Bluegrass

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Henry Clay was spent and weary at the end of the negotiations that brought forth the Compromise of 1850, but he knew he’d helped stave off civil war for a few years at least, and he had something to look forward to.

He told a crowd that the “Union now seems safe,” and then he grinned and pointed. “There lives an old lady about a mile and a half from here with whom I have lived for more than fifty years, whom I would rather see than any of you.”

 

Henry Clay was spent and weary at the end of the negotiations that brought forth the Compromise of 1850, but he knew he’d helped stave off civil war for a few years at least, and he had something to look forward to.

He told a crowd that the “Union now seems safe,” and then he grinned and pointed. “There lives an old lady about a mile and a half from here with whom I have lived for more than fifty years, whom I would rather see than any of you.”

What Henry Clay wanted most, after preserving the Union, was to go home. Home to Clay meant Lexington in particular and the state of Kentucky in general. Kentucky, in fact, has a peculiar power to represent “home” even to people who have never been there. Stephen Foster never lived in Kentucky, but when he came to write the definitive American anthem to home—its sweetness, its comforts, the inevitable loss of it—it is no accident that he didn’t pick Rhode Island.

Why Kentucky should radiate such a sense of well-being is not easy to say. From the beginning it had a history more complex, varied, and difficult than most states, and more marked with contradictions and ironies. A surprising amount of that past made itself evident to me when I took a two-hundred-mile swing through the bluegrass country early last fall.

I started out at the spot Clay was wild to get back to. Lexington is a sensible place to begin a historical tour: Kentucky was our first Western state, and Lexington was its first important city. During and after the Revolution, Americans flowed through the Cumberland Gap, drawn—as were so many millions who came after them—by fabulous stories of soil rich as cake, easy grazing, and lots of room. But the nation hadn’t yet had any experience in the orderly distribution of new lands, and Kentucky turned out to be a maddening patchwork of counties with too much autonomy, pioneer land speculators as determined as pioneer farmers, and general chaos.

It was certainly a good place for a lawyer to go, though, and Henry Clay did so in 1797, opening an agreeable little red-brick cube of an office that still stands in Gratz Park in the heart of Lexington. His home, Ashland, lies, as he said, a mile and a half away, surrounded by magnificent old trees. Dating from the early 1800s, the house was entirely rebuilt in 1852. The result is a lush Italianate mansion, but its Federal underpinnings peep through wherever you go in it. For all its formality, it’s a friendly house, and despite the frightening intelligence of Henry Clay’s tight, mordant, scornful face (there’s a portrait of him in almost every room), you feel he would have shown you a good time there.

The wood-paneled, octagonal library seems particularly expressive of the man, though only a single shelf of Clay’s own books remains in it. Most of them are 1830s issues of The Racing Calendar. Like every other true Kentuckian, Clay loved a horse. They were talking Thoroughbreds in Lexington before he came there, and as soon as you get past the malls, you’re in horse country: mile upon mile of bluegrass striped with the four-rail wooden fences that are expensive to maintain but gentle on any equine hide that might brush up against them. The grass isn’t really blue, but it is so charged with color that it gave off a dark glow even beneath the milky, indifferent rain clouds that followed me out of the city, and it would seem belittling to describe it merely as “green.”

This is prosperous country, and every farm looks immaculate. What they’re doing on those farms—and why it’s worth doing—is handsomely demonstrated in the Kentucky Horse Park, a few miles west of town on the Iron Works Pike. Equal parts museum and farm, this enormous and well-run operation not only features the Thoroughbreds that are Kentucky’s pride but also celebrates their less glamorous counterparts. It may be the only place in America where you can see all five breeds of draft horse under one roof, and on the farm grounds the intelligently mounted International Museum of the Horse tells the whole story from eohippus to Secretariat.

Driving south from the Kentucky Horse Park along Route 68, you see everywhere the second prong of the trident of noble vices Kentucky represents: tawny, leathery leaves of burley tobacco drying in a hundred barns. The third prong is, of course, the matchless whiskey that the combination of limestone water and charred oak casks had given the country by the early 1800s.