25 Fine Facts About Kentucky
By Jeff Wells
Once a year, the nation turns its gaze to Kentucky for two adrenaline-packed minutes better known as the Kentucky Derby. But there’s much more to the Bluegrass State than horse racing, or bourbon for that matter (though those are two very fine things to be known for). There’s also the state’s colorful musical history, the world’s one and only Corvette factory, and a criminally-overlooked barbecue scene. Here are a few things you might not know about Kentucky.
1. The state’s most famous frontiersman, Daniel Boone, is a tall tale come to life. After blazing a trail through Cumberland Gap and establishing Fort Boonesborough in 1775, Boone was captured by Shawnee Indians and whisked away to their home base of Chillicothe, in modern-day Ohio. Boone gained his captors' confidence and even became a member of the tribe, only to escape after six months, riding a stolen horse 160 miles back to Fort Boonesborough. He made the journey in five days—just in time to lead the fort’s successful defense from another attack.
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Before Kentucky was a state, it was a county. In 1776, Virginia established Kentucky County as its westernmost territory. Residents didn’t feel adequately served by the far-off capital of Richmond, however, and a separatist movement took hold. After several petitions for statehood, Kentuckians finally received their blessing from Virginia. In 1792, Kentucky became the nation’s 15th state.
3. Although none of the battles fought during the War of 1812 actually took place in Kentucky, more than half of the soldiers killed were from the state.
4. The two commanders of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, were born less than one year and one hundred miles apart in Kentucky. Lincoln spent his early years near Hodgenville, while Davis grew up in Fairview.
5. In 1817, the first U.S. performance of a Beethoven symphony took place at Postlethwaite’s Tavern in Lexington. The conductor, a former merchant from Austria named Anthony Heinrich who’d gone bankrupt during the Napoleonic wars, led a small orchestra through the composer’s Symphony No. 1. Heinrich became a notable bard of the Bluegrass State, writing such compositions as “Hail to Kentucky” and “A Sylvan Scene in Kentucky.”
6. Kentucky is the only state to have an acting governor assassinated. On January 30, 1900, hard-charging politician William Goebel was walking to the state capitol in Frankfort to protest the recent gubernatorial election, in which he was declared the loser, when an assassin’s bullet cut him down. While Goebel clung to life in a nearby hospital, the state’s Democratic legislature upheld his claim of ballot fraud against his competitor, Republican William Taylor, and on January 31 named Goebel the state’s governor. Goebel died three days later.
7. Thomas Edison worked for two years as a telegraph operator in Louisville’s Western Union office. He would have stayed longer, but in 1867 he was fired after accidentally spilling sulfuric acid all over his boss’s new furniture (performing one of his side experiments, naturally). Sixteen years later, he returned to the city’s Southern Exposition to showcase 4600 of his incandescent bulbs.
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The only chief justice of the Supreme Court from Kentucky, Frederick Vinson, was born in the Louisa town jail in 1890. It’s worth noting that his father was the jailer, and this was back in the day when most births took place at home.
9. Chartered in 1780 by the Virginia General Assembly, Transylvania University in Lexington is the oldest university west of the Allegheny Mountains. Its name derives from the Latin phrase meaning “across the woods,” which was fitting for the school’s early days. The first classes took place in a local minister’s cabin.
10. The first commercial winery in the U.S. opened in 1799 near Lexington. The founder, a Swiss businessman named John James Dufour, settled on the location because of a shipping port on the Kentucky River that gave him access to New Orleans and other points south. Today, a descendant of one of Dufour’s first shareholders maintains the winery. It is, appropriately, called First Vineyard.
11. Why is Kentucky such a hotbed for horse racing? Locals would have you believe it’s the calcium-rich grass, which gathers minerals from the limestone bed that runs beneath the state’s central region. But according to several sources, Kentucky’s equine prowess is due to strict gambling laws in the late 19th century that outlawed betting in east coast states, where horse racing was prominent. Because Kentucky didn’t outlaw horse betting, breeders moved their operations there and took the state’s racing industry from a trot to a gallop.
Bluegrass music has its roots in European folk traditions. But it was Kentucky native Bill Monroe (born in Rosine in 1911) who gave the genre its name and quick-picking, high-wailing style. Influenced by the fiddling and folk songs of his youth, Monroe upped the tempo and added in mandolin, banjo and other instruments along with a vocal style he called “that high lonesome sound.” His Blue Grass Boys set the gold standard for traditional bluegrass, and influenced a wide array of future musicians, from Elvis Presley to Jerry Garcia.
