Historic homes on tour next weekend in Harrodsburg, Georgetown

November 30, 2014

141122Harrodsburg-TE0004The Burrus/Trisler House is on the 23rd annual Holiday Homes Tour on Dec. 6 from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., sponsored by the Harrodsburg Historical Society.  Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

There’s no place like home for the holidays, especially when it is a grand old Kentucky mansion you don’t have to clean or decorate.

More than a dozen old houses, churches and public buildings in Mercer and Scott counties will be on tour next weekend. Plus, there will be candlelight tours and children’s activities at the circa 1848 Waveland mansion in Lexington.

This is the 23rd year for the Harrodsburg Historical Society’s Holiday Home Tour on Dec. 6. In addition to tours of seven Mercer County properties, there will be a mapped driving tour of the Salvisa community.

The Queen Anne-style Coleman House is owned by former state Rep. Jack Coleman and his wife, Cala. Before he bought it, Coleman didn’t know that his great-grandfather, Clell Coleman, a state auditor and agriculture commissioner, once lived in the 1880 brick-and-shingle mansion.

141125Georgetown-TE0026The Colemans have completed a restoration started by previous owners, adding their own special touches. A former porch was converted into a long, cozy kitchen with flooring salvaged from Lexington tobacco warehouses.

The attic was turned into a Western-themed den honoring Cala Coleman’s grandparents, a cowboy and postmistress in Utah. The oak postal cabinet she used now stands behind a bar.

“Everything is from our families,” Coleman said of the extensive antique collection in the house, which they plan to open next year as a bed-and-breakfast. “We say we’re the keepers of the stuff.”

Mercer County Judge-Executive John Trisler and his wife, Kay, have done extensive work on their Greek Revival farmhouse off Kirkwood Road, which dates to the 1830s and maybe earlier. They added a new kitchen and den on the back, making the elegant old place a more comfortable place to live.

Warwick, the former estate of the renowned architectural historian Clay Lancaster, will be included in the tour. The compound includes the circa 1809 Moses Jones House and two architectural “follies” Lancaster built, a tea house and a guest house based on the ancient Tower of the Winds in Athens, Greece.

Another unique property is Diamond Point, an elaborate Greek Revival structure that has been renovated as Harrodsburg’s welcome center and offices for the chamber of commerce, tourism bureau and two other local agencies.

Other stops are the circa 1850 McGee House on Jackson Pike; the 1881 Salvisa Christian Church; and Old Mud Meeting House, built in 1800 that is one the last remaining pioneer log churches in Central Kentucky.

Maps are available for a self-guided driving tour of other Salvisa-area historic homes that will not be open that day.

141125Georgetown-TE0032On Dec. 7, the Scott County Arts & Cultural Center will have its Tour of Historic Homes, featuring six properties in downtown Georgetown.

The tour is a fundraiser to restore one of Georgetown’s most interesting buildings: a Romanesque Revival jail built in 1892. Plans call for it to become an expansion of the Arts & Cultural Center now located in the adjacent old jailer’s house.

Two of the properties on tour are stately mansions built before the Civil War: the early 1800s Cantrill House beside the Georgetown College campus; and Walnut Hill, a Greek Revival-style mansion built as the summer home of James McHatton, who once owned eight plantations along the Mississippi River.

Beside Walnut Hill is a large, 1888 Italianate villa whose unusual double front door features four busts of big-busted women.

Georgetown’s 1899 City Hall, which like the Scott County Courthouse beside it is one of Central Kentucky’s most elegant old public buildings, will be part of the tour. So will Holy Trinity Church Episcopal, a Gothic Revival structure with a stone façade and red doors that has been in use since 1870.

The best option for parents with young children who want some history with their holidays may be the candlelight tours at Waveland State Historic Site, off Nicholasville Road just south of Man O’ War Boulevard.

In addition to decorations at the circa 1848 Greek Revival mansion, school choirs will perform and Santa will read stories and visit with children.

If you go

Harrodsburg Holiday Home Tour, 1 p.m. – 6 p.m., Dec. 6, $15, or $11 for seniors and groups of 20 or more. Tickets available at tour locations. More information: (859) 734-5985 or Harrodsburghistorical.org.

