Expert to speak March 19 about iconic Kentucky long rifles

March 11, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lexington Colored Fair was once a top national event

February 23, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Clay Lancaster’s Warwick open Sunday for a rare tour

January 14, 2014

Warwick1Clay Lancaster’s Warwick estate. Photo by Helm Roberts/Warwick Foundation.

 

There is a special place in Central Kentucky that I have wanted to visit for years. I will finally get a chance Sunday, and so can you.

Warwick, on Oregon Road in Mercer County, is an estate near the Kentucky River where Moses Jones built a brick house in 1809. In more recent years, it was the home of Lexington native Clay Lancaster, a noted architectural historian, prolific author and all-around Renaissance man.

Lancaster (1917-2000) spent much of his career in New York City, but he moved back to Kentucky in 1978 when a friend, former Herald-Leader reporter Bettye Lee Mastin, let him know that Warwick was for sale.

Lancaster had always loved Warwick, and he bought it, restored it and moved there.

Lancaster

Clay Lancaster at Warwick’s Guest House.

Warwick has Lancaster’s library, as well as two “follies” he built: the Tea Pavilion, which has 18th-century architectural features and a large banquet table, and the Guest House, a three-story octagonal structure modeled after the first-century B.C. Tower of Winds in Athens, Greece.

Lancaster wrote more than 20 books and 150 articles, from scholarly tomes to children’s books. His books include, Old Brooklyn Heights: New York’s First Suburb, which the New York Times said “provided the historical and intellectual ammunition for the successful argument in 1965 that Brooklyn Heights should become the city’s first historic district.”

Lancaster is best known in Kentucky for his photographs and research documenting antebellum homes in the Bluegrass. His scholarship added immeasurably to public knowledge and efforts to preserve Central Kentucky’s pre-Civil War architecture.

I never got to meet Lancaster, but I have read several of his books. I use them frequently as reference, especially these three: Ante Bellum Houses of the Bluegrass (1961), Vestiges of the Venerable City (1978) and Antebellum Architecture of Kentucky (1991)

Lancaster grew up in Lexington’s Bell Court neighborhood, where his father built two homes. They helped spark Lancaster’s interest in that era of residential architecture, which led to his book The American Bungalow (1985).

In 2007, James Birchfield at the University of Kentucky put together Clay Lancaster’s Kentucky, a book of Lancaster’s photos of historic Kentucky homes, many of which are no longer standing.

Lancaster’s wide-ranging scholarship included 19th- and 20th-century architecture in Kentucky, New York and Massachusetts. His other enthusiasm was art and ideas from the Far East. His 1983 book, The Japanese Influence in America, remains a classic. He taught about art and architecture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Columbia University, Vassar College, UK, the University of Louisville and Transylvania University.

After Lancaster’s death, the Warwick Foundation was formed to manage Warwick and perpetuate his legacy of education, cross-cultural understanding and advocacy for historic preservation.

The foundation will open Warwick for a free open house, tour and book sale from noon until 4 p.m. Sunday. Warwick has rarely been open to the public in recent years, but foundation members hope to change that with several events in 2014.

Warwick is on Oregon Road, about six miles off U.S. 127 near Salvisa. For more information about Sunday’s event, email jkl@qx.net or call (859) 494-2852. For more information about Warwick, go to Warwickfoundation.org.

 

 


Kentucky band from ‘Lincoln’ movie playing at Gettysburg 150th

November 13, 2013

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President Lincoln’s Own Band is scheduled to perform in Gettysburg, Pa., at the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. This group visited Washington D.C. in January when it performed as part of President Barack Obama’s inaugural festivities. From left to right: Dana Schoppert, Reese Land, Dave Centers, Michael Tunnell, Dennis Edlebrock, Don Johnson, Don Johnson III, Jeff Stockham, Joseph Van Fleet and Garman Bowers. Photo provided

 

Bands usually hit it big with music that is new and different. But Don Johnson’s band is making a national splash by performing pieces that are old and authentic.

Johnson, who grew up in Lexington and now lives in Marion County, is the artistic director of President Lincoln’s Own Band, a uniformed military-style ensemble that plays Civil War-era music on original period instruments.

Since appearing in Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed 2012 movie, Lincoln, the band has been a sought-after soundtrack for many events marking the Civil War’s sesquicentennial.

The band’s latest big gig is Nov. 19 at Dedication Day in Gettysburg, Pa., which will mark the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The band also played at Dedication Day last year, when Spielberg and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke.

The band also appeared in Killing Lincoln, a National Geographic film about the president’s assassination. It played at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History for two days during President Obama’s inaugural festivities in January and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in June.

At Gettysburg next week, the band will be sharing the stage with the U.S. Marine Band, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and historian James McPherson.

Johnson is still fine-tuning the band’s 30-minute concert lineup, but knows he will begin with My Old Kentucky Home, in honor of Lincoln’s birth state, and end with Yankee Doodle. Other likely tunes are Rally Round the FlagHail Columbia and We Are Coming, Father Abraham, which the band played in Spielberg’s movie. Johnson also said he will play “taps” at the ceremony.

“The sound of Civil War instruments was quite different from what you hear today,” Johnson said, explaining the appeal of his band’s authentic style. “It was a lot darker and more velvety and like a voice.”

Also among the group’s Kentucky members playing at Gettysburg will be Joseph Van Fleet, a trumpet professor at Eastern Kentucky University. For more information about the group, go to: Facebook.com/PresidentLincolnsOwnBand. 

 


Airy Castle on tour to benefit Historic Paris-Bourbon County

October 15, 2013

130923BourbonHouse-TE0103

Airy Castle in Bourbon County was built in 1872-73 by George Washington Bowen in the Italianate-Second Empire style. It will be on tour Oct. 20 to benefit Historic Paris-Bourbon County.  Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

PARIS — Jack and Sonja Brock, physicians who have lived in New Mexico for 35 years, came to Central Kentucky a decade ago looking for a house and land where they could someday retire with their pleasure horses.

After an extensive search, they found a huge Victorian mansion surrounded by 80 acres of rolling Bourbon County farmland. The Brocks envisioned their own little slice of heaven, but Airy Castle needed a hell of a lot of work.

“When we first saw the house,” Jack Brock said, “the basement had a foot of water in it.”

That was just the beginning. Plaster was peeling in every room. The porches were rotten. The plumbing was bad. The electrical system was worse. The attic was filled with birds, raccoons and tubs to catch water leaking from the roof.

“I had made an offer and then gotten out of it because the house didn’t pass any inspections at all,” Brock said.

“Sonja was real upset,” he added. “We drove back out to look at it. She was standing in the driveway and there were tears in her eyes and she said, ‘It’s this place or no place.’ That settled it.”

Thus began a long and expensive odyssey to restore Airy Castle. While the Brocks still have a couple of rooms to finish, the public can see the spectacular results of their work on Oct. 20, when the house will be open for tours to benefit the preservation organization Historic Paris-Bourbon County.

Airy Castle was built in 1872-73 in the Italianate-Second Empire style by George Washington Bowen, a Bourbon County merchant and Confederate veteran. It was the centerpiece of his 600-acre estate and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1888, the property was sold to the Larue family, which renamed it Wyndhurst and owned it for more than a century.

