Friday, September 20, 2013

Kentucky History

By the late 1780s, Kentucky was becoming unmanageable as a county of Virginia. Richmond was just too far away and difficult to reach, so the push was on for Kentucky to become a separate state. At about the same time, Frankfort was established by James Wilkinson in 1786. Statehood was granted in 1789 and a commission was appointed to decide where the capital would be. A number of towns were in contention for this honor and Frankfort was not the oldest nor the biggest nor the richest. But they were the town that paid the commissioners the biggest bribe.  According to early histories, the offer of Andrew Holmes' log house as capitol for seven years, a number of town lots, £50 worth of locks and hinges, 10 boxes of glass, 1,500 pounds of nails, and $3,000 in gold helped the commission reach the correct decision. This was apparently not unusual at the time. It is said the decision to allow Kentucky to become a state in the first place revolved around a barge load of tobacco given to certain members of the Virginia House of Burgesses to help them decide the issue. That represented about $5000 in cash when the barge reached New Orleans.

We went to Frankfort to visit the Museum of Kentucky History. We spent a couple of hours going through the exhibits which ran in chronological order starting with the Native Americans and ending
Native American flute
with the civil rights movement. I'm not going to try and give any kind of comprehensive history of Kentucky (that is why God gave us Wikipedia) but I am going to mention a few items that interested me.

One of the early exhibits showed a Native American flute. I have heard the sound of these in documentary films but I cannot recall ever having actually seen one. It appears to play something like a European recorder. Apparently these were made throughout North and South America and were used for religious ceremonial purposes. On the (admittedly few) occasions when I have seen Indian dance performances I have only seen drums and rattles as instruments and the flute kind of surprised me.

The painting shown here is a famous picture of "Daniel Boone Leading Settlers through the Cumberland Gap" that you see reproduced all over the state. Underneath is a well preserved flintlock long rifle that "may have belonged to Daniel Boone". There were at least three of these in the Museum. Now Daniel lived to be 90 years old and spent most of those years as a soldier and/or hunter and may well have owned dozens of flintlocks during his lifetime but I suspect it is kind of like pieces of the true cross. Anyone can scratch "Daniel" into the stock of a rifle.

Here is another one of Daniel Boone's alleged rifles along with a plaster cast of his skull made when they transported his body from Missouri, where he died, back to Kentucky where they reburied him in the new Frankfort Cemetery 15 years later. The Missouri branch of the Boone family says they got the wrong skeleton and Daniel is still buried in Marthasville. This was generally considered sour grapes until a forensic anthropologist in 1983 declared that the plaster cast was most consistent with the skull of an African-American. Oh, and Daniel Boone apparently never covered that skull with a coonskin cap. He preferred felt hats. The coonskin cap was used on the television show to allow Fess Parker to wear the same getup he used for Davy Crockett.

This is not an early version of the Sousaphone.  It is a pot bellied still from the prohibition era.  Kentucky and Tennessee worked hard to keep the east coast speakeasies supplied with alcohol.  This was specially made for the job, unlike many that were put together out of old car radiators, allowing lead and antifreeze to leech into the whiskey and give it a little extra kick.

Later in the Museum they had a model T Ford on display. Apparently Ford set up a factory in Louisville Kentucky in 1913 which managed to turn out a whopping 11 cars per day. There is still a Ford plant in Louisville, although not at the same location, which makes Explorers and Escapes.

