A Belgian in the Bluegrass

March 17, 2014

This hand-colored print on paper, drawn and engraved by Courtois of Malines, is of “Little Loretto” in Marion County. It seems curious that a tiny religious frontier settlement in Kentucky would be the subject of an engraving made in Belgium …


In 1785, sixty Catholic families from Charles, Price George, and St. Mary’s counties in Maryland formed a league pledged to emigrate to Kentucky (then still a county of Virginia) within a specified period of time. By settling together for mutual support and protection, they also hoped that their spiritual needs would be quickly recognized by Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore, appointed the previous year to lead the United States’ first diocese, which encompassed the entire country. The first twenty-five families found a new home near the headwaters of Pottinger’s Creek in the hilly Knobs region of the commonwealth. Holy Cross, the first Catholic church west of the Allegheny Mountains, was built here in 1792, the same year Kentucky was recognized as a state. At that time, this area became Washington County (named after George Washington), a part of which in 1834 was renamed Marion County, after General Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” of the Revolutionary War.

In 1793 Father Stephen Theodore Badin, a religious exile from the French Revolution and the first Catholic priest ordained in the United States, was assigned to missionary work in Kentucky by Bishop Carroll. Badin walked from Baltimore to Pittsburgh, where he boarded a flatboat to Limestone (now Maysville). He lived first near Holy Cross, then in late 1794 moved a few miles away to St. Stephen’s Farm, where he had built a chapel named after his patron saint. From there he traveled by horseback to serve all of Kentucky’s Catholic families, then numbering a little less than seven hundred. Within twelve years this grew to nearly seven thousand, scattered throughout the entire state. In 1805 the Bishop sent Father Charles Nerinckx to assist Badin.

The eldest of the fourteen children, Nerinckx was born in Herffelingen, Belgium, on October 2, 1761. After studies at Enghien, Gheel, and Louvain, he entered the theological seminary of Mechlin in 1781 and, after his ordination in 1785, became vicar at the cathedral there. (The Dutch-speaking town of Mechelen, in the province of Antwerp, Flanders, is known in French as Malines and in English as Mechlin.) In 1794 Nerinckx moved to Everberg-Meerbeke (near Louvain), where he was pastor and rebuilt the parish church. But in 1797 the Belgian government, still under the power of the anticlerical French Directoire, required that all priests take an oath of hatred against royalty. Nerinckx refused, and evaded arrest for seven years by hiding at the Hospital of Dendermonde, which was administered by his aunt, a Benedictine nun; during the day he hid, often in the attic or a chicken coop, while at night he ministered to Catholics in need and conducted masses at 2 a.m. In 1804 Nerinckx finally managed to escape by walking ten days to Amsterdam, where he boarded a ship bound for America and landed in Baltimore. Bishop Carroll first directed Nerinckx to study English at Georgetown in Washington, D.C.

Like Badin, Nerinckx practically lived in the saddle. The two priests journeyed separately through 2013.15.15 rightall of Kentucky for several years, but divided their territory in 1812. It took Nerinckx six weeks to make a circuit of his district, roughly a two-hundred-mile square covering nearly half the state. He moved to the Hardin’s Creek congregation in Marion County, a little more than ten miles from St. Stephen’s Farm and several miles east of Pottinger’s Creek, taking up residence in the vestry at the rear of the church, which he had named St. Charles in honor of his patron saint. Soon after his move Nerinckx, with three dedicated local teachers, founded the first community of religious women in the United States, originally called The Little Society of the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross.

Mary Rhodes had already begun a school in a small dilapidated log cabin abandoned by a settler about a half mile from St. Charles; later she was joined by Christina Stuart, and then Ann Havern. For convenience, they fixed up a nearby log cabin where they could sleep in a loft, with beds for boarding students laid out on the bare ground floor of the living area at night and stored on the “high shelf” by day. The straw beds had plain covers, not fancy quilts, and their work table was half a split log. A combined kitchen and refectory (dining area) used a table made of boards nailed to a stump left standing in the middle of the cabin by the former tenants, who probably had used it for a similar purpose.

The women felt drawn to form a religious community and requested Nerinckx’ help, in writing a Rule (code of conduct for their new order) and receiving approval from Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget, appointed to Kentucky when four more dioceses had been established (out of Baltimore’s territory) in 1808 at Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Bardstown; the area covered by the Bardstown diocese included most of what is now Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. On April 25th a formal commitment ceremony was held; three more novices (Ann Rhodes, Sarah Havern, and Nellie Morgan, later known as Sister Clare) were received on June 29th and, on that day, the first large tree was cut down to begin construction of more suitable facilities for the school and convent. Nerinckx called upon the St. Charles congregation for assistance; he began a subscription program that raised a few hundred dollars, mostly in trade, and asked those who could not afford this to help by obtaining logs. Nerinckx later wrote this about the founding: “A small spot of land, of about 50 acres unmeasured, indifferent for natural conveniences, bought by Sister Anna Rhodes for $75 for the SOCIETY, about the Chapel of St. Charles, on Hardin’s creek, County of Washington, Kentucky, United States of America, called LITTLE LORETTO, was begun the 25th of April, 1812.”

As construction began in earnest, trees around the two existing cabins were felled and hewed into logs, which both provided building materials and cleared the area. Nerinckx staked out the places to erect each structure and the sisters themselves rid the yard of stumps, chipping them down then burning away what remained. Once foundation timbers were laid, small stones hauled from Hardin’s Creek were built up under them for support, with mud and straw used to fill in empty crevices. The sisters and their neighbors helped with the construction, and whenever in town Nerinckx pitched in as well; it was noted that for years afterward the imprint of his fingers could be seen in the clay mortar plastered into the spaces between logs.

Nails and glass had to be purchased and sometimes a little cash was needed by hired builders. Francis Melton of Washington County contracted to build “three double cabins of sixteen feet in the clear, with a passage between them of eight feet, to be finished in a workmanly manner, and completed before the end of July, 1813, – the timber to be taken, as much as possible, from General Walton’s and other willing neighbors’ land – Charles Nerinckx to pay for the work2013.15.15 left sixty dollars in cash, and sixty dollars in trade rated at the common trade price, at Mr. Charles Hayden’s on Pottinger’s creek.” In 1814, Nerinckx found in Pittsburgh handy new cooking appliances that could alleviate some of the sisters’ housekeeping chores, for $100 apiece plus transportation costs; called stoves, these were the first to be seen in the county and possibly the entire state of Kentucky.

The plan created by Nerinckx called for two rows of buildings, with a large square yard extending back from the road between them. The first building to the right of the entrance was the school, a one-story double cabin with its wooden chimney outside. Next came the chapel and convent, a structure two stories high that consisted of two square cabins with upper rooms; the space between the cabins was enclosed by weather-boarding to form the chapel. (The two rooms at either side of the chapel were intended for use by the community, but not completed until two years later.) The third building, a similar double cabin, was used for the kitchen and refectory.

On the left, the first building was Nerinckx’ residence, which it is said he built with his own hands. Like the school, it was a one-story double cabin having a wooden chimney outside and with the space between protected by weather-boarding to form a small entry; one room served as his sitting room, study, bedroom, and refectory, while the other was reserved as accommodations for the Bishop or visiting priests. In the second building was Nerinckx’ kitchen; his cook took the priest’s meals over to the St. Charles sacristy when needed and also ran errands for the sisters. The third building served as a work room, an infirmary, and a guest house. As soon as his own house was finished, Nerinckx moved to Little Loretto.

The two old cabins that had served as schoolhouse and convent were torn down and their logs used to build a small double cabin at the far end of the yard, which first was a meat-house and later a dwelling. Behind were built stables and outhouses, at convenient places and distances. The extensive square yard was leveled and sown with blue grass. A small plot at the outer side of the chapel was reserved as a graveyard for the sisters and planted with trees, shrubs, and flowers; a large square cross was placed in the middle, surrounded by an evergreen arbor. A rail fence was built around the buildings and yard. Outside the fence was a garden that extended to the summit of the hill and, on the opposite side, stretched to the creek; on its downward slope Nerinckx himself planted an orchard.

When the chapel was finished, it was blessed and given the name “Little Loretto” in honor of Our Lady of Loreto, for whom Nerinckx had a particular devotion. In Italy, Loreto is the site of the Basilica della Santa Casa, a pilgrimage shrine since at least the 14th century which, according to tradition, contains the original home of the Virgin Mary. The suffix -eto ending “Loreto” is not a diminutive but from the Latin -etum, meaning a grove or wood; loreto is from the Latin lauretum, a grove of laurel. The name Nerinckx had chosen was not misspelled, however; “Sisters of Loreto” had already been used (since 1609) by a different order, whose members since have included Mother Teresa of Calcutta. But in frontier Kentucky, where little was known of the details of Catholic history, the neighbors began referring to the “the Sisters over at Loretto,” which became how the community was, and is, known. The founding sisters officially renamed their Society the “Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross,” more simply called the “Sisters of Loretto.”

Nerinckx wished to appeal in person to family and friends in his native Belgium for funds and religious supplies, as well as recruit more priests for Kentucky and submit the Society’s Rule for papal approval. Bishop Flaget requested that he wait two years, and the War of 1812 2013.15.15 visionforced further delay, but Nerinckx finally embarked in September 1815. Soon after arriving in Belgium he made a speech entitled A Glance at the Present Condition of the Roman Catholic Religion in North America, also issued in pamphlet form. In Rome, Pius VII gladly welcomed the new Society, but was concerned that some portions of its Rule were too rigidly austere; any revisions necessary were to be communicated later in writing. (Nerinckx’ account of his journey to Rome was printed in Belgium after he returned in 1816.)

While in Belgium, Nerinckx commissioned two works of art. One was the engraving of Little Loretto shown here that illustrates the site, with the sisters surrounding a vision of Mary and the Crucifixion at center; at bottom is a key in Dutch, French, and English that identifies the buildings by letter captions. Although probably made from a design provided by Nerinckx, it is likely the European engraver, unfamiliar with Marion County, Kentucky, who was responsible for the fanciful botanical and topographical elements such as the palm trees and tropical flora, rocky mountain peaks, and a sizable waterfall. The other artwork was a woodcut of “the Suffering Jesus on the Cross, almost hidden by a huge flaming heart. In the gaping wound of the Divine Heart the pierced Heart of Mary is seen, surrounded by smaller hearts representing the professed sisters … On the rock at the foot of the cross the standard of the Society waves: “O Suffering Jesus! O Sorrowful Mary!” and a picture of the old Loretto Convent is seen in the background… One of these [works] Father Nerinckx had framed, with glass on both sides, the reverse bearing … [a lengthy religious inscription] in his own handwriting.” In the engraving here, two crimson banners carried by angels bear the same words.

According to one biographer, “There were also many paintings, some of them very valuable, which through the help of his great friend, Mr. Peemans of Louvain, he secured from churches that had been wrecked and sacked by the French. Among the best of these was a Crucifixion, now in the church at Bardstown, and a supposed genuine Van Dyke in the Cathedral of Louisville, representing St. Bernard with the Sacred Host, administering a solemn reproof to William of Aquitaine for his schismatical and disorderly conduct.” Some of the paintings owned by the Archdiocese of Louisville (the seat moved from Bardstown in 1841) have been on display since the Cathedral of the Assumption’s renovation in 1994.

Nerinckx brought 8,000 pounds of goods back to Kentucky from his second trip to Europe in 1820. He was also instrumental in bringing from Belgium the first group of Jesuits who settled in western states. While abroad, Nerinckx learned that Bishop Flaget had received recommendations from the Propagation of the Faith Office in Rome: the Rule was to be changed to one based on the Rule of St. Augustine, and the Society’s Constitutions modified. When Nerinckx spoke with the Bishop about these requirements in 1823, he commented that “the sisterhood in its present state is flourishing and yielding fruit in a considerable degree, and our Rt. Rev. Bishop [Flaget] and myself have thought it prudent not to trim nor touch the tree that bore so well without it.”

In 1824, Nerinckx requested permission to move farther west. Bishop Joseph Rosati of New Orleans assigned Nerinckx to the Upper Louisiana Territory, now Missouri, where he hoped to develop missions among Native Americans. Ironically, Bishop Carroll had recommended in 1808 that Nerinckx be appointed Bishop of New Orleans, but Nerinckx had declined the honor because 2013.15.15 gardenshe thought there was too much to be done in Kentucky. Since arriving in the state, Nerinckx had organized at least one new congregation a year in settlements with a substantial Catholic population and was directly responsible for the construction of more than a dozen new church buildings. Nerinckx told the sisters of his decision in person and also wrote them a farewell letter. After leaving Little Loretto on June 16, Nerinckx visited their first school outside of Kentucky, which the sisters had been invited to establish the year before at The Barrens in Perry County, Missouri. Less than two months later Nerinckx contracted a serious fever and died on August 12, at the age of sixty-three, in St. Genevieve, Missouri.

