Once again, waking up to a rainy morning, the LEAP Ambassadors made their way to join the next bus of SLC attendees headed towards the TN State Museum and the local Farmers market.
The Nashville farmers market brings aspects of a traditional market setting and scenes of trendy modern aspects. Greeted by the “I heart NASH” sign, we took advantage of the photo-op and posed with our first Nashville sign.
The first room we entered resembled a food court type area full of enticing smells.
Almost magnetically drawn to the nearest coffee vendor, we begin to look over the menu of Farm City Coffee. As opposed to a traditional coffee house, the coffees and blends seemed to represent local and floral flavors. Yvette got some bubble tea.
The coffee and tea were nice additions to the afternoon as we continued to explore around the rest of the market.
The Exterior market resembled a more traditional look, with a pitched tent covering the different tables adorned with homegrown and homemade goods, it was difficult to not stop and smell or gaze at everything. Booths ranging from veggies, to handcrafted jewelry, candles, soaps, and pottery; there were choices for everyone.
Rounding out of adventure, we stopped at a local ice cream joint, Jeni’s, for a sweet treat. Again the flavors seemed to represent the local feel and personality of Nashville. The homemade waffle cones became a favorite at the table, which surprised members who usually prefer cups to cones. Our flavor choices ranged from brambleberry, rocketpop (blueberry and pineapple), wild lavender, salted caramel, and peanut butter.
Pressed for time, we absorbed all that we could and made our way back, leaving the farmers market with light and fresh spirits.
Of course, we also spent some time at the state historical museum, which was nice because we had all visited the Bullock Museum in Texas, giving us a limited chance to compare the venues.
TN has a rich history, much like Texas. In fact, many of those histories overlap. We were provided an overview of TN history….
…that ranged from the first people in TN…
…to the modern day. Along the way, of course, we learned about pioneers…
…Andy Jackson (building on our trip to the Hermitage)…
…President James Polk (under whose Presidency Texas was admitted to the Union)….
…state heroes such as Alvin York; the unfortunate Jim Crow era, which afflicted much or all of the south…
…and even more about the great Sam Houston!
It was a nice museum, with the opportunity for much learning!
Coming from Texas we sure know BBQ is a phenomenon so of course we decided to give another southern state a try. At Nashville’s local Puckett’s the busy downtown scene seemed to filter over into the restaurant itself. Morgan and Ms. Stephanie went to pick up the food, to eat back at the hotel for a quieter lunch. With high expectations we opened the to-go boxes and gave Tennessee BBQ a try. Eating southern classics gave us an opportunity to try pulled pork, philly cheese steak, and chicken salad on a sourdough bun.
As for our sides, everyone went with boring french fries, but I decided to try the coleslaw and the skillet mac and cheese, which were both creamy and filling by itself.
With each menu item being appetizing, we found the Nashville HOT BBQ sauce gave us the true taste of Tennessee. The BBQ at Puckett’s can definitely hold its own compared to Texas BBQ, but as for the 3 Texans we sure do love our BBQ.
Family Night at TopGolf
All LEAP Ambassadors have had different experiences at playing golf, with me having the skills of a novice: this would be my first time, not only at a Top Golf, but also playing golf in general. Yvette, whose skills were more advanced than mine, taught me the “proper” way to hold a golf club, how far back to swing and stand from the tee, and even about the different types of clubs.
They have clubs for right and left-handed people and ones specifically for men or women. The golf clubs range from irons, which are better for short distances, to woods, which are recommended for longer distances.
Our first round was for us to practice hitting the balls and for me to get an idea of how to play before participating in a competitive manner. I used the 8-iron golf club, 3 hybrid, and the 3 wood to get a feel of different clubs but found the hybrid and wood more efficient.
Once everyone got in a few practice shots, the real game began. Yvette, Morgan, and I to just play for fun, but we all knew we were “secretly” playing to outdo the others.
We cheered each other on for hitting the ball, which as a novice was an accomplishment in itself, and when we hit the red, yellow, and green nets. My first round was the best out of the two, call it beginner’s luck, since I placed second with 31 points, 18 points more than my score on the second round. Morgan’s best round was also the first, with 50 points, and Yvette’s best round was the second where she scored about 40 points. Ms. Stephanie scored the highest of us all, leaving us impressed with her golfing skills.