Scott County Arts & Cultural Center’s Tour of Historic Homes, 1 p.m. – 5 p.m., Dec. 7. $10. Tickets available in advance and at tour locations. More information: (502) 570-8366.

Waveland candlelight tours, 6 p.m. — 9 p.m., Dec. 5-6. $7 adults, $6 seniors, $4 students. Free for age 6 and younger. More information: (859) 272-3611.

 

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‘Lost Lexington’ a reminder of great buildings and people

November 1, 2014

The cover of Lost Lexington explains why Peter Brackney’s new book is so timely: It shows a mothballed old courthouse in desperate need of renovation beside the gigantic crater that has replaced the city’s oldest business district.

141102LostLexington002Brackney, a lawyer and writer of the local history blog Kaintuckeean.com, said the plight of the old Fayette County Courthouse and the CentrePointe boondoggle were big motivations for writing his book.

So was the University of Kentucky’s controversial demolition this summer of several significant mid-century modern buildings on his alma mater’s campus to make way for new construction.

“Everywhere you see a parking lot, something once stood,” Brackney said in an interview. “I think the more you learn about some of these historic structures, the more you appreciate what we have left.”

Brackney focuses on what is gone, and it is an impressive collection of special buildings and places once central to community life. They include elegant mansions, a racetrack, an amusement park, a football stadium, railroad stations and a private garden that early settlers referred to as “paradise.”

Lost Lexington (The History Press, $19.95) includes a forward by Mayor Jim Gray and many photographs. But what makes it most interesting is Brackney’s thorough research into these places and the remarkable people associated with them. I know a lot about Lexington history, but I learned some things.

Brackney begins with Lexington’s best-known preservation story: the 1955 demolition of the 1798 Hart-Bradford House for a parking lot. That act, and fears that the 1814 Hunt-Morgan House across the street would be next, led to creation of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation and the city’s first preservation laws.

“If you looked at the Hart-Bradford House and didn’t know a thing about who lived there, you would think there was nothing special about it, just a nice two-story brick house,” Brackney said.

brackneyBut, as the book explains, that house was built by Henry Clay’s father-in-law, Thomas Hart, a Revolutionary War veteran and influential land speculator. The next resident was John Bradford, Kentucky’s first newspaper publisher and a major civic leader. Clay was married in that house, and Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan may have been, too.

Few people now remember another longtime resident of the house: Laura Clay, an early champion of women’s rights. She learned about the subject the hard way: watching her father, emancipationist Cassius Clay, cheat her mother out of property after their divorce.

Among the several fabulous, long-gone estates featured in the book is Chaumiere des Prairies, where three U.S. presidents were entertained and the traitor Aaron Burr was held under arrest.

Col. David Meade’s estate was famous for its beautifully landscaped gardens. When he died in 1832, a farmer who bought the property destroyed them with grazing livestock, prompting neighbors to post signs about “paradise lost.”

Brackney tells the stories of such 20th century landmarks as the Phoenix Hotel, Union Station, the Southern Railway depot and Joyland Park. Joyland Park was famous for its amusement rides and the huge dance pavilion where Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw and other big band leaders performed.

One interesting story was about how, for 23 years, the afternoon Lexington Leader gave every white kid in town free swimming lessons at Joyland’s public pool. In those segregation days, the newspaper provided free swimming lessons for black children at Douglass Park.

The book tells about two sporting venues that no longer exist: the Kentucky Association racetrack and Stoll Field/McLean Stadium, the home of UK football games and other community events before Commonwealth Stadium replaced it in 1972.

UK’s recent demolitions and the CentrePointe project, which destroyed more than a dozen downtown buildings and 51/2 years later is nothing more than a hole in the ground, were a wakeup call for historic preservation in Lexington.

But Brackney, who lives in Jessamine County, laments that many other communities still haven’t gotten the message. Nicholasville’s oldest Main Street commercial building, built in the early 1800s, was recently demolished.

“While we do have to balance preservation and progress, we have to make sure there’s an understanding that people lived and worked in each of these places; they’re not just bricks and mortar,” he said.

“Drive down Nicholasville Road, drive down Richmond Road, and there’s nothing that separates them from Glendale, Ariz., or any new city,” Brackney added. “There’s nothing that makes them unique. And it’s Lexington’s history and uniqueness that helps make it a great city.”

