Kentucky: The Bluegrass State

The state is named after the Kentucky River, which, in turn, probably got its name from an Iroquois term meaning "meadow". Kentucky is known as the Bluegrass State, which refers to the pastures with their blue-green grass in the months of March and April. The most important cities are the capital Frankfort, followed by Louisville, Lexington, Owensboro, Covington and Bowling Green. The capital with a population of 26,000 in the middle of the bluegrass region is a trans-shipment center for corn, tobacco, and thoroughbred horses. Industrial good produced here include textile products, electronic equipment, and bourbon whiskey. The Capitol (1910), which was modeled after the Capitol in Washington D.C., and the Liberty Hall are especially worth seeing.

Kentucky became the 15th state of the United States on June 1, 1792. Since Kentucky is located right between the traditional Northern and Southern states, it remained in the Union during the Civil War, even though many Kentuckians also fought on the side of the Confederation. Depending on historic circumstances and geographical position, people didn’t always know whether they belonged to the North or the South. And two of the state’s most famous citizens suddenly were political enemies during the Civil War (1861-1865): Abraham Lincoln as the President of the Union and Jefferson Davis as the President of the Confederation.

Until the mid-1920s, Kentucky’s economy was dominated by agriculture. From the 1920s on, the service and industry sector started to become the most important economic factors. Same as in many other rural regions, cultural life in Kentucky centers around the old “traditions” of the American South. Looking at the various country musicians and singers such as Bill Ray Cyrus or Loretta Lynn who were born in this state, you have to, at least to a certain extent, rethink the cliché of the neighboring Tennessee being the exclusive birthplace of that type of music. Even some renowned jazz musicians are from Kentucky, for example Al Casey and Lionel Hampton. In addition, a special jazz type was created in Kentucky by Earl Scruggs and others, the so-called bluegrass jazz, even named after the state’s nickname.

Thoroughbred horses, whiskey, and George Clooney

Kentucky is famous for its thoroughbred horses and the Kentucky Derby, that takes place every since 1875 on the Churchill Downs near Louisville. The high standing that the horses and the 381 stud farms have in the population’s collective consciousness, was impressively demonstrated by the 2,000 mourners who attended the funeral of famous racing horse “Man o’ War” in Lexington in 1947. Even in modern times, pictures of horses are used for the background of official homepages. Another famous horse, Seabiscuit, was remembered both in literature and film.

Also the whiskey that is made here is world-famous. 90 percent of all bourbon whiskey consumed world-wide is from Kentucky. The special “toasting” procedure, during which the insides of the hickory wood barrels are exposed to a small flame for 45 seconds, gives the whiskey its special aroma. It produces a charcoal layer that contains sugar, which has been extracted from the wood by oxidation. The whiskey has to mature for four years, and due to the very hot summers and very cold winters in Kentucky, it rapidly expands and contracts into and out of the caramelized charcoal layer, absorbs the sugar and thus acquires its special flavor.

Some famous actors are from Kentucky. It was, however, not the real first stepping stone into their career. For them, the cultural offers of the direct neighborhood were an incentive to get out of the mostly rural area. For George Clooney, it was the active radio culture in Chicago, where his father was one of the top dogs. For Irene Dunne, on the other hand, it was the showboat-steamships she saw on her fathers steamboat inspection trips down in the South of Kentucky on the Mississippi River.