Ky. Military History Museum reopens, displays jeweled sword, glider skin

ctruman@herald-leader.comMarch 3, 2013 

  • IF YOU GO

    Kentucky Military History Museum reopening

    When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. March 9; regular hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wed.; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thu.; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Fri., Sat.

    Where: 125 Main St., Frankfort; visitors must check in at Thomas D. Clark Center, 100 W. Broadway

    Admission: Free opening day. Otherwise, $4 adults, $3 veterans and AAA members, $2 students.

    Information: History.ky.gov/military

FRANKFORT — Trevor Jones pulled up a window blind on the second story of the Kentucky Military History Museum to reveal one of the state's most stunning views. There's the Kentucky River with little boats bobbing, downtown Frankfort, and off on a far hill, the Kentucky Capitol.

It's a reminder of how impressive the Kentucky landscape can be. And the Kentucky Military History Museum is a reminder of some of the commonwealth's impressive historical artifacts.

The museum concludes its multi-phase renovation with a reopening Saturday. It has been closed since late July.

The museum began as the Kentucky Arsenal, the storage spot for all military equipment and uniforms for Kentuckians. Built in 1850, the building initially did not even have a set of stairs leading to the second floor, but rather an ammunition hoist for moving goods around. During the Civil War, the arsenal, set on a bluff above downtown Frankfort, was a cartridge factory, staffed with teenage girls.

With its reopening, the museum, which has been renovated in segments, will prominently feature one of the six swords made for generals to honor their service during the Mexican War in 1846. Of the six, one burned and the others are in private hands.

The museum's was made for Kentuckian William Orlando Butler, a lawyer and politician who ended the war as the commanding general of the Army and became the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for vice president.

It's not just any sword. It's gold, with a 3.2-carat ruby in the guard and a topaz in the hilt. Its value is incalculable, hence the presence of a stepped-up security system for the case that will house the sword.

At the time Butler received the sword, it cost about as much as a 300-acre farm: $1,800.

Another of Butler's swords, an elaborately patterned silver piece, is showcased at the museum.

The legend is that Butler's swords were stolen from his home by Confederates during the Civil War, when Butler stood as a Union Democrat. Butler allegedly rode to the nearest Confederate camp, demanded the swords' return and then hid them until the end of the war.

Another attention-grabbing piece is more contemporary: a metal plaque wrenched from the Landsberg jail in Germany, commemorating its most famous inmate.

Adolf Hitler stayed there for nine months after his failed "Beer Hall Putsch" in 1923. While there, he dictated his autobiography, Mein Kampf.

There's also memorabilia on display related to Richmond Mentor Johnson, one of the more intriguing Kentuckians whose name has fallen into obscurity.

Johnson fought in the War of 1812, and a British drum taken by his volunteer regiment "is an amazingly significant 1812 piece," said Trevor Jones, director of museum collections and exhibitions for the Kentucky Historical Society.

Johnson supposedly killed Tecumseh in the Battle of the Thames. The claim spawned his vice presidential campaign slogan, "Rumpsey Dumpsey, Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh."

He became vice president under Martin van Buren on a technicality. Meanwhile, he carried on a relationship with an octoroon slave, Julia Chinn, and gave their two daughters his last name.

One of the most significant pieces is what Jones describes as "the Holy Grail for D-day aficionados:" a piece of the skin of the glider The Fighting Falcon, missing for 65 years.

The glider was one of the first to land in Normandy and carried Brig. Gen. Don Pratt, assistant commander of the 101st Airborne Division. The glider skidded into a hedgerow, killing Pratt.

Willis McKee Sr., a doctor from Shelbyville, had landed nearby as a surgeon in the 326th Medical Company and wound up with the identifying banner — which stayed in his attic for 50 years, then in the attic of his son for 15 more years, before being uncrated, historically validated and donated to the museum.

"It's not about the stuff," Jones said. "It's about the stories."


If you go

Kentucky Military History Museum reopening

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. March 9; regular hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wed.; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thu.; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Fri., Sat.

Where: 125 Main St., Frankfort; visitors must check in at Thomas D. Clark Center, 100 W. Broadway

Admission: Free opening day. Otherwise, $4 adults, $3 veterans and AAA members, $2 students.

Information: History.ky.gov/military

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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