Foster Pettit’s posthumous memoir offers interesting history, lessons in good government

November 10, 2015



A big reason Lexington has prospered over the past 40 years is a gutsy decision by politicians and voters in the early 1970s to create a non-partisan merger of city and county governments.

As recounted in Foster Pettit’s posthumous memoir, that process was mostly about people of different political persuasions putting the common good above their self-interest. But it also involved behind-the-scenes intrigue, courtroom fights and a mayoral election so close it was decided by a spider’s web.

“The Spider Election: The Dramatic Story of Lexington’s Closest Mayoral Election” (Amelia Press, $25) is now on sale at Pettit, who was city government’s last mayor and merged government’s first one, finished the manuscript shortly before his death last Nov. 22. He died at age 84 from injuries suffered in a boating accident.

Journalist Al Smith, who wrote the forword, and Pettit’s daughter-in-law, Herald-Leader reporter Linda Blackford, who helped edit the book and wrote an afterward, will sign copies Saturday at the Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort along with one of Pettit’s sons, Gregory, a public relations executive.

Pettit began working on the book in 2011 and interviewed 16 of his political supporters and opponents from that era. He got literary help from Blackford and Neil Chethik, director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, “so it wouldn’t read like a deposition,” Gregory Pettit said.

Pettit2Pettit, who descended from some of Lexington’s most prominent settlers, loved history and a good story. But he also wanted to write this book to remind people how beneficial merged government has been for Lexington, Gregory Pettit said.

The merger improved government services and saved taxpayers money by making their delivery more efficient. It all but eliminated party politics, and the system of 12 district Council members opened opportunities for more leadership diversity.

Lexington was the 19th place in the nation to merge city and county governments, and in the four decades since then that number has risen only to 43, including Louisville-Jefferson County in 2003. Despite the many advantages of merger, few cities and counties are willing to upset the political status-quo.

Lexington had a long history of partisan, machine politics. Then local legislators Bart Peak and Bill McCann got the General Assembly to pass a revolutionary bill in 1970 allowing Lexington and Fayette County voters to decide whether they wanted merged government.

Pettit, a Democratic lawyer, wrote that he and a group of pro-merger men tried to find a candidate to run for mayor in 1971 to pave the way for a referendum. When more than a dozen people turned them down, he agreed to do it on a slate with four City Council candidates.

The slate won, and they found an ally in Robert Stephens, the Fayette County judge, even though merger would cost them all their elected offices. When merger was put to voters in 1973, it won by a 70 percent margin.

But the main story in Pettit’s book is what happened next.

In the election to choose the first mayor of the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government, Pettit was opposed by a popular judge, Jim Amato. On election night, Amato was declared the winner by 112 votes out of more than 40,000 cast.

But while pursuing a recount, Pettit’s campaign lawyer, George Mills, was alerted to an irregularity in the Aylesford precinct. A clerk’s error in loading ballot cards in the voting machine resulted in Pettit’s and Amato’s totals being switched. In reality, the courts determined, Pettit won by 54 votes.

One question for the court, though, was whether the voting machine had been tampered with after the election. Circuit Judge James Park Jr. determined that it had not, and his most conclusive evidence was an undisturbed spider’s web and egg sac inside the machine that any tampering would have destroyed.

When Pettit decided not to run for a second term in 1977, Amato was elected mayor.

Pettit’s tragic death turned this memoir into something of a memorial. I was honored to be among 14 friends, including Amato, asked to write tribute blurbs.

Pettit was a forward-looking statesman, and his low-key, inclusive leadership style set a tone for Lexington’s merged government that continues today.

In contrast to the ideology and partisan politics that have all but paralyzed state and national government, Lexington leaders debate issues on their merits and build sometimes-odd coalitions to get good things done. That may be Pettit’s greatest public legacy, and his book explains some fascinating stories behind how it happened.

Kentucky’s ‘paradise lost’ estate for sale for first time in 131 years.

November 3, 2015
David Meade built the octagonal parlor at right at Chaumiere des Prairies about 1823. The rest of his house was a collection of log cabins, now long gone. The Greek Revival house now to the parlor's side was built by a subsequent owner in 1840. Photos by Tom Eblen

David Meade built the octagonal parlor at right at Chaumiere des Prairies about 1823. The rest of his house was a collection of log cabins, now long gone. The Greek Revival house now to the parlor’s side was built by a subsequent owner in 1840. Photos by Tom Eblen


NICHOLASVILLE — A pioneer estate whose elaborate gardens attracted three U.S. presidents and virtually every other notable person who passed through the Bluegrass two centuries ago is for sale for the first time in 131 years.

Chaumiere des Prairies, 1439 Catnip Hill Road, which includes an antebellum mansion and 169 acres of farmland that once included the 40-acre gardens, will be sold to the highest bidder at 10:30 a.m. Nov. 14. If Wilson Auction Co. can’t sell the entire estate, the house and five acres will be offered separately from 164 acres of land.

Margaret Steele Rash’s grandfather bought the place in 1884 to celebrate her mother’s birth. Rash lived there for 40 years, until she died in 2013 at age 95. Her son, Lloyd McMillan, is moving to South Carolina and decided it was time to sell.

“It’s a real treasure,” McMillan said. “It’s my wife’s and my hope that there’s somebody who falls in love with this place as much as my mom did.”

Lloyd McMillan is selling Chaumiere des Prairies, a famous antebellum estate that has been in his family since 1884. The estate's builder, David Meade, entertained three U.S. presidents and many other notables there. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Lloyd McMillan

The Greek Revival mansion, built about 1840, has stellar craftsmanship. But what makes Chaumiere special is an adjoining eight-sided parlor with a 16-foot ceiling. It was built about 1823 in anticipation of the Marquis de Lafayette’s visit to Kentucky in 1825.

The parlor is the last remnant of early Kentucky’s version of “paradise lost.”

David Meade was born in 1744 to a wealthy Virginia family and was educated in England. A patriot, he helped finance the American Revolution. In 1795, he decided to sell his 600-acre Maycox plantation along Virginia’s James River, where for 22 years he had dabbled in English-style garden design.

Meade sent the eldest of his nine children, also named David, to Kentucky, where he bought 330 acres in what is now northern Jessamine County. The elder Meade, his wife, Sarah, and the rest of their family arrived the next year with 40 slaves and 50 wagons of possessions.

Meade had a log house built on his new estate, which he called La Chaumière des Prairies (or La Chaumière du Prairie), which roughly translates from French as “little house on the prairie.” (The accent mark has since been lost to history.)

By 1806, the house had grown into a cluster of log rooms connected by hallways. The heart of the home was a large, square dining room for guests. Meade was a man of leisure, always ready to entertain.

Under Meade’s direction, his slaves created the elaborate gardens. The Rev. Horace Holley, who left Boston for Lexington in 1818 to transform Transylvania into one of the nation’s best universities, described them in a letter:

“His house consists of a cluster of buildings in front of which spreads a beautiful sloping lawn, smooth as velvet,” Holley wrote. “From his walks diverge in various directions forming vistas terminated by picturesque objects. Seats, verdant banks, alcoves and a Chinese temple are all interspersed at convenient distances. The lake over which presides a Grecian temple, that you might imagine to be the home of water nymphs, has in it a small island which communicates with the shore by a white bridge of one arch. The whole park is surrounded by a low, rustic stone fence almost hidden by roses and a honey-suckle, now in full flower. … There is no establishment like this in our country.”

In addition to frequent local guests including Holley and statesman Henry Clay, Meade hosted Presidents James Monroe, Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor. When former Vice President Aaron Burr was on his way to Virginia to stand trial for treason in 1807, he spent several days at Chaumiere. (Burr was acquitted of a charge of trying to separate Western from Atlantic states and create a new nation.)

David Meade died in 1829, a year after his wife. They were buried in the gardens. Their monument, destroyed by vandals, was replaced a decade ago by a descendant.

Meade’s children decided to sell Chaumiere at auction in 1832. When farmer William Robards won the bidding, distressed neighbors posted a sign proclaiming “paradise lost.” The sign infuriated Robards, who spitefully turned his livestock loose in the gardens until they were destroyed.

The only part of Meade’s house to survive was the octagonal brick parlor built for the French general, who apparently never saw it. A subsequent owner, Edward Carter, added the fine brick house to the parlor.

Recent open houses have been well attended, Nicholasville auctioneer Bobby Day Wilson said, and several out-of-town prospects have toured Chaumiere des Prairies and have expressed interest in restoring it to glory.

Perhaps “paradise lost” may yet be found again.

Chaumiere du Prairie Photo by Tom Eblen |

The front hall of the Greek Revival house built in 1840.


Chaumiere du Prairie Photo by Tom Eblen |

Outside detail of the circa 1823 octagonal parlor.


The octagonal parlor at Chaumiere des Prairie was built about 1823, reportedly in the hope that the Marquis de Lafayette would be entertained there when he visited Kentucky. Longtime resident Margaret Steele Rash bought the chandelier and mirror, which came from old Lexington homes. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Inside the octagonal parlor.


Chaumiere du Prairie Photo by Tom Eblen |

A descendant helped restore the Meades’ cemetery in 2005, including new monuments.


Now a cattle field, the grounds around Chaumiere des Prairies were beautiful botanical gardens in the early 1800s that gained international fame. Decorative Greek and Chinese temples once stood beside the ponds. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Now a cattle field, the grounds around Chaumiere des Prairies were beautiful botanical gardens in the early 1800s that gained international fame

Abandoned mill’s discovery recalls once-thriving Kentucky industry

November 1, 2015
University of Kentucky anthropologist Nancy O'Malley and Lexington electrician Jerry Nichols explored an old Madison County mill, which was built in 1865 and ceased operations in the 1930s. Somehow, the mill's equipment was never removed. Photos by Tom Eblen

University of Kentucky anthropologist Nancy O’Malley and Lexington electrician Jerry Nichols explored an old Madison County mill, which was built in 1865 and ceased operations in the 1930s. Somehow, the mill’s equipment was never removed. Photos by Tom Eblen


RICHMOND — Several history buffs heard last spring that there was a forgotten gristmill in rural Madison County, built about 1865. One knew the property owner, so he got permission to visit. What they found inside was shocking.

“We walked in and said, ‘Oh my God,'” said Jerry Nichols, a Lexington electrician. “Except for the steam engine, it was all there. It was all there!”

Behind weathered siding, buried in decades of filth and junk, most of the machinery was intact: iron and steel cogs, rods and wheels; wooden bins and chutes; even wide leather drive belts that last turned in the 1930s.

“It’s so rare to find a mill with the machinery,” said Nancy O’Malley, a University of Kentucky archaeologist and anthropologist whose expertise includes early Kentucky mills.

“The frame mills just didn’t last,” O’Malley said at the mill last month. “They burned down. They got salvaged. They got rid of the machinery. From a preservation standpoint, it’s beyond anything I’ve seen.”

The mill shows up on two state historic surveys since 1980, but it’s among the last of several hundred that once dotted Kentucky’s landscape.

The Madison County mill's interior is filled with carved, painted and drawn names, initials and dates from its former owners and employees. Apparently, they had a lot of spare time on their hands between milling jobs. This is one of the oldest, from 1869. Photo by Tom Eblen |

The mill’s interior is filled with carved, painted and drawn names, initials and dates from its former owners and employees. Apparently, they had a lot of time on their hands between milling jobs.

Kentuckians started building gristmills in the 1780s, soon after settlement. Farmers needed them to grind corn, wheat and other grains to make flour, cornmeal and whiskey. Soon, mills and distilleries began exporting goods down the Kentucky, Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans.

Each Central Kentucky county had dozens of gristmills in the 1800s, said O’Malley, who has excavated at many pioneer sites, including Evans Mill at Raven Run Nature Sanctuary.

Most Central Kentucky mills were built along creeks. Flowing water turned wooden wheels that turned millstones that ground grain. Some were big operations.

Kentucky’s 1850 manufacturing census reported that Jonathan Bush’s four-story mill on Lower Howard’s Creek in Clark County produced 400 barrels of flour and 3,000 bushels of meal annually. The mill’s ruins stand in the Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve.

Fayette County’s milling heritage lives on mainly through the names of roads that once took customers to them: Parkers Mill, Clays Mill, Bowman Mill and many others. Grimes Mill on Boone Creek, built in 1807, has been headquarters of the Iroquois Hunt Club since 1928.

A few preserved mills remain in Kentucky, most notably at Mill Springs near Monticello, where the circa-1877 mill has a huge 40-foot wheel to draw power from 13 natural springs. It is operated as a park by the Army Corps of Engineers. Wolf Pen Branch Mill in Jefferson County, owned by writer Sally Bingham, has been restored to working order by millwright Ben Hassett.

The Red River Museum in Clay City has a big collection of millstones and equipment. The Kentucky Old Mill Association has done considerable research on this aspect of Kentucky business and economic history.

Weisenberger Mill on South Elkhorn Creek near Midway is active, and its flour and meal are used in many of the region’s best restaurants.

Six generations of the Weisenberger family have run the mill since 1865, when the German immigrants bought Craig’s Mill. When the original early-1800s building became unsound in 1913, they replaced it with a concrete structure and converted the water wheel to electric turbines.

Water flow in creeks has always been unreliable in Central Kentucky, where the karst limestone geology allows water to move underground easily. Dams, channels, flumes and “mill races” often were built to increase water flow and speed.

“The engineering it took to make some of these work was pretty ingenious,” O’Malley said. “Still, most of them could only operate a few months out of the year.”

Western America’s first steam-powered gristmill was built in Lexington in 1808. It was where South Hill Station Lofts are now, at the southwest corner of South Upper Street and Bolivar Street, which originally was called Steam Mill Street.

“Steam engines freed you from having water issues,” O’Malley said. “A lot of the water mills converted to steam so they could run longer.”

After the Civil War, roller mill technology and increased steel production put many country gristmills out of business. Roller mills could be built in cities, and they could produce more flour and meal faster and cheaper.

The 1880 manufacturing census shows that this Madison County mill operated year-round with a 35-horsepower steam engine and employed three people. It produced 500 barrels of wheat flour, 100,000 pounds of corn meal and 47,000 pounds of animal feed a year, O’Malley said.

The mill, run by the Miller family, continued into the 1930s. Once it shut down, the owners walked away. Except for the missing steam engine, its machinery was left in place. Iron and steel parts somehow managed to escape World War II scrap drives.

Nichols and the other enthusiasts don’t want to publicize the old mill’s location until they have finished cleaning and securing the building. A bigger challenge will be working with the owner to figure out a viable use that could pay for restoration and maintenance.

“At the least, we need a really meticulous recording of the building and how it’s built and all the stuff in it,” O’Malley said. “Somebody could have stripped out a lot of the stuff and put it to another use. But they didn’t, and I think that’s the interesting part of the story.”


Weathered barn wood shelters a Madison County mill that was built in 1865 and went out of business in the 1930s. It has sat vacant since then with most of the steam-powered mill's equipment intact. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Weathered barn wood shelters the mill.


Berea folk art dealer Larry Hackley, left, University of Kentucky anthropologist Nancy O'Malley and Lexington electrician Jerry Nichols explored an old Madison County mill, which was built in 1865 and ceased operations in the 1930s. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Berea folk art dealer Larry Hackley, left, O’Malley and Nichols explore the mill.


A Madison County grist mill, which was built in 1865 and ceased operations in the 1930s, still contains most of its equipment, including this french burr mill and stone. Photo by Tom Eblen |

A French burr mill and stone inside the old mill.


A gear inside a Madison County mill, which was built in 1865 and ceased operations in the 1930s. Such artifacts are rare, because most scrap iron and steel was collected and recycled for World War II defense production. Photo by Tom Eblen |

A gear inside the mill, which was built in 1865 and ceased operations in the 1930s.


A Madison County mill, which was built in 1865 and ceased operations in the 1930s, still has most of its original equipment, including the leather belts than ran the machinery. The mill was powered by a steam engine. Photo by Tom Eblen |

The mill still has most of its original equipment, including the leather belts than ran the machinery. The mill was powered by a steam engine.


A Madison County mill, which was built in 1865 and ceased operations in the 1930s, still has most of its original equipment. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Somehow, the mill’s iron and steel parts escaped World War II scrap drives.

With Breeders’ Cup coming, black jockey Isaac Murphy gets his due

October 13, 2015

The most celebrated jockey in Lexington this month won’t be riding in Keeneland’s fall meet, or afterward at the Breeders’ Cup.

In fact, he died 119 years ago.

Isaac Burns Murphy, a black Kentuckian who was the most successful jockey in Thoroughbred racing history, will be the focus of a series of free public programs and events Oct. 20-24.


Isaac Murphy. Keeneland Library photo

The celebration begins Tuesday with a lecture at the Lyric Theatre by Pellom McDaniels III, an Emory University professor, former professional football player and author of the 2013 biography The Prince of Jockeys.

The Kentucky Horse Park on Thursday will unveil a newly engraved tombstone for Murphy, who is buried there. Later that afternoon, new interpretive panels will be unveiled at the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden in the East End.

I Dedicate This Ride, former Kentucky poet laureate Frank X Walker’s play about Murphy, will be performed at the Lyric Theatre on Friday and Saturday nights. Also on Saturday, a new memorial will be dedicated at Murphy’s original gravesite at African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.

Each day that week, McDaniels will be speaking at the Lyric to local school groups and showing them an exhibit of photo and text panels about Murphy. The panels will remain on display in the theater’s gallery through Dec. 11.

“Isaac Murphy is a wonderful figure in history, for a lot of reasons,” McDaniels said.

Murphy was born into slavery in Frankfort four days after the Civil War began in 1861. After his father died in Union Army service in 1865, Murphy was raised in Lexington by his mother and grandfather.

Murphy became a jockey at age 14 and rode in the Kentucky Derby 11 times, winning three of them, in 1884, 1890 and 1891. By his calculations, Murphy won 628 of his 1,412 races, a 44 percent victory rate that has never been equaled. In 1955, Murphy was the first jockey to be inducted into the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame. He died of pneumonia in 1896.

McDaniels, 47, is from San Jose, Calif., and played for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons. After retiring from football, he earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in American studies from Emory University in Atlanta, where he is now an associate professor of African American studies.

McDaniels said he discovered Murphy while working on his doctoral dissertation about the role of black athletes in the 20th century, when racism made sports one of the few areas where black men could advance.

In looking at the roots of that phenomenon, he discovered black athletes in the 19th century who were revered by white Americans before the Jim Crow era led to systematic discrimination.

Pellom McDaniels III, an associate professor of African American studies at Emory University and former professional football player, is the author of The Prince of Jockeys, a biography of Lexington native Isaac Burns Murphy. Photo provided

Pellom McDaniels III. Photo provided

The star among them was Murphy, a celebrity described in the white press as an “elegant specimen of manhood.” He was lionized for his good looks, his intellect and his gentlemanly behavior.

“I thought it was very interesting that this man coming out of slavery would be in newspapers being represented as this quintessential man,” McDaniels said.

By the end of Murphy’s career, though, discrimination was marginalizing accomplished blacks who had made gains during Reconstruction, including athletes.

Previous biographers speculated that Murphy’s polish came from his association with whites in the horse industry. But McDaniels thinks a more likely explanation was Lexington’s black community, which was quite advanced for that time.

“The community was thriving,” he said. “There were businesses and very well-educated people there, lawyers and doctors.”

McDaniels thinks Murphy’s life story is a great teaching opportunity, especially for young people.

“Sports history is an opportunity to teach, especially young men, about these different nuances of social and economic and racial history,” he said

Murphy was a professional athlete who knew how to handle success with grace and responsibility — something rare now as it was then. His success brought fortune as well as fame, and Murphy and his wife, Lucy, lived in a Third Street mansion about where the Isaac Memorial Art Garden is now.

“He and Lucy had plenty of opportunities to leave Lexington and go to California and New York and Chicago, but he kept coming back home,” McDaniels said. “I think he came home because the people in Lexington knew him. They were his family and they helped him maintain his rootedness.”

Ashland event showcases little-known fact: 150 years ago, Henry Clay’s farm became the University of Kentucky’s first campus

September 22, 2015
The Mechanical Building at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Kentucky was located on the Ashland farm, about where Fincastle and Sycamore roads are now. The building was demolished for their construction in the 1920s. Photo Courtesy of UK Special Collections

The Mechanical Building at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Kentucky was located on the Ashland farm, about where Fincastle and Sycamore roads are now. The building was demolished for their construction in the 1920s. Photo Courtesy of UK Special Collections


The Ashland estate was more than the home of statesman Henry Clay. A century and a half ago, it became the first campus of the University of Kentucky.

That little-known chapter of history is among the things being showcased Saturday at Ashland’s annual Living History Event.

Artifacts from the university years are on display through Dec. 31. Saturday’s event will include Civil War re-enactors firing antique rifles and cannon, tours of the mansion, costumed actors, farm animals and period crafts.

Transylvania University was the first state-supported college, having been started in the 1780s when Kentucky was still Virginia. But state support of higher education in Kentucky has always been erratic. After a flowering in the 1820s, during which Transylvania became one of America’s best universities, it fell into decline.

After the Civil War, Transylvania was reconstituted as part of Kentucky University and a new sister institution, the Agricultural and Mechanical College, created by the federal Land-Grant College Act of 1862.

John Bryan Bowman Photo Courtesy of Transylvania University Library Speical Collections

John Bryan Bowman Photo Courtesy of Transylvania University Library Speical Collections

The force behind Kentucky University and the A&M college was John Bryan Bowman, the grandson of pioneer Abraham Bowman, for whom Bowman’s Mill Road in southern Fayette County is named.

“He was quite a visionary,” said Ashland Curator Eric Brooks. “He wanted to make education more egalitarian, accessible to a much larger spectrum of the population. He wanted it to encompass very academic subjects, but also to include business, agriculture and what he called the mechanical arts and we now call engineering.”

A decade before Clay’s death in 1852, Bowman studied law under him. Perhaps that is why, when searching for a campus for the new college in 1866, Bowman bought Ashland and an adjoining Clay family estate, The Woodlands. The 433 acres cost $130,000.

“He chose Ashland specifically because it was Henry Clay’s farm,” Brooks said. “It was the most recognizable piece of property around and he knew it would have instant credibility.”

As regent, Bowman and his wife lived in the Ashland mansion, which also served as the college administration building. He created a small natural history museum there, and some of the artifacts have been returned for this exhibit.

