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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Lloyd McMillan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps “paradise lost” may yet be found again.

Chaumiere du Prairie Photo by Tom Eblen |

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


Chaumiere du Prairie Photo by Tom Eblen |

Outside detail of the circa 1823 octagonal parlor.


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

Inside the octagonal parlor.


Chaumiere du Prairie Photo by Tom Eblen |

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

John Bryan Bowman Photo Courtesy of Transylvania University Library Speical Collections

John Bryan Bowman Photo Courtesy of Transylvania University Library Speical Collections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 1, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

African American Encyclopedia reveals untold Kentucky stories

August 29, 2015

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book signing

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

When: 5 p.m. Sept. 18

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

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.”

Former EKU VP’s retirement job: piloting the Valley View Ferry

August 16, 2015
James Street looks out from the pilot house of the Valley View Ferry. Street has always loved boating and earned his maritime licenses, so since he retired as an Eastern Kentucky University vice president he has worked a few days a month piloting the ferry across the Kentucky River between Madison County and Fayette and Jessamine counties.  Photos by Tom Eblen

James Street looks out from the pilot house of the Valley View Ferry. Street has always loved boating and earned his maritime licenses, so since he retired as an Eastern Kentucky University vice president he has worked a few days a month piloting the ferry across the Kentucky River. Photos by Tom Eblen


VALLEY VIEW — Some executives dream of retiring to a big boat on a big body of water, and that is just what James Street did.

Since retiring as Eastern Kentucky University’s vice president for administration in July 2013, Street and his wife, Stacey, have spent a lot of time on their 34-foot Beneteau 331 sailboat on Kentucky Lake and their Catalina 22 on Cave Run.

But several days a month, Street pilots a less glamorous craft: the Valley View Ferry.

The ferry is a small tugboat lashed to a barge and tethered to an overhead cable. It goes back and forth across the Kentucky River more than 100 times a day, carrying a maximum of three vehicles between Tates Creek Road in Madison County and Tates Creek Road on the Fayette-Jessamine line.

Valley View, the last of dozens of ferries that once plied the river, is Kentucky’s oldest continuously operated enterprise — seven years older than the state itself. The ferry’s first owner, John Craig, got a charter in 1785 from Virginia’s governor, Patrick Henry.

The three counties bought the ferry from private owners in 1991 and operate it with local and state government funding. Passengers are a mix of tourists and commuters crossing to jobs in Lexington, Nicholasville and Richmond.

“I’ve always wanted to be a captain since I was a little kid,” said Street, 60, who got his first sailboat at age 19.

Street last year earned Coast Guard certification to pilot ferries and charter boats. So Roger Barger, a Madison County magistrate who pilots and manages the ferry, asked him to help when he could.

“Oddly enough, you still need a full license to pilot a boat on a rope,” Street said.

Piloting the ferry is a 14-hour workday — 12 hours of operation and an hour on either end for maintenance.

Usually, the pilot has help from a Madison or Jessamine jail trusty, who secures the barge to cleats on each shore’s ramp so cars can load and unload. But when a trusty isn’t available, the pilot does that in addition to running the boat and recording each car’s license information and number of occupants.

Piloting the ferry is very different from the fast-paced, high-pressure jobs Street had at EKU for two decades. And that is what he likes about it.

“I don’t miss answering the phone and email and text messages,” he said, noting that Valley View is a cellphone dead zone. “It’s a real change-up from what I did for most of my professional life.”

Before joining EKU, Street was Lexington’s commissioner of public works.

“I actually administered the purchase of this boat,” he said of the John Craig, which was filling in for a newer tug, the John Craig II, which was having mechanical trouble. “Talk about coming full circle.”

Street prefers chatting with ferry passengers to wrestling budgets, employees and deadlines. “I grew up in Madison County,” he said, “so I see people here I’ve known all my life.”

The free ferry carries 200 to 400 vehicles a day, operating 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends. It often is shut down for days at a time because of high water in the spring and summer, and ice in the winter.

What Street enjoys most about this job is the beauty of Valley View. Some mornings, especially in the early fall, the river is shrouded in fog until the sun rises from surrounding hills to burn it off.

“I love getting down here and watching the dawn break,” he said. “There’s a subtle palette. The light is never the same; the mist is never the same.”

Between the morning and afternoon rushes, there are times when Street is alone on the river. He shuts off the tug’s noisy diesel engine and enjoys the silence.

“It’s so peaceful here,” he said, nodding toward a flock of geese swimming nearby with their goslings. “I enjoy watching the geese grow up.”

As the morning rush subsides, Street and I talk. He suddenly realizes it has been 10 minutes since his last trip. He steps into the pilot house and kills the engine — just as a car appears across the river looking for a ride.

“Almost had some silence,” he said with a sigh as he restarted the engine.

James Street piloted the Valley View Ferry across the Kentucky River for Madison County commuters on their way to Lexington before sunrise on Aug. 7.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Street piloted the Valley View Ferry across the Kentucky River for Madison County commuters on their way to Lexington before sunrise on Aug. 7.

James Street looks out from the pilot house of the Valley View Ferry. Street has always loved boating and earned his maritime licenses, so since he retired as an Eastern Kentucky University vice president he has worked a few days a month piloting the ferry across the Kentucky River between Madison County and Fayette and Jessamine counties.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Street looks out from the pilot house of the Valley View Ferry.

