What makes Kentucky Kentucky? Here are some ideas. What are yours?

The Kentucky Historical Society is going around the state during its 225th anniversary to ask people, “What makes Kentucky Kentucky?” | Photo courtesy of Kentucky Historical Society

By Tom Eblen, Columnist | Lexington Herald-Leader

As we celebrate our 225th year as the 15th state in the union, the Kentucky Historical Society is sending people to communities from Pikeville to Hickman to ask a simple question: What makes Kentucky Kentucky?

This “listening tour” is based on a premise that seems especially true in Kentucky: The better you understand the past, the better prepared you are to face the challenges of the present and future.

“We want to know what people love about Kentucky and what problems they’re facing in their communities,” said Patrick Lewis, a society historian. “Then we can look back into the past and see how that might inform some solutions.”

Lewis led the listening tour session I attended last Saturday with a dozen other people at Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park in Jessamine County.

As at most sessions, the first answers people gave to the question were predictable: Bourbon. Horses. Basketball. Natural beauty. Bluegrass music.

Then they started talking about natural resources, such as coal, limestone and abundant water in the form of lakes and rivers. Then agriculture, from beef cattle to the rapidly disappearing tobacco landscape.

This chicken has gone international, but it’s still a Kentucky food.

That led to discussions about Kentucky food: country ham, barbecue, hot browns and fried chicken that is, of course, finger-lickin’ good.

Then came talk about Kentucky’s manufacturing economy, from Louisville Slugger bats to Toyota Camrys and, most recently, tiny space satellites. And don’t forget the state’s long history of illicit economies, from moonshine and marijuana to the brothels of Belle Brezing in Lexington and Pauline Tabor in Bowling Green.

People mentioned state pride and county identity; a love of history and a fine system of state parks. There was talk of folk art, quilts and other crafts and famous Kentucky writers, entertainers, heroes and villains.

One woman mentioned the Kentuckians who a century ago helped get women the right to vote. A man who works at Camp Nelson and was dressed in the hot wool uniform worn by 10,000 former slaves who came there between 1863 and 1865 to enlist in the Union Army noted civil rights pioneers from Kentucky.

Then came touchier subjects: Kentucky’s divisions of race, class and politics. Divisions of wealth and poverty. Divisions of urban and rural, east, west and central.

Kentucky has a long history of violence, from famous Appalachian feuds to Louisville’s current murder epidemic. People here often don’t like change, and sometimes have trouble coping with it. Hence a history of substance abuse that has reached epidemic proportions.

If you read history, you quickly realize that most of these issues have been around in Kentucky since soon after Daniel Boone blazed the trail through Cumberland Gap.

What I find endlessly fascinating and frustrating about my native state is that Kentucky is a land of contrasts and contradictions. Perhaps because of our central location, but we seem to be a place where all of America’s good and bad qualities come together and mix things up in microcosm.

Kentucky also seems eternally destined to fail to live up to its potential. Every time we get close to catching up to the rest of the country, or even winning, we feel the need to untie our shoes so we can trip and fall.

The most famous example is education. Kentucky has produced great writers, thinkers and innovators Yet there is a deep streak of anti-intellectualism and cynicism that has always seemed to limit the state’s potential.

Kentucky in the 1820s created the first great university (Transylvania) outside the East Coast, only to destroy it a few years later with a toxic mix of politics and religion. Kentucky created the first interracial college (Berea) in the 1850s, only to destroy it a half-century later by making integrated schools illegal for another half-century.

Knowing that history helps you understand why today’s Kentucky politicians are more comfortable investing in “workforce development” than in science, the humanities and other forms of higher education that lead to breakthrough progress.

I hope more people around the state will ask the Kentucky Historical Society to conduct a listening session in their community. (Call 502-564-1792, ext. 4440.) It will both make you feel good about Kentucky, and make you think.

For example: Think how much better off Kentucky would be over the next 225 years if we learned from our mistakes instead of repeating them?