African American Encyclopedia reveals untold Kentucky stories

August 29, 2015

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

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

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

smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book signing

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

When: 5 p.m. Sept. 18

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


Centennial celebration planned Saturday for historic Duncan Park

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

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

 

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

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

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

Duncan Park has a fascinating history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

August 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily Bingham. Photo by Leslie Lyons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

August 18, 2015
Baby Cook Pic

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cook in 2012 at a reunion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Readers suggest many Lexington historic figures worthy of honoring

August 1, 2015
coloredtroops

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

 

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

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

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

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

Julia Britton Hooks

Julia Britton Hooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garrett Morgan

Garrett Morgan

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skold’s Dodge van honors Edgar Allen Poe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.


Sculptor seeks more statues of notable Kentucky women, minorities

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

July 14, 2015

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some names I would suggest:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bequest allowed family to restore its circa 1841 ancestral home

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The entry hall of Buknore in Bourbon County.

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

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

The former farm office room at Buknore has been converted into a bedroom. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

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

The dining room at Buknore. Much of the furniture has been in the Bourbon County house for generations. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

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

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

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

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

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


A Lexington landmark saved, but Georgetown treasure may be lost

April 14, 2015

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

 

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

First, the good guys:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Backpackers walking in the footsteps of Daniel Boone

March 21, 2015

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Lexington History Museum plans ‘museum roundtable’ Wednesday

March 16, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Amid slavery, some free blacks prospered in Antebellum Lexington

February 21, 2015

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Black History Month founder was also an Appalachian coal miner

February 3, 2015

For several years, I have written a series of columns each February about little-known aspects of the history of Kentucky citizens of African descent.

So it seemed fitting to begin this year’s series with a look at the man who created Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson. A prolific author, historian and activist, he was the key figure in the recognition of black history as an academic specialty.

150204Woodson0002But before all of that, Woodson grew up in Appalachia, worked as a coal miner and began his academic career as a student at Berea College.

Many people don’t know about Woodson’s Appalachian roots, said Alicestyne Turley, director of Berea’s Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education and an assistant professor of African and African American Studies.

“In fact, I never knew he had been a student at Berea until I came here,” she said. “It just never came up on the radar.”

Woodson was born in 1875 near New Canton, Va., the oldest of nine children of former slaves. After the Civil War, his parents moved to West Virginia when they heard Huntington was building a high school for blacks.

Woodson studied on his own while working as a coal miner. He wasn’t able to enter that high school until he was 20, but it took him only two years to earn a diploma.

“He had everything you would normally think of in an Appalachian background — except that he was black,” Turley said.

“Honestly, historians have not done a lot of work on his early life,” she added. “I wonder: what was he doing then besides working in the coal mines?”

After high school, Woodson began teaching in Winona, W.Va., at a school that black coal miners started for their children. But he wanted more education, and Berea College seemed a logical choice.

Berea was founded in 1855 by abolitionist John G. Fee on land given him by Cassius Clay of Lexington, an outspoken emancipationist newspaper publisher. It became the first non-segregated, co-educational school in the South.

Woodson commuted from West Virginia by train and only studied part-time. Still, he managed to earn a bachelor’s of literature degree in 1903. His timing could not have been better.

150204Woodson0001The next year, Kentucky’s General Assembly passed the Day Law, which prohibited blacks and whites from attending school together. That law wasn’t repealed until 1950, and during the decades in between, Berea shifted its focus to white Appalachian students of modest means.

Woodson went on to earn another bachelor’s and a master’s degree in European History from the University of Chicago, and he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1912, he became the second black person, after W.E.B. Du Boise, to earn a doctorate from Harvard University.

Frustrated that white scholars were either ignoring or misrepresenting the history of his people, Woodson started what is now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which celebrates its centennial this year.

The association sponsored conferences, primarily to teachers of black children. Woodson edited the association’s Journal of Negro History until he died in 1950.

Woodson founded Associated Publishers in 1920, which was the nation’s oldest black-owned book publisher when it was dissolved in 2005.

In 1926, Woodson launched Negro History Week, sandwiched between the birthdates of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass on Feb. 12 and Feb. 20.

“He had to fight to get that week,” Turley said. But the concept gained acceptance and spread, eventually becoming Black History Month.

Woodson, who spent most of his academic career at Howard University in Washington, D.C., also became a political activist and a regular columnist for Marcus Garvey’s weekly newspaper, Negro World.

He wrote more than two dozen influential articles and books, the most famous of which was “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” published in 1933.

“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions,” one of the book’s frequently quoted passages says. “You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it.”

After Woodson left Berea, he continued a correspondence with the college’s president, William Frost. Turley said those letters are revealing.

“He often talks about what he learned at Berea,” she said. “He understood Berea’s commitments of learning, labor and service. Those were things that stayed with him the rest of his life.”