The Woodlands mansion, which stood about where the Woodland Park swimming pool is now, housed agricultural classrooms. Engineering classrooms and labs were in an imposing new building, which was constructed at what is now the corner of Fincastle and Sycamore roads.

The Mechanical Hall was built in 1868 with a $25,000 gift from G.Y.N. Yost, a Pennsylvania lawn mower manufacturer.

The cottage that still stands beside Ashland was an early dormitory. Brooks said it housed 16 young men — all of the students were young men until 1880, when the first women were admitted — who raised their own livestock and vegetables and hired a cook to fix their meals.

Bowman’s long-term goal was to relocate the rest of Kentucky University from Transylvania’s campus north of Gratz Park to the Ashland-Woodlands property.

But the church-state politics that had always plagued Transylvania kept getting in the way. Although a state institution, Transylvania had a long history of church affiliation, first with the Presbyterians and then the Disciples of Christ.

Amid these tensions, Bowman was fired in 1878 and the A&M college separated from Kentucky University. James K. Patterson was appointed college president, a job he held until 1910.

Worried that the college might move elsewhere in the state, Lexington donated its Maxwell Springs fairgrounds as a new campus. UK has been there ever since.

Kentucky University reverted to private, church-affiliated ownership and changed its name back to Transylvania in 1908. The A&M college, also called State College, officially became the University of Kentucky in 1916.

The Woodlands estate became a city park and surrounding subdivisions. Ashland was rented to tenant farmers until Clay’s grandson-in-law, Henry Clay McDowell, bought and renovated the property.

Most of the Ashland estate was subdivided in the 1920s into the Ashland and Ashland Park neighborhoods. The 17 acres that remained around the mansion went to the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, which since 1950 has operated the house museum and park-like grounds.

The main artifact from Ashland’s college years, the Mechanical Hall, was demolished when subdivision streets were cut through in the early 1920s.

“It was an incredible structure,” Brooks said. “I wish we still had that.”

If we can’t face facts about the Civil War, how can we ever deal with modern issues?

September 1, 2015

You have to wonder: With all of the challenges our state and nation faces, why do we still spend so much time arguing about the Civil War? Well, there are a couple of reasons.

The first reason is that Americans have an uncanny ability to believe what they want to believe, regardless of facts. No chapter in our history has been more mythologized than the Southern rebellion that officially ended 150 years ago.

If you want to understand the facts, a good place to start is Ken Burns’ 1990 television series, The Civil War. For five consecutive nights beginning Sept. 7, Kentucky Educational Television will show a high-definition version of that acclaimed series, which has been digitally re-mastered for its 25th anniversary.

I remember when the series first aired — and a record 40 million people watched. I lived in Atlanta, where the Civil War remained an everyday presence. It seemed like the whole city was sleep-deprived that week; people stayed up night after night, mesmerized by a compelling history lesson told simply with narration, old photographs and music.

If you have time to see only one episode of The Civil War this time, make it the first one. I watched the original again this week and was impressed by how well it explained the war’s causes, which generations of myth-making tried to obfuscate.

While there were a few side issues, the Civil War was all about slavery. White supremacy was the Confederacy’s core belief. Read every state’s secession documents. Read the politicians’ speeches. There is no doubt.

The other reason the Civil War still resonates is that deep divisions of race and class in America have never gone away; they have just become more subtle and complex. And each time it feels like our national wound is healing, the scab is torn off.

A white racist slaughters black worshipers in church. A black man assassinates a white deputy sheriff. White police officers shoot unarmed black men. A black man videotapes his murder of two TV journalists. So many white people find it so easy to hate a mixed-race president with a foreign-sounding name.


A participant in a Sons of Confederate Veterans rally at the state Capitol in July takes a “selfie” with the Jefferson Davis statue. Photo by Charles Bertram.

This ugly reality has refocused attention on Confederate symbolism, which has always been racially divisive. In Kentucky, the hottest debate is over the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis placed in the Capitol rotunda in 1936.

Like most Confederate monuments, including the statue of Gen. John Hunt Morgan in front of Lexington’s old courthouse, Davis’ statue was erected decades after the war, largely at taxpayer expense, by a Confederate memorial group as part of a well-organized effort to reinterpret the South’s racist rebellion as a noble “lost cause”.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, both candidates for governor and other prominent Democrats and Republicans have called for moving Davis’ statue from its symbolic place of honor in the Capitol to a museum.

That view was endorsed Monday by 72 historians from 16 Kentucky colleges and universities, who sent a letter to Stumbo and members of the General Assembly.

“The statue is not a neutral evocation of facts, but an act of interpretation that depicts Davis as a hero with an honorable cause,” the letter said. “Virtually no respected professional historians embrace this view — a perspective that minimizes the significance of slavery as a cause of the Civil War, downplays the human suffering of millions, and endows the southern cause with a nobility it does not deserve.”

But a recent Bluegrass Poll found that 73 percent of Kentuckians think the statue should stay in the rotunda. The all-white Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission agreed by a vote of 7-2, but recommended adding a plaque with “educational context.” Myths are stubborn things.

What I find most disturbing about this debate is the willful ignorance of so many white people who insist the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. They ignore the fact that Confederate symbolism has always been a tool of racial intimidation. They remain oblivious to the pain black people feel toward veneration of Confederate heroes.

As the historians’ letter pointed out, this discussion isn’t about “erasing” or “rewriting” history; it is about making history more accurate. It is about no longer honoring people whose actions and beliefs are now considered despicable by a more enlightened and inclusive society.

With so many people so willing to ignore facts about the Civil War’s cause, it is no wonder we have trouble discussing race relations, economic justice, climate change and other issues that now threaten our future.

When willful ignorance and ideology replace facts and logic, it produces the kind of dangerous polarization that America saw in the 1860s — and that we see far too often a century and a half later.

African American Encyclopedia reveals untold Kentucky stories

August 29, 2015

Gerald Smith and his co-editors spent most of a decade working on the newly published Kentucky African American Encyclopedia. It wasn’t just research, writing and editing; they had to raise much of the project’s $400,000 budget.

In addition to courting big donors, they gave dozens of fundraising presentations in small-town libraries, churches and community centers across the state.

Those presentations often led to conversations, driving tours, stashes of newspaper clippings and walks through cemeteries with the keepers of community history.


Gerald Smith and co-editors Karen Cotton McDaniel and John A. Hardin and a staff of graduate students compiled  the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia. Photo by Tom Eblen

The content of the encyclopedia (University Press of Kentucky, 551 pages, $49.95) is much richer for that process, Smith said. Many fascinating stories had never made it beyond the counties where they happened.

Amateur historians were an enormous help to Smith, a University of Kentucky history professor, and his co-editors, Karen Cotton McDaniel, a retired Kentucky State University professor and director of libraries, and John A. Hardin, a history professor at Western Kentucky University.

“I can’t tell you how many folks we met like Yvonne Giles,” Smith said, referring to the woman whose years of research have made her an authority on black history in Lexington.

“They could point out all the places, tell you the history of the buildings,” Smith said. “It takes special people like that who are working at the grassroots level.”

The editors also discovered small archives, sometimes in unlikely places.

Smith got a surprise when he spoke at the public library in Owingsville, the seat of Bath County, which Census records show now has only about 15 black residents.

“They had a nice clippings file on African-Americans; who would have ever thought?” Smith said. “That’s why we had to go to see what was out there, and to meet and visit and talk to people.”

That file included information about the Owingsville Giants, which helped prompt Sallie Powell, the encyclopedia’s associate editor, to research and write a detailed entry about Kentucky’s black baseball clubs between the late 1800s and 1960s.

Smith said the saddest part of editing the encyclopedia was recounting tragedies of racism, large and small.

There is the horrific story of Isham and Lilburne Lewis, nephews of President Thomas Jefferson, who in 1811 took an ax and in a drunken rage murdered a slave child they thought had tried to run away after breaking their mother’s pitcher.

More common were the pervasive acts of discrimination used for two centuries to keep black Kentuckians down.

For example, who knew there were black bicycle racers in Louisville in the 1890s?

The Union Bicycle Club may have been the largest club of black riders in the country during a decade when cycling became a wildly popular American pastime.

But the club’s success led William Wagner Watts, a white cyclist and Louisville attorney, to successfully lobby the League of American Wheelmen in 1894 to exclude blacks from membership. That move sparked national controversy.

What is amazing is that so many black Kentuckians found ways to succeed before the civil rights movement. “I didn’t realize there were that many African-Americans from Kentucky who went on to serve as college presidents,” Smith said.

Many had to leave Kentucky to achieve their goals; for example, George French Ecton, a runaway slave from Winchester, in the 1880s became the first black elected to the Illinois General Assembly.

“When you look at that, you think about how many African-Americans could have been governor or senator or the president of the University of Kentucky or Eastern or Western,” Smith said. “They had all the skills necessary to be successful but were denied the opportunity.”

The encyclopedia’s research files, many of which did not result in completed entries, have been turned over to University of Kentucky Special Collections so future researchers can use them.

The editors expect the encyclopedia to generate some controversy because of their decisions about what would and wouldn’t be included. For example, they had a bias toward telling new and little-known stories rather than rehashing some famous ones that have often been told in other books.

“It helps serve another purpose of the encyclopedia, and that is to generate new discussions and debates,” Smith said. “This is actually a beginning rather than an ending, because what this is going to do is churn up even more material. I’m hoping it will inspire more people to not only want to learn about Kentucky history, but to understand it and to preserve it.”

Book signing

What: Editors of the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia will sign copies, along with authors of other books produced by faculty of the University of Kentucky Department of History.

When: 5 p.m. Sept. 18

Where: The Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.

Centennial celebration planned Saturday for historic Duncan Park

August 25, 2015
A cyclist rode up North Limestone Street past an entrance to Duncan Park at the corner of Fifth Street. Many young people are moving into neighborhoods around the park and fixing up long-neglected old houses. Photo by Tom Eblen |

A cyclist rode up North Limestone Street past an entrance to Duncan Park at the corner of Fifth Street. The park originally was a wealthy merchant’s estate. Photos by Tom Eblen


There’s a party Saturday to celebrate the centennial of Duncan Park, a piece of land that has reflected the changing character of Lexington for more than twice that long.

Four nearby neighborhood associations are sponsoring the public celebration from 3 to 7 p.m. at the five-acre park at North Limestone and East Fifth Street. There will be live music, food trucks, family activities and exhibits by community organizations.

“We just want people to come out and enjoy the park,” said James Brown, the new First District member of the Urban County Council.

Duncan Park has a fascinating history.

It was part of 20 acres that William Morton acquired in the early 1790s. He built one of Lexington’s first mansions there in 1810, and that mansion dominates the park. The federal-style house has oversized proportions to make it look good from a distance.

The Englishman, who came here in 1787 and opened a store, became a wealthy merchant and financier. Because of his aristocratic bearing, everyone called him “Lord” Morton, but probably not to his face.

Morton gave away a lot of his money, creating Lexington’s first public school. He also was a benefactor of what is now Eastern State Hospital and Christ Church Episcopal.

Two years after Morton died in 1836, his property was bought by Cassius Marcellus Clay, the fiery emancipationist who published an anti-slavery newspaper, The True American, and was Lincoln’s ambassador to Russia during the Civil War.

Clay sold the place in 1850 to his wife’s uncle, Dr. Lloyd Warfield, who subdivided three-fourths of it to create the neighborhoods now north and east of the park.

The house and five acres were bought in 1873 by Henry T. Duncan, editor of the Lexington Daily Press and the city’s mayor. Because of how well he and his wife maintained the grounds, it was known as “Duncan Park” long before their daughter, Lucy Duncan Draper, sold it to the city as a park in 1913.

A month before the park officially opened, it was the site of a May 1915 rally by women seeking the right to vote. That was fitting: Clay’s daughter, Laura, was a national leader in the women’s suffrage movement.

Duncan Park was a happening place for more than four decades, with a baseball field, tennis courts, ping-pong tables and playgrounds.

The Lexington Leader reported in 1925 that three young girls were forming a girls’ club at Duncan Park. One of them was Elizabeth Hardwick, 8, who lived on nearby Rand Avenue. She later moved to New York and became a famous literary critic, novelist and founder of The New York Review of Books.

City officials have always struggled over what to do with the Morton house. Early plans called for it to become a museum or a girls school. More recent proposals have included a black history museum and an official home for Lexington’s mayor.

Instead, the mansion has always housed social service agencies. In 1914, it became a “milk depot” for Baby Milk Supply, a new charity. Now called Baby Health Service, the organization cares for uninsured children at a clinic beside St. Joseph Hospital.

The Morton house was a Junior League “day nursery” in the 1930s and then was the city children’s home until better accommodations were built on Cisco Road in 1950. In recent years, it has housed The Nest Center for Women and Children.

Until the 1950s, Duncan Park was only for white people. The city built Douglass Park on Georgetown Street for black residents in 1916. By the time city parks were legally integrated, a different kind of segregation was taking place.

Lexington’s suburban sprawl contributed to white flight from the neighborhood. In August 1972, 200 black people marched from Duncan Park to city hall to protest the closing of inner-city schools and the busing of black children to the suburbs.

As owner-occupied homes surrounding Duncan Park became poorly maintained rentals, crime soared. Things have slowly gotten better, especially since last year’s fatal shooting of Antonio Franklin in the park prompted his mother, Anita Franklin, to organize well-attended monthly “peace walks.”

Many people attribute the drop in crime to a renaissance in the North Limestone area. Many old houses are being restored and reconverted from low-income rentals to owner-occupied homes.

The Martin Luther King Neighborhood Association has focused on improving Duncan Park since 2001. Discussions are now under way about adding more features to the playground and basketball courts.

Travis Robinson, the association’s president, said the park is becoming safer thanks to better policing and more use by area residents. Regular activities include potluck suppers and story-telling programs for kids.

“It’s a community asset that has been underutilized,” said Vice Mayor Steve Kay, who lives nearby. “More people are coming to live in the neighborhood, and that is making a difference.”

A cyclist rode up North Limestone Street past the old columned entrance to the 1810 Morton House in Duncan Park. Many young people are moving into neighborhoods around the park and fixing up long-neglected old houses. Photo by Tom Eblen |

A cyclist rode up North Limestone Street past the old entrance to the 1810 Morton House in Duncan Park. Many people are moving into nearby neighborhoods and fixing up long-neglected houses.

The Morton House, built in 1810 and once owned by emancipationist Cassius Clay, sits in the middle of Duncan Park. Since the city bought the property in 1913, it has housed social service agencies. Photo by Tom Eblen |

The Morton House, built in 1810 and once owned by emancipationist Cassius Clay, sits in the middle of Duncan Park. Since the city bought the property in 1913, it has housed social service agencies.

Fifth book about Louisville’s Bingham family is the most revealing

August 22, 2015

The disintegration of the Bingham family’s Louisville media dynasty in 1986 prompted no fewer than four books about patriarch Robert Worth Bingham and the two talented but troubled generations he left in his wake.

Each book was revealing, but the basics were well-known: ambitious politico loses his wife in a tragedy and remarries America’s richest widow, who soon dies mysteriously. With his inheritance, he buys a newspaper and influence, which includes the ambassadorship to Great Britain. The Courier-Journal becomes a great newspaper until squabbling among his grandchildren prompts its sale to a chain.

150823Bingham002AThe juicy secrets revealed in previous Bingham books are nothing compared to those in this fifth one, the second written by a family member.

Emily Bingham’s Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux $28) is a thoroughly researched, well-written and frank biography of the great-aunt her elders never wanted to discuss.

Bingham, a Harvard graduate with a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina, will talk about and sign her book at 3 p.m. Sunday at The Morris Book Shop, 882 East High Street.

Henrietta Bingham was intelligent, beautiful and seductive. But she was forever traumatized by witnessing her mother’s death when a commuter train hit their car, and she could never escape the emotional grip of her narcissistic father.

She also was bisexual. Her most intense relationships were with John Houseman, who later became a legendary film producer and Oscar-winning actor, and the 1930s tennis star Helen Jacobs.

Other lovers included three members of England’s famous Bloomsbury set: writer Mina Kirstein, painter Dora Carrington and sculptor Stephen Tomlin. Then there were the actresses: Hope Williams and, probably, Tallulah Bankhead. And, possibly, black musicians of both sexes in Harlem.

Henrietta spent the Jazz Age and Great Depression living high on daddy’s money. Had she been straight, she, rather than her younger brother Barry, would have inherited the family’s media empire.

Instead, she lived a life of leisure, attracting lovers then pushing them away. Her only real accomplishment was a late-in-life career as a Thoroughbred horse breeder.

Despite years of psychoanalysis with Ernest Jones, a famous protégé of Sigmund Freud, Henrietta could never escape her demons. She died in 1968 at age 68 from the effects of alcoholism and mental illness.

Emily Bingham, author of "Irrepressible: The Jazz Age life of Henrietta Bingham." Photo by Leslie Lyons

Emily Bingham. Photo by Leslie Lyons

After reading this book, I had to ask Emily Bingham: what did the family think of her unflinching book?

“My generation has just all been fascinated,” said Bingham, 50. “We had only heard these sort of negative stories. It’s as if this whole part of our family tree is alive instead of shriveled.”

Her mother, Edie Bingham, and aunts, Sallie Bingham and Eleanor Bingham Miller, the last survivors of their generation, passed along photographs and heirlooms and have been very supportive of the book, she said.

“But if my grandparents (Barry Bingham Sr. and his wife, Mary) had been living, this would have been hard to do,” she acknowledged.

“I think they were quite understanding, actually, about that part of Henrietta’s life,” she said. “They also were the ones who bore the brunt of being worried for her, and the shame that came with that. People couldn’t talk about mental health, either.”

Emily Bingham said that every day growing up at the Binghams’ Melcombe estate she saw a framed photograph of an octagonal barn at her great-aunt’s horse farm, now the Harmony Landing Country Club at Goshen.

“I just remember being told she was an accomplished horsewoman,” she said. “It would be the one thing they would say and then the conversation would end. I got the feeling that she was sort of not very interesting. And that was obviously wrong.”

In an interview with her grandmother before she died in 1995, Mary Bingham finally talked about Henrietta.

Only after Emily Bingham and her husband, Stephen Reily, named their daughter Henrietta, because they liked the old-fashioned name, did her startled father, the late Barry Bingham Jr., discuss his aunt, whom he called “a three-dollar bill.”

He told his daughter there might be a trunk of Henrietta’s stuff in the attic. There she discovered personal possessions and old clothes, including one of Jacobs’ monogrammed tennis outfits. Then she found another trunk stuffed with nearly 200 love letters to Henrietta from Houseman and Tomlin.

That trunk, stored for decades above her childhood bedroom, led her to search out archives containing the revealing letters, diaries and memoirs of her great-aunt’s friends and lovers.

But Henrietta’s own voice is largely missing from this biography; she left no diary, and fewer than a dozen letters. She seems to have destroyed most evidence of her homosexuality.

“This project was like putting together a broken mirror and knowing that you were only going to see bits of the person in the end,” the author said.

Bingham would love to know more about Henrietta’s passion for black music in the 1920s and her relationships with famous performers she knew. She wishes she could have “been on the couch with her” during psychoanalysis, especially to understand more about Henrietta’s complex relationship with her father.

And, in a life with so many passionate, complicated relationships, she said, “I would want to ask her, ‘Who did you really love?”

Bingham thinks her great-aunt’s alcoholism and mental illness were fueled in part by social pressure to keep her lesbian relationships secret. Her efforts to live a lie included a brief, failed marriage in 1954.

Henrietta’s life could have been much different had she lived today, her great-niece thinks. She could have enjoyed openly gay relationships and become more independent from her controlling father.

Bingham hopes readers come away with a desire to find out more about the gaps and silences in their own family histories.

“They don’t not matter because they haven’t been talked about,” she said. “Often, they are creating some of the reality you are living with; you just don’t know how they shaped it.”

Fraternity’s ‘second mom’ remembered for her cooking, love

August 18, 2015
Baby Cook Pic

Grace Cook in her kitchen of the Sigma Chi house at the University of Kentucky. Photo provided


Elinor Grace Cook took care of the brothers of Sigma Chi for three decades. After she retired in 1994, they spent the next two taking care of her.

About three dozen alumni of the University of Kentucky fraternity were in the crowd that nearly filled Consolidated Baptist Church on Monday to say goodbye to Cook, who died Aug. 11 at age 90.

Each fraternity brother placed a white rose atop the casket of the short black woman who cooked his college meals and did so much more.

They recalled how Cook’s unconditional love touched them and hundreds of other white fraternity boys. Decades later, she could remember their names — not that she ever used them. She called each of them Baby, and they called her Baby.

In a eulogy, Darryl Isaacs, a Louisville personal-injury lawyer famous for his “heavy hitter” TV commercials, said he first met Cook when he was a scared 18-year-old pledge having a bad day.

Isaacs said he put out his hand, “and she said, ‘We don’t give handshakes. We hug.’ She said, ‘I love you, Baby.'”

“I’ll never forget that,” said Isaac, who later introduced Cook to his parents as “my second mom.”

“She loved you whether you were white, black, rich, poor, fat, skinny,” Isaac said. “Of everybody I’ve ever met, there’s nobody that stands out like Baby.”

Elinor Grace "Baby" Cook cooked at UK's Sigma Chi fraternity house for 30 years and became a second mother to many of its members. She is shown in 2012 at a reunion with some of them. Photo provided

Cook in 2012 at a reunion.

Cook also was a legend at Consolidated Baptist. She was an active member for more than 80 years and the church’s culinary minister. She was in her kitchen, cooking, when she suffered the fall that put her in a hospital for the last time.

The Rev. Richard Gaines said Cook was mentally sharp and in good spirits to the end, complaining about hospital food and saying she was ready to meet her maker.

“She lived a powerful life,” Gerald Smith, a University of Kentucky history professor and minister who grew up in Consolidated Baptist, said in his eulogy. “Everybody’s got a story to tell, because she had this infectious as well as contagious kind of spirit.”

Cook used to joke that she would write a book about all that happened at the Sigma Chi house. The guys joked back that she would make more money if she let them pay her not to.

