15 Things You Might Not Know About Kentucky

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1. Kentucky Bend is an odd little geographic quirk of the state. At the far southwestern tip of Kentucky, the tiny exclave of Fulton County sits in a meander of the Mississippi River. As an exclave, it’s a portion of Kentucky that doesn’t touch any other part of the state. Kentucky Bend is bordered by Tennessee to the south and Missouri on all other sides. To make things even more confusing for the handful of residents of “Bubbleland,” their mailing addresses are all in Tiptonville, Tenn. Any official function—like voting—forces Bubbleland’s residents to drive 40 miles through Tennessee and back into the main body of Kentucky. 

2. Kentucky was originally a part of Virginia, but that arrangement didn’t work out too well for early Kentuckians. The enormous land area of the state made it tricky for Kentuckians to travel to the capital, and the interests of Kentucky’s residents didn’t always align with those of Virginians. On June 1, 1792, Virginia gave Kentucky the go-ahead to break off on its own to become the 15th state.

3. Technically, Kentucky isn’t a state at all. Like Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, it’s officially a commonwealth. What’s the difference? In practice, there isn’t a meaningful one. The designation is a relic of colonial relations with England, and since Virginia was a commonwealth, Kentucky billed itself as a commonwealth when it struck out on its own.

4. Kentucky’s state tree is a surprisingly hot political issue. In 1956, the state legislature named the tulip poplar the state tree, but a clerical error kept the bill giving the tulip poplar the honors from ever being officially added to the books. When this blunder came to light in 1973, the legislature decided to reconsider the issue—it was suddenly open season for fans of other trees to make their case for the state’s highest arboreal honor. Despite hard charges by sycamore and tulip poplar advocates, in 1976, the legislature settled on the Kentucky coffee tree, a relatively rare species whose seeds provided pioneers with a coffee substitute. 

The tulip poplar faction didn’t just roll over and accept this defeat. They kept agitating for the legislature to once again reopen the issue and return the tulip poplar to its rightful throne. After years of campaigning, their efforts finally paid off. In January 1994, the tulip poplar was once again named Kentucky’s state tree. Fans of the Kentucky coffee tree have no doubt spent the last two decades plotting their countermove.

5. Kentucky’s chicken and bourbon get all the publicity, but it’s also a great barbecue state. Owensboro bills itself as “The BBQ Capital of the World,” and while there are plenty of other cities with a reasonable claim to the honor, Owensboro can make a pretty strong case. Unlike the pork of North Carolina or the beef of Texas, Kentucky’s main event BBQ meat is mutton. This mutton is often served with another Kentucky favorite: the thick, spicy vegetable and meat stew known as burgoo.

6. If mutton’s not your thing, Kentucky has plenty of other culinary delights. The state’s signature sandwich, the hot brown, isn’t the healthiest choice, but it’s undeniably delicious. This open-faced delicacy consists of bread piled with turkey, ham, bacon, and sliced tomato, drowned in a rich cheddar sauce and then broiled. The sandwich originated at Louisville’s Brown Hotel in 1923.

7. Rainbows are incredible, but Kentucky is home to an even rarer and more breathtaking sight. In Cumberland Falls on the Cumberland River near Corbin, you might spy a moonbow—a rainbow made from light reflected off of the moon. On clear nights when the moon is full or nearly full, you can see a moonbow in the falls' spray.

8. One more fun stop for foodies. Trigg County is known for its delectably salty country hams, and for 38 years the second weekend in October has seen Cadiz host the Trigg County Ham Festival, a celebration of all things hammy. It’s worth a trip to get a taste of the enormous country ham biscuit that's made for the event every year—it was certified by Guinness as the largest of its kind.

9. Enjoy the Kentucky Derby? Tip your cap to Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Clark watched England’s famed Epsom Derby during an 1872 visit to Europe and wanted to create something equally impressive back home in Kentucky to showcase the local horse breeding industry. Upon his return, he got to work. Clark first founded Churchill Downs on land he leased from his uncles, John and Henry Churchill, and when the track was finally ready to open on May 17, 1875, the featured event on the first day of racing was known as the Kentucky Derby.

10. Kentucky makes a cameo appearance at most birthday parties. “Happy Birthday to You” was originally written by Mildred and Patty Hill, two sisters who taught kindergarten in Louisville. Their original song had different lyrics and was called “Good Morning to All,” but it eventually transformed into the birthday favorite.

11. Thomas Edison made the first major public display of his newly created incandescent light bulb at Louisville’s Southern Exposition in 1883. The visit was something of a triumphant return for Edison—he had lived in Louisville in the mid-1860s while he was working as a Western Union telegraph operator. He was supposedly sacked from that gig after spilling a jar of acid while doing an experiment on company time.

12. Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave lives up to its name. The caverns, which became a national park in 1941, constitute the longest cave system in the world. Over 400 miles of the limestone caves have been explored. The caves are home to a variety of subterranean oddities, including the endangered Kentucky cave shrimp, a blind, albino crustacean.

13. Contrary to popular belief, Kentucky’s state flag does not depict local heavyweights Daniel Boone and Henry Clay embracing. Rather, the two men are supposedly representative of any old statesman and frontiersman. What’s not up for debate: It’s not the world’s most popular flag. When the North American Vexillological Association polled the public on the best state and province flags in North America in 2001, Kentucky’s design finished 66th out of 72 entries.

14. In the mid-20th century, Lexington had a “town dog” named Smiley Pete. The stray dog, who was named for his human-like grin, was a fixture in downtown Lexington. Locals collectively looked after Smiley Pete, and the pooch supposedly had a daily routine that included begging for a hamburger and waffle at a diner and a bowl of draft beer at a tavern. When Smiley Pete passed away in 1957, he was memorialized with a brass plate on the sidewalk in his old sniffing grounds.

15. Don’t be fooled by the booming distilling industry. Kentucky’s official state beverage is milk.