Wednesday, March 22, 2017

City council backs mayor and cemetery workers' enforcement of rules; variances won't be grandfathered

By Elizabeth Allen
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

At Monday’s Midway City Council meeting, council members unanimously agreed to support Mayor Grayson Vandegrift and cemetery workers in the enforcement of Midway Cemetery regulations. They acknowledged the move would stir some controversy.

“It's going to be bad. . . . We really need to show some solidarity at this table,” said Council Member Libby Warfield, chair of the Cemetery and City Property Committee, which discussed possible changes in the regulations but decided that they should be enforced “and not grandfather anybody in.

Vandegrift said his position since taking office in January 2015 has been to enforce the regulations as they are written, but previous administrations granted certain individuals “variances” from some rules.

Examples include benches placed around graves, bushes and flowers that take up too much space, or anything that might encroach on other graves or might be considered inappropriate for a cemetery. Vandegrift said there were probably fewer than 20 cases of such variances.

The council agreed to enforce the rules retroactively. In other words, those who were given special permission by former city officials will no longer be exempt. Vandegrift said he recognized that will be but believes it is the fair thing to do.

The council discussed how to enforce these rules in a strict but reasonable way. Warfield asked if 30 days would be enough time for those in violation of the rules to make corrections after receiving a letter telling them to do so. The other council members agreed, but no definite decisions were made about specific enforcement procedures.

Judy Offutt gestured as she and Joyce Evans discussed their idea
for neighborhood associations with the Midway City Council.
Neighborhood associations: The council also discussed the possibility of creating neighborhood associations in Midway, an idea conceived by Joyce Evans and Judy Offutt.

Evans said the idea was “driven by the need for a little closer communication within the community.”

“I know the idea of having another committee is horrible for everyone,” Offutt joked, but said the potential benefits would be more than worth the inconvenience of initial startup.

“I think it’s about getting to know who your neighbors are and how you can interact with them and help out,” Offutt continued.

Vandegrift said he thinks neighborhood associations would be “a great way to connect city government to the city.”

Council Member John McDaniel questioned the need for neighborhood associations, noting Midway's small size, and said he would prefer "town hall meetings."

Vandegrift said such meetings typically attract about 30 people, and neighborhood associations would probably be more effective because individual leaders within the associations could promote involvement in each community, person to person.

Vandegrift, Evans and Offutt agreed that the first step in creating neighborhood associations would be to establish boundaries. Council member Kaye Nita Gallagher said the Events, Outreach and Tourism Committee that she chairs would meet Wednesday morning, then meet with Evans and Offutt on the idea.

Drew Chandler, director of Woodford County Emergency Management, presented the county hazard-mitigation plan to the council. Chandler said the greatest natural risk to Midway is severe weather.

“Hail actually kills more people than tornadoes each year,” Chandler said.

Following severe weather, the next greatest natural risks to Midway, Chandler said, are flooding, winter storms, drought, wildfires, tornadoes and earthquakes. The plan outlines a way to deal with these natural disasters when they occur. Vandegrift said the plan, part of a Bluegrass regional plan, is “very impressive.”

Tourism appointment: The council approved the appointment of Gallagher to the Woodford County Tourism Commission, which manages revenue from the county's 3 percent tax on overnight lodging. The revenue is small because the county has only bed-and-breakfast lodging, but a Holiday Inn Express is to be built in Versailles soon and there are prospects for a hotel on Interstate 64 at Midway.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Lakeshore expects to be operational with 100 workers Nov. 3; unsure but 'optimistic' on timeline for goal of 262

The Lakeshore Learning Materials distribution center is under construction in Midway Station.
This is an expanded version of the original story.
By Elizabeth Allen
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

Construction of Lakeshore Learning Materials’ distribution facility in Midway Station is right on schedule, a top company official told the Midway City Council Monday evening.

Paul Chisholm, the company’s vice president of Eastern U.S. distribution, said it is still on track to begin shipping from the facility by Nov. 3, at which point it expects to have 100 people on the payroll.

Paul Chisholm of Lakeshore spoke to the council Monday evening.
Chisholm said the company will make a “big push” for hiring in August and September, with the goal of work starting Sept. 29, depending on weather. He said 46 construction days have already been lost to rain, but the company still hopes to have the plant under roof by its original target date of May 16.