After Nerinckx’ death, Bishop Flaget requested the sisters relocate from Little Loretto to St. Stephen’s Farm. Badin, who had lived there until 1819, transferred the land to them at the request of the Bishop, as an exchange for property occupied by a boys’ school. Heeding Nerinckx’ admonition to “Be united and pull the same way,” the sisters moved, by wagon. After settling in at the farm, they returned to Little Loretto to set fire to all the buildings except for Nerinckx’ cabin; they regarded their original home as sacred ground and did not want the buildings to fall into the hands of others. The community nearby took its name from the sisters and by 1833 was large enough to have its own post office; Loretto is now best known as the home of Maker’s Mark, one of Kentucky’s famed bourbon whiskeys, distilled at Star Hill Farm.

By the time of Nerinckx’ death twelve years after its founding, the Sisters of Loretto had grown to more than one hundred members and established six schools and five convents in two states, with an auxiliary called the Jericho Branch at Mechlin, Belgium; over the years, they had established forty-two schools in Kentucky. Land donated in Nelson County for a school that Nerinckx had named “Gethsemani,” which later closed in 1848, was sold to Trappists from the Abbey of Melleray in western France. The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, now considered the motherhouse of all Trappist communities in the United States, is the oldest monastery still in use in this country; it is also well-known for the spiritual writings of Thomas Merton (Father Louie) and its handmade cheese, fruitcake, and fudge from Gethsemani Farms.

The Sisters of Loretto currently have communities in sixteen states and in Europe, Canada, South America, and Africa. The motherhouse is still located in the rural town of Nerinx, renamed from St. Stephen’s Farm in honor of their founder; the Nerinx post office, about 60 miles from Louisville, opened in 1899. Badin’s residence, the first brick house in Marion County when it was built in 1816, is still in use. Ten years after his death, Nerinckx’ body was transported to the motherhouse for burial and a marble statue of him was erected in 1910; half of his cabin at Little Loretto was brought back to the motherhouse in 1895, where it is still on view.

KOAR image shown here: 
2013.15.15           Little Loretto, by Courtois of Malines, circa 1815

More information can be found at the following links:

“On the road to Jubilee 2012: A new American sisterhood takes root and grows strong” by Kathleen Vonderhaar SL in Loretto Magazine, Fall-Winter 2009, p.10-14
Note: A map in this article, drawn in the early 1950s, depicts five counties in central Kentucky which became known as the “Holy Land” of Kentucky.

Kentucky Illustrated: The First Hundred Years, by Martin F. Schmidt, 1992, p.101

Life of Rev. Charles Nerinckx: Pioneer Missionary of Kentucky and Founder of the Sisters of Loretto by William Joseph Howlett, 1915

The life of Rev. Charles Nerinckx, with a chapter on early Catholic missions of Kentucky; copious notes on the progress of Catholicity in the United States of America, from 1800–1825; an account of the establishment of the Society of Jesus in Missouri; and an historical sketch of the Sisterhood of Loretto in Kentucky, Missouri, New Mexico, Etc., by Camillus Maes, 1880
http://archive.org/details/lifeofrevcharles00maes  [pdf download]

“Charles Nerinckx” by Camillus Maes in The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 10, 1911

“Bluegrass Belgian: Kentucky’s Missionary Dynamo, Father Charles Nerinckx” by Brian Kelly, December 27, 2008


Bottoms Up!

April 30, 2013

It is once again that time of year in Derby City (aka Louisville) to share the mystical lore of the mint julep. After all, few drinks are held in such high esteem that they merit their own elegant namesake vessels. Julep cups began to be made before the drink was invented, however, and originally appear in period inventories as tumblers or beakers, terms by which they are still known more generically today.

1991.1.10.1 combThe silver julep cup has long been a symbol of achievement and prestige popular throughout the South. For more than two centuries Kentuckians have given, received, and used them as they were intended at special events, from ceremonial family gatherings such as christenings and weddings, to public contests at local and state fairs. And, of course, at the state’s favorite pastime, horse racing. As far back as 1816 the Kentucky Gazette noted that julep cups had been awarded as prizes at horse races in the Commonwealth.

The julep cup (i.e., tumbler or beaker) is a classic American silver form. Julep cups were made in many Southern states, and each often developed its own unique style. In Kentucky, the distinctive straight body lines with graceful moldings at base and rim may trace its origins to silversmiths Asa Blanchard of Lexington and William and Archibald Cooper of Louisville. There are currently twenty-three julep cups (tumblers) on the KOAR website; the first shown here is credited to William Kendrick and the rest to John Kitts, both of whom worked in Louisville.

