Tom Eblen: Civic and business leader John Bradford featured in Georgetown exhibit

John Bradford
John Bradford University of Kentucky Special Collections

Many people go through school hating history. All of those dates to remember! Besides, people from the past are usually portrayed as one-dimensional heroes or villains, their claims to fame reduced to a sound bite.

A good example is John Bradford, who published the state's first newspaper, the Kentucky Gazette. That's all I remember about him from Kentucky History class.

Then my daughter, Mollie, and I wrote a chapter for the book Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852. We told the story of Transylvania University's dramatic rise and fall in the 1820s under President Horace Holley. In our research, we discovered that the man behind the scenes of that "rise" was Bradford, the longtime chairman of Transy's Board of Trustees.

I learned much more when the Cardome Center in Georgetown asked me to research and write an essay about Bradford for a symposium last month. The symposium, which featured a dozen prominent Kentucky journalists, was about the history and future of the news media.

The city of Georgetown owns Cardome, a former Catholic girls' school. A non-profit association has a long-term lease and ambitious plans to create the Center for the Written Word, a writers' retreat and museum.

The symposium, Words in a Changing World: From Bradford to Bloggers, opened the museum's first exhibit, a display of original and facsimile copies of the Kentucky Gazette, which Bradford published off and on from 1787 until his death in 1830. The free exhibit runs through July 5.

The old Gazette copies make for some interesting reading. But they reveal little about their publisher, who was a Renaissance man of the Kentucky frontier. Bradford's legacy continues to shape Lexington in ways that might surprise you.

Bradford was born in 1749 near Warrenton, Va. A surveyor like his father, he came to Kentucky to seek his fortune. In the 1780s he and his brother, Fielding, laid claim to 6,000 acres, mostly along Cane Run Creek between Lexington and Georgetown.

Kentucky leaders who wanted to break away from Virginia and form a new state decided they needed a newspaper to publicize their cause, but there were unable to attract a printer from back East. So, on the promise of future state printing work, Bradford and his brother bought a press in Pennsylvania and brought it down the Ohio River on a flatboat and overland from Maysville on pack horses.

During its early years, the Gazette was the only newspaper within 500 miles of Lexington. It published weeks-old reports of national and international news and a smattering of local happenings. There was special emphasis on reports of Indian attacks on settlers. Bradford himself participated in attacks on Native American settlements in what is now Ohio.

Like most small-town publishers, Bradford became involved in many aspects of civic and business life. He chaired the town trustees for many years and was a legislator and sheriff. But he was more businessman than politician.

In addition to running newspapers in Lexington and Frankfort, Bradford was the state's first book publisher and owner of an early bookstore. In 1796, he was a founder of the Lexington Public Library. He started the first mail service between Central Kentucky towns as part of newspaper delivery.

Bradford promoted emigration to Kentucky and helped start the Kentucky Vineyard Society to try to develop a local wine industry. He owned a tavern, a warehouse and a steam-powered flour mill and cotton factory on Vine Street. A mechanic and mathematician, he designed much of the machinery.

Bradford lived at the corner of Second and Mill streets in a house he bought from Henry Clay's father-in-law, Thomas Hart. The house was torn down in 1955, 125 years after Bradford's death, to create a parking lot. Public outrage over the demolition led to creation of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

To read the full essay on Bradford, go to my blog:


John Bradford's Kentucky Gazette

Where: Cardome Center, 800 Cincinnati Rd., Georgetown

When: 9 a.m. — 5 p.m., Tues.— Sat. through July 5.

Admission: Free

More information: (502) 863-1575,