people and institutions

Lexington and Its Institutions, 1875-1925

by Joseph M. Tanner, b. 1846

Typescript – Special Collections, University of Kentucky Libraries

Call Number:  59M28

transcribed by Heather S. Brinegar


Part One: Its People and Institutions


This good town had its beginning on the banks of the Elkhorn River in the year 1779 four years after the first shot was fired in the War of the Revolution near its name-sake, at Concord Bridge, and elder sister in the state of Massachusetts – the shot “fired by the embattled farmers” and which “sounded around the world”.  The stream was appropriately named Elkhorn, for the species of deer indicated by the name roamed in great numbers thru the majestic forests near-by with only the Indians to contest their supremacy, the strongest imagination cannot so visualize the country thereabouts – the towering trees, the rolling pastures, the great limpid streams – all filled with many beautiful birds & fishes & animals wild and fleet-footed but not ferocious – as to exaggerate the reality.  There are and were other places where on account of mountains & waterfalls & atmosphere, the element of grandeur enters in more largely, but as a region appealing to sight & imagination for its beauty, and to the practical minded as a place to enjoy life and acquire a competency, there are few now and none superior to it in that early day.


Our ancestors, the pioneers or this region, were high-minded, intelligent, resourceful, courageous – able & willing to contend with the forests and Indians, encouraged by the splendid prospects that lay beyond when their victory was accomplished.


The book of which Mr. George W. Ranck is the author is the on real history of Lexington so far as I am informed; the term Recollections designates more correctly than History what I am endeavoring to write it imparts a more intimate tone, and permits the intermingling of incidents and events that are not strictly historical but rather reminiscent.  Mr. Ranck’s book went to press in 1872 and contains very interesting accounts of the industries institutions growth and development and partial relapses of Lexington and of the people identified with them during the first 93 years of its existence.  I hope to make these papers or book if they acquire that dignity more cheerful reading than would be a mere recital of facts in chronological order.  In order to justify and give a distinct meaning to the word Fifty in the title the aim will be to record the best remembered and most prominent events during the fifty years form 1860 to 1910.  The clearest and fullest recollection will be of the 32 years from 1873 to 1905 during the whole of which period I was a resident of Lexington or its immediate vicinity engaged continuous in the practice of law in its courts and also in buying, selling & renting and examining titles to real estate.


The 1st word in the caption has a vague but very comprehensive significance which well suits the aim of these reminiscent chronicles; they are intended to embrace people and things and events of great variety of character and importance.  One of the early correspondents of the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote in one of his letters that there were only three Institutions in Lexington a visitor needed to see – Clay’s monument, Madison C. Johnson and the Court House, which was at that time interesting on account of its age, style of architecture, form of constructure, and steeple which leaned like the Tower of Pisa.  I might have used “half a century” instead of “fifty years” but that would seem to be catering to sound and bombast.  In order to give an antique flavor and furnish a back-ground for events transpiring since 1860, I may refer to a few occurrences preceding that date; but to prevent these sketches from assuming too much of the tone of ancient history, and to have them maintain as they are intended to do a medieval flavor they may project forward somewhat into the modern period subsequent to 1910.


These Recollections will not be confined to Lexington, but will include some important persons and events of two or three surrounding counties: an effort will be made to relieve their dullness by interspersing some pen pictures of persons of prominence or having characteristics that attract attention, and with anecdotes illustrative of these characteristics.  They will constitute a kind of pot-pouri, but will I think contain some very palatable ingredients, pleasant to the taste of any who are kind enough to partake.  A little fun may be poked at some very good friends who growing weary of the cares, contentions and calamities constantly besetting sojourners here – have crossed over and taken up their abode in other realms.  Expecting shortly to surrender the struggle here (willy-nilly) as I am now past 80 and exchange our uncertain climate for another entirely unknown and perhaps worse than this – if I should reach the place to which my good friends have emigrated, and if their manes should feel offended at what I may have written in jest, we might be able to even up scores over there.  I am quite certain they have not procured return tickets & will not be able to reach me so as to even up matters on this side.  While I admit a feeling of resentment against one or two who have crossed the great divide, and one or two who have no reference what ever will be made to them, and in all that is written there shall be no spark of malice against any human being living or dead.


Time casts a glamour over the Past, Distance lends enchantment, we who are in the sere & yellow leaf find a melancholy pleasure viewing in retrospect the scenes of long ago.  The present generation may find enjoyment in comparing and contrasting the pregnant Present with the empty and fading Past; they may also if they strongly desire and will make the effort using some imagination see with prophetic eye many wonderful things now hidden from view in the sealed book of futurity; like travel & adventure in countries little known, mental incursions into the realms of the future will disclose many novel and interesting things both good & bad and give zest and freshness to relieve the dull drabness of every-day life.