William Kendrick (1810-1880) was born in Paterson, New Jersey, to English immigrant Walter Kendrick. Walter moved his family to Louisville in 1818, ten years before it was incorporated as Kentucky’s first city (in 1991.1.10.3 comb1828) with a population surpassing 7,000. (The settlement that became Louisville had been founded by George Rogers Clark in 1778.) About 1824, young William began a seven year jeweler’s apprenticeship to Evans C. Beard. (Beard was in partnership with silversmith Elias Ayers as Ayers & Beard from about 1820 to 1831, then with watchmaker George A. Zeumar as E.C. Beard & Co. from 1831 to 1851.) After coming of age, William was in the partnership of Lemon & Kendrick with James Innes Lemon from 1831 to 1841. Kendrick opened his own jewelry and fancy store on the east side of Fourth Street between Main and Market in 1842, “his stock in trade consisting of (in his own words), ‘$20.00 cash, a silver watch worth about $19.00, and a few watch tools, the whole amounting to about $150.00.'”

Kendrick married Maria Schwing, daughter of Louisville goldsmith and jeweler John Godfried Schwing, in 1832, and was listed as a jeweler on both the 1850 and the 1870 census. He moved his store to Third Street in 1855, where he stayed fifteen years before moving in 1870 to 114 West Main Street, on the south side just east of the National Hotel. In 1873, he went into partnership with his son, William Carnes Kendrick (1852-1938), as the firm of William Kendrick & Son. In 1875 their shop moved to 336 Fourth Street, on the west side between Market and Jefferson, then as business increased moved again to more spacious quarters at 110 Fourth Street in 1877; on both occasions newspaper articles in Louisville’s Courier-]ournal noted the firm’s success. By the time of William Kendrick’s death in 1880, he had become one of Louisville’s most prosperous and respected merchants.

1991.1.10.4 combWilliam Carnes Kendrick was joined by younger brother George Penton Kendrick (1856-1937), listed as a manufacturing jeweler and diamond merchant in the 1880 census, to continue the firm as William Kendrick’s Sons, which remained in business until 1932, when it was reorganized. (The business descended through a third and fourth generation of Kendricks before being purchased in 1966 by jeweler and watchmaker Joseph C. Merkley, who renamed it Merkley Kendrick Jewelers, under which name it is still open today as “the oldest independent jeweler in Louisville and the second oldest in America”.) In 1937, William Carnes Kendrick wrote Reminiscences of Old Louisville, a lengthy typescript account of the city that includes references to many local businesses and business owners, starting with a “Memoir to My Father, William Kendrick” and ending with the catastrophic “Recent Flood” that left Louisville under several feet of water for many weeks. It can be found at:
This, along with many other publications, can also be found on the KOAR website at:

John Kitts was listed in the Louisville City Directory of 1841 as a watchmaker employed at Lemon & Kendricks. Kitts later opened his own jewelry business and was involved in a number of partnerships in Louisville until 1878. A bit more has been written about Kitts and Kentucky silver in general in two earlier blogs here:
    https://kentuckyonlinearts.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/silver-in-kentucky-1800-1860/ )

But back to those mint juleps …

A julep is generally defined as a sweet drink, and from the French can be traced back to the Persian term gulab, meaning rose water, or a drink made from water and rose petals. The mint julep originated in the southern United States during the early to mid eighteenth century, most likely in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. The first mention of it in print seems to be from an 1803 book published in London, England, where John Davis described the mint julep as “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.” U.S. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky introduced the mint julep to Washington, D.C., at the Round Robin Bar in the famous Willard Hotel.

1991.1.10.5 combThe tradition of serving the mint julep in a silver cup migrated westward to Kentucky. A chilled mint julep in a silver cup was to be served with a napkin or a small linen doily. The cup should be held only by its bottom and top edges, which allows frost to form on the outside of the cup while sipping. (Hand placement is critical in preventing transfer of body heat through the touch of bare fingers, especially since the days mandating that gloves be worn in public have long passed.) The cup will not frost properly if it is in the wind, if it is wet, if the ice has not been drained of excess water, or if the cup is excessively handled. As Pete Wells wrote of juleps in a June 24, 2009, Dining & Wine column in the New York Times, “For all the chest-thumping this class of drinks has caused, it’s a simple affair: sweetened liquor stirred in a mound of finely crushed or shaved ice. But until you’ve had one made without shortcuts, one that truly frosts the outside of its cup, it’s impossible to imagine how refreshing a julep can be.”

There has been, of course, much debate over the perfect mint julep recipe. According to David Wondrich, Esquire magazine’s resident cocktail historian, “In the dark backward of time, the Proper Construction of the Julep … was one of those topics that an American male with social aspirations was expected to regard as a matter of honor — at least, if said specimen was a son, nephew, cousin or acquaintance of the South. Just about every state in Dixie had its own sacrosanct way of handling the mint, the sugar, the ice, the booze. Duels were fought. Names were called.”

Some maintain it is the mint that has caused most of the trouble, whether the fresh mint should be muddled (crushed) in preparation so that essential oils and juices can be released into the mixture to intensify its flavor, as is usually preferred in Kentucky, or the leaves should be left to slide unmolested into the cup. Most would agree that only the freshest mint, and of that just the smallest tenderest leaves, should be used. A few sprigs of mint should also top the ice so this will be the first aroma encountered by the partaker.

Other advice is readily offered regarding how to finely crack the ice before packing it in the cup, how to speed the formation of frost on the cup by stirring briskly or twirling the glass, exactly what ingredients (such as old-fashioned cut loaf sugar) to use, and so forth. But in describing the “preparation of the quintessence of gentlemanly beverages” Kentucky Lt. Col. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., eloquently wrote, “A mint julep is not the product of a FORMULA. It is a CEREMONY … a rite that must not be entrusted to a novice, a statistician, nor a Yankee. It is a heritage of the old South, an emblem of hospitality …” For the pleasure of perusing the remainder of his romantic paean, from the gathering of fresh mint and crystal-clear spring water to the moment when “you have a beverage eminently appropriate for honorable men and beautiful women … where the aroma of the juleps will rise Heavenward and make the birds sing …” see his entire 1937 letter to Gen. William D. Connor, who had asked Buckner to oversee preparation of mint juleps for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Gen. Douglas MacArthur at West Point two years earlier, at:

Although bourbon is now the preferred spirit in mint juleps almost everywhere, the first mint juleps were made with rum, rye whiskey, genever (an aged gin) and other available spirits. But by the early eighteenth century farmers were using stills to make corn whiskey along the American frontier that would become the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Bourbon County, a vast area still part of western Virginia when founded in 1785, was named after the French royal House of Bourbon, who had helped the United States defeat the British in the Revolutionary War. After Kentucky was admitted to the Union in 1792 Bourbon County was repeatedly subdivided, eventually becoming thirty-four modern day counties, but the entire region continued to be called Old Bourbon for many decades. Kentucky-made products exported from this area, such as corn whiskey, were shipped out through the Ohio River port of Limestone (now Maysville) with “Old Bourbon” stenciled on barrels to indicate their point of origin. In Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey, Charles K. Cowdery points out that “Old Bourbon whiskey was different because it was the first corn whiskey most people had ever tasted.” After about 1840 this was shortened to just “Bourbon”, the identity Kentucky corn whiskey soon became known by the world-over.

1951_1_17Local distillers attribute much of the unique nature of Kentucky bourbon to its geography, the limestone bedrock under the Blue Grass region formed by fossils of shelled crustaceans that inhabited the shallow tropical ocean covering this area in prehistoric times. As water filters through the limestone minerals are released into the ground soil, enriching crop yield (including the corn as well as the distinctive bluegrass on which thoroughbred foals graze) and providing nutrients for yeast, which is added to the corn mash to convert sugars into alcohol during the fermentation process. Limestone also breaks down over time to form massive caves like central Kentucky’s Mammoth Caves, the longest cave system in the world. The springs that flow from these underground caverns provide plentiful sources of pure iron-free water.

Like the mint julep, no story is more hotly contested than the origin of bourbon. “The fact of the matter is, we are never going to know who invented bourbon,” says Michael R. Veach, author of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage. “Bourbon, I think, is more of an evolution than an invention.” Bourbon developed into its present form by the late nineteenth century and is now legally defined as a type of American whiskey made from a fermented mash primarily consisting of corn (at least 51%) and aged in new charred white oak barrels, usually for at least two years. All straight bourbons now use a “sour mash” process, in which mash from a previous distillation (strained wet solids still containing live yeast) is added to the new fermentation. The clear corn whiskey is then aged in newly charred American oak barrels, where it interacts with caramelized sugars in the wood beneath the layer of char, making the flavor smoother and mellower, and also giving bourbon its characteristic amber color. (After draining, the barrels still contain twenty pounds of bourbon within the wood so cannot be re-used to make bourbon; they are sometimes sold to the Scotch whiskey industry.)

