I am driving through “horsey country” Kentucky – with more than 450 horse farms in the region, Lexington is the “the horse capital of the world”. On this brilliant morning I find myself humming “the sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home” as the road meanders through bucolic farmland with horses frolicking in pastures behind pristine white rail fences and elaborate gates, where they live in majestic barns that look nothing like a barn. I get a distinct feeling that these horses consider this routine instead of eye-popping. There really is nothing quite like the beauty of these rolling hills to take your breath away.
I learn that for a mere $7,300,000, I could make my mark in the Bluegrass – 365 acres, historic 1830’s main residence, magnificent formal gardens, a carriage house, 5 barns with 74 stalls, indoor arena and 3 auxiliary residences. Temptation flickers.
Back to reality, everywhere you look you see all things horse, murals of horses, horse statues, horse parks and farms. My destination is the Kentucky Horse Park – 1,200 acres of lush pastures, pristine grounds, a showcase of museums, galleries, theaters and nearly 50 breeds of horses – all dedicated to man’s relationship with the horse and the almighty attraction. The winter season slow-down combined with Covid 19 restrictions make for a quiet day at the park. I am thinking about the only horse I ever knew – a tiny pony who lived in my parents field by the old barn – he was pure evil – he would ransack your pockets for carrots or sugar cubes and if you failed to bring any he would rip open your jacket in annoyance – he once escaped his enclosure and it took approximately half the population of Cave City and all the city police cars to corner him – clearly my understanding of the bond between horse and man is antidotal. I am alone in the theater while viewing the introductory film – ‘Rein of Nobility’, which brings the story of the horse to life and serves as an introduction to the special world of the horse found at the park. The trolley isn’t operating but it is a pleasant day for walking. There are hundreds of horse stories to be found in the park and I am sure you will all have your favorite but for now I am sharing the story that touched my heart. I would like to introduce you to Sergeant Reckless. She was a war horse for the US Marines during the Korean War. Purchased for just $250, the Mongolian mare would prove to be an important addition to the Marines. During the Battle of Outpost Vegas in 1953, Sgt Reckless made 51 trips in a single day to carry ammunition from the supply camp to the front lines. The majority of these trips, Reckless completed by herself. The little mare carried close to five tons of ammunition; walking almost 35 miles while under enemy fire. She also carried wounded soldiers from the front lines on the return trip. Even after being wounded herself, Sgt. Reckless didn’t slow down or stop. She was loved and respected by the Marines she served with and her amazing performance during the Battle and throughout the war lead to her being promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant. Sgt. Reckless was given two Purple Hearts along with many other Military Decorations for her service. Sgt Reckless died in May of 1968 and was buried with full military honors at Camp Pendleton.
Lexington is also rich in history, so back in town I visit Mary Todd Lincoln House, the girlhood home of the First Lady. This simple two story brick building was built in 1803 as an inn called “The Sign of the Green Tree” before its purchase by the Todd family. Mary Todd was not born at this house but moved here with her family in 1832 when she was 14 years old. The elegant simplicity of Mary Todd Lincoln’s early home exemplifies the sure taste of a southern aristocracy that lived with all the grace of its eastern and European counterparts. In the Todd drawing room, Nelson, the family butler, splendid in his swallow-tailed livery, served his famous iced juleps to an aristocratic circle. It was here that Mary eventually married a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln in 1842. Here in Lexington, as Mary Todd’s husband, Lincoln had access to a dazzling array of political minds, including that of his “beau ideal of a statesman,” Henry Clay, whose rhetoric and arguments against slavery resonated clearly through many of Lincoln’s speeches. The Mary Todd Lincoln house is the first historic site restored in honor of a First Lady.
A contemporary, good friend and close neighbor of Mary Todd’s father Robert S. Todd, Kentucky statesman Henry Clay built his mansion, Ashland, in 1812 in Lexington. Clay served as a U.S. Senator from Kentucky, Speaker of the House, Secretary of State, and a 3-time Presidential candidate, known as the “Great Compromiser”. His estate, Ashland, which features a walled garden and walking trails is as beautiful inside as out. It sits on 20 acres that are a National Historic Landmark, the centerpiece of the famous ‘Millionaires Row’ neighborhood. The gorgeous streets of mansions on well-manicured lawns have a definite “old money” vibe. Brick walls, iron gates, grand entrances and tall well-trimmed hedges in a storybook setting makes walking this neighborhood a must for anyone who appreciates elegant older homes. Its curving lanes and mature trees are the result of thoughtful planning by the famous Olmsted brothers in the late 1800s. In fact, the entire neighborhood is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
This may seem an unlikely stop but Lexington Cemetery is worth a visit. Not only is Henry Clay buried at Lexington Cemetery, but other notables are also buried within the 160 acres. This cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is one of the prettiest cemeteries I have seen. Not only did I find an arboretum, gardens and a small lake, but a 130-foot tall Henry Clay monument sticking up above the trees. They say that Henry Clay is looking towards his beloved Ashland estate.
