Who’s Always Wanted to go to Lincoln’s Boyhood Home?

A little off the interstate west of Louisville lies the boyhood home of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s birthplace is in Kentucky, but his family relocated to southern Indiana in 1816. At the time, young Abe was about 8 years old.

My own eight year old was asleep when we arrived in the parking lot outside the visitor center. The older two lil’ Kaintuckeeans were disappointed they’d have to endure one of their dad’s historic jaunts, but were willing to placate me in order to make a bathroom pit stop. When he awoke, however, the li’lest Kaintuckeean exclaimed how he’d “always wanted” to come to the Lincoln Boyhood Home. No doubt my grin stretched from ear to ear.

Reading up on history. Author’s collection.

So the answer to who’s always wanted to go to Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home is: this guy.

As he read the plaque, he also learned that Honest Abe was his own age when his family relocated to this locale. In addition to the visitor’s center, there is a recreated farm homestead, the archaeological site of the original Lincoln homestead, and the cemetery where Nancy Hanks (the President’s mother) is buried.

I will study and get ready, and perhaps my chance will come.

A. Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln remained here for some fourteen years learning many of life’s lessons which he carried with him first to Illinois and then to our nation’s capitol.

Historic site of the Boyhood Home. Author’s collection.

Restore the Historic Markers

Previous Historic Marker at Hopemont in Lexington, Kentucky. WUKY.

In a column for the Jessamine Journal in 2015, I wrote about how historic markers shared Kentucky’s history. That 2015 column convoluted the Historic Markers Society and the current historic markers program in Kentucky when, in reality, the former evolved into the latter. A shortcut was made for the sake of brevity.

But the full history is being properly told this week at a legislative committee (Interim Joint Committee Tourism, Small Business, and Information Technology) which is hearing testimony on the need to restore and rehabilitate historic markers which have gone missing or are in need of repair.

In 1935, some businessmen from central Kentucky discussed an effort of “marketing the bluegrass” by “starting a movement” to promote historic places around the Bluegrass. this Historic Markers Society wanted to install 100 historic markers, though it fell short by delivering only 21. Ultimately, the historic markers program fell until state control and the effort was made to utilize these roadside markers to share Kentucky’s history statewide.

Unveiling by Foster & Brenda Pettit of the new Historic Marker #3 (#2365) at Hopemont in 2012. Author.

Many of the original 21 markers are in desperate need of repair, though some have already been repaired. Through that process, a more complete history can also be told (modern technique allows more text and context. To illustrate, compare the two photographs above of the marker outside Hopemont in Lexington; work to restore and update this marker was paid for by a non-profit organization.

Since 1935, joint federal and state efforts have sought to “preserve for public use historic sites, buildings and objects of national significance.” In 1966, the National Preservation Act strengthened this mission. The sites identified through the historic marker program truly tell Kentucky’s story through over 2,400 unique markers. You can explore them by clicking here. And you can support their repair and upkeep by encouraging your legislators to take up the cause of a line-item in the state budget for the preservation of these markers.

The hearing of the Interim Joint Committee will meet on Tuesday, July 27, at 1pm. Testifying will be Scott Alvey (Executive Director Kentucky Historical Society), Kurt Krouse (Chair, St. Paul Parish Historical Preservation Ministry), and Foster Ockerman Jr., JD (President and Chief Historian Lexington History Museum). Although the legislature is only hearing testimony at this time, it is our fervent hope that funding will be found so that Kentucky’s rich history can continue to be told through these historic markers.

When the Waters Rise

Depending on the region of Kentucky in which you leave, the concept of a flood differs entirely. To the western Kentuckian accustomed to acres upon acres of flat cropland near the Ohio River, rising waters inundate the soil. And while damaging, there is little surprising when rainfall and upstream gauges indicate what is to come. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the hollow valleys in eastern Kentucky where a flash flood can wash out all a family knows in a matter of second. There is no warning. Central Kentucky lies somewhere in between. Regardless of how the floodwaters impact you or your region, when the waters rise they can cause tremendous damage. To livelihoods, to buildings, to towns, and to the land itself.

I have hiked Asbury Trails a few times so far in 2021. There was torrential rain on February 28, 2021, which led to significant flooding along the Kentucky River. I mean, significant. In the fall of 2020, the kids and I tossed rocks into the river from a rocky beach at the base of the Wilmore water intake. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen much of that little beach.