After she retired and her husband, William Edward Cook, died, the brothers realized she could use their help. She had a large family that eventually included two children, four grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

Michael Dammert, an investment advisor in Covington who met Cook as a pledge in 1969, worked with Isaacs and others to organize the “Baby Fund” that alumni contributed to for 20 years. And they gave her more than money.

Jay Rodes, who met her in 1981, took her meals and kept her sidewalk salted each winter. His wife drove Cook to doctor appointments. Someone mentioned in a group email that she needed a railing outside her house; one appeared within days.

When UK’s largest fraternity moved to a bigger house in 2012, a plaque was placed in the new kitchen declaring it “Gracie’s Place” in honor of “Sigma Chi’s beloved cook and sage.”

The meals Cook prepared in the old house’s small, hot kitchen were amazing, the men said, leavened with plenty of butter and sugar. And she always had time to hear their troubles and secrets, and give them advice about girlfriends and life.

Cook wouldn’t put up with foolishness. A boy who once thought it would be funny to bring a rubber snake into her kitchen narrowly missed a rolling pin to the head.

“If you acted up, she made you come to Consolidated Baptist Church with her,” Dammert said. “I was on that list.”

“She had a cuss jar,” Ted Tudor recalled. “It was always full of money.”

As Consolidated Baptist’s pastor looked out over the crowd at Cook’s funeral, he saw her family and friends from church and the Radcliffe-Marlboro neighborhood. He also saw successful businessmen, prominent lawyers, a UK vice president.

“On most Sundays, you don’t see this kind of cultural diversity,” Gaines told the crowd. “But here we are on a Monday afternoon in church, and look at what God has done. Thank God for the lives she touched.”

Readers suggest many Lexington historic figures worthy of honoring

August 1, 2015

Some readers suggested a monument to blacks who fought for the Union during the Civil War, many of whom were trained at Camp Nelson in Jessamine County.


Public art starts conversations, and the debate over two statues of local Confederate heroes has started some great discussions about other figures from Lexington’s history who are worthy of honor and remembrance.

I mentioned several in a column three weeks ago and I asked readers for more. I got many good suggestions, including Mary Todd Lincoln, artist Matthew Jouett and John Bradford, an early Lexington publisher, education advocate and civic leader.

I especially liked the suggestions I received for honoring notable black men and women from the past whose accomplishments against great odds have often been overlooked.

Yvonne Giles, an authority on local black history, liked my suggestion of Mary E. Britton (1855-1925), the city’s first black woman physician. Britton also was a journalist, teacher, social reformer and civil rights activist.

Julia Britton Hooks

Julia Britton Hooks

Giles noted that Britton’s sister, Julia Britton Hooks (1852-1942), was equally deserving. Like her sister a graduate of Berea College, she became Berea’s first black faculty member, teaching instrumental music. She later moved to Memphis, married Charles Hooks and opened a music school. Blues legend W.C. Handy was among her students. Selma Lewis wrote a 1986 biography of Hooks, The Angel of Beale Street.

In 1909, Hooks became a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — an organization led by her grandson, Benjamin Hooks, from 1977 to 1992.

Their brother, Tom Britton (1870-1901), was a successful jockey. Lexington has recently honored two great black jockeys, Isaac Murphy (1861-1896) with a park and Oliver Lewis (1856-1924) with a street.

Another great black jockey worthy of honor is Jimmy Winkfield (1882-1974), whose fascinating life story was chronicled in the 2006 book Black Maestro, by New York Times racing writer Joe Drape.

Giles suggested several accomplished black women from Lexington’s past, including E. Belle Jackson (1848-1942), who led creation of the Colored Orphan Industrial Home, now the Robert H. Williams Cultural Center on Georgetown Street.

Charlotte Dupuy (1787-after 1866) was a slave owned by Henry Clay. She sued him for her freedom in 1829, when they were living in Washington, D.C. and he was secretary of state. The gutsy Dupuy lost her legal case, but Clay eventually freed her.

Giles also suggested “Aunt Charlotte,” whose full name and years of life are unknown. She came to Lexington as a slave in the late 1700s and became free when her owners died. She sold baked goods at the public market. She is best known for buying the one-year vagrancy indenture of a white man, William “King” Solomon, in 1833 and setting him free. He was a drunk who soon became a local hero for burying victims of cholera epidemic.

Several black women educators are worthy of honor, Giles said. Among them: Elizabeth Cook Fouse (1875-1952), founder of the Phillis Wheatley YWCA in Lexington; and Fannie Hathaway White (1870-1958), a longtime teacher, principal and education advocate.

White was the sister of Isaac S. Hathaway (1872-1967) a sculptor who was the first black man to design a U.S. coin. He created images for the Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver half dollars.

Several readers suggested balancing Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s statue outside the old courthouse with a monument honoring black Union soldiers, who trained at Camp Nelson and fought in all combat branches during the Civil War.

Garrett Morgan

Garrett Morgan

Rab Hagin, a Lexington journalist, suggested several of those soldiers whose quotes would be appropriate for a monument, including this one from Sgt. Maj. Thomas Boswell of the 116th U.S. Colored Infantry: “We are Kentucky boys, and there is no regiment in the field that ever fought better.”

Several readers suggested Charles Young (1864-1922), who was born into slavery near Maysville, became the third black graduate of West Point and the first black Army colonel. He likely would have become a general were it not for racism among his fellow officers. A community center on East Third Street is named for him.

I have always thought Thomas Hunt Morgan, one of the most influential American scientists of the 20th century, was more worthy of a statue than his Confederate uncle. But there also is black man worth considering, whose father was one of the general’s slaves — and may also have been his son.

Garrett A. Morgan (1877-1963) was an inventor and entrepreneur who created and marketed a smoke-protection safety hood for firefighters that saved many lives and a chemical solution for straightening hair. He also designed an unsuccessful version of an early traffic signal.

‘Dead Poets’ journey leads to grave of murdered Lexington poet

July 28, 2015
Walter Skold of Freeport, Maine, who driven his white Dodge "Poe Mobile" to 46 states over the past six years visiting the graves of more than 500 poets, uses his iPhone to look up lines from poet William Wordsworth carved on the headstone of Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote. His grave is in African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Walter Skold of Freeport, Maine, who has driven his white Dodge “Poe Mobile” to 46 states over the past six years visiting the graves of more than 500 poets, uses his iPhone to look up lines from poet William Wordsworth carved on the headstone of Robert Charles O’Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote. His grave is in African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street. Photos by Tom Eblen


When Walter Skold quit his teaching job to write poetry, he didn’t know that his personal journey would become as literal as it was metaphorical.

While studying at The Frost Place, an educational center on poet Robert Frost’s farm in New Hampshire, former state poet laureate Patricia Fargnoli read her poem, “Visiting Frost’s Grave.”

“I had just visited his grave, and it and her poem intrigued me,” said Skold, 54, who lives in Freeport, Maine. “On a whim, I started researching poets’ graves and I was just completely fascinated by the uniqueness of them — their design, their epitaphs. It turned into this sort of pilgrimage.”

He is now six years into that pilgrimage, having driven his “Poe Mobile” van on four major road trips to visit the graves of more than 520 poets in 46 states.

Skold, a former journalist, takes photos and videotape for a planned book and documentary film. He also promotes his idea for a new national holiday: Dead Poets Remembrance Day on Oct. 7, the day in 1849 when Edgar Allan Poe died and James Whitcomb Riley was born.

I met Skold Tuesday at African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street. He had come to visit the grave of Robert Charles O’Hara Benjamin, a black poet, lawyer, newspaper editor, minister and activist who suffered a tragic death.

Robert_Charles_OHara_BenjaminBorn in 1855 on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, Benjamin first came to Kentucky in 1879, possibly to teach school. Then he moved around the country, practicing law in California and Rhode Island and becoming a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

Benjamin moved to Lexington in 1897, got involved in politics and edited The Standard, a black newspaper. He wrote books, pamphlets and poetry and became involved in early civil rights struggles.

On Oct. 2, 1900, Benjamin got into an argument with white precinct worker Mike Moynahan, who was challenging blacks trying to register to vote. Moynahan followed Benjamin outside and shot him in the back at the corner of Spring and Water Streets. An inquest ruled it justifiable homicide.

“I had never heard of Benjamin,” he said. “But I was so amazed when I came across his story.”

Skold examined a marble monument that a fraternal organization erected at Benjamin’s grave on the 10th anniversary of his death. And he read aloud the faded epitaph, an 1834 poem by William Wordsworth: “Small service is true service while it lasts; Of friends, however humble, scorn not one: The daisy, by the shadow that it casts, protects the lingering dew drop from the sun.”

Skold placed at the base of the monument a pebble from Mount Parnassus, Greece, which ancient Greeks believed to be the home of the Muses. Then he poured a bit of Cognac on the grave, from a bottle almost empty from moistening the graves of dead poets throughout the South over the past seven weeks.

After taking photographs and video, Skold was off to Lexington Cemetery to visit the graves of two more forgotten poets, James Thomas Cotton Noe and Catherine Ann Warfield. I suggested he also look up writer James Lane Allen while he was there.

Skold had already spent seven days traveling around Kentucky in the Dodge van he calls the Poe Mobile. “It’s a big part of my shtick,” he said, pointing to the Maine license plate that says, “Dedgar.”

The van is a conversation-starter, and for Skold, this pilgrimage is mostly about starting conversations.

“Every day I learn so much, just from meeting people, friends and family of dead poets, archivists, other poets,” he said. “It’s like a journey of discovery.”

This is Skold’s third trip to Lexington, which he said has “a special place in my heart.” On his first trip, in 2009, the Poe Mobile broke down. He spent a few days in Lexington and got to know poet Eric Sutherland, who introduced him around.

On this trip, he met several more living poets, including Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, Jeff Worley and Richard Taylor. Skold’s next stop is the annual writers’ workshop at Hindman Settlement School to meet even more.

“This whole project seems a little weird, even to me, but what has really kept me going is people’s responses, their enthusiasm for my project,” he said.

Skold thinks most people understand the value of poets, and why it is important to remember them long after they are gone.

“They speak to the deepest beliefs and questions and concerns of the people they write among,” he said, citing as an example the beloved Kentucky poet Jesse Stuart, who died in 1984. “By reading him, I can enter into the culture and history of Kentucky.”

Walter Skold, whose project is called the Dead Poets Society of America, has spent six years traveling in a Dodge van to the graves of more than 500 poets in 46 states. The license plate from his home state of Maine is in honor of "Dead Edgar", the writer Edgar Allen Poe.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Skold’s Dodge van honors Edgar Allen Poe.

Walter Skold of Freeport, Maine, who driven his white Dodge "Poe Mobile" to 46 states over the past six years visiting the graves of more than 500 poets, poured a bit of ceremonial Cognac on the grave of Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote. His grave is in African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Skold poured a bit of ceremonial Cognac on the grave of Robert Charles O’Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote

Walter Skold, who has traveled to 46 states over the past six years visiting the graves of more than 500 poets, read a quote from the English poet Robert Wordsworth on the tombstone of Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote. He is buried at African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Skold read a quote from the English poet William Wordsworth on Benjamin’s tombstone.

Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet, was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote. He is buried in African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Benjamin’s monument was erected by a fraternal organization a decade after his death.

Walter Skold of Freeport, Maine, who has driven this white Dodge van to visit the graves of more than 500 poets over the past six years, came to Lexington's African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street to visit the grave of Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.

Sculptor seeks more statues of notable Kentucky women, minorities

July 25, 2015
Sculptor Amanda Matthews and her husband, sculptor Brad Connell, operate Prometheus Foundry on their farm outside Lexington. They posed in their studio with a commissioned statue of early Kentucky aviator Solomon Van Meter, the inventor of the backpack parachute, and a personal sculpture Matthews is creating.  Photo by Tom Eblen

Sculptor Amanda Matthews and her husband, sculptor Brad Connell, operate Prometheus Foundry on their farm outside Lexington. They posed in their studio with a commissioned statue of early Kentucky aviator Solomon Van Meter, the inventor of the backpack parachute, and a personal sculpture Matthews is creating. Photo by Tom Eblen


A bronze statue of Catherine Spalding, a Catholic nun who led the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in creating early schools, orphanages and hospitals in Kentucky, will be unveiled Sunday outside the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville.

It is the first public statue honoring a woman in Louisville, and one of only a few in Kentucky.

In the Capitol rotunda in Frankfort, there are no statues of women or minorities. There are statues of five white men there, although officials are discussing whether to evict Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

In 2010, Gov. Steve Beshear and the Kentucky Commission on Women announced a 10-year project to add two statues of women in the rotunda. The effort was to begin with a feasibility study.

But when Amanda Matthews checked on the progress of that study last year, she was disappointed. She decided to launch her own effort to show that statues of notable Kentucky women are feasible — and to start creating them.

Matthews, majority owner of Prometheus Foundry in Lexington, has formed the non-profit Artemis Initiative to sponsor creation of such statues for display in public spaces throughout the Commonwealth.

“Because of historical gender inequity, women’s history just doesn’t have the depth and breadth of men’s history,” Matthews said.

To help demonstrate feasibility, Matthews has created a model for a statue of education pioneer Nettie Depp. She was elected Barren County’s schools superintendent in 1913, seven years before women were allowed to vote.

Depp’s four years in office revolutionized that school system. She renovated schools and built new ones, created libraries, improved curricula and a tripled enrollment by aggressively enforcing truancy laws.

Sculptor Amanda Matthews' model for a statue of Nettie Depp. Photo by Tom Eblen

Sculptor Amanda Matthews’ model for a statue of Nettie Depp. Photo by Tom Eblen

She was one of 40 Kentucky women profiled in the film “Dreamers and Doers,” which Lexington filmmaker Michael Breeding produced this year for the Kentucky Commission on Women. It is now showing on Kentucky Educational Television.

Matthews said she chose Depp as her example because she had access to family photographs. Depp was her great-great aunt — a relationship she shares with actor Johnny Depp.

“But the entire idea behind the sculpture of Nettie Depp has very little to do with Nettie Depp,” Matthews said. “It has everything to do with me as a sculptor and us as a foundry showing people that it’s feasible to create statues of women.”

In studios at their small farm on Russell Cave Road, Matthews and her husband, sculptor Brad Connell, create their own work, cast other artists’ sculptures into finished bronzes and repair statues. They were recently in the news for restoring the bronze children on the James Lane Allen fountain in Gratz Park.

“Foundry work is a very male-dominated industry,” Matthews said. “It has not been without its challenges to be a female owner of a foundry.”

The Artemis Initiative, named for the goddess of ancient Greek mythology, has formed a board of directors and received non-profit tax status. Matthews said she soon hopes to get state approval to begin fundraising.

The organization’s goal is to fund proposals for creating public art in Kentucky that “elevates the status of women, children, minorities, nature and animals.” Matthews believes that public art creates conversations and that a broader representation in that art will lead to improvements in Kentucky society.

“So many under-represented groups of people have contributed to the rich history of Kentucky,” she said.

Kentucky has only a few public statues of notable women. Among them: Alice Lloyd, on the Knott County campus of the college named for her; riverboat pilot Mary B. Greene on the Riverwalk in Covington; Mary Draper Ingles, a pioneer woman who escaped Native American captivity, outside the Boone County Public Library in Burlington; and educator Elizabeth Rogers in a Berea park.

There are many Kentucky artists capable of producing this work. For example, there are two noted Louisville sculptors: Ed Hamilton, famous for his statues of great African Americans; and Raymond Graf, who created the Spalding and Lloyd statues.

Matthews emphasizes that she isn’t pushing for a memorial to her relative; it is just an example of what can be done.

“My involvement has only been to say that there are people in Kentucky, like myself, and there are businesses in Kentucky, like Prometheus Foundry, who can absolutely make this happen.”

Now that we’re talking about statues, who else should we honor?

July 14, 2015

Mayor Jim Gray has asked the city's Arts Review Board to study, take comments and make recommendations about this 1911 statue of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan and an 1887 statue of John C. Breckinridge outside the old Fayette County Courthouse. Photo by Tom Eblen

Mayor Jim Gray has asked the city’s Arts Review Board to study, take comments and make recommendations about this 1911 statue of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan and an 1887 statue of John C. Breckinridge outside the old Fayette County Courthouse. Photo by Tom Eblen


One consensus that seemed to emerge from last week’s public forum on local Confederate statues and symbols of slavery was that Lexington’s history should be presented in a more accurate and complete way.

Mayor Jim Gray opened the forum organized by the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning by announcing he had asked the city’s Arts Review Board to study, gather comments and make recommendations about the placement and presentation of two controversial statues and an historical marker about slavery outside the old Fayette County Courthouse.

The statues are of Confederate Gens. John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge, also a former U.S. vice president, who lived in Lexington. The statues were erected in 1911 and 1887, respectively, at the behest of Confederate memorial groups with considerable funding from taxpayers. The slavery marker was erected in 2003 and paid for by Kappa Alpha Psi, a black fraternity.

Several people spoke against the statues at the forum, saying they should be moved or removed. But I thought the wisest comments came from panelist Yvonne Giles, who knows more about and has done more to promote black history in Lexington than perhaps anyone.

“Rather than spending money moving statues, create new ones that tell the rest of the story,” Giles said. “African Americans were crucial to the development of Lexington.”

“We wouldn’t be talking about it if it weren’t for those monuments,” she added. “Public art creates conversations.”

Giles named a couple of black Lexingtonians worth memorializing, and I can think of several more. I also can think of several great women from Lexington history — and white men who did not fight for the Confederacy.

What other people from Lexington’s history do you think are worth honoring and remembering? Comment on this column online, or send me an email.

For the sake of this exercise, let’s keep the nominations to people who are no longer living. In fact, I like the state Historic Properties Advisory Commission’s rule that people honored with monuments should have been dead for at least 40 years so their place in history can be more accurately assessed.

Here are some names I would suggest:

William Wells Brown (1814-1884) the first black American to publish a novel, a travelogue, a song book and a play. He also wrote three volumes of black history, including the first about black military service in the Civil War. He then became a physician, and he did all of this after escaping slavery. Brown said he was born in Lexington, but new research shows he probably came from Montgomery County.

Lewis Hayden (1811-1889) was born into slavery in Lexington, escaped and settled in Boston, where he became a famous activist against slavery. After the Civil War, he also worked for black education and women’s suffrage. Like Brown, his dramatic life story would make a great movie.

Mary E. Britton (1855-1925) was Lexington’s first and, for many years, only licensed black female doctor. Educated at Berea College, she also was a journalist and influential civil rights and women’s rights activist.

Madeline McDowell Breckinridge (1872-1920) was a social reformer from Lexington whose many causes included women’s suffrage, juvenile justice reform, tuberculosis treatment, job training, parks and recreation.

Laura Clay (1849-1941) of Lexington was another nationally known advocate for women’s suffrage and equal rights. At the 1920 Democratic National Convention, she became the first women nominated for president by a major political party.

Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866-1945) was the first Kentuckian to win a Nobel Prize, in 1933 for medicine. More than that, he was one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century because of his research into genetics and embryology and his approach to scientific experimentation. And, by the way, he was the Confederate general’s nephew.

I can think of several others, but that’s a good start. Send me your ideas. If I get enough good ones, I’ll write about them.

Statues of bronze and stone are not the only ways to memorialize notable people with public art. One of my favorite additions to the downtown skyline is Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra’s colorful 2013 mural of Abraham Lincoln on the back wall of the Kentucky Theatre.

Kentuckians of all genders and races have made important contributions, not only to this city and state but to civilization. It is important to remember them not just because of what they did, but for the examples they provide for what is possible.

History shouldn’t be erased, but made more accurate and complete

July 4, 2015
The statue of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan outside the old Fayette County Courthouse was erected in 1911 as part of a well-organized Confederate memorial movement. Photo by Tom Eblen |

The statue of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan was erected in front of the old Fayette County Courthouse in 1911 at the behest of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Taxpayers paid $7,500 of the $15,000 cost after private fundraising efforts fell short. Photo by Tom Eblen


I went to see Gone With The Wind last week at the Kentucky Theatre, the same place where I saw it the first time almost five decades ago.

The 1939 movie is a classic, and quite entertaining. As a credible account of history, though, it is laughable. Given modern views about racial equality, parts of it are downright offensive.

What I knew this time, but not the first, was that Gone With The Wind was the ultimate expression of how the Civil War’s losers fought long and hard to win the battle for collective memory.

By spinning history and erecting hundreds of monuments across the South, Confederate veterans, their descendants and sympathizers sought to sanitize, romanticize and mythologize the rebel legacy. It became a noble “lost cause” of gallant cavaliers, Southern belles, moonlight and magnolias.

Most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves but fought out of loyalty to their state. But the ugly fact is that the Confederacy’s main goals were to preserve an economy based on slavery and a society grounded in white supremacy.

As Robert Penn Warren, the grandson of a Confederate veteran, wrote in his great 1961 essay, The Legacy of the Civil War, “When one is happy in forgetfulness, facts get forgotten.”

As desegregation and civil rights began roiling America in the 1940s, many Southern whites embraced Confederate symbolism again, with a nasty twist. They added the battle flag on their state flags, flew it from public buildings and waved it in defiance.

Over the next half-century, discrimination was outlawed and racism became less socially acceptable. Confederate symbolism became more benign — at least to white people. Many now see the rebel flag as a symbol of “heritage not hate” and of regional pride and identity.

Besides, since so many outsiders look down on Southerners, we like being rebels, with or without a cause.

But the racist massacre at a Charleston, S.C., church has forced us to confront the fact that the Confederate flag has been tainted by racism as surely as the ancient swastika was by Nazism.

We also are re-evaluating the propriety of state-sanctioned monuments to the Confederacy. Should they stay, or should they go? It’s a complicated question.

A CNN/ORC poll surveyed 1,017 Americans last week and found that 57 percent see the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride, 33 percent see it as a symbol of racism and 5 percent see it as both. But there was a stark racial divide: while 66 percent of whites think it symbolizes pride, only 17 percent of blacks see it that way.

Interestingly, though, a majority of both blacks and whites said they were against renaming streets and highways that honor Confederate leaders.

That finding is pertinent to Kentucky, a divided slave state that remained in the union but embraced Confederate identity after the war, amid decades of racist violence.

What should be done with the Jefferson Davis statue in the state Capitol rotunda? Move it to a museum.

The physical heart of state government should be a place to honor Kentuckians of the past whose lives and ideals set examples for the future. There are many more worthy of that honor than the Confederate president.

