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May 2024
5min read

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.

Before you reach a shrine to bourbon, though, you will come to Pleasant Hill, where a community of Shakers took root and was flourishing along with the whiskey and horses nearby. The life was going from Shakertown long before 1900, and the buildings were put to a variety of hard and heedless uses before they were restored. It is a testament to how well these people built that all stand solid and intact. And despite the fact that their ways are hardly in keeping with our era—the Shakers were strictly celibate—the severe beauty of everything at Pleasant Hill is so soothing and restorative that you leave feeling you were in the presence of a spirit that was sympathetic and even modern.

Both Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln were nurtured on Kentucky springwater.

I next went west along Route 152 to another sort of restoration, the Maker’s Mark distillery beyond the gritty little hamlet of Loretto. Bourbon whiskey has been produced there steadily since 1805, but things had fallen into disrepair when Bill Samuels, Sr., found the place in 1953. A sixth-generation distiller, he rebuilt the works, which are maintained at a standard exacting enough to put one in mind of the Shakers. There are daily tours, but I arrived on a Sunday, when the distillery was closed. In the empty hush of noon, the black buildings with their red trim and the tidy lawns are so prim and clean that only a yeasty, sour, living smell suggested something more than architectural reverence was going on here.

Farther along Route 152, past more tobacco, you come to Knob Creek and a sign announcing Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home. It turns out not quite to be: it was reconstructed on the site in the 1930s, with the help of a man who remembered tearing down the original one in the 1870s. A hundred feet away from the small cabin is a particularly effulgent souvenir shop, offering such relevant memorabilia as a battery-powered Uzi water machine-gun. It doesn’t matter. The same old hills rise steeply around it, the same old sky flows by overhead, and the place is very moving.

So is the spot where he was born, a few miles away. Thomas Lincoln’s cabin is there—it is almost certainly his—and in 1909 a great pink granite and Tennessee marble monument was built around it. You get to it by climbing fifty-six steps—one for each year of Lincoln’s life—and at the top you pass through a majestic portal and see a wood-and-mud hut bathed in green-pink light. If there’s something a little ludicrous about this, there’s something thrilling too. It was a powerful, confident nation that put that desperate little shack in its classical reliquary, and you wouldn’t have had such a nation without such huts.

A hundred miles to the west is Jefferson Davis’s birthplace. Both Davis and Lincoln were nurtured on Kentucky springwater; both men were, to a degree, products of Kentucky vicissitudes. Neither Davis’s father nor Lincoln’s could hold on to the title of his land. One went north to Illinois, the other south to Mississippi. When the storm broke, thousands of Kentuckians followed them, and although the state stayed with the Union, its fragmented county governments guaranteed the years and years of bitter internal battles that followed the war.

I drove north to Louisville and checked into the Seelbach, the lavish, splendidly restored 1905 hotel that is a monument to another phase of Kentucky’s growth. Down at the waterfront that evening, I saw the Belle of Louisville, an honest-to-God steam-driven stern-wheeler, push off from the quay and move, sparkling and fuming, out into the Ohio. Although built in 1914, she represents yet another, much earlier era of Kentucky—the river traffic that was being supplanted by the railroads even before the war.

Many strands of Kentucky’s past reveal themselves in a relatively short drive, but when I came to put this down, I found myself remembering not bourbon or horses or the Union but the look of things as I came over a hill and saw some cows sunning themselves by a sagging barn, and a man lifting his small son out of the back of a battered pickup, and the whole smoky red and yellow valley beyond. I thought of home.

—Richard F. Snow TO PLAN A TRIP

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