eight-foot-square slave “pens” and a whipping post.

Follow Short Street to Jefferson Street, turn left and cross Main. The Mary Todd Lincoln House museum in a restored home where the future first lady lived from 1832, when she was 13 years old, until she moved to Illinois in 1839. (Hours and information:

That’s a lot of Civil War history in less than a mile.

The Fountain of Youth, a gift to the city from the estate of the writer James Lane Allen, is on the north end of Gratz Park on the site of the original building of Transylvania University.  Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, studied in that building in the 1820s before transferring to West Point.  Photos by Tom Eblen

A groundskeeper last week prepared for Transylvania University’s graduation. In the foreground is Gratz Park, the former site of Transylvania’s main building, where Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, studied in the 1820s.



The Bodley-Bullock House, built in 1814, served as headquarters for both Union and Confederate armies when control of Lexington changed hands during the Civil War. The house is across Gratz Park from Hopemont, home of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan.

Hopemont, built in 1814, was the home of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a notorious cavalry raider.

Hopemont was saved from demolition by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation in 1855 and is now a museum.

Transylvania University’s Medical Hall stood where this parking lot is now at the corner of Broadway and Second streets. The building was being used as a Union Army hospital during the Civil War when it burned in 1863.

The Lexington Opera House, built in 1886, on Broadway just north of Short Street, stands on the site that in the 1840s was Pullum’s slave jail. Abraham Lincoln’s closest personal exposure to slavery may have been seeing Pullums while visiting his wife’s grandmother, who lived on Short Street adjacent to the jail.

A plaque noting Mary Todd Lincoln’s birthplace stands outside her former home on Short Street. The house in the background replaced an earlier one that was home to her grandmother, Eliza Parker.

The Mary Todd Lincoln House is where Abraham Lincoln’s wife lived from 1832, when she was 13, until 1839, when she moved to Illinois, where she met Lincoln. The house, originally built in 1806 as an inn, is now a museum.


Living Arts and Science Center begins $5 million campaign to renovate, expand and grow

November 15, 2011

Lexington’s Kinkead House is much more than just another historical home. For nearly a century and a half, its occupants have been on the cutting edge of progress.

The mansion was built in 1847 by Abraham Lincoln’s local lawyer, abolitionist George B. Kinkead. After the Civil War, he realized that former slaves would want to own their own homes, so he bought land for them behind his estate. Kinkeadtown became the heart of what is now the East End neighborhood.

A century later, Kinkead’s descendants shared the dream of residents who thought Lexington’s young people needed more exposure to science and the arts. In 1971, they loaned and later donated the mansion and surrounding 1.5 acres to become the Living Arts and Science Center.

The next chapter of the story begins Wednesday, when the LASC launches a $5 million capital campaign to renovate the Kinkead House and more than double the center’s size and programming capacity with a beautiful contemporary addition.

LASC will add a 65-seat planetarium/auditorium, a digital arts center, a recording studio, a children’s art gallery, more classroom and meeting space, and a guest artist’s studio. There also will be a “teaching kitchen” for uses as varied as teaching neighbors to prepare and preserve food they grow in their gardens and classes in chocolate sculpture. A “magic carpet” walkway, which includes outdoor sculptures, will tie the campus together.

The campaign begins with $300,000 in grants and donations, plus a $1 million matching grant from the W. Paul and Lucille Caudill Little Foundation. The LASC board hopes to raise the rest of the money by summer 2013.

“It’s hard to raise $5 million in this environment without some credible reasons,” said downtown developer Phil Holoubek, who with his wife, Marnie, is leading the campaign. “But this project can be a game-changer. We can better serve the community and improve the neighborhood and downtown.”

The LASC’s mission is to use art and science to inspire children and adults. During the past year, more than 6,000 school children from 21 Kentucky counties took field trips to the center, executive director Heather Lyons said. The LASC offered more than 400 classes and workshops, plus frequent community events.

The expansion already is creating buzz, because the Kinkead House addition promises to be one of Lexington’s most exciting pieces of contemporary architecture. It is the work of Louisville’s De Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop, which two weeks after receiving the LASC commission last year won a prestigious Design Vanguard Award from Architectural Record magazine.

Architect Ross Primmer said the design is based on extensive conversations with the board, staff and neighbors of the LASC, which faces North Martin Luther King Boulevard between Campsie Place and East Fourth Street.

“It’s like they were hearing everything we were thinking,” said Kathy Plomin, the LASC’s development director.

The 11,000-square-foot addition is really a separate building, tucked along the south side and back of Kinkead House, complementing the scale of the 7,000-square-foot mansion and surrounding homes. An outdoor classroom separates the two buildings, which are connected by a glass walkway. Parking will move away from the front to create a larger lawn.