Support from local and state officials “has been phenomenal,” he said.

Asked after the meeting when the 262 jobs Lakeshore has promised are expected to be filled, Chisholm said that depends on when the building's expansion is completed. He also said recent elections may affect the timetable, since the company is heavily reliant on public-school funding.

“We’re optimistic,” Chisholm said, adding that he expects the plant to employ 150 to 175 people a year from now. It has three years to reach 262 jobs and kick in the state and local incentives offered to attract it.

Chisholm also gave new insight into Lakeshore's decision to come to Midway. He said the final decision essentially came down to three factors: location, available labor and a sense of community.

The central location of Midway made it a better choice than the runner-up, High Point, N.C., Chisholm said. North Carolina has a “right to work” law and no inventory tax, but those advantages were not enough to outweigh Midway’s.

Chisholm said Midway was also expected to provide a workforce that was more likely to stick around and contribute to the culture of the company. He said Lakeshore could already be shipping from readily available buildings in Shepherdsville or Hebron, but competition for workers is heavier there.

Perhaps most importantly, Chisholm said, Midway is a place where he and other Lakeshore officials felt like the company could be part of a community.

He recalled Lakeshore CEO Bo Kaplan saying as they left Midway, "'This place feels right; this place feels like home. Chisholm said the feeling was "intangible."

In response to a question, he said one thing was not a factor: the recently passed "fairness ordinance" that bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

After Chisholm updated the council members on Lakeshore's progress, Mayor Grayson Vandegrift updated them on Midway's occupational tax revenue.

Through December, Vandegrift said, Midway had already taken in $331,000 in payroll taxes. This means that in only half of the fiscal year, the city had already received 82 percent of the budgeted $400,000 in payroll taxes for the year.

After the meeting, Vandegrift told the Midway Messenger that the council was conservative in its occupational-tax budgeting. He said construction work on Lakeshore’s plant and the American Howa Kentucky auto-parts plant, now open, is bringing in unexpected revenue, local restaurants are doing better and Midway University has added to its payroll.

Among other business, the council approved an event permit for the 14th annual 5K Race for Education on April 8 and agreed to have the cemetery house torn down. Vandegrift said he would probably seek bids for the work because city workers are about to enter their busy season.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Vandegrift tells statewide 'fairness' supporters that ordinance has been good for business in Midway

Mayor Grayson Vandegrift speaks at the Kentucky History Center
as Kirsten Hawley of Brown-Forman Corp., right, listens.
By Austyn Gaffney
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

Mayor Grayson Vandegrift told an audience in Frankfort Wednesday night that Midway’s fairness ordinance, prohibiting discrimination against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity, has been good for business.

“The argument as to whether fairness laws are bad for business is over,” said Vandegrift, one of three invited speakers at an American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky legislative reception. “And with every new job we create and every business that opens its doors and every person that feels that they and their loved ones are welcomed we will continue to show that fairness is good for business.”

Vandegrift led the City Council to make Midway the eighth city in Kentucky with the anti-discrimination measure, known by advocates as a “fairness ordinance.” Although state and federal civil rights laws ban discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, marital status, disability or national origin, they do not include sexual orientation and gender identity. In Kentucky, it is still legal to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment, and public accommodation, such as a business or restaurant. Fairness ordinances make discriminatory practices illegal within city or county limits.

“Like a lot of people, I assumed those protections already existed,” Vandegrift said. “When I ran for mayor it wasn’t on my radar.” Just three weeks into his term, the Woodford County Human Rights Commission presented the issue to him, and he quickly agreed to push it.

Opponents argued the ordinance would drive people out of business or drive businesses out of town. But instead, according to the mayor, the opposite happened, and businesses sought out Midway.

A year after passing the ordinance, the city projected a 33 percent increase in occupational-tax revenue and the Midway Station industrial park transformed as two new businesses announced their plans to open plants, Vandegrift noted. American Howa Kentucky Inc., an auto-parts manufacturer, promises to employee 88 full time workers. Lakeshore Learning Materials, an educational supply company from California, will open its first eastern distribution center, employing 262 full time workers and 140 seasonal workers.

“We’re about to experience a nearly 100 percent increase in jobs in a matter of a few years,” Vandegrift told supporters of the Kentucky Competitive Workforce Coalition, which favors fairness ordinances and a statewide law.

“So as not to appear disingenuous, I am not claiming all this growth is the because of a fairness ordinance,” the mayor said. “But it is indisputable that the ordinance did not cause hardship to our existing businesses, it did not drive employers out of town, and it did not keep companies from coming to Midway. And I’m happy to add that Lakeshore Learning Materials has expressed their support for our ordinance and laws like it.”

The Midway Messenger asked Lakeshore if its decision to locate here had anything to do with the fairness ordinance. The company declined to comment.

The coalition is a group of over 200 businesses, from small, locally owned businesses to large Fortune 500 Companies like PNC Bank, United Parcel Service, Humana and Brown-Forman. Kirsten Hawley, senior vice president and chief human resources officer of Brown-Forman, explained why her company is committed to the coalition’s work: “We know through 145 years of experience talent doesn’t come in one shape, one size, one color, one religious background, or one type of sexual orientation or identity.”

But the coalition recognizes it faces a long, uphill battle.

“A non-discrimination ordinance has been introduced for 17 or 18 years now, and has not gained enough support for passage,” said Michael Aldridge, director of Kentucky’s ACLU. “We were building and building more support over the years but with the November elections it looks unlikely within the General Assembly that a statewide anti-discrimination law will pass in the near future.”

In fact, bills with an opposite vision have been introduced in the 2017 General Assembly. House Bill 105, commonly known as the “religious freedom” bill, says no law or court shall take the place of “a person’s right of conscience” to stand by their religious beliefs. The bill threatens to reverse fairness ordinances, but leaders of the newly Republican House have indicated it won’t be heard.

Vandegrift finds it ironic that Rep. Rick Nelson, a Democrat from Middlesboro, filed the bill and one to ban transgender people’s use of bathrooms for the gender with which they identify.

“When he was running for state treasurer,” said Vandegrift, “I co-hosted a fundraiser for him. What’s funny is that the ordinance had just passed, and I find it funny he didn’t have a problem raising money here but then turns and files a bill saying we don’t have the right to govern ourselves on laws like this. You just can’t write this stuff.”

Vandegrift’s push for Midway to move towards fairness is noticed not only by the coalition, but by Woodford County citizens as well. Dan Brown, secretary of the Woodford County Human Rights Commission and a retired school teacher, shared a personal story.

“For 27 years I drove to school and almost every morning I worried a little bit that I could be fired for my sexual orientation,” said Brown. “That loss of energy and that amount of worry would give more vibrancy to city if you didn’t have to be concerned. It makes a city more welcoming to all people.”

He also shared that when he and his husband go out to eat now, they do so in Midway. “We’ve been together about 33 years. We’ve lived through a lot of being hidden just to survive but we feel very comfortable in Midway,” said Brown.

Aldridge said Midway was always a welcoming community, but attributed the success of the ordinance to Vandegrift.

“I really applaud his leadership,” said Aldridge. “I think he’s a leader we really need in other parts of the state.”

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Midway-connected Classic Empire moves back to top of prospect list for this year's Kentucky Derby

Debby and John Oxley of Midway's Fawn Leap Farm, left, with Classic
Empire after he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile stakes in early November.
Midway-connected Classic Empire is again the top prospect for the May 7 Kentucky Derby, after his subpar performance in the Holy Bull Stakes was attributed to a hoof abscess, but that temporary health problem means that trainer Mark Casse is no longer aiming for next Saturday's Fountain of Youth Stakes, reports columnist Tim Sullivan of The Courier-Journal.

"When Churchill Downs opened Pool 3 of its Kentucky Derby future wagers Friday afternoon, Classic Empire shared the shortest odds of any individual horse with McCraken, at 8-1. He continues to lead the points race for Derby qualifying," Sullivan reports. "Yet the abscess has changed and compressed the bay colt’s prep race schedule and effectively eliminates some of the wiggle room still available in the 10 weeks remaining before Derby 143. . . . Classic Empire may run only one more race en route to America’s biggest race."