While Airy Castle had suffered from neglect and deferred maintenance, it was structurally sound. It also retained its ornate woodwork and much of its other historic fabric — quite literally. Original drapes still hung in one front parlor.

The Brocks hired Keith Buchanan, a contractor who had restored his own landmark 1850 home in Millersburg. He began by digging out and reflooring the basement. Then came new plumbing, wiring, heating and air conditioning. The hardest part, Buchanan said, was repairing plaster throughout the house.

The Brocks continued to live and work near Albuquerque for several years, but they had Buchanan convert the third-floor attic into an apartment where they could stay on visits without disturbing the renovation work.

When they returned to Airy Castle one weekend in 2006 for their son’s wedding in Louisville, they asked relatives to stay with them. But when Sonja Brock showed her guests to a second-floor bathroom where they could shower, the ceiling fell in.

Buchanan spent a year rebuilding the house’s extensive porches, carefully replicating original decorative details. He also reduced the porches in size from the inside to make room for four additional bathrooms and an elevator.

Delbert Isaacs of Berea installed a new slate roof, replicating the original. An impressive modern kitchen was built in the combined space of the old kitchen and a butler’s pantry.

While contractors worked, the Brocks scoured antique shops for period furniture, carpets and art. Looking at Airy Castle now, you would never know what a wreck it had been. As for the cost of the renovation, Brock would say only that it was “more than I care to talk about.”

Once Buchanan finishes restoring two front parlors and the entry hall, the Brocks plan to open the house as a bed and breakfast. They will continue to live in their cozy third-floor apartment.

Future projects include renovating a brick barn and a brick, two-story tenant house behind the mansion.

“I don’t know what it was about the house that first attracted me,” Sonja Brock said of Airy Castle. “It just struck me. It has personality. But it did look like a haunted house when we first bought it.”

If you go

Airy Castle house tour

When: 2 -5 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 20.

Where: 368 Larue Rd., Paris

Benefits: Historic Paris-Bourbon County

Cost: $15, $10 for members of Historic Paris-Bourbon County.

More information: Hopewellmuseum.org

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‘Diggers’ help discover real site of Ashland’s Civil War skirmish

September 24, 2013

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“Ringy” Tim Saylor, left, and “King” George Wyant, right, hosts of the National Geographic Channel show Diggers, used metal detectors to search for artifacts at Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate. Photo by Eric Brooks.

 

When Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, invited the public over last fall to mark the 150th anniversary of a Civil War skirmish there, curator Eric Brooks needed a convenient but inconsequential place to put portable toilets.

He didn’t want them near the mansion, historic outbuildings or gardens. And he didn’t think they should go near the corner of Woodspoint and Fincastle roads, where it was thought that Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate cavalry surprised a camp of sleeping Union soldiers on the morning of Oct. 18, 1862.

He found a nondescript spot for the toilets about 20 yards from a back corner of the mansion. “But we’re not going to do that this year,” he said about Saturday’s second annual Living History Event.

That’s because metal detectorists with the National Geographic Channel show Diggersmade a surprising discovery when they visited Ashland last spring to work with Brooks and archaeologist Kim McBride. The Union camp wasn’t where everyone thought it was. It was right where the portable toilets had been placed.

“The beginnings of protecting a resource are identifying where it’s located,” McBride said with a laugh. “Now that area will get the respect and special treatment it needs, and we can study it further.”

Ashland staffers and docents will be there Saturday, explaining how Morgan’s men used rifle and cannon fire to quickly subdue the Yankee camp. They also will show whatDiggers found there: a button, a rations tin, a knife, bullets, a mortar fragment and the brass handle from a cannon’s leveling mechanism.

Saturday’s event will focus on the war and the preceding Antebellum period, when Clay played the central role in stalling Southern secession.

“The bitter, brutal irony is that once he died, there was no one to keep that from happening,” Brooks said. “And the consequence of secession literally came to his back door. That’s a pretty amazing story.”

McBride, co-director of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, has done occasional work at Ashland since 1989. She excavated former privies, finding a trove of broken china and crockery, and she recently checked for artifacts on the mansion’s north lawn so geothermal wells could go there.

McBride had never done any excavation related to the Civil War skirmish. So when producers forDiggers asked permission to explore the 17-acre grounds, she and Brooks saw an opportunity.

McBride set up a grid near Woodspoint and Fincastle, beside a stone monument erected decades ago to mark the skirmish. Diggers hosts George Wyant and Tim Saylor searched there but found nothing.

“We thought that was odd, and quite disappointing,” Brooks said.

Then he remembered an old book that a visitor had brought in a few weeks earlier. It was a history of the Third Ohio Veteran Volunteer Cavalry, the unit that set up camp at Ashland the day before the skirmish.

When Brooks read the book more closely, he found this passage: “Our camp was in a fine grove of native forest trees on the south side of the road, and a short distance east of the Clay mansion.” So Brooks, McBride and the Diggers hosts went to that side of the Ashland property and started finding artifacts.

Discovery of the camp’s true location helps explain a couple of old stories, Brooks said. One was that Union soldiers came to the mansion the evening before the skirmish because they heard piano playing. The other story was that Susan Clay, Henry’s daughter-in-law, held her 5-year-old son, Charles, on the floor because he kept wanting to look out the window at the battle.

“She was afraid he was going to get shot,” Brooks said. “And no wonder! The fighting was really close to the house. That’s a cool dimension to the story we didn’t have last year.”

There will be plenty to see and do Saturday. Civil War re-enactors will drill and fire cannon. Others in period dress will cook, do laundry and demonstrate farm work. Artisans will make and sell crafts.

Milward Funeral Directors, which handled Henry Clay’s burial in 1852, will have its old horse-drawn hearse there, along with the same type of metal coffin used to bury him.

And if visitors need toilets, they will find them on the north side of the mansion, where the geothermal wells will soon be dug. Brooks and McBride are pretty sure there’s nothing important under there.

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If you go

Ashland Living History Event

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 28

Where: Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, 120 Sycamore Rd.

Admission: $14 adults, $7 ages 17 and younger, $35 family rate.

Information: (859) 266-8581, Henryclay.org


Veteran sign painter creates art from Lexington, racing nostalgia

August 5, 2013

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John Cox, owner of Thoroughgraphics, shows a copy, at right, he is making of an old sign from the Nashua Room at the old Hialeah racetrack in Hialeah, Fla. Cox said he acquired several old Hialeah signs years ago when the sign company he worked for was hired to replace them.  Photos by Tom Eblen  

 

John Cox’s artwork is a shot of nostalgia for anyone who lived in Lexington or followed Thoroughbred racing during the decades after World War II. His paintings are literally signs of the times, recalling the famous and infamous.

Cox’s hand-painted signs look as though they spent decades at such places as Joyland Park, Stoll Field, Scott’s Rollarena, Comer’s Restaurant or Keeneland.