Primmer said the addition will have walls of dark-green wood siding and clear glass to visually connect with the outside and allow people to see inside. It will meet environmentally friendly LEED Silver standards and minimize energy use.

Steve Kay, an Urban County Council member who lives on Campsie Place, is excited about the LASC’s expansion and the new programming it will make possible. “We’re thrilled that such a good neighbor is investing in the neighborhood,” he said.

The design follows a trend of modern-style additions to classic old buildings. When designed well, these additions both honor the integrity of the historical structure and become a more functional piece of contemporary architecture.

“The goal is to create something that fits with it, but doesn’t mimic it,” Primmer said of the Kinkead House.

“I think it’s just brilliant,” Mayor Jim Gray said of the design. “This project is an example of great urban planning and great architecture that respects the character of the historic neighborhood and lifts it up. This is extremely exciting.”



Lexington’s bones may return to Kentucky

March 14, 2009

Why did Central Kentucky become the center of thoroughbred breeding? One reason was Lexington — not the city, the horse.

Lexington was a big bay stallion, the best racer of his time and perhaps the best sire of all time. He was born here and spent most of his life here. But he has spent most of his death in storage at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and, well, Kentucky wants him back.

Lengthy negotiations are about complete to put Lexington’s reconstructed skeleton on display at the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park.

“It looks pretty good right now,” said museum curator Bill Cooke, who is expecting a call any day from Smithsonian conservators who must release Lexington’s skeleton, officially known as Catalogue No. 16020.

The effort began more than two years ago when the horse museum became a Smithsonian associate, which allows it to borrow artifacts. “The first thing I said was we want to bring Lexington back to Lexington,” Cooke said.

“I’ve always wanted to have (an exhibit) that traces the history of the thoroughbred in Kentucky,” he said. “How did we get to be the thoroughbred capital instead of Nashville or New Orleans or New York? To a large extent, Lexington determined that we did.”

Borrowing horse bones — even famous horse bones — wouldn’t seem that complicated. But bureaucracy is bureaucracy.

At the time, Lexington was on rare public display as part of an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. Then, that museum closed for lengthy renovations, and nobody seemed to know if Lexington would be needed when it reopened. Just a couple of months ago, officials decided he wouldn’t.

“They have been very supportive all the way along,” Cooke said of Smithsonian officials. “They believe in the project.”

The timing is good because on Tuesday — the horse Lexington’s 159th birthday — the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau will kick off a marketing campaign built around a famous painting of Lexington — with the great horse recolored Wildcat blue.

The horse-of-a-different-color idea is an eye-catching gimmick. But using the horse Lexington to promote the city Lexington is a natural, said Ellen Gregory, a public relations executive who helped develop the campaign.

Gregory said the more she researched the great horse the more obsessed she became with him, because he had connections to so many famous people and events.

Lexington was born in 1850 at the farm of Dr. Elisha Warfield, a prominent physician, horseman and entrepreneur who treated Mary Todd Lincoln’s mother, was a friend of Henry Clay and became known as “the father of the Kentucky turf.”

Lexington, originally named Darley, won six of his seven starts, becoming the third-leading money-winner up to that time. He was retired to stud in 1855 because he was going blind and stood for 20 years at Nantura and Woodburn farms near Midway.

As a stud, Lexington was taken out of Kentucky only twice — to St. Louis for an exhibition in 1859 and to Illinois for safe-keeping in 1865, when Confederates were raiding Kentucky horse farms.

Lexington was the nation’s leading sire for a record 16 years, and many of his offspring became top sires. The blind horse fathered 600 foals, more than 200 of whom became winners. His descendants included Aristides, the first winner of the Kentucky Derby.

Another famous Lexington offspring was Cincinnati, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s favorite horse. Grant rode Cincinnati to accept Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and let President Abraham Lincoln ride him several times.

Lexington was such a celebrity that people came to Woodburn Farm from all over the world just to see him. One was Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who later wrote that visiting the horse was like being “in the sacred presence of royalty.”

When Lexington died, the New York Times published a lengthy obituary. “He was probably more famous in his day than even Man O’ War and Secretariat were in their days,” Cooke said.

Smithsonian representatives came to Woodburn Farm on July 1, 1875, not knowing Lexington had died earlier in the day. A few months later, they arranged for his remains to be exhumed and shipped to Washington, where they have been ever since.

Once he gets the word, Cooke said he will raise the private money needed to move Lexington’s skeleton and build a special glass case for it. The Smithsonian generally makes such loans on a five-year renewing basis.

“Hopefully this is going to be a long-term deal,” Cooke said of Lexington’s homecoming. “As long as we’ve worked on it, it’s already a long-term deal.”

