Lexington’s Most Colorful Characters

Lexington’s Most Colorful Characters
by Jamie Millard
March 31, 2010

With the death of Louis “Shoeshine” Cobb this past November, Lexington lost its latest in a string of colorful characters that stretches unbroken to the community’s founding days in the late 1700s. Certainly, anyone who takes on a wildcat (of the four-footed kind) with his bare hands must be quite a character. Thus, one John McKinney qualifies as the town’s first such type (and its first school teacher), as in early June 1783 he was attacked by a strangely behaving cat inside the one-room schoolhouse on the site of today’s Lexington History Museum. As the cat’s claws dug into his torso, its teeth deep in his shoulder, the commotion from the fight convinced the other settlers of an American Indian attack. Finally, McKinney got the upper hand and choked the cat to death. After being bandaged, McKinney called his class to order and resumed their instruction for the day. Understandably, shortly thereafter, McKinney left teaching to take up farming in Bourbon County, helped write the state’s first constitution, and was elected to the first legislature.

William “King” Solomon is also counted among the town’s earliest characters. Reputedly the scion of a wealthy Virginia family, he migrated to Lexington and took up residence – as the town drunk. One day, while inebriated, he climbed a tree, only to fall and land on a constable. Promptly arrested, Solomon was auctioned to pay his fine and debts. Bought for the sum of 50 cents by a free black woman known as Aunt Charlotte (for which the East End’s Charlotte Court is named), he was essentially enslaved – a white man to a black woman. Solomon’s lasting fame stems from the 1833 cholera epidemic. Because he drank whiskey, not water (or so the story goes), he was impervious to the water-born germs in polluted wells. As even the grave diggers fled for safe haven, Solomon calmly stayed behind to bury the dead at the Old Episcopal Burying Ground on Third Street at today’s Elm Tree Lane. Upon his death in 1854, Solomon was buried in the new Lexington Cemetery, and a statue declaring him a “hero” was erected at the gravesite. (Footnote to history: Solomon was not the only person digging graves. Two others worked with him: London Ferrell, a free black who is the only non-white buried in that graveyard, and a young U.S. Army Lieutenant Jefferson I. Davis, graduate of Transylvania University and later president of the Confederacy.)

After the War Between the States, former soldiers on both sides returned to their communities to live out their lives with memories of heroic wartime adventures. For years, Col. O.F. Redd, CSA, celebrated his exploits by leading the town’s many parades high on his cavalry steed. Sometimes, he would swoop a watching youngster up on his saddle where she had a bird’s eye view of the parade route. At the terminus of the parade, he would always remove his hat with a grand gesture, stand in the stirrups, and let out a blood-curdling Rebel Yell.

Of course, regular readers of the Chevy Chaser and its sister publications are familiar with the visage, if not the story, of the dog known as Smiley Pete. For 11 years, Pete, a mixed breed with an apparently fixed grin, was a fixture at the corner of Main and Lime, holding court outside Hart’s Drugstore. Nearby merchants saw to his nutritional needs.When the regular rabies outbreak occurred, Smiley Pete took up residence at Del-Tor Veterinary until the crisis passed. In 1952, Pete sired his only documented litter. But his loose living caught up with him, and he died on June 17, 1957. A plaque is in the sidewalk at “his” corner, and he is buried near the old Fairlawn mansion on North Broadway, where the marker reads: “Pete/Our Dog/A Friend to All/A Friend of All.”

Lexington’s colorful characters have been such to prompt newspaper editorials. The Lexington Leader of April 5, 1965, pays tribute to no less than five individuals whose antics entertained the community, if not the police department. Lost John wore a top hat and tails, strolling around downtown and the UK campus, playing the harmonica. Evidently, he came into a few hundred dollars, which he splurged on a motor scooter, extending the speed and range of his wanderings. Eddie Young was banned from Main Street after he suggested how an inquiring woman could “catch a streetcar.” Pete McGarvey, whose residence was listed as the Workhouse on Bolivar Street, spent his non-jail time preaching to whomever would listen from his perch on Cheapside “while he got himself in shape to go back to jail.” Walkin’ Munn Wilson was a perennial candidate for political office who would “preach politics and brimstone” until led away by the police. And there was a certain Mrs. Littleton who took Lexington society by storm – until a police detective recognized her as a former resident of The Hill (the city’s red light district).