Before we had our own bay to play at, we had delightful Tex-Mex cuisine with chicken or steak fajitas, white cilantro rice, and black beans, with a variety of sides to add on ranging from shredded cheese, red garden salsa, creamy queso, guacamole, sour cream and much more.
There were even donut holes that you could inject different fillings such as raspberry syrup and chocolate chip cookies for dessert–all of which satisfied our sweet tooth.
Family night at TopGolf was much more fun than I would have anticipated, and we all had a good time. We met two couples, one of whom played golf with us. Their jobs ranged from elected official (state representative) to business owners, and they were all nice and companionable. This, along with the fun and food, made for a very successful night.
Seeking another historic home on day four, the LEAP Ambassadors ventured to Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. This visit gave us a vivid perspective of the 1800’s lifestyle through his marvelous home and informative museum alongside it. In addition to having a tour of the Hermitage we walked through his personal idyllic garden and the cemetery where Andrew Jackson and his family currently rest.
Former president Andrew Jackson was known as “the People’s President,” because he was the first “frontier” President, and he broadened the voting process, resulting in many changes in society.
Walking through the Museum we saw his accomplishments as an attorney, soldier, and president of the United States. Viewing artifacts, Jackson effectively led the battle of the Creek War in 1801 as Colonel of Tennessee and the battle of New Orleans in 1812. After courageously serving in these wars fighting the British and the Indians, Jackson was elected president, and he is now known as the founder of the Democratic party.
As for Jackson’s day-to-day life he lived with his wife Rachel Jackson and adopted children in a Greek-styled home where he allowed any guest comfort in his home with food and a place to stay.
Jackson was known to receive many visitors, including Sam Houston and former presidents, at his 1,120 acres of land at the Hermitage. Having guests stay made it a hectic household from managing the farm, servants, and attending to important guests.
Each LEAP Ambassador had their own favorite part of the Hermitage Jessica being the massive newspapers in Jackson’s library. Morgan enjoyed the kitchen outside since it was like Sam Houston’s kitchen in Huntsville, Texas. Whereas mine was farther away from the home being the garden. As we all entered the garden I fell in love with the bumblebees flying around the brightly colored flowers that all led up to the tombstones.
The garden and grave site rounded off a nice sentimental testament to our 7th president.
Diving into our first meal in Nashville at the Flat Iron southern fare restaurant ended up being a perfect choice. With the menu full of variety we started off with American classics by ordering whipped goat cheese filled with grilled cucumbers, onion, and tomatoes served with fresh warm pita. For our meals Morgan and Jessica got burgers, one being a tuna-patty burger and the other a grilled chicken burger. As for me, I got a waffle grilled cheese with a complimentary tomato bisque dipper. Each meal was delectable, and everyone had a delicious side of french fries. Our first taste of Nashville made us eager to try more.
After seeing General Jackson’s home, we ventured into a City formerly known as “the Athens of the United States”–Nashville, where the great Parthenon in Athens, Greece is replicated. Initially, the project was supposed to be a temporary attraction like everything else commissioned for Tennessee’s 1897 Centennial Explosion. However, people were so impressed with its beauty and the cross-cultural connection, the Parthenon was preserved, becoming the focal point in what is now Centennial Park.
While the Nashville Parthenon is a well depicted replica of the authentic one in Athens, there are some major differences. The first difference being the materials in which the structure was constructed. The Parthenon in Greece is made of white marble, which would have been easily accessible at the time. However, in Nashville, Tennessee, there are no quarries of white marble. Using what was at hand, Architect William Crawford Smith designed the structure with wood, brick and stone, giving the Parthenon a yellowish-brown color.
Another interesting feature that I was not expecting was the art museum on the lower floor of the Parthenon. In one of the rooms was an exhibit for artist Lynn Goldsmith whose interesting photography art is printed on metal, with each photo containing up to fifty exposures.
The second space was James M. Cowan’s personal collection of American art, including pieces from Durham, Moran, and Bierstadt, serving as a nice contrast to the first collection.
Keeping with the Greek style and culture, a 42-foot-tall statue of the Goddess Athena resides in the central room of the Parthenon. Standing tall as the Goddess of Wisdom, Athena holds the god Nike in her right hand with a shield and a snake to her left. When entering the central room of the Parthenon, the goddess is visible between the massive Doric columns, with her gold dress and accessories appearing as though they are glowing.
Surprisingly, we found the Parthenon to be a popular picture spot for tourists and natives. There were two Quinceañera parties, a baseball team, and even a wedding set up for pictures. We of course joined the trend and posed for several pictures inside and outside of the Parthenon before heading back to await for what would come next.
Opening Night at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
It is the opening night of the Southern Legislative Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. The LEAP Ambassadors were curious to know what to expect at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum as they walked to join the line for the trolley across the street. We congregated with the other attendees and waited for our turn to board the trolley. We met two friendly lobbyists from New York, Jonathan and Monisha, and a policy analyst from Ohio who each talked to us about what they do, how they got to their positions, and future advice for young professionals. Our conversations carried on into the short trolley ride on our way to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. It was refreshing to meet people so passionate about their work, and who are living what we are actively learning.
Once we arrived we were given the option to go up to the sixth floor for food or start off at the museum on the third floor. We listened to our stomachs, which drove us to the sixth floor to be greeted by live music and lots of people.
The LEAP Ambassadors were able to meet and converse with a Tennessee Senator before making our way to the colorful assortment of a Charcuterie board with different cheese, bread, cold meats, and vegetables.
There was a beautiful view of downtown Nashville…
…and a live band playing covers of artists such as Willie Nelson, The Beatles, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
On the balcony, where families were playing Jenga, Corn Hole, and enjoying the nice weather, the view of the Nashville skyline was amazing.
After dinner, we toured the museum, where there were artifacts such as their costumes and suits….
…cars, guitars, fiddles, drafts of written songs, even a whole wall dedicated to the golden records of many of the singers .
Many of these artifacts were associated with famous acts such as Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton (whose statue we saw the night before), and Willie Nelson.
Our night ended with a trolley ride back to the hotel taking in the view of the city after dark. The trolley ride should have been a 4-minute drive back to the hotel, the half mile drive seemed to take twice that time if not longer due to traffic and nightlife. The glowing city was buzzing and alive, as we were full and amazed by the opening night of the conference.
During the final day of the Southern Legislative Conference, our last tour was to the Lazy Magnolia Brewery, located in Kiln, Mississippi. The tour started with a delicious lunch and Christina (the only 21-year-old ambassador) got a chance to sample the hard ice tea. Before the tour guide began to lead us, we had a few minutes to play some pool.
Once again, Makayla and Ryan, the masters of all games, demonstrated their astounding prowess.
Everyone finished eating their food, meanwhile, the owner of the brewery, Mark Henderson, began by telling his story. Lazy Magnolia was an idea he had after getting a beer-making kit for Christmas one year.
His wife, Leslie, helped make his dreams a reality, and that led to him providing us with a tour today!
There was a large room which contained the fermenting tanks.
A few of the workers were preparing to run the line, then box, and ship the beer. Mark Henderson explained all the moving parts which allowed us to understand the process of beer making without the kit. Another of the more interesting artifacts in the brewery, was the recreation of Amelia Earhart’s plane that hung from the roof.
The tour ended with Al Saucier telling us stories about his book, The Broke Spoke Moonshine Book. Inside the book are many facts about moonshine. For example, the story of the first moonshine high-speed race car. He shared many of his stories that inspired him to become an author. We headed to the bus and it felt bittersweet knowing this was our last tour for the SLC, but the state dinner was next and we couldn’t wait to represent the best state in the United States.
“Meet Me at The Crossroads” State Dinner, by Makayla Mason
The final night of the Southern Legislative Conference began with a cocktail hour.
We mingled with different legislators and had the opportunity to take a picture with Speaker Gunn of the Mississippi House of Representatives.
He informed us that he was originally a Texas man and had graduated from Baylor University in Waco.
