The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Way West” brings you the saga of a great state, homeland of bluegrass, bourbon, and beautiful women
The typical Kentuckian is a goateed colonel with a thirst.
He is a barefoot mountain boy with an itchy finger on a flintlock. He’s the owner of a mortgaged plantation and a Thoroughbred foal with the look of eagles in its eyes.
He’s a backwoods demagogue who can’t spell demagogue. He’s a Southern gentleman.
He’s a private enterpriser, a dealer in corn squeezin’s, and no revenooer better show his nose.
He’s Abner, Devil Anse Hatfield, the Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, Private Tussie, Happy Chandler, and Gracious Living by Ancestry out of Bluegrass by Or Virginny.
He is all these things, and so, of course, he’s none of them. Kentucky?
Its a heaven of a place (or, to give proper order to an old comparison, heaven is a Kaintuck of a place).
It’s a brier patch.
It’s Dark and Bloody Ground.
It’s bluegrass and juleps and women fair beyond the fortune of any other realm, not excepting the Egyptian.
It is eroded and sequestered hillsides; it is coal mines in the mountains; it is race tracks in the great meadow.
It’s all these and none of them, typically, either.
If you must catalogue Kentuckians, go to the writings of the Rev. Mr. Timothy Flint, a New Englander whose summing up defies improvement after more than one hundred and twenty-five years. “The people of this state have a character as strongly marked by nationality as those of any state in the union,” he wrote. After respectful passes at their origins, high spirits, courage and tendency to extremes he went on, “When a Kentuckian presents himself in another state, as a candidate for an office, in competition with a candidate from another state, other circumstances being equal, the Kentuckian carries it. Wherever the Kentuckian travels, he earnestly and affectionately remembers his native hills and plains. . . . No country will bear a comparison with his country; no people with his people. The English are said to go into battle with a song about roast beef in their mouths. When the Kentuckian encounters the dangers of battle, or any kind, when he is even on board a foundering ship, his last exclamation is, ‘Hurrah for old Kentucky.'”
The resident is likely to divide Kentucky into three regions—Western, Bluegrass, and Eastern. The historian says there are seven natural geographical divisions—the Bluegrass, the Knobs, the Kentucky Mountains, the Pennyroyal, the Western Coal Field, the Jackson Purchase, and the Ohio River Flood Plain. The geologist argues for eight, and, by a stricter re-division, comes out with a total of thirteen.
Either of the two professional lists shows the geographical variety of the state and helps to explain the variety of humanity. The economist could follow with data underscoring the immense differences in per-capita income and natural wealth. The Bluegrass has been called the garden spot of the world. Burley tobacco, the farmer’s big cash crop, thrives there as perhaps nowhere else. Beef and lamb grow prime. The Thoroughbred horse develops a stamina unequaled —from the intake of limestone from limestone waters, Bluegrass boosters will tell you. Lexington prospers uncommonly, largely from agriculture. Louisville and Jefferson County are in the big money. They produce or process paint, metals, cigarettes, whisky, beer, machinery, rubber, printing, meat, and chemicals. Paducah, Ashland, and Covington, like smaller towns along the Ohio where industry has tended to concentrate, can boast of factories and payrolls.
When the mines are operating, the coal towns in the eastern and western fields have money, if not always beauty; for coal is Kentucky’s biggest export—the biggest, that is, if you exclude the brains the state ships out. Kentucky stands third among the states in coal production, surpassed only by Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
To the list of “have” communities must be added the cities, towns, and counties supported by Kentucky’s multi-million-dollar tobacco crop, by the distillation of whisky, by the production of cattle and sheep and hogs, of small grains and corn, by the sale of clay and fluorspar and timber, by the presence of a chance factory or an oil field.
By contrast there are counties desperately poor, so poor that their often dense population can be accounted for only by the absence of known opportunity elsewhere and the countryman’s unease outside his old surroundings. There are counties that can’t raise enough tax money to operate properly the bare agencies of government. There are towns that can’t afford to build sewage systems or to purify water contaminated by people farther up the creek who can’t afford sewerage either. There are counties without a bank. There are patches of tobacco and corn on eroding hillsides so steep as to give pause to a goat. There are towns and counties without anything like adequate medical service. There are others without any dentists at all.
