Cheapside: More than a Name

Cheapside: More than a Name
by James Kemper & Joan Grever
Reprinted from The Chevy Chaser

April 30, 2009

Lexington, KY – To many Lexingtonians, native or adopted, Cheapside Park is something of an enigma. This first of all public spaces in Lexington lies just to the west of the Lexington History Center, located on Main Street in what was once the Fayette County Courthouse.

If at all, many Lexingtonians know Cheapside as the locale for the weekly summertime Thursday Night Live concerts. Now, more will come to know it as the location of the weekly Lexington Farmers’ Market on Saturdays. Historically, both uses reach back to the earliest days of the community.

Originally, the 1781 town plat designated the block bounded by North Upper, West Main, North Mill and West Short streets as the “public square,” with the intent of locating the courthouse there. For whatever reason, however, the town’s first courthouse, a one-story log structure erected in 1782, was located on the northwest corner of Broadway (then Main Cross Street) and Main, and a short-lived school house – the first in Kentucky – was located on the public square.

In 1788, Lexington’s second courthouse, a two-story limestone structure, was built on the east side of the public square, pretty much in the same location as the Lexington History Center (formerly, the Fayette County Courthouse). By 1806, the community was ready for a new courthouse, a three-story affair built of brick on a stone foundation. It sported a clock tower and a bell that strikes the hour – strikes, because that same bell continues to mark the hour for the downtown business and residential community.

In 1789, the Virginia Assembly (Kentucky was still a county of that state) authorized dividing the public square to allow for a market to be located on its west end. The division was recognized by cutting a new street running parallel to Upper and Mill. This street was named Market Street, but did not extend north of Short. In 1795, a one-story market house was erected on the northeast corner of the new street and Short. A year later, a post-and-rail fence was erected around the market house, scales were installed and the sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited in the market house. In 1807, a stone market house was constructed in the same location.

The first reference to the street by its current name, Cheapside, is found in an 1813 advertisement for the Todd & Smith wholesale grocery located on the west side of Cheapside. That building, operated by Mary Todd Lincoln’s father, Robert Todd, is occupied today by the Bluegrass Tavern.

But why “Cheapside”? Did it mean goods were bought and sold cheaply at the side of the courthouse? No. The name is taken from a historic marketplace in London, England. That Cheapside exists today as an office and retail center. Historically, however, it was the site of one of London’s largest produce markets, and became known as “the busiest thoroughfare in the world.”

(Etymologically, “cheapside” means “market-place,” derived from the Old English ceapan, meaning “to buy.” In time, good ceap came to mean “good buy.” Since a good buy was often at a good price, the word took on the meaning of cheap or inexpensive, and devolved into its modern meaning of low value, as in “on the cheap.”)

Is it any wonder that Lexington, “The Athens of the West,” would adopt the world’s most famous market’s name for its own market square?

And that market square was vital to the community’s economic life. Lexington was founded as a trade town, supplying westbound settlers with replenishment after coming down from the hills before making their trek to the frontier. Essentially a community of shopkeepers, the public was allowed to buy, sell and trade goods on the second Monday of each month, called “Court Day” because the circuit court sat at the courthouse, bringing litigants in from the surrounding areas, and with them merchandise.

All sorts of items were offered for sale or trade: horse, hemp – and humans. From the nation’s earliest days, slavery was a way of life. At the time of the American Revolution, the slave population in the North and South were about equal. By 1860, however, fully one-third of the South’s total population was enslaved (Fayette County reflected that number), while less than 2 percent of the North (where, for the most part, slavery was legal until 1865) were slaves.

Unfortunately, in time, Lexington became the largest slave market in the South – and Cheapside took on a more sinister connotation. But a wide variety of items were offered for sale, including Kentucky’s most famous product: horses. In 1829, the first horse show west of the Alleghnies was held at Cheapside. Some of the famous stallions of the day included Snow Storm by Dr. Elisha Warfield’s Meadows Farm in Fayette County, Old Potomac by John Clay of Bourbon County, and Sumpter by William Buford’s Tree Hill Farm in Woodford County.

In 1831, Cheapside was paved over, or macadamized, with stone aggregate, no doubt owing to all those horse hooves.

After the War Between the States, however, Court Day degenerated into essentially a rowdy flea market where goods were sold cheap at the side of the courthouse. Silently presiding over the unruly crowds was the statue of John Cabell Breckinridge, vice president of the United States and secretary of war of the Confederacy, erected in 1887. The situation became so bad that in 1921 the city abolished Court Day. In 1928 the paving was removed, grass and trees planted, and Cheapside became an elegant little park in the middle of a rising city.

Today, Cheapside is returning to its roots. The grass has been removed, replaced by a semi-pervious surface. The trees remain, providing shade for the Saturday merchants and buyers on the city’s market square.

This is the first of a monthly series of articles presented by the four museums located at the Lexington History Center, 215 W. Main St.

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