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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Richard Taylor’s new book explores history, inhabitants of Elkhorn Creek

Richard Taylor, a professor of English and Kenan Visiting Writer at Transylvania University, explores the natural history, early inhabitants, and commerce along an eight-mile stretch of the main stem of the Bluegrass Region’s most esteemed waterway in his new book Elkhorn: Evolution of a Kentucky Landscape, published by University Press of Kentucky.

Paul Sawyier (1865-1917) was an American impressionist who created about 3,000 paintings in his lifetime, many of which were scenes of Frankfort, Elkhorn Creek and the Kentucky River. Shown here is: Reflections of Elkhorn Creek. (Image provided)

Focusing on the stretch of creek from Forks of the Elkhorn to Knight’s Bridge, Taylor blends 40 years of living along Elkhorn Creek where he restored a 19th century historic home, into a superb, diverse portrait of this beloved region, while providing a glimpse into the economic, social, and cultural transformation of Kentucky from pre-settlement.

To paddle down Elkhorn Creek is to experience a canopy of sycamore trees overhead on long silent pools, wide shallow riffles, surprising rapids, old millworks, dams, and rocky palisades. The pastoral charm of the Elkhorn Creek valley has not changed much and that’s a big part of its inviting serenity — a stream that meanders through flat, fertile bottomland fields flanked by wooded hills. It’s classic Bluegrass scenery. There are glimpses of a bourbon whiskey distillery, fields of burley tobacco, and cattle and horse farms.

The second largest tributary to the Kentucky River, Elkhorn empties into the Kentucky eight miles north of Frankfort, and its two forks and main stem drain the rich land of the Bluegrass Region in four counties — Fayette, Scott, Woodford and Franklin.

The stream’s excellent fishing has captivated generations of anglers and inspired local craftsmen Jonathan and Ben Meek, and B. C. Milam, working as jewelers and watchmakers in Frankfort, to create handmade multiplying baitcasting reels that revolutionized bass fishing in America.

Sawyier’s The Fisherman was one of about 3000 paintings created during his lifetime depicting scenes of Frankfort, Elkhorn Creek and the Kentucky River. (Image provided)

Taylor recounts the Elkhorn Valley’s pre-history inhabitants, Native Americans who left behind flint spear points and stone tools, and early surveyors Hancock Taylor, and brothers Robert and James McAfee, who first came to the region in 1773, and surveyed what was to become Frankfort.

What was the origin of Elkhorn Creek’s name? That’s up to conjecture. Some believe it’s because the stream basin looks like elk antlers on explorer John Filson’s 1784 “Map of Kentucky.”

Taylor delves into the life of Judge Harry Innes, a Virginian who immigrated to Kentucky, built a home on Elkhorn Creek and was appointed the first judge of the US Court for the District of Kentucky. Innes received many notable visitors at his residence including former vice president Aaron Burr, Kentucky’s first senator, John Brown and Governors Isaac Shelby and James Garrard.

Just downstream from Forks of the Elkhorn was a community of workers for Frankfort’s first industrial complex, which included a grist, lumber and paper mill, powered by Elkhorn ’s steady flow of water.

One chapter is devoted to Paul Sawyier (1865-1917), an American impressionist, who created about 3,000 paintings in his lifetime, many of which were scenes of Frankfort, Elkhorn Creek and the Kentucky River.

In praise of Elkhorn: Evolution of a Kentucky Landscape, Marc Evans, board chair of the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, wrote: “I have lived in the beautiful Elkhorn Creek valley for over 30 years and thought I knew a lot about it. But when I read Richard Taylor’s new book, my eyes were opened by its colorful and fascinating history and major impact it had on the development of modern Kentucky. Taylor takes the reader on a wonderful journey through both the natural and cultural history of Elkhorn Creek, weaving in the physical, psychological, philosophical and sometimes spiritual, impact Elkhorn Creek had, and still has, on its inhabitants.”

The 312- page 6 by 9-inch hardcover book, has 33 photographs and two maps. The publication date is September 21. To buy online visit: www.kentuckypress.com

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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