Earth Healing The Health of the Bluegrass Is The Triangle Really Golden

The Health of the Bluegrass:
Is the Triangle Really Green?

Published by Earth Healing in cooperation with
EcoPerspectives, a project of Earth Island Institute



Cultural Losses

            Losses of historic and cultural significance have occurred in both the inner and outer Bluegrass region.  In fact, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) named the Inner Bluegrass to its 2006 list of the one hundred most endangered cultural sites in the world.  In the announcement of the listing, the WMF stated, “The inner Bluegrass Region of Kentucky is one of the world’s most distinctive cultural and agricultural landscapes.  Over the past decade, however, the Bluegrass Region has been threatened by rapid development, primarily suburbanization . . . . The result is substantial loss of rural farmland, compromising sense of place, undermining traditional industries such as horse breeding, and endangering historic structures” (1).

         The nomination to the list was made by the Bluegrass Conservancy, the Bluegrass Trust for Historic Preservation, the Kentucky Heritage Council, and the University of Kentucky College of Design, working together.  They have since developed an exhibit “The Vanishing Bluegrass,” which they displayed in 2007 at the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville. They hope to show the exhibit in Lexington and in other Bluegrass locations, but doing so will demand funds that, as of June 2008, they did not have available.  Because of lack of funds, they have also been able to make little headway towards compiling a database of natural and cultural features of the Bluegrass, the first step that they envisaged towards preservation.

            Going beyond the WMF’s statement, a close look at the region would show a host of cultural losses, in part because there was much to lose.  The Bluegrass was the earliest settled portion of the Commonwealth and thus has a long post-settlement history.  Both urban and rural areas have suffered.  Historic urban areas have been marred or destroyed by redevelopment.  Rural areas have suffered, in addition to loss of natural features, abandoned homesteads, loss of dry stone structures, neglect of barns, widening of country roads, near total disappearance of covered bridges. What makes the Inner and the Outer Bluegrass unique is indeed vanishing through haste, modernity, and the loss of the sense of the past.

            Even battlefield sites do not receive the respect that should be accorded them.  The Revolutionary War site at Bluelicks in Robertson County is commemorated by the 148-acre Bluelicks Battlefield State Resort Park.  The park has been told that the battlefield site is ineligible for the National Register of Historic Places because of development on the grounds, including a lodge complex, but as a result of discoveries from archeological work at the location in 2008, the park will reapply to be on the Register (2). The Civil War Preservation Trust has placed the site of the Civil War Battle of Perryville in Boyle County on its 2008 list of the Ten Most Endangered [Civil War] Battlefields  in the United States.  Already 650 acres of the site have been permanently protected, but development and proposed development along the US 150 corridor between Perryville and Danville, land on which the battle was fought, threatens the site’s integrity.  The Trust regards Perryville as especially worth preserving, as it is “one of the most pristine Civil War battlefields in the country” (3).  The site of the Civil War Battle of Richmond, between Richmond and Berea, is on the trust’s 2008 list of “15 Additional Sites at Risk.”  Again development surrounding a transportation corridor is a threat (4). 

Other land areas needing special attention include old Afro-American communities created after the Civil War.  Only a few of the original buildings, if any, remain at most of these sites today:  Jonestown (Fayette County), Brentsville (Bourbon County), Huntertown (Woodford County) among many others.  Visitors to Fort Spring west of Lexington, for example, find only a cemetery and a church.   There they do, at least, stand on a vantage point from which countryside as well as Versailles Road can still be seen.

Often even when buildings are preserved, they are preserved without enough of the surrounding landscape or streets to give a sense of what the people who lived or worked in the buildings actually experienced.  Ward Hall in Scott County has been saved from development, along with forty acres of land, but a subdivision will be built around the forty acres.  The state of Kentucky has beautifully preserved Waveland, a Greek Revival home, on two hundred acres of lawns and woods.  Visitors leaving the estate, however, are too quickly plunged back into the twenty-first century. Going left they shortly come to Nicholasville Road, one of the main arteries out of Lexington. Going right they pass electrical equipment and then come across a crowded housing development.  When built, Waveland was on a 2000-acre tract of land. 

            The cities in the Bluegrass are struggling to revitalize their downtowns without destroying their cultural heritage.  To the extent that Lexington is any indication, the forces of no-holds-barred development are in the ascendancy.  In June, 2008, the Lexington Courthouse Area Design Review Board, which is responsible for encouraging “growth and development in the downtown area, while preserving and protecting the unique features and character of the area” (5) gave permission to the Webb Companies to begin demolishing buildings under the Board’s jurisdiction to make way for a thirty-five story hotel-office-condominium complex, Centrepointe.  Centrepointe will be built on the block that was once the commercial heart of the city.  Fourteen old buildings will eventually come down, twelve of them evaluated by the Kentucky Heritage Society as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.  The Design Review Board, in considering the Webb application, gave much weight to the cost of restoring the old buildings.  Could not the old buildings have been replaced, if replaced they had to be, with structures on a more human scale, reflecting aspects of the city’s history and culture?