Classic Empire is owned by John C. "Jack" and Debby Oxley, who have a home at their Fawn Leap Farm on the south edge of Midway, and is trained by Mark Casse. Son and assistant Norman Casse told Sullivan that the horse's next race is uncertain: "We’re kind of joking around, saying that he’s kind of training us. He’s telling us what he wants to do. We haven’t really lost any confidence in him, but he just has to go day to day and week to week and run when he’s really ready to run."

Today's Derby prep is the Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, the first race to offer 50 Derby points to the winner. The favorite is Mo Town, who has 10 points. McCraken, Gormley and El Areeb each have 20 Derby points; Classic Empire has 32. McCraken is slated to run in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby on Saturday, March 11.
UPDATE: Girvin won the Risen Star; Untrapped placed, getting 20 points for a total of 24; Local Hero was third and got 10; Guest Suite was fourth, getting five for a total of 15.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Midway Christian Church wins national recognition from denomination for its environmental stewardship

Midway Christian Church Board of Trustees Chair Sandy Gruzensky, Trustee Adele Dickerson and Pastor Heather McColl
pose in the church's rain garden, which uses native plants to conserve water and limit runoff. (Photo by Austyn Gaffney)
By Austyn Gaffney
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

Midway Christian Church, known locally for its environmental stewardship, is now nationally recognized for it.

For at least the last decade, the church made changes to its structure and services in line with the goal of “creation care,” a term for environmental stewardship representing the congregation’s belief that humans are stewards of divine creation. They believe creation care enacts God’s plan for a healthy and livable earth.

These changes were nationally recognized in 2015 when the church was honored in the “Cool Congregations” challenge organized by a religious non-profit, Interfaith Power and Light, that identified inspiring responses to global warming.

According to the challenge’s website, “Our unique stewardship program helps congregations engage their members in creation care by reducing individual greenhouse gas emissions and helps save hundreds of dollars in the process.”

The church's colorful bike rack is made from used bicycle parts,
from the Bluegrass Cycling Club. (Photo by Austyn Gaffney)
The church was one of six runner ups in the “Sacred Grounds Steward” category. Now certified as a Sacred Grounds church, the award recognizes changes to the church’s campus, including native landscaping and water conservation through two rain gardens, bicycle racks to promote cycling, and a robust recycling and composting program.

Also, the church’s improvements to its historic sanctuary, built in 1894, and its fellowship hall, included the installation of LED and motion-sensing lights, water-saving toilets and high-grade insulation.

“Creation care is now in the DNA of our church,” said the Rev. Heather McColl, pastor to about 60 regular attendees and 300 members. “It took a long journey to get us to this place.”

Sandy Gruzensky, chair of the church’s board of trustees, said she hopes the influence of creation care in the church’s decision-making will influence the broader community.

“We hope that the more people who see us choosing sustainability, the more our congregation and community will start to make changes intuitively,” Gruzesky said. “The changes become integrated. We’re leading by example.”

Green Campus

One catalyst for the church’s mission of creation care was a broken heating and air-conditioning system. In 2005, the church chose to replace duct-taped repairs with an energy-efficient system. The new system had a higher upfront cost, but saved money in the long run, Gruzensky said.

“The green philosophy was already there,” she  said. “We’re a small congregation and limited in our funding. When our first major project came along we decided to look at it as a long-term investment.”

The church’s dedication to environmental work continued to grow.

“I think our biggest project when we were going green was our kitchen, certified by the health department,” said McColl. “We were already pretty close, but we had to add a three-base sink and a mop sink. It really wasn’t that much.”

The certified kitchen allows the church to serve the general public at
monthly community dinners like this one at Thanksgiving in 2015.
McColl said this helped the church in two ways. First, it followed the church's mission to be a welcoming place for serving the community. A certified kitchen allows it to host free community dinners for the public every month, and during the annual Iron Horse Half Marathon, it feeds more than 100 visitors Weisenberger Mill pancakes in the fellowship hall. The kitchen also allows them to offer space to community members who want to make food products for the local farmers’ market.

