In 1988 when I moved to Kentucky and registered to vote, the clerk laughed when I expressed my preference to register as an “independent.” Intrigued by his reaction but – considering a glued-on bumper I’d recently spotted that read, “Never mind how you did it up North” – I didn’t inquire about his reaction.
Shortly after, a new friend from western Kentucky brought me up to date. “If you want to have a say in who gets elected,” he said, “you have to register as a Democrat and vote in the primaries.”
Since that orientation to my new Kentucky home thirty-four years ago, I have seen a sea change away from almost everything – Democratic politics. Today, the Republican über alles now extends to the extent that a number of political contests have no Democrats running. In other words, “blue dogs” and donkeys need not apply.
The cover design of George Humphreys’ meticulously researched new book, “The Fall of Kentucky’s Rock,” is a captivating depiction of Western Kentucky’s isolation from the rest of the state. Against a red and blue background, Kentucky’s white silhouette is nearly bisected by a red crack. The connection between the western part and the rest is hanging by a thread.
In the preface, Dr. Humphreys explains that the area’s history is underestimated because its historiography draws heavily “on events and people in central and eastern Kentucky”.
It amplifies the point with a geographic, economic, and historical overview that provides context for various, sometimes conflicting, definitions of the region.
Like the story of the blind man and the elephant, western Kentucky is viewed in many ways. For some, loyalty to the Confederacy defines the region; for others, it is the production of black tobacco, the Jackson Purchase, the coalfields of the region.
According to Penny Miller’s analysis of Kentucky politics, the region is united by a commitment to the “virtue of rural living.”
The state motto, “United we stand, divided we fall”, is a matter of opinion and, according to Humphreys, most scholars agree “there needs to be more precision in defining areas of the Commonwealth”. .
From this framework of ambiguity, readers of “The Fall of Kentucky’s Rock” are guided chronologically through the phases of the region’s demise, beginning with the New Deal. This era began when rural electrification was in its infancy and indoor plumbing was scarce on the farm. Dirt roads and the lack of bridges made travel difficult. With the economy spiraling as the Depression set in, banks failed, people were out of work.
Madisonville’s Ruby Laffoon was elected governor, backed by support from western Kentucky newspapers and enthusiastic endorsement from Alben Barkley in her hometown of Paducah. The pair jumped on the Franklin D. Roosevelt bandwagon, with Barkley delivering a speech at the Democratic convention in Chicago asking his cohorts to “remove from the body of our nation the dead flesh and rotten bones resulting from twelve years of quackery.” republican”.
“The Fall of Kentucky’s Rock” is rich in nuggets of information and memorable quotes like Barkley’s. In the chapter “From the Great Ohio River Flood to the Atomic Age”, readers learn that FDR’s inauguration occurred as the massive flood of 1937 ravaged the Ohio River Valley. With snow and ice hampering rescue efforts, approximately 30,000 western Kentucky residents were evacuated to nearby towns.
Paducah’s civil authority has collapsed, according to a Feb. 1 editorial in the Paducah Sun-Democrat: “Kentucky’s second-largest industrial city is no longer a city, but a complicated arrangement of small islands of homes, shops , churches and office buildings. protruding miserably from the edge of endless miles of murky brown water.
A section of historical photographs in the center of the book allows readers to put faces and names together. An eye-catching example features former Governor Wendell Ford of Owensboro with Governor Happy Chandler. Smiling in delight, the two keep a fake diary with the headline “Democrats Nominate ‘Happy’ for President”, a dream that never came true.
White male faces predominate, except for an image of DH Anderson, president of the West Kentucky Industrial College, which provided vocational training for blacks in the Paducah area during the Jim Crow era.
“Happy Days and the Last Hooray of State Democratic Party Factionalism,” analyzes Kentucky mid-century. A study titled “Program of Action for Kentucky”, which had strong input from western Kentucky, said that by the early 1940s, Kentucky “had seen some sorry days”.
Despite advances in education, conservation of natural resources, and improved infrastructure, the 1950 census reflected population stagnation “with only the counties of Calloway, Christian, Daviess, Graves, Henderson, Hopkins, Logan , McCracken, Simpson and Warren reporting gains since 1940”.
“The Fall of Kentucky’s Rock” quotes a 1998 article by journalist Al Smith, reflecting on the place of Western Kentucky in Kentucky life and politics. Smith explained that despite the region’s feeling of being neglected and isolated, Western Kentucky had “delivered large Democratic majorities, for which it was richly rewarded with gubernatorial positions and more than its share of leaders.” state legislators and US senators. These posts are also accompanied by public roads, state parks, and state institutions.
As the 21st century dawned, the region’s influence as the Gibraltar of Kentucky’s democracy stagnated. The last page of “The Fall of Kentucky’s Rock” provides food for thought on the past and future of the area. With the final shift to the Republican Party, one might ponder the statement that “west Ky hasn’t reaped the harvest of Frankfort or Washington yet.”
Moreover, Humphreys points out, there is currently no political leader comparable to Democrats Alben Barkley, Happy Chandler, Earle Clements, Ned Breathitt or Wendell Ford.
“The Fall of Kentucky’s Rock” ends with speculation about the leadership vacuum that must be filled “so that Western Kentucky can move forward to meet the very serious challenges of revitalizing the economy. .and create opportunities to discourage further youth emigration.”
Published by University Press of Kentucky, “The Fall of Kentucky’s Rock” should be in every Commonwealth library, in the hands of educators committed to exploring Commonwealth history, and on everyone’s reading lists. interested in understanding how a once strong Democratic voting bloc turned into a conservative stronghold.