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Anderson’s ‘Liquid Bluegrass’

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By Jay Cason

I occasionally receive a copy of the latest book authored by someone who has Kentucky connections. I’m an avid reader, so I usually read the book if the author is from Anderson County or if it seems potentially interesting.

During my six years with The Anderson News, I’ve perused and then written my impressions of about a couple dozen books that have been sent or dropped off at our office. Some were pretty good reads, some not so much.

Recently, I received one of the better ones in the mail.

“True Bluegrass Stories: History from the Heart of Kentucky,” by Tom Stephens, is a concise collection of stories that I believe most Kentuckians will find extremely informative and very entertaining.

For example, I didn’t realize that the Bluegrass Region encompasses 40 present-day counties that are labeled as “Outer Bluegrass,” or “Inner Bluegrass.” Inner Bluegrass includes Anderson County.

And I had no idea that the Major “Hot Lips Houlihan,” character of M*A*S*H the movie and TV series fame, is based on a real army nurse named Lt. Lelia Jeanette Jones from Estill County. Jones is described as “feisty and full of fight, despite her five-foot, three-inch height.”

I also didn’t realize that John Taliaferro Thompson, a native of Newport, invented the “Tommy Gun,” a hand-held machine gun made famous by 1920’s-era gangsters. He invented the weapon in 1898, after watching Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, armed with black powder rifles, get mowed down in Cuba by Spaniards equipped with Mauser repeaters and Maxim machine guns. 

While Anderson County doesn’t get a lot of coverage in the book, it is referenced in a couple of places, including the following passage from a chapter titled “Liquid Bluegrass.”

“Bourbon-making flourished in Kentucky, with thousands of distillers operating almost anywhere limestone water could be found. Irish immigrant James Ripy built upon his enterprise, in Tyrone, in Anderson County, until, by 1875, it was the largest ‘sour mash’ distillery in the United States.”

Other chapters include insights and little known facts about many Kentucky icons and institutions. Most interesting to me is a chapter on the origin of “The Oath.”

I’ve long wondered why the state’s constitution requires public office holders to swear that they have never fought a duel with deadly weapons, or served as a second in carrying a challenge for the purpose of setting up a duel.

Dueling is part of a Southern code of honor that was long considered to be a fair way to settle disputes among “gentlemen.”

Kentucky evidently was so accepting of the practice that the Great Compromiser, Henry Clay, fought two of them.

Evidently, dueling was so accepted that some antagonists would travel from other states to fight in Kentucky. One such duelist was U.S. President Andrew Jackson who traveled to fight a duel in Logan County, so as to avoid prosecution in his home state of Tennessee.

But attitudes started to change in 1849 after prominent Louisville lawyers and lifelong friends John Thompson Gray, Jr. and Capt. Henry C. Pope argued over a game of cards and fought a duel in which Gray shot and killed Pope with a shotgun. One year later, the present oath, which is required by virtually all elected officials and many other public servants, became part of the state constitution where it continues to be in effect to this day.

“True Bluegrass Stories” is an easy read of 125 pages, many of which are illustrated with period paintings or photographs. I recommend it highly, especially for those interested in learning more about some our state’s most interesting, but little-known history.

E-mail Jay Cason at jcason@theandersonnews.com.