When James Street, a former Eastern Kentucky University vice president, pilots the Valley View Ferry, he usually has help from a prisoner trusty from Madison County. When they are unavailable, he must do everything, from piloting the boat to helping vehicles on and off.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

When Street pilots the ferry, he usually has help from a jail trusty. When one is not available, he must do everything, from piloting the boat to helping vehicles on and off.

Valley View Ferry pilot James Street waved to a friend driving onto the ferry. He grew up in Madison County, where he retired last year as a vice president at Eastern Kentucky University, so he knows many of the patrons.  Photo by Tom Eblen |  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Street waved to a friend driving onto the ferry. He grew up in Madison County,  so he knows many of the regular passenger.

When James Street, a former Eastern Kentucky University vice president, pilots the Valley View Ferry, he usually has help from a prisoner trusty from Madison County. When they are unavailable, he must do everything, from piloting the boat to helping vehicles on and off.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Street secures a safety rope on the ferry between trips.

While piloting the Valley View Ferry, James Street records the license information of vehicles that use the free service across the Kentucky River between Madison County and Fayette and Jessamine counties. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Street records the license information of vehicles that use the free service across the Kentucky River.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would a better flag boost Kentuckians’ pride in their state?

June 20, 2015



Kentucky needs many things: better health, more education, less poverty, less political corruption, a more-prosperous middle class, a less-polluted environment.

And a better state flag. I have thought that for years, but I’ve always considered flag design a trivial issue in a state with so many bigger challenges.

Ben Sollee changed my mind.

If you don’t know Sollee, he is an enormously talented singer, songwriter and cellist (yes, a cellist) whose unique style of folksy, bluesy, socially conscious music has attracted an international following. He also is a proud Kentuckian.

Ben Sollee. Photo by Tom Eblen

Ben Sollee. Photo by Tom Eblen

Sollee performed in Frankfort this month at the Kentucky Historical Society’s annual Boone Day festivities. I sat on stage and interviewed him between songs about his Kentucky roots and how they influence his art.

Kentuckians have a lot to be proud of, Sollee said, but they don’t express that pride as much as do residents of some other U.S. states and Canadian provinces. He thinks part of the problem is our flag.

“When I travel and I see people in British Columbia or Colorado or California, they are proud of where they’re from,” he said. “And they wear it all over. Everyone’s sporting the state flag, the state image, the state logo.

“We don’t have that in Kentucky,” he added. “Our state flag is not adopted on a cultural level. We need a better state flag!”

Two men wearing antique clothing and shaking hands in the middle of a blue flag, surrounded by goldenrod weed and a lot of words just doesn’t cut it graphically.

The handshake guys make a fine official seal. “United We Stand, Divided We Fall” is a great motto for a commonwealth, which is a more noble thing to be than a mere state. Goldenrod is pretty,  even if it does make me sneeze. But all thrown together, these things make a boring flag.

“Sitting here at the Kentucky History Center, I understand that’s a bit of blasphemy,” Sollee said, although his comments drew loud applause from the audience.

“There’s a lot of heritage behind that flag,” he added. “But there’s a lot of new heritage that’s not being represented by that flag. It’s a bad design, and it doesn’t communicate to a wide swath of people easily.”

I think Sollee is right, and so do flag design experts. Yes, there are experts who study the design, use and cultural significance of flags. They are called “vexillologists” and among the places they hang out is the North American Vexillological Association.

Last year, the association published “guiding principles” for good flag design. Kentucky’s flag violates most of them. It is what vexillologists call an S.O.B. — seal on a bedsheet.

When you see Kentucky’s flag flying at a distance, which is the way we usually see flags, it is blue with a vague golden blob in the middle, virtually indistinguishable from the flags of a half-dozen other states.

What state flags do the vexillologists like? Those of New Mexico, Texas, Maryland, Alaska, Colorado and Arizona, to name a few. They approach the quality of great national flags, such as the United States, Canada, Great Britain and South Africa. Even some cities, such as Chicago and Washington, have flags designed so well that residents embrace them.

With few exceptions, well-designed flags are simple, with two or three basic colors and meaningful symbolism that is easily recognized. They are distinctive, and they avoid seals and writing of any kind.

As Ted Kaye, author of the book Good Flag, Bad Flag, puts it: “A flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.”

When designing a flag, experts recommend starting with a rectangle 1 by 1½ inches. If a design doesn’t work in that small a space, it just doesn’t work.

“We could have a crowd-sourced campaign, which is to say let’s get the in-state artists to submit designs and have a competition,” Sollee suggested. “Let’s create a new piece of art that can be our state flag that we can all get behind and adopt.

“It would do wonders for people outside of Kentucky recognizing and visiting this place,” he said. “It would do wonders to have a banner that we could all wave around. I think it’s a small step that we could make big strides with. Let’s do it!”

Backpackers walking in the footsteps of Daniel Boone

March 21, 2015

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


New film tells the stories of groundbreaking Kentucky women

March 7, 2015

150308KyWomen0002Willa Beatrice Brown of Glasgow was a pioneering black woman aviator in the 1930s. She and her husband operated a flight school that trained 200 black pilots during World War II for the famed Tuskegee Airmen unit. She is featured in the film “Dreamers & Doers: VOICES of Kentucky Women.” Photo provided


When women demanded the right to vote a century ago, men scoffed.