Secondly, the kitchen moved the church forward in its mission of greening its campus. While planning how to serve such large groups of people, church leaders decided to stop buying styrofoam plates and instead took the dusty, reusable dishware out of the cabinet. Along with serving food on real plates, the church invested in eco-friendly cutlery and cups that are recyclable and compostable.

“People really appreciate it, when they know that they’re using sustainable stuff,” McColl said. “People notice that.”

The church’s creation care recently reached new heights dealing with a colony of bats occupying the belfry. Estimating a population in the thousands, Adele Dickerson, a church trustee, joked, “I think we probably had a case study.”

Dickerson, along with church members, found an ecologically sound way to remove the bats without exterminating them. She noted their importance in the life cycle, which includes eating mosquitoes.

“The method of bat exclusion works like a revolving door,” said Dickerson. “The bats can leave the belfry, but they can’t come back in.” The bat-friendly solution also required the church to upgrade the belfry’s insulation, reducing a potential fire hazard.

Green congregation

One of biggest promoters of the church’s “green” changes is Carol Devine, pastor of Providence Church in Nicholasville and minister of the Green Chalice program of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). 

One side of the church's historical
marker. (Photo by Austyn Gaffney)
“Midway’s identity has really become creation care, and I think the spirit is really strong in their commitment,” Devine said. “They’re a great example of walking more gently on the earth and doing their part. Churches large and small can learn from Midway, and [changes] don’t seem so overwhelming. Midway can take their vision to a national level and hopefully that will have a ripple effect.”

To become a Green Chalice congregation, the church followed three steps. Beginning in 2010, the church formed a Green Chalice team and adopted the Alverna Covenant, an agreement recognizing the human causes of climate change, and promising to create a more sustainable lifestyle, congregation, and community. Then, it declared three specific, identifiable acts of creation care: the new heating and air-conditioning system, the commercial kitchen, and the rain gardens.

One of 124 Green Chalice congregations in North America, the church is only one of eight that has received a Green Chalice certification, an honor bestowed on churches that show a strong devotion to creation care. It requires a rolling three-year commitment to continually improve four areas of the church: its buildings, its other property, its worship practices, and its education and outreach.

 “The Green Chalice program is a grassroots ministry that began in Kentucky,” Devine said. “In 2011, our ministry grew from a few passionate people in Kentucky to a movement throughout the U.S. and Canada.”

The Disciples of Christ’s work for ecological justice began much earlier, in 1977, when its General Assembly formed a Task Force on Ecology. The task force, made up of 18 Disciple members and staff, met at the Alverna Retreat Center near Indianapolis, and wrote the Alverna Covenant. The document is named after Mt. Alverna in Italy, where Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment, occasionally lived.

Forty years later, the church is still using this initial framework. Each year, before Earth Day on April 22, the congregation re-confirms its commitment to the Alverna Covenant. McColl emphasized its value, stating, “It’s important because it signals that it’s not just words. It’s a pledge, a covenant, a promise.”

Green Community

Church members didn’t accomplish these accolades alone. Their conservation efforts created partnerships with Midway Renaissance GreenSpace, Bluegrass Greensource, Third Rock Consulting, Woodford County High School, Equus Run Vineyard, Bluegrass Cycling Club, and other churches within the community.

The church was built in 1894. (Photo by Austyn Gaffney)
Gruzensky said her congregation’s reason for creation care always comes back to its larger community. She quoted Dr. Sharon Watkins, president of the Disciples of Christ: “We care about the earth, because we care about the people.”

After the presidential election, Dickerson and Gruzensky started organizing Food for the Soul, a bi-monthly Sunday dinner at the church. They discuss topics such as climate change and immigration.

McColl has considered moving their sentiment for community care into local advocacy.

“We’ve had conversations that our role may be changing from educators to advocates, and we’re asking what will that look like in this new political landscape,” McColl said. For example, McColl voiced her opposition to this month’s congressional vote to repeal the recently enacted Stream Protection Rule, allowing coal waste to continue leaching into Kentucky waterways.

With this possible new direction in mind, McColl will take the church’s story to the General Assembly of the Disciples of Christ in Indianapolis in July.

“We want to show that small churches can go green, and they don’t need major, expensive changes,” McColl said.

Reflecting on the future of her congregation and community, McColl said the church “will follow our basic tenet of faith: take care of our community and love one another.”

