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Kentucky by Heart: Sharing some recently-discovered, fascinating facts about Kentucky

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune Columnist

Recently I came across some fascinating items to add to my personal list of things I didn’t know about Kentucky. I’m wondering if you were aware of them…

Luther Bridger (Photo courtesy umcdiscipleship.org)

• Those familiar with traditional gospel hymns likely know of the hymn, “There’s Within My Heart a Melody (aka “He Keeps Me Singing”.” I remember it from worship services from my childhood and sometimes today, and it appears to be an all-time favorite of many; the hymn has a catchy tune and hopeful message. But there’s also a sad story that happened in Kentucky regarding the songwriter, Luther Bridger.

Bridger, an evangelist, was preaching a revival in Middlesboro on March 26, 1911. His wife and three children of ages five, three, and seven months were staying with her parents in Harrodsburg, several hours away. Bridger received noticed after he preached that his family had perished in a fire where they stayed.

Many writers have connected the words to Bridger’s song to the tragedy, but according to hymnologist William Reynolds, the song was penned previously in 1910. Despite that, I suspect that the hymn brings many individuals solace as they meet life difficulties.

• Influential abolitionist and minister Henry Ward Beecher was asked after the Civil War about who he thought abolished slavery and he reportedly answered: “John Rankin and his sons did.” That’s a strong statement.

Rankin had a Kentucky connection, too.

Also, a minister was pressured out of Tennessee when he spoke strongly against slavery. He would later move to Ripley, Ohio, but Rankin transitioned thereby first settling at Carlisle, Kentucky, in 1817 where he became the minister at the Concord Presbyterian Church and stayed for four years. He found a good match with the members at Concord, as the congregation had been involved in anti-slavery activities since 1807. Ennobled by his support, Rankin started a school for slaves. Unfortunately, the project lasted only about a year when angry mobs drove students away.

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 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)

For Rankin, financial concerns spurred him to move his family onto Ripley, Ohio. There, he established a Presbyterian academy for boys, one which future president U.S. Grant attended. The Rankin family home also became a refuge for runaway slaves from across the river in Kentucky. Today, the Rankin House is a historic landmark. A film about Rankin’s heroic acts, called Brothers of the Borderland, is a feature at the National Underground Freedom Center, upriver from Ripley.

• Having grown up near Alexandria, in Campbell County, I found it exciting to discover that an acclaimed actress was born there (long after I left the area). Ciara Bravo, a 24-year-old actress, has accomplished a string of credits in her young life. Among those are several voice-overs, including ones on Playhouse Disney and Can You Teach My Alligator Manners? She acted in the Nickelodean television series, Big Time Rush and the Fox series, Red Band Society. She also had a small part in the movie, Angels & Demons.

All the best to this Campbell County gal.. make us proud!

• Ft. Thomas lawyer/author Paul Whalen published an informative political book in 2020 called Profiles of Kentucky’s United States Senators. I found some intriguing tidbits in his “First and Onlys” section. Here are a few. James Beck was the only foreign-born US senator from Kentucky (Scotland). John Stuart Williams was the only person to serve as a Confederate general prior to election to the US Senate from Kentucky. Alben Barkley was the only Kentucky US senator to serve in Congress during both world wars, serving in the House in WW I and the Senate during WW II. William O. Bradley was the only Kentucky US senator to die from injuries in a streetcar accident. I look forward to reading the entire book.

• Samuel Thomas Houser was born in Falmouth (Pendleton County) on January 10, 1833. He moved westward and became a big player in the development of the Montana Territory, including becoming the seventh governor of the Montana Territory, serving from 1885 to 1887. Interestingly, he made a fortune in the region in silver mines and railroads yet lost it in America’ Panic of 1893 during a four-year economic depression. Not one to quit, Hauser regained his fortune by building hydroelectric dams in the region—but alas, lost it again when his Hauser Dam broke.

Sophia Alcorn (Photo from wikipedia.org)

Oddly, Hauser reportedly engaged in fraud through his First National Bank of Helena yet was praised by one newspaper as “Montana’s greatest captain of industry, former chief executive, pioneer trailblazer, eminent financier, distinguished citizen and one of the choice and master spirits of the age.” History, ultimately, will judge the totality of Hauser’s life influences on society.

• According to the new book, Bluegrass Bold: Stories of Kentucky Women, the iconic Helen Keller’s ability to communicate though not able to hear or speak reminds one of the work of Kentuckian Sophia Alcorn, born in Stanford, in Lincoln County, in 1883.

Working at the Kentucky School for the Deaf, in Danville, she developed a method to teach two of her students, named Tad and Oma, to understand and speak without hearing or seeing. Alcorn named the technique the Tadoma Method (or Tadoma Tactile Sense Method), combining the names of the students.

Alcorn taught in several schools in America during her education career. She came back to her native Stanford after retiring and joined the Stanford Woman’s Club. She also became the first woman elder in the Stanford Presbyterian Church.

Sources: UMCdiscipleship.org; The Encyclopedia of Appalachia (University of Tennessee press, 2006); Profiles of Kentucky’s Senators (Acclaim Press, 2020); en.wikipedia.org; The Kentucky Encyclopedia (University Press of Kentucky, 1992); Bluegrass Bold: Stories of Kentucky Women (Butler Books, 2021)

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