Remember the Library Lounge, that swinging singles bar in the 1970s? Or the Red Lion Lounge, which featured the “exotic” dancer Chesty Morgan? And don’t forget Boot’s Bar, where headliners included the Fabulous Table Toppers and Carlos Toadvine, aka Little Enis, the left-handed, upside down, backwards guitar player.

Longtime racing fans may recall the Citation Room at Hialeah Park in Florida, the Boots & Saddle Bar across the street from the track or Greentree Stable, Payne Whitney’s New Jersey farm that was a Thoroughbred powerhouse in the 1920s.

“I had had several people who asked me to make them a sign that looked like it was old, from some memory they had,” said Cox, who since 1982 has owned and operated Thoroughgraphics, a Lexington sign company.

Cox was soon making “new old” signs for gifts. Since late last year, he has been showing and selling his pieces at Gallery Hop. His work is now on display at Congleton Lumber Co.’s new showroom, 1260 Industry Road, and at his website, Newoldsigns.com.

Cox left last week for Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where Saratoga Race Course is celebrating its 150th year. His company will be making modern signs for its many customers there, and he has made some “new old” Saratoga-themed signs for sale through Lexington’s Cross Gate Gallery.

“It’s a unique niche,” said Cox, 54, who began his career hand-lettering signs for Johnson Sign Co. in the 1970s while a student at Lafayette High School.

130723OldSigns0102Cox had always been interested in calligraphy, and he studied art at the University of Kentucky. Because many of his fraternity brothers were in the horse business, he focused on that industry. His customers now include farms, tracks and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame at Saratoga. He just finished making metal plaques for the newest group of Hall of Fame inductees.

Other than Cox’s artwork, little hand-painting is still done at Thoroughgraphics, which has a lot of modern technology for making all kinds of signs, from huge printers to computer-controlled wood routers.

“There are lots of different ways that are better and longer-lasting now than painting signs,” Cox said, adding that “when they took the lead out of paint, it didn’t last as long or hold its color very well.”

That technology would make it easy to reproduce old-fashioned sign images. But that wouldn’t be the same as what Cox does. His hand-painted letters show brush strokes, and he makes each piece look old and authentic with creative use of sandpaper, varnish and sometimes even a little dirt.

“I don’t try to pass them off as being old,” he said. “If you look at the back of them, you can see they’re brand-new materials.”

Cox said his signs are a mixture of authenticity and imagination. He researches a place, looking for photographs of old signs there. If he finds a design he likes, he copies it. Or he may use imagery from old promotional materials, such as matchbook covers.

For other signs, Cox simply makes up a design appropriate to the era — how he would have done the job, if only he had been around then to do it. Most of his pieces are inspired by signs from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Cox has collected more than 100 antique signs that cover the walls of his workshops at Thoroughgraphics. There has been a resurgence in public interest in old signs. There is even an American Sign Museum in Cincinnati.

Most of Cox’s “new old” signs sell for $200 to $400, although he is asking $2,000 for a large Keeneland sign painted with gold leaf.

Cox said he has enjoyed showing his work, because people come up and tell him great stories about their memories of the places depicted in his signs.

“It’s a great creative outlet for me,” he said. “And people seem to really enjoy them.”

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Lexington History Museum reopens with series of ‘pocket’ museums

June 29, 2013

Since the city shut down the old Fayette County Courthouse that housed the Lexington History Museum last July because of concerns about lead paint exposure, a lot of people figured the museum had become, well, history.

But the museum’s board of directors has spent the past few months rethinking their mission and strategy, which they will formally announce at a Monday morning news conference with Mayor Jim Gray.

“Our first reaction was to run around town looking for new exhibit space, but we found there were few available spaces with big rooms and tall ceilings,” said attorney Foster Ockerman Jr., a board member. “So we kind of sat back and said, what now?”

The museum still hopes to have a place when the 115-year-old downtown courthouse is eventually restored to its original beauty. But, at least in the meantime, the museum plans to spread its collection around town in a number of small “pocket museums” beginning this week.

“It’s a matter of completely reinventing what the museum is to deal with the circumstances,” Ockerman said.

PrintThe first five pocket museums to open will be in common spaces of the Central Bank Building, 300 W. Vine Street; Victorian Square, 401 W. Main Street; Bluegrass Corporate Center, 333 W. Vine Street; Central Library, 140 E. Main Street; and the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Building, 200 E. Main Street. Displays also will be put in large windows on Central Parking property, 168 N. Upper Street.

More locations are being sought, and exhibits will be changed out every few months.

Also, canvases will be put up later this summer between pillars near the tops of the Fifth Third Pavilion at Cheapside with old photographs showing how that streetscape looked a century ago.

Museum director Jamie Millard has left and been succeeded by Debra Watkins, who has been with the museum for eight years.

“Our focus on education has not changed,” Watkins said, noting that outreach programs for schools and civic groups has continued during the past year. There also have been a few special exhibits, such as outside the Kentucky Room at Central Library and at the Lyric Theatre.

Later this year, the museum plans to reinvent its website (Lexingtonhistorymuseum.org) to be a local history wiki database. Anyone will be able to contribute, but information will be scrutinized before posting, Watkins said. The museum also hopes to digitize and make available old local photos and local home movies.

“We believe that a lot of the future of museums will be virtual, online,” Ockerman said.

The website also will interface with other Kentucky online history resources, such as those of the Lexington Public Library and the Kentucky Virtual Library.

“We are trying to integrate ourselves into the community,” Watkins said.

Another project is publication of a limited-edition, 350-copy coffee table book of old Lexington photos, along with text written by Ockerman. The museum will begin taking orders July 4 for the $50 book, Historic Lexington: Heart of the Bluegrass. The book is to be published in September. All profits from the book will benefit the non-profit museum.

I am sure the Lexington History Museum can’t wait to find a larger, permanent location, either in a restored old Fayette County Courthouse or another downtown building.

But this new approach makes a lot of sense — for the long-term as well as in this situation. Museums need more than the traditional, big-box approach to reach busy people in a modern, digital world.

For example, the most visible art museum in Lexington isn’t a museum at all; it is the University of Kentucky’s Chandler Medical Center. The hospital has a substantial, well-curated collection that is enjoyed every day by hundreds of people who might otherwise never go to the time, trouble and expense of visiting an art museum.

Lexington has a history as rich as any city this side of the East Coast. Spreading exhibits and information around downtown where people can easily encounter them in small doses may be the best way to ensure that that rich history is known and appreciated.


Using technology to find the hidden history beneath our feet

May 21, 2013

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Ed and Kay Thomas watched as Scott Clark used a metal detector around an old bur oak near a circa 1810 farmhouse they are restoring in Bourbon County. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

PARIS — I always thought it would be fun to have a metal detector. I wasn’t so much interested in hunting for buried treasure as finding bits of history hidden a few inches beneath my feet.

Scott Clark, an Internet business consultant in Lexington, has similar interests. An avid metal detectorist since 1985, he has become quite skilled at it — and increasingly passionate about improving the ethics and image of his hobby.

Metal detecting doesn’t have the best of reputations, thanks to “treasure hunters” who look for relics on Civil War battlefields or pock-mark parks in search of lost valuables. Many historical archaeologists view detectorists about as favorably as a brain surgeon would a witch doctor.

130430Detectoring-TE0074But serious detectorists are trying to change that. Earlier this year, Clark was part of a group that worked with archaeologists to explore James Madison’s Montpelier estate in Virginia. Clark co-authored an article with Montpelier archaeologist Matthew Reeves on the blog of the Society for Historical Archaeology about how the two groups can work together and literally find common ground.

Clark has a blog at Detecting.us and often writes about best practices in the hobby. Those include always asking landowners’ permission before detecting, sharing finds with them and digging carefully so grounds are not damaged. He also avoids truly historic areas, such as battlefields.

Clark often donates his services to people who have lost valuables outside. Last month, he found a wedding band for a Versailles man after it slipped off his finger while he was mowing his yard.

Clark said he never accepts payment or rewards, but people often thank him by arranging access to interesting sites he can search. “The currency of the hobby is permission, which requires being trustworthy and transparent,” he said.

Clark detects to relax and for the love of history rather than profit. He said he has never sold anything he found — and even if he did, it wouldn’t begin to cover the thousands of dollars he has invested in detecting equipment.

Mostly, Clark finds old shoe buckles, keys, buttons, tools and coins. His most valuable find? A silver 1838 half-dime, worth a couple hundred dollars.

130430Detectoring-TE0408Clark said he likes to detect in places where people would have gathered a century or more ago — and lost things out of their pockets. That includes the grounds around old homes, schools, churches and stores.

Clark offered to show me how detecting works, then asked if I knew of a good hunting place. I immediately thought of Kay and Ed Thomas.

The Thomases live in a beautiful home in Bourbon County that her ancestors built in 1792. While restoring the place, the fun-loving couple delighted in finding interesting objects from the past. They are now restoring another place nearby — a circa-1810 brick farmhouse that her family bought in the 1940s.

As I suspected, the Thomases jumped at the chance to have Clark search their yards. Ed Thomas tagged along with Clark for the better part of three days while he carefully went over the ground with his detector, watching its dials and listening to its beeps, squawks and squeals.

To the untrained ear, the detector sounded like an arcade video game. But to Clark, the tones and gauges indicated the presence of objects in the ground — how big they were, what kind of metal they were made of and how deep they were, indicating how long they had been there.

Clark’s most interesting find on the Thomases’ property was a coin silver filigree bracelet with ivory cameos, which Kay Thomas thinks a long-dead relative bought on a European tour. He also found a few old coins, including an 1868 penny; spoon bowls of silver and pewter; a 1937 American Legion fob; old livestock tags and pieces of horse tack; and the remains of tools.

“Normally, I find three times this much stuff,” Clark said, clearly disappointed.

But the Thomases were thrilled — and not surprised that he didn’t find more.

“My relatives were frugal people!” Kay Thomas said. “If they had lost a gold ring, they would have been out here 24/7 until they found it.”

Ed Thomas also found something: a new hobby. For his birthday last Friday, his wife gave him a metal detector.

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Cynthiana museum like a well-organized community attic

March 5, 2013

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Harold Slade, 93, straightens one of many buildings he made from old picture mat board for a scale model of downtown Cynthiana in the late 1800s. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

CYNTHIANA — There is a lot of history in this little town, and more of it than you can imagine is stuffed inside a former movie theater and roller skating rink.

The Cynthiana-Harrison County Museum is like a well-organized community attic. A hodgepodge of treasures are displayed alongside relics from everyday life, things that otherwise might have been sold off, thrown away or lost to time and change.

This museum has been a 19-year labor of love for Harold Slade and a group of his neighbors, who have lived a good bit of Harrison County history themselves.

“There’s not many things in the museum older than me,” said Slade, 93, a retired factory worker who never liked history in school but has made it a second career.

130205CynthianaMuseum-TE0104The museum opened in 1994. By 2007, it had outgrown its first home and was moved to the long-vacant Rohs Theatre, which also once housed a skating rink. The museum’s collection now fills almost every square foot of the place. Still, the all-volunteer staff always finds room for more.

Cynthiana has had a few brushes with history, including two Civil War battles, both involving Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan. Battle-related items include a state historical marker that stood along a roadside until a schoolboy noticed that one of the battles’ date was wrong.

“They made a new one for the highway,” Slade said. “We got this one.”

The museum has artifacts from all aspects of Harrison County history and life. There is the oldest known copy of a Cynthiana newspaper, The Guardian of Liberty from July 14, 1817, and a wicker body basket once used by a local undertaker.

Harrison County schools are represented with dozens of school yearbooks, trophies and class photos. A mannequin wears a uniform from Harrison County High School’s marching band.

On one wall is a framed letter written by statesman Henry Clay. On another, a giant Kentucky map made of buttons. There are lots of old tools, including the stone axes of prehistoric Harrison Countians.

WCYN Radio’s old control board is preserved here, as are spare pipes removed from the Methodist Church organ when it was renovated in 1935.

130205CynthianaMuseum-TE0120The museum includes some of Slade’s own history, from his World War II Army uniform to the attendance book he kept as a scoutmaster. Among the Boy Scouts’ names is one Joe B. Hall, the future University of Kentucky basketball coach.

Hall isn’t Cynthiana’s only claim to fame. The museum has the black robe worn by Mac Swinford, an influential federal judge who died in 1975, and an exhibit of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy dolls. The children’s storybook characters were created by Johnny Gruelle, whose father was born in Cynthiana.

Local business memorabilia includes tobacco artifacts and items from the Webber sausage plant, which started here in 1930. The company was later bought by ConAgra and left town in 1994 after the factory was destroyed by a grease fire.

Harrison County once had more than 30 bourbon distilleries, making whisky under such names as Old Tub and Belle of Harrison. The prize of the museum’s bottle collection used to be an unopened bottle of Old Van Hook from before Prohibition. Then, one day, it disappeared from its display case.

“A few weeks later somebody brought the empty bottle back to us,” said Mary Grable, secretary of the non-profit trust that owns the museum. “We think we know who drunk the whisky.”

Perhaps the museum’s most interesting piece is a huge scale model of the town as it looked in the late 1800s. Dozens of buildings were accurately recreated from bits of colored picture frame mat board by Slade and Neville Haley, who died in 2009.

Each building is an amazing work of intricate detail. The layout includes a model of the long covered bridge that for more than a century crossed the Licking River that runs through Cynthiana.

Donald Hill made the bridge from wood salvaged from the real bridge, which was demolished in 1948 after it was replaced by a new concrete bridge named for Morgan, the Confederate cavalry raider.

“Didn’t make a lot of sense,” said Randall Boyers, 86, a museum volunteer. “The man burns the town and they name a bridge after him.”

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Annual historic home tour features Bourbon’s Bethlehem Farm

October 17, 2012


A Greek Revival addition in1858 created a new front to Bethlehem Farm’s farmhouse, which dates to the early 1800s. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

PARIS — When Sandra Renfro White was growing up in Texas as the horse-loving daughter of Kentucky-born parents, she dreamed of owning a Bluegrass horse farm.

