Tom Eblen

State officials quietly gave away a historic park where Daniel Boone lived. What’s next?

Boone Station State Historic Site in southeast Fayette County is no more. Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration last month closed the 46-acre park and gave it to David’s Fork Baptist Church with no public input, notice or comment.

Daniel Boone, Kentucky’s most famous pioneer and first international celebrity, helped build cabins and a stockade there in 1779 after he left nearby Fort Boonesborough. He lived at Boone Station for about four years with other settlers. Since the 1990s, the property has been a small state park.

“Since the State is willing to give away the home of Daniel Boone, are all Kentucky’s historic sites now on the chopping block?” asked Phil Gray, a former manager of Boone Station and Fort Boonesborough State Park.

“The cost to the state for Boone Station is almost nothing,” Gray added. “There is a mowing contract and a very small electric bill each month. Upkeep on the fence. But that is it. When history loses, we all lose.”

Pastor Mickey Hyder said church leaders haven’t decided what to do with Boone Station. “We’re taking our time,” he said, declining further comment.

Boone Station has two old tobacco barns and a big granite monument the Daughters of the American Revolution erected in 1967. It also contains pioneer graves, which may or may not be Boone family members.

“That historic site is very important to the history of the Commonwealth,” said Leslie Miller of Louisville, the DAR’s state leader. “We hope that whoever owns the property, now or in the future, will continue to honor the historical significance of that place and continue to share the story of those brave early patriots with the public.”

Foster Ockerman Jr., president of the Lexington History Museum, said he would like to partner with the church to maintain at least some of the property as an historic site, or raise money to buy it if the church wants to sell. “I would like to see the whole thing preserved,” he said.

So would Sam Compton of Nashville, president of The Boone Society, and John Fox, a retired Lexington physician. They are working on separate efforts to develop tourist “trails” following the path of Boone’s migration through Kentucky. They said Boone Station is an important piece of that story.

“Obviously, we think it’s terrible” that state officials gave away the site, Compton said. “We’re trying to preserve American frontier history. It’s fading away.”

Re-enactors congregated around a cannon in 2007 in preparation for a weekend re-enactment of the 1780 “Ruddle’s Station Massacre” at Boone Station State Historic Site. Janet Worne Herald-Leader File Photo

When I first reported in September that state officials were planning to give away Boone Station, I asked for details. John Cox, communications director for the Tourism, Arts, and Heritage Cabinet, would say only that the site “was currently owned and operated by the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”

Once I saw the property transfer record on the Fayette County PVA’s website this month, I asked again. Cox initially had no comment. He just sent a PowerPoint presentation given to a legislative committee last fall implying Boone Station was insignificant and pointing out the state’s neglect of it.

Cox also sent copies of two deeds. In a 1992 deed, Robert Channing Strader willed the property to the state. He specified that if the site was not “developed as a historic state park” within 15 years, ownership should revert to his church. In the second deed, executed Dec. 17, 2018, state officials argued they hadn’t met that condition “due to a lack of financial resources,” so the property was going to the church. Strader’s will didn’t define what level of development was required. Boone Station has been open as a state historic park for more than 20 years.

After this column appeared online, Cox sent a statement: “The Cabinet has no plan to give any state parks away, unless we can ensure they will remain open as parks and, if not, they will revert to the state. Boone Station was an extraordinary case because of Mr. Strader’s will. The Commonwealth felt it had an obligation to honor his will, because it did not develop the property as the will requires during the 15 years after the executors of Mr. Strader’s estate deeded the property to the state. There have been discussions to deed or lease other parks, but only to other local governments or governmental entities, and only under very specific terms, that those properties remain open to the public as parks.”

Cox’s statement also noted, as I did in my September column, that the state deeded Constitution Square to Boyle County in 2012 and Ben Hawes State Park to the city of Owensboro in 2010.

This is part of a larger Bevin administration effort that William Landrum, secretary of the Finance and Administration Cabinet, described to legislators last fall as “reducing the footprint of state government.” He said the state is forming “partnerships” — essentially turning over operation and maintenance of some state parks, historic sites and natural areas to local governments or organizations so it doesn’t have to spend money on them.

There’s no doubt Kentucky’s state parks and historic sites have been underfunded. That’s because governors and legislators of both political parties over the past two decades have abdicated their responsibility to fix a broken tax system that doesn’t generate enough revenue to properly fund state government.

With some state parks, local officials could do a better job of developing and maintaining them than state government has. But do they have the resources and expertise to care for, preserve and interpret historic properties?

As I wrote in September, these places have been deemed Kentucky treasures. They have great educational and cultural value. Politicians shouldn’t give them away, especially under a cloak of secrecy. Anyone who cares about preserving Kentucky’s rich history should be asking questions and demanding answers.

Tom Eblen, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s metro/state columnist since 2008, writes opinion and feature columns. A seventh-generation Kentuckian, he was the Herald-Leader’s managing editor from 1998-2008. Eblen previously worked for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Associated Press. He is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.
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