Kentucky honors native son it once despised

February 12, 2009

FRANKFORT — Sandwiched between rallies by advocates for children and dogs, state political leaders gathered in the Capitol rotunda Thursday for a ceremony marking the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln.

Gospel artist Kenny Bishop and a Kentucky State University choir sang. Actor Greg Hardison read excerpts from Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Kentucky’s poet laureate, Jane Gentry Vance, read a poem she wrote about Lincoln. Kent Whitworth of the Kentucky Historical Society remarked that 100,000 fourth- and fifth-graders across the state Thursday were studying Kentucky’s greatest gift to the nation.

Gov. Steve Beshear, House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Senate President David Williams paused from dealing with Kentucky’s economic crisis long enough to place a floral wreath at the foot of the giant bronze statue of Lincoln in the center of the rotunda. Then, like thousands of tourists before them, they rubbed Lincoln’s shiny left toe for good luck.

As I stood in the crowded rotunda, I wondered what Lincoln would have thought about all the fuss Kentuckians were making over him. He would have felt honored and humbled, I’m sure. And given what we know about his sense of humor, he probably would have had a good laugh.

Lincoln always loved his home state, but as historian John Kleber reminded the gathering, it wasn’t until after his assassination that many Kentuckians returned the love. “In no ‘Northern’ state was he so vilified and hated,” Kleber said.

Lincoln was a second-generation Kentuckian. Both of his parents were Kentuckians, as were his beloved stepmother, his wife, his best friend and all three of his law partners. He grew up in Indiana surrounded by Kentuckians. His political idol was Henry Clay of Lexington.

Yet, in the election of 1860, a four-man race that Lincoln won with 40 percent of the national vote, he received only 1,364 votes in Kentucky — less than 1 percent. In Fayette County, where his wife’s family lived, he got only five votes. Four years later, he did little better, losing Kentucky to Gen. George McClellan, 61,478 votes to 26,592.

Think you have in-law problems? Mary Todd Lincoln’s family owned slaves and leaned Southern. Three of Lincoln’s brothers-in-law died fighting for the Confederacy. His Southern-sympathizing sisters-in-law were a constant source of political embarrassment.

Although Kentucky never seceded from the Union, most of the state’s powerful people were wedded to slavery and rabidly racist. Lincoln angered many Kentuckians by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and allowing free blacks to join the Union Army.

Americans have a habit of turning their martyred leaders into saints, and they set the standard with Lincoln. From his face on the penny to the huge marble monument in Washington, Lincoln has been a vessel that generations of Americans have filled with their ideas of perfection.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the two-year national celebration of Lincoln’s bicentennial has been the peeling away of myth to reveal a more complex, more flawed and more human character who is even more worthy of admiration.

For example, Lincoln has long been revered by African-Americans as the Great Emancipator. Yet, we’re reminded that while he always considered slavery to be morally wrong, he thought runaway slaves should be returned to their masters, would have preferred gradual emancipation and once thought former slaves should be shipped back to Africa or to colonies in Panama.

Most white Kentuckians of the time considered Lincoln to be a dangerously radical liberal. It wasn’t because he believe in equality of the races, but because he believed that black people were fully human.

It’s always dangerous to judge historic figures — especially politicians — by modern standards. Politics has always been about compromise. Had Lincoln been more “enlightened,” he never would have been elected president. Does it matter that he ended slavery as a political tactic for preserving the union, rather than as a moral imperative? The result was the same.

Two centuries after Lincoln’s birth, there remains much we can learn from this most remarkable Kentuckian. He educated himself, listened to his conscience, learned from his mistakes, didn’t take himself too seriously, let his thinking evolve with the times and met his enormous challenges without flinching.

He also reminded us in simple but profound language what our country stands for — or should stand for.

Lincoln honored in state capitol ceremony

February 12, 2009

FRANKFORT — Gov. Steve Beshear, Senate President David Williams and House Speaker Greg Stumbo paused a few moments from trying to solve today’s problems to mark Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday Thursday by laying a wreath at the feet of his bronze statue in the center of the state capitol rotunda.

Then, like thousands of tourists before them, they rubbed Lincoln’s shiny left toe for good luck.

The early-afternoon ceremony was delayed so Beshear could get back to Frankfort from Hodgenville, where he participated in festivities in Lincoln’s hometown.

The capitol ceremony included musical performances by gospel singer Kenny Bishop and the Kentucky State University Concert Choir Ensemble. Actor Greg Hardison recited some of Lincoln’s famous second inaugural address, and Kentucky Poet Laureate Jane Gentry Vance read her poem about Lincoln, based on the famous 1863 portrait of the Civil War president by Alexander Gardner.