While we mingled, we were informed that we would have the honor of representing Texas during the Parade of Flags. A few minutes before the dinner began, we met with the other representatives of the states and lined up in the order in which we joined the Union. This meant we were in the 13th position out of the 15 states that were represented. As we marched in to “Deep in The Heart of Texas” with our flag flying high, we couldn’t help but feel our Texas pride shine through us.
We made our way to the tables. Makayla and Beatriz sat with Oklahoma Representatives, while Christina and Ryan were seated with Mississippi Representatives. After a short introduction, presentations, and invocation, Speaker Gunn invited us to enjoy our dinner. We enjoyed a fresh salad with tangy and sweet Heirloom Tomatoes and Mississippi Watermelon. For our main course, we had Filet Mignon, Spicy Garlic Gulf Shrimp, Mississippi Grits, and Vegetables. Throughout the dinner, we were entertained by Pianist Bruce Levingston…
…who was praised by the New York Times for his “mastery of color and nuance.” We were honored, because he actually gave a shout out to us for being from Texas before he played his songs.
Also on hand was American Idol runner-up La’Porsha Renae…
…who certainly knew how to fill out a camera frame, and to belt out a tune.
An interesting dinner conversation quickly led our way to dessert where we enjoyed Mississippi Mud Pave.
While we walked away from the night, we realized how special and bitter- sweet the conclusion of the conference was. As the majority of the LEAP Ambassadors are graduating in the coming academic year and Ryan leaves for the University of Arkansas, the relation of finality hit a little too hard. The blow was softened, however, by a nice discussion with Levingston…
…and a nice goodbye to some newly-made friends.
Before the night ended, the LEAP Ambassadors threw a surprise party for Stephanie, who always goes above and beyond for every single one of us. We decided to get her a Mississippi themed cake to represent the great time we had at Biloxi, Mississippi as well as provide her with a memory she would never forget.
Everyone had a great time at the Southern Legislative Conference and it was sad that we had to go back to Texas the next day.
As LEAP Ambassadors, we contribute to the travel costs of our own trips. This contribution is an investment in our own education, and while part of our money goes for trip t-shirts, conference registration and museums, our money also goes to fun activities that we engaged in on trips. And that applied today, when we had a chance to go parasailing!
Only one member of our group had ever experienced parasailing and the rest of us were excited to embark on this new adventure. While making our way to deep waters (in every sense of the phrase), one of our tour guides helped the first pair into their harnesses. First up were Christina and Makayla, followed by Ryan and Beatriz, and ending with Mike and Stephanie. With the sun shining down on us, we were anxious for the adrenaline rush the thrill of parasailing elicited. The release from the boat was very smooth…
…and as we climbed higher into the Biloxi sky we began to understand why people love to parasail. It was a very peaceful 10 minutes, with a breeze and even sightings of dolphins!
While a pair was up in the sky, the other four took advantage and enjoyed the boat ride filled with music and the occasional splash of salty water. Probably the happiest of the para-sailors were Beatriz and Ryan, both of whom were productive while air-sailing.
Ryan filmed the entire 10-minute ride…
…while Beatriz waved her arms and kicked her feet in excitement!
The view from the sky was amazing, with the boat looking tiny.
It’s amazing to have these opportunities as undergraduates, and we had a great time in our rarefied adventure!
Hibachi Dinner, by Makayla Mason
For dinner, we decided on going to Kyoto Japanese Cuisine. Beatriz had never experienced a Hibachi style dinner so we happily made our way to the flat top grill. We made our decisions quickly with Beatriz and Makayla sharing the Hibachi Chicken and Shrimp, Ryan and Christina shared the Rock’N Roll Sushi and noodles, and Stephanie and Mike split the Hibachi Chicken and Lobster. We told our Chef, who was a very humorous man, that Beatriz had never experienced a Hibachi Grill, so he invited her up to cook for us. Beatriz did not last long as our Chef. We experienced an onion train with fire, steam, and sound effects, and then we watched our dinner being skillfully cooked. Beatrix also tried lobster for the first time, she enjoyed it! We left Kyoto with full stomachs ready to dance it all off at the conference’s “Missouri Night” gathering.
