The weather this last week has been perfectly warm and sunny which seemed a good sign for a trip north to Lexington, Kentucky. We had big plans involving bike riding down the Bluegrass Parkway and maybe even a little horseback riding since Lexington is famous for its horses. But as we pulled into the city we were hit with the last of the cold snaps complete with a few inches of snow. With our plans effectively canceled, we got online to find other options and what we found turned out to make for a fantastic weekend in this beautiful city.
Aviation Museum of Kentucky
Our first stop was at the Aviation Museum of Kentucky which is located right next to the Bluegrass Airport. This museum is made up of three different areas- a hanger about military aviation, a hanger about historical aviation, and finally an area outside where you can watch air shows of the different planes.
We began our tour in the military aviation hanger where we were met with a proud eagle standing as the gatekeeper to the hanger. This hanger is full of aircrafts that have been used by the military and really displays the features of the planes that have made them so vital in the work they were such a part of. Retired veterans serve as docents of the museum and they are walking around always ready to share what they know about these planes and their personal experiences in working with them.
One of the planes on display was the Grumman F-14 Tomcat that was first developed for the Naval Fighter Experimental program in the 1970s. These supersonic aircrafts were considered to be the navy’s premiere air superiority fighter and defense interceptor. But most people know these planes because they were made famous in the movie Top Gun. After that movie came out there was a record number of new enlistments into the U.S. Navy as hundreds of young men wanted to be the next Maverick.
There were two aircrafts that allowed visitors to sit in them and get a feel for what it must be like to fly them. This first plane is one that is used in flight training and is still carefully maintained and used in some of their simulations. Tessa thought this was the greatest part of the museum and we spent a lot of time in the plane and she prepared for a future in the skies.
The other aircraft that allowed you to take a seat was the military helicopter. With the crests of the different branches of the military behind it, the helicopter made a statement among the planes. There was quite a line of people in fact queuing up for a turn to sit in the helicopter and push the buttons and listen to the creaking sound of the tail as the lever was pulled. But once we got in and sat down, I could understand the thrill of it even just being stationary.
The next hanger was more a historical look at aircrafts, engines, and the people who built them. The first plane you see in this hanger is a replica of the 1908 quadruplane built by Matthew Bacon Sellers II. Sellers was an American inventor who invented the retractable landing gear and later patented that design in 1911. He was good friends with the Wright Brothers and presidents Harding and Wilson. In 1915 he was appointed to the first Naval Consulting Board by Thomas Edison. And it was here in Kentucky that he had the first powered flight.
The hanger includes a number of civilian aircrafts and how the design of airplanes have changed over the years. It also features a number of engines that have been used in the planes. But if that is not enough, this hanger also has airplane simulators that are still used in flight training. Visitors can experience the simulator but you need to arrange to do this beforehand so that someone will be available to help with the set up.
Home of Mary Todd Lincoln
Next we visited the home of Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of President Abraham Lincoln. This house was built in 1806 and originally served as an inn until it was purchased by the Todd family in 1832. Mary’s father was a wealthy businessman and politician in Kentucky. Mary moved to Illinois to live with an older sister while she finished school. It was there that she met the man who would later become the President of the country.
President Lincoln was elected in 1860. While serving as First Lady, Mary was constantly at odds against popular opinion of the people. While she was a fierce supporter of her husband and the unified country he was trying to preserve, she also came from a border state where her father had owned slaves and some of her siblings had died in the Confederate army. She struggled with finding her place in the White House responsibilities, spoils-seeking solicitors, and baiting newspapers in a politically charged country. Already suffering with depression these added weights were at times too much to bear.
But then in 1865 the Civil War ended and it seemed that peace was finally theirs. That hopeful joy was short lived however when at an evening at the theater, her husband was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.
After the loss of President Lincoln, messages poured in from around the world to Mary. Even in her grief she tried to answer each letter personally. In response to a message from Queen Victoria, who had lost Prince Albert a few years previously, Mary Lincoln wrote “I have received the letter which Your Majesty has had the kindness to write. I am deeply grateful for this expression of tender sympathy, coming as they do, from a heart which from its own sorrow, can appreciate the intense grief I now endure.”
The following years for Mary Lincoln were difficult years. After the death of President Lincoln she moved back to Illinois to be with her children. The Lincoln’s had four sons but only one would outlive his parents. With the overwhelming grief of losing three children and her husband, Mary’s depression deepened into a mental breakdown and she was institutionalized for a few years. She later went to live back with her sister until her death in 1882.
It was so interesting to learn more about this First Lady of the Civil War and the heartaches she endured in the position she held and to see where her story began and to think about where her life would lead from there.
Downtown Lexington & the Central Library
The Home of Mary Todd Lincoln sits right on the edge of downtown so after visiting her home we went to see a little more of the city center. Lexington is the second largest city in Kentucky, but you would never guess that with such a low key downtown. The downtown seems much smaller and much more relaxed than other major cities.
The real draw to downtown however is at the Central Library. Upon entering the building the first thing you see is the pendulum keeping time with the movements of the earth while pictures of horses gallop around the space. On the ceiling are the numbers of a clock that circle the glass dome on top of the building. As we were standing there a man walked up and was telling us that he was part of the crew that built this incredible feature. He said that originally the pendulum would trigger a light in the clock above and it would exactly mark the correct time. The light feature was damaged however and they were never able to get it working again.
This is considered the largest ceiling clock in the world and it is absolutely mesmerizing to watch the slow and steady movement of time.