Kent Whitworth, executive director of the Kentucky Historical Society, noted that 100,000 Kentucky fourth- and fifth-graders were spending the day in a joint study of Kentucky’s most famous native son.  Historian John Kleber of the University of Louisville reminded the gathering that Lincoln always loved his native state, although most of its residents during his lifetime had little regard for him.

“In no ‘northern’ state was he so vilified and hated,” Kleber said, adding, “He belonged to us, the people of Kentucky, because no claim shall come before the mother.”

I’ll have more to say about the Lincoln-Kentucky paradox here later today, and in Friday’s Herald-Leader.

Jefferson Davis’ life still holds lessons

May 31, 2008

He was born in a log cabin in Kentucky, grew up to be president and led his nation through a bitter Civil War.

No, not Abraham Lincoln.

The other guy: Jefferson Davis.

The 200th birthday of the only president of the Confederate States of America is Tuesday, and it will pass with little notice.

A few modest ceremonies and a historians’ symposium are planned this month, and there will be a festival next weekend at Davis’ hometown of Fairview in Todd County. That’s where a 351-foot concrete obelisk was built to his memory in the early 1900s by old men of the Lost Cause.

The commemorations are in stark contrast to the two-year national celebration that began in February to mark the bicentennial of Lincoln, who was born eight months later and 125 miles away, near Hodgenville in LaRue County.

Lincoln achieved mythic status after he died a martyr as the Civil War was ending. In the pantheon of American heroes, he’s right up there with George Washington.

Davis, on the other hand, is a man few now want to acknowledge, much less celebrate.

Before the Civil War, few would have predicted their fates.

Lincoln was homely and awkward. He educated himself while working as a frontier store clerk. His military career was modest. He married well by Lexington standards, but the Todds had little influence outside the Bluegrass.

After holding small political jobs, practicing law and serving in the Illinois legislature, Lincoln was elected to a single two-year term in Congress. He won the presidency in 1860 with not quite 40 percent of the vote in a four-way race that included John C. Breckinridge of Lexington. Lincoln was openly mocked, even by some in his own government. His emancipation of slaves was not a popular move.

Davis, on the other hand, was the handsome ideal of Southern manhood. He left Kentucky at an early age, as Lincoln did, but returned as the only Protestant pupil at a good Catholic school in Springfield. He studied at Transylvania, then one of the nation’s best colleges, before leaving Lexington to attend West Point.

He served twice in the military with distinction and married the daughter of his commander, the future President Zachary Taylor. She died of malaria three months after the wedding. He married well a second time, too, securing a comfortable place in Mississippi’s plantation aristocracy. He represented Mississippi in the U.S. House, served as secretary of war and was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Davis opposed secession, but when Mississippi left the union, he resigned his Senate seat and a month later was elected president of the Confederacy.

“In some ways, the elevation of Lincoln over Davis isn’t quite fair,” said Brian Dirck, a history professor at Anderson University in Indiana and author of Lincoln and Davis: Imagining America, 1809-1865.

“Jefferson Davis was a talented man; before 1860, most people would have said he was more talented than Abraham Lincoln,” he said. “There are many people who felt (Davis) would have made a good president of the United States before the war.”

Davis did a remarkable job of holding together a confederacy founded on the principle that states’ rights supersede those of a central government. Throughout the war, he was constantly sparring with state courts and legislatures.

“I doubt anyone else could have done a better job, given the circumstances,” Dirck said.

“But here’s the thing: He lost. And by that I mean not only did he lose the war, he lost the battle for the Confederacy’s legacy, as well. After the war, he told anybody who would listen that the Confederacy was not about defending slavery, but rather the Constitution and states’ rights. He wrote a book to that effect – a really long, tedious book, I might add – and for a while people believed him.”

The Confederacy, of course, was all about slavery; the South’s wealth depended on it. Jefferson Davis led the fight for slavery and ended up as the poster boy for the most evil social institution in American history.

Davis’ view that slavery “was established by decree of Almighty God … it is sanctioned in the Bible” was conventional wisdom in the South of his day, where slavery had existed for 250 years. People used Scripture then to defend slavery the way others would use it later to deny equal rights to women and gay people.

The United States is great because it is a nation of values, and high on that list of values is equal rights. We really believe that stuff about all people being created equal and entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, our entire history has involved struggles to make those words reality. In many ways, we’re still working on it.

I’ve always been fascinated by historic figures such as Jefferson Davis, the man who stood for all of the popular things and is now pitied for it.

And it makes me wonder: When people look back on us a generation or a century or two from now, who will be our Jefferson Davises? Whom will people revere, and whom will they pity?