A Kentucky newspaperman despondently told me one day that he doubted that Kentucky should have been made a state. It was too various. Bounded for more than half its coast by the crazy meanderings of the Ohio River, it had no unity except touchy loyalty. More than that, its attraction in the west was to St. Louis, in the south to Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga, in the north to Cincinnati. That last attachment, incidentally, gives to Covington a unique distinction. It’s the largest city in the United States without a hotel more ambitious than a rooming house; Cincinnati, just across the river, exerts a corner on the trade. The newsman concluded that only Louisville, pulling on southern Indiana towns, and northern Kentucky, through the tolerated gambling joints that fleece the Ohio lambs, tended to reverse the outbound stream.
He was a little too optimistic. At least four of the clubs in Newport and Covington, including the lush spots, are owned all or in part by a Cleveland syndicate. Thus the stakes lost in Kentucky by Ohioans go back to Ohio along with the losses of Kentuckians.
Beverly Hills, built on a hillside a mile south of Newport, provides investment opportunities in the most elegant of surroundings. It is thickly carpeted. Its long, delicately illuminated oval bar glows with polished glass. Its dining room will seat eight hundred people. Its ceilings are artistically contoured. It puts on a floor show.
Upstairs is the business. Waiting for the man with the dice to roll an eight the hard way, I counted one chuck-a-luck game, two black-jack games, two roulette wheels, and four crap tables. The man sevened. “New shooter,” the stick man crooned. “Get your bets down. New shooter coming out.” Two dealers sold chips, paid them out and pulled them in. On a raised platform a spotter watched the turn of the dice. Chips sold from a dollar up.
Beverly Hills is just one of perhaps a dozen well-known gambling places and one of scores of spots, ranging down to what are called “Bust-out joints,” where a man may risk a buck on a race or a roll of the dice.
Ten days after my researches the games closed down, victims of a combination of politics and righteous wrath. I have spoken of them in the present tense, however, thinking it risky to lay away patients with such demonstrated recuperative powers.
For a variety of good reasons northern Kentucky doesn’t give to the state the popular characterization that, say, Butte gives to Montana or Reno to Nevada. One reason is the older and profounder conception of Kentucky as the arch border state, the hapless but difficult neutral of the Civil War, so riven internally that brother fought brother and father fought son, offended, violated, levied on by North and South alike. It was a state without a nation, a tieless territory of ferment, antagonisms, shifting indignations. If the Rebels made Federals of some Rebels, the Federals made Rebels of more Federals. Right after the war northern papers were calling Kentucky the most disloyal state of all. That charge may be argued, but not the statement that Kentuckians nevertheless were a sturdy and independent lot. And not the fact that nowhere was the internal conflict sorer.
Those experiences lie deep, if often unrecognized, in the make-up of Kentucky. The outward signs of the old schism are evident today. Eastern Kentucky, a community of small freeholders without slaves, sided with the Union; today, by and large, it votes Republican. Central and Western Kentucky, with their slave-worked plantations, were sympathetic to the South. Their present political preferences reflect the fact.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy object to “Civil War.” They say “War Between the States,” thus re-emphasizing the South’s answer to a question grown moot. They don’t like the Federal Government any too well, either. Lexington members were disturbed just a little while back by the indifferent care given the Confederate plot in the Lexington cemetery. The superintendent advised them that the Government would assume the upkeep if the Daughters would deed the plot to it. Already the Federal burial ground was under such an arrangement.
What! asked the ladies. Give anything to the Union! Never! They didn’t either.
Such manifestations, though, are vestigial. Kentucky bears the scars of the 1860’s, in places to be suggested later, but they don’t hurt much anymore. No longer, except by courtesy to history, is this the arch border state. The rebel yell died with old Colonel Dick Redd, who used to sound off in his cracked voice as he rode his chestnut charger up and down the streets of a Lexington that already in the 1920’s regarded him as a curiosity. The term, Yankee, rooted loosely in the old struggle has been extended to designate any rude outlander from beyond the Ohio River, and is employed by Democrat and Republican alike. The descendants of Union men suffer the praises of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. I know Democrats who yield to none in their admiration of Lincoln. Negroes vote. They have ever since the War Between the States.