No accounting of Lexington’s colorful characters would be complete without mention of James “Sweet Evening Breeze” Herndon. Known as “Sweet Evening” or just “Sweets” (and rarely called or even known by his given name), Herndon was born in 1889 in Scott County. Allegedly, the youngest of eight children was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital for treatment of an eye injury – and abandoned. Miss Lake Johnson, the administrator, took a liking to him and provided living space at the hospital. He paid for his room by running errands for the hospital and playing ukulele for patients. In time, he trained as an orderly, and earned a reputation for his skills of tenderly turning the bedridden. He also earned a reputation as the city’s first cross-dresser. Many a Saturday evening found Sweets dressed in feminine finery, wearing makeup and sporting a handbag while he strolled downtown streets. Many legendary tales are told about Sweets, perhaps the most memorable being when he was lowered in a basket from the Woodland Auditorium ceiling to perform the “Passion Dance of the Bongo Bongoes.” Sweets died Dec. 16, 1983, and is said to have donated a hefty sum to Pleasant Green Baptist Church, of which he was a longtime member.

Now that “Shoeshine” has joined the pantheon of Lexington’s colorful characters, who stands ready to take up the mantel?

The Lexington History Museum is currently developing an exhibit based on the lives of many of these colorful characters. We would like your input. If you feel that we have omitted any treaured Lexington character, please letus know.


Chevy Chaser History: Those Clay Women

This day in history, March 18, Lucretia Hart Clay was born. To honor the birth of Lucretia Hart Clay, here is the Women’s History month article for the Chevy Chaser written by Jamie Millard and Joan Grever. Not only does it feature Lucretia, but other very important Clay women.

Those Clay Women
by Jamie Millard & Joan Grever
Originally printed in the Chevy Chaser magazine
March 04, 2010

Lexington, KY – As we begin the run up to the War of 1812 bicentennial, a lot of attention will be given to Lexington’s Henry Clay, leader of the War Hawks who embarked on the flawed adventure. Every bit as fascinating as the patriarch of the fabled family are three Clay women: a wife, a granddaughter cum daughter-in-law and a second cousin once removed.

Spanning three generation across 160 years, each Clay woman in her own way made significant contributions, not only to Lexington, but to the nation as well.

Lucretia Hart Clay (1781 – 1864), the daughter of a Continental Army Colonel, was born in Hagerstown, Md. Her father, Thomas Hart of North Carolina, was a principal in the Transylvania Company, which drove the settlement of Kentucky. The family moved to Lexington in 1795, residing in a fine house on the southwest corner of Mill and Short Streets (the structure was torn down in 1955 – an event that sparked the founding of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation).

Lucretia was considered one of Lexington’s most attractive young women. The Hart home was a social center of town, where Lucretia played the first piano in Lexington. She drew the eye of young Henry Clay, a very eligible bachelor who arrived in Lexington from Virginia in 1797 penniless, but intent on building a law practice in the growing city.

Married at age 18, Lucretia and her husband established their home, “Ashland,” just six years later. By all rights, Lucretia was very much the woman of the house, organizing the kitchen gardens and overseeing the entertainment of the leading lights of the day. Such famous visitors as the Marquis de Lafayette, President Chester A. Arthur, Vice President John C. Breckinridge, Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln, and many others either visited or stayed at the house.

Along the way, Lucretia became the mother of 11 children who, along with their tutor and 10 house slaves, comprised a small village east of Lexington. Over the years, that community suffered great sorrow. By the time of her death on April 7, 1864, at the home of her youngest child, Lucretia had buried all but four of her children.

Josephine Russell Erwin Clay (1835 – 1920) was the widow of Lucretia’s grandson Andrew Eugene Erwin, a Confederate Colonel killed during the Siege of Vicksburg. She returned to her late husband’s hometown from her family farm near Independence, Mo., in 1864. Lucretia had invited Jo, her three daughters and her mother, Zaenett Freeland Russell, to supervise the household of her youngest son, and eccentric bachelor, John Morrison Clay – a move that scandalized Lexington society. The two were married the following year, by which time Lucretia was dead and unable to witness her granddaughter-in-law becoming her daughter-in-law (perhaps an outcome she intended).