If you go

Peter Brackney will speak and sign copies of Lost Lexington:

5:30 p.m. Nov. 3: Thomas Hunt-Morgan House, 210 N. Broadway, hosted by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. The event includes a panel discussion about historic preservation in Lexington.

2 p.m. Nov. 9: The Morris Book Shop, 882 E High St.

6 p.m. Nov. 9: Barnes & Noble bookstore, Hamburg Pavilion.

7 p.m. Dec. 2: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington Green.


Frontier Nursing University marks 75 years, from horse to Internet

October 7, 2014

141001FrontierU0003

A Frontier Nursing Service nurse visits a family in the 1930s. Photo provided. Below, Frontier Nursing University President Susan Stone. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

HYDEN — In her 1952 autobiography, Wide Neighborhoods, Mary Breckinridge told how she started Frontier Nursing Service here in 1925 to show how nurses also trained as midwives could make a big difference in rural health care.

Breckinridge, who died in 1965 at age 84, could not have imagined just how wide her old neighborhood would become.

The nurse-midwives she sent out on horseback to remote cabins in the mountains of Leslie and Clay counties were trained in England until World War II made travel there impossible. So, in 1939, Breckinridge started a small school for midwives, who deliver babies.

That school is now Frontier Nursing University, which is celebrating its 75th year as the nation’s oldest and largest school for nurse-midwives. Its graduates work in all 50 states and seven foreign countries.

Frontier also is marking 25 years as a distance-learning institution. It pioneered many of the online methods now beginning to revolutionize all higher education.

Many students, faculty, alumni and supporters were in Kentucky over the weekend for anniversary festivities. Events included a gala in Lexington, where Frontier has its administrative offices, and tours of the campus in Hyden, which coincided with the town’s annual Mary Breckinridge Festival.

The celebration not only marked an illustrious past, but also a promising future.

141001FrontierU0008Mary Breckinridge would seem an unlikely pioneer of health care for the rural poor. She was a society lady, born into one of Kentucky’s most distinguished families. Her father was a congressman and ambassador to Russia; her grandfather was Vice President John C. Breckinridge, whose statue stands in Lexington’s Cheapside Park.

But Breckinridge was living in rural Arkansas when her two children died young, and she blamed inadequate medical services. Already trained as a nurse, she volunteered in France after World War I and saw the difference nurse-midwives made there.

Breckinridge went to England for midwife training, then dedicated the rest of her life to improving public health in Eastern Kentucky by focusing on young children and their mothers.

Because there were few good roads here then, Frontier Nursing Service’s uniformed nurse-midwives rode horses to places such as Confluence, Cutshin and Hell-for-Certain. They carried medical equipment in their saddle bags, delivered babies and staffed community clinics. For serious cases, there was a doctor at the small hospital Breckinridge helped build on Thousandsticks Mountain overlooking Hyden.

After World War II, Eastern Kentucky’s population declined as the region modernized. Jeeps replaced the last Frontier horses in the 1960s. After the area hosted clinical trails for the birth-control pill, the birth rate plummeted.

By the 1980s, Frontier nurses mostly provided home health care to elderly people and staffed Mary Breckinridge Hospital, which was sold to Appalachian Regional Healthcare in 2011. The school for midwives struggled until it ventured into distance learning in 1989.

Susan Stone was a student in that first distance-learning class for midwives. She became a faculty member in 1993, remembering how she was told to buy a bigger mailbox because distance learning then meant a lot of packages and postage.

Stone has been president of Frontier Nursing University since 2001, and she has led dramatic growth made possible by the Internet, an expansion of degree programs and an increased demand for graduates.

Frontier had about 4,000 graduates in the first 75 years. Now it has 1,500 students enrolled in several master’s and doctoral nursing programs in addition to midwifery. Annual admissions have had to be capped at 700.

The average Frontier student is a 35-year-old registered nurse. More than 90 percent are women, and 70 percent live in rural areas. They come to the Hyden campus only two or three times: for a few days of orientation, a few days of clinical simulations and, if they wish, for their graduation ceremony.

“Our target is nurses who live in rural areas and want to stay and serve in those areas but want a graduate degree,” Stone said.

Students study online with 96 faculty members scattered across the country and do clinical work in their own communities. “We’ve been able to recruit a high-quality faculty because we don’t make them move,” Stone said.

