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Kentucky by Heart: Although the stage has changed, Lexington History Museum’s ‘encore’ plays on

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune Columnist

When the Lexington History Museum “left the building” in 2012, there were many who figured there would be no encore. That looked to be true when the funding soon began to dry up.

But the encore did come, and it’s still playing to a highly receptive audience, even though the stage has changed.

“We went through the seven stages of grief; we came through it realizing we didn’t need a ten thousand square feet to tell our story,” said Foster Ockerman, Jr., the president and chief historian of the Lexington History Museum.

I recently sat down with Foster, who is also a long-time attorney in the Lexington area and an author of numerous books, mostly of local history emphasis. I wanted to find out the status of the museum’s work after it, along with other tenants, had to abandon the town’s Old Fayette County Courthouse because of environmental hazards caused by lead paint dust.

Foster Ockerman, Jr.

Foster’s responses to my questions showed unabashed enthusiasm, and I’ll share what he said. But I got even more in our over ninety-minute interview… interesting tidbits from Lexington’s past from a captivating storyteller.

After leaving the courthouse, a place had to be found for the collections. A board member donated free warehouse space, and some items were stored in people’s garages and spare bedrooms. Free office space was found for a place to run the program. There was a desperate search for a new exhibit hall, but “ten-thousand square feet and tall ceilings downtown are hard to find,” Foster said.

But maybe such a large building would not be needed.

“So we came up with the idea of ‘pocket museums,’” he said. That would consist of an exhibit in the lobby of an office building that the landlord or management company would display. At one point the number of pocket museums got up to fourteen. “And we’d periodically rotate the exhibits so people coming in and out of the buildings could see them.”

But that was only a start, not the complete answer. In March 2016, with interest in the museum waning even amongst its supporters, Foster described a board meeting where “six people showed up… but only because dinner was served.” The modest event became a game-changer, however. “Bill Ambrose, our treasurer, said: ‘We need to do something dramatic or admit we can’t do this in our generation,’” recalled Foster. “One-half hour later I agreed to scale down my law practice and agreed to a contract (as part-time president of Lexington History Museum) for six months.”

Foster still holds that position today, and he is passionate about what he and the many supporters of the museum offer the community. For one, the mission statement has been simplified with a concise: “We tell Lexington’s story to everyone… every way.”

There are currently four pocket museums available for “foot tours” scattered around town. One can access a 3-D virtual tour on the web site with topics such as “Our Fair City” and “Horse Racing in Lexington.” A speaker series at the library branches is popular. Also, an extensive series of well-vetted historical narratives are available called WikiLex, and for teachers and students, there is a wide choice of educational resources.

Additionally, some exciting new ventures are happening or are on the horizon for the Lexington History Museum, explained Foster.

One is called the “Lexington Pandemic Project,” and Foster said the museum is collecting comments about personal experiences, and in some cases, mementos from the current Covid-19 pandemic. It’s an effort to help future researchers have primary sources to better understand this compelling period of history. Well over four thousand responses have come via mostly email. He shared some examples.

“I’ve got a five-page essay from a woman who has been in lockdown in Mayfair Manor (in Lexington) before March 6 and since and the good fortune they’ve had in having no cases, but they can’t go to the dining room,” he said. “One couple was days away from their final divorce hearing when the courts shut down, and the courts just opened up on June 1.” Pictures of empty paper product shelves and no meat in grocery stores have been submitted, and Foster also noted finding such information as “two retired women making masks.”

He indicated that in the case that specific parts of the population were not covered in the responses, there would be interviews scheduled to complete the project.

In another initiative, a “fifty-thousand-feet categorization” of stored museum items is now in progress, according to Foster, and that should be a boon for more ideas to implement going forward. Those include plans for a Kentucky History Trail set up aside the Bourbon Trail and Craft Beer Trail. “We will ‘team up’ a string of local house and community museums and actually have a trail that you can go down and, at the end of the day, send us your passport and we’ll send you a T-shirt,” he said. “The wellhead of the trail is the Adam Rankin House in Lexington on South Mill Street.”

Adam Rankin House (Photo from Pinterest)

Significantly, the museum will be moving its office, storage, and work areas to three rooms on the top floor of the Adam Rankin House, originally built in 1784 and reported to be the oldest standing building left in the city. Exhibits will adorn the first floor and a proposed Lexington District Room will be located in the east parlor room, where, Foster said “increments of four-feet will cover a timespan.” The landmark is located two blocks from the Civic Center, easily accessible for tourists and other downtown visitors.

Foster is hosting the Doug High’s Chronicles: Kentucky History Magazine programs on KET 3, and he is excited. “Our topics are sixty minutes, five or six an hour spread across two hundred and fifty years. My goal is if we can do this enough times we can disassemble the shows and put them back together in chronological order.” The museum has also reached an agreement with Lexington’s Radio Eye, a program for Kentucky’s visually impaired, to record his History of Lexington book.

Another endeavor underway is the establishment of The Lexington History Press. “We’ll be doing video, audio, and print publications,” Foster said. “There are three prongs to it. One is to go back to Winston Coleman, Jr.-era pamphlets that are mostly out of copyright now and republish them. The second is to provide a vehicle for local historians whose work is not big enough to attract the attention of commercial history companies or university presses. The third is to start a high school essay a contest, where one would enter by Christmas of their junior year and it would be awarded in the spring.” That schedule would allow for use of the award in the college application process.

An ”ambitious” goal, according to Foster, is to help develop supplementary materials for Kentucky’s K-12 social studies curriculum.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

In our ninety-minute plus interview, Foster shared a number of titillating stories from Lexington’s past. I was amazed. He has certainly done his homework, and he has a storyteller’s ability to put “skin” on the facts of history, something he likens to “connecting the dots” of pure and varied research.

He told a riveting account of how former Lexington mayor Foster Pettit changed the course of the area’s history when he and his government council stopped the proposed path of Interstate 64 through the heart of the city in the early 1970s. If not for Pettit’s leadership, noted Foster, the results meant “wiping out the core of the town and the whole city would have moved south.” Wow!

He also shared that recently with the help of a friend, Foster did research on the mystery of where the “Clay’s Mill” of Clay’s Mill Road was, finding that it was located in Jessamine County with a road leading from there to Lexington.

And what about the famous “madam” of Lexington, Belle Brezing? Well, let’s just say that Foster explained that she had wide-ranging connections around town and that ironically, her work may have saved quite a few marriages. Interestingly, an insurance company, he said, termed her houses of ill repute as “female boarding” houses in order to avoid the embarrassment and backlash to their business.

He shared a story about the reasons that he thought the iconic Henry Clay “was a better horse breeder than politician,” as Clay organized a successful breeding syndicate after buying a high-performing horse in Virginia and having it “walked through the Cumberland Gap and down the Wilderness Road to Lexington.”

One of his historical anecdotes offered was about a product, Burrows Lexington Mustard, that was developed in about 1810 in Lexington. Burrows, the entrepreneur, said Foster, developed a recipe for mustard that “would not go sour in the heat and humidity of the South.” The product was a bit hit in large cities all around America during the period, and the museum plans to sell a facsimile product with that name in its gift shop.

And there is plenty more I could share except for time and space, but just know that Foster Ockerman Jr.’s enthusiastic imprint is all over the work of the Lexington History Museum, and he and those faithfully involved would love to make it a part of your personal historical/cultural enrichment.

For more information, contact the museum via email info@lexhistory.org, visit the web site http://lexhistory.org/ or the Facebook page Lexington History Museum.

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