“Masculine females, members of the shrieking sisterhood,” Henry Watterson, editor of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, called the suffragettes. “I doubt nine of 10 women would know what to do with the ballot if they had it. Politics will only pollute their domestic interests and coarsen their feminine character.”

Such comments did not deter several Kentucky women who would gain national prominence as progressive reformers, including Josephine Henry, sisters Laura and Mary B. Clay and Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, whose husband edited the Lexington Herald.

“Kentucky women are not idiots,” Breckinridge wrote to Gov. James McCreary in 1915, “even though they are closely related to Kentucky men.”

These four women’s stories are among 40 featured in a new film, Dreamers & Doers: VOICES of Kentucky Women, sponsored by the Kentucky Commission on Women.

The documentary by Lexington filmmaker Michael Breeding will have its first premiere on Tuesday in Frankfort, followed by three more across the state, including Lexington, and will eventually be shown on KET. DVDs of the film will be sent to every state middle and high school.

Madeline McDowell Breckinridge

Madeline McDowell Breckinridge

“We came to the conclusion that the role of women in Kentucky had never been recorded and disseminated as widely as it should be,” said Linda Roach, a commission member. “We want people to see this and say, ‘I never knew about that woman! Look what she did!'”

Trying to do justice to Kentucky’s long list of outstanding women in an hour-long film was a challenge for Breeding, an independent filmmaker who has a dozen shows in the KET catalog, including last year’s, Kentucky Governor’s Mansion: A Century of Reflection.

Breeding started with 69 names from Kentucky Women Remembered, an exhibit at the State Capitol. In the final selection, he looked for racial and geographic diversity and pioneering women who made contributions in a variety of areas, including politics, education, medicine, the arts, athletics and entertainment.

Martha Layne Collins, who in 1983 became Kentucky’s first and only woman governor, helps connect these women’s stories as the film’s narrator. Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen and several other women add commentary.

First lady Jane Beshear and Madeline Abramson, wife of former Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, were instrumental in creating the film, as was Eleanor Jordan, the commission’s executive director, Breeding said.

Major funding for the film came from Toyota, The Gheens Foundation, Frontier Nursing University, the Kentucky Arts Council and the commission’s foundation.

Some women featured in the film are familiar figures: politicians Thelma Stovall, Georgia Davis Powers and Mae Street Kidd; singers Rosemary Clooney, Loretta Lynn and Jean Ritchie; and Frontier Nursing Service founder Mary Breckinridge.

But what makes the film fresh are the stories of many lesser-known but no-less fascinating Kentucky women.

What Mary Breckinridge was to poor mountain children in Eastern Kentucky, Dr. Grace James (1923-1989) was to poor inner-city children in Louisville.

The pediatrician, who began a practice in 1953 when city hospitals were segregated by law, also was the first black faculty member of the University of Louisville’s medical school.

Nettie Depp was the first woman elected to public office in Barren County. She was county school superintendent from 1913-1917, and she took the job very seriously.

She repaired dilapidated rural schools, built new ones and added libraries. She initiated a uniform curriculum, created the county’s first four-year high school and fined parents who refused to send their children to school. During her tenure, county school attendance tripled.

Depp was the great-great aunt of actor Johnny Depp and Lexington sculptor Amanda Matthews, who is working on a statue of Nettie Depp she hopes to have placed in the State Capitol.

Rose Monroe, a Pulaski County native, became a feminist symbol during World War II when she worked at a Michigan factory building B-24 bombers. She was the model for the “Rosie the Riveter” image on the iconic “We Can Do It!” poster.

An even bigger contributor to the war effort was Willa Beatrice Brown of Glasgow, a pioneering black female pilot, aircraft mechanic and flight instructor. She earned business degrees from Indiana and Northwestern universities, but continued her education at Chicago’s Aeronautical University, earning commercial pilot’s and master aviation mechanic’s licenses.

Brown and her husband, Cornelius, operated a flight school in the 1930s that trained nearly 200 pilots who became part of the famous Tuskegee Airmen unit during World War II.

“These women … opened doors that other women walk through,” Roach said. “It’s important for girls today to look at these women and say, ‘If she could do it, why not me?'”

To learn more

For information about the documentary’s showings, including one in Lexington scheduled for April 9 at the Kentucky Theatre, go to

150308KyWomen0001Martha Layne Collins, the only woman to serve as Kentucky’s governor, narrates the film “Dreamers & Doers: VOICES of Kentucky Women”, which has its first premiere on March 10. Photo provided


Alice Dunnigan’s amazing story, from Ky. segregation to Capitol Hill

February 7, 2015

150208Dunnigan002President John F. Kennedy reaches down to speak with Alice Dunnigan, the Russellville native who became the first black woman to be a widely accredited Washington journalist.   Photo courtesy of Carol McCabe Booker


Alice Allison Dunnigan grew up on a red-clay hill in Logan County, the daughter of a poor sharecropper and a washerwoman.

She, too, would wash clothes and clean houses for white people before working her way through Kentucky State University to realize her first big dream, becoming a school teacher.

But Dunnigan is remembered today for climbing another hill — Capitol Hill — where in the late 1940s she became the first black woman journalist accredited to Congress, the White House and other major assignments in Washington, D.C.

Dunnigan died in 1983 at age 77, but Carol McCabe Booker, a former journalist and lawyer, remembers meeting her once at a party. Dunnigan was a friend of Booker’s husband, Simeon, 96, another pioneering black journalist.

But it wasn’t until two years ago, when the National Association of Black Journalists inducted both Dunnigan and Simeon Booker into its hall of fame, that Booker learned more about this woman’s amazing life story.

She tracked down a rare copy of Dunnigan’s 1974 self-published autobiography, A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House. It inspired her to edit a new edition of the book, which the University of Georgia Press will publish Feb. 15 as Alone atop the Hill ($26.95).

150208Dunnigan003Booker will be in Kentucky next week to talk about Dunnigan and sign books. She speaks Feb. 17 at the Kentucky Historical Society‘s monthly Food for Thought lunch in Frankfort ($25, or $20 for members; reservations due Feb. 13. Call (502) 564-1792, ext. 4414, or email

The next day, Booker speaks to KSU students. And on Feb. 19, she goes to Dunnigan’s hometown for a free, public event at 2 p.m. in Russellville’s African American Heritage Center, 252 South Morgan Street, sponsored by the Kentucky Human Rights Commission.

Dunnigan tells her compelling story in the clear, direct style that made her an influential voice in black newspapers nationwide when she was Washington bureau chief for the Associated Negro Press news service.

“I thought she deserved the right to tell her story in her own words, in her own voice,” Booker said when we talked by phone last week. “I wanted Alice to have a chance in this new era.”

Dunnigan’s writing needed little editing, Booker said. But she did make one big change: she cut the 670-page autobiography by more than half, leaving out the last chapters that covered her years in government service after she left her poverty-wage journalism job in 1960. The final chapters were not nearly as interesting as the rest of the story, Booker said.

The new book is a fascinating read, filled with anecdotes that show how pervasive discrimination limited possibilities for both blacks and women at the time. Dunnigan always thought her gender was as much of a hindrance as her race.

“That’s why I think the story has wide appeal,” Booker said. “A young woman of any race reading that story can glean some inspiration from it.”

Dunnigan’s motto was, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” She decided at age 13 to become both a teacher and a journalist to “tell people how to improve their lives.” But her parents and husbands from two failed marriages offered little encouragement.

Even after Dunnigan “made it” in Washington, she was barred from some venues, or had to sit with servants at events instead of with other reporters. She endured openly racist congressmen and President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s refusal to answer her tough news conference questions about discrimination and civil rights.

Dunnigan, the first black woman elected to the Women’s National Press Club, got access to power because she demanded it. She won respect and dozens of journalism awards for her accuracy, fairness and persistence.

But she never made much money in journalism. Dunnigan often had to pay her own travel expenses to cover stories, and she writes of pawning her watch each Saturday so she would have enough money to eat until her paycheck arrived on Monday.

A year before her death, Dunnigan published her second book, The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: Their Heritage and Tradition. It is a collection of sketches she wrote in the 1930s to inspire students in the segregated schools where she taught.

“You could say that Alice had one fantastic career as a communicator in three venues — teaching, journalism and government,” Booker said. “It was being a teacher on a broader level.”

150208Dunnigan001Alice Dunnigan, the Russellville native who became the first black woman to be a widely accredited Washington journalist, greets A.B. “Happy” Chandler, the former Kentucky governor, senator and U.S. baseball commissioner.  Photo courtesy of Carol McCabe Booker

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 ( 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.”

Bourbon tour town’s founders escaped years of Indian captivity

September 30, 2014

140922RuddlesMills0064Philip and Michele Foley on the porch of their house in Ruddles Mill, which was built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It will be open for tours Sunday. Photos by Tom Eblen 


RUDDLES MILL — Since Philip and Michele Foley moved here 35 years ago from Cynthiana, they have worked to restore not one but two houses built in the 1790s.

Few people would be that tenacious — or, as the Foleys say, that foolish. But tenaciousness comes naturally to this town. Its founders returned here after surviving a bloody attack and years of captivity in Shawnee villages near Detroit.

Both the elegant home where the Foleys live and a rough, stone house the town’s founder built for his son will be on tour 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday during Historic Paris-Bourbon County’s annual Fall Open House.

The tour also includes nearby Moore’s Chapel, the 1850s Greek Revival sanctuary of Ruddles Mill United Methodist Church. Tickets are $15, $10 for HPBC members. More information:

Even today, few people agree on how to spell this unincorporated community of about 75 households at the confluence of Hinkston and Stoner creeks in northern Bourbon County. It goes by various singular, plural and possessive forms of Ruddle, Ruddel, Ruddell and Mill.

But there is no uncertainty about the town’s founder and namesake. Capt. Isaac Ruddell, a pioneer and Revolutionary War officer, is buried here, too, at Mouth of Stoner Presbyterian Cemetery.

140922RuddlesMills0021In 1779, Ruddell enlarged and fortified pioneer cabins built a few years earlier in a nearby area of what is now Harrison County. But the next summer, a thousand Shawnee warriors and Canadian soldiers under the command of British Capt. Henry Bird attacked Ruddell’s Station and other nearby settlements.