Monday, February 20, 2017

Council annexes, rezones for Lakeshore; OKs task force for brewery or distillery; talks trees, firefighters

Property annexed and rezoned (Tim Thompson survey; click image for larger)
The Midway City Council annexed more farmland for industry, heard plans for fire department training and pay, vented about recent tree work, and discussed attracting a brewery or distillery to the town, all at Monday night's regular meeting.

The council passed on second reading ordinances annexing 34.184 acres of the Homer M. Freeney property on the north side of Midway Station and changing its zoning from agricultural to light industrial. Lakeshore Learning Materials plans to use the property for the second phase of its distribution center, the first phase of which is under construction and promising 262 jobs. The rezoning ordinance included approval of a final development plan for the property.

Later in the meeting, Council Member John McDaniel asked if the city could put in its agreements with Lakeshore and American Howa Kentucky a requirement that they pre-treat their wastewater.

Mayor Grayson Vandegrift said the plants will have to follow city ordinances, and Council Member Bruce Southworth, a former water-sewer superintendent, said pre-treatment is required by ordinance.

Fire department: Vandegrift said his proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 will include money to train Midway firefighters as emergency medical technicians and raise the pay they get for making a run.

The mayor noted that the fire department has expanded its services to non-fire emergencies, and said having additional EMTs will help address the need for such services until Woodford County locates an ambulance station in the Midway area. He asked the Public Works and Services Committee to meet with Fire Chief Butch Armstrong and other members of the department to discuss details of the training.

UPDATE: The committee is scheduled to meet at 1:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27 at City Hall. All council and committee meetings are open to the public.

Tree treatment: Council Member Sara Hicks said Kentucky Utilities "left limbs all over my yard" when cutting trees recently, including some prickly holly branches, and asked if the council had any way to get the electric company to do better. Southworth said, "They should have cleaned all that up."

Vandegrift said he could inform KU of the council's feelings, but then Council Member Libby Warfield weighed in. She said the company had failed to reply to her complaint "as a private citizen" about sloppy tree-trimming on West Cross Street, "and it's still really a big mess over there. I think we need to really fuss about it." Vandegrift said he would draft a letter to KU.

Bourbon or beer? With the council's approval, Vandegrift appointed a task force to explore the possibility of attracting a brewery or distillery to Midway. He said some vacant buildings in the downtown area "would be perfect" for either purpose, and noted that the town has "a long history" of distilling. The last distillery closed around 1940.

Members of the task force are McDaniel, former council member Dan Roller and Steve and Julie Morgan, owners of Kentucky Honey Farms.

McDaniel said Country Boy Brewing, which recently opened a brewery in Georgetown, looked at Midway two and a half years ago. "They were wanting to do it over here but we didn't have any place that was big enough," he said.

Other business: The council's packet included a list of prioritized ideas from the council's recent special meeting, with major goals in boldface and assigned to council committees. For an abridged copy of the council packet, click here.

When Vandegrift said the city's revised website has been up for a while and has saved money by consolidating services through its information-technology vendor, Hicks suggested that the goals be added to the site.

Warfield asked what had happened to the city's bid to take the old Weisenberger Mill Bridge when it is replaced, with plans to put it in Walter Bradley Park. Vandegrift said the replacement project seems to have stalled, perhaps because of local opposition to the state's planned two-lane bridge. "As far as I know they have not been acquiring property," he said.

Warfield asked about her request for a stop sign at Cottage Grove in North Ridge Estates. Vandegrift said he thought putting up a sign might be counterproductive, because it could cause an accident, but he said he would seek an expert's opinion. When Warfield said, "It's not to get people to stop, it's to get people to slow down, Vandegrift said he could put the city's radar speed-limit sign at the intersection. "That would be helpful," Warfield replied.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Bill Penn’s book, Kentucky Rebel Town, is a lifetime achievement; reading Thursday evening at library

Penn poses with his book outside his Midway Museum Store.
Story and photos by Austyn Gaffney
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

It could be said that Bill Penn’s book, Kentucky Rebel Town: The Civil War Battles of Cynthiana and Harrison County, is 55 years old.

