Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Campaign-memorabilia exhibit includes one-of-a-kind items

A Styrofoam "boater" hat is a souvenir from Edward T. "Ned" Breathitt's successful 1963 run for governor.
A Styrofoam "boater" hat is a souvenir from Edward T. "Ned" Breathitt's successful 1963 run for governor. Herald-Leader

GEORGETOWN — Before there were TV attack ads, political campaigns were waged with posters, buttons and bumper stickers — and even thimbles, string ties and china water pitchers.

This election season, the Georgetown & Scott County Museum has assembled what organizers say is the largest-ever display of Kentucky campaign memorabilia. More than 1,200 items cover the century from 1883 to 1983.

The exhibit combines three large collections — assembled by Jerome Redfearn, Robert Westerman and Julius Rather — with artifacts held by the University of Kentucky, Western Kentucky University and several individuals.

"Many of these items, especially the early stuff, are one of a kind, unless you get lucky and find the right attic," said Redfearn, a Georgetown antiques dealer who has been collecting Kentucky campaign items for 35 years.

The museum also has published a full-color $30 catalog of the exhibit.

The exhibit begins with a cigar box, a postcard and a button promoting the 1883 gubernatorial campaign of J. Proctor Knott, the namesake of Knott County. It concludes with material promoting the 1983 election of Kentucky's first and only female governor, Martha Layne Collins.

In between, there is paraphernalia from just about every Kentuckian of that century who ran for governor, U.S. senator, vice president or president. Famous names include Alben Barkley, A.B. "Happy" Chandler, Louie Nunn, Bert Combs, Edward "Ned" Breathitt, Wendell Ford, John Sherman Cooper and three men named John Young Brown. Their names, images and slogans are reproduced on everything from buttons and hats to thimbles and "Kentucky colonel" string ties.

Among the many never-before- displayed items is a ribbon promoting the candidacy of Simon Boliver Buckner, the former Confederate general who was elected governor in 1887. His term coincided with the Hatfield-McCoy feud and the scandal over state treasurer James "Honest Dick" Tate, who dis appeared with $250,000 of state money.

"That's the only one known to exist," Redfearn said of the Buckner ribbon. "It's mine. Bob Westerman would love to have it, but he's not going to get it."

Campaign buttons and trinkets first became popular in the late 1800s, when machines enabled cheap mass production. Early buttons were covered with clear celluloid before lithography allowed color printing on tin in the 1920s. The popularity of automobiles led to campaign license plates and, later, bumper stickers.

This exhibit has many items from the notorious 1899 campaign for governor. That race pitted Republican William S. Taylor against Democrat William Goebel and the first John Young Brown, who ran on the "Honest Election Democrats" ticket in reaction to Goebel's hardball tactics.

Taylor narrowly won, but opponents alleged vote fraud and a Democrat-controlled General Assembly gave the election to Goebel. Before he could take office, Goebel was shot in the back on the Capitol lawn, becoming the only American governor to be assassinated. Campaign items include a one-of-a-kind china water pitcher with Goebel's portrait and a postcard bearing the slogan "Down with Goebelism!"

Lindsey Apple, a retired history professor at Georgetown College who helped organize the exhibit, said this collection also speaks to more positive aspects of Kentucky politics. Many of the names and faces displayed here became good leaders — or could have been.

"One of the things that emerges from this was how many men were well qualified to be public servants, but for whatever reason the timing just wasn't right," Apple said.

While the 1899 election set a standard for violence and bitterness, other races were waged by opponents who could remain friends despite their political differences.

State historian James Klotter recalled the 1915 race for governor between Democrat A.O. Stanley and Republican Edwin Morrow. They traveled the state, lambasting each other from the stump but often drinking together in the same hotel room at night.

At one joint appearance, Klotter said, the hot sun became too much for Stanley as Morrow spoke, perhaps because of their previous night's revelry. He threw up in front of everyone.

"This goes to show you what I've been saying all over Kentucky," Stanley said when it was his turn to speak. "Ed Morrow plain makes me sick to my stomach."

Stanley won, but Morrow got his turn as governor four years later.