A Wild Woman
Story and Photographs by Corinna Lothar
grass is not actually blue (except in early spring when there's a slight
blue tinge), but it's an unforgettably brilliant shade of green. Green
is all you see from the window of the plane as it glides over the horse
farms of Kentucky on final approach to Lexington Municipal Airport.
It's all in the water. Fayette County (once part of the original Bourbon
County) is blessed with sub-surface limestone that enriches the water,
removing all minerals except calcium. Old-time distillers say it's the
limestone in the water that makes the bourbon smooth and nourishes the
horses grazing on the stud farms.
Horses are the lifeblood - along with bourbon - of the state.
A visitor sees them grazing gracefully in the grassy fields in
the gently rolling countryside, their paddocks set off with white
picket fences. Whether it's Louisville and Churchill Downs, or
Lexington and Keeneland, the name of the game is the same: stallions
and fillies raised as runners, jumpers and breeders, a billion
Horses grazing in paddock at Kentucky horse
Lexington is the self-styled "horse capital of
the world," and in 2010, it will be at the center of the horseracing
world when the city hosts the 2010 World Equestrian Games from September
25 to October 10, 2010. The games take place every four years and include
dressage, jumping and all Olympic events, as well as a "Western"
event. The 2010 Games will be the first ones ever to be held outside
Europe. The city of Lexington is preparing a Spotlight Lexington 16-day
downtown festival to coincide with the Games from September 24 to October
Lexington expects 60 countries to participate in the
2010 games; 700 to 900 horses are expected as well as 800 (human) athletes.
All the events will be held at the Kentucky Horse Park, an equine theme
park and competition center dedicated to man's relationship with the
horse. The park is set on 1,200 acres of rolling hills in the heart
of the Bluegrass Region, with accommodation for 1,500 horses.
Visitors don't have to wait until next year to enjoy
the Horse Park. They can see horses compete in national and international
competitions throughout the year in an indoor arena and an outdoor stadium;
they can visit mares and foals, take a trolley ride through the grounds
with Belgian draft horses; watch a farrier shoeing horses; and meet
celebrated Derby winners at the parade of breeds that takes place every
day at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. It's a unique opportunity to see such champions
as Cigar, Alysheba and Funny Cide face to muzzle.
Derby winner Funny Cide checking the action outside
The Horse Park has a fascinating horse museum, a Smithsonian
affiliate, which tells the history of horses in the world through exhibits.
Horses date back 55 million years; they originated in America as small,
dog-sized, three-toed predecessors of the modern horse. They migrated
to Asia across the land bridge over the Bering Straits (now long gone),
and didn't return to North America until the Spanish conquistadors brought
them here in the 15th and 16th centuries. The first horse race in what
is now the United States was run on Long Island in 1668. Passionate
race horses are called "hot blooded," while quieter, working
horses are "cold blooded."
The museum explains the origin of the horseshoe as a
good luck charm: when the devil asked a 10th century English holy man
and blacksmith named Dunstan to shoe his horse, Dunstan tricked the
devil by shoeing the devil's cloven hoof instead. The devil was in such
pain that he promised never to enter a house with a horseshoe over the
door in exchange for having the nails removed. Dunstan became the Archbishop
of Canterbury and was granted sainthood and the horseshoe, though not
sainted, has been a symbol of good luck ever since.
Horses can be visited at several horse farms in the
area. At Three Chimneys, started by Robert Clay, a direct descendant
of Henry Clay, Big Brown and Smarty Jones come up to the fence to greet
a curious visitor. If the timing is right - the visitor's, that is -
he can witness a stallion mated with a mare.
For three weeks in April and in October, two year old thoroughbreds
race at Keeneland, the Lexington track. Prior to the 1940's, a
wire was strung across the finish line of racetracks with the
winner the first horse's nose to touch the wire. Hence the expression
"down to the wire." The "wire" is an electronic
pulse now. This year's fall race meeting will take place from
October 9 to 31 with 19 stakes worth $5.125 million.
Getting ready for the race at Keeneland.
Bourbon is every bit as important to Kentucky's economy
as the horses. Whiskey - the Scots spell theirs "whisky,"
without the 'e' - was introduced to the United States by Irish and Scottish
immigrants. In the late 18th century, Elijah Pepper set up a small distillery
in Versailles, Ky., using corn rather than rye as the primary ingredient.
Legend has it that the Rev. Elijah Craig, a Baptist preacher and part-time
distiller, accidentally burned the inside of a barrel he was using to
create his granular mash - a mix of corn, rye, wheat or barley.
The mash was distilled in the burned barrel and delivered
in a shipment of whiskey to New Orleans. The locals were enthusiastic
about the taste, and because the whiskey was shipped from (although
not made in) Bourbon County, they began calling it "bourbon."
Thus was Bourbon born. The original distillery has been restored and
is again in use. Today, it is the home of Woodford Reserve, a marvelous,
small-batch bourbon, as smooth as any fine cognac.
A tour of a distillery is fascinating. Woodford Reserve is still
made in the traditional copper stills, located in a beautiful old
limestone and wood building. A visitor breathes in the aroma of
fermenting mash perfuming the air with a mixture of bakery and bar,
and samples the clear liquor when it tastes much like a powerful
fruit eau de vie before the bourbon is aged and colored in barrels.
Copper stills at Woodford Reserve.
The Buffalo Trace Distillery is a different, larger
and less romantic enterprise. Buffalo Trace, named for a low point
in the Kentucky River where the buffalo once migrated across the
river (a migratory route was known as a "trace"), claims
to be the oldest whiskey distillery in continuing operation, even
during Prohibition when whiskey was used for "medicinal"
Barrels of whiskey ageing at Buffalo Trace.
The company makes vodka and rye as well as bourbon.
Tours go through the century-old warehouse where the bourbon ages, and
take visitors through the steps of bourbon making from the grain delivery
to the cooking process to the fermentation to the stillhouse. Distillery
tours are also available at Wild Turkey and Four Roses Distilleries.
There is considerably more to Lexington, important as
they are, than horses and bourbon. The town is charming with a lively
downtown and lovely, leafy residential streets with many nineteenth
century buildings intact. It's the seat of the University of Kentucky.
Henry Clay, although born in Virginia, was a long-time
resident of Lexington. He remains one of the nation's most significant
statesmen. An excellent orator, known as "The Great Compromiser"
because of his persuasive abilities, he helped author three crucial
compromises, one delaying the Civil War, and negotiated the Treaty of
Ghent that ended the War of 1812. He was Speaker of the House of Representatives,
a U.S. Senator, secretary of State and a three-time unsuccessful candidate
for president. He began a horse-breeding dynasty with two mares and
one stallion. From that thoroughbred lineage came at least eleven Kentucky
Clay's estate in Lexington, called Ashland, is one of
Lexington's show places. Ashland has been owned by five generations
of the Clay family; today it is owned by the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation
and has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the National
Park Service. The mansion is filled with original family items. The
20 acre estate is dotted with 500 trees of 44 species.
Cellars on Ashland Estate.
Mary Todd Lincoln's house stands on Main Street in downtown
Lexington. The house was completed in 1806 and was occupied by the Todd
family from 1832 to 1849. The 14-room Georgian style house contains
period furniture, family portraits and furnishings from both the Todd
and Lincoln families.
The Hunt-Morgan House in the historic Gratz Park section
of Lexington is a Federal-style house built in 1814 by John Wesley Hunt,
the first millionaire west of the Alleghenies. It now features the Alexander
T. Hunt Civil War Museum with a collection of Civil War relics and memorabilia.
There is no shortage of good food in Lexington, with
such restaurants as Dudley's and Portofino offering sophisticated French-American
dining, often with bourbon inspired dishes. My favorite is a delightful
restaurant in an old house a few miles outside Lexington in the town
of Midway. Holly Hill Inn is housed in an 1845 Greek Revival building.
Since 2001, owner/chef Ouita Michel has been preparing dishes that rival
anything you can find in New York, San Francisco or New Orleans. Her
tasting menus change monthly to reflect seasonal produce. Ouita's husband
and co-owner is the sommelier responsible for an excellent wine list.
Ouita Michel in her kitchen at Holly Hill Inn.
A special Lexington treat is the Monday night taping
of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, the brainchild of Lexington musician
Michael Johnathon, which now airs on nearly 500 radio stations in 32
countries. Since 2008, the program also has been on public television.
The taping is held in the funky old Kentucky Theatre in downtown Lexington,
where a different country music band appears each Monday night to tape
an hour-long radio program. The audience cheers and claps for each performer
and a good time really is had by all.
Good times are not new to Lexington. Belle Brezing may
be Lexington's most famous scarlet woman, a brothel owner and later
a morphine addict who had been seduced at the age of 12. Her lavishly
appointed and decorated brothel at 59 Megowan Street attracted clientele
from all over the country, who came to Lexington for horse breeding
and racing. In all likelihood, Belle Brezing was the model for Margaret
Mitchell's Belle Watling in "Gone with the Wind."
Carrie Nation is another Kentuckian, as famous as Belle
was infamous. Six foot tall, with hatchet and Bible in hand, she stormed
saloons and drugstores across America in the first decade of the 1900s.
Although she despised whiskey, Carrie would nevertheless talk race picks
with saloon patrons.
A few miles from Lexington stands Pleasant Hill, the
largest restored Shaker community in America. Mother Ann Lee and seven
followers came from England in 1774 to escape religious persecution.
By the 1840s, nearly 3,500 Shakers lived in communities from Maine to
Kentucky, men and women always living apart, which might explain why
the community eventually died out.
The Pleasant Hill agricultural community was established
in 1805. The community thrived well past the mid-19th century. After
the 1860s, changing social attitudes and the Industrial Revolution signaled
the community's decline. By 1923, the last Pleasant Hill Shaker had
died and the property passed into private hands. In 1961, a non-profit
corporation restored the village. Today, 34 of the original 240 buildings
have been restored and 3,000 acres of farmland preserved.
The Pleasant Hill buildings are elegant, graceful constructions
of limestone, brick and wood. The most recognized architectural element
in the village is a lovely three-flight twin spiral staircase in the
Many of the buildings are open to the public, some for
overnight accommodations. Television sets and telephones have been added
to the austere Shaker furnishings. (Visiting men and women are no longer
segregated.) Shaker specialties and Kentucky fare are served in the
dining room, although no longer at communal tables.
Typical Shaker bedroom at Pleasant Hill.
Self-guided walking tours wind through the village where
costumed interpreters chronicle Shaker life. Artisans work at the 19th
century trades such as broom making, woodworking, spinning and weaving.
A visitor might come upon costumed singer performing Shaker songs and
dances, including "Simple Gifts," which Aaron Copland included
in his composition "Appalachian Spring" for a Martha Graham
ballet. The Shakers composed more than 10,000 songs and hymns.
Pleasant Hill offers a visitor agricultural and craft
demonstrations, music festivals, theatrical performances, harvest festivals,
wagon rides, hikes along several wildlife and bird observation trails
and - this being Kentucky - full service equestrian overnight facilities.
An annual craft fair and an art fair take place each summer at the Shaker
Demoonstration of spinning at Pleasant Hill.
The words of an ancient Apache ceremonial song reflect
the spirit of Lexington:
"The sun's horse is a yellow stallion
A blue stallion, black stallion
The sun's horse has come out to us."
Legend has it that a horse called "Big Lex"
turned blue from grazing in bluegrass pastures his entire life. Although
no one has real evidence that blue horses exist, nevertheless there
are many tales of sightings, and you might just see this legendary creature
as you drive through Kentucky's lush countryside.
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For information on Lexington visit the following: