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  • "Let's Buy It!"Tourism and the My Old Kentucky Home Campaign in Jim Crow Kentucky
  • Emily Bingham (bio)

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Federal Hill, Bardstown, Kentucky, with cover of sheet music for original 1853 lyrics of Stephen Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night." filson historical society / library of congress

This essay relates the birth of Kentucky's earliest house museum and perhaps the first plantation not tied to a US president to open to the public. Between 1900 and 1920 a onetime hit of the blackface minstrel stage became a sonic centerpiece at major public celebrations and civic occasions. Its sentimental power and political usefulness intensified for several key reasons. The song's plantation setting and nostalgic mood provided a ready soundtrack to the culture of "reunification" between Southern and Northern whites, an absolution for racial exploitation past and present. Additionally, "My Old Kentucky Home" served as a winning antidote to [End Page 27] Kentucky's tarnished public image and a way to package a complex history for tourist consumption. Kentucky—a slave state that remained in the Union—capitalized on an explicitly slave-based, Southern past, with elected officials playing an unusually prominent role. These events unfolded as expanding automobile ownership and popular demand for authentic markers of heritage fueled a burgeoning American tourist economy. Linking the popular melody to this specific geographical site and "museumizing" the home occupied by three generations of the Rowan family shifted the imagery relating to "My Old Kentucky Home" from a lowly cabin (the dwelling Foster's lyrics mentioned) to a mansion and its slaveholding white owners.1

On July 4, 1923, thousands massed under the spreading trees on a wide lawn outside Bardstown, Kentucky, for the ceremonial opening of the place where Stephen Foster (1826–1864) was said to have penned the beloved 1853 song, "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night." Deeded to the Commonwealth of Kentucky and paid for with contributions from a private fundraising campaign and a legislative appropriation, the imposing 1818 brick mansion known as Federal Hill was conceived as a "shrine" to Foster and a symbolic "home for all" Kentuckians that would welcome visitors from near and far. It remains today as a state park, host since 1959 to the outdoor summer musical The Stephen Foster Story and, according to its website, "Kentucky's most famous and beloved historic site."2

The movement to open an Old Kentucky Home to the public ties discourses around this border state's post–Civil War self-fashioning to the broader development of heritage tourism in the United States, particularly in former slaveholding states between the two world wars. Kentucky's early historic iconography centered on the promises and tribulations associated with the frontier—Daniel Boone and other pioneers carving a white Eden out of rich but dangerous territory. By the mid-1920s, with Foster's song as a centerpiece, Kentucky had painted its past as a progression from savagery to simple pioneer settlements to prosperous slave plantations shattered by the Civil War. It was a narrative heavy with political meaning in a state where far more people had fought for the Union than the Confederacy. Around the turn of the century, Confederate organizations, often led by women and supported by Democrats, claimed space in Kentucky for public memorials valorizing the Lost Cause and defending the antebellum order. In the same period, a group of mainly male, mainly Republican leaders conceived and managed the "My Old Kentucky Home—Let's Buy It" crusade to spur economic growth by honoring an American master songwriter born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Both their efforts ultimately presented Kentucky to its own citizens and tourists as an essentially Southern place where slavery, if unfortunate, was benevolent, and affirmed how irresistible an idealized Old South historic imaginary featuring contented "darkies" and a romantic planter elite was to the vast majority of white Americans.3

The 1923 celebration at Federal Hill marked the fulfillment of one man's effort to rescue an artist who by 1900 had "lapsed into intangible and sentimental memory." [End Page 28] Young E. Allison (1853–1932), a Henderson, Kentucky–born Republican journalist and Bluegrass State booster, figured in nearly...


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