One afternoon I asked a half-dozen all-wool-and-a-yard-wide Kentuckians where I’d find a hotbed of the Confederacy. One said well, maybe Hopkinsville. One guessed, maybe, Danville. One said western Kentucky had a parcel of Rebels—he wouldn’t know which town, though. One said he reckoned Lexington had about as much of the old spirit as any place. They agreed that feelings weren’t what they used to be; too many things had come between.
The conflict today perhaps can be described best as one of traditionalism versus change. Even the tardiness with which the old political cleavage is yielding to the realities of economics reflects habit more than conviction. It is fashion, not passion. It illustrates not the border quality of Kentucky but the reluctance to change with the changing times.
Examples, big and small, evidence the sentiment that what was good enough for grandpa is good enough for me. Until quite recently Kentuckians built houses like those already built, shying away from experimental and functional architecture, from picture-window modernism. In about 1940, when Dr. Frank L. McVey, then president of the University of Kentucky, put up a flat-topped, functional home, the curious jammed traffic by his door. Business houses were slow to install air conditioning; you almost would have thought they figured to sweat this fancy out. New-fangled apparatus, the gadgets and gimcracks of industry, come late to the state. The citizenry insists on keeping a constitution adopted in 1891. One of its provisions, of course now inoperative under national law, denies suffrage and office to women. Another puts in the oath of office for officials and attorneys a solemn declaration that the oath-taker never has engaged in a duel either as principal or second.
Until the election of 1949 all public officers except the governor were held to a maximum salary of $5000 annually. Variously and reversely construed by the Court of Appeals, this constitutional provision raised hob. The trained men whom the state needed couldn’t be suckered into services that paid so little. Public health, road construction, park development, education—nearly every service of state, indeed, was crippled by the limitation. Yet an amendment to liberalize it carried by less than 20,000, despite the efforts of both parties and the vigorous backing of the state administration. Even so, its passage was a great victory. Previous campaigns all had failed. So had a campaign for a constitutional convention. What if the constitution was old? one opponent asked; so were the Ten Commandments.
It is easy but not quite accurate to imagine the citizenry rigidly divided into sides, the traditionalists here, the progressives there, like teams in a tug of war. The split tends to run deeper, into the personality of the individual, who finds himself torn between old loyalties and new attractions and needs. On no issue is the line-up entirely ready-made.
Neither, by any means, are differences in attitudes altogether geographical, though one part of Kentucky is likely to regard another with suspicion, condescension, or even disdain. Tradition has its ancient lovers in industrialized Louisville and the manored Bluegrass as well as in the hinterlands to east and west. The cries for change rise from mountain and municipality.
Into the contest and its recurring results, however, enters the disparity of financial circumstance. By contrast with industrialists, Bluegrass planters, coal-mine operators and professional men in fat surroundings, there are thousands of men scratching for life on leached slopes and worn swales.
Five thousand dollars a year for politicians and professors! That’s a fortune! The plight of these people creates a general insufficiency, despite the state’s spotted riches.
East and south of the Bluegrass you come quickly to some of the less-favored land. If your route and time are right, you see occasional scrawny livestock, forlorn hillside corn, cabins weathering to pieces in ravines, women, maybe barefoot, in sacklike dresses. And children, of course. Children always. These sights aren’t invariable but they’re far from rare. Then, if you follow the road I took recently, you come to the coalfields and to Harlan.
Two young miners—Warren Till and Harold Coldiron—were waiting for me there. They were sharp and personable boys, so sharp and personable that it seemed a pity they should have entered an uncertain and static employment from which, the saying is, a man never escapes. They didn’t feel that way, though, not altogether. Harlan was home. Other jobs were scarce and, by contrast, dinky. Fourteen seventy-five a day was good money, even if it didn’t average out to a great deal, what with strikes and limited work weeks and all. More—and this was my inference—a man who didn’t work in the mines might be suspected of cowardice.
