Permanent Community Established in 1779
Pioneer Daniel Boone was one of the first white men to explore the territory known today as the Bluegrass Country. The births of the United States and the city of Lexington occurred at nearly the same moment in history. In June 1775, a small band of pioneers who were camped in the bluegrass amid buffalo and Native American trails received word of the battle of Lexington, Massachusetts, that marked the beginning of the American Revolution. In a spirit of adventure and independence, the pioneers named their campsite for the historic conflict. Development of a permanent settlement was postponed for four years when several members of the patriotic group departed to enlist in the Continental Army. Hostile natives also discouraged pioneer incursion into this wilderness. Neighboring pioneer villages were plagued by the often violent resistance of the natives and many believed this opposition was incited and encouraged by the British.
The present-day state of Kentucky was, at that time, part of the far-flung properties of Virginia, visited only by hunters, surveyors, and explorers. In 1779 a party of settlers journeyed to Lexington from nearby Harrodsburg and erected several cabins and a stockade in an effort at establishing a permanent community. In 1780 the Virginia Assembly divided its sprawling Kentucky District into three counties—Lincoln, Jefferson, and Fayette (named for the Revolutionary War hero, French General Mortier de Lafayette). The following year Lexington incorporated, became county seat of Fayette County, and was granted township status.
City Develops as Trading Center
The popular and fertile Bluegrass Country quickly attracted settlers from Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Within two decades, Lexington, with eighteen hundred citizens, was the largest town in "western America." A thriving community of stores, taverns, hotels, and industries grew steadily in the protective curve of the Kentucky River, and Lexington became known as a major supply center linking east to west. Stores kept their shelves stocked with goods carted overland from Philadelphia and Baltimore and paid eastern merchants with hides, skins, furs, home-made linens, beef, ham, lard, and lumber. The development of farming added whiskey, tobacco, and hemp to the list of products exported to eager merchants to the east, west, and south.
Local Horse Industry Gets Its Start
Local fascination with the breeding, rearing, training, and racing of thoroughbred horses has always been an important element of life in the Bluegrass Country. The limestone soil, rich bluegrass, and mild climate combined to make the area prime horse country. The town's first race course was established shortly after 1788, when civic leaders banned the sport on downtown streets. Thoroughbreds, trotters, and saddle horses brought from Virginia and the Carolinas joined breeding stallions from England and Arabia during the early 1800s, and another industry was launched.
In 1787, the flourishing Lexington community expanded its communication and education services. John Bradford's printing press produced the state's first newspaper, the Kentucky Gazette. Log cabin schools gave way to a succession of private and semi-public schools, and a group of persuasive Lexington businessmen convinced the trustees of Transylvania College to relocate from Danville. The college established law and medical departments, attracted students from throughout the South, and added immeasurably to the prestige of the frontier town.
City Falters Economically Then Rallies
The Commonwealth of Kentucky split from Virginia in 1792 and was admitted as the fifteenth state in the Union. Lexington was its temporary capital and enjoyed considerable status as a seat of higher learning and an industrial center until shortly after the turn of the century, when the success of the steamboat gave the rival city of Louisville, located on the Ohio River, a distinct advantage. Development faltered in Lexington with the rise of the river cities, and by the time railroads established a much-needed link to the Ohio River, the economic damage was already evident in the unemployment rate, the number of declared bankruptcies, and the declining population.
Lexington's civic and business leaders then began to steer the town away from its fading industrial economy and encourage an emphasis on culture and education instead. Tax dollars were diverted toward promotion and support of the arts and the growth of Transylvania University. Gradually the frontier town gained a reputation as the "Athens of the West," and Transylvania was referred to by many as the "Harvard of the West." A measure of Lexington's success can be seen in rival Louisville's unsuccessful attempt, during the 1830s, to lure Transylvania's medical school to that town.
Although the state officially declared itself neutral, the Civil War pitted neighbor against neighbor within Kentucky. While their traditions were southern, many political and industrial influences were of the North. During the war years the horse racing industry was suspended, but progress was made in other areas. The University of Kentucky was established at Lexington in 1865 and thrives today, attracting students, researchers, and athletes. Horse racing experienced a resurgence after the war, and as the popularity of cigarettes grew among soldiers during the Civil and World Wars, tobacco farming became a major industry in the Lexington area.
Present-Day City in Growth Spurt
Modern Lexington's economy is still firmly based in horses, cattle, burley tobacco, and of course, the academic community of the University of Kentucky. During recent times, downtown Lexington has been revitalized by a surge of growth and new development, especially in the corporate service sectors of the economy; yet, through the work of such organizations as the Lexington Downtown Development Authority, the city has been diligent in preserving its roots through renovation and preservation of many of its historic buildings and neighborhoods. Called "the city in the park" because of its location in the middle of hundreds of beautiful, park-like horse farms, Lexington offers a charming blend of big-city amenities and small-town friendliness. In fact, Lexington was the first city in the country to create an urban service boundary to protect the surrounding countryside. Before, after and between meeting sessions at the modern Lexington Center convention complex, visitors will find plenty to see and do. History, art, and culture are all within easy and safe walking distance and include: beautiful historic office buildings, churches, and homes; many of Lexington's finest restaurants, specialty shops and galleries; and major performance and sports arenas. The city takes pride in the fact that crimes reported in 2004 were the lowest in more than 30 years. Lexington is part of a metropolitan statistical area comprised of Bourbon, Clark, Fayette, Jessamine, Madison, Scott, and Woodford counties.
Historical Information: Lexington Historic Preservation Office, 200 East Main St., Lexington, KY 40507; telephone (606)258-3265
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