The fascinating story of Henry Clay’s ‘mad artist’ younger brother

December 27, 2014

Gigi LacerPorter Clay is thought to have made this games table in his Lexington shop in the early 1800s.  Henry Clay’s younger brother made excellent furniture, and charged high prices for it. Photo by Bill Roughen from the book, Collecting Kentucky 1790-1860.

 

Henry Clay has been famous for two centuries, but almost nobody remembers his younger brother, Porter, whom the statesman once described as “the greatest man I ever knew.”

Porter Clay, born two years after Henry in 1779, was a Baptist preacher and lawyer who served as Kentucky’s state auditor and Woodford County attorney. He also was a mercurial man who lacked the people skills that made his brother the “great compromiser” — and he paid dearly for it.

But his greatest achievement came in his first career, as one of early Kentucky’s best cabinetmakers. Several pieces of furniture he is thought to have made still survive, and they are attracting new attention from scholars and collectors.

The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., has just published a biographical essay about Porter Clay in its online journal (Mesdajournal.org). It includes new research by the author, James Birchfield of Lexington, retired curator of rare books at the University of Kentucky Library’s Special Collections.

Birchfield will give a free lecture about him at the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual Antiques & Garden Show March 6-8 at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Alltech Arena.

And in 2016, the MESDA Journal will publish a companion article about his furniture by Mack Cox, a Madison County geologist who has become a leading scholar and collector of early Kentucky decorative arts.

PorterClay“I think he was very bright, a mad-artist kind of a guy,” Birchfield said of Porter Clay. “He was a superior craftsman, but he was always breaking up with everybody.”

Like his older brothers Henry and John, Porter was born in Hanover County, Va., to the Rev. John Clay, a Baptist minister jailed for preaching contrary to the colonial Church of England, and his wife, Elizabeth. He died in 1781, and Elizabeth remarried Henry Watkins. They moved to Kentucky in 1791 and ran a tavern in Versailles.

Henry stayed in Virginia to study law before moving to Kentucky in 1797. By that time, Porter was apprenticed to Lexington cabinetmaker Thomas Whitley. But a year before his seven-year indenture was finished, he ran away to New York, where he worked as a journeyman amid America’s best furniture craftsmen, who included Duncan Phyfe.

Porter Clay returned to Lexington a year later — his brother having negotiated a financial settlement with Whitley — and set up shop making furniture. Henry was one of his brother’s clients, and records show that not only was he charging prices higher than Phyfe was in New York, but he apparently didn’t give a family discount.

Porter Clay, like most Kentucky cabinetmakers then, did not sign his work, so identification of pieces has been based on style, provenance and available records. Henry loved to drink and gamble, and the furniture he ordered from his brother in 1803 included a pair of games tables, now thought to be in a private collection.

Porter’s first shop was in a house that still stands at the corner of Mill and Church streets. Three years later, in 1806, he built a new house and shop behind a bank on Main Street, beside what will soon become the 21C Museum Hotel.

In 1804, Porter married Sophia Grosh, a ward of the Hart family, Henry’s in-laws. Her sister married John Wesley Hunt, Kentucky’s first millionaire who built what we now know as the Hunt-Morgan House museum.

With his craftsmanship and social connections, Porter should have been a successful businessman. He took on a partner, Robert Wilson, in 1807. But a year later, they split and Porter left cabinetmaking to become an entrepreneur.

He partnered with William Smith in 1808 in an ironworks and boat-building business. But they split up within three years, and Porter moved to Richmond, Va., to follow his brother’s path and study law. He returned two years later and practiced law in Nicholasville, Versailles and Lexington and served as Woodford County Attorney. Then Porter Clay got religion.

At the time of his conversion, he later wrote, “I determined to throw myself under the protection of my Heavenly Father and wait His good providence rather than make my thousands in an unholy calling.”

Porter Clay apparently reconciled the conflict, because in 1820 the governor (perhaps through his brother’s influence) appointed him state auditor at the then-handsome salary of $3,000.

But being both a state official and preacher brought him nothing but grief. When he audited a legislator who belonged to his church, they became embroiled in a bitter dispute. Porter Clay was excommunicated from his church in 1827. His people skills, Birchfield writes, were apparently “less polished than his sideboards and tea tables.”

In 1829, tragedy struck: death claimed Porter Clay’s wife, daughter, mother, step-father and eldest brother, John. He remarried six months after his wife’s death, but his new wife came with debts and a son who didn’t like him. Porter resigned as state auditor in 1834, and the family moved to Illinois.

Within five years, Birchfield writes, Porter Clay had become an outcast in his own home and he left for Missouri to stay with a relative. His brother then got him a job with the American Colonization Society, which urged masters to free their slaves and send them back to Africa, to a colony in Liberia.

By the 1840s, Porter was an itinerate Baptist preacher in Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas. He refused further help from his brother. Stricken by fever in Camden, Ark., he died Feb. 16, 1850 at age 71. He was buried in a grave unmarked for 60 years.

Porter “has gone, poor fellow,” Henry wrote his wife, Lucretia, when he heard the news. “He had but little to attach him to this life.”


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