Cynthiana museum like a well-organized community attic

March 5, 2013


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lexington neighborhood project results in history book

January 8, 2013

Every place has a story. When residents of Lexington’s Fairway neighborhood began researching the story of their place, they got a lot more than they expected.

They chronicled some fascinating history. But they also grew closer as neighbors, and they created a model for other neighborhoods interested in doing the same thing.

The idea began when Robert Figg was president of the Fairway Neighborhood Association in the late 1990s. He moved to the subdivision off Richmond Road in 1965, thinking he had found his family a starter home. That was 48 years and three home renovations ago.

Figg had heard many colorful stories about the neighborhood and its history, and he wanted to record interviews with longtime residents before the memories faded.

In 2008, the neighbors discovered that the Kentucky Historical Society offers technical assistance grants to train oral history interviewers and loans recording equipment. After training, the interviewers gathered some great material, now archived at the University of Kentucky’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History.

But some memories conflicted, and the more information interviewers gathered, the more they realized they needed to fill in gaps to complete the neighborhood’s story. That process turned into a book, Fairway, A Living History ($35 hard cover, $20 paperback. More information:

I have seen other neighborhood histories, but none that are as well-researched, well-written and well-illustrated. Even for readers with no ties to Fairway, it offers a fascinating glimpse into Lexington’s rich history.

The neighborhood historians had some good help: a five-member advisory board included four professional historians and archivists and one of the nation’s most respected journalists: Fairway resident John Carroll, retired editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Baltimore Sun and the Los Angeles Times.

“In many ways, this little piece of land is a microcosm of more than two centuries of American history,” said Valerie Askren, a member of the five-person committee that researched and wrote the book.

In examining the neighborhood’s 118 acres, the book outlines the early history of much of southeast Lexington. The story begins with a 1779 Virginia land grant to John Todd, one of three brothers who were among Lexington’s first settlers. Their descendants included Mary Todd, wife of Abraham Lincoln.

The land changed hands several times during the 1800s, including one time that underscored Kentucky’s racial and gender politics before the Civil War.

John Todd’s daughter and heir, Polly, was forced to give title to her land to her second husband, Robert Wickliffe, to secure freedom for her mixed-race grandson, Alfred Russell. That was because, upon her marriage to Wickliffe, Russell had legally become his slave. Once freed, Russell left Kentucky for Africa, where he later became president of Liberia.

Wickliffe’s heirs eventually subdivided and sold the land for residential development, creating the neighborhoods of Mentelle Park, Kenwick and, beginning in 1926, Fairway.

Fairway’s mix of traditional-style homes, built in the 1920s to 1950s, range from modest apartments and ranch houses to mansions. Several were designed by three well-known Lexington architects who built their own homes in Fairway: War field Gratz, Hugh Meriwether and Robert McMeekin.

Fairway’s development included two Kenwick elementary schools, the second built in 1937 and renamed in 1963 for its longtime principal, Julia R. Ewan. It is now the Lexington Hearing and Speech Center.

One little-known chapter of Fairway’s history is the military base that once occupied 12 acres north of the school along Henry Clay Boulevard. The Army Remount Station bought and processed military horses from 1920 until the cavalry was mechanized during World War II. It was also home to Troop B of the 123rd Kentucky Cavalry, a National Guard unit.

The Fairway Neighborhood Association paid for the book’s printing by soliciting $250 and $100 sponsorships from residents and others and from businesses with ties to the neighborhood. More than 400 books have been sold, with proceeds generating several thousand dollars for the neighborhood association.

Figg, Askren and Sandra Ireland, the book’s three principal authors, said their effort was particularly successful because Fairway has many longtime residents, including several generations of some families. But they encouraged other neighborhoods to follow their example.

“While working on this project,” Askren said, “I got to know my neighbors so much better.”