Kentucky Horse Park
You can’t come to Kentucky, Lexington especially, and not do something in the way of horses. This is horse country and everywhere you go you can see massive horse pastures. On the list of the city’s must see places, The Kentucky Horse Park always comes up. And so there we went.
The Kentucky Horse Park is an international equestrian competition venue and is home to the National Horse Center which is the headquarters for every equestrian organization in the country. But at the heart of the park is that it is a working horse farm where they care for and train horses from around the world. Outside are statues of the most famous horses that have come through these gates. One such statue was that of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat with his jockey Ron Turcotte.
The park is also where you can go to see the International Museum of the Horse which is an affiliate of the Smithsonian. The museum shows the history of horses and how they have been used in industry, war, and art through the ages. It was a really fascinating look at these incredible creatures and how they have been such a part of the world in so many different ways.
Most notably the museum is now home to the skeleton of thoroughbred racing horse Big Lex after its return from the Smithsonian in Washington DC. The horse Lexington was a supreme racing horse, being one of the first to be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1955. He was also considered the best siring horse for North America as any horse sired by Lexington also went on to be champion race horses. Big Lex became the icon of the city and is featured on the city’s flags and signs all over town.
After the museum we went to one of many horse barns at the park so we could meet some of the residents. The horses were so sweet as they nuzzled our hands wanting more attention. The trainers were there to answer questions about the horses and their training routines.
Of the horses there our favorite one was Brother Oh Brother, who just goes by Bro. He was the most curious and affectionate about us visiting him. We would pet his neck and he would make a soft humming sound and lean his head more into our hands. Bro has been training here for the last few years and is one of their star performers in competitions.
We were glad we got to experience the horses of Lexington. Tessa was a little disappointed at not getting to ride a horse, but maybe next time.
Besides horses, the other thing that Kentucky is known for is bourbon. Where Tennessee is whiskey country, Kentucky is bourbon country. And here in Lexington you can actually take the Bourbon Trail that takes you to the different distilleries where you can see the process in action. Just off of downtown is the Distillery District which houses half of those listed on the Bourbon Trail. We took a walk down through the Distillery District and loved the atmosphere with the smell of bourbon and good food coming from the tours and restaurants and the sounds of lively music and laughter from all the people there.
We ate dinner at one of the pubs there and then got ice cream at the brightly colored Crank & Boom. I love that cities are revitalizing these industrial areas and giving them new life.
Camp Nelson National Monument
The next morning we ventured a little ways out of Lexington to visit the Fort Nelson National Monument to get a look at a lesser known part of the Civil War.
In 1863 this area became an outpost and training area for the Union Army after having purchased the land from a local farmer. The farmer that owned the land affectionately named his house ‘The White House’ because of it being such an important part of the Union Army.
At the beginning of the Civil War Kentucky was one of four slave holding states that were not part of the Confederate rebellion. This put them in a unique position because so many of the regulations for enlistment and compensation did not apply to Kentucky. As it happened the government could arrange with a slave owner for however many slaves to enlist into the army and the enlistment compensation would be given to the slave owner in return. But in January 1863 President Lincoln enacted the Emancipation Proclamation which freed the enslaved people but only in the Confederate states so it did not apply to those in Kentucky. But in an effort to increase the military numbers, slaves with owner’s consent could enlist into the army and gain their freedom after service and their owners would be paid $300 as compensation. Hundreds of slaves rushed to enlist, with or without consent, to join the Union forces.
However the need for consent from the owners soon turned the camp into a hunting ground for fugitives who had ran away to enlist without the consent or compensation to the owners. Terrible acts of violence and brutality against these men at the hand of bounty hunters from the owners. Due to this wave of violence, by June 1864 owner consent was no longer required.
By this time hundreds of new recruits were coming to Camp Nelson every day. And many of them were bringing their wives and children with them. The families were seen as refugees and were allowed to set up housing there in parts of the camp. The fields of the camp were soon full of crudely made tents and cabins for all the families of the soldiers.
The people living at Camp Nelson created a community within themselves. They took care of each other while the husbands were gone with the army. One of the things that came from this community was music, especially that of the Booker family. Jim and Sarah Booker were runaway slaves that came to Camp Nelson and would go on to raise three sons there. The family was musical and began to preform around the camp and later would preform around the country with what they called the ‘Camp Nelson Blues’. The sons would later record their music in the early 1900s. (To hear the Booker orchestra play their Camp Nelson Blues, go HERE )
After we learned about the history of Camp Nelson at the visitor center we went down the path to the small fort that was erected during the Civil War that acted as a defense from the Confederates for the families of the soldiers. These fields would have been full of tents and cabins of the community.
After the war ended, many people continued to live here at Camp Nelson. For some they felt that they had a safe home here while others simply had nowhere else to go. Later it would be a main point for former slaves to come and receive their emancipation papers. Many people considered Camp Nelson to be their ‘Cradle of Life’. It would serve as a solider rest home and hospital for many years later.
It is difficult to think about the people that came to Camp Nelson and all that they went through to do so. But places like Camp Nelson are important to understand to get a bigger picture of such a complicated and heartbreaking period of the country.
With that our trip to Lexington came to an end. It was not what we had expected but I would say that we really saw what makes Lexington such an interesting place. We got a small taste of the things that Lexington is known for- horses, history, and bourbon- and it was far better than what we had planned for.
If you enjoyed reading more on Mary Todd Lincoln and Camp Nelson, you may want to check out these other Civil War related places:
Thanks for coming along to Lexington, Kentucky with us where beautiful scenery is combined with fascinating history and industry.