Missouri Kick-Off Party, by Christina Perez
After dinner, we headed to the 2018 Missouri Kick-off reception. Each year, the state who is hosting the following year (in this case, 2018’s Conference) gives a preview of the conference by hosting a night full of their state favorites. Although the states work together, there is no doubt they are a bit competitive, and the states try to provide as much fun as possible to “show off” their state.
When we arrived, we were greeted with goody bags which contained goodies from Missouri companies, and an entry way that was clearly Missouri made!
We took a group photo and headed for the dance floor. Although some of us were too shy to show off our groovy moves (Ryan), others did not waste a minute. We danced to hit songs from famous artists such as Michael Jackson, Gloria Gaynor, The Isley Brothers, and many more–alongside legislators from 15 states, including at least one Speaker of the House! Makayla expressed her enthusiasm of how she had enjoyed dancing to one of her favorite songs, Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson. Interestingly, for the first time ever, the LEAP Center Ambassadors are on tape “dancing”….
But this was not the last time! As a special treat, we also danced in a conga line while holding onto the mascot for the St. Louis Blues.
According to Missouri’s Speaker of the House (Todd Richardson), the purpose of the event was to allow everyone a great time, and we think the “show-me” state did its job well!
In order to work off the food, the Leap Ambassadors parted ways to see the seashore while exercising. Professor Yawn and Ryan went on a gator excursion, where they fed gators and got to “pet” them. The girls, however, went a much simpler route by doing a variety of safer alternatives.
The first of which was, of course, shopping. Being at Beau Rivage, we decided to, briefly, get a glimpse at the casino. Being that not all of us were of age, we moved on to the shops and away from the casinos.
Along the way we happened to chance upon a face painter and of course Christina and Beatriz got their face painted.
Later, after touring the rest of Beau Rivage, we headed back to the hotel to get ready for our next excursion.
Part of the city of Biloxi’s recreational/ tourism efforts were incorporated in a bicycling program that you could use in order to cycle across most of the city of Biloxi. The three of us: Makayla, Christina, and I, took advantage of this opportunity and used it to ride 4 miles along the beach.
Part of Biloxi’s charm are the sea-themed sculptures along the shore. Made from trees damaged in Hurricane Katrina, the community brought in artists to turn the dead trees into beautiful art.
It’s a classic case of making lemonade from lemons, and we enjoyed the sculptures (Galveston adopted this program after Ike).
After more than 1 hour on the road, we headed back to the hotel to prepare for another night of fun.
Family Night, by Makayla Mason
With a beautiful sunset and perfect weather luring us into the Southern Legislative Conference’s Family Night, there was excitement in the air. To start the night with a hit, Jackson State University made a grand entrance.
The crowd was cheered with approval as we all enjoyed their enthusiastic dances and electric music.
Their balance, elegance, and strength were amazing!
For the rest of the night, we enjoyed a picnic-on-the-beach style dinner with many items to choose from such as hamburgers, corndogs, nachos, cotton candy, and s’mores!
While enjoying our tasty dinner, we enjoyed live music by Steve Azar.
Steve Azar, a Mississippi man, fully hit the country scene in 2002. His song “I Don’t Have To Be Me til’ Monday” was the first single to reach #2 on the national country radio charts.
We were lucky enough to sing along with him as he played that very same song that is still popular on the radio today.
As the night grew late, we played a few beach side games. We even played a tournament of bean-bag toss.
Playing Horseshoes in the dark was interesting. Half the fun was trying to find where the horseshoes had buried themselves after we had thrown them. Makayla was the only one to get a ringer but Ryan had a few close throws.
We were sad to leave the Fun Zone, but it was off to get sleep for the next day’s adventures.
Our first day in Biloxi, Mississippi began in a typical LEAP fashion: getting to discover what the variety of local attractions the Magnolia State had to offer. Having gotten to Biloxi late last night, we were unable to even glimpse what this new state was all about, but today we took full advantage of what it had to offer.
Half Shell Oyster House, by Christina Perez
Our first stop was in a quaint, local restaurant called Half Shell Oyster House. Nestled in Mississippi’s downtown area, this refurbished bank turned restaurant, was a hidden pearl. Surprisingly enough, about half of the ambassadors had never tried oysters, so the main course of our cuisine consisted of just that, including both raw oysters and grilled oysters.