Stone thinks the demand for nurse-practitioners and nurse-midwives will continue to increase because of trends in the health care industry. She sees Frontier continuing to change to meet needs.

“One of the things we teach our students is entrepreneurship,” she said. “Sometimes what is needed is just not there and you have to create it.”

For example, one of Stone’s future goals is to offer training for psychiatric nurses, who are in big demand but short supply in rural America.

“Mary Breckinridge’s whole idea was that this would be a pilot project and there would be replications,” Stone said. “It’s just amazing when you look at what our graduates are doing. They really are going to change the face of health care.”

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Ashland estate marks War of 1812 with artifacts, re-enactors

September 23, 2014

If you hear cannon and musket fire near downtown Saturday, don’t be alarmed. The colorfully costumed soldiers and Native Americans aren’t invading Lexington; they’re just performing for Living History Day at Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate.

Ashland this year is marking the bicentennial of the War of 1812. And, no, it’s not two years late. Among the many little-known facts of this often-overlooked war is that, while it began in June 1812, the fighting didn’t stop until February 1815.

Ashland is commemorating the Treaty of Ghent, which Clay, John Quincy Adams and other American representatives negotiated with the British and signed on Christmas Eve 1814.

ghentjacketAs the congressman from Central Kentucky and speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Clay was a politician for all seasons. He not only helped end the War of 1812, he helped start it, too. That dual role helped launch one of the most illustrious American political careers of the 19th century.

But Clay was hardly the only Kentucky connection to the War of 1812.

“Kentucky doesn’t have any battlefields for this war; the war itself didn’t happen here,” said Eric Brooks, Ashland’s curator. “But more than any other conflict this nation has fought, the War of 1812 was a Kentucky war.”

Kentucky contributed 25,000 soldiers to the War of 1812 — more than all of the other 17 states combined. About 60 percent of the war’s casualties were Kentuckians. At the battle of Wild Cat Creek in northern Indiana, almost every U.S. soldier was from Hopkinsville.

Much of the gunpowder used by American forces was made from saltpeter mined in Kentucky, including at Mammoth Cave. Newport was the U.S. Army’s major supply depot. Twenty-two of Kentucky’s 120 counties are named for War of 1812 veterans.

In 1812, Clay and other “war hawks” pushed for declaring war on Great Britain, which despite its Revolutionary War loss continued to mess with the new nation. Of greatest concern was Britain’s arming of Native American tribes, who were attacking white settlers who had taken their land.

While the War of 1812 settled most of those issues, it ended up being a military stalemate that came at high cost: British troops invaded Washington, D.C., and burned the White House and the Capitol.

“We as a state need to understand the role we played in solidifying this nation as a legitimate and survivable nation in the world,” Brooks said. “Prior to the War of 1812, there were a lot of countries that thought the United States was a flash in the pan, that democracy would never work.”

Saturday’s festivities at Ashland will include re-enactors from Ohio and Michigan portraying the 2nd Kentucky Militia. There also will be Native American re-enactors, who will demonstrate tomahawk throwing at their encampment on the 17 acres that remain of Clay’s 600-acre estate, most of which is now the Ashland Park and Chevy Chase neighborhoods.

There also will be farm animals, crafts, special activities and an actress portraying Charlotte Dupuy, a slave who filed a highly publicized lawsuit against Clay trying to win her family’s freedom.

Ashland has several important relics related to the War of 1812 that will be on display. They include a copy of the Treaty of Ghent in Clay’s own handwriting, his place card at the negotiating table and an ivory cane he received as a gift.

The mansion also has one of two paintings Clay won while playing cards with his fellow negotiators. (In addition to being a masterful politician, Clay was a party animal who loved to drink and gamble.)

Ashland’s most important War of 1812 relic is the military-style coat Clay wore during treaty negotiations in Ghent, which is now in Belgium. Clay’s coat set the style for American diplomatic attire for decades. It was last worn by a Clay descendant when Ashland opened to the public as a museum in 1950.

“That’s the last time it will be worn, too,” Brooks said. “If for no other reason than there are not a lot of 6-foot-2, 145-pound men around anymore. And, obviously, it’s very, very fragile.”