“This is my childhood dream,” White said of 50-acre Bethlehem Farm. “I come out in the morning with my coffee and look at my horses. Peace and beauty. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

This land just south of Paris and its 200-year-old mansion have been home to many dreamers.

Jacob Aker, a Revolutionary War veteran, settled here and built a small but elegant story-and-a-half brick home in the Federal style around 1810-20. As his family’s fortunes grew, a grand Greek Revival-style expansion was added in 1858, creating a new front entrance.

White bought Bethlehem Farm in 1995 from Vanessa Dickson, an active historic preservationist who is now a state district court judge. Her research got the farm added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1993 as an example of the high-quality construction common on prosperous farms in antebellum Bourbon County.

The public will get to see the beautifully restored house Oct. 21, when Bethlehem Farm hosts the annual Fall Home Tour fund-raiser for Historic Paris-Bourbon County. The preservation group, among other things, operates the Hopewell Museum in Paris, one of Central Kentucky’s lesser-known gems.

Refreshments will be served during the home tour, and rides will be offered in a wagon pulled by a pair of Belgian draft horses.

The original part of the Jacob Aker house is thought to be an early work by John Giltner, a Bourbon County architect and builder known for his fine Flemish-bond brickwork.

Limestone was dug from a quarry on the farm for the foundation of the house and two outbuildings — an office or slave quarters that has yet to be restored and a springhouse that is now little more than a pile of rocks.

Most of the original house is now used as a kitchen and family dining room. The fireplace was restored for use, and White had craftsmen reproduce black walnut cabinet doors to match original ones still in the kitchen.

Greg Fitzsimons, a Lexington architect who specializes in historic preservation, designed a master suite for White using the foundation footprint of the original house’s breezeway and separate kitchen.

The original house’s back porch was converted into a sunroom, where the old brick wall showcases photographs from the Center for Women in Racing, a non-denominational Christian ministry White started in 2000 to help troubled women who have worked in the horse industry.

Fitzsimons recreated the missing front porch from the 1858 expansion by examining old column outlines on the front wall and other physical evidence. The porch was built by mason Ron Carter of Carter and Witt, and Mike Gresham of Gresham Millwork & Supply, both of Paris. The porch’s octagonal columns echo the newel post of the expansion’s grand staircase, which, like most of the home’s woodwork, is original.

White chose the home’s interior palette of reds, blues, yellows and browns from a late 1700s piece of Italian needlework she acquired that depicts the infant Moses being found on the Nile River. Jonathan Moore of Lexington painted many of the walls using a rich, layered technique called Venetian plaster.

The farm has a cemetery with the graves of Aker and six family members who died between 1841 and 1865. A few yards away are several graves with rough, unmarked headstones, thought to belong to slaves.

“The house is very functional now,” said White, who shares the farm with son Daniel and daughter Susanna, both students at Lexington Christian Academy, as well as 14 horses, four cats, two dogs and a pair of canaries, Placido and Domingo.

As her children near college age and she contemplates the future, White is thinking about another long-held dream: making the Center for Women in Racing a more sustainable organization, with permanent facilities where Thoroughbred race horses can retire and female track workers can seek temporary shelter.

White said she has talked with the board of Bethlehem Farm Inc., her non-profit foundation, about buying much of the land around the house for center facilities.

“Or it may be time for me to retire, and allow someone else the privilege of owning this treasure and taking it to the next phase of historic preservation,” she said. “Either way, my dream has been for me, and many others, a lovely reality.”

If you go

Fall Home Tour, annual fund-raiser for Historic Paris-Bourbon County.

When: 2-5 p.m., Sunday

Where: Bethlehem Farm, 795 Bethlehem Rd., Paris

Admission: $10 for HPBC members, $15 non-members.

More information: (859) 987-7274 or Hopewellmuseum.org

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Film uses Kentucky Chautauqua actors to tell story of Cassius Clay

September 18, 2012

Mel Hankla, as Cassius Marcellus Clay, in front of White Hall. Photo by Mark Cornelison

Lexington filmmaker Michael Breeding knew that the life of Cassius Marcellus Clay, one of the most colorful characters in Kentucky history, would make a great hourlong documentary. But how could he do it on a shoestring budget?

There are only a handful of images of Clay, so Breeding couldn’t do it Ken Burns-style. He certainly didn’t have enough money to hire actors, costume designers and set designers to re-create all of the necessary scenes from Clay’s life.

Then Breeding remembered Kentucky Chautauqua, a Kentucky Humanities Council program in which amateur actors dress up as historic figures and tell their stories.

The result of Breeding’s two-year project isCassius Marcellus Clay: An Audacious American, a fast-paced film that combines still images and monologue performances by 13 actors, including six from Kentucky Chautauqua. Lexington author Betty Boles Ellison wrote the script. The only non-Kentuckian in the production is the main narrator, Peter Thomas, one of television’s most recognizable voices.

“I needed characters, and the Humanities Council had a bunch of them,” Breeding said. “I like this format.”

The documentary will have a gala premiere Sept. 27, complete with Civil War musicians and a 15-minute performance by Kentucky Chautauquan Obadiah Ewing-Roush. He will portray abolitionist John G. Fee, who founded Berea College on 10 acres that Clay gave him.

The documentary was filmed in high-definition video at Clay’s mansion, White Hall, now a state historic site in Madison County. With a budget of about $38,000, from a KET production grant and money raised from eight private sponsors, Breeding and his friends did much of the work themselves. But what they lacked in production resources was more than made up for in story material.

Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810-1903) was a son of Green Clay, Kentucky’s largest owner of land and slaves, and a cousin to statesman Henry Clay. While a student at Yale University, Cassius Clay heard social reformer William Lloyd Garrison preach against slavery and was converted.

Clay returned to Lexington as a fiery emancipationist. He published an anti-slavery newspaper, The True American, that was highly unpopular in slave-holding Lexington. Clay always carried a pistol and knife, which he used against attackers on several occasions. He guarded his newspaper office near Main and Mill streets with a cannon.

Rich, handsome and arrogant, Clay served in the General Assembly and the Mexican War. Although commissioned a major general during the Civil War, he spent most of that time as Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador to Russia. Clay urged Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and he dreamed of one day becoming president.

Clay was a lover as well as a fighter. He had 10 children during a stormy 45-year marriage to Mary Jane Warfield that ended in divorce, plus an adopted son he apparently conceived during an affair while in Russia. At age 84, Clay married a 15-year-old girl, who also divorced him.

Virginia Carter, executive director of the Humanities Council, said she hopes Breeding’s film will draw more attention to the 20-year-old Kentucky Chautauqua program and its performers, who last year did 507 performances in 102 counties.

Clay is portrayed in Breeding’s documentary by Mel Hankla, a teacher who for 17 years has performed the roles of frontiersmen George Rogers Clark and Simon Kenton for Kentucky Chautauqua.

“I did a lot of reading to get inside Clay’s head,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”

It is ironic, Hankla said, that when he first decided to develop a Chautauqua character two decades ago, his friend, former Gov. Louie Nunn, urged him to do Cassius Clay. Nunn was an admirer of Clay, and Nunn’s wife, Beulah Nunn, was instrumental in the restoration of White Hall during the 1960s.