As a stimulus for undertaking these mental incursions and supplying data for illustrations and concrete examples from which to make comparisons and contrasts of the past with the present, my aim will be in the pages that follow to give an outline picture of an area having Lexington for a center and varying radii of from ten to thirty miles, during a period of about thirty years without definite limits, but approximately from 1860 to 1910, with 1870 as a middle period; I will not go back to very early days and write a strictly historical story as Duncan Cassidy is now publishing by installments in a daily newspaper, nor will I attempt a feature sketch drawn with the aid of imagination from general information concerning certain cities in early times (including Lexington) such as have been appearing from the pen of Joseph Hergesheimer in the Saturday Evening  Post.


My outline picture will be drawn mostly from actual experience and observation, verified where necessary by reference to old directories, newspaper articles and the recollections of old persons; while we who are approaching the horizon separating the known from the unknown indulge mostly in stories and dreams as we recall the people, occurrences and experiences of that period, the young and middle-aged may anticipate with assurance – almost with certainty – progressive changes along many lines of thought and endeavor, an achievements as wonderful perhaps during the next fifty years as have occurred during a similar period of the past.  People now in the prime of life occupy a vantage point of opportunity as fine as have the people of any other period of time; for have they not the benefit of experience of all the past and unlimited opportunities for the future?  But the retrospect I am proposing to present in print should be in some way interesting and profitable to both old and young.


The year 1870 is a convenient date from which to take both a backward and a forward view; we will not specify in detail events between the 1870 and the 1800 period, for I am discussing mainly those between the former and the present time, but will simply say that we who were here in 1870 and ten years  previously thought it was a time of great events and that the progress since 1800 was hardly short of marvelous and we thought of the pioneers with pity such as that with which many born since 1870 commiserate us, but much of their sympathy and pity is wasted, for we had many comforts & conveniences that George Washington and his contemporaries had never even dreamed of.  The Indian had all disappeared, life and property were much safer than in this boasted day of law & order & prohibition; there were close around Lex. good turnpike roads, highly productive soil yielding without fertilizer abundant crops of everything adapted to the climate, splendid forests form which could be obtained all the timber needed for fuel & much suited for lumber besides being a sportsman’s paradise for small game; there were reapers for cutting our grain, though not yet for binding it, mills for grinding it with horse, water and steam power, threshers which at first piled the grain and chaff out together on great sheets to be separated by hand-turned fans and a little ____ steam-propelled separators turning out as much as 500 bushels a day ready for grinding into flour.  There were also in those days horses that could run or trot almost as fast as Longfellow or Lexington or ____ or Man O’War, or Black Gold or Zev or Bubbling Over or Whiskery; & Durham cattle imported from England grazing on lushy blue grass soon to become juicy steaks or sold at fancy prices.  We commiserated citizens of those far back days also enjoyed the privileges of churches where we could listen to sermons by able preachers once a week which was abundantly sufficient when it is remembered they were usually of an hours duration, and one room school houses with nearly all men teachers thoroughly qualified for teaching the three R’s besides history, geography, algebra and a little Latin.  In these one-room schools there was acquired abundant information though taught not more than 6 months a year to make citizens well fitted for all the ordinary duties of life, and for those having the needed tastes and talent to lay the foundations for becoming teachers, preachers, lawyers, doctors, judges, senators – and even for President of the U.S. 


In addition to all these advantages there were also splendid steamboats plying the Ohio and the Mississippi, from Cincinnati to New Orleans, and smaller ones on the smaller streams, carrying both passengers and freight at prices much lower than at the present day – and as a means of reaching these boats there were railroads extending from Lex. to both Louisville & Cincinnati on each of which two trains a day ran having two coaches a baggage car and the cutest little locomotives one might wish to see.  Tis true however, it was said that sometimes when a man was in a hurry he would start ahead of the train and hop on when overtaken by it, or perhaps if not going further than Frankfort or Paris would mount one of his blooded horses.  Practical telegraphy had then been in use for 25 years or more, radio had not entered the brain of the wildest visionary, there had been some crude efforts at construction of machines that would fly and occasionally a venturous fellow connected with a show would grasp a horizontal bar beneath a balloon inflated with hot air and sail out thru the boundless heavens taking the risk to alight with a parachute wherever chance might permit; besides listening to the tiresome sermons of an hour’s length we were entertained if not instructed by the oratory of Tom Marshall, Joe Blackburn, and the two Breckinridges – worthy successors to the eloquent Pat Henry, Menifee and Henry Clay.  The people of that day had a right to be proud of their opportunities and achievements, and m


It may however have been a case where ignorance was bliss and each one can decide for himself whether it is folly to be wise.  But I am quite sure that if deprived now of the comforts & conveniences and devices contributory to the ease and enjoyment of life – which have come to us since 1870 the majority of the people would in their mind at least be wretched and miserable; they of 1870 did not know had not even dreamed of the wonderful things that had been thought out and were in store for the convenience and enjoyment of those who survive until 1920 or beyond – secrets shortly to be revealed to a waiting world!!  Coincident however with the conveniences and advantages that generated in the minds of the people of 1870 feelings of contentment and self-sufficiency and of superiority over the denizen of 1800, there existed conditions causing dissatisfaction & discontent.  Of these conditions the people of 1920 and subsequently are entitled to be informed so that they may be able to make comparisons and draw just conclusions.


Some of these unsatisfactory conditions will be recited here:  Main street along its whole length of one mile was constructed of rock broken the size of a man’s fist and spread loosely like the cheapest of rock roads without even sand or gravel spread over and rolled down to fill spaces and prevent shifting and jostling by travel; parts of it were very rough and parts worn into holes; there were sidewalks for less than half its length laid of brick which became loose and uneven and when stepped upon squirted dirty water onto face & clothing and it was not unusual for women’s skirts worn long in those days to become thoroughly draggled.  There were gas lights on 8 or ten spares in the center of town at the top of iron posts 7 or 8 feet high thru which pipes extended conveying the gas which was made of coal at works on Main street at Spring st.; they were lighted o n a moon schedule that is extinguished as soon as half disk moon was well above the horizon.


It was a current remark that when the gas was lit it was considered safer to carry a lantern to avoid contact with the posts, the truth of which statement and also of the one that a person in a hurry to get to Cin. or Louisville would start walking ahead of the train need verification.  A few years later coal oil lamps were set on posts along the outlying localities which required a man driving full-tilt in a two wheel cart an hour to light and a similar length of time to extinguish, as they like the gas – lights were operated on a moon schedule and only kept lit when the moon was not as much as half full (no joke) and not above the horizon.


On of the disagreeable features of street life during Lexington’s middle period was the live-stock sales on Cheapside on County Court days and which were discontinued only 8 or ten years ago; on these days it was a mingled mass of humanity and animality – men, horses, cattle, sheep, and pigs – auctioneers crying the bid, men on foot dodging back & forth among the neighing, bawling, bloating, squealing animals, and for several days afterwards a scene offensive to eyes and nostrils.  It was only after great efforts by the business men and city dwellers against the opposition of the farmers that these stock sales were abolished and removed to yards on the outskirt of town.  Another one of the unsightly features was the Livery stables of which there were more than a score, and besides unsightly they were a menace to other property on account of the combustible material contained, and to life because the street in front was frequently used for training and speeding horses; this was especially true of the part of Short st between Lime & Broadway, and of the part of Man fronting the big Treacy and Wilson stables; on the latter Mr. Armstrong an old-time miller was run down and killed by a speeding horse and on the part of Short st. indicated the writer once saw the long projecting shafts of a break cart driven forcibly into the base of the neck of a horse drawing a wagon & he saw its heart blood spurt in a stream as the shaft were withdrawn & the poor animal lay down dead.


Saloons were always more or less inimical to order, health and morals and were rendered more so in Lexington and other towns by lax enforcement of the laws pertaining to them; these laws were strict enough; they forbade keeping open after eleven at night or on Sunday or selling to a minor; they imposed penalties on the saloon-keeper for furnishing liquor to known inebriates or to persons already under its effects or to any one after notice from a member of his family not to do so.  But many saloon-keepers disregarded these laws and the city authorities were lax in their enforcement:  hence Prohibition with its mixed evils and benefits.  I have not the remote intention of discussing the prohibition subject but will ask just one question: - If after trying Prohibition for ten years seven of the nine provinces of Canada have gone back to government control, & if under that system crime is only about one fourth as prevalent as in the United States does it not tend to show that Prohibition is a failure here?  During the middle period of Lexington the regulations required the consent of the governing body to the issual of a license for the retail of alcoholic liquors at any certain place, and before the license was granted the consent in writing of at least one half of the occupants of the square was required.


With the requirements named above for procuring license to retail spirituous vinous and malt liquors it might be inferred that saloons would have been kept strictly within boundaries not injurious or objectionable to other more respectable lines of business but the facts are there are only three squares in the whole city where they were not at some time or another located, that is the three along Main street from Limestone to Broadway, and as late as the year 1900 there were as many as fifty in operation at the same time.  There were very few restrictions on location of Livery Stables and they appeared on solidly built business streets and in the immediate vicinity of respectable dwellings.  As many as twenty of them were in operation as late or a little later than 1910.