The entrance fee to the museum includes tickets to the Kentucky Military Museum and the Kentucky Museum of Women's History which we did not have time to see, but also included a
The Old Capitol Building
guided tour of the Old Capitol Building which is about a block away. Our tour group consisted of just the two of us and our guide picked us up at the museum entrance and walked us down the street. This was the third state capital, the first two having burned down. It served as the state capital from 1830 until 1910 and has belonged to the museum since 1920. It was built in a Greek Revival style and was modeled after the Temple of Minerva at Priene. The most interesting feature of the interior is a stone staircase with no visible means of
Free floating stairs
support. Looking at the stairs, it's hard to believe that there is enough stone at each joint to support the weight of the steps above. We did not climb the staircase, the guide had us take the elevator to the legislative chambers on the second floor. I don't know if she does that with all the tourists or just me but I did not complain. In the center of the building is a large dome with large windows to bring light inside. The decorations were all hand made out of some kind of plaster by a single individual. They are starting to come apart somewhat but the Museum's keepers are afraid to try any kind of restoration for fear of the whole thing coming down around their ears.
Large windows in the capital dome
Flying staircases
Our tour guide in the old state assembly chamber
The following day we went to visit the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, about 5 miles from our campground as the crow flies but 22 miles by road because of the river. Shakers were a religious sect that developed in England and came to America in the late 18th century to avoid religious persecution. They initially set up a number of communities in New York State.
The center family house at Pleasant Hill
The early settlers of Kentucky up to about 1790 were mostly not church affiliated but the area had a major period of religious revival in the 1790s and early 1800s. You can still see the effects driving through the area. Any town that you go through will have a church or two on every block (and in a state that prides itself on its bourbon whiskey, almost half of the towns are still "dry".) The Shakers saw this as a field ripe for the harvest and sent missionaries to Kentucky to seek converts. They were a little Pentecostal... during worship they would dance and shake and speak in tongues. They lived communally and believed the second coming of Christ was imminent. Because of this, populating the planet was not a priority and Mother Ann Lee, the patron saint of the movement, insisted on total
Shaker hand crafts
celibacy. The Shakers did not marry and if a couple entered the community already married, they had to live separately. You would think this would make the religion a pretty hard sell but they were surprisingly successful in getting converts. This is mostly because they were surprisingly successful at many other things like managing their farms and having plenty of food and other creature comforts. In the pre-Civil War era life was pretty hard and the Shaker community was not unattractive. They also made it a policy to take in orphans and raise them within the church society. At the age of 21, they got to decide whether they wanted to stay or not, but how many would choose to leave the only life they have ever known?

The east family compound
The community divided itself into three "families" of about 100 members each and lived in large barracks type buildings with men on one side and women on the other. Each family essentially ran its own farm with all members working together for the common good. There is a tendency for people who don't know any better (like me) to think that the Shakers were similar to the Amish and avoided any modern conveniences but this could not be further from the truth. They were inventors and early adopters of new technology. They had a system of running water from a central water tower at a time when most of the surrounding villages were still carting their water around in buckets. A horse powered pump would move the water from the spring up to the water tower. They also had horse powered washing machines to help with the laundry and machines that would de-husk their corn and an early type of grain elevator. They believed in sexual equality at a time when such ideas were almost unheard of and were pacifists, refusing to take sides in the Civil War.

The war became their undoing anyway. Their location near the battle of Perryville brought thousands of soldiers to their doorstep, many sick or wounded and they did their best to care for both sides. They were literally eaten out of house and home that year and were never really able to fully recover after the war. American society changed significantly and the number of converts dropped off to almost nothing. Celibacy has always been a hard sell and as year after year went by and Christ failed to appear, their central dogmas appeared less and less likely to hold up. By 1900 there were only 34 members of the community left and the last Kentucky Shaker died in 1923.

Wagon tour
The property changed hands a few times but generally fell into disrepair until it was finally purchased by a preservation society in the 1960s. Of the 60 some odd buildings on the property at the height of their prosperity, 34 remain and have been restored including all three of the "family" houses and the Trustees Building where the community did their business with the outside world. You can pretty much see the whole thing in a couple of hours including a 30 min. tour in a horse-drawn wagon. The restoration was overseen by the same man who put together Colonial Williamsburg and it is somewhat similar with workers in period costumes answering questions and giving demonstrations throughout the day. There is also an outstanding restaurant in the Trustees Building which serves only food from local farms with a daily menu based on what happens to be available.

Paddlewheel boat
Pleasant Hill also owns a boat dock along the Kentucky River where they use to ship their farm goods down river. The village owns a paddlewheel boat on which you can take a one-hour ride. Interestingly, the Kentucky River isn't really a river in this area so much as a series of lakes. Just after the Civil War it was decided to build a series of dams and locks to maintain the depth of the river at a minimum of 6 feet between here and the Ohio River. This project was pursued at great expense over a couple of decades and was finally completed at about the same time that the railroad arrived and made the lock system obsolete. The dams are now used primarily to maintain a supply of drinking water for the cities along the river and the locks are used only by private boaters.

The boat ride was pleasant and had narration by the captain who had a dry sense of humor. The trip took us underneath one high railroad bridge and, in each direction, just as we approached the bridge a train came by. The boat captain told us that it was the same train, it just goes around in circles all day long to entertain the boat passengers. I think he was kidding.

Boating on the Kentucky River

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