The water intake pumps were constructed in 1973 by Asbury University (nee College) before being transferred to Wilmore in 1977. In the picture below, you can see the intake pump near the center of the photograph. If you are familiar with these trails, you might notice immediately that the walking bridge is not in this focus as it is entirely submerged. Yeah.

Waterlogged Asbury Trails on March 5, 2021. Author’s collection.

For a closer look at the water intake – and for comparison for how things should look, I offer the following photograph from March 27, 2021:

Wilmore Water Intake at the Kentucky River, March 27, 2021. Author’s collection.

The red line indicates the high water mark that I personally observed earlier in March. From a different before-after perspective, the photograph immediately below is from early February 2021. The rock and leaf covered creekbed runs through the center of Asbury Trails. The second photograph shows the destruction caused from the late February rains. Remember that in both pictures, I am standing on a bridge that was completely submerged during the days of the rising waters.

Pre-flood from the Asbury Trails bridge, 5 February 2021. Author’s collection.
Post-flood, from the Asbury Trails bridge, 27 March 2021. Author’s collection.

You can also see a new rut being created as the land evolves and the fresh rainwaters of March 2021 find their way to the Kentucky River. One final photograph of the land’s evolution is below showing the soil erosion adjacent to the trail as it runs alongside the river toward the spring, cave, and waterfall. Across the river, additional erosion was also visible.

Erosion visible on 27 March 2021 along the Kentucky River following late February/early March floods. Author’s collection.

Jessamine Creek Gorge Trail

Overstreet Creek Bridge on the Jessamine Creek Gorge Trail. Author’s collection.

For several years I have heard about the beautiful Jessamine Creek Gorge that cuts through central Jessamine County on its way to the Kentucky River. Part of the Kentucky River Palisades region, rocks exposed along this tributary are also magnificent.

Strong rains had fallen during midweek through Thursday, so a Friday morning hike seemed like the optimal time to explore this resource so close to Lexington. Adding to the enjoyment was the late winter date as some have commented that the trail becomes both overcrowded and overgrown later in the season. I dealt with neither, however, and thus had a splendid experience. The flora later in the season is also said to spectacular, so it may be another example of beauty being in the eye of the beholder.

Jessamine Creek Trail Entrance. Author’s collection.

Before saying more, I ought to reiterate this word of caution from the Jessamine County Trails Association:

Jessamine Creek Gorge is an ecologically sensitive area.  Please observe local ordinances and park rules. Stay on the marked trail. No trespassing onto neighboring properties. Don’t leave trash in the preserve.  There is a trash can at the parking lot. Park in the parking lot. Do not park anywhere along the road other than the parking lot. Ignoring the rules may result in the preserve being closed to visitors by Jessamine County Fiscal Court.

The trail itself is a little politically sensitive so following these rules is über-critical. Like staying on marked trails: yes, there’s an amazing 76-foot waterfall on Overstreet Creek. No, you can’t see it from the trail. Deal with it. There’s plenty more beauty to enjoy.

Jessamine’s Etymology

Jessamine County was carved from Fayette County in 1798. It was named after a flower that grew along the banks of the creek which already bore the name from an Indian tongue. Other accounts suggest that the county was named after the daughter of a settler, Jessamine, was scalped near the site. The naming of Jessamine County is unique under either story as it traditionally considered the only Kentucky county with a feminine name.

Under either account, the creek and the county around it are beautiful. These words appeared in the Lexington Leader on May 31, 1897: “Jessamine Creek is one of the most beautiful streams in Kentucky. It is not the unusually beautiful scenery along the banks of the creek, or its soft, clear limestone water which makes it an object of so much interest; but the stories of the many sad tragedies which have been enacted along its banks and in its waters.”

Dam Jessamine Creek?

In an attempt to control massive flooding along the Kentucky River, a proposal during the 1940s and 1950s would have seen a 148-foot tall dam constructed along the Kentucky River near the mouth of Jessamine Creek. According to a publication by the Army Corp of Engineers, Engineering the Kentucky River: The Commonwealth’s Waterway, such a construction project would have “submerged 21,500 acres of the Kentucky valley and ended navigation of the river upstream of Lock No. 7.”

Preservationists and others decried the project and it thus never received Congressional funding and never was constructed. Instead, levees and floodwalls were utilized to protect the Capital City (which was the main purpose for the proposal). Although the Jessamine Creek Dam project was first initiated in the early 1940s, it was finally killed in 1962. The timeline mirrored Frankfort’s Craw neighborhood.

A Beautiful Hike

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. When it comes to these hikes, I’d argue that a short video is worth a thousand pictures. Enjoy and please share your experiences of hiking at Jessamine Creek Gorge in the comments!

Speaking Engagements?

After Lost Lexington was published in 2014, one of my favorite things to do was to go out and speak at libraries or to church groups and civic groups. Book signings were such a fun way to share the backstories of Lexington’s lost places. Here’s a list of my past events!

But when I planned two books for release in 2020, I had no idea that a worldwide pandemic would bring any author talks to a screeching halt! I only could say that refrain which we all uttered countless times over the past twelve months: It is what it is.

Now, these kinds of groups are again meeting in person (in socially distanced ways) and others are meeting online utilizing technology with which we’ve all become so familiar. Would your civic group or organization be interested in having me speak about one of my books? I am available for both virtual and in-person events to discuss any of my three books:

Quiet trails near Wilmore

Wildflowers along the trail. Author’s collection.

Beyond Wilmore lies a quiet country road from which you can find the Asbury Trails which are owned by Asbury University. These trails overlook the Palisades and descend to the Kentucky River. Because of their proximity to Lexington, they are trails which I tend to frequent.

Asbury Trails are so close to Lexington, yet a world apart. As Lexington has grown, it is more and more difficult to find accessible natural locations where you can rejuvenate the mind, body, and spirit. Raven Run and McConnell Springs are both good locations in Fayette County, but there are many more great hiking locations in central Kentucky especially along the banks and bluffs on either side of the Kentucky River.

The Kentucky River Palisades rise some 400 feet on either side of the Kentucky River in what geologists call an entrenched meander. According to the trails brochure, “about ten million years ago the Bluegrass was a flat, low lying area. The Kentucky river slowly wound across a wide plan. Then eastern America experienced a broad uplift, raising this area 400 feet [and the] river began cutting into the uplifted plateau.” Silt build up at bends in the river also led to the formation of landings, many of which became crossings for buffalo and later settlers (and even later, bridges) over or through the water.

At the river, the Asbury Trails reach one such location. The small, rocky beach is adjacent to the city of Wilmore’s water intake tower which draws up 2 million gallons per day for the city’s water usage.

The Kentucky River at Asbury Trails. Author’s collection.

According to the Jessamine County Kentucky River Task Force, “toll roads were privately built for profit (if any) in conjunction with specific ferries. The Fulkerson Ferry was chartered at this site in 1789 and was in use when a toll road was built in the mid-1800’s for travel between Lexington, Harrodsburg, and the Shaker community at Pleasant Hill in Mercer County. Prior to its use as a stage crossing, it was a major buffalo crossing at the shallow sand bar here.” On the Mercer County side of the river,

Stage coach houses were built on both sides of the river to accommodate travelers and horses. Known stage lines using this crossing were The Smith Stage Coach Line and the Lexington-Harrodsburg Line.

Waterfall along the Asbury Trails. Author’s collection.

The trails consist of a half-mile Hillside Trail which follows along the top of the bluff ending in a meadow after passing through woods and across the ravine. The Old Stage Road Trail, three-quarter miles in length, descends 350 feet from the bluff along one side of the ravine toward the river. A bridge at the end of the trail cuts over to the old crossing and the intake tower. A gravel road descends on the opposite side of the ravine to complete the loop.

At the end of the Old Stage Road Trail is the beginning of a quarter-mile Great Wall Trail which gives the best vista of the rock formations that make up the Palisades. (The trail actually continues more than the 0.25 miles, but the “unofficial” trail extends beyond Asbury’s property line.)

These short trails are beautiful and worth visiting.

A short montage of photographs from a recent winter visit to Asbury Trails.

Resources

Asbury Trails, Official Site
Jessamine County Trails Association
Kentucky River Guidebook

Discovering Paducah

I found myself discovering the western Kentucky of Paducah a couple years back in what was my first (and only thus far) trip to the Purchase. As you travel westward in Kentucky from the Bluegrass toward the Purchase, you realize the vastness of Kentucky (though, as a state we are only 37th in terms of square miles, and thus not particularly vast). Though it takes little time to traverse Kentucky from its southern border with Tennessee to either Illinois, Indiana, or even Ohio, the trek from “Pikeville to Paducah” is a easily a six-plus-hour drive.

Looking west on Broadway Street in downtown Paducah, Kentucky. Author’s collection.

But Kentucky’s vastness is not just in that east-west distance, but in the variety of terrain experienced across the landscape. Louisville is often carved out as not being particularly Kentucky-like, but the hills of eastern Kentucky couldn’t be more different than the open flatness of the Purchase. Here, the region is defined by water with the convergence of the Tennessee River into the the Ohio River, which in turn flows into the mighty Mississippi. These waters have huge impacts on commerce, culture, and the land itself.

Here in Paducah one encounters, I claim, an agreeable blend of Western kindliness, and Northern enterprises, superimposed upon a Southern background. Here, I claim, more chickens are fried more hot biscuits are eaten, more corn pone is consumed, and more genuine hospitality is offered than in any town of like size in the commonwealth.

Author, journalist, and native of Paducah Irvin S. Cobb
Historic Marker on the Paducah Riverfront, Paducah, Kentucky. Author’s collection.

Port Paducah

The city of Paducah itself is separated entirely from the Ohio River by a series of flood walls. Without, the city would be vulnerable to constant flooding. The flood prone city experienced natural disaster with regularity, but none like the Great Flood of 1937. This natural disaster began with eighteen inches of rain which put the river more than 10 feet above flood stage. The river stayed above flood stage for nearly two weeks, the earthen works having been a total failure. Following this flood, Congress called upon the Army Corps of Engineers to build the existing flood wall system.

An earlier flood in the 1884 brought the founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton, to Paducah where the organization (founded in 1881) conducted its first flood relief operation. The organization assisted the nearly 30,000 refugees from the 1937 flood as well.

A historic marker on the outside of the flood wall highlights three historic events which occurred at Port Paducah:

  • Gen. George Rogers Clark visited this spot, 1778
  • Gen. Ulysses S. Grant landed here Sept. 6, 1861 to occupy Paducah for Federal Union.
  • Capt. Jack B. Sleeth laid first successful submarine cable, 1847. It reached from Campbell St. to Illinois shore.

A City and its Hall

The land on which the city of Paducah was laid was purchased for by General William Clark as part of an acquisition from the estate of his brother, George Rogers Clark. The purchase price for the 37,000 acres? Five dollars.

The majority of Paducah’s buildings do not reach the heavens with the exception of one building in the Tudor style and the magnificent Catholic Church of St. Francis de Sales.

Church of St. Francis de Sales in Paducah, Kentucky. Author’s collection.

I would suggest that a significant reason for this is that municipal functions were located on the edge of town in the middle of the 19th century and that trend was continued into the 20th century. In 1825, the first courthouse for McCracken County was built at Wilmington, Kentucky, before being located to Paducah in 1832. In 1861, the courthouse was moved to its present location then at the “edge of town” with the current courthouse having been built in 1943. (Wilmington was about two miles west of Paducah, but the county seat was moved due to persistent flooding.)

Closer to the Ohio River but not far from the courthouse is the city’s municipal building which was first opened in 1964. It is arguably the most significant city hall in the entirety of the Commonwealth.

The City Hall building was designed by Edward Durrell Stone who was one of the most significant architects of the 20th century. His mid-century municipal building was described as being in the New Formalism design and was completed in 1964. In 2015, Janice Rice Brother penned the following article as the city of Paducah was determining what to do with this architectural landmark.

Edward Durell Stone and Paducah’s Vision for the Future: What Now?

Fortunately, the City Hall was rehabilitated and my visit to Paducah occurred as the renovation was underway. Following the completion of the structure’s restoration, it received multiple awards and accolades. It was also placed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Source: City of Paducah)

My time in Paducah was limited and ill-timed in the cold of winter when the sights and tastes I most wanted to experience were closed due to my Sunday-Monday timeline. Even so, I caught a glimpse of another Kentucky community with a lot to offer.

City Hall in Paducah, Kentucky. Author’s collection.

A Coup in America

Cape Fear Memorial Bridge in Wilmington, North Carolina. Author’s collection.

I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Port City – Wilmington, North Carolina – several times over the past few years. It offers a busy and vibrant downtown, is the home of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and has nearby some beautiful beaches. Wilmington is nestled between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean.

Wilmington also has a most troubled history. As a southern town, it almost goes without saying that the early economy of New Hanover County prospered because of slave labor. As a major port, railroads crossed North Carolina toward Wilmington where goods were exported around the globe.

Following emancipation and during Reconstruction, Wilmington continued to grow in prosperity. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, Black Republicans and their Fusionist allies saw the election of the city’s multiracial government. But underneath the success of progress, the sin of racism festered.

The Coup & Killings of 1898

White supremacists sought to defeat the elected multiracial government at the ballot box and to remove Blacks from power in Wilmington altogether. They threatened actions “by the ballot or bullet or both.” For months, the local newspaper had published misleading and outright lies in an attempt to divide the community and to incite white Wilmingtonians to fear their Black neighbors. On November 8, 1898, Democrats took every action imaginable to suppress the Black vote. Ballot boxes were stuffed with new ballots to the point where ballots far outnumbered the population.

But it was two days later, November 10, 1898, that the worst of the violence occurred. The Black-owned newspaper, the Record, was burned. Shots were fired in cold blood: at least sixty Black men were killed. Thousands more fled their homes and livelihoods; many were threatened to never return to the Port City upon threat of death.

I cannot even begin to fully lay out all that took place leading up to November 10, 1898, what took place that day, or what ensued for decades to come. I highly recommend David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy to better understand this terrible chapter in our American history.

A report prepared a century after the coup concluded that the events of 1898 led “directly to strict residential segregation in Wilmington, decades of Jim Crow discrimination, and the disenfranchisement of the state’s black citizens.” Wilmington’s Lie at 341.

A Memorial to 1898

Even after several visits to Wilmington, I knew little of what had taken place here in 1898. (Which is why I took Zucchino’s book with me on an early trip there in 2020.) And I did not know that there stood a memorial to what had taken place.

Wilmington’s 1898 racial violence was not accidental. It began a successful statewide Democratic campaign to regain control of state government, disenfranchise African-Americans, and create a system of legal segregation which persisted into the second half of the 20th century.

It would take Wilmington a century to recognize and begin the effort to memorialize “those who suffered as a result of the violence of November 1898.” An 1898 Foundation was established and, a decade later, the memorial was dedicated near the site where some of the worst violence occurred.

A plaque at the memorial reads:

These six bronze paddles stand as a memorial to those who suffered as a result of the violence of November 1898. The paddles refer symbolically to water, an important element in the spiritual belief system of people from the African continent. They believed water to be the medium for moving from this life to the next. Water is also incorporated into a diversity of beliefs throughout the world to symbolize purification, renewal, rebirth, forgiveness, cleansing and wholeness.

For this city that grew up beside the waters of the Cape Fear, these paddles symbolize a type of passage as well. The memorial stands here on the banks of this river as a testimonial to a community that, one hundred years later, strove to acknowledge injustices of the past and worked to move forward together towards a society of greater justice and inclusiveness for all its citizens.

We believe these slender yet strong paddles, though rooted in this soil of past memories, rise skyward to the future in a spirit of reconciliation and hope.

Members of the 1898 Foundation, 8 November 2008
The 1898 Memorial in Wilmington, North Carolina. Author’s collection.

I visited the 1898 Memorial and learned about this horrible tragedy during the summer of 2020 while America again reeled from the killings of Black men and women. In the wake of these tragedies, Americans have again examined the importance of which people and events are memorialized, honored, and glorified. In Wilmington, North Carolina, police officers were fired after for “brutally racist” language. News of this broke as I departed Wilmington; when I returned home to Kentucky, two Confederate monuments were removed albeit for “safe keeping” in order to comport with laws passed by the North Carolina legislature to protect these kinds of monuments. And as with other Confederacy-glorifying monuments, the future of the two in Wilmington remains unclear.

I will not include photographs in this post of the two Confederate monuments which, for now at least, are in an undisclosed location. I bring them into this discussion only because, for a decade, they stood in Wilmington near the 1898 Memorial honoring completely two different things.

But as it states on the plaque to the 1898 Memorial, we ought to “move forward together toward a society of greater justice and inclusiveness for all its citizens.” It is a long, slow, but important road. And as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

On the “I Love Kentucky” Podcast

Peter Brackney being interviewed by Barry Gary for the I Love Kentucky podcast.

With just a couple weeks until the September 28 release of my latest book, A History Lover’s Guide to Lexington and the Bluegrass Region (co-authored with Foster Ockerman, Jr.), I had the opportunity to virtually sit down with Barry Gary on his podcast I Love Kentucky.

Check out the episode by listening below or by clicking here: