Friday, September 27, 2013

More Random Tales

Statue of Stephen Foster at My Old Kentucky Home State Park
Stephen Foster has been dubbed "the father of American music" and was one of the first people in history to try to make a living writing popular songs. He composed over 200 of them including "Oh! Susanna", "Camptown Races", "Old Folks at Home", "My Old Kentucky Home", "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair", "Old Black Joe", and "Beautiful Dreamer". Unfortunately, he failed in his quest to make a living at it, dying of pneumonia at the age of 37 with a net worth of 39 cents. Despite the fact that his songs were enormously popular, copyright law was pretty hit and miss so sheet music publishers would just print copies of his music without bothering to pay any royalties. His songs were largely geared to that most racist of American entertainments, the blackface minstrel show and a good chunk of his income came from selling performance rights of his music to the Christy Minstrels, one of the premier blackface troops of the pre-Civil War era. (I had less than no idea this was the namesake of The New Christy Minstrels in the 1960's.)

The actual old Kentucky home
Foster never had any Old Kentucky Home (he lived in Pennsylvania), but his cousin did and Stephen visited it during his honeymoon in 1852. The house served as the inspiration for the song which is now the official state song of Kentucky. If you would like to see "My Old Kentucky Home", it is now the centerpiece of a state park in Bardstown, KY. The house was built by Judge John Rowan in 1795 and was home to the Rowan family for 4 generations until it was sold to the state of Kentucky in 1920. Unlike many of the historic houses we have been through, almost all of the furnishings in the home are original although the home has been refurbished with new carpeting and wallpapers. It is a very nice home and very nice grounds but still, these are people you have never heard of and don't care about. The only reason anyone goes there is because of the song which is a nostalgic remembrance by a man who never lived there and had nothing to be nostalgic about. It's funny how history works out sometimes.  (It should be noted that the state of Kentucky has expunged all references to "darkies" from the song's lyrics.)

Bardstown is a haven of Catholicism situated in the midst of southern U.S. Protestantism. It was the site of the first Catholic Cathedral west of the Allegheny Mountains, however when the state capital was situated in Louisville, the Archbishop relocated  and built himself a shiney new cathedral, relegating the Bardstown church to the status of proto-Cathedral. Bardstown is also the location of several major distilleries including Jim Beam, Makers Mark and Heaven Hill and bills itself as the "Bourbon Capital of the World".  The weekend after we visited was the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival but all the good events had sold out, so we visited during the week and avoided the crowds.

Overpriced conveyance
We opted not to do another distillery tour, but we did tour the town in a horse-drawn carriage which was nice, but not worth nearly what we paid for it. We were planning to take a trolley tour however the  trolley drivers are also the school bus drivers, so after Labor Day the trolley tours stop at noon so the kiddies can get home. We also stopped into the Old Talbott Tavern (built in 1779) and had some Bourbon based drinks since it was the only tavern we had seen that was still serving its intended purpose. That evening we had the highly recommended southern fried chicken at Kurtz Restaurant, a place where the family started serving meals out of their home in 1937. They are still serving the same meals in the same house, specializing in old family recipes currently prepared by the third generation descendents of the original cook. The chicken was "skillet fried" and was really good, nice and crispy on the outside and moist on the inside but in the end it was still just fried chicken. Maybe I was expecting too much.

Artifacts sans context
Bardstown also has a small museum complex which includes a Civil War Museum, I'm not sure why exactly since the Civil War never really got to Bardstown. They had a lot of items on display and it was interesting but did not really tell any kind of coherent story. It's great if you want to look at a lot of period firearms and clothing and  other artifacts but it could have used more context.

Outdoors, they also had an area of log buildings from the original settlement days. Most of these were moved from original locations around the county.  One of the homes was a single room log house with a ladder going up to a loft where the children slept. We had not seen this before but in a letter Daniel Boone describes this arrangement in his family's home at Boonesville.


For those of you who, like me, have forgotten everything you ever knew about Henry Clay, we will have a quick recap. Clay was a Kentucky lawyer and politician who wound up being a Kentucky state representative and senator. He was elected speaker of the house during his first term in congress and is largely responsible for transforming the speakership from an administrative position to a post of considerable political power.  He ran for president five times, losing the presidential election three
Henry Clay's estate of Ashland
times and failing to even gain his party's nomination the other two. His party, by the way, was the Whigs who campaigned on a platform of artificial hairpieces for all. After losing the presidential race in 1824 he threw his electoral votes to John Quincy Adams, giving the latter what he needed to become president. In return, John Quincy appointed Sen. Clay to the post of Secretary of State which he filled from 1825 two 1829. He was the driving force behind the Missouri compromise in 1820 and also the compromise of 1850, both of which sought to preserve the balance between slave and free states and avert the Civil War.

Ice houses
We visited his home in Lexington. Well, sort of. The home that he actually built and lived in fell into such disrepair that after he died his son razed the whole thing to the ground and rebuilt it on the same foundation with the same floor plan. However in the replacement, the outside was in an Italianate style and the inside was Greek revival. Still, it was an interesting tour and the place was stuffed full of Henry Clay artifacts which I can't show you because photography was not allowed. Outside the house were two ice houses for food storage. They would fill the underground portions of these buildings with ice in February and it wouldn't completely melt away until the end of August. We have seen other ice houses (Thomas Jefferson had one at
The privy -it's a two holer!
Monticello) but none in this weird parapet style. We also saw the original privies. There were two rooms in the outhouse, each of which had two seats. Think about that, how does that work exactly? "Oh, I'm feeling a little plugged up, guess I'll go out and have myself a nice dump."  "Great idea, I think I'll join you."  In Ephesus, we saw Roman public bathrooms with whole rows of seats side-by-side, but I would never have guessed that the 19th century American elite would have needed more than one seat in a privy.

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