When Fort Boonesborough got too crowded for Daniel Boone in 1779, Kentucky’s most famous pioneer moved his family and others to Fayette County near what is now Athens. They built Boone Station — a few cabins and a stockade — where they lived for several years.
The Daughters of the American Revolution erected a granite monument there in 1967, marking pioneer graves that may include Boone family members. The 46-acre property was given to the state in 1992 and is now Boone Station State Historic Site, which is open April through October and hosts occasional events and educational re-enactments.
But the Bevin administration recently asked a local church if it would like to have the property, apparently as part of a larger plan state Finance Cabinet Secretary William Landrum has described as “reducing the footprint of state government.”
“It’s such an important part of not only Kentucky’s history but American history and the Western expansion,” said Phil Gray, a former manager of Boone Station and nearby Fort Boonesborough State Park. “For the state to just give it away, that’s shameful.”
Robert Channing Strader willed Boone Station to the state on the condition that it become a state park. The will specified that if the property wasn’t used as a state park, ownership would revert to his church, David’s Fork Baptist.
The Rev. Mickey Hyder said he got a call from someone in state government a couple of months ago asking if the church would be interested in taking deed to the property. He said it would. Hyder said no agreement has been reached, and no decisions have been made about what the church would do with Boone Station.
At least one other state historic site and one state park have been involved in similar talks, but there has been no public discussion.
London Mayor Troy Rudder said state parks officials have offered to give the city 990-acre Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park. While no final agreement has been reached, Rudder said he and city council members are excited about the possibility because the park is a major driver of the area’s tourist economy. The city and state already had partnered on a popular zip-line “canopy tour” attraction at the park.
Madison County Judge-Executive Reagan Taylor said state officials contacted him to see if the county wanted to take over White Hall State Historic Site, which is surrounded by a 94-acre county park.
White Hall was the home of Cassius M. Clay, the colorful anti-slavery crusader and U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Civil War. Parts of the mansion were built as early as 1798 by his father, Gen. Green Clay, one of early Kentucky’s largest landowners. White Hall was saved from ruin in 1968 by Republican Gov. Louie B. Nunn’s wife, Beula, and has been a state park ever since.
Taylor said he isn’t interested in taking White Hall unless it comes with state funding, because tour revenues don’t cover maintenance and operating costs. “We get enough unfunded mandates,” he said. “We don’t need any more.”
Parks officials won’t talk about their plans. “Our only comment from the Tourism, Arts, and Heritage Cabinet and the Department of Parks is that Boone Station State Historic Site, White Hall State Historic Site, and Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park all are currently owned and operated by the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” John F. Cox, the cabinet’s communications director, said in response to questions.
The first many legislators heard about any of this was when Landrum made a presentation Aug. 22 to the Interim Joint Committee on State Government. Noting millions of dollars worth of deferred maintenance at state parks, he said the administration wants to “develop partnerships” with local governments to assume control and maintenance of some parks. Landrum didn’t identify which parks were under discussion.
Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, expressed concern at Landrum’s comments and asked the administration to come back with details.
This isn’t a new concept: The Beshear administration transferred Ben Hawes State Park to Owensboro and Constitution Square to Danville. The Bevin administration turned over the “Stephen Foster Story” amphitheater at My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown to Nelson County, which has budgeted $750,000 to help fund safety improvements state government had put off so long that the amphitheater was shut down last year.
“I’m not deeding any property with regard to parks for them to come out and then surplus it and sell it themselves and have a different focus,” Landrum said when questioned by Wayne. “In the lease or in the deed I would have it that it must be maintained as a state park or as it currently exists. If not, then it reverts back to the state.”
But that doesn’t appear to be the case with Boone Station.
Wayne said in an interview he is concerned the Bevin administration is doing all of this with no input from the public or General Assembly. “There are major implications here that have to be weighed,” he said. “It needs to have public hearings.”
Everyone acknowledges that Kentucky’s state parks, once touted as the nation’s finest, have been under-funded since improvements were made during the Patton and Fletcher administrations.
I can see a lot of merit in local partnerships and even local ownership of some state parks if it helps them become better. Thanks to a local tourism tax, Rudder thinks London will have more resources than the state has had to maintain and improve Levi Jackson park.
But I worry about historic sites, which are much more than amenities and tourist attractions. Historic sites, houses, buildings and museums are rarely money-makers, but they are central to Kentucky’s culture and identity. These places have been deemed Kentucky treasures, and they have great educational value. Politicians shouldn’t give them away to save a few bucks, especially with no public discussion.
State historian James Klotter agrees.
“Removal of any historic property from the protection and support the state can give always potentially puts that site at risk,” Klotter said. “More than ever, the commonwealth must remember and honor its history. We need the guidance of the past as we move into an uncertain future.”