When Henry Clay died in 1852, John had inherited 200 acres of Ashland property along the Tates Creek Pike. Having managed his father’s Thoroughbred breeding program, John established Ashland Stock Farm and built “Ashland on Tates Creek Pike,” designed by famous architect Thomas Lewinski. A Union man, John fended off several attempts by Confederate John Hunt Morgan to raid his fine stock.

Upon the marriage, Jo put a stop to John’s carousing, although letters written while he was out of town document his wild streak was not entirely tamed. Jo was a Catholic, and her husband frequently attended Mass with her, having been disallowed from joining Christ Church because he “ran” horses; John noted the discrepancy that trotters were admitted, but runners denied.

Jo became a partner in the farm, having grown up around horses in Missouri. Together, they bred Day Star, Ashland’s first Kentucky Derby winner in 1878. As John aged (he was 14 years her senior), Jo took on more and more of the farm operations. Under her hand, she converted the farm from a racing stable to a breeding operation as her husband retired from the track. Jo became known as the “Horsewoman of the Bluegrass,” raising the farm’s reputation to national prominence.

Not to be a one-dimensional horsewoman, Jo was also a best-selling author of romantic novels published by Lippincott & Co. of Philadelphia. Jo died suddenly on March 29, 1920. Eventually, portions of the farm were sold off. Cassidy Elementary and Morton Middle schools stand on part of the farm, Lakewood Subdivision in Chevy Chase on another.

Laura Clay (1849-1941), the eighth of 10 children born to Cassius Marcellus and Mary Jane Warfield Clay, was definitely the child of both her parents. Mary Jane was strong willed, holding her family together while Cassius spent vast amounts of time away from home pursuing abolition, and not a few skirts. At the age of 12, Laura and her family traveled to Boston, then London, and eventually St. Petersburg, where her father served as Ambassador to Russia under President Abraham Lincoln. Returning to Kentucky to save expenses, Laura was enrolled in the Sayre Institute, cared for the wounded from the Battle of Richmond, and observed a cavalry raid led by Gen. John Hunt Morgan.

Early in 1878, her parents divorced and Laura was given a portion of the farm at White Hall, as were each of her siblings. Calling herself a “practical farmer,” Laura became known for her strong business skills. Unlike the other two Clay women, however, Laura’s national reputation was far removed from the soil – and from any man, for that matter.

Laura Clay was one of the nation’s leaders in the struggle to secure voting rights for women. She became active in the movement in her early 30s, and by 1881 was elected president of the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Association, which evolved as the Kentucky Civil Rights Association when the cause broadened to include property rights for married women and the right to practice as physicians in asylums.

Laura led the charge in the Kentucky legislature that created benefits for women and children, secured the right to vote in school board races, and helped draw up the 1890 Kentucky Constitution. Laura’s work was not confined to Kentucky. She campaigned tirelessly in a dozen other states.

Finally, the tide was turned and Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution and sent it to the states for ratification. Kentucky ratified it in January 1920, and by August of that year the right of women to vote was the law of the land. Her sole foray into electoral politics came in 1923 when she ran for the Kentucky senate. She was defeated on the divisive issue of betting at horse tracks. She died on June 29, 1941, having enjoyed just over two decades of voting.

Just three of the many Clay women (and not a few men) who helped shape the destiny of our community, Commonwealth and nation.

The Value of One

The Value of One: The story of how two historic downtown structures were saved
by Joan Grever & James Millard
Reprinted from The Chevy Chaser
June 01, 2009

Lexington, KY – “What difference would it make?” How many times that thought has prevented action that might have made a difference is anyone’s guess. But in the case of two historic downtown structures, it truly took the efforts of just one person (albeit one powerful and one insistent person) to make the difference.

On the south side of Main Street between the Jefferson Street viaduct and the Martin Luther King. Boulevard viaduct, only two structures remain among those that stood from the days when Abraham Lincoln visited his wife’s hometown: The Melodeon Building on the southwest corner of Main and Upper Streets and the Mary Todd Lincoln House just west of the Lexington Center. Each of these structures has a story all its own – both in how they came to be, and how they are still with us.