13. The “Happy Birthday” song originated in Louisville in the late 19th century. Patty Hill, a teacher at the Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School, collaborated with her sister Mildred, a piano instructor, on a song called “Good Morning to All” that became a greeting teachers would sing to students. It’s unclear how, exactly, the tune morphed into “Happy Birthday to You,” but today it’s the most recognizable song in the English language.
14. In case you weren’t convinced that bourbon is big business in the Bluegrass State: The number of bourbon barrels currently aging in Kentucky distilleries outnumbers the state’s population by more than a million (5.6 million vs. 4.4 million, respectively).
There’s a 17-square-mile patch of Kentucky that’s not physically attached to the rest of the state. The result of a surveying error in the late 18th century, the Kentucky Bend, as it’s known, is located in an oxbow bend of the Mississippi River at the state’s south-westernmost point, and connects with Tennessee directly to the south. The residents—all 17 of them—collect their mail in Tennessee, and have to drive 40 miles through Tennessee and back into Kentucky in order to vote.
16. One of the state’s most endearing roadside sights, a red-and-white water tower along Interstate 75 that reads “Florence Y’all,” is something of an accidental monument. Built in 1974, the tower originally read “Florence Mall” to promote a soon-to-be-built shopping center. State officials, though, said the tower violated state laws that restricted the height of advertisements. Rather than tear down the tower or repaint it, the mayor of Florence, C.M. “Hop” Ewing, decided to remove the “M” and replace it with a “Y” and an apostrophe. The revision cost the city less than $500. Today, there are T-shirts and even a local festival devoted to the water tower.
Holly, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Bowling Green, located in western Kentucky, is home to the world’s only Corvette assembly plant. The one-million-square-foot compound was built in 1981, after GM decided to move the facility from St. Louis. Bowling Green is also home to the National Corvette Museum, where in 2014 a sinkhole opened up and swallowed nine cars.
18. Kentucky may not be the first name that comes to mind when you think barbecue, but pit masters throughout the state want you to know they’ve got some serious chops, too. Cuts of meat and sauces vary throughout the state: Hickman County, near the Mississippi River, offers smoked turkey with a vinegar and cayenne pepper sauce, while in Henderson County you’ll find brisket served with a tangy Worcestershire dip. Owensboro, which hosts the International Bar-B-Q Festival every year, features signature mutton dishes, including a hearty stew of mutton, chicken and vegetables known as burgoo.
19. Kentucky is a playground for boaters, with more navigable miles of water than any other state in the continental U.S. Its 1100 miles of rivers and lakes are second only to Alaska.
20. In 1997, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources began reintroducing elk into eastern Kentucky, where they once roamed in the thousands but were hunted out of existence following the Civil War. Today, the herd numbers more than 10,000—by far the largest east of the Mississippi River. It’s a victory for conservationists, if not so much for residents who have complained about their yards and gardens getting trampled.
21. The longest known cave system in the world, Mammoth Cave, is located in southern Kentucky. Spelunkers have explored nearly 400 miles of underground caverns to date, with untold more miles still awaiting discovery. Early guide Stephen Bishop called it a “grand, gloomy and peculiar place.”
Kentucky has had some issues with its state slogan. In 2002, officials came out with “It’s That Friendly” and a corresponding license plate that showed a smiling sun rising over a field. Residents weren't feeling the cheery design, however, and after just a few years the state scrapped the effort in favor of a new license plate featuring the current slogan, “Unbridled Spirit.” That still hasn’t sat well with the ruthless citizen-editors of Kentucky. Two years ago, an ad firm in Lexington came up with a rogue campaign that’s gaining serious traction: "Kentucky Kicks Ass."
23. Write this one down and stick it on your fridge: Post-It notes are manufactured exclusively in Cynthiana, Kentucky.
24. In 1930, Harland Sanders opened a service station in the town of Corbin and began serving up his original recipe fried chicken. Several years and scores of satisfied customers later, he opened a restaurant across the street, and the rest, well, is history. The Harland Sanders Café and Museum, as it's known today, is a shrine to Kentucky’s most famous chef.
25. The infamous family feud between the McCoys of Pike County, Kentucky and the Hatfields of Mingo County, West Virginia officially came to an end in 2003, when representatives from each side signed a truce on national television.