Harlan is a small and busy town situated in the valley of the upper Cumberland. Out from it are clusters of uniform frame houses, mostly perched on stilts. These belong to the operators, or sometimes to private investors, and are rented by miners, few of whom own their own homes. Eastward along through the neighboring settlement of Evarts you catch glimpses of mine openings, rubbles of slate, and conveyers angled white on the hillsides. In the summer the valley is green and lovely despite these scars. In the winter, with the flanking mountains whiskered by leafless trees, it is pretty drear.
Here on a May day in 1931 was fought the “Battle of Evarts,” a battle which touched off a decade of violence, bloodshed and terrorism. A group of mine guards led by a deputy sheriff encountered a crew of union pickets at an Evarts mine. Someone started shooting. Three mine guards and one miner lay dead when the party was over.
Before comparative peace came to Harlan more men died, the National Guard marched in again and again, the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee held hearings that astonished the nation, Governor Happy Chandler tangled with John L. Lewis, and representatives of the newly formed civil-liberties unit of the Department of Justice appeared on the scene. Meantime, the were wholesale indictments, trials, charges, reports. A state commission said after, study, “It is almost unbelievable that anywhere in a free and democratic nation such as ours, conditions can be found as bad as they are in Harlan County.”
We drove from downtown Harlan and followed a street like a neglected alley and came to a huddle of dwellings and a front porch where half a dozen Negroes had gathered to pass the Sunday morning. We got out and squatted on the ground and fell into conversation. Most of the Negroes were transplanted Alabamans, and most of them were mine-car loaders and got paid on a tonnage basis. Sometimes they earned more, sometimes less, than shift men.
“This man wants to know about coal mining,” Warren said.
A small Negro with a cinnamon skin and yellow eyes and a face without illusion looked me up and down. “It’s rough.”
“What did you do while the strike was on?” I asked. The strike had ended a few days before.
“Several rabbits in these hills,” he said.
The other boys nodded, grinning.
“And some fish in the river. We made out.”
“Don’ forgit miners’ strawberries,” someone prompted him. “What are they?”
“Pinto beans. They go a long way.”
I asked about working conditions.
“Ain’t nothin’ like it used to be,” the small man said. “It’s safe by what it was. Course, man was killed the day we opened up.” “You ever been trapped in a mine?”
He shook his head. “Got my eye knocked out, though, an’ lost fifty-three days.”
“Slate fell on me. Knocked my eye clean out, but you wouldn’t know it now. An’ I had to wait while they took the coal out. Coal comes first. There I was, with my eye restin’ on my bosom. By and by they come and got me.” Unexpectedly he grinned, finding some kind of humor in the case.
“How do you load a car,” I asked, “with a shovel or what?” “Hands, shovel, crowbar, pick, anything.” He stepped to the side of the house and picked up a scoop and came back and said, “Me, I’m a small man. Ceilin’ maybe ain’t but so high.” He held his hand a little above his waist. “Look, I can spraddle my legs out and shovel standin’ up.”
“What about the others?”
“I’ll show you about us,” a much bigger man said. He pulled up the leg of his Sunday pants. On his knee was a pad of callus like a pancake.
We had a look at a mine afterwards. It was almost head high at the opening, but quickly pinched down. We stopped before we had gone very far and looked, hunched over, into the tunnel dwindling ahead. There were occasional batteries of dim lights there and, unseen in the darkness, the belch of water. Outside, sawed and split to about fireplace size, were timbers to be used to keep roof and floor apart. Outside, too, was a string of mine cars, squat, wide jobs that looked like little scows.
The outlander is likely to think of the miner as a surly and difficult fellow. Not so. He may believe, and does, that sooner or later his number will come up, but he doesn’t live in gloom. Like any fatalist, he lives day by day, enjoying himself while he can.
“A miner spends money when he’s got it,” Warren told me. “These house-to-house salesmen, they make a killing. A miner’ll buy any kind of a gadget.”
Out of their border-state experience, perhaps, Kentuckians impose a handicap on the co-operation that their problems demand—they’re suspicious of the human animal, including one another. You have only to consult their law books to confirm this point. Neither the governor nor any minor officer of state may succeed himself. Neither may mayors of first- and second-class cities. The constitution lists twenty-eight special prohibitions and, for safety’s sake, one catch-all restriction on the powers of the legislature. When, in 1947, a campaign for a constitutional convention was being waged, the antis contended that the state lacked men of sufficient caliber to draft a satisfactory instrument. That was a slander that should have made the pros victorious, but didn’t.
The fact is that Kentuckians love politics but have little faith in its principals or performances, including the judicial; as a result, a kind of basic anarchy, the violence of individuality, persists, particularly, one concludes, in the hills and hollows to the east. The conclusion is supportable but still uneasy: in the race for national homicidal honors Kentucky cities outside the mountains have done pretty well through the years. An astonishing number of people carry pistols or blades, just in case. In old families with long years of education and social grace a dark strain of violence occasionally breaks out.
The lawmakers and the courts are duly indulgent. Under the law, crimes of violence are mitigated by the element of “sudden heat and passion.” They are in other states, too, but there the offender has to prove provocation. In Kentucky he just has to show that all of a sudden he got mad.
Juries are equally considerate. Comparatively few homicides result in death penalties. At most the defendant is likely to be given a life sentence, which means he can be free in eight years if he’s a good boy.
A great deal has been written and said about the mountaineer with his touchy pride and his readiness to act on his own. Outsiders sometimes talk as if every resident would shoot at the drop of a persimmon. Writers, with exceptions, go to extremes. They exaggerate the dark unpredictability of the mountaineer or they make him just too quaint for words, perhaps in the certainty that eastern editors will fall for either version. In neither case do they treat him as a human being, shaped by forces outside his command.
Beneath his usual reserve the mountain man is friendly and obliging. He is hospitable almost to the point of embarrassment to strangers. He has a mind, if an untutored one. In his hills he is frontier America; often he comes out to give leadership to community and state. The risk that a decently disposed and mannerly stranger runs in Kentucky Appalachia is too slight for consideration. It is with himself that the mountaineer has trouble.
He does have it there. No virtues explain it away. It exists—product of ignorance, isolation, poverty, background, social compulsion. Most of all, perhaps, social compulsion, which itself reflects background. At least one historian has ventured the belief that feuds trace directly to the indiscriminate guerrillaism developed by the Civil War. You don’t hear of feuds any more, though the clan spirit survives, an injury to a man being considered a personal grievance by kinsmen down to in-laws and second cousins, but associated habits persist. There remain the unruly impulse, the recourse to gun or knife, the carrying of weapons. Warren Till told me—and maybe he was just having fun with a greenhorn—that as a high-school senior he, like his mates, carried a revolver to class.
A Lexington newspaperman and novelist who came out of the fastnesses of Clay County believes the compulsion on the mountain man is the fear of loss of face, the fear of being thought afraid. Scared, he has to prove he isn’t. He’s not by nature more violent than his outside brothers; he just answers to a different standard. We get back here to Warren Till and Harold Coldiron. They told me that rather than to have anyone think they were afraid to enter a mine they would go in even if they knew beforehand they would never come out.
The Kentuckian’s love of politics and such by-products as courthouses and courtrooms and legislation appears to contradict the impulse to anarchy, but it is nonetheless real. No year goes by without an election—school, municipal, county, state, Federal—and nearly every one full-dress. The state abounds in buttonholers, some ambitious for office, some only fascinated. Courthouses ring with promises and denunciations. Newspapers tear into the fray. Radios squawk. It is fitting here to lament the good old days when the late Edwin P. Morrow and Augustus Owsley Stanley were having-at each other. Now there was politics, and there was oratory, and there was fun for everybody, including the antagonists, who got together before and after their debates, it was rumored, for a friendly cup. They were keen and witty adversaries who entered politics joyfully.
Over a Coke or around a fire, older observers of the political scene like to quote a crack of Stanley’s. He had beaten Morrow by a nose in the 1915 race for governor. Four years later Morrow again was the Republican nominee. One of his targets was a textbook adopted under the administration of his friend, who could not succeed himself but of course was compelled to defend his record. Morrow said the book contained errors of grammar, which it did. He said the Democrats could not escape responsibility for putting a linguistic monstrosity in the hands of the innocent school children of Kentucky. Stanley, who was more scholarly than Morrow, had his answer. In swelling rhythms he described Morrow’s own rhetoric: “Unrelated nouns in open concubinage are crowded into the same sentences, and poor bastard pronouns wander aimlessly through a wilderness of words, vainly seeking their lost antecedents, whom they resemble in neither gender, number nor person.”
