From Kentucky Public Radio’s Tony McVeigh:
The state budget approved by the 2005 Kentucky General Assembly included language naming the Kentucky History Center for Dr. Thomas Clark, the state’s beloved Historian Laureate. Senate budget chairman Charlie Borders was among those praising Clark. “I think every member of this body has a deep appreciation for Thomas Clark and what he has meant to the history of this commonwealth and what he means to all of us and the active leadership role he has provided to this commonwealth.
At the time, Dr. Clark, a native Mississippian who had spent a lifetime preserving, documenting and sharing Kentucky’s rich history, was 101 years old. He died a few months later, just shy of his 102nd birthday. But even in his final days, he was still touting the importance of the building that now bears his name. “I can think of no greater gift that this generation can give future generations than stabilizing and enriching the thrust of this institution.”
Since its construction in 1999, the Kentucky History Center has received more than one million visitors. Thirty-thousand school children crowd its exhibits annually. The 29-million dollar, 167-thousand square foot brick building in downtown Frankfort not only houses history, it’s surrounded by history. The Old Governor’s Mansion is behind it. The Old State Capitol is two blocks west. The building site itself is historic. “We installed a historic marker out front because Paul Sawyier, the renowned Kentucky artist’s family owned a home here.”
That’s Kent Whitworth of the Kentucky Historical Society, who took us on a tour of the facility, with its soaring atrium, grand staircase and huge terrazzo state map. There’s a portrait gallery of Kentucky governors, a changing exhibits area and a permanent gallery tracing the commonwealth’s history. “As you hear the birds chirp, you are walking into sort of a re-creation of the Cumberland Gap. Some 300-thousand people made their way into the Commonwealth of Kentucky” … following paths blazed by wild game, native Americans, and Daniel Boone. A long rifle possibly owned by Boone is on display at the museum, as is the bullet-torn coat worn by Governor William Goebel on the day he was assassinated. “He was shot outside the Old State Capitol. It’s a classic whodunit. To this day we really don’t know who shot Governor Goebel.”
Other exhibits trace the development of Kentucky’s rich musical heritage, its fascinating political history, its role in the Civil War and the bloody eras of nightriders, moonshiners and family feuds. It’s easy to find yourself lingering over the exhibits, as Eulanda Blevins and two friends from Louisville were doing. “People can come here and really learn about Kentucky and about their history. And it’s worth coming to see. It’s very enjoyable.” “I really enjoy coming and looking at old tools. I’m a collector of old tools myself.”
That’s Tom Crane of Denver, who was surprised to learn from one of the exhibits that President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis are both native sons of Kentucky. He thought Lincoln was from Illinois. Lots of people make that mistake. That’s why places like the Kentucky History Center are so important…to record and catalogue the facts, and artifacts, that tell the story of a certain place, a certain state and its people, and keep the record straight for future generations.