Former Kentucky Poet Laureate Richard Taylor discovered Elkhorn Creek in 1975 when he bought a ramshackle house and some land not far from its banks. Later, he started spending Sundays with friends, kayaking below the creek’s steep palisades in a fellowship they call the Church of Elkhorn.
The winding eight miles of water from the Forks of Elkhorn to Knight’s Bridge in Franklin County hasn’t changed much since the 1770s, when pioneers paddled dugout canoes up it on their way to survey what would become Frankfort and Lexington.
It also looks much as it did more than a century ago when artist Paul Sawyier painted the Elkhorn landscape in dozens of watercolors, popular prints of which have decorated thousands of Kentucky homes since the 1970s.
Because little of it is visible from the road, few people have seen this stretch of the Elkhorn unless they kayak, canoe, fish or own a Paul Sawyier print. Even then, they probably don’t know about the prehistoric mammoth bones, the ancient tribes, the pioneer massacre, the long-gone mills or the environmental threats to this increasingly popular recreational oasis.
Taylor explores all of this and more in his new book, “Elkhorn: Evolution of a Kentucky Landscape” (University Press of Kentucky,$35.). It won the Thomas D. Clark Medallion as the year’s best book about Kentucky history or culture.
Taylor said he had been thinking about and gathering information for this book for decades, but finally decided three years ago he had better get busy. He turns 77 on Sept. 17.
“Once I got some words on the page, it naturally took on a life of its own,” Taylor said. “It was a great delight to do it. I never enjoyed writing something so much.”
Taylor begins this fascinating book with the 1945 discovery of a prehistoric mammoth skeleton that would have been remarkably intact had a bulldozer operator not kept working after his employer called the state geologist to come see what they had found.
He writes about Native Americans who populated the area for thousands of years, and the pioneer surveyors, including collateral ancestor Hancock Taylor, who came through in 1773 and 1774 to stake claims to land. Taylor was killed by Indians before he could leave. In 1792, the year Kentucky became a state, Wyandotte Indians attacked and killed several settlers in the area and captured others in what became known as the Cook Massacre.
Taylor tells the story of Harry Innes, whom George Washington appointed as the first federal judge in Kentucky before statehood. Innes once owned the land where Taylor’s rambling house, built between 1859 and the 1880s, now stands.
He chronicles industrialists who denuded the landscape for decades as their mills prospered. They included the Steadman brothers, who supplied state government’s paper for three decades. They also sold paper to the Confederate government to print money, but, ironically, were never paid. And A.W. Macklin, who died building a massive stone dam at Forks of Elkhorn that has stood firm since 1863.
Taylor profiles Sawyier, who a century after his death remains Kentucky’s favorite landscape painter. Sawyier spent countless hours along the Elkhorn, using its water to activate his pigments. Each of his original paintings now sells for more than Sawyier earned in his lifetime.
He writes about environmental issues. The Elkhorn is basically Central Kentucky’s drainage system, emptying into the Kentucky River a few miles north of Knight’s Bridge. Despite pollution, an increasing number of fishermen, canoeists and kayakers find solace and excitement on the creek.
The book is the result of deep research, but also Taylor’s imagination. Recorded facts tell only part of a story, and the author tried to fill gaps with imagined narratives of characters who lived and worked along the creek. He even included a couple of his poems.
“I wanted to make it more than a standard history,” said Taylor, the Kenan Visiting Writer at Transylvania University and a former English professor at Kentucky State University. “I wanted to bring a kind of imaginative perspective, which added an additional window into the experience.”
For Taylor, the creek has an almost mystical quality, which he conveys well to readers.
“It’s a great source of relaxation, appreciation of the esthetic,” he said. “It’s one of those parts of the world that hasn’t been altered a lot because of its topography. it’s such an alluring, satisfying, kind of quiescent place.”
If You Go
Richard Taylor will read from and sign copies of “Elkhorn” on Sunday, Sept. 16, at 4 p.m. at Brier Books, 319 S. Ashland Ave. in Lexington. The book’s launch party is Wednesday, Sept. 26, at 5:30 p.m. at Paul Sawyier Public Library, 319 Wapping Street, Frankfort. Register at Pspl.org.