Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Random Tales from Bluegrass Country

"Kentucky" is a word in several Native American languages that means "meadow land". Before the European settlers arrived, the area around present day Lexington was a huge savanna bounded by
The Bluegrass State
higher elevation plateaus on all sides, filled with herds of bison and other wildlife and used by the Shawnee, Cherokee and Iroquois as a hunting ground. Much of the area was covered with a species of Poa grass now known as Kentucky Bluegrass. Despite the photograph to the right, the term "bluegrass"was coined because of the tiny blue flowers that appear for a couple of weeks in the spring. The rest of the year, the grass is green just like everyplace else. The bluegrass area was where all the early Kentucky settlers set up shop and still contains the states largest cities and most of its population.

Statue at the Kentucky Horse Park
Early on during the settlement of Kentucky it was noted that horses raised on Kentucky bluegrass were sturdier than average. It turns out this was not due to the inherent nature of the grass itself but rather to the high calcium content of the soil which led to better bone structure. In any event, a culture of horse breeding grew there and the area is now covered with large horse farms. The Kentucky Horse Park is a combination working horse farm and horse themed tourist attraction we visited for an afternoon. Going there, you can learn more than you ever wanted to know about horses, horse racing and horse heroes.
Horses of the world show

This is Cigar, one of the former champion racehorses now living out his retirement at the Park.  Foaled in April of 1990, he was not raced until his third year. He was bred as a turf racing horse, but out of nine races in his three-year-old year on turf he placed second once and failed to show in the other eight. At that point, his owner decided to try racing him the next year on dirt. I have no idea what the difference between a turf track and a dirt track is to the horse, but Cigar running on dirt won his next 16 races in a row, tying the sport record and allowing him to retire as the highest money winner in horse racing history.

At this point Cigar was supposed to retire to a stud farm and produce multiple generations of champions, the usual reward for big winners. Unfortunately, out of the first 49 pairings, the number of mares that got pregnant was zero. Lab testing confirmed that the horse was sterile and several years of treatments failed to change that fact. There will be no little Cigarettes. The Prince of Saudi Arabia who owned him at that point collected $25 million from an insurance company that had issued a policy on the horse covering sickness, injury and other failures to reproduce. In retrospect, I suspect they wish they had gotten a semen analysis prior to issuing the policy. The Prince at that point lost interest in the horse and donated him to the Kentucky Horse Park as "a gift to the people of Kentucky". Cigar now gets trotted out and shown to tourists three times a day and otherwise does not have to do squat. Not a bad gig.


Confederate memorial at Perryville
During the Civil War, Kentucky was in an odd position. It was a slave state but did not really want to withdraw from the Union. The Kentucky legislature passed a resolution declaring the state neutral in the conflict and hoped that would end their involvement, but such was not to be the case. The state controlled access to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and was therefore strategically desirable for both sides. There were many sympathizers for both sides as well. The Confederacy felt that as a slave state, Kentucky naturally fell into their camp and included a star on their flag for the state. Southern sympathizers even set up a second state government at Bowling Green. The Confederates thought that if they invaded Kentucky, the locals would rise up in support and throw the Yankees out, so they sent an army of about 30,000 men North, headed towards Lexington. Meanwhile, Kentucky native Abraham Lincoln believed the state was key to a Union victory and sent over 50,000 troops to defend the state, divided into three Corps.

On October 8 of 1862, the Confederates met the Union 3rd corps just outside the small town of Perryville and fought one of the bloodiest and least remembered battles of the war. The rebel army, although outnumbered, forced the union troops to retreat and, if you just read the scorecard, won a tactical victory in terms of total casualties. However, by the end of the battle
Picture of Roger with puppies and cannon
they were running low on ammunition and the other two Union corps (each of which by now was larger than the entire southern contingent) were rapidly approaching, forcing the Southerners to retreat through the Cumberland gap and abandon the state. For the rest of the war, Kentucky, although nominally "loyal" was under Union military occupation.

After the battle, the Union forces were not particularly gracious. They buried their war dead but left the southern soldiers to literally rot on the ground. After a week, a local farmer named Henry Bottom, on whose land much of
Picture of Vicki with puppies and cannon
the battle had been fought, along with some of his neighbors and their slaves gathered up the Confederate dead and buried them in a mass grave at the top of a hill on his land. A memorial statue was eventually constructed over the site and right next to it is the visitor center for the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site. We visited the site with its small museum outlining the course of the battle and then toured the battlefield which has apparently changed little in the ensuing century and a half. We saw Henry Bottom's home which is still standing there. Like the Shakers, the battle led to financial ruin for Henry from which he was never able to recover. Virtually every building in a 50 mile radius was converted to a field hospital for several months and the Union army confiscated and consumed all of the food in the area waiting for supplies to be brought in. The Confederacy's hoped for popular uprising never materialized however although Kentucky was loyal to the Union, she wasn't very happy with it.
Henry Bottom's farm house

Dr. McDowell's house with the apothecary shop on the right
Danville is a town about 20 miles south of Harrodsburg where we went to visit the house of Dr. Ephraim McDowell, the father of abdominal surgery. In the 18th century, abdominal surgery was toyed with and then abandoned because all of the patients died, probably of peritonitis. Then in 1809, Dr. McDowell successfully removed a 22 pound ovarian tumor. The patient, Mrs. Jane Todd Crawford, was thought by her local physician to have an overdue pregnancy. Not knowing what to do, he called Dr. McDowell who rode 60 miles to evaluate the woman and discovered that she had a massive ovarian tumor. He explained to her that she was probably going to die regardless of treatment but she wanted to proceed with surgery anyway. She rode 60 miles on horseback to get back to his house in Danville where the procedure was performed on Christmas Day in an upstairs bedroom without the benefit of anesthesia. Dr. McDowell knew nothing about infectious disease or antisepsis but did insist on "scrupulous cleanliness" for surgery. He performed the operation in 25 min., first opening the tumor and removing 15 pounds of gelatinous contents to make it small enough to fit through the opening, then removed the remainder through the 10 inch incision. Fully expecting his patient to die, he was surprised five days later when he walked in and found her making her own bed. She went on to live for another 39 years. He subsequently performed several similar successful operations before reporting his techniques to the medical community.

Our lovely, superannuated guide in the apothecary
We toured the doctor's house in Danville largely because of this curious connection to medical history. Our guide was a delightful, rather elderly retired nurse who had been giving tours of the place for 30 years. We were her last customers on her last day on the job. The house had been restored and preserved by the Boyle County Medical Society. The furnishings had all been scattered but after they opened the house for tours, McDowell descendents started coming out of the woodwork offering family heirlooms for display, so they actually have a fair amount of original material. Dr. McDowell ran an apothecary shop attached to his house, however the contents of the shop currently on display were not Dr. McDowell's. The complete set that you see in the picture including all of the jars, the drawers, the mortar, the scales, the whole shebang was donated by Pfizer Pharmaceuticals on the condition that they not be mixed with any other collections. This was quite generous on the part of Pfizer considering that the collection probably represents 1/10,000th of 1% of their annual profits.

Grayson's Tavern
Across the street from the doctor's house is a small park called Constitution Square. It includes the tavern where the Kentucky state constitution was largely hammered out, presumably over respectable quantities of adult beverages. (Unfortunately, it now holds the park administrative offices so we could not go in for a pleasant pint.) There are also a number of "replica" log buildings from the early pioneer days however the building below is not a replica, it is an actual log cabin built sometime prior to 1792. They do not know how much prior, but in August of 1792 it became the first post office west of the Appalachian Mountains.
The US Post Office circa 1792

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