More than 20 settlers were killed, and dozens more men, women and children were taken prisoner, marched to Detroit and held captive for years. After their release, Ruddell and most of his family returned to Kentucky and built a mill here in 1788.

But two of Ruddell’s sons, Stephen and Abraham, had been adopted by the Shawnee and stayed with the tribe for 15 years. Stephen, who married a Shawnee woman and was a chief, rejoined white civilization and became a Baptist preacher and missionary among the Shawnee, Delaware and Wyandot tribes in Ohio and Indiana.

Abraham returned to Kentucky in 1795, and his father built him the stone house the Foleys are gradually restoring near the creek banks. Abraham Ruddell operated a saw and grist mill there for several years before moving to Arkansas and fighting in the War of 1812.

The Foleys have removed wooden additions to the house, rebuilt the chimneys and put a steel frame in the basement to keep the cellar from collapsing. “All I can say is it’s not going to fall down,” she said. “We hope to do more one of these days.”

Things are much nicer up the hill, at the Federal-style house where the Foley’s have lived since 1979. They think the main rooms, each built as a separate unit with thick brick walls, were constructed in the 1790s and early 1800s.

Making the place habitable and comfortable was a long process for them and their two daughters, who are now grown and living near Nashville and Cincinnati.

The biggest chores — aside from electricity and plumbing and restoring the original woodwork — were undoing previous owners’ “improvements”. The Foleys found the house’s original wooden mantles in a barn, but one was badly warped from years of storage. A neighbor built a wood frame to gradually bend it back into shape so it could be returned to the house.

“Every morning we would water it down and tighten the clamps until it got straight,” she said. “At one point, all of the oil paint and buttermilk paint just started popping off.”

The Foleys are retired from state government jobs. They have planted their big yard with more than 20 varieties of magnolia trees, gardens and beds for their business, Ruddles Mills Perennials and Native Plants.

It is one of the few businesses left in Ruddles Mill, which once had several mills and distilleries. The town has many early 19th century structures, most of which are still in use after multiple renovations. People here don’t give up easily.

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Uniquely Kentucky: Closing essay from Friday’s special section

September 30, 2014

abeEduardo Kobra’s mural of Abraham Lincoln in downtown Lexington, with the moon over his shoulder. Photo by Tom Eblen


Kentucky has always been at a crossroads. Buffalo came looking for food and water. Native Americans came looking for buffalo. Pioneers and settlers came looking for land and opportunity.

Originally the Western frontier, Kentucky has been more or less at the center of the country geographically since the 1830s. Culturally, though, it remains a place unto itself. Many places, actually.

Early settlers came to the Bluegrass for fertile land and pure water to produce hemp, tobacco, strong-boned horses and good whiskey. Eastern Kentucky developed a rich, complex Appalachian culture as newer immigrants joined Anglo-Saxon settlers when railroads opened the mountains for timber and coal harvesting.

Communities along the Ohio River, long nourished by commerce, have created personalities all their own, as have those amid the farms of Southern Kentucky. Western Kentucky rolls out like a rumpled green carpet to the Jackson Purchase, encompassing many unique local cultures.

Ask someone in China what they know about Kentucky and they are likely to reply, “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” I went to church once with friends in a small Australian town and was introduced to the minister afterward. He immediately said, “Ah, the Kentucky Derby!”

The recent popularity of bourbon has given Kentucky another international claim to fame. Jimmy Russell, the master distiller at Wild Turkey, told me that when he travels to Asia, Europe and Australia he is treated like a rock star. As he should be.

Kentuckians know how to eat well. Nothing is better than Western Kentucky barbecue in the summer or spicy burgoo in the winter. Any morning that begins with country ham and biscuits is a good morning.

Louisville has the calorie-packed Hot Brown sandwich, otherwise known as “heart attack on a plate.” Want something lighter? Try benedictine, a cucumber spread long popular with Louisville ladies who lunch.

Immigration continues to enrich Kentucky’s culture and palate: Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and African. The newest menu item at the 134-year-old Fancy Farm Picnic in Graves County is barbecue nachos.

Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky, as was his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis. America’s greatest sports car, the Corvette, is made in Bowling Green. The stoplight was invented Garrett Morris, a black man from Paris.

Country music owes much of its sound to old-time Kentucky fiddlers and the hard-charging mandolin of Kentuckian Bill Monroe. And don’t forget Loretta Lynn, Jean Ritchie, Ricky Skaggs and Sam Bush.

Lexington’s Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning has started calling Kentucky the “literary capital of mid-America.”  Sure, it’s a big boast. But consider the evidence: Robert Penn Warren, James Still, Wendell Berry, Harriette Arnow, Bobbie Ann Mason, Barbara Kingsolver, Sue Grafton, Jesse Stuart, Silas House, William Wells Brown, Hunter S. Thompson, C.E. Morgan and too many more to mention. Outsiders may still joke that Kentuckians don’t wear shoes, but we sure can write.

That’s the good news. Now for some bad news: Kentucky lags most other states in many measures of health, education, social welfare and economic innovation.

Kentuckians tend to cling to what worked in the past rather than leveraging their unique assets, heritage, culture, location and know-how for a brighter future. We carelessly spoil beautiful landscape with strip mines and strip malls. We focus on fears instead of possibilities.

