LANCASTER — Add Garrard County to the list of places in Kentucky and the nation seeking to capitalize on its connection to Uncle Tom's Cabin, the 1852 novel that stirred anti-slavery sentiment before the Civil War.
Garrard officials hope to build a replica of a slave cabin on the grounds of Pleasant Retreat, the Lancaster home of Kentucky's 16th governor, William Owsley. The cabin would put a physical presence to claims that the book's author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, visited a Garrard County plantation and saw slave life there years before writing the book.
"I don't know that we have any evidence that she ever visited, other than hearsay," said Skip Gladfelter, chairman of the county's tourism committee. But local lore and a historic marker say that the author did visit a plantation between Lancaster and Paint Lick.
Officials hope to build the cabin — either with modern logs or 1800s-era logs salvaged from two old homes -- and have it up in time for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
Garrard is a small, rural county of only 14,000 residents. Its total cash receipts from crops and livestock dropped from more than $24 million in 1999 to $16 million in 2006, according to the Kentucky Agricultural Statistics Service. It has few tourist attractions other than Herrington Lake, the manmade impoundment that draws boaters and fishermen, and Peninsula Golf Resort.
But there are plans to put a new lodge, spa and resort in the county, and an August referendum saw voters in Lancaster approve the sale of alcohol, which officials hope will boost the local economy.
Tying the county to "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the biggest-selling book of the 19th century, is seen as another way to capture tourist dollars. The cabin could highlight other aspects of African-American history and could partner with Camp Nelson, a Civil War training camp for black Union soldiers in Jessamine County, said Nathan Mick, economic development director for Garrard County.
"We want to tell a larger-context history" and not just that of slavery, Mick said.
Stowe's novel of slave life sold 2 million copies worldwide in its first.year, and a stage version of the story appeared within six months of publication. When President Abraham Lincoln met Stowe in 1862 at the White House, he reportedly told her, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!"
Stowe lived in Cincinnati from 1832 to 1850, and it is known that in 1833 she visited the Mason County community of Washington in northern Kentucky and witnessed a slave auction. But historian J. Winston Coleman Jr. wrote in a 1946 article that Stowe visited the Thomas Kennedy plantation in Garrard County. Kennedy, a Revolutionary War veteran, settled in Kentucky, where he owned thousands of acres and more than 100 slaves. But the source Coleman cites speaks only of "a visit to Kentucky," and isn't specific where that was.
Stowe makes no mention of Garrard County in a follow-up book, A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, which documents her source material for the novel.
And Joan D. Hedrick, author of a 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Stowe and a history professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., said the novelist's visit to Mason County is the only Kentucky trip she could document.
"I didn't come upon any references to Garrard County," Hedrick said in a telephone interview. "The only time we're aware that she went to Kentucky was that one visit and it was a short visit."
Even if Stowe did not personally visit Garrard County, the community has another connection to her.
On May 16, 1881, The Courier-Journal published an interview with the Rev. Lewis Clarke, who said he ran away from the Garrard plantation in 1841 and struck out for Ohio, Canada, and finally, Massachussetts, where he lived with Stowe's sister-in-law.
"Mrs. Stowe visited her relations every summer and took a deep interest in Lewis Clarke, his experience and his narrative of incidents, pathetic, humorous and terrible, of slave life, and the horrors which the system made possible," the newspaper story said. "She took full notes of all he told her, and afterwards put them to use which made the entire republic tremble when Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared...."
Forty years later, while touring Central Kentucky on a lecture circuit, Clarke was interviewed on the site of the Kennedy plantation. Clarke told the reporter that the whipping death of Uncle Tom portrayed in the book might have been inspired by the fate of Sam Peter, a blacksmith who was swung up by his hands to the limbs of a locust tree and then lashed with a whip.
The Courier-Journal reporter wrote that "many people corroborate the truth of his story and the incidents upon which the ... event was founded." Stowe herself confirmed that Clarke (whose name she spells as Clark) was a source for the novel.
Whether Stowe actually visited Garrard or not, many people believed that she had, and a cabin behind the Kennedy mansion became an attraction. Students from nearby Berea College, started by abolitionist John Fee, would trek to rural Garrard County to see the Kennedy place.
In 1929, the Garrard County Historical Society organized for the purpose of restoring the Kennedy mansion as a state shrine. But because of lack of interest and a lack of money to be found during the Depression, the Kennedy house was torn down in the 1930s.
Even if a replica cabin were built today, not everyone is keen on resurrecting the painful history or negative connotations it would represent.
The Rev. David McPherson, pastor of First Baptist Church, an African-American congregation in Lancaster, said there are more positive aspects of the black experience in Garrard County to showcase.
For example, First Baptist was organized before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. And Duncan Town, the neighborhood where the church is located, was begun by freed slaves, McPherson said.
"I mean, what's in Uncle Tom's Cabin?" McPherson said. "What will you see in it, other than a cabin? Ask yourself, how much would you pay to see what's inside a cabin?
Mick said the cabin would "be a starting point to tell the story of African-American history in Garrard County" and not just slavery.
Katherine D. Kane, executive director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Conn., understands why some people would be reticent to bring up associations with Uncle Tom, which, because of the stereotypes portrayed in stage productions that followed the novel, became a pejorative for a black person who is passive and too eager to please whites.
But Kane said it is "the height of irony that the book that fueled the abolition movement, and that was the biggest fiction seller of the 19th century, also is a racial slur." The book is still relevant in discussions about race and gender in politics, she said.
"And Stowe picking up her pen to write about what was wrong in her day is still an example for us today on civic participation. One person can make a difference," Kane said.
Hedrick agrees. She sees the character of Uncle Tom as "very noble, pious man of integrity who would rather die than reveal the whereabouts of two runaway slaves." She sees value in making connections to Stowe as long as it is done accurately.
"As long as it can be done without distorting what we know to be factually true, it could be a center for people to learn about the history of slavery and the Underground Railroad," Hedrick said. "As long as it wasn't represented as Uncle Tom's Cabin, but a cabin such as the one that a slave could have lived in, and then connect it to Stowe living in Cincinnati and drawing on some Kentucky material, I think it could be a historical point of interest."
The fact that temperance crusader Carry Nation, who famously took an ax to saloons, was born in Garrard County in 1846 might also serve as another tie-in to Stowe and the abolitionist movement, Hedrick said.
"Temperance and slavery are linked historically," Hedrick said. "A lot of the people that got involved in the abolition movement were also temperance advocates. In 19th century people's minds, there were very direct links between these two struggles. People talked about 'the slavery of drink.' And people were often involved in both struggles."
If Garrard County proceeds with some sort of project related to Uncle Tom's Cabin, it would join a list of others in the United States and Canada.
Ontario, Canada has Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site, which commemorates the life of the Rev. Josiah Henson, a runaway slave whose life story is one of several Stowe used to create the composite character of Uncle Tom.
Montgomery County, Md., also has a 13-by-17-foot cabin that is Henson's former home.
Daviess County in western Kentucky also lays claim to Henson, because he led slaves from Maryland to a farm there. It was from Kentucky that he escaped to Canada. A historical marker east of Owensboro locates the site where Henson had a cabin.
Natchitoches, La., also claims a connection with Uncle Tom's Cabin. This summer, a 2,000-acre plantation there named for Little Eva, a main character in the novel, went up for sale for $6 million. The plantation was once part of a larger plantation owned by Robert McAlpin, who was said to be inspiration for the novel's villain, Simon Legree. A sign touts the property as "the legendary site of Uncle Tom's Cabin."
One thing that cannot be disputed: Stowe's novel begins and ends in Kentucky.
"All you have to do is read the book," Gladfelter said. "She talks about Kentucky a number of times."