July 12, 2016
Our morning brought excitement with a splash of sadness, both from the prospect of our first day of rain and facing what would be our final day of the Southern Legislative Conference. With that in mind, we vowed to make the most of the day, with experiences extending to the world of politics, liquor, and musical entertainment.
We boarded our ever-familiar tour bus bound for Kentucky’s capital city of Frankfort, and enjoyed the green rolling hills on the short drive from Lexington (~45 minutes). As we neared the bend that would lead into Frankfort’s main street, the trees embraced the city, making it seem every building was surrounded by its own mini forest, an impressive landscape.
The Old Statehouse
Our first stop was the state’s third capitol building, “The Old Capitol,” built in 1803. Its location was the same as the first two state capitol buildings, both of which met their demise through fire. Following the second fire, officials requested submissions for a new design, which would be selected through a competitive process. The winning design was submitted by Gideon Shryock (fresh out of college!) on a dare.
The Greek revival structure was erected as a symbol of Kentucky’s democratic strength, the massive pillars flanking the entry underlining that statement.
The limestone walls, quarried from the Kentucky River, stand as impressive as the day as they were placed. Through this grand, but windowless, entrance, we turned first into the “new” library, relocated from its original second-floor location due to weather damage to the books. In the corner of this room stood a desk that had belonged to then-Governor, Thomas Bramllette. Under his orders, the desk was ordered to contain a secret compartment. However, upon arrival, there was no sign of any such compartment. After complaining to the cabinetmaker and demanding that he be told the whereabouts of the desk’s secret, the designer refused to reveal it for “if [he] were to reveal it then it wouldn’t be a secret anymore.” The secret compartment was never found.
We left the library, and gathered under a floating staircase. Reputedly one of the only staircases of its kind in a public building, the whole structure will supposedly stay in place regardless of whether walls stand around it – it requires no external support. As designed by architect Shryock, this is an impressive feat of architectural and aesthetic design. As we walked up the staircase, admiring its simple yet intriguing structure, quite a few tour participants not-so-surreptitiously checked out the number of people on the stairs at once.
Another pleasant detail was found in the plaster floral designs on the ceiling. As with most capitol buildings, the legislative chambers were the largest. At the entrance of the Senate and House chambers, we were greeted with lighting from magnificent gold French chandeliers, as lavish as when they were lit for the first time. In the House, the desks were sectioned for two legislators to share one table. As we walked onto the senate chamber, we entered a much more intimate room. We sat down on both the house and senate desks, taking in the building’s history, imagining what it would have been like in the past. When the visit of the Old Statehouse was over, we were very sad. However, our hopes were regained after remembering that this was only the beginning of our grand tour.
Center for Kentucky History
Because we spent so much time in the Capitol building, our next stop was correspondingly curtailed. Thus, we only had about 15 minutes at the modern Center for Kentucky History, which was clearly not sufficient. Some of us went into the gift shop while others toured the Hall of Governors, which consisted of painted portraits and biographies of Kentucky’s governors. It started with Isaac Shelby, the first governor of the state. He was an interesting character. Even though he served two full terms believing and practicing his constitutional duties, in his autobiography of four hundred plus pages, he only included one sentence of his tenure as governor. Another notable character was Martha Layne Collins, the first female governor. She was known for bringing a Toyota plant to Kentucky, which provided many economic opportunities to the state. Despite the brief time allotted to this portion of the tour, we enjoyed the artifacts and exhibits we saw.
After the tour of the Kentucky History Center, we visited the Governor’s Mansion for lunch with the Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky. As we approached the mansion, we were fascinated by the beautiful architecture and colorful garden.
We learned that the architecture was designed to model Queen Marie Antoinette’s villa of the palace of Versailles in France—not the last time we would find French influences in the Bluegrass State. The interior also reflected the French interest of the Beaux-Arts period. Walking into this grand architecture, the Lieutenant Governor, Jenean Hampton, and some of her staff, greeted us. We were then directed to the dining room for lunch.
She welcomed our group very warmly into the governor’s home and spoke about the great state of Kentucky.
After learning we were from Texas, she expressed her love for the Lone Star State.
We felt that she was very genuine and kind! After having greeted her, we then proceeded to eat lunch consisting of a traditional Caesar salad and grilled chicken.
For dessert, we had a light, summery strawberry shortcake.
And as an added desert of sorts, we had the wonderful opportunity to explore the Governor’s Mansion.
Kentucky State Capitol
Following the lunch at the Governor’s mansion, we toured the fourth and current Kentucky state capitol. Our tour began in the rotunda with five large statues, each a famous (or infamous) Kentuckian. These include Henry Clay, Alben Berkley, Jefferson Davis, Ephraim McDowell, and Abraham Lincoln.
The dome that sits above the rotunda is inspired by Les Invalides, Napoleon’s tomb. Interestingly, the interior of the dome changes colors periodically…
The building houses all three branches of government: the executive is on the first floor, the judicial is on the second, and the legislative is on the third. This is one of very few state capitols that still houses three branches. In the state supreme court, the judges convene about three days a month, hearing about only nine cases a month.
The justices can serve as many ten-year terms as they can get elected to.
The Kentucky legislature is unusual in that they only meet for 90 days every two years. During even numbered years, the Kentucky legislature will meet for up to 60 days, and in odd numbered years, the 38 Senators and 100 House members will meet for no more than 30 days.
House members, as well as Senators, have two year terms, but no term limits.
Overall, we were impressed by the symmetrical design of the capitol, both the interior…
…and the exterior…
…as well as the views from the balcony.
In fact, it’s rare in a capitol to even be allowed on the balcony, so this was a treat indeed.
Buffalo Trace Distillery
No doubt the offices of the Kentucky Capitol building were witness to much drinking, in order to, as one politician told us, “lubricate the wheels of governance.” Some of those drinks were likely distilled, aged, and bottled in our next destination: Buffalo Trace. Liquor has been manufactured on the site of Buffalo Trace since 1787, when Willis and Hancock Lee first built a still. Although the companies of liquor and processes have changed, the site—located near the Kentucky Capitol building— has always been dedicated to distilling primarily bourbon.
This was true even during Prohibition. As our tour guide noted, alcohol could still be manufactured for “medicinal purposes.” Each “patient” could be prescribed up to a pint every ten days. During this period, the illnesses must have been both “contagious and chronic,” because often an entire family would need the prescriptions refilled indefinitely. This legal loophole allowed the distillery to stay in business.
Thankfully, that subterfuge was no longer necessary following Prohibition, and the distillery could distribute its liquor the old-fashioned way. In more recent years, there has been a type of anti-prohibition, and bourbon drinking has become fashionable. In fact, Buffalo Trace is in the process of tripling the size of its operations, expanding from 140 to 420 acres.
Some people believe that only Kentucky sells bourbon. That’s not true, but as our tour guide says, most of the bourbon in the US comes from Kentucky. “Kentucky sells 95% of the nation’s bourbon,” he clarified, “and 100 % of the good bourbon.”
Much of that comes from Buffalo Trace. Indeed, they recently manufactured their six-millionth barrel. That’s a lot of bourbon, especially when each barrel contains about 200 bottles.
And it is this process that is perhaps most interesting. To qualify legally as bourbon, the liquor must meet six criteria:
- Its content must be at least 51 % corn;
- Distilled to no more than 160 proof;
- Barreled at no more than 125 proof;
- Aged in new, charred barrels;
- Bottled at 80 proof or higher;
- And, all of this must occur in the United States.
This last requirement stems from the fact that in 1964 the US Congress passed a resolution recognizing bourbon as indigenous to the United States, much in the same way, for example, that Scotch is associated with Scotland.
This was a lot of information to take in, especially for some of the students who had almost no exposure to alcohol. But even for those more familiar with the product, the distinctive and specific process was a lot to ingest.
And speaking of ingesting, our tour concluded with a whiskey tasting. The under-21 crowd skipped this part, but a few of the students had a chance to distinguish (in very small doses!) the difference between four types of whiskey: (1) a blended vodka, (2) a mash whiskey at 125 proof, (3) an 8-9 year old bottle of bourbon, and a (4) 10 year-old bourbon aged on a lower floor of the storage. (The lower floor is a cooler location, which means less mixing with the barrel, which, in turns, less of the woody or caramel flavor.)
Opinions from the group were positive toward the bourbon, but there was general agreement that the 125 proof mash was strong medicine indeed.
Our samples were far too small to lubricate any kind of political deals at the conference, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t interested in expanding our professional networks and seeing what opportunities we could find. To that end, we headed back to Lexington, where we planned to socialize at the state dinner.
Dressed to the nines, the LEAPsters strode into the Rupp Arena Ballroom. Although we were prepared to enjoy the State Dinner…
…we were not prepared for the beautiful sounds of the a capella group acoUstiKats, from the University of Kentucky. They introduced the evening with a wonderful rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” and “My Old Kentucky Home.”
Our dinner mates included Senator Floyd Nicholson and his wife, Mamie, who were from South Carolina and very nice!
Later, Kentucky Senator Stivers gave a speech and recognized two different programs for their work under the STAR program. This program promotes the creation of innovative ideas for more programs to help communities. The most proactive are chosen and recognized for their accomplishments.
After the meal was over and we had finished the last bit of cheesecake…
…the entertainment started. Rick Dees kicked off the evening’s entertainment…
…but he soon turned it over to Midnight Star, an R&B band who enjoyed many hits in the 1970s and 1980s, including “Operator,” “No Parking on the Dance Floor,” and others.
Their music soon drew a crowd of dancers, many of whom were elected officials apparently drawn to the dance floor by courage borne of bourbon.
Not to be outdone, the LEAP Ambassadors showed off their adaptability and busted out a few dance moves of their own.
Others, of course, mostly stayed rooted to the dinner table…
Nonetheless, it was an energetic end to a four-day tour of Kentucky and its world of politics, entertainment, and history.
But with a four am departure looming, we posed for a final Kentucky photo op…
…we headed back to the hotel. Our sleep was destined to be brief, but we were eager to awake to the Midwestern leg of our southern/Midwestern tour of the United States.