“He told me that Cassius Clay’s life ought to be a movie,” Hankla said of Nunn. “He said, ‘This story has it all!’”

If you go

Gala premiere of Cassius Marcellus Clay: An Audacious American

When: 7 p.m. Sept. 27

Where: The Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St., Lexington

Cost: Tickets are free in advance — request them at Michaelbreedingmedia.com — and $10 at the door. Proceeds will benefit White Hall Foundation for restoration and purchase of artifacts. Breeding said he will give DVDs of the film to anyone who attends the premiere wearing period costume.

TV: There will be 14 showings of the film in October on KET. (Go to KET.org for dates and times.)

 

Watch an excerpt from the film here:

Cassius Marcellus Clay: An Audacious American, Sept. 27, 2012 – The Kentucky Theatre from Michael Breeding MEDIA on Vimeo.

 


Digging for answers at Fort Boonesborough: What did they find?

September 15, 2012

 Nancy O’Malley, a UK archaeologist, led a dig at Fort Boonesborough to learn more about the siege of 1778. She is holding what she thinks is one of the more accurate drawings of the fort. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

When I read in June that a University of Kentucky archaeologist was doing the first major exploration of Fort Boonesborough in 25 years, I had to know what she found.

Nancy O’Malley wasn’t just looking for 18th century artifacts, although she found some: a hoe, a skillet, buttons, buckles, bullets, hand-wrought nails, forks, bits of English ceramic and a blue glass trade bead.

O’Malley, an expert on Kentucky pioneer settlements who first confirmed Fort Boonesborough’s location in 1987, was trying to figure out exactly how much of the fort still exists. She was specifically searching for evidence of the most famous event that occurred there: a nine-day siege 234 years ago this week in which Daniel Boone and a small group of pioneers repelled an attack by several hundred Native Americans.

“This siege is just completely out of the ordinary in terms of what was happening in Kentucky during the Revolutionary War,” O’Malley said. “On the face of it, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense — some of the things that happened and, more to the point, some of the things that didn’t happen.”

While East Coast colonists were fighting the British for independence, settlers were streaming across the mountains into Kentucky. Shawnees and other northern tribes were alarmed and tried to run them out. The British took advantage of the situation, offering bounties for settlers’ scalps.

Boone, an explorer, hunter and surveyor working for the Transylvania Co., established Boonesborough in 1775. As Native American attacks escalated, the fort became an important shelter.

Shawnees captured Boone in February 1778 while he was with men who had gone to Blue Licks in what is now Nicholas County to make salt. Boone convinced them not to kill him and the 30 salt-makers, but to take them back to their villages as captives. Boone also made vague promises about arranging for Boonesborough’s surrender.

Blackfish, the Shawnee chief, grew fond of Boone and adopted him as a son, giving him the name Shel-tow-ee, which meant “big turtle.” But when Boone heard tribe members plotting to attack Boonesborough, he escaped and returned to warn the settlers and strengthen the fort.

Warriors from five tribes arrived at Boonesborough with a dozen French Canadians working for the British. Boone estimated the force at nearly 450, although O’Malley suspects it was smaller. Still, they greatly outnumbered the approximately 40 men and 95 women and children inside the fort.

After chastising his “son” for running away, Blackfish asked Boone to surrender the fort. During two days of negotiations, the chief promised settlers wouldn’t be harmed if they became captives. Boone made excuses and stalled for time.

“Of course, everybody was lying through their teeth,” O’Malley said. “Once it was clear the settlers were not going to give up, it was pretty much no holds barred.”

For nine days — Sept. 9-17, 1778 — settlers and warriors waged a battle of constant rifle shots. The attackers sent torches and flaming arrows into the fort, but settlers, helped by steady rain, extinguished the flames.

“There was a lot of trash talk going on,” O’Malley said. “And inside the fort there’s all this subterfuge.” Women dressed as men and hats were put on sticks along the stockade fence to make the garrison appear bigger.

“You have this huge force against this very limited number of people who are holed up in a pretty rickety fort,” O’Malley said. “I still don’t understand why the Indians didn’t figure this out.”

The Canadians convinced the warriors to try to dig a tunnel more than 100 feet from the Kentucky River bank into the fort, but, after days of work, the rain-soaked ground collapsed. Why didn’t they just storm the place? That probably would have worked, O’Malley said, “but that wasn’t a typical Indian tactic.”

After losing about 35 warriors while killing only two settlers, including a black slave, the attackers gave up and left. “All of these things could have gone differently,” O’Malley said. “There was a lot of luck involved.”

With a $27,000 grant from the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program, O’Malley hopes to use historical archaeology to learn more about what happened and where.

She fully excavated a stone foundation and hearth she found in 1987 and now believes was Squire Boone’s gunsmith shop in the center of the fort. Evidence she found, compared with a survivor’s crude map, have led her to conclude that the tribes camp was about where the state park’s miniature golf course is now.

Using ground-penetrating radar, O’Malley hoped to find evidence of the tunnel, but she didn’t. “Unfortunately, with bank erosion, I’m pretty sure this tunnel is downstream,” she said.

The biggest challenge has been figuring out all of the dramatic changes in Boonesborough’s landscape over the past two centuries: later structures, massive silting and erosion, rechanneling of creeks and construction of park facilities.

O’Malley plans to keep looking at physical evidence and historical records to try to clarify the often conflicting accounts of siege survivors, whose memories were colored by the passage of time and other versions they later heard and read.

“There were just so many things about the siege that were very strange, and so many funny stories, that after a while you wonder what to believe,” O’Malley said. “History is a messy business.”


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

August 28, 2012

Helm Place on Bowman Mill Road. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A short walk shows Lexington’s Civil War divisions

May 29, 2012

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

November 15, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


Bourbon County tour house both glorious, notorious

September 27, 2011

PARIS — Every house has a story, but few have one as glorious and notorious as The Grange — from its opulent architecture to the dungeon in the cellar.

Owners Phil and Lillie Crowley were living in Lexington in 2003 when a Realtor told them The Grange was for sale. At first, it was beyond their means. But they couldn’t stop thinking about it.

“I walked in here and dropped my jaw; then the next day Phil came to see it and dropped his jaw,” said Lillie Crowley, a former math professor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

“I thought it was spectacularly beautiful,” said Phil Crowley, a biologist and ecologist at the University of Kentucky. “And the history was fascinating — it wasn’t all good, but it was fascinating.”

The Crowleys will open The Grange for a public tour Sunday to benefit the preservation group Historic Paris-Bourbon County.

Edward Stone began building the home that he called Oakland in 1800 on land his father received for Revolutionary War service. Construction took nearly 20 years, and Stone spared no expense. One of his professions was builder, and he apparently wanted to advertise his workmanship.

The Grange is considered one of Kentucky’s finest Federal-style homes. The five-bay front façade is flanked by pavilions with elaborate Palladian windows set in gently curved brick. The main floor has 14-foot ceilings and is trimmed with lavish woodwork and mantles. A leaded-glass fanlight and sidelights around the front door illuminate the main hall’s grand staircase.