To make it even more of a MS treat, we had fried tomatoes and crab cakes, The first timers prepared their oysters, and together took their first bite. All were glad to try it, but some proved more adventurous than others.
Next, we decided to partner up and share a plate so that we could save some room for dessert. Beatriz and Christina ordered a Seafood Sampler which included oysters, crab cakes, shrimp, and two sides: Sweet Potato Crème Brulee and Fried Okra. I couldn’t wait to taste the scrumptious Sweet Potato Creme Brulee. Ryan and Makayla decided to also be adventurous by ordering a Big Easy Surf and Turf which included a 6 oz filet over a crab cake. Strong reviews were given on the variety of seafood plates and then it was time for dessert.
We all decided on the Cinnamon Roll Bread Pudding and the Bananas Foster Cheesecake. The Bread pudding was made with cinnamon rolls and topped with Homemade Spiced Rum Sauce. Professor Yawn, being the bread pudding connoisseur that he is, began to compare it to other bread puddings. It was delicious. So delicious in fact, that many of the Leapsters ended up burning their mouths due to their impatience for another bite. Everyone left happy and with full bellies towards the next adventure which would be a good compliment to the food.
Chandaleur Island Brewery, By Makayla Mason
As part of the Southern Legislative’s Conference first event, we went to tour the Chandeleur Island Brewery. We were greeted at the entrance by some sweet artisan ice pops, handcrafted by Pop Brothers.
After a day in the hot sun, we thought the popsicles were heavenly! There were even some pleasant surprises such as an entire Oreo on the inside of the “Cookies and Cream” popsicle!
After enjoying our ice pops, Chris Vignes, the City of Gulfport’s Public Information Officer, gave us some of the brewery’s backstory, and he explained the City’s economic development philosophy and vision for the future.
Once behind the the bar, one of the owners supplemented the tour, and we learned about the interesting history behind the building, the background of the company, and process of composing the beer.
Instead it was meant to revive the interest in hand-crafted beer and be a place where families could relax. Bringing the community together was crucial to the existence of the Brewery. Their beer cans were designed by a local tattoo artist, which we all thought was an interesting fact! Over the years it has grown to be quite popular and in the 14 years of the Chandeleur Brewery bartender’s experience there has never been a fight.
Wanting to partake in the famous reputation of this Brewery, we sampled some of their beers (by “we,” we mean those of age). Out of the 5 samples that we could try, the popular vote went to the sweeter blueberry-flavored beer. After that, we played a couple of games ranging from Jenga…
…and Bean Bag Toss, or “Corn Hole,” as Christina and Ryan call it.
As part of the advertising the many treasures hidden downtown, we learned about Fishbone Alley.
Just a block away from the Brewery, this alley had a charm all of its own.
Once an plain-looking alley, it had gotten a touch up by many local artists from the area, decking it out in a variety pieces of art.
This also enhanced the community bonding that the Brewery was trying to promote.
This alley created a space where people from the community could get together for music, peace and quiet, expressing themselves through the medium of art, or some of the rather odd games the city sometimes hosted. The alley is a continuous project in which locals are excited to see grow.
Jet Ski Adventure, by Ryan Brim
After getting back to Beau Rivage from the Chandeleur Island Brewery, we still had some time before attending the welcoming reception. Quickly, everyone decided to take the extra time to change at the hotel into some more beach-appropriate attire and drive the short distance to a jet ski rental stand right off the beach. None of us had ever ridden a jet ski before, and we were very excited for the opportunity.
First, we paired up, with Christina being Makayla and Ryan partnering with Beatriz. We donned our life vests and waited a few minutes for the jet skis to get set up. After a 2-minute training, we were off. Time seemed to rush past us as we zipped every which way, skimming along the waves.
Both teams switched drivers, taking turns and experimenting with the jet ski until they felt comfortable on maneuvering the machine around.
It was easy to get the hang of, and a whole lot of fun!
Finally, our time was up. Sadly, we trekked across the sand back to the shore…
…and even found a small crab which Beatriz had accidentally taken for a ride throughout the entire jet skiing experience. After a couple more pictures…
…it was soon time to head back to the hotel to prepare for the day’s next event.
Opening Reception at Jones Park, by Beatriz Martinez
Thirty minutes later, the LEAP Ambassadors were headed on their way to Jones Park where the Opening Reception for the Southern Legislative Conference of 2017 was being held. Music reached our ears as we walked across the “Front Yard of Mississippi”. We were greeted by a very Southern “Welcome Y’all” sign at the main entrance of the Barksdale Pavilion.
Of course, we could not help but take a picture with it. As famished as we were, we decided to explore the tantalizing food options available. With a very Southern theme mixed with some of the more coastal delicacies, we were served Bayou rice, a variety of local seafood (no oysters this time), and of course some good old-fashioned barbecue. In the meantime, we were enjoying the night music by Bobby Rush.
With over 17 blues awards in his lifetime, 364 records, and 66 years in the musical career, Bobby Rush was a sight to behold. At his early age of 84, he had the crowd grooving to his music pulling in people of all ages.
Not only did he present himself like the “King of the Chitlin’ Circuit” that he is…
…but also did other king impersonations such as the “King of Pop” (Michael Jackson)…
and the “King of Rock and Roll” (Elvis Presley).
To end the evening with a bang, we were dazzled by a firework display that lighted the dark, night sky.
After celebrating the beginning of the Southern Legislative Conference, the Leapsters headed home to rest for the upcoming days filled with adventure.
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.
With a busy day planned ahead of us, we began our morning with a light breakfast at Daily Offerings Coffee Roastery…
…a Southern hipster coffee shop offering several adventurous and traditional options. One of the more daring ambassadors tried the Lavender Honey Latte, and as Alex described it, “it felt like my mouth had just taken a bath.”
Others went for coconut or caramel lattes, and pastries to complement their drinks: coffee cakes, chocolate cookies, and blueberry scones. Once everyone had their fill, we departed for our first destination and activity of the day, a trip to Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill.
The Shakers fled England and first settled in New Lebanon, New York. In 1805, a group of 44 Shakers settled in Kentucky. Today there are no surviving Shakers in Kentucky and only a handful in Maine, but much of their settlement is still intact within the Pleasant Hill site. The historic farms of the village are maintained by the village’s employees, and crops and livestock are used at Pleasant Hill’s restaurant.
Our drive to Shaker Village through the Kentucky countryside was beautiful — a truly pleasant ride to start the day. Upon our arrival, we exchanged our charter bus for a school bus needed to maneuver a narrow, winding road to the Kentucky River a few miles away. There we boarded the Dixie Belle Riverboat for
…a trip downriver through the Kentucky River Palisades, so named for the steep limestone cliffs and scenic outcroppings.
The Shakers used to travel the Kentucky River to New Orleans once or twice a year to trade goods they produced. At the time, this was a significant endeavor and few Shakers actually traveled on behalf of the community. The captain explained that the Kentucky River is 255 miles long and is normally a deep shade of green, but due to the recent rains, the water was a muddy brown (and over 14 feet deep).
We cruised alongside the limestone cliffs and the lush green trees that stood high above the riverbank, ever alert for signs of wildlife. The river is home to many types of turtles (including snapping turtles!) and snakes. Although we weren’t lucky enough to see any river critters, we enjoyed the scenic view and relaxing breeze before traveling back to the Village for the second half of the tour.
The Village tour began with a walk down one of the main streets, the guide noting the limestone buildings among green fields, and explaining to us that during the Shaker’s lifetime in the settlement very little of the land would be left vacant. Shakers did not believe in unusable land, so they worked every plot as efficiently as possible — whether to build family dwellings, grow crops, graze livestock, or build an ice house.
Shakers were a religious group who believed the way to enhance their worship of God was to live as simply as possible and as purely as Jesus Christ. They were not Luddites, though, and believed in using technological advances to help them live simple lives. In their attempts to be close to Christ, one of the sacrifices in joining the congregation was to become celibate. Men and woman stayed segregated among family dwellings, with one half of the buildings dedicated to men and the other half to women. Men and women also maintained an arm’s length distance away from each other and had their own staircase to travel among floors in their living quarters.
The Shakers also preached a need for equality. All Shakers were equal and none deserved more attention than another, a quite different viewpoint in 1805 when several types of groups did not have equal rights. The village’s ministry, the governing religious body for each community, was composed of both men and women from various communities appointed by the Shaker’s central ministry in New Lebanon. This helped remove community ministry leaders’ potential prejudices against other members of the village. The community was further regulated by segregating the leaders to their own living quarters and workshops, both of which we were able to tour. It was an interesting twist to community governing for the political science majors in the group.
Unlike traditional Christian services, Shakers did not believe in one designated leader preaching at all times. Although they did make use of the King James Bible, and participated in prayer, services were led by “whoever was moved by the Holy Spirit” on that particular day. Their religious ceremonies were not constrained by time, with the shortest service in Pleasant Hill recorded at only 15 minutes and the longest at 23 hours!
During worship the Shakers were known to sing songs, especially those who were “filled with the spirit,” and members were encouraged to record their songs (in writing) and share among members of the community and of other villages. Lyrics would come from a member’s need to express their devotion towards God, and reportedly sometimes by God himself, taking hold of a member’s body and using them as a vessel, as our tour guide described it.
Further, Shakers did not believe in using instruments nor in solo demonstrations; they believed that complex musical arrangements only took away from the song’s devotional message. From these lively worships (of which non-Shakers were invited to attend) the group was termed as the Shaking Quakers, for seldom had anyone seen such an enthusiastic mode of worship composed of dancing and singing. After a brief demonstration of a few “Shaker” songs, we were ready for our next Kentucky adventure.
We didn’t have to go far, though. We met up with the other part of our group and walked the two short blocks from our hotel to the street party the SLC had planned for attendees and their families. We reached the 5/3 Pavilion at Cheapside Park and mingled with other guests. While we were there we ran into two new friends, Chris and Marisela Darminin. We had previously met Chris during skeet shooting, and were excited to meet Marisela. They were both from Texas and glad to visit with fellow Texans at SLC, as were we!
After speaking to them for a while and learning much about their careers and the great organizations that they support, we headed to our dinner destination, The Village Idiot.
Local Lexington icon The Village Idiot is in a building encompassing part of Lexington’s oldest post office building, dating back to 1825. We were all eager to try their fare since we had heard great things about the restaurant. Before our food arrived, we enjoyed bowls of fries and the cheese and sausage dip. Some of us had their famous (or maybe infamous?) “Idiot Burger,” a burger patty topped with an onion ring filled with pulled pork and topped off with a pretzel bun…it looked like quite the challenge!
Others shared the duck & waffles (on those, Beatriz said, “The sweet taste of the waffles combined with the succulence of the duck was such a great combination that [she] was left drooling for more”); the Village Idiot Cheese Platter; and a Caprese Burger. With great gusto, we savored these delightful dishes, enjoying this picturesque place rich in food and history. We left satisfied that The Village Idiot had been the “smartest” choice for dinner.
After a filling dinner, we were all ready to enjoy another event, the “preview reception” for next year’s conference, as put on by that host state. In this case, it was – and will be –Mississippi. As soon as we arrived, we were warmly greeted by numerous elected Senators and Representatives (and other representatives) from Mississippi who were handing out warm welcomes (and goodie bags) at the door.
We had arrived in time to hear an enthusiastic, well-written speech from the Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, Philip Gunn, who captured our attention and left us wanting to visit Mississippi, the home to great names such as: Jerry Rice, Jerry Lee Lewis, and John Grisham. We even had the chance to chat for a few minutes with him and his wife (who is actually a Texan!)…
and get a quick pic.
We also met up with an acquaintance from the night before, Ms. Leslie Hafner, who was the Senior Policy Advisor to the Governor of Tennessee. She was very nice, and we were grateful to be able to get a photo with her before leaving the conference.
The evening’s entertainment, native-Mississippi jazz singer, Teneia Sanders-Eichelberger, as joined by her husband, Ben Eichelberger, was great to listen to while chatting with other guests.
She had a unique blend of blues, soul, and southern music, and we were able to briefly meet them after their performance, as well.
After an eventful night filled with great music and great people, we left to many cheers of “See you in Biloxi!” as we trudged off toward our hotel, anxious to reenergize for the next day’s activities.