How did Central Kentucky become the Horse Capital of the World? A clever combination of good geology, good marketing and good luck.
When the first white settlers arrived in the 1770s, they discovered that horses grew strong and fast from drinking the limestone water and munching bluegrass grown in the mineral-rich soil. Race horses became a big business until the Civil War made a mess of things.
By the late 1800s, Northeast industrialists discovered the sport of kings and began breeding and racing operations in New York and New Jersey. But savvy Kentuckians lured them here with a clever marketing campaign built around an Old South myth of the mint julep-sipping Kentucky colonel. That story is told in the soon-to-be-published book, How Kentucky Became Southern, by retired Herald-Leader turf writer Maryjean Wall (University Press of Kentucky, $29.95)
This is a big year for horses because of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, Sept. 25 to Oct. 10. The Games will be at the Kentucky Horse Park, which is a great place to learn about our equine heritage. The Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau has information about horse farm tours. And every April and October, you can see racing as it was meant to be at Keeneland Race Course.
But horses are just one part of Central Kentuckys rich and colorful history waiting to be explored. This has been a popular tourist destination since Native Americans began wandering through about 13,000 years ago. When white surveyors first came here in 1750, Kentucky was a hunting ground for the Shawnee, Iroquois, Cherokee and other tribes.
By the 1770s, Britains colonies along the East Coast were getting crowded, and real estate speculators began eyeing land beyond the mountains. Richard Henderson bought much of Kentucky from the Cherokee in one of historys biggest private land deals. Henderson tried to form his own colony, Transylvania, and hired a frontiersman named Daniel Boone to blaze a trail through the Cumberland Gap.
Boone also built Fort Boonesborough along the Kentucky River, not far from James Harrods fort at Harrodsburg, the first permanent settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains. Harrods fort has been reconstructed at Old Fort Harrod State Park in Harrodsburg, and a reconstruction of Boones fort can be seen at Fort Boonesborough State Park (for information on both, go here).
Authorities were not amused by Hendersons land grab, and they voided his claim. Kentucky became a Virginia county and then, in 1792, the 15th state.
Land-hungry settlers rushed to Kentucky, in part because of author John Filson, whose 1784 best-seller, The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke, described this region as a new Eden. One place still recognizable from Filsons descriptions is the Kentucky River Palisades, or steep limestone cliffs. You can see them on the one-hour Dixie Belle River Cruise from Shaker Landing.
The Shakers, a religious sect, sought their own Kentucky Eden, founding a utopian community in Mercer County in the early 1800s. The Shakers made elegantly simple furniture, architecture, crafts and music. But they didnt believe in sex, which is why there are no more Shakers. The restored Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg is a great place to visit, stay overnight, eat and shop.
People found that Central Kentuckys limestone water made good whiskey as well as strong horses. More than 90 percent of the worlds bourbon is still made here, and several distilleries welcome visitors. Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort has tours but isnt part of the official Bourbon Trail.
Agriculture and trade made Lexington the most prosperous and cultured town in western America in the early 1800s. Young men came from all over to study at Transylvania University, and Lexingtonians proudly called their town the Athens of the West.
Loyalties were divided during the Civil War. Lexington was a big slave-owning town, but it also had been home to Henry Clay, who for decades fought harder than anyone else in Congress to preserve the union. Mary Todd, a Lexington girl, might have been married to Abraham Lincoln, but that didnt stop many of her relatives from fighting for the Confederacy.
Lexington has several historic home museums that offer a glimpse into aristocratic 19th-century life, including Waveland State Historic Site (Parks.ky.gov); the Mary Todd Lincoln House; Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate; and the Hunt-Morgan House.
Downtown and surrounding neighborhoods are filled with history. The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation has mapped a Bicycle Tour of Historic Lexington (drive if you must), and Doris Wilkinson, a University of Kentucky sociology professor, developed an African-American Heritage Trail.
For an overview of local history, visit the Lexington History Museum downtown. A good place to explore Kentucky history is the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort.