From Henry Clay to the Garden Club
When I helped dedicate historical marker #2514 last month, more than 80 years, but fewer than 100 feet, separated me from marker #1. I was at the Ashland estate to commemorate the work of the Garden Club of Lexington. Yet I couldn’t help but stop by the first marker, which celebrates the life of Henry Clay, and reflect on the evolution of the historical marker program.
In the early years of the program, the Historical Marker Society, drawn from the ranks of influential white men, determined what sites were worthy of commemoration. In addition to the marker celebrating Henry Clay at his Ashland estate, hundreds of markers went up to commemorate topics like the Todd family, the Battle of Blue Licks and the Bryan’s Station.
These early markers tend to fall into a few categories: celebrated families, military conflicts or pioneering institutions. Each of these categories undoubtedly affected our history and certainly merit public commemoration. But they also reflect a particular view of what counts as “history” and what really matters about the past.
Yet the history of the Commonwealth has always been more complicated than just the stories of great men, armed hostilities or frontier settlements. Kentuckians’ lives are affected by local people, places and events, just as much as by national figures or precedent-setting organizations.
Turning our focus to the less well-known women, men and events that shaped the history of the state reveals the past in a more realistic and diverse light. In recent years, the historical marker program has grown and expanded to reflect that reality.
The marker to the Garden Club of Lexington is a perfect example. For more than a century, the women of the Garden Club have taken an active role in the community, providing tangible benefits that brighten people’s lives from their very first project of planting trees along Richmond Road. Their work has only expanded over the decades and their efforts have improved the quality of life in Lexington.
This is not the kind of history that typically ends up in textbooks, but it is the type of history that affects people’s lives. And this history also deserves official commemoration. The marker to the Garden Club, along with hundreds of other recent markers, to people like Ora Frances Porter and Vertner Woodson Tandy, groups including the Cherokee of Kentucky and the Pine Mountain Settlement School, and topics such as slave markets and desegregation, is an encouraging sign that the Commonwealth is moving toward a more comprehensive and realistic public commemoration of our past.
Most encouraging is the fact that these changes have taken place through collaboration with local communities. The modern iteration of the historical marker program relies on nominations, research and funding from the community to determine what topics deserve markers. This aspect of the program really struck home for me at Henry Clay’s Ashland estate talking to the women from the Garden Club behind the marker. I can’t wait to seeing more of Kentucky’s rich history commemorated.
(Editor’s Note: Andrew took over the management of the Kentucky Historical Marker program this summer.)