Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Short Street long on Lexington history

The old Fayette County Court House, now the Lexington History Museum, stands on the public square next to Cheapside, where slave auctions were held before the Civil War.
The old Fayette County Court House, now the Lexington History Museum, stands on the public square next to Cheapside, where slave auctions were held before the Civil War.

The street is named Short, but it is long on Lexington history.

I have been thinking about how this milelong street, which runs parallel to Main Street through downtown, ties together so many aspects of Lexington's colorful and checkered past. I quickly came up with a dozen examples.

When I mentioned it to Jamie Millard, director of the Lexington History Museum, he quickly offered a dozen more. (The history museum, by the way, is on Short Street, in the old Fayette County Court House. It is worth a visit. More information: Lexingtonhistorymuseum.org.)

Maybe you will have a spare hour during the holidays, some nice weather and an urge to get out of the house for a walk. Clip this column and take a tour with me down Short Street.

Start on the west side, where Short Street begins at Newtown Pike. But first look behind you at the statue atop the 120-foot column rising out of Lexington Cemetery. It marks the grave of Lexington's most famous citizen, early 19th-century statesman Henry Clay.

As you begin walking along Short through Lexington's first suburb, you will see many homes Henry Clay would have seen. To your right, on the corner just across Old Georgetown Street, is the former home of Billy Klair, a colorful saloon owner and political boss in the early 1900s.

If you look beyond adjacent Klair Alley, you will see a gas station, the site of Belle Brezing's childhood home. Brezing grew up to run a famous house of prostitution and is thought to have inspired the Belle Watling character in Gone With the Wind.

At Jefferson Street, you enter Lexington's 1791 city limits. The next long block toward Broadway is filled with history. On your right, where First Baptist Church now stands, was the city's original graveyard. It filled up quickly during the 1833 cholera epidemic.

William "King" Solomon, an alcoholic vagrant, became a local hero during that epidemic, risking his life to bury hundreds. After he died in 1854, the community saw to it that he was buried in Lexington Cemetery with an impressive monument. When you get home, search the Internet and read James Lane Allen's fascinating 1891 story, King Solomon of Kentucky.

Farther along Short Street, you will pass two old homes on your left with a historical marker between them. They replaced two older ones where Mary Todd Lincoln was born in 1818 and where her grandmother, Elizabeth Parker, lived next door. (The future first lady moved to what is now the Mary Todd Lincoln House museum on Main Street when she was 14.)

When Abraham Lincoln visited his wife's family in 1849, he got perhaps his most close-up view of the evil institution he would later take the lead in abolishing. There were slave jails across the street from the Todd and Parker homes and to their side facing Broadway. That side property is now occupied by three historic buildings: St. Paul Catholic Church, Sts. Peter & Paul School and Lexington Opera House.

The Short Street jail was Lexington's most notorious because, from 1849 to 1856, it is where slave trader Lewis Robards kept what he called his "choice stock" — young mixed-race women he sold into sexual slavery.

In the block past Broadway, you will see the soon-to-close Metropol restaurant. It is housed in Lexington's oldest surviving post office building, circa 1825.

When you come to Mill Street, look to your right. The left side of Mill housed the shop of the great silversmith Asa Blanchard. Further on was the office of Cassius M. Clay's 1840s abolitionist newspaper, The True American. It was an unpopular publication in slave-holding Lexington, so Clay guarded the door with a cannon.

The right side of Mill has the remaining half of a building that was a confectionery and ballroom operated by Mathurin Giron. The building now houses Silks Lounge. Giron's upstairs ballroom played host to Lexington's most prominent visitors in the early 1800s, including President James Monroe and the Marquis de Lafayette.

Cheapside was for many years the center of Lexington commerce, including outdoor slave auctions. Mary Todd Lincoln's father had a store where Bluegrass Tavern is now. The old courthouse on the public square was Lexington's fourth. Before that, in the 1780s, there was a log school, where the teacher was once attacked by a wildcat.

You might be tired of walking by now, but keep going for a few more blocks. You will come to the Deweese Street intersection, once the commercial hub of black Lexington. There you will find one of the city's least-known historic buildings.

Now Central Christian Church's child-care center, it was built in 1856 to house First African Baptist Church. It is an interesting piece of Italianate architecture, but what is most remarkable is that it was financed and built by slaves and free blacks.

The building was something of a monument to the church's longtime minister, London Ferrill, who died two years before its completion. Under his leadership, the congregation grew to become Kentucky's largest, black or white.

Ferrill was widely respected by both races. His funeral procession in 1854 was said to have been the largest Lexington had ever seen, save for one — that of Henry Clay two years earlier.

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