Morrow was elected, presumably not to Stanley’s entire dissatisfaction. Stanley remembers that they “fought mightily” but “ate and drank like friends.”
In Kentucky we have no men like them today. They were the last of the old-fashioned orators, the last, that is, who brought good nature and wit and skill to heightened language.
Kentucky normally is Democratic, but not so Democratic as never to leave the fold. Union organization, notably that of the Mine Workers, has increased the Democratic strength in recent years, though from any gain must be subtracted conservative defections from the New Deal and Fair Deal. One of these renegades, a prosperous landowner who liked to flash the highly perforated checks the Government sent him for fencing or conserving or growing or not growing or whatever, said he glued the checks together one time and put them through his player piano, and damn if they didn’t come out, Happy Days Are Here Again.
What do you do in a state of such extremes? You do the best you can, or you live in part by myth. In any case, you enjoy yourself.
Satisfaction isn’t necessarily bushels to the acre or gain on the hoof or production on the line. It can be laurel on a mountainside, the white shower of serviceberry, the wind ripple of bluegrass, the palisades of the Kentucky, the spring festival of redbud and dogwood, the long haze of autumn, the columned front of old Morrison Chapel in Lexington. It can be a friend and a julep and a mare in a pasture. It can be the blaze of old cherry, fashioned after Hepplewhite. It can be a place where walk the ghosts of better men and worse. It can be a stage in the great American journey, east to west, where Dan’l Boone and George Rogers Clark and frontiersmen and soldiers and seekers tramped history on the land. It can be a day at the Lexington Trots, at Keeneland, at Churchill Downs, at Dade Park. It can be old ham and beaten biscuits and fried chicken and corn pudding.
These things the Kentuckian knows how to appreciate. Problems exist, troubles arise, but these endure.
The Kentuckian walks down the street of his town and meets friends along the way, and they stop, wanting to know how things are, how’s the family, why’n’t you come and see us, who you pickin’ in the Derby, let’s have a cup of coffee.
Or he and his wife call on their neighbors at night and, leaving, hear the words, “Glad you came. You all hurry back.” Answering, they say, “You all come and see us now. Hear?” The partings are standard, but the sentiment is honest.
An interest in people, dead and quick, tends to make conversation personal. Small talk, if you insist on that term, occupies dinner table, fireplace and corner-drugstore gatherings, if not to the entire exclusion of broader discussion. The tendency perhaps constitutes escapism; in any case it reflects a real curiosity about the individual, a real relish for human vagary. Local historians are as thick as chiggers. But they talk more about personalities than about events and their causes and consequences. And they may turn from the long bunters or Abe Lincoln or Jeff Davis or John G. Carlisle to the more recent and humbler “characters” that Kentucky somehow produces in abundance.
They may tell the story, perhaps apocryphal, of the late Dudley B. Veal, long-time Lexington city detective and later jailer of Fayette County, whose lack of formal education was balanced by imagination and vehemence. Out of his long experience Mr. Veal said he knew the world was round because every damn no-good that ever left Lexington always came back. Or they may trade information about a Louisville Courier-Journal reporter who wondered how it was that a black cow can eat green grass and give white milk that chums into yellow butter. For the benefit of his followers—apple-knockers and ridge-runners, he called them, including himself in the classifications —he’d tell whether a hen lays an egg because she wants to or because she has to, or explain why a hound trots with his hind legs out of line. With historians and nonhistorians alike the individual comes before the event. I’ve never heard one of them contend in defense that the proper study of mankind is man, but the principle seems to have some limited application here.
Man in the form of the local product gives to conversation and culture a provincialism that finds a prior and greater impulse in the feeling of Kentuckians for Kentucky. Any man who had a choice would be a fool to live in any other state. Even heaven can be no more than a Kentucky of a place. By contrast with the facts the Texan’s loyalty to Texas becomes a benighted and amusing attachment, to be tolerated on the ground of ignorance. You got to excuse people who haven’t had a chance to get around.