Penn, co-owner of the Historic Midway Museum Store, first wrote about “the best rebel town of our native state,” a Confederate officer’s reference to Cynthiana, in 1962. Dr. Thomas D. Clark, University of Kentucky history professor and founder of the University Press of Kentucky, taught Penn in his History of Kentucky course. Penn turned in a 40-page paper on his hometown of Cynthiana, the seed of his future book.

Although Penn never went back to school, the history bug never left him. In 1995, he synthesized research he had done since his undergraduate years, self-publishing the book Rattling Spurs and Broad Brimmed Hats. The title was a quote from a letter on Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate raiders who rode through Cynthiana.

When Penn sent the book to Clark, his old professor wrote back: “One can never tell where bread he casts upon waters will come floating home.” His proud appreciation of Penn’s book encouraged Penn to do further research. He expanded his study to nearly 400 pages of historical text, published by the University Press of Kentucky last fall.

Penn will give a reading at the Midway branch of the Woodford County Public Library at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16, and will be at the Northern Kentucky Regional History Day at the Boone County Library for a workshop on his book March 25.

The Kentucky Civil War Bugle editor, Ed Ford, said of Penn’s work: “Penn deserves an “A” for his research and another “A” for his skill in effectively pulling the story together.”

Close-up of cover shows cropped image.
Penn’s insistence on historical precision begins with the book’s cover. The painting of the Civil War emblazoned on the bottom half comes from Frankfort.

“The battle is realistic,” said Penn, “But an anomaly exists in the bottom right.” According to Penn, rifles are shown instead of a cannon atop a wheeled carriage. Because a cannon carriage is more historically accurate to the time period, Penn had the University Press cut off the image at the carriage wheel.

His research is undoubtedly a labor of love. Unable to find any Civil War battlefield maps of Cynthiana, Penn studied primary texts of citizens and soldiers. The extensive analysis allowed him to redraw battlefield maps for Morgan’s raids, and the subsequent first and second Battles of Cynthiana.

According to Penn, there is an assumption that Morgan rode through town on horseback shooting guns and quickly leaving. But Morgan and his troops actually dismounted and fought bigger battles in Harrison County.

Morgan raided Cynthiana because of its tactical position bordering the Kentucky Central Railroad. But his interest in Cynthiana may have also been its initial pro-Southern leanings. State Rep. and slave-owner Lucius Desha advertised for Southern sympathizers to join a volunteer company led by his sons. At the beginning of the Civil War, a Confederate flag flew from the Harrison County Courthouse.

Penn did several maps. (Click on image for larger version)
Reviewer Lawrence K. Peterson of Civil War News was impressed with Penn’s distinctive story. In his article, “A Gem Concerning Middle Kentucky,” Peterson stated, “This book is a gem for two sets of students of the Civil War: those interested in the fighting in Kentucky other than Richmond/Perryville, and those interested in civilian life during the war.”

Those interested in civilian life can also look forward to Penn’s next book. “A project I had started before I finished this was a history of Midway and northern Woodford County horse farms,” said Penn. “And I laid that aside. I’ve done two chapters of that, I’ve done one on the settlement period around this area from the first surveyors. They actually camped near here. And then I’ve written a chapter on the Civil War period here.”

Penn is obviously a hard worker, but is anything but self-congratulatory.

“I plagiarized all I could,” Penn joked when asked how long it took to complete the book. He teased Dr. James Ramage, a history professor at Northern Kentucky University, when Ramage visited Penn’s shop. “Dr. Ramage was in here about a month ago,” Penn said. “I told him that I had stolen all I could out of his book on John Hunt Morgan.”

Joking aside, Penn’s love of history continues to guide his life. Penn interrupted the Midway Messenger’s interview to greet a customer purchasing books on Versailles from his store’s upstairs library. Hopping up from his stool, Penn ran upstairs to get another book to “throw in” for free.

“This is a prize,” Penn told the customer, handing him a book on the architecture in Versailles. “I just want someone who’s interested to have it.”

“He forgets we have bills to pay,” Leslie Penn teased her husband. Bill Penn smiled and insisted on the gift. History, for him, is just that, a gift.

Penn poses in the upstairs library and bookstore of his and wife Leslie's Midway Museum Store.