Lee County, Kentucky, and her courthouses

Lee County Courthouse and Historic Marker in Beattyville, Kentucky. Author's collection
The last time I ventured to Beattyville was in the waning days of the last millennium. With friends, I watched the wooly worms race at the annual festival that draws thousands to the sleepy seat of Lee County. But last week, I returned to do a little business in the Lee County Courthouse.

County Named?

Lee County borders six counties: Powell, Wolfe, Breathitt, Owsley, Jackson, and Estill. It is Kentucky's 10th smallest county by population (7,594) and the 24th smallest county by square mileage (210 sq. mi.).

Its history is complex. Formed just five years after the end of the Civil War, the area that comprises Lee County (like much of the Commonwealth) was divided during the war. According to the Kentucky Encyclopedia, "Union sympathizers formed a Home Guard, headquartered at Rocky Gap, eight miles north of Beattyville. On November 7, 1864, a Confederate force under the command of Lt. Jerry South fought the 20th Kentucky Militia at the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River in Lee County."

By 1870, sentiments likely remained divided. The story told on the historic marker outside the courthouse - that the county was named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee - is quite possibly incorrect. That historic marker was erected in 1964, a time when Kentucky's history was still being rewritten with an unnecessarily southern bent. The Kentucky Encyclopedia raises similar doubts to the necessity of telling Lee's military accolades on Main Street Beattyville. That article cited "strong Union sentiment in the area" during the War the entry finds "a more likely explanation" in Lee County being named after the county of the same name in Virginia because many of the local inhabitants traced their roots to that locale. Lee County, Virginia, the westernmost county in Virginia, was named after "Light Horse" Henry Lee III (who, coincidentally, was the father of General Robert E. Lee).

The Old Courthouse

The present Lee County courthouse is the county's second courthouse. The first was built in 1872, two years after the county was formed. That first courthouse was used until 1977, when it was demolished for the present structure.

Lee County Courthouse from 1872-1977. UK Libraries.

Winchester's Pastime Theater Disaster

Historic Marker on Main Street, Winchester. Author's collection.
On March 9, 1918, occurred what is often described as “the worst catastrophe in Winchester’s history.” The Pastime Theater, located on Winchester, Kentucky’s Main Street could seat 500, but it was not unusual for folks to stand or sit on the floor. It is estimated that at least 600 attended that Saturday evening’s showing of The Silent Man.

At 7:45 pm on that fateful night one century ago, twelve perished under fallen debris from a collapsing wall.

The Pastime

Main Street Winchester, looking north. The Pastime is near the center of the photo on the left (west) side of the street. Main Street Winchester collection.
Opening night of The Pastime Theater (24 N. Main St.), Winchester's second movie house, was on April 4, 1912. At the time, it could seat 333 patrons. The following year, the theater promoted its ability to show "Kinemacolor" films which was the first technology that colorized films (although the technology was relatively short-lived).

Just three years after the theater opened, its operation was transferred to Vic Bloomfield who took a 17-year lease on the building. By May of 1915, the theater had been remodeled, overhauled, and expanded to its final seating capacity by extending the front of the auditorium some twenty-five feet.  That extension was a single story in height, unlike the remaining parts of the theater.

Keep the University Press of Kentucky

The University Press of Kentucky just celebrated its 75th birthday, but it is celebrating it's birthday on a list of 70 state agencies whose budgets are being slashed by Governor Bevin.

Some agencies may hobble along without the state funding, but it would seem even those that have alternative revenue streams (like book sales) would likely close if the governor's proposal is made law.

Tom Eblen's column draws attention to what this closure would mean - to the Press and to the Commonwealth - if the Press' $672,000 budget allocation were gone.

The 50 books or so published each year by the University Press are a diverse collection that tell America's history and Kentucky's history. They explore the oft-untold culture of Appalachia in an honest way.

A little full-disclosure from me: I occasionally review books published by the University Press and post those reviews on this website; I obtain courtesy copies of the books reviewed from the University Press but otherwise receive no compensation. Here's a link to all the University Press books I've reviewed.

Because telling Kentucky's story is fun. And that is something at which the University Press of Kentucky excels. I'm looking forward to Randolph Paul Runyon's The Mentelles: Mary Todd Lincoln, Henry Clay, and the Immigrant Family Who Educated Antebellum Kentucky which is due out in May 2018. In it, the author "studies the understated pair" of Augustus Waldemar and Charlotte Victoire Mentelle who arrived in Lexington in 1798 where they began Mentelle's School for Young Ladies, "an intellectually rigorous school that attracted students from around the region and greatly influence its most well-known pupil, Mary Todd Lincoln."

Tom Kimmerer's Venerable Trees presents a complex, scientific matter in simple, readable prose that educates and informs the arborist, the history buff, the preservationist, and those who love Kentucky's natural beauty. It was published by the University Press of Kentucky in 2015.

The beautiful 596-tome that is the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia is a "foundational guide  to the black experience in the Commonwealth."

And in A is for Appalachia!, children take an alphabetical exploration through the traditions and culture of Appalachia. I first read it to my children in 2014 and as recently as this month.

The poetry of George Ella Lyon, who regularly publishes with the University Press, makes walls talk as she did in Many-Storied House

Even a textbook on Appalachian linguistics, Talking Appalachian, remains forever in my mind because of Anne Shelby's complaint that the computer's spellcheck feature turns 'homeplace' into someplace.

And these are just some of the stories, books, and genres that the University Press of Kentucky brings to life each year. And now it's at risk, so I've placed it on the Kaintuckeean's #DemolitionWatch.

Kentucky must continue to invest in education and in its culture and in the University Press of Kentucky.

Estate Planning Awareness Week

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Hart-Bradford House. Library of Congress.
In the opening chapter of Lost Lexington, I wrote that Thomas Hart left to his wife a life estate "in the house and lot which I at present occupy." At first blush, one might believe that a life estate was given to his wife in the Hart-Bradford House that housed such significant history. But both Hart's last will and testament and its probate were after Thomas Hart had transferred, by deed, the residence at the southwest corner of Second and Mill streets to his son. Thomas Hart left his wife a life estate in a different residence than the infamous home that was the site of Henry Clay's nuptials, the home of Laura Clay, and since the 1950s the site of a parking lot.

Examining the historic places of Kentucky inevitably brings one to deed books and recorded wills that reveal much about the history of place. Sometimes, a last will and testament will reveal something about the testator (the person making the will) as well.

Henry Clay
Take for example, Henry Clay. Clay was a slaveowner having owned as many as 60 slaves during his lifetime. His will provided for his slaves manumission (or gradual emancipation) upon their achieving a certain age. The intent would be to ensure that each slave would be provided with basic shelter, food, etc. until they were 25 (females) or 28 (males). Further, Clay favored the removal of blacks from North America and their return to Africa. To accomplish this aim for his former slaves, Clay provided that "the three years next preceding their arrival at the age of freedom, they shall be entitled to their hire to wages or those years ... to delay the expense of transporting them to the one of the African Colonies."

These provision, fortunately, have no place in a last will and testament today. But these lessons from the past are reminders for the present and for the future: estate planning is important no matter our circumstances.

Even though estate planning is for everyone, the majority of Kentuckians (and Americans, generally) do not have their estate plans in order. This can create confusion after death with the disposal of property and the guardianship of minor children, and it can lead to unnecessary costs as well. Neither is something you want to leave behind for your grieving loved ones.

Congress recognized the importance of Estate Planning and proclaimed the third week in October as National Estate Planning Awareness Week. In 2017, that's October 16-22.

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