August 7, 2013
For generations now, students have been taught that Abraham Lincoln was the first native Kentuckian to be U.S. President.
Technically speaking, however, that’s not true.
To better understand the background of this little-known historical fact, we have to go back to Saturday, March 3, 1849, when President James Polk officially ended his term. Because the next person elected to serve – Zachary Taylor, who called Louisville home for many years – did not want to be sworn in until Monday, that meant the President Pro Tem of the U.S. Senate was the leader of our country, if only for a day.
That person happened to be the Missouri Senator David Rice Atchison, who grew up in Fayette County and went to school at what is now Transylvania University. For what it’s worth, he did not take his newfound responsibility seriously; he later said he had slept through most of it because of late days in the Senate during the previous week.
In a state that has been home to quite a few famous citizens – from Lincoln and Henry Clay to Colonel Sanders and Loretta Lynn – many others like Sen. Atchison can also claim a bit of history.
There are three people, for example, who played major roles in some of our annual celebrations. Many believe Henderson teacher Mary S. Wilson held the first official observance of Mother’s Day, in 1887, while two Louisville sisters are credited with penning the words to “Happy Birthday.”
In the latter half of the 1800s, a Kentucky Civil War veteran earned a distinction that would later land him in the Guinness Book of World Records as half of the tallest couple ever to marry.
Martin Van Buren Bates, from Letcher County, and his bride were both well over seven feet in height. He was so tall, in fact, that it was said his feet nearly touched the ground when he rode his horse as part of the 7th Kentucky Calvary.
In a more somber war-related matter, another Kentuckian – Corporal James Bethel Gresham of McLean County – became our country’s first casualty at the start of World War I. Two Kentuckians won Medals of Honor during that war, with Fort Thomas resident Captain Samuel Woodfall called one of the country’s most gallant soldiers by General John Pershing, the leader at the time of American forces fighting in Europe.
In other notable distinctions, Nathan Stubblefield of Murray was an early pioneer in broadcasting, with the General Assembly once declaring him the true father of radio; Frederick Vinson of Louisa became Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (and was born in front of a jail); and Zerelda James – the mother of famed outlaw Jesse James – was born in one of the oldest buildings still standing in Kentucky; it’s located in Woodford County.
Not all famous Kentuckians were human. In 1934, Governor Ruby Laffoon elevated the profile of a police dog named Patsy, who had been convicted of killing a sheep and was set to be put down. When the wife of a state senator agreed to take the dog in, and remove the dog far from the scene of the “crime,” Gov. Laffoon agreed to provide a full pardon.
There are plenty more stories like these, with each providing another reason why Kentucky will always be one of the most interesting states in the country. Many of these people may not make the history books, but they had an impact on us just the same.