Each distillery has its own sour mash culture and bourbon recipe, a closely guarded secret by the master distiller. Experimentation and refinement with various ratios of ingredients, subtleties in the distillation process, and lengths of aging time yield different flavors of bourbons. Distilleries located in the Kentucky Blue Grass region make about nine out of every ten bottles of bourbon, although it may be produced anywhere in the United States where it is legal to distill spirits. The Kentucky Distillers’ Association estimates that the state has 4.9 million barrels of bourbon currently aging, a figure that exceeds the state’s population.

“My argument is the true mint julep waited for bourbon to be invented,” says Joe Nickell, author of the Kentucky Mint Julep. Legend has it that in 1875 mint was planted outside the club house of the new racetrack in Louisville so that mint juleps could be served at the first Kentucky Derby. Today, almost 120,000 juleps are served by Churchill Downs over the two-day period of the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby. Nothing quite like that sweet bite of bourbon mixed with fresh mint, served ice cold, on the first Saturday in May …


The Kendrick Family Papers 1852-1973 are at the Filson Historical Society Special Collections in Louisville:
Margaret-M. Bridwell’s article on “The House of Kendrick” for The Filson Club History Quarterly (vol.22, 1948), which includes a portrait of William Kendrick, is available online at:

For more on early racing in Louisville, read our earlier blog at:

David Wondrich’s “High Kentucky School of Julepistics” recipe and tips can be found online, at:

Much more about Kentucky bourbon can be found at:


KOAR images shown here, from top to bottom:
    1991.1.10.1           Kendrick, William
    1991.1.10.3           Kitts, John
    1991.1.10.4           Kitts, John
    1991.1.10.5           Kitts, John
    1951.1.17              Mammoth Cave


Treasures from the Kentucky Historical Society

February 3, 2011

The Kentucky Online Arts Resource, a project of the Speed Art Museum, is pleased to add the Kentucky Historical Society to the site’s growing list of museum partners!

KOAR now features several highlights from Kentucky Historical Society’s exhibition, Great Revivals: Kentucky Decorative Arts Treasures. Curated by Estill Curtis Pennington, the exhibition brings many of KHS’s best pieces together in a single installation at the Old State Capitol in Frankfort.

Among my favorites: a terrific example of “art-carved” furniture with carved decoration by Kate Perry Mosher of Covington, Kentucky (located just across the river from Cincinnati). I first saw this cabinet several years ago in one of KHS’s storage areas and was blown away the quality of Mosher’s work. Her carvings of herons, Kentucky cane plants, and other plant forms reflect great skill and a great eye for design.


Cabinet with carving by Kate Mosher, 1892

Mosher learned from a master: Cincinnati’s Benn Pitman, the godfather of Cincinnati’s late nineteenth-century art-carved furniture movement. Pitman established a wood carving program at the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 1873. Like Mosher, many students of art carving were women. She ranked among the best, exhibiting her work at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

Visiting Kentucky, 1807-1809

October 14, 2010

Period accounts of Kentucky (or anywhere else) can’t always be taken at face value. Often their authors had ulterior motives. John Filson’s famous The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke (1784) was, shall we say, rather optimistic in its descriptions. If Filson could get settlers to the state, he could make money from his land investments.

Fortunately, Fortescue Cuming’s Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country (1810) offers a more objective view. His very readable travel journal traces his roundabout trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, down the Ohio River, back to Pittsburgh, back down the Ohio, and on to the Mississippi.

For those interested in Kentucky life during the early nineteenth century, it makes for great reading. There’s information, too, for those interested in Kentucky antiques. Lately, I’ve been working on a research project involving the Kentucky State Penitentiary. Why? The state pen’s workshops produced chairs for many decades. The pen also produced stone slabs, some of which may have been used atop furniture.

Cuming provides a detailed description of the Kentucky pen as it existed in 1807. Along with a description of the facility, he notes the presence of “twenty-four miserable wretches” imprisoned there…and also gives a list of the work they did as “nailors, coopers, chair makers, turners, and stone cutters, the latter of whom cut and polish marble slabs of all sizes…”