But Stone was better known for his other profession: slave trader. Even many slave owners of that era looked down on slave traders because of their cruel methods. Few were more infamous than Stone, who might have been the inspiration for Mr. Haley, the unscrupulous slave trader in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s influential 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Stone marched long lines of chained men and women nearly 40 miles to Maysville, where he literally “sold them down the river” to Deep South cotton plantations. He also kept slaves chained to the walls of a dungeon beneath The Grange’s elegant front hall.

Manacles were removed from the walls and bars from a small window just a few years ago, Crowley said as he took me down to see the dungeon. All that remains of the room’s evil past are iron hinge posts for what must have been a heavy door.

Stone’s business eventually caught up with him. On a trip down the Ohio River in 1826, some of the 77 slaves he was taking to New Orleans overpowered and killed him near Owensboro.

Oakland was sold in 1832 to Hugh Brent, who renamed it Brentwood and left doodles on the walls of an upstairs bedroom for the Crowleys to find more than 170 years later, when they removed several layers of wallpaper.

The mansion, renamed The Grange about 1900, would have 11 more owners before the Crowleys bought it and the surrounding 33 acres.

“We’ve really tried to maintain the historic integrity of the architecture and still make the place livable,” Phil Crowley said of the 4,600-square-foot house, which didn’t get indoor plumbing until 1906. “Heating and cooling have been an issue, but our new geothermal system has made a big difference.”

Restoring and furnishing The Grange has become an expensive hobby.

“I needed a new car, and I got this instead,” Lillie Crowley said, pointing to a huge, circa 1800 English mahogany breakfront cabinet they bought for the dining room. A massive antique bed in the guest room came with the house — probably because it was too big to move.

The most challenging project has been remodeling the kitchen. It is in the home’s oldest wing, and contractor Jim Hodsdon found a shriveled shoe while gutting a former sleeping loft there. The shoe probably belonged to Stone.

The Crowleys have collected a pile of artifacts during renovation, from pieces of pottery to the bars from the dungeon window. Thankfully, though, they haven’t encountered any ghosts of people who were once chained below their front hall.

“Talk about a place with a rotten soul,” Phil Crowley said. “It’s hard to wrap your head around.”

If you go

Tour of The Grange

When: 2-5 p.m. Oct. 2.

Where: 1366 Millersburg Rd. (U.S. 68)

Tickets: $15, $10 for Historic Paris-Bourbon County members. No reservations needed.

Learn more: (859) 987-7274

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

 

 

 


How Kentucky became the Thoroughbred capital

September 29, 2010

Maryjean Wall learned a lot about the “Thoroughbred capital of the world” in 35 years as an award-winning racing writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. But it wasn’t until she retired and finished her doctorate in history at the University of Kentucky that Wall figured out how it came to be.

Kentucky’s domination of Thoroughbred breeding during the past century wasn’t really about the mineral-rich bluegrass and limestone water, although they certainly helped. It resulted from a chain of events during the turbulent decades after the Civil War that Kentuckians cleverly exploited.

Maryjean Wall. Photo by Mark Cornelison

It involved crafting an Old South image for Kentucky at the turn of the last century that appealed to the nation’s richest horsemen — and all but erased African- Americans from the picture. Wall pulls this story together in a new book, How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders (The University Press of Kentucky, $29.95)

I had heard pieces of this fascinating story for years. When Wall was still at the Herald-Leader and I was the managing editor, she would occasionally wander into my office and tell me about her research.

The finished book is a remarkable page-turner that earned glowing cover blurbs from some of the best historians of Kentucky and Thoroughbred racing. The book puts together many pieces of a complicated puzzle, and it is filled with well-documented stories that explain a lot about the evolution of Kentucky society and the horse industry.

Kentucky dominated Thoroughbred breeding in the early 1800s, thanks to its grass and water. But the Civil War devastated Kentucky’s economy; much breeding stock was killed, stolen by raiders or moved out of state for safe-keeping.

Northeast industrialists and Wall Street speculators emerged from the war as the nation’s richest men, and they embraced the “sport of kings.” They began buying the best mares and stallions and installing them on new farms in New York and New Jersey.

Kentucky breeders realized they were losing their grip on the industry and needed to attract that Northeast capital. But there was a problem: Kentucky had a well-deserved reputation for violence and lawlessness that scared away the tycoons who now dominated horse racing.

Kentucky was a Civil War border state that officially remained loyal to the Union. But as industrialization led to more anxiety and racism in American society, the public imagination was captured by “lost cause” nostalgia for an idealized Old South.

Until the 1890s, African-Americans had been some of the most successful jockeys and trainers. Jockey Isaac Murphy became a rich man. But as racism grew, blacks were forced out of all but the most menial horse racing jobs, not just in Kentucky but across the nation.

Wall writes that Kentucky breeders eagerly exploited this Old South myth to rebrand the state. Novelists and newspapermen started depicting a land of white-suited “Kentucky colonels” on columned verandas — a place where the living was easy for wealthy white people and black folks knew their place.

New York’s leading equine journal, Turf, Field and Farm, published by Lexington-born brothers Benjamin and Sanders Bruce, offered Northeast horsemen a steady drumbeat of Bluegrass boosterism.

That led several Northern moguls, including August Belmont and James Ben Ali Haggin, to start breeding farms near Lexington. Many more followed after anti-gambling forces outlawed racing in New York and many other states about 1910.

Modern Kentucky has many legacies from this period, including the large number of absentee farm owners and a professional class of bloodstock agents, trainers, veterinarians and others who have made horses a vital part of the state’s economy.

“I hope readers put this book down with a greater respect for the (horse) industry,” Wall said over lunch last week. Like many, Walls fears for the Thoroughbred industry’s future in Kentucky, but she thinks the solutions are more complex than the long fight over expanded gambling.

“It was never a given that the horse industry would stay here after the Civil War, and that is still relevant today,” Wall said. “The grass was never enough. And it’s still not enough.”

If you go

Maryjean Wall will discuss and sign How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders:

■ 4 p.m. Oct. 2, Morris book shop, 408 Southland Dr., Lexington

■ 7 p.m. Oct. 5, Woodford County Public Library, 115 N. Main St., Versailles

■ 6:30 p.m. Oct. 7, Kentucky Historical Society, 100 W. Broadway, Frankfort


A novel approach to exploring Kentucky archaeology

September 22, 2010

Consider the archaeologist’s challenge: Figure out how people lived and their societies worked centuries ago, based on little more than what remains of their bones, their buildings and a few timeworn artifacts.

And then there is the unknowable: What were their joys, sorrows, hopes and dreams?

“There are so many bigger questions out there,” said Kelli Carmean, an archaeologist, anthropology professor and chair of Eastern Kentucky University’s Department of Anthropology, Sociology and Social Work.

Carmean, 50, wrote a conventional archaeology book, Spider Woman Walks This Land: Traditional Cultural Properties and the Navajo Nation, in 2002 that drew on her research into Native American cultural anthropology.

