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The Image of a Kentucky Colonel

The fifth post by Casey Castro-Bracho in the From the Archive blog series. Check back on the second and fourth Wednesday of every month for more from this series! The Honorable Order of the Kentucky Colonels collection at the Kentucky Historical Society is one of our collections that will likely spark some name recognition for many Kentuckians. Most often, the image of a Kentucky Colonel is associated with Colonel Harlan Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken or a similar image of an Old South-style Colonel in a string tie and drinking a mint julep at the Kentucky Derby. While the imagery is familiar, most are not aware of the organization associated with the Kentucky Colonels, the Honorable Order of the Kentucky Colonels (HOKC). The HOKC is a charitable organization that supports numerous altruistic causes across the state and nation. The history of the Kentucky Colonels can be traced back to the early years of Kentucky’s statehood.
1985 Colonels BBQ Button
Appointed by Kentucky governors, Colonels were originally a type of support role as members of the governor’s staff. The title of Colonel began to shift to more of an honorary position by the 20th century. By the 1930’s, the conversation around the title of Colonels moved towards an interest in creating a social group for Kentucky Colonels, and in 1932, the Honorable Order of the Kentucky Colonels was formed. The HOKC quickly established itself as a well-known organization renowned for its charitable giving and events, including annual barbeques and Derby parties. The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels does not actually commission Kentucky Colonels. Instead, that power remains with the current Kentucky governor, as it has since Isaac Shelby’s administration. Currently there is an application filed with the governor’s office in Frankfort that allows people to submit nominations for a person to become a Kentucky Colonel. The HOKC collection at KHS contains glamourous elements of Kentucky Colonel events such as Derby Day parties, but it also contains correspondence between the organization and Colonels around the world. Also within this collection are photographs depicting individual Colonels, celebrations, and charity events. Newspaper clippings and correspondence also highlight the role of members of the HOKC in these events. We can also get a sense of the impact of the Colonels through some of its surveys. In these surveys, HOKC members answer questions about what it means to be a Colonel, their favorite drink, and “what this country needs most,” (to which many respondents in the 1940s replied “a good 5 cent cigar.”) Much of the correspondence within the HOKC collection deals with the conferring of titles and enrollment of Colonels within the charitable HOKC organization. After becoming a Colonel through the governor’s office (which some of the recipients seem unaware that they had been nominated in their letters), many Colonels obtain a membership with the HOKC. This social club would provide news and merchandise relating to the Colonels, as well as solicit donations for charitable causes, and inform Colonels of upcoming social events.
Letter from Mae West to HOKC
An article from The Atlanta Constitution writes, “The Colonels are primarily a charitable organization, but they have their good times too.” This seems to be a common perception about the HOKC organization. There is appeal for members surrounding the celebrity connections of the HOKC with stars such as Shirley Temple, Mae West, and George Clooney, but also political figures including Lyndon B. Johnson and Winston Churchill.  Even Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II hold the Kentucky Colonel distinction. While parties and events promote Colonel comradery, the branding of the Kentucky Colonels organization provides a successful way to ensure interest for new persons looking to become Kentucky Colonels. Both of these also make for a sound marketing strategy for soliciting donations from old members of the HOKC. Brochures in the collection list a wide range of Kentucky Colonels branded merchandise with items such as mugs, t-shirts, hats, insignia pins, and of course, mint julep cups.  Merchandise is yet another way for the organization to gather funds for charitable causes. Much of the early imagery and commentary found in the Kentucky Colonels collection (especially in the early and mid-20th century) harkens back to notions of the “Old South.” This is noticeable in the imagery of a Colonel - white suit and black string tie standing upon a great veranda enjoying a slow-paced life - as well as in some of the commentary on notable events held by the HOKC. One Louisville Courier-Journal article begins with a description of the 1969 annual barbeque held at Anna Friedman’s home:  “Looking like a travel poster for Kentucky” in his Colonels’ garb and handing out Confederate 50-dollar bills. The larger-than-life depiction of a Colonel seems to have been effective in drawing supporters to the idea of joining the HOKC. In addition to ideas of charity and hospitality, part of the mythos of the Colonels from this era seems to be connected to notions of Kentucky as a bygone of the genteel south. Of course, the imagery of a genteel Old South can obscure the reality of Jim Crow Kentucky by depicting a past glorifying the pre-Civil War plantation system, thereby minimizing or characterizing issues of slavery and race.
Colonel Decanter
As all collections reflect the persons who donated the items and the times in which they lived, so too is the HOKC collection a window into the organization and those involved in its work. Much of the HOKC collection was donated by Anna Friedman. Friedman proved to be an influential leader in the HOKC when she took over the duties of Keeper of the Great Seal. Friedman appears frequently in newspaper clippings in the MSS 251 collection in her role as the face of the HOKC organization. Clippings often note the many different charity events where she associated with the celebrities of Hollywood and leaders in the business world. After the death of her first husband Sam Friedman, “Colonel Anna” was remarried to Melvin Goldman in 1955 and continued her work with the HOKC for many years. While Anna Friedman Goldman was not the only contributor to the items in the HOKC collection at KHS, her influence over the items in the collection is clear. Our finding aid for MSS 251 the HOKC collection is a helpful tool for understanding the scope of the collection. We encourage anyone interested in learning more about our HOKC collection to come and view it at the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort. Sources: Holt, David. “Colonel’s Garb Grabs Limelight.” Courier-Journal. May 5, 1969. Honorable Order of the Kentucky Colonels collection, 1899-2016 [bulk 1930-2001], MSS 251, Kentucky Historical Society. The Honorable Order of the Kentucky Colonels. Accessed 02/10/2021. Wilkinson, Winifred. “When the Colonel’s a Lady—That’s News!” The Atlanta Constitution. February 12, 1950.

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