In 1969, when urban renewal was taking huge bites out of “Old Lexington,” William Lucas, proprietor of the McAdams & Morford drug store that operated on the first floor of the Melodeon Building, sent an urgent telegram to President Richard Nixon, asking the 120-year-old building be granted a reprieve. So many historic structures had already succumbed to the “progress” of the wrecking ball, that this seemed a doomed effort.

Although the idea had been to build a downtown shopping mall on the block bounded by Main, Mill, Vine and Upper streets (a venture that never took hold), cooler heads obviously prevailed. Lucas continued to operate his drug store until 1993. Today, the bar Harvey’s occupies that venerable location.

In fact, until McAdams & Morford closed, a drug store had operated in that location continuously since 1817. George Norton built the first drug store to occupy that spot, a two-story building. In 1849, he tore it down to build a magnificent three-story masonry structure with its fancy cast iron façade – so popular at the time. Norton Drug Store operated on the first floor, with the second and third floors occupied by the Grand Hall, an entertainment area seating 300. The Grand Hall opened with a concert on New Year’s Day 1850. Just a few weeks later, the legendary Tom Thumb – the “28-Inch Giant” – played there. In subsequent years, such nationally renowned performers as Jenny Lind and John Wilkes Booth played the Grand Hall.

During the opening months of the Grand Hall in 1850, a future national figure visited Lexington. But it is doubtful Abraham Lincoln was in any mood for frivolity, for his youngest son, Willie, died that February and he was in Lexington to settle the estate of Mary’s beloved grandmother Elizabeth Parker.

Just the year before, Abe and Mary had returned to Lexington from Springfield, Ill., to settle the estate of her father, Robert S. Todd, who died in the Cholera Epidemic of 1849. Part of that estate included the 1806 Federal style house at what is today 578 W. Main St. The two and a half-story structure was built by William Palmateer to house his “Sign of the Green Tree” tavern.

In 1832, Robert Todd purchased the structure and converted it to a private home for his growing family, including a 13 year old Mary. She continued to live in the house until 1839, when tensions with her stepmother became too great and she moved to Springfield to live with her married sister Elizabeth Edwards. Todd added the rear two-story ell. The property, which bounded on the Town Branch of the Elkhorn, included a carriage house, smoke house, horse stables and cattle barn.

Following Todd’s death and several years of contentious legal fights among the Todd children, the deed was finally signed by 20 Todd heirs – including Abe and Mary – and the property passed out of the family. For the next 120 years, the structure served as a grocery, dry cleaner, plumbing supply warehouse and, most famously, as the “house” where Belle Brezing initiated her career that would lead to national fame as the madam of the “most orderly of disorderly houses” and alleged model for the Belle Watling character in “Gone with the Wind.”

In 1941, W.J. Wilson bought the structure for $7,600 from Mrs. Pat Golden, who had operated a restaurant and boarding house there for decades. Wilson’s intent was for the Commonwealth to preserve the home of Kentucky’s only First Lady. Those efforts failed, and the property was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Sterling Coke for their Van Deren Hardware Company.

It took one First Lady, however, to prevail on behalf of that most-famous First Lady.

In 1967, Beulah Nunn became Kentucky’s First Lady and took up W.J. Wilson’s fallen banner on behalf of Mary Todd’s childhood home. With her considerable clout and indomitable spirit, Mrs. Nunn would let no obstacle stand in her way. When the Cokes refused to sell their parcel with the house, the city considered preserving the structure by moving it to the grounds of Waveland State Shrine. Mrs. Nunn would have none of that, and she convinced the Commonwealth to condemn the property.

Thus, the state government that had thwarted Wilson’s efforts more than three decades earlier, owned the house in 1975, with the Kentucky Mansions Preservation Foundation, Inc., established to operate and maintain the building. Faithfully restored as it was when its namesake was just 13, The Mary Todd Lincoln House is one of the area’s prime tourist attractions.

Today, only two structures still stand along that south side eight-block stretch of Main Street. But, thanks to the “power of one,” they still stand.

For more information on this and other stories of Lexington’s past, please visit the museums of the Lexington History Center, 215 W. Main St.

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.