BY: PETER CONWAY
“Weep no more my lady, weep no more today! We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home, for the old Kentucky home far away” By Stephen Foster
We are all in love with Kentucky, and we will pine for the days we have spent here when we are far away. Well, at least we will pine for western and central Kentucky, a landscape populated by thoroughbreds, Bourbon Distilleries, picturesque farms dappled with contented cows, and charming villages such as Bardstown and Berea. (Eastern Kentucky, from Hazard to Harlan, will be the subject of a far different blog.)
What cyclist can fail to feel nostalgic when pedaling by Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home at Knob Creek, or passing the Makers Mark distillery which sits cheek by jowl to the mother convent of the Loretto nuns? We cycle on a road laid out by Daniel Boone. We pass log cabins that are still being lived in. We stay in the Boone tavern at Berea College, which was founded by abolitionists in 1855 as the first southern school both co-educational and integrated.
Perhaps most impressive looking is Bardstown, whose main street is listed on the National Register. It is the self-proclaimed Bourbon Capital of the world. In addition to Makers Mark, distilled in the Bardstown area are Jim Beam, Heaven Hill and Barton 1792. Bardstown also claims to be the inspiration for Kentucky’s State Song: My Old Kentucky Home. Federal Hill, a plantation on the edge of town, was owned by Stephen Foster’s cousins. After visiting there, he wrote the famous song, which describes the sorrow of “darkies” on the plantation who are being sold to Louisiana and will never again see their old Kentucky Home. Written in 1852, the song became one of the crusading ballads of the Abolitionist movement. It would have been inconceivable for Foster to imagine that slave state Kentucky would ever adopt it as the state song.
Foster was a Northerner who, as far as can be ascertained, only visited the south once: Bardstown. Yet he chose to write songs about the south, to be sung by black faced minstrels. These have stood the test of time. Consider Foster’s Greatest Hits:
My Old Kentucky Home
(Way down upon the) Swanee River
Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair
And my personal favorite…. Hard times Come Again No More.
Kentucky still embodies the charm and grace of the old south. Race horses, Bourbon, farms that may as well be plantations for their grandeur, fields of tobacco and the strikingly impressive jet-black barns once used to cure it; it all seems so timeless.
Yet Kentucky is also the birthplace of Lincoln, and the abolitionist movement was significant in Kentucky. For example, Berea College was, and is, a beacon of southern diversity and inclusion. Founded in 1855, its motto is “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth.” Because of this stand, the college was at one point forced to close by slave owning neighbors. In 1904, at the height of the Jim Crow era, the Kentucky Legislature passed a law forbidding blacks and whites to be educated together. Appealing to the US Supreme Court and losing, Berea was only able to readmit black students in 1952.
Today Berea College maintains a leadership role in promoting a Christian tradition of inclusiveness and diversity. At the same time, Berea focuses most of its recruiting efforts on the poor families of Appalachia. 90% of its students are from this still impoverished region. How can this work? Berea is tuition free for all students. In return, every student works an average of 10 hours per week for the college to help defray the cost of their education. We spoke to several students who work at the Boone tavern. Diverse as they are, they all are over the moon about Berea.
The town of Berea sits at the edge of the Appalachian Mountains. It is into, and more significantly OVER this region that we are heading. Stay tuned for Eastern Kentucky, where moonshine replaces Bourbon, and coal mines replace stud farms…