This contentment with place to the prejudice of problem, this satisfaction in an imagined isolation from the underprivileged, can be annoying. It’s hard, though, to keep a broad social consciousness alive and prickly when candlelight lies soft on old silver, and aged wood whispers under the feeling finger, and women and men honor the ways of ladies and gentlemen and, over coffee or bourbon, the rich, warm anecdotes spill out. Gracious living? It is a name, but more than a name. It is relaxation, ease, escape. At its best it is manners without rigidity. It is hospitality without calculation. If part of it is worshipful of ancestors and the great, gone days, part of it is immediate and fresh, and all of it is beguiling. The jet missile, the hydrogen bomb, the cold war, these join the distant shadows when your host in Louisville or Lexington or Paducah or Ashland or wherever has a mind and the means to entertain traditionally.
There are exceptions to a rule which, though common, isn’t general enough to be called a rule anyhow. Obviously not everybody breaks out the rare distillations or gives with the country ham or opens the door on ancestral Chippendale at the honk of a visiting horn. And not all of them by a long shot shy away from the state’s debits in enjoyment of its assets. There’s Harry W. Schacter, of Louisville, for instance.
Schacter, president of the second-largest department store in the state, thought public knowledge of problems plus democratic co-operation could rescue the commonwealth from half a century of decline. Around him gathered other people, few at first, who thought information more important than the reputation that the patriots would protect. They were professors from the University of Kentucky, farm leaders, newspapermen, representatives of civic, professional and labor groups. They called themselves the Committee for Kentucky. Their aim was to create “a moral climate in which things could happen.”
In twelve widely circulated reports they washed the dirty linen. They told the sorry stories of education, agriculture, public health, welfare, housing, legislation, taxation. They discussed the constitution, manufacturing, natural resources. They said: Here’s the situation; what do we do about it?
Protests resulted of course. Many citizens were indignant, not so much at the conditions as at the exposure of them. Chambers of commerce growled at the unfavorable publicity. Women’s clubs were openly critical.
That response was to be expected. What was astonishing was the strength of the counter-answer. Moved by the reports, people began to concern themselves with the long-neglected troubles of village, city, county and state. Communities began to plan and to act. Officials of state began to give ear, the policies of state to reflect the growing concern. Items of improvement have been substantial if not revolutionary, but more substantial still is the growth in public attitude away from reaction and ostrichism and apathy toward recognition and adjustment.
The myths in which Kentuckians find comfort are the myths of fast horses, good whisky, juleps, old retainers, leisurely graces beneath ancestral porticos. Unlike most myths these have so much basis in fact that a quick condition must be set: These are myths only as the facts are extended and exaggerated.
Not every Kentuckian trots to the race track, his money pulsing in his pocket. Fewer still like a horse because it’s a horse rather than a hot thing. Riding isn’t a particularly popular pastime. Lexington, “heart of the Bluegrass,” never has kept a commercial riding stable in business. It has no public bridle paths. Neither is the citizenry universally attached to the stirrup cup, the evening toddy and the short snort. Ninety of Kentucky’s 120 counties legally are dry. More give indications of becoming so. The liberal connotation of horses, whisky and women runs up against the fact of morals-in-action. That is a thing that needs constantly to be remembered—the strength in the state of a Protestant fundamentalism that equates highballs and horse races with sin. Kentucky is the home of good whisky and fast horses, but much of Kentucky is not at home with it and them. Such is the human wish for distinction, though, that even the antis sometimes appear to find pleasure in the reputation the state enjoys among outlanders.
One substantial fact, as distinct from myth, is that Kentucky stands first as a breeder of the Thoroughbred or running horse. And not by accident. Some quality in soil or water must give to horses an extra speed and stamina.
The running horse and to a small extent the harness horse and saddle horse are important to the economy of the Lexington region and not unimportant to that of areas near Louisville, Covington and Hopkinsville. Horses and horse farms probably rank as the No. 1 tourist attraction. Man o’ War, in his years at stud outside Lexington, drew more visitors than the tomb of Henry Clay, the first college west of the Alleghenies, the home of John Hunt Morgan, the residence of Mrs. Abraham Lincoln and the college quarters of Jefferson Davis. It used to be said that 50,000 people came to see him yearly. Tourists go now to see the heroic bronze over his grave. They ride to Calumet Farm, home of Whirlaway and Citation, and to Coldstream Stud, and to Mereworth, Elmendorf, Almahurst, Beaumont and Walnut Hall farms, and others that ring Lexington. A tour of them is rewarding in the visual dividend of rich fields, groves and paneled pastures with their mares and foals. And the sight of costly, manicured barns may impress you with man’s humanity to beast.
