While the classroom experience for Kentucky students invariably changes from decade to decade, there is still one constant that binds one generation to the next: A field trip to the state capital.
Thousands of children make the trek each year, seeing such common sites as the larger-than-life statue of President Lincoln in the Capitol Rotunda and, just a few miles away, the Old State Capitol’s self-supporting staircase, which for more than 180 years has been anchored by a well-placed keystone.
But as you might expect, there is more history scattered around Frankfort than can be covered in a day-long field trip.
To begin with, the Capitol and surrounding grounds have a lot of hidden gems. There are two time capsules buried in front, for example, with the first scheduled to be unearthed in 2060 – the Capitol’s 150th anniversary – and the second in 2076, the 300th anniversary of the country’s founding.
Inside the Rotunda, visitors can now see the four new murals that were installed last year, but they may not know that plans were drawn up for that space just a couple of years after the Capitol opened in 1910. Unfortunately, the muralist – a former Harvard classmate of the governor at the time – never had the opportunity to complete the work, because he was on the ill-fated Titanic.
Had he lived, he would have been painting about the same time that the current Governor’s Mansion was being built just a short walk away. Anywhere from 12,000 to 15,000 visitors now take a tour annually, and some of the guests over the years have included many of Kentucky’s best and brightest as well as presidents and even British royalty.
Not far from the Capitol grounds is another famous house, though this one is not open to tours. Still, the Jesse R. Zeigler House is noteworthy because it is the only home in Kentucky designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, considered the country’s most famous architect. Legend has it that Wright never actually saw the home until nearly 40 years had passed, and he walked in as if he owned the place.
Down the road from the Capitol and high on the banks of the Kentucky River is the Kentucky Military History Museum. Built before the Civil War, it was used both as defensive post and as a munitions factory. It opened in its current form in 1974, but has been undergoing a four-year renovation that is due to re-open, appropriately enough, on Veterans Day.
A short distance from there is the Old Governor’s Mansion, which pre-dates the White House and is believed to be the country’s oldest executive-branch home still in use. Thirty-five governors lived there during Kentucky’s early history, and thereafter lieutenant governors called it home until 2002. It is now used to host events.
Nearby, the Old State Capitol sits in the heart of downtown on the same site as the state’s first two Capitols, both of which burned.
Outside, one can stand on the very spot where, in 1900, Governor William Goebel was shot, becoming the only governor in the country to die by an assassin. The Old State Capitol also was the only one in Union territory captured by the Confederacy.
Between the Old State Capitol and the Old Governors Mansion is the newest “historic” addition to downtown: the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History. It boasts 167,000 sq. ft. of space and contains about 500,000 artifacts, including thousands of quilts and the just-renovated Toyota Kentucky Hall of Governors, which features such items as Governor Goebel’s undergarment from the day he was shot to the pocket watch carried by Governor Robert Letcher during his administration in the 1840s.
The Martin F. Schmidt Research Library on the Center for Kentucky History’s second floor, meanwhile, offers tens of thousands of published works, microfilm and a variety of collected research for genealogists and others wanting to know more about our past.
With history in mind, the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives announced in July that it has spent about $18 million since the mid-1980s helping local governments in every county preserve records. It was the first program of its kind in the country, and it is making sure that disasters like fire and flooding don’t erase our heritage.
If you would like to re-trace some of the steps you took when in school, or have a student who wouldn’t mind making a special trip to the capital, there is a good time coming up to take advantage of that.
On Sept. 24, the Kentucky Historical Society is taking part in the national Smithsonian Museum Day event that, here in the Commonwealth, provides a free ticket for those wanting to visit the Center for Kentucky History or the Old State Capitol. To register for a ticket that Saturday – good for up to two people per household – go to www.smithsonianmag.com/museumday. As always, if you would like to let me know your thoughts on this column or any other issues affecting state government, don’t hesitate to contact me. My address is Room 366B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601.
You can also leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.
I hope to hear from you soon.
State Representative Rick Rand