What about the statues beside the old Fayette County courthouse of Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a Confederate raider, and John C. Breckinridge, a former U.S. vice president who became a Confederate general and secretary of war?

The Davis statue, placed in the Capitol in 1936, and Morgan statue, placed on what was then the courthouse lawn in 1911, have similar histories: they were erected at the behest of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Breckinridge’s statue went up in 1887. State taxpayers subsidized the cost of all three statues.

The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning will host a free public forum at 6 p.m. Tuesday to discuss these issues. Mayor Jim Gray is to be among the speakers.

To me, these two monuments present a more complicated situation than the Davis statue. The old courthouse is no longer a seat of government, but a space used to commemorate Lexington’s history. For better or worse, those men, their statues and the forces that put them there are significant parts of that history.

This is what I would do: leave Morgan where he is, but rewrite the historical marker to say that some thought he was a hero while others considered him a terrorist. And explain that this statue played a big role in the influential Confederate memorial movement.

As for Breckinridge, I would move him to the back of the old courthouse lawn. That is where, in 2003, a long-overdue historical marker was placed to explain that one-fourth of Lexington’s residents were held in bondage by 1860, and this was the spot where slaves were publicly whipped.

At the Main Street entrance to Cheapside park, where Breckinridge now stands, I would erect a significant memorial to those slaves and the abolitionists who fought for their freedom. It also should explain that Cheapside was once one of the South’s leading slave markets.

History should not be erased or forgotten, because it holds important lessons for the present and future. But we owe it to ourselves to make the retelling of that history accurate and complete.

  • If you go
  • What: Forum on race, Lexington’s history with slavery and Confederate statuary and symbolsWhen: 6-8 p.m. July 7
  • Where: Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, 251 W. Second St.
  •  More information: or (859) 254-4175

Bequest allowed family to restore its circa 1841 ancestral home

May 26, 2015
The entry hall at Buknore.  Originally named Locust Grove, it was designed and built by Matthew Kennedy of Lexington, Kentucky's first professional architect. Photo by Tom Eblen |

The entry hall at Buknore. Originally named Locust Grove, it was designed and built by Matthew Kennedy of Lexington, Kentucky’s first professional architect. Photos by Tom Eblen


PARIS — Some families dream of still having the “old homestead” — a place where many generations could gather for holidays and special occasions to keep in touch with each other and their shared heritage.

Walker Buckner’s descendants have always had such a place, hidden within more than 1,000 acres of rolling Bourbon County farmland.

Buknore is one of Kentucky’s most beautiful Antebellum mansions, especially after a recent renovation made possible by a relative’s generous bequest and the talents of several family members and their contractors.

The house will be open for a rare public tour Sunday at the Summer Box Supper benefitting the preservation group Historic Paris-Bourbon County. The event is sold out.

“We feel so fortunate and blessed that we still have this house,” said Susan Combs of Lexington, one of seven cousins in the Buckner-Hinkle family’s sixth generation. “It was where we would go to be with our grandmother. It was something each of our parents loved so much and they kept that love alive.”

Buknore, originally called Locust Grove, was completed in 1841 for Walker Buckner (1781-1855). He came from Virginia with two brothers who also built mansions in Bourbon County.

The master builder was Matthew Kennedy, Kentucky’s first professional architect. Buknore bears his signature style: four large, two-story pilasters across the front of the house topped by a pediment with a half-round window.

Kennedy — or, perhaps in a couple of cases, his imitators — built several similar Federal-style houses in Central Kentucky. Other notable examples include Auvergne (1837) in Bourbon County; Grassland (1823) on Shelby Lane in Fayette County; and Kennedy’s own home (1813) on North Limestone at Constitution Street in Lexington, which now houses the shop Mulberry & Lime.

Buknore is one of Kennedy’s later houses and its interior woodwork reflects the Greek Revival style that became popular in the 1830s. Built a mile off Cane Ridge Road, the house has always been in the family and never suffered serious neglect.

Still, the mansion needed a lot of work, both structurally and cosmetically.

“The last time it had really been renovated was, I guess, my great-grandmother in the 1880s,” Combs said. “And it felt like the 1880s. You couldn’t sit on the furniture.”

Nancy Hinkle Holland, a Lexington physician, realized that, too. She had no children, and when she died in 2010 at age 88, she left a substantial sum for Buknore’s preservation and upkeep. The house is owned by Hinkle Family Properties.

That bequest enabled the family to do a top-to-bottom renovation, which was just completed. It included new wiring, plumbing, structural and foundation work. Later additions were removed, an original stone back porch was repaired and all of the brick was cleaned and re-pointed. Original green ash floors were restored. Some furniture that has been in the house for generations was refinished.

The old, separate kitchen was converted into an apartment and connected to the main house with a living and dining wing. A new kitchen was added between it and the formal dining room.

Playing big roles in the project were Combs and two other family members: Sally Brown Thilman, an interior designer in Chicago, and Estill Curtis Pennington of Paris, a noted art historian, scholar and author.

The professional team included project manager Ronald Little of Coppinger & Associates and architects Charles Jolly and Carol Myers, all of Lexington.

“I think we got the wonderful result we did because we had such a great team,” Thilman said. “From a design perspective, our goal was to respect the past and bring it into the present in certain ways, like building a new kitchen.”

Combs, Thilman and Pennington worked closely with their relatives to try to achieve consensus on most major issues. That mainly involved the sixth generation, all of whom live in Central Kentucky. But it also included 18 members of the seventh generation, who are scattered from New York to Portland, Ore.

The family now keeps a Google calendar to track who is using the house when. The entire family will gather at Buknore on major holidays.

“We’re just trying to take care of what we’ve been given, but also keep the family together,” Combs said. “Luckily we all get along pretty well. If we didn’t, this project would have been a lot harder.”

The entry hall of Buknore in Bourbon County. It was designed and built circa 1834-1841 by Matthew Kennedy of Lexington, Kentucky's first professional architect. Photo by Tom Eblen |

The entry hall of Buknore in Bourbon County.

The entry hall of Buknore, looking into the dining room.  It was designed and built circa 1834-1841 by Matthew Kennedy of Lexington, Kentucky's first professional architect. Photo by Tom Eblen |

The entry hall of Buknore, looking into the dining room.

The former farm office room at Buknore has been converted into a bedroom. Photo by Tom Eblen |

The former farm office room at Buknore has been converted into a bedroom.

The dining room at Buknore. Much of the furniture has been in the Bourbon County house for generations. Photo by Tom Eblen |

The dining room at Buknore. Much of the furniture has been in the house for generations.

Buknore in Bourbon County was built by Walker Buckner between 1834 and 1841. Originally named Locust Grove, it was designed and built by Matthew Kennedy of Lexington, Kentucky's first professional architect. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Buknore in Bourbon County was built by Walker Buckner between 1834 and 1841.

Buknore in Bourbon County was built by Walker Buckner between 1834 and 1841. Originally named Locust Grove, it was designed and built by Matthew Kennedy of Lexington, Kentucky's first professional architect. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Buknore in Bourbon County was built by Walker Buckner between 1834 and 1841.

A Lexington landmark saved, but Georgetown treasure may be lost

April 14, 2015

150410OddFellows0064Ben Kaufmann, left, and Rob Rosenstein joked with each other April 10 while inspecting the 1869 Odd Fellows Temple at 115-119 W. Main St., for the first time.  “As long as you’re smiling, I’m OK,” Rosenstein told Kaufmann. Photos by Tom Eblen


For people who care about Kentucky’s history, culture and irreplaceable architecture, the past week was one of highs and lows, thanks to two good guys and one who should be ashamed.

First, the good guys:

“Let’s chase the ghosts away!” Ben Kaufmann said as we entered the front door of the Odd Fellows Temple at 115-119 West Main Street last Friday morning, setting off a burglar alarm.

Kaufmann, a real-estate investor and financial adviser, had bought the 1870 Italianate and Second Empire-style building 10 days earlier at a Master Commissioner’s sale and was getting his first look inside the $750,000 investment.

150127OddFellows0006The building housed Bellini’s restaurant until it closed Jan. 1. The building and restaurant owner, NGS Realty, was in bankruptcy last year and neglected the building. In late January, city Code Enforcement officers stepped in to board up missing and broken windows to protect the building and passing pedestrians.

Kaufmann and Rob Rosenstein, former owner of Liquor Barn, plan to renovate this landmark, designed by noted Lexington architect Cincinnatus Shryock, and then rent it, mostly as restaurant space.

Over the decades, the building housed offices, restaurants, bakeries, bars and stores, most notably Skuller’s Jewelry, which was there for more than 70 years. Skuller’s recently restored sidewalk clock has been a downtown icon since 1913.

The building’s hidden treasure is the third-floor ballroom, which hasn’t been used publicly for years because it lacked an elevator and modern stairway. But it may be the best-preserved part of the building, whose last major rehab was in 2000.

The white ballroom is stunning: 40 feet wide and nearly 60 feet deep, with a vaulted ceiling 25 feet high and original plasterwork. Tall, arched windows look out on Main Street, although the view is now dominated by the idle CentrePointe pit.

A quick inspection revealed few structural problems in the building and only a couple of small roof leaks behind the ballroom, where interior walls had been torn out for a renovation that was never completed.

The first floor, where Bellini’s operated, has beautiful mosaic tile floors, vintage tin ceilings and two long, handsome bars. The second floor also had been partially stripped out for renovation. It originally housed law firms and, in recent years, apartments.

“Watch out what you wish for, you might get it,” Kaufmann joked as he added up renovation costs in his head.

“As long as you’re smiling, I’m OK,” Rosenstein kept saying with a laugh.

These guys enjoy teasing each other, but they realize the Odd Fellows Temple is a diamond in the rough. When polished, it should be a hot property. Old downtown buildings have become the preferred location for upscale restaurants and bars.

Kaufmann and Rosenstein are good businessmen looking for a profit. But they also are doing Lexington a favor by saving one of its architectural gems, a place that holds generations of memories and should create many more in the future.

“This is an important building,” Kaufmann said. “I want to restore it to its original beauty.”

Lexington is lucky to have these guys. If only Georgetown were so lucky.

Sanders-Kocher copyScott County is about to lose its first brick house, a Georgian mansion that early Thoroughbred breeder Robert Sanders built on Cane Run Creek south of town in 1797. The house has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973.

The property’s condition has deteriorated since a company owned by Kenneth A. Jackson of Kentuckiana Farms acquired it in 2007. The Scott County PVA values the house at $121,120 and its 25.5 acres at $202,299, according to the Georgetown News-Graphic. United Bank of Georgetown holds a mortgage on the property.

Preservationists say Jackson has rebuffed their attempts to help him protect the house or find a buyer at a reasonable price. Jackson recently sold adjoining parcels for development. A salvage crew has been removing fine interior woodwork — the house’s most distinguished feature — with demolition scheduled to follow.

Efforts to save the house did not appear to be fruitful by late Tuesday afternoon, said Jason Sloan, director of preservation for the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

All indications are that the house will be torn down Wednesday, Sloan said.

Some people would say this is Jackson’s property and he should be able to do with it as he pleases. But when someone buys a National Register house of this significance, I think he assumes a responsibility to Kentucky’s heritage, whether he likes it or not.

To neglect this house for years and then demolish it in the hope of pocketing a bigger profit may be legal, but it’s not right.

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

Backpackers walking in the footsteps of Daniel Boone

March 21, 2015

150319BooneTrace0086Curtis Penix, left, and Givan Fox, hiked last Thursday in Laurel County along the historic route of Boone Trace, the 200-mile path Daniel Boone and his crew blazed through the Cumberland Gap to Central Kentucky in March 1775. Penix’s 5th-great-grandfather, Joshua Penix, took the path to Fort Boonesborough in 1779. Photos by Tom Eblen


RACCOON SPRINGS — As dawn broke, backpackers Curtis Penix and Givan Fox emerged from their shelter, rubbed their eyes and filled their water bottles from natural springs that trickled out of a hillside.

Daniel Boone camped here many times and drank from the same springs, which he supposedly named after being startled by a thirsty raccoon.

This became a busy way station along Boone Trace, the 200-mile trail that Boone and his crew blazed for the Transylvania Company from Cumberland Gap to Central Kentucky in March 1775. Raccoon Springs is now in Laurel County, a few miles southeast of London.

Penix, a steel mill worker from Michigan, was here because his fifth-great grandfather, Joshua Penix, walked Boone Trace in 1779 on his way to Fort Boonesborough, where he was listed among the settlers.

Fox was here because his father, retired Lexington physician John Fox, is president of Friends of Boone Trace, a non-profit group that hopes to preserve the historic route as a hiking trail, walking paths and a memorial to the pioneers.

Penix, 46, and Fox, 42, think they may be the first people in two centuries to walk all of Boone Trace.

“There’s so much history here,” Penix said. “Millions of Americans today, just like me, have ancestors who came through Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. ”

150319BooneTrace0005While many of the well-worn buffalo and Native American paths Boone incorporated into his trail are now country roads, railroad tracks and even major highways, other sections of Boone Trace have all but disappeared.

Penix started his journey March 10 near Kingsport, Tenn. He hiked through Virginia to Martin’s Station near Cumberland Gap, where on March 15 he was joined by Fox, a medic in the Colorado National Guard.

The men carry a satellite communicator that transmits their position every 20 minutes to Penix’s website,, where they blog daily about their experiences.

“The first four days were rough, nothing but rain and highway,” Penix said when I met them at Raccoon Springs Thursday. “No Indians, but a lot of semi-trucks, a lot of spray in the face.”

After several days of walking 20 miles or more, the two planned a slightly easier schedule. They were to stop at the sites of other Boone Trace landmarks, such as Twetty’s Fort and Woods Blockhouse, before completing their journey Thursday at Fort Boonesborough State Park on the Madison-Clark county line. After a ceremony there, they plan a big steak dinner and a lot of rest.

Boone Trace is often confused with the Wilderness Road, which was built later and became more popular, especially after Kentucky achieved statehood in 1792 and state government funded improvements.

The two roads ran together through Cumberland Gap, but split below London. Boone Trace went to the Kentucky River at Fort Boonesborough, while the Wilderness Road went to Harrodsburg and on to what is now Louisville.

“Everybody talks about the Wilderness Road and forgets about Boone Trace,” John Fox said. “Once Daniel Boone opened the trail, people just flooded in. About 100,000 people may have traveled it before Kentucky became a state.”

The Daughters of the American Revolution placed stone markers at several key points along the route in 1915. Other groups added markers in 1942, the 150th anniversary of Kentucky statehood.

But, over the years, the markers became overgrown and were forgotten as highways were improved. Many sections of Boone Trace were lost until Louisville architect Neal Hammon began researching it in the 1960s. He and others remapped the trail by using computer technology to piece together old records.

Penix familiarized himself with the route by studying maps and satellite images. He worked with John Fox to get permission to cross private land. Fox is providing occasional support from his pickup truck, but his son and Penix are carrying all of their camping gear and food.

“It was suggested by some people that we do it in buckskins and linen shirts,” Penix said. “There’s just no way we would have survived.”

Penix got into trouble early in his walk, when he was forced to spend a night in a motel after days of cold rain left him soaked and in danger of hypothermia. “I had the idea of doing this kind of independent,” he said. “I was going to carry my own food, sleep under the stars the way Joshua did, cross rivers the way Joshua did.”

Penix said he learned a lesson in Rose Hill, Va., when he couldn’t find his planned campsite and a store owner offered him shelter in a storage unit. As he was about to go to sleep on its concrete floor, Pam Eddy, a ranger from nearby Cumberland Gap National Park, came by.

Eddy persuaded him to stay the night at her cabin. And she explained that pioneer culture was as much about helping one another as being self-reliant.

“This was a community,” Penix said. “There were people all along the way with forts and blockhouses and stations where people could stop and rest and get a meal, get resupplied.”

Throughout their journey, Penix said, they have been met by town mayors, local historians and a lot of friendly, helpful people.

“We’ve been fed along the way, offered roofs along the way, just like the pioneers,” he said. “So when I wanted to do it just like Grandpa Joshua, I had it all wrong. I learned how to do it right.”



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


Lexington History Museum plans ‘museum roundtable’ Wednesday

March 16, 2015

The Lexington History Museum will host a gathering Wednesday of more than a dozen local museums and other history-related organizations to help them better coordinate their missions and outreach.

“Our goal is to build a strong working relationship with other area institutions and increase heritage tourism,” said William Ambrose, the museum’s president. “The more we talk, the better all of these organizations will be.”

LexHistThe Museum Roundtable is at 4 p..m. March 18 in the basement conference room of the Lexington Public Library on Main Street. For more information, email the museum’s executive director, Debra Watkins, at

Each group has been asked to bring information to share about their organization’s programs, exhibits and events. Mayor Jim Gray will give opening remarks. The museum also is compiling a directory of Central Kentucky history groups.

The Lexington History Museum was housed in the old Fayette County Courthouse until July 2012, when city officials ordered the building closed because of concerns about lead paint and asbestos contamination.

Officials from the city and the Downtown Development Authority are working on a restoration and reuse plan for the circa 1900 courthouse, but it is unclear what, if any, presence the history museum will have there in the future. Most of the museum’s collection is in storage.

In the meantime, the museum has focused on education and outreach, sponsoring programs and small exhibits called “pocket museums” around town. The museum published an illustrated book about Lexington history in 2013, written by board member Foster Ockerman Jr. It also has built a website ( that includes WikiLex, a database of local history information.

“Actually, closing, in hindsight, may have been the best thing for us,” Ambrose said, adding that the museum’s board of directors is working on a long-term strategy.

The museum is preparing an exhibit for this fall focused on Central Kentucky’s bourbon industry. It is likely to be displayed at the former James E. Pepper Distillery complex on Manchester Street, which is being redeveloped into several businesses, including the brewpub Etherial Brewing.

Amid slavery, some free blacks prospered in Antebellum Lexington

February 21, 2015

150220FreeBlacks0016Samuel Oldham, who bought his freedom and later that of his wife and children, build this house at 245 South Limestone in 1835. He owned barber shops and a spa. After years of neglect, the house was restored in 2007. Photos by Tom Eblen


Slaves were everywhere in Lexington before the Civil War: cooking in white people’s kitchens, cleaning their houses, washing and mending their clothes and working in their hemp fields and factories.

Slaves also were on the auction block and whipping post at Cheapside and in three downtown “jails” that became major way stations in the Southern slave trade.

But a lesser-known piece of Lexington history is that many free blacks lived side-by-side with slaves and masters. The 1850 census showed the city with 8,159 residents, including 2,309 slaves and 479 free people of color.

Many were skilled craftsmen who had been given their freedom, or found ways to earn enough money to buy it. Once free, they often worked years to buy the freedom of their wives, children and other relatives.

Some free blacks became so financially successful that they built or bought fine homes for themselves, acquired rental property and helped their church congregations grow and prosper.

“There weren’t separate enclaves then,” said Yvonne Giles, who has extensively researched black history in Lexington. “They lived among the white community.”

Michael and Hannah Clarke built 344 South Upper St., left, about 1818. He was a waiter and carpenter; she a laundress and seamstress. At right is a rental house owned by another free black, blacksmith Rolla Blue, who lived on South Limestone.

Michael and Hannah Clarke built 344 South Upper St., left, about 1818. He was a waiter and carpenter; she a laundress and seamstress. At right is a rental house owned by another free black, blacksmith Rolla Blue, who lived on South Limestone.

That wasn’t for lack of racism. White people tolerated and, to some degree, accepted these free black masons, blacksmiths, plasterers, carpenters, coopers, barbers and confectioners because they had to.

“In order for Lexington to prosper, they needed these skilled laborers,” Giles said. “If they hassled them, they would have left. They didn’t go because they felt protected.”

Giles has searched census documents, court records and old newspapers to document the lives of many free blacks in antebellum Lexington. Others who also have researched the topic include historians Marion Lucas, Alicestyne Turley and Rachel Kennedy.

Their work reveals interesting lives of accomplishment, and legacies that still endure. No photographs of them are known to exist, Giles said. But the houses built or owned by several successful free blacks in the South Hill neighborhood have been restored into valuable historic homes.

Perhaps the best known today is Samuel Oldham, who built a handsome house at 245 South Limestone in 1835. After years of neglect and the threat of demolition, it was restored in 2007.

Oldham was a barber who bought himself out of slavery in 1826, then earned enough to free his wife, Daphney, and their two sons. He operated barbershops and a spa, helped other blacks with legal issues and bought freedom for several slaves.

James Turner and his wife, Arena, lived in the 1850s at 331 South Mill, the left side of this duplex. He was a plasterer and minister who after the Civil War was active in the establishment of black schools.

James Turner and his wife, Arena, lived in the 1850s at 331 South Mill, the left side of this duplex. He was a plasterer and minister.

Daphney Oldham, a seamstress, and her house were the inspiration for playwright Ain Gordon’s 2008 one-woman play, In This Place.

Michael and Hannah Clarke built 344 South Upper Street about 1818. He was a waiter and carpenter; she a laundress and seamstress. Billy and Hannah Tucker, who owned a confectionery shop downtown, lived at 521 South Upper in the 1840s.

Blacksmith Rolla Blue and his wife, Rachel, lived in a South Limestone house that no longer exists. But they owned 346 South Upper and rented it. Upon his death in the 1840s, Blue left a considerable estate with instructions that it be used to buy freedom for enslaved relatives.

James Turner and his wife, Arena, lived in the 1850s at 331 South Mill. He was a plasterer and minister who after the Civil War was active in black education.

Many of these men were important black community leaders and church trustees, in part because their freedom allowed them to borrow money and sign legal documents. They helped establish and grow some of Lexington’s most prominent black congregations, including First African Baptist, Historic Pleasant Green Baptist and Historic St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal.

Two well-known free black ministers were London Ferrill of First African Baptist Church and his successor, Frederick Braxton, who oversaw construction of the 1856 sanctuary that still stands at Short and Deweese streets. In the 1860s, Braxton helped start two other prominent Baptist churches, Main Street and Bracktown.

Still, Giles said, life could be precarious for free blacks in antebellum Lexington. They had to carry papers proving they were free. Even with papers, they lived in fear of being kidnapped and sold into slavery and of offending the wrong people.

“Being a free black didn’t mean you were really free,” she said. “If they didn’t stay on the good side of white people who would support and protect them, they were lost.”