            But the decision on Centrepointe should not come as a surprise.  The city destroyed, for example, a viable, diverse urban neighborhood in the 1970s to create the parking lot for the Lexington Civic Center.  Construction obliterated houses belonging to numerous members of historic Pleasant Green Baptist Church among others, and left the church looking oddly isolated on the edge of Maxwell Street across from the parking lot.       

            Numerous ante-bellum homes in rural communities have been abandoned especially since the mid-twentieth century, in part due to repair costs that were too expensive for struggling farm families or because of the high cost of heating, plumbing, and cooling these rather airy sprawling structures.  When properties changed hands through sales, the new owners in some cases had little sense of the history of the place.  “Placentia,” a historic home of the great grandparents of author Al Fritsch had once entertained General Lafayette on his triumphant 1820s trip to America.  Even such a designation could not prevent this place from being destroyed to make way for a development in suburban Fayette County. 

According to the non-profit Dry Stone Conservancy “Kentucky is the premier example of the rich dry stone heritage of the United States.”   By “dry stone” is meant stone structures built without mortar.  Kentuckians built from the native limestone, houses, farm buildings, churches, and kilns.  Today these structures are largely gone.  Many rock fences remain and are considered a characteristic of the Bluegrass Region, but, “they are disappearing at an alarming rate,” victims of development, road widening, and simply neglect.  Furthermore, few dry stone masons are available to repair them when necessary (6). 

Farm buildings likewise add to the flavor of the region.  The Bluegrass prior to the Civil war was once a major hemp growing region.  Few barns for processing hemp have survived, although one stands at a corner of Iron Works Pike near the Kentucky State Horse Park. The region later became famous for burley tobacco “raising” and this gave two unique structures: tobacco barns and tobacco warehouses. 

The tall tobacco barns were generally built on open hill tops to facilitate tobacco curing, and they contained rails for hanging stalks of the harvested tobacco.  The demise of the tobacco economy since the turn of this century has led to the abandonment of many of these structures.  Some have been recycled for storage of hay, equipment and produce or for use as commercial places and even residences.  However, recycling is somewhat difficult because the barns were large and airy (with siding not fitting closely together and many air vents and doors), and targets of lightning, due to their position on elevated land.

Tobacco warehouses were used until a few years ago for auctioning off the loose leaf burley tobacco.  The need for natural lighting for the grading and sales led to sprawling structures often near the heart of towns and this included the major sales place in Lexington.  In that city and elsewhere the warehouses stood on valuable urban property and thus they have increasingly become the target of developers who have torn them down to make way for town houses and other commercial ventures.  Some have been recycled into factories, dance halls, radio stations, craft and arts centers and other facilities.  However, the cheap construction of many warehouses has sealed their fate.    

Country roads meandered through rural areas of the Bluegrass.  These were often tree lined, and the canopy formed a green arch to protect travelers from the hot summer days when the macadamized roads could become quite dusty.  Later generations called for more durable tar surfacing and then, with a few crosses sprouting at hairpin turns, the roads were widened and curves removed to accommodate faster moving motor vehicles.  With each addition, the roads lost some of their scenic beauty and so did the entire atmosphere of the Bluegrass countryside.

Covered bridges on country roads were once quite frequent in the Buffalo Trace and other parts of the Bluegrass. When the first author was young, there were twenty-two of these, but at the latest count this number had dropped to thirteen (7), as the others have succumbed to needed repairs, floods, road widening, and simply aging.   Most likely a reason for covered bridges was that the horses were not as hesitant to trot through a covered bridge as to go over an open one.  The bridge offered temporary shelter for travelers and the roofing protected the wood works quite well, but the relics of those other days later lost their significance.

Some restoration is already proceeding in a number of Bluegrass towns and villages.  The Buffalo Trace region, which stood out prominently in the early settlement of Kentucky, presents positive examples that other areas would do well to follow.  Four miles from the Ohio River is Old Washington, Kentucky, founded in 1775 in what is now Mason County.  Today this is an excellent example of local people working together on a significant preservation project.  They restored many of the original buildings along the main street, after U.S. 68/62 was moved one block to the west.  This town now has a log bank, post office and other examples of the early settlement homes along with museums and other sites of historic interest.  Now including this site is Maysville (formerly Limestone), the heart of which includes a number of historic residences with New Orleans type ironwork.  To the west also along the Ohio River is Augusta in Bracken County that has its own riverside architecture going back almost two centuries.

                                                                                     --Al Fritsch and Mary Byrd Davis

1.  Quoted in Linda S. Blackford, “Bluegrass Put on Watch List,” Lexington Herald-Leader, June 22, 2005, p. A8.

2. Paul Tierney, Park Naturalist, Bluelicks Battlefield State Resort Park, Personal communication, July 17, 2008.  

3. Civil War Preservation Trust, “Perryville,” available online at, accessed July 12, 2008.

4. “15 Additional Sites at Risk,” available online at, accessed July 12, 2008.

5. “Development Misses Point,” Lexington Herald-Leader, June 25, 2008, p. A12.

6. Dry Stone Conservancy, [Home Page of Web Site],

7. “Kentucky Covered Bridges,” in Kentucky Atlas and Gazeteer, online at, accessed May 2, 2008.


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