Because Lexington is known as the center of Thoroughbred breeding, many of the uninitiated think the Kentucky Derby is run there. It isn’t. It’s run at Louisville’s Churchill Downs.
Louisville is Kentucky’s biggest city and, businesswise at least, its most important. Its residents estimate a metropolitan district that counts more than half a million. It lies on a low plain where the Ohio River broke over falls as lucrative to earlyday pilots, porters and towline hands as they were vexing to vessels and crews. The falls aren’t impressive any more. The Government system of locks and dams has reduced them substantially.
Until about 1870 the city’s prosperity rose and fell with river traffic, in which the steamboat made its first entrance in 1811. A good many northerners terminated their river journeys at Louisville—which accounts for the fact that the town still casts a lusty if not majority Republican vote.
“Louisville,” says the Kentucky WPA guidebook of 1939, “is a border metropolis that blends the commerce and industry of a Northern city with the Southern city’s enjoyment of living.” It might have said that Louisville is a big, friendly, country town, notable by outward reputation as the home of the Courier-Journal, the Louisville Slugger and the Derby.
Even to the man without interest in the turf the Derby is worth seeing at least once, though massed humanity may keep him from catching more than a glimpse of the race. It is horse race, fashion show, spring festival, mob. Notables and nobodies mingle, touts and tycoons, owners and swipes, all beating inwardly to an excitement that old Colonel Matt Winn sedulously cultivated during a long lifetime. A kind of craziness afflicts people, so that even the Kentucky absentee is likely to stay close to his TV or radio until it’s over. The crowd is so thick that women caught in its close squirmings lose hats and gain hysterics. More even than it is a horse race, the Derby is a spectacle, a human spectacle the like of which it would be difficult to duplicate.
A second substantial fact, again as distinct from myth, is that Kentucky does make a great deal of whisky, Kentucky in this case being a dozen producing counties among the one hundred and twenty. At times the state manufactured nearly half the whisky distilled in the United States. More, the stereotype of the Kentucky colonel with a cigar in one hand and a glass in the other finds some enforcement in fact. If it’s inaccurate to say that Kentuckians are good judges of whisky, it’s true that many of them are. Two colonels got to arguing one day about the taste of their drinks. One of them said the whisky had a metallic flavor. The other said no, it smacked of leather. To settle the dispute they drained the barrel, to find at the bottom a leather-washered tack. (The story would have more authority if Cervantes hadn’t told it three hundred and fifty years ago.)
It is said of the fractious Thoroughbred that a touch of his blood betters any breed. By something of the same reasoning a similar virtue could be asserted for Kentucky. Through claim of birth or residence the state can boast a list of distinguished men, historical and contemporary, out of all proportion even to its present population of about three million. From this troubled, rich-poor, literate-illiterate, rewarding-distressing, politics-ridden commonwealth have come and still come notables in jurisprudence, national administration, military affairs, science, journalism, literature, education and the arts.
A few years ago three Kentuckians were justices of the United States Supreme Court, a representation that possibly no other state ever could claim. In all, Kentucky has sent nine men to the highest court.
There’s no need or room here to call the roll of history. The list of military personages alone would run to dozens. And, anyhow, the distinction doesn’t rest exclusively on ancient honors.
This story of the state has run a cycle. We are back to old Brother Timothy Flint, who cited the political squabbling, the clanships, the frequent recourse to violence 130 years ago. But he noted, too, the presence and continuing production of talent and leadership. In words dated only by style, in words that express a hope still current, he said of Kentucky:
“It can not but eventually feel the obligations imposed upon it, to manifest its possession of such men and such talents, by desisting from the petty struggles and broils of party and faction, and acting with a moderation, calmness, and dignity befitting its character.” ◊