Dr. Thomas D. Clark, Kentucky’s most eminent historian, wrote that Kentuckians “have established their place in history decade by decade, and incident by incident, always with the winds of change blowing strongly in their faces.”
An apt assessment of a pioneer people who, once having gained a toehold in wilderness territory, slowly but inexorably carved out their society.
Creation of Kentucky was never easy and not always noble. It involved backbreaking labor, including that of enslaved people, and the daily hardship intrinsic to frontier life. It also involved armed conflict against and the forced displacement of American Indians, the original Kentuckians.
But early on, there were Kentuckians who sensed that they were making history and recognized the importance of preserving it.
So, in 1836, a handful of the young state’s prominent men, decided to organize the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS), whose duty it would be “to collect and preserve authentic information and facts connected with the early history of the State.”
The Kentucky Historical Society Begins
Their shared vision would be accomplished only in fits and starts. There were two incorporations – in 1838 and again in 1896 – and extended periods of dormancy, followed by more revival and reorganization. In 1906, KHS secured funding from the General Assembly for the first time, and the vision took hold for good.
Equally important was the leadership and intrepid advocacy of two women – Jennie Chinn Morton and Sarah Jouett Taylor Cannon – who between them directed the finally constituted society through its first 50 years – 1897 to 1946.
Morton, a poet and active prohibitionist from Franklin County, had spearheaded a conclusive revival of the society in 1896 after a seven-year period of inactivity in which annual meetings were suspended, the society’s rooms in the Capitol were taken over by Gov. John Young Brown and its collection placed in storage.
With the support of her fellow members in a local literary society, the Frankfort Lyceum, and the Frankfort Society of Colonial Daughters, which she had founded, Morton gained the approval of Brown’s successor, Gov. William O. Bradley, to end the society’s suspension.
KHS officially, and for the final time, reorganized on June 7, 1897. Morton was elected secretary-treasurer, the equivalent of director. John Andrew Steele, a state representative from Woodford County, was elected vice-president. Governor Bradley served as president ex officio, as had previous governors. It was Bradley’s idea to gather portraits of each Kentucky governor. Later, they would hang together with interpretive information in the Hall of Governors in the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History, the KHS headquarters.
A New Outlook for Kentucky History
From the outset, Morton, serving without pay, as did her fellow officers, set the society on a course for permanency. She succeeded where predecessors had failed – for example, winning state financial support for the printing of society publications. In January 1903 she founded the Register of the Kentucky State Historical Society and served as its first editor.
Morton devoted herself to writing and editing articles for the Register, running the society and lobbying state politicians for funding. In 1906, Gov. J.C.W. Beckham persuaded the Kentucky Legislature to appropriate $5,000 for the society’s operation, and it has received state funding since.
1920 saw two watershed developments for KHS: the Old State Capitol became its permanent home, and Jennie Chinn Morton died.
But another capable leader arose. Sarah Jouett Taylor Cannon assumed the director’s post and guided the society through a critical period in which some people again questioned its funding and purpose. For the next 26 years, she proved to be a dogged and capable advocate, beating back proposals to abolish the society or consolidate it within other state agencies. Since 1954, the society has been an independent agency of state government while remaining a nonprofit membership organization.
Through the years, the KHS story has been one of continuous growth, burgeoning collections and increased scope of mission. “Kentucky Ancestors,” a genealogy quarterly, was launched in 1965 amid a surge in interest in family history. In 1974, KHS expanded into the Old Capitol Annex, and the Kentucky Military History Museum opened in the former State Arsenal building. KHS also professionalized the areas of museum and library management by hiring people educated as curators and archivists.
Growth and Change in the Kentucky Historical Society
By the 1980s, however, KHS was bursting at its seams. The vast majority of its collection was stored in a converted whiskey warehouse – out of public view. A campaign to fund a new home for Kentucky history began in 1991 under a new director, Dr. James C. Klotter, and with the support of Gov. Brereton Jones and first lady Libby Jones.
The Legislature in 1995 approved $2 million for planning, site acquisition and design; and a $17.5 million bond issue for its construction. Later that year, Gov. and Mrs. Jones and Dr. Thomas Clark, with others, broke ground for the society’s new home – a 167,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art museum, research library, offices and other facilities – in downtown Frankfort. The following year, Toyota Motor Co. and its Toyota Motor Manufacturing assembly plant in nearby Georgetown donated $1 million toward construction and unveiled the center’s architectural drawing. The Kentucky History Center opened to the public on April 10, 1999.
Honoring a True Kentucky Leader
No one was a more avid advocate of the new building or followed the progress of its construction more closely than Dr. Clark, Kentucky historian laureate for life, who was 94 at its opening. On July 14, 2005, two weeks after Dr. Clark’s death and on what would have been his 102nd birthday, Gov. Ernie Fletcher presided as the building’s name was changed from the Kentucky History Center to the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History.
“Like Thomas Clark, we recognize that Kentuckians continually add to their history, with each day a new page,” then - KHS Executive Director Kent Whitworth said. “Therefore, the Kentucky Historical Society will forge ahead in its mission to educate and engage the public through that history in order to meet the challenges of our future.”