The Common Wealth of Kentucky Project reveals the richness of the Kentucky people and the common connections we have with one another. As we travel the state, artist Kelly Brewer paints portraits from life while we collect their stories and build a multimedia experience, a celebration of humanity.
There is a place where the craggy coal mountains start their descent to the tobacco flatlands of corn and cattle. It is in the middle of two geographies where stone-stacked fences two hundred years old run lines through undulating fields so green that on a clear day, they reflect blue, and where champion thoroughbreds graze and world-class bourbons sprout from winter wheat grains, barley, and rye. The rolling bluegrass is a hammock nap and a seesaw ride. The lull of the slow drive down sleepy narrow roads with deep shoulders and tulip trees pops a surprise when a short steep slope takes your breath away. This is the inner bluegrass, the radius of Lexington, home of horses and bourbon.
When I moved to central Kentucky in 1999, I had preconceived notions, like Mark Twain when he said, “I want to be in Kentucky when the end of the world comes because it’s always 20 years behind.” Mark Twain might change his tune if he saw central Kentucky now. No question in a state with deep poverty pockets, modernity ebbs and flows. But as we study this Commonwealth, what consistently strikes me is the good-natured, gracious, almost neighborly quest for progress and prosperity in a state with three distinct regions. It’s like the weird family where all the siblings seem to get along, and you can’t help but wonder why. Central Kentucky is the perfect middle child in a family of odd parts and shady reputations.
We toted Kelly’s easel to the top of the Lexington Financial Center, where she painted Woodford Webb, President of The Webb Companies, central Kentucky’s oldest and largest commercial real estate firm. The Company founders, Donald and R. Dudley Webb were born and raised in the Kentucky Appalachian coal-mining town of Whitesburg in Letcher County and moved to Lexington after finishing law school. They turned their focus to real estate in 1972 and manage over three million feet of commercial space fifty years later, including the Lexington City Center and the shiny, towering, 31-story, big, blue building. Woodford, Donald’s son, joined the business in 1994 after practicing law for a few years, too. His office floats over downtown.
Bret Jones joined his family business after graduating from Sewanee in 2004. He knew when he was ten that he wanted to be a horse breeder like his dad, Governor Brereton Jones, who founded Airdre Stud in 1972 on Alexander family land dating back to the revolutionary war grants. Bret grew up prepping yearlings, checking on mares, and walking the paddocks where deer grazed without worry at the edge of the woods. Today, Airdre Stud’s 2500 acres includes famed Woodburn Stud, home of the horse Lexington, America’s leading sire in the 19th century, and the big blue horse you see plastered all over town, the symbol of the Horse Capital of the World. Woodburn, home of five 19th century Kentucky Derby winners, is considered the birthplace of Kentucky’s Thoroughbred industry and is one of the largest land grant farms sustained in a consistent generational line in Kentucky.
Woodford and Brett seem to represent different interests; one develops the land while the other preserves it. They should be opposites, barking at each other across city hall, but that is not how central Kentucky works. Instead, there is a united spirit across industries, yin yang, that in the words of Bill Samuels, Jr., the 2nd of three Samuels to run the family bourbon distillery, Makers Mark, “You have to find that north star and do your best to make it last.”
Developers, distillers, and breeders follow the same north star. In central Kentucky, that north star is the bluegrass brand, horses, and bourbon. All rely fundamentally on the land for survival: one for the mineral-rich, limestone-laden grass on which thoroughbreds feed, and the other to produce grains, specifically corn, wheat, barley, and rye, the building blocks of the bourbon craft. So, where bourbon represents a $9 billion industry and horses are responsible for more than 60,000 jobs, it makes sense that in central Kentucky, commercial developers are preservationists, too.
The people here get along. The history of lawlessness, generational feuds, coal labor strikes, and moonshine mafias ends at the bottom of the mountain range. Alliances like the Kentucky Equine Education Project (KEEP), founded in part by Governor Brereton Jones, run like four board fences across the bluegrass protecting the people and places who make Kentucky home.
It takes a herd to champion horse racing. Just ask Shannon Arvin. She is the first female President of Keeneland. She represents generations of genteel, synergistic leadership in an industry anchored, ironically, in parimutuel betting—gambling. From a father, Buddy Bishop, who grew up in an apartment on Keeneland grounds, Shannon has Keeneland green blood. She, like her dad, was corporate counsel, secretary, and advisory member of Keeneland’s Board of Directors. Keeneland is a National Historic Landmark and a symbol of the sport of Kings of, where guests and horses are treated well. A day at the races or at the September sales is an elegant and “pristine” event, politely calibrated across state calendars so that everyone gets a turn and the sport is sustained.
With five racetracks and two thoroughbred sales companies in Kentucky, that means serious collaboration, but the principals make it work because it is what’s best for the horse industry family. Trainer Brad Cox is a Louisville native, son of factory workers, and a dad who was a two-dollar better. He grew up tagging along on weekends to Churchill Downs, where he looked up at the imposing twin spires and never imagined he would have horses run for the roses and almost win. Brad had his start racing claimers at Turfway Park in Florence, Kentucky, just south of Cincinnati, and today his massive training operation, 150 horses, runs at all five tracks in Kentucky. He encourages his colleagues to do the same. Brad’s north star is to keep the best horses in Kentucky training and racing where it all starts. A collaboration between racetracks helps. The family stays out of each other’s way: Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Ellis Park, Turfway Park, and even Kentucky Downs, the no-grandstand cousin that runs seven days in September, make it work without race meet overlap.
There are stories everywhere in central Kentucky of counterintuitive collaboration that’s more than just southern and friendly. There is a decisive scrappiness to it like the bulls who stand with their backs to the lion in Aesop’s fable just before they start bickering and meet their demise.
Kentucky bourbon is another such story. On our trip to Loretto, Bill Samuels, Jr. took us through the history of Makers Mark, his family’s distillery that started in Bardstown, Kentucky. He describes a craft industry where, from the start, they helped one another hurdle the barbed wire and make it on the map. We stood next to the long, wood table that used to be in his father’s office. His dad, Bill, Sr., was an engineer who tinkered with the family rye recipe until finally, he turned “crappy” into the smooth, “wheated” bourbon that would change Kentucky. Bill pointed to pictures on the wall of neighbor Jim Beam, famed Pappy Van Winkle, and Tennessee Jack Daniels’s Motlow. He described their friendships and how helpful they were when his dad was just starting.
Once young and competitive Bill, Jr. understood his father’s “north star,” in 1967, he joined the family business of bourbon-making and began the “gorilla” push. First, it required building trust and a unified front with the other Kentucky distillers, many who still remembered prohibition, and second channeling any rival energy into adjusting the cultural stereotypes of Kentucky and whiskey. The hillbilly hard liquor in a mason jar was a far cry from the gentlemen’s amber sipped from a crystal tumbler that bourbon-makers had in mind. Bill could not change that alone, nor could he change the Women’s Christian Temperance Union or the Anti-Saloon Leagues that fought hard against the pouring of bourbon and even harder against the distribution of it. Together they had plenty of lions watching their rear ends.
Today the north star of bourbon shines brightly over the globe. Belly up to a bar in Scotland, the start of it all, and they can pour you a glass of Makers Mark from Kentucky and rave about the quality of the expression. The Kentucky Bourbon Association has a tight hold on the parameters that brand Kentucky Straight Whiskey, and 51% corn ingredient is just the start. To be clear, “bourbon” can be made anywhere and from various grains, but it cannot be labeled as bourbon unless it is made in the state of Kentucky.
And thanks to Margie Samuels, Bill’s firecracker mother with distinguished taste, designer of the iconic Makers Mark bottle with the red wax seal, bourbon tourism was born. Bill’s mother was the first to welcome visitors to the distillery, the start of a hospitality trend organized as the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, dramatically increased tourism and changed the profile of central Kentucky for good.
Still, Mark Twain was not all wrong. Kentucky has legalized parimutuel wagering, but you can’t legally bet on a football game. You can buy plenty of bourbons, but the state has not legalized medical marijuana. It is a slow and sleepy state with vice as its battery charge but a bit like that seesaw. You never know which way it might tip.
It takes a coalition to advance liquor and gambling in a southeastern, bible belt state. Tack on animal rights activists to horse racing, environmentalists to coal, Hatfields and McCoys to tourism, and people like Mark Twain, and Kentucky has experienced a dysfunctional upbringing. That’s why the perfect middle child, Central Kentucky, must keep the peace in this family of odd parts and shady reputations. So, in the dark of night, with only a star to guide them, they plot, no bickering, a united front. They aren’t looking for world domination; they just want to keep it all going.