If you go

What: War of 1812 Living History Day

When: 10 a.m. — 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27

Where: Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate, 120 Sycamore Road.

Cost: $14 adults; $7 younger than 18; $35 family.

More information: Henryclay.org, (859) 266-8581


Before vacation season ends, experience wonders close to home

August 12, 2014

140731Maker'sMark0168This art glass installation in the ceiling of a barrel warehouse is the newest visitor attraction at the Maker’s Mark distillery in Marion County. Below, Ward Hall in Georgetown is a Greek Revival masterpiece. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

There’s a chill in the air this week. Schools are back in session. Fall is beginning to arrive.

But if you want to stretch vacation season a little longer, here’s an idea: Find time to visit some Central Kentucky wonders. You know, the places tourists come from around the world to see but locals often forget about.

Here are a few suggestions. For more details on many of them, go to Visitlex.com, the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website.

Horses. This may be the horse capital of the world, but when did you last see one? Spend a day at the Kentucky Horse Park (Kyhorsepark.com) or visit a Thoroughbred farm. Several farms welcome visitors who schedule in advance. Or you can do like out-of-towners do and book a horse farm bus tour.

Keeneland Race Course is the best place to see Thoroughbreds in action. The park-like grounds are open year-around. The yearling sales are Sept. 8-21. The fall racing meet is Oct. 3-25. More information: Keeneland.com.

Bourbon. More than 90 percent of this globally popular whiskey is made within a short drive of Lexington. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is becoming a major tourist draw. My favorite distilleries to visit include Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Wild Turkey and Four Roses near Lawrenceburg, Maker’s Mark near Lebanon and Woodford Reserve near Versailles. More information: Kybourbontrail.com.

Country roads. Some of my favorite places to enjoy Central Kentucky’s beauty are the country roads that connect the region like a vast spider’s web. These are perfect for scenic drives. I like to go by bicycle, but it takes experience to know which roads are safe and comfortable for cycling. The Bluegrass Cycling Club has well-managed group rides each week. Check the calendar: Bgcycling.net.

Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.comArchitecture and history. This was a rich agricultural region before the Civil War, and remnants of that era can be seen in Central Kentucky’s grand mansions. Architectural styles include Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and Gothic Revival.

Many historic homes are still private residences, but some of the best are open for tours. Among them: Ward Hall in Georgetown, White Hall in Madison County and these in Lexington: Waveland, the Hunt-Morgan House, the Mary Todd Lincoln House and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. Other must-sees: Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Mercer County and the Old Capitol in Frankfort.

Nature. Perhaps the least-known attractions in Central Kentucky are natural areas, but they can be spectacularly beautiful. I especially love the Palisades region of the Kentucky River, which stretches from Boonesboro to Frankfort.

Lexington’s Raven Run park is the most-visited natural area in the Palisades region. Others include Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve (lowerhowardscreek.org), Floracliff Nature Sanctuary (Floracliff.org) and Buckley Wildlife Sanctuary, all of which have more-limited public access.

Julian Campbell, a botanist and authority on native Kentucky plants, has begun leading monthly hikes to promote awareness and conservation of natural areas. More information: Bluegrasswoodland.com or email campmeet@gmail.com.

But you don’t have to go hiking in the woods to see Central Kentucky’s oldest and most magnificent natural specimens.

A unique feature of the Bluegrass landscape is huge burr and chinkapin oak, blue ash and kingnut hickory trees, some of which are thought to be 300-500 years old. Tom Kimmerer, a forest scientist, has launched a non-profit organization to study how to better care for these “venerable” trees, as he calls them. More information: Venerabletrees.org.

Because Lexington has literally grown up around these old trees, they can be found in some strange places.

Recent brush-trimming has highlighted a magnificent burr oak that Kimmerer is conserving for Ball Homes beside a new subdivision at Harrodsburg Road and Military Pike. In the 1990s, a parking structure for medical offices was built around another huge oak tree, near the corner of Harrodsburg and Mason Headley roads.

Other notable examples can be found in front of an Avis car rental office on South Broadway; on the lawns of Sullivan University and the mansion at Griffin Gate; and scattered among new buildings along Sir Barton Way in Hamburg.

Here’s an idea: as you drive around on your weekly errands, start an ancient tree scavenger hunt! Anything to make the lazy days of summer last a little longer.

140807Gainesway0018This burr oak tree on Gainesway Farm is likely several hundred years old. 


Scholars, curators get close look at early Kentucky art history

July 12, 2014

140709MESDA0279Robert Leath, chief curator at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., held a drawer from an early Kentucky chest so he and students in MESDA’s Summer Institute could see the interior construction. The chest is part of an exhibit of early Frankfort-made furniture now on display at the Governor’s Mansion. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

FRANKFORT — Most people think early Kentucky was only a place of log cabins and coonskin caps. They don’t imagine that Kentuckians two centuries ago were producing great paintings, fine silverware and inlaid furniture as elegant as anything coming out of Philadelphia or New York.

Last week, 10 up-and-coming scholars and museum curators got a traveling lesson in Kentucky’s rich history of visual art and craftsmanship.

The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., brought its prestigious Summer Institute to Kentucky for the first time. Students, faculty and guests got an intensive five-day tour of Central Kentucky landmarks and some of the state’s most valuable public and private collections.

“These are going to be the museum and institution leaders of the near future, and they have the potential to bring a lot of attention to Kentucky,” said Mack Cox of Madison County, a leading collector and scholar of early Kentucky furniture, paintings and long rifles. “We’re way behind (other states) in understanding and rediscovering our decorative arts past.”

I caught up with the group Wednesday morning at the Governor’s Mansion, where Cox was giving MESDA students and faculty an animated tour of an exhibit of pieces made by Frankfort artists between 1790 and 1820. They ranged from the sophisticated cabinetmaker William Lowry to convicts at the old state penitentiary, who made simple but elegant chairs.

“What you’re seeing, Kentuckians largely don’t know about,” Cox told the group, noting that such utilitarian objects as long rifles and powder horns were sometimes turned into beautiful works of art with elaborate engraving and metalwork.

The exhibit, part of the mansion’s 100th anniversary celebration, includes pieces from the Kentucky Historical Society, the Speed Museum in Louisville and the private collections of Cox, Mel Hankla of Jamestown and Tom Meng and Clifton Anderson of Lexington.

(The exhibit is free and open to the public during mansion tour hours through Aug. 26. For more information about the mansion and centennial events, such as a cocktail reception July 25, go to: governorsmansion.ky.gov.)

As Cox described each piece and the research that went into figuring out who made it and when, the students took photos and used little flashlights to examine details.

140709MESDA0137From Frankfort, the group traveled to Lexington for a tour of African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street, which has been restored in recent years. Its 5,000 graves include those of black Civil War soldiers and famous jockeys and trainers.

The group visited the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation’s Hunt-Morgan House and Pope Villa, two of Lexington’s most significant early 1800s mansions, and then went to Madison County to see White Hall, home of the fiery emancipationist Cassius M. Clay.

Other stops during the week included the William Whitley House in Stanford; the Old Capitol and Liberty Hall in Frankfort; Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Mercer County; the National Underground Railroad Museum in Maysville; Hopewell Museum and Cane Ridge Meeting House in Bourbon County and the Filson Historical Society and Locus Grove mansion in Louisville.

Before their trip, the students spent two weeks attending classes. When they return to North Carolina, they must finish Kentucky-related research projects and papers. Graduate-level course credit is awarded through the University of Virginia.

In his talk to the group, Cox pointed out stylistic traits of several significant Kentucky portrait painters of the early 1800s, including William Edward West. Because some of their paintings have been misattributed over the years to Matthew Jouett, the state’s best-known early portraitist, many Kentuckians don’t know how much talent was working here at the time, he said.

Catherine Carlisle, an art history graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, hopes her summer project will shed new light on one of those little-known Kentucky artists, Alexander Bradford.

“I’m thrilled to be able to see so many examples of the beautiful, beautiful portraits that were coming out of Kentucky, and so early,” she said.

While some of the students had never been to Kentucky, and knew little about its artistic heritage, it was a homecoming for Grant Quertermous, the assistant curator at James Madison’s Montpelier estate near Orange, Va. He is from Paducah.

“I really wanted to do this one,” he said. “It has been great to give everyone exposure to Kentucky.”

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Expert to speak March 19 about iconic Kentucky long rifles

March 11, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

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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

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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.

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

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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