But she wanted to do more, and she needed another vehicle to do it. So she recently published Creekside: An Archaeolog ical Novel (University of Alabama Press, $27.50)

“The tools of archaeology are really good, but they can’t re-create individual lives,” Carmean said. “So I decided to use fiction to try to imagine some of these things and tell people more about archaeology and why this is important.”

Creekside weaves together two fictional stories, separated by two centuries.

The first story is about Virgil and Estelle Mullins, a young 18th-century couple who leave family in Virginia to cross the mountains and settle in the wilderness of Central Kentucky. Over three generations, the family experiences joys, hardships and tragedies common to people in those times. Before the Civil War, descendants abandon the farmstead for urban life.

The second story is about Meg Harrington, a 21st-century archaeologist who is working with students to excavate that pioneer farmstead. They must work quickly because bulldozers will soon turn it into a subdivision called Creekside.

Carmean faced the usual challenges of writing historical fiction: creating characters with whom readers can identify and rich, interesting plots grounded in historic accuracy. But with a twist.

As chapters go back and forth in time, the reader learns details of the pioneer family’s life that the archaeologist can only speculate about: the violence and accidents that left disfigured bodies in graves; deeply personal stories behind bits of ceramic and jewelry found buried in the soil.

Carmean wanted to explain something about archaeological excavation techniques and artifact analysis. “It’s an effort to bring the public into archaeological thinking and processes,” she said, adding that it bears little resemblance to an Indiana Jones movie.

Although Carmean’s research has focused on Native American cultures, she decided that her first novel should tell the story of white settlers because readers could more easily identify with them. She is working on a second novel about Native Americans who populated Kentucky long before it was “discovered.” That novel’s working title is The Village at Muddy Creek.

Creekside explores the tension between preservation and development. Carmean is passionate about preventing destruction of archaeological sites so they can be studied into the future. The more we know about the past, she said, the better we can understand the present and gain insight for the future.

Preservation is problematic because it often comes down to money. Archaeologists usually have few resources to work with, and ancient and historic sites are usually destroyed to make way for well-financed development.

The academic culture of archaeology, which is focused on data collection rather than storytelling, often hurts archaeologists’ ability to communicate their values. “We’re not providing the general public with what they hunger for,” which is the humanity of our ancestors, Carmean said. “We have the tools, but we just haven’t done it.”

Carmean hopes Creekside will help change that. “You have to write about it in such a way that people will pay attention to it,” she said. “You have to make them want to take a more active role … and educate themselves about the scale of the destruction around us, the destruction that accompanies modern life.

“We lose something with each site destruction,” she said. “The past and vestiges of the past are important because they enrich our communities. They help us understand more about the human condition.”

If you go

Kelli Carmean will read from and discuss Creekside

■ 4 p.m. Sept. 23, EKU’s Crabbe Library grand reading room

■ 4 p.m. Sept. 24, UK’s Lafferty Hall, Room 108

■ 2 p.m. Oct. 9, the Morris book shop, 408 Southland Dr.

■ 7 p.m. Nov. 2, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, The Mall at Lexington Green

■ Nov. 11, Kentucky Book Fair, Frankfort


A brief Bluegrass history lesson as the Games begin

September 12, 2010

How did Central Kentucky become the Horse Capital of the World? A clever combination of good geology, good marketing and good luck.

When the first white settlers arrived in the 1770s, they discovered that horses grew strong and fast from drinking the limestone water and munching bluegrass grown in the mineral-rich soil. Race horses became a big business until the Civil War made a mess of things.

By the late 1800s, Northeast industrialists discovered the “sport of kings” and began breeding and racing operations in New York and New Jersey. But savvy Kentuckians lured them here with a clever marketing campaign built around an Old South myth of the mint julep-sipping Kentucky colonel. That story is told in the soon-to-be-published book, How Kentucky Became Southern, by retired Herald-Leader turf writer Maryjean Wall (University Press of Kentucky, $29.95)

This is a big year for horses because of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, Sept. 25 to Oct. 10. The Games will be at the Kentucky Horse Park, which is a great place to learn about our equine heritage.The Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau has information about horse farm tours. And every April and October, you can see “racing as it was meant to be” at Keeneland Race Course.

But horses are just one part of Central Kentucky’s rich and colorful history waiting to be explored. This has been a popular tourist destination since Native Americans began wandering through about 13,000 years ago. When white surveyors first came here in 1750, Kentucky was a hunting ground for the Shawnee, Iroquois, Cherokee and other tribes.

By the 1770s, Britain’s colonies along the East Coast were getting crowded, and real estate speculators began eyeing land beyond the mountains. Richard Henderson bought much of Kentucky from the Cherokee in one of history’s biggest private land deals. Henderson tried to form his own colony, Transylvania, and hired a frontiersman named Daniel Boone to blaze a trail through the Cumberland Gap.

Boone also built Fort Boonesborough along the Kentucky River, not far from James Harrod’s fort at Harrodsburg, the first permanent settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains. Harrod’s fort has been reconstructed at Old Fort Harrod State Park in Harrodsburg, and a reconstruction of Boone’s fort can be seen at Fort Boonesborough State Park (for information on both, go here).

Authorities were not amused by Henderson’s land grab, and they voided his claim. Kentucky became a Virginia county and then, in 1792, the 15th state.

Land-hungry settlers rushed to Kentucky, in part because of author John Filson, whose 1784 best-seller, The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke, described this region as a “new Eden.” One place still recognizable from Filson’s descriptions is the Kentucky River Palisades, or steep limestone cliffs. You can see them on the one-hour Dixie Belle River Cruise from Shaker Landing.

The Shakers, a religious sect, sought their own Kentucky Eden, founding a utopian community in Mercer County in the early 1800s. The Shakers made elegantly simple furniture, architecture, crafts and music. But they didn’t believe in sex, which is why there are no more Shakers. The restored Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg is a great place to visit, stay overnight, eat and shop.

People found that Central Kentucky’s limestone water made good whiskey as well as strong horses. More than 90 percent of the world’s bourbon is still made here, and several distilleries welcome visitors.Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort has tours but isn’t part of the official Bourbon Trail.

Agriculture and trade made Lexington the most prosperous and cultured town in western America in the early 1800s. Young men came from all over to study at Transylvania University, and Lexingtonians proudly called their town the “Athens of the West.”

Loyalties were divided during the Civil War. Lexington was a big slave-owning town, but it also had been home to Henry Clay, who for decades fought harder than anyone else in Congress to preserve the union. Mary Todd, a Lexington girl, might have been married to Abraham Lincoln, but that didn’t stop many of her relatives from fighting for the Confederacy.

Lexington has several historic home museums that offer a glimpse into aristocratic 19th-century life, including Waveland State Historic Site (Parks.ky.gov); the Mary Todd Lincoln House; Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate; and the Hunt-Morgan House.

Downtown and surrounding neighborhoods are filled with history. The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation has mapped a Bicycle Tour of Historic Lexington (drive if you must), and Doris Wilkinson, a University of Kentucky sociology professor, developed an African-American Heritage Trail.

For an overview of local history, visit the Lexington History Museum downtown. A good place to explore Kentucky history is the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort.

This column is from the LexGo Guide to Central Kentucky. To read other articles from the Guide, click here.