Remember what I said about Kentucky being at a crossroads?  It has never been more true than today.

New book chronicles colorful history of Kentucky’s oldest church

August 5, 2014

140730Anders-TE0022Mickey Anders, the recently retired pastor of South Elkhorn Christian Church, in the 1870 old sanctuary. He recently wrote a book about the church’s history. Photo by Tom Eblen


Church histories are usually of little interest outside the flock. But when I heard about a new book telling the story of South Elkhorn Christian Church, I thought it would be worth a look.

The church has been located on the banks of South Elkhorn Creek — now 4343 Harrodsburg Road — since 1784. But the congregation was formed in Virginia in 1767, making it arguably the oldest in Kentucky.

“This church has an incredible story that needed to be told,” said Mickey Anders, who recently retired as pastor and is the author of An Ever Flowing Stream ($18, “I felt like this could be my legacy gift to the church.”

Earlier books, in 1933 and 1983, had told some of the history. But Anders thought he could do a better job with the wealth of information now available on the Internet. It helped that he had access to almost all of the church governing board’s minutes going back to 1817.

Lewis Craig started Upper Spotsylvania Baptist Church near Fredericksburg, Va., in 1767. But he and other Baptist preachers soon angered officials of the Anglican Church, the government-sanctioned religion of colonial Virginia.

Craig was jailed for his preaching, and Patrick Henry is said to have interceded to free him. Craig soon led his congregation over the Appalachian Mountains to Kentucky in what became known as “The Traveling Church.”

Colonial Virginia’s persecution of Craig and other Baptists was a big reason framers of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 included the First Amendment, which guarantees the freedoms of speech, religion and the press.

Craig’s brother, Elijah, was also a Baptist minister who came to Kentucky. But he is more famous as an early distiller of bourbon whiskey. “We’re probably the only church with whiskey on display in our history cabinet,” Anders said, pointing to a couple of bottles of Elijah Craig bourbon amid other artifacts.

The church’s attitudes toward some social behavior have changed over time, Anders said.

South Elkhorn paid its second pastor on one occasion with 36 gallons of whiskey, and he was expected to keep an ample supply on hand for guests. A few decades later, the church dismissed members for excessive drinking. Now, Anders said, alcohol is usually “not an issue.”

Two South Elkhorn members were reprimanded for betting on horse races in 1895. A year ago, Anders preached the funeral of church member Robert Moore, a Thoroughbred trainer who broke four Kentucky Derby winners.

Lewis Craig and other early members owned slaves, who attended church with their masters. The 1819 minutes included this entry: “Lucy (Capt. Berry’s woman) charged with fornication and murdering her own infant. The church took up the matter and excluded her for the same.” Anders wonders: Was it her master’s baby?

South Elkhorn reached peak membership in 1801 during the so-called Second Great Awakening. The most famous of those revivals was at Cane Ridge in Bourbon County, but on the same day, 10,000 people gathered at South Elkhorn.

Anders was especially fascinated by 19th century theological disputes, which now seem esoteric but then caused bitter divisions in congregations and even families. They led to a split in South Elkhorn’s congregation in 1822.

“Reading the minutes, it was difficult to tell what the fight was about,” Anders said. “It took me months to piece together that it was really over Calvinism and Arminianism,” two views of Christian theology.

The Elkhorn Baptist Association expelled its mother church over theological differences in 1831. South Elkhorn became an independent Church of Christ and later affiliated with the Disciples of Christ denomination. Over the next century, congregational disputes would involve everything from instrumental music to evolution.

After the 1830s, the area’s religious center of gravity moved to a growing Lexington. South Elkhorn spent the next 150 years as a “sleepy little country church,” Anders said. It didn’t even have complete indoor plumbing until 1961, when the men’s outhouse mysteriously burned down one Sunday morning.

South Elkhorn began growing again in the 1980s, when it was surrounded by Palomar, Firebrook and other new subdivisions. In 1985, a larger worship center was built beside the historic 1870 sanctuary.

“I think it’s a story worth telling,” Anders said. “It connects with so much of Lexington’s history, with the nation’s history, with the history of religion in the area.”


Expert to speak March 19 about iconic Kentucky long rifles

March 11, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like much of local black history, 1920s blues song a surprise

February 23, 2014

February is Black History Month, and this is the third year I have written one column a week during the month about Kentucky black history.

I’ve always found history interesting, but working on these pieces has been a special treat, because much of this information is new to both me and most Herald-Leader readers.

While I do some of the research myself, I get a lot of help from professional and amateur historians, both black and white. Like me, they have become fascinated with this rich vein of history that until recent years was rarely explored or publicized.

Special thanks this year to these sources for research, ideas and other information:

  • Yvonne Giles, an amateur historian who has become an authority on Lexington black history. Her extensive research on the Lexington Colored Fair was invaluable.
  • Maureen Peters, a Lexington architect, who pointed me to outstanding research that she and her friend, the architectural historian Rebecca McCarley, had done on brick mason and entrepreneur Henry Tandy and his son, architect Vertner Woodson Tandy.
  • Thomas Tolliver, a former Herald-Leader reporter who lives in the East End and is passionate about preserving its history.
  • Former State Sen. Georgia Powers of Louisville, who generously shared her own story and information about how the 1964 March on Frankfort was organized.
  • Former State Sen. Joe Graves of Lexington, another March on Frankfort organizer, who candidly discussed how the civil rights movement influenced his life and the white community.
  • The Kentucky Historical Society.

As a postscript, Kakie Urch, an assistant professor in the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Telecommunications and a radio host on WRFL, sent me a 1920s blues song I had never heard of before: The Lexington Kentucky Blues, by Papa Charlie Jackson.

Click on the video below to hear Jackson singing about coming to Lexington to play at the Colored Fair, seeing the great racehorse Man O’ War, going to the races, spending time on Limestone Street and meeting J. Rice Porter, the Colored Fair’s president from 1926-28. It sounds as if he had a great time.

Like much of local black history before I started this project, the Lexington Kentucky Blues was new to me.



Lexington Colored Fair was once a top national event

February 23, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

New film marks centennial of Kentucky Governor’s Mansion

January 11, 2014


Gov. Steve Beshear and his wife, Jane, are shown on a video monitor in circa 1914 formal attire Jan. 5 during filming of a re-creation of the gala ball that opened the then-new Governor’s Mansion 100 years ago this month.  Members of Lexington Vintage Dance performed ballroom dances from the period. Photo by Tom Eblen 


FRANKFORT — The Governor’s Mansion turns a century old this month, and preservationists have organized a bipartisan celebration to raise money to help keep “the people’s house” in good shape for another hundred years or more.

Events begin this week with the premiere of a film about the mansion’s role as both a temporary home for governors and a venue for public hospitality and economic development. The film is narrated by ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer, a Kentucky native.

A symposium about the mansion is planned Jan. 22. There will be a reception March 5 after festivities marking the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 march on Frankfort. And a Centennial Gala ball is planned June 7. For details and event tickets, go to:

The documentary, Kentucky Governor’s Mansion: A Century of Reflection, was produced by Lexington filmmaker Michael Breeding and paid for by Marion Forcht of Corbin and the Forcht Group. It premieres Jan. 15 at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort and Jan. 16 at the Kentucky Theatre in Lexington.

140105GovsMansion0022“I wanted the film to tell the inside story of what has gone on in that mansion over the years,” Breeding said. “There’s a lot of history and stories, and part of it is a restoration story.”

The film opens with a re-enactment of the ball Gov. James McCreary gave Jan. 20, 1914 to open the mansion. That scene was filmed last Sunday evening with a cast of amateur actors in period attire. They included Gov. Steve Beshear, his wife, Jane, and members of Lexington Vintage Dance.

The Beshears seemed to have as much fun as everyone else, dressing up in vintage clothing to “party” in front of cameras. “I guess it’s OK to be seen having makeup put on now that I don’t have to run for re-election,” the second-term governor joked.

The film includes interviews with the Beshears and 30 other former governors, their family members and mansion staff. The full interviews will be preserved at the Kentucky History Center.

I sat in on part of the interview with Steve Collins and Marla Collins Webb, children of Martha Layne Collins, Kentucky’s first and only female governor, 1983-87.

“We all worked together as a family,” Steve Collins said, noting that his father, dentist Bill Collins, handled his duties as Kentucky’s “first man” with good humor and hosted “varmint” dinners for outdoorsmen. “They even roasted a raccoon one time,” Collins recalled.

One memorable event was a lavish but secretive dinner Gov. Collins gave in 1986 for Toyota executives when she was trying to get the assembly plant for Georgetown. The secret got out to everyone in Frankfort when the event concluded with a fireworks show.

140112GovMansion-Stock0022McCreary, for whom McCreary County is named, was the first of 24 governors who have lived in the mansion. He also was the last to use a horse and buggy. The film recalls that his successor, Augustus O. Stanley, preferred a newfangled automobile. But the mansion’s location on a steep bluff east of the Capitol proved problematic.

One Sunday morning as the Stanleys were getting ready for church, a staff member brought the sedan to the mansion’s back door and left it running unattended. Within minutes, the car rolled backward over the cliff.

Stanley is said to have walked out, looked down at what was left of his car and stoically said, “There’s another $1,500 gone to hell.”

Mansion construction began in 1912 after the General Assembly appropriated $75,000 to replace the previous governor’s home, built in downtown Frankfort in 1798. Five years ago, the old mansion got a $1.5 million, privately financed renovation and is now used as a state guest house.

Architect brothers C.C. and E.A. Weber of Fort Thomas designed the new mansion in the Beaux-Arts style, mimicking the Petit Trianon villa at Versailles (France, not Kentucky). Clad in Bowling Green limestone, the 18,428-square-foot mansion came in $20,000 over budget, so landscaping was postponed for years to save money.

The mansion, decorated with a rotating collection of borrowed fine art, is one of only a few state governors’ homes regularly open for public tours. Because more than 12,000 people visit each year, the mansion gets a lot of wear and tear.

The first major renovation began in 1982 during Gov. John Y. Brown Jr.’s administration after a fire marshal declared the place unsafe. Phyllis George Brown raised private money for much of the work and elegant furnishings, as Glenna Fletcher did 25 years later when the mansion needed another updating.

Jane Beshear and David Buchta, state curator of historic properties, thought the centennial was a good opportunity to both celebrate the mansion and raise money for an endowment to help with upkeep. Their goal is to raise $1 million for the non-profit Kentucky Executive Mansions Foundation before the Beshears move out.

Mike Duncan and Terry McBrayer, Kentuckians who have held top jobs in the national Republican and Democratic parties, co-chair the Mansion Centennial Celebration Committee.

Among its fundraising efforts is the “county seats” project. Each county is being asked to give at least $1,000 toward 120 new ballroom dining chairs that are being made by student artisans at Berea College. So far, Buchta said, nearly half the state’s counties have agreed to contribute.

“This is so much more than the governor’s house,” said Ann Evans, the mansion’s executive director. “It has become an important tool for economic development, tourism and just making people feel welcome in Kentucky.”

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New book showcases Kentucky’s antebellum decorative arts

September 15, 2013

Gigi Lacer

SIMPSONVILLE — When journalists Genevieve Lacer and Libby Howard began collecting Kentucky antiques more than a decade ago, they were surprised by how little information was readily available.

A few monographs had been written and some museum catalogs published. The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., had collected some scholarship. The Magazine Antiques had featured Kentucky pieces in special issues in 1947 and 1974.

But there were no comprehensive books about Kentucky-made furniture, silver and textiles, even though they were some of the finest produced anywhere in antebellum America.


Libby Turner Howard, left, and Genevieve Baird Lacer. Photo by Tom Eblen. Photos from their book by Bill Roughen.

What the friends soon discovered was that considerable scholarship had been done on early Kentucky decorative arts, but most of that knowledge resided in the heads and notebooks of a few dozen passionate collectors.

That prompted Lacer and Howard to write and publish Collecting Kentucky 1790-1860. The 360-page book is detailed and exacting, yet readable and beautifully designed, with 600 illustrations by Lexington photographer Bill Roughen. State historian James Klotter wrote the forward.

“The book gives you a visual entryway into things you’ll never see, because they’re in private homes,” Lacer said, and only a few pieces from historic house museums are included “because we literally ran out of room.”

The book’s 270 “subscribers,” who paid $275 early in the process to get leather-bound special editions, receive their books Sunday at a private reception. A $75 “collector’s” edition goes on sale Monday at bookstores and antique shops around the state (for more information, go to

Lacer, who lives in Shelby County, wrote an award-winning 2006 biography of Swiss artist Edward Troye, who painted America’s greatest racehorses in the mid-1800s. Howard, who lives in Henry County, is a former editor of Kentucky Homes and Gardens magazine.

In approaching their book project, Lacer and Howard wanted to document Kentucky antiques and explore their histories, relationships and craftsmen. They also wanted to explain the goals and objectives of serious collectors they knew about, all of whom live in Kentucky.

“These are people who have spent 30, 40, 50 years refining a viewpoint about their collections,” Howard said. “They all have a focus. We became fascinated with how, visually, they are telling the story of antebellum Kentucky as they understand it.”

Book Jacket w-flaps_cmyk.inddTen major collections are profiled in separate chapters. Objects from 40 more private collections are gathered by object type in an 83-page “archive” at the back. Between each chapter is a small essay that tells an interesting story about an object, its maker or the time and place in which this work was created.

Only one collection is identified with its owners’ names, because it is the only major collection now in the public domain. Over three decades, Garrard County natives Bob and Norma Noe assembled one of the most impressive collections of early Kentucky antiques. They recently donated it to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville.

The Speed is now closed for a major renovation and expansion. But when it reopens in 2016, the Noe Collection will be the foundation of a new Center for Kentucky Art, the first permanent museum space devoted to Kentucky works.

Bob Noe encouraged Lacer and Howard to write Collecting Kentucky as both a primer and a reference book, and he said in an interview that he is pleased with the result.

“I think the book will do wonders to add context in an area too often neglected,” Noe said. “Kentuckians need to know more about our early culture.”

The six decades covered in this book were exciting times in Kentucky. After statehood in 1792, Kentucky transitioned from America’s frontier to being a prosperous and influential region of agriculture and trade.

Prosperity created demand for decorative art and utilitarian items that were both beautiful and functional. Because Kentucky had little colonial tradition, early decorative arts often featured motifs of patriotism, and native flora and fauna.

Craftsmen in all parts of Kentucky produced remarkable work. Some, such as silversmith Asa Blanchard and cabinetmaker Porter Clay (brother of Henry), created pieces as fine as anything then being made on the East Coast.

The book features many outstanding examples of chests, cupboards, desks, case clocks, tables and chairs made of native cherry and walnut with poplar inlay, as well as imported mahogany. The authors tried to pull together available research on the craftsmen who made these items, linking pieces to regional styles.

Early Kentucky silver, often made from melted coins, has long been prized. Lacer said one of the most fun experiences in compiling the book was when several collectors brought more than $1 million worth of silver to her home to be photographed. Roughen was able to create images comparing large groups of work that had never been brought together before.

The book includes a section about one of Kentucky’s most famous products of the era: the long rifle. Kentucky rifles were not only accurate and dependable weapons; they often were highly decorated works of art.

Lacer and Howard said they hope their book will spark more public interest and scholarship in early Kentucky decorative arts.

“We just scratched the surface,” Lacer said. “We left out big collections we know about, and I can only imagine the ones we don’t know about. This is a lot bigger idea in our state than I ever dreamt.”

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