My day is in the final lap but I couldn’t cross the finish line until I sample some blue ribbon Kentucky fare… the famous Brown Hotel, where the iconic Hot Brown was born, is not open to indoor dining but I was able to get take out – in case you haven’t been lucky enough to try this treat, believe me it is something special. Served open-faced this sandwich of turkey, bacon and mornay sauce is broiled to a golden perfection. So delicious… and by great good fortune my take out order came with a bag of bourbon balls – this rich candy is made with bourbon in a cream center dipped in dark chocolate with a pecan on top – it’s a good thing there were only three in the bag. If you were here I would drive to Frankfort, KY to visit Rebecca Ruth Chocolates, where two twenty-something school teachers, Rebecca Hanly and Ruth Gooch opened a chocolate shop and in 1938 invented the Bourbon Ball. My last stop of the day, Kern’s Kitchen for a Derby Pie – this beloved chocolate walnut pie is Kentucky’s most treasured dessert – with good reason, it is mouthwatering!
And, now in the words of that Country Music Super Star from Kentucky – Billy Ray Cyrus …
You know what, I’m done, done, done
I’m gonna take my horse
To the old town road
I’m gonna ride ‘til I can’t no more…
Happy Valentine’s Day!
If you remember, I discovered the Commonwealth of Virginia’s famous LOVE signs project during a stop at the historic Humpback Bridge, one Hump Day. Promoting the 50th Anniversary of the iconic “Virginia is for Lovers” slogan, LOVEworks spell out L-O-V-E and have resulted in over 200 LOVE signs. I promptly set out on a quest to find as many as I could. Today, in honor of upcoming Valentine’s Day, I am sharing my assemblage of LoveWork signs, to send you all some LOVE. I love the LOVE art, and hope you do too. At the end of the day I was only able to visit a small number but hope/plan to see more on future trips to Virginia.
My favorites to date are pictured from top left:
Despite its incorrectly spelled name, Culpeper has a fascinating history. Originally it was a crossroads for armies marching through Virginia during the Civil War; and is home to The State Theater, an art deco theater opened in 1938. The theater has had several lives, including playing a part during segregation and being reborn and partnering with The Library of Congress. It is currently closed but shines a light on the fact that movies and the arts have always been a major part of the city’s history. This history is reflected in the Culpeper Loveworks sign called “Reel LOVE” which is made of movie reels.
The beautiful LOVE sign in Lovettsville VA was installed on Loving Day. By a town proclamation, that day honors the date the United States Supreme Court in 1967 officially legalized interracial marriage—a decision sparked by the case of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple from Virginia who were arrested and banished from the commonwealth after returning home from their wedding in 1958. Designed by artist Jill Evans-Kavladjian, is one of the most beautiful in graphic design, bringing to mind a LOVE stamp.
The Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Railroad Trail runs 45 miles along a former rail roadbed through urban heartland and into the Virginia countryside. The Leesburg community wanted their sculpture to reflect their love of the W&OD. To honor this wish, artist and metal fabricator, Mike Clay designed this unique metal work, titled ‘Velo Love’ comprised of bicycle parts set in a steel channel as a tribute to the flock of bike riders ever present on the trail. Local businesses and bicycle shops donated the hundreds of gears and other pieces he needed.
At its heart Roanoke is a rail town. As such, the LOVEwork sign ties into Roanoke’s rail heritage, incorporating the word “LOVE” into a playful depiction of a train engine and engineer anchored in a wooden railroad tie. This whimsical sculpture was designed by well known Roanoke artist Erik Fitzpatrick and celebrates the iconic locomotives created by the tradesmen of Southwest Virginia.
The LOVE sign in Wytheville, (pronounced with-ville) honors aspects of Wythevilles’s history that have made an impact on the community.
L represents the influence of the railroad
O showcases a hot air balloon in honor of the annual Chautauqua Festival
V depicts the crossroads of two interstates, I-77 and I-81
E made of baseball bats is an homage to the town’s baseball history; a series of Minor League Baseball teams, dating back to 1948.
Wytheville is home to First Lady Edith Bowling Wilson birthplace museum. Her story embodies Heritage – a proud, prominent Virginia family, direct descendants of Pocahontas; History – that of the 35th First Lady of the United States; and Romance – between a “lovesick” President and a forward-thinking widow.
There are as many ways to illustrate LOVE as there are things to love, and Virginia has given us a treasure trove. I love Art. I love Travel. I love hitting the open road and finding new places and things to love. And I LOVE sharing it all with all of you.
To quote John Lennon, “All You Need Is Love!”, and it’s a great message to share, so I hope you’ll pass it on. LOVE is everything, and these days the world needs love more than it has in generations.
Love, and Be Well,
The story of one of Virginia’s great but largely forgotten artists!
February and the countdown to Valentine Day begins so I thought I would do something different and share my visit to the 18th- century Belmont estate, country home and studio of prominent American Impressionist painter Gari Melchers. Although the museum is only a faint sign on Interstate 95, I was intrigued. Who was Melchers, and why hadn’t I heard of him?
What I found was a stately manor, welcoming, unpretentious inside with a feeling that happy people lived happy lives here, art that lifted my spirits and a great love story… Corrine Lawton Mackall and Gari Melchers.
He was one of the most successful painters of his time, sought out by the rich and famous. She was a beautiful, young art student, and his biggest fan.
Gari Melchers was one of America’s greatest early twentieth century painters on par with John Singer Sargent. At the young age of 29, he and Sargent became the first two American painters to receive a Grand Prize at the Paris Exposition. Bucking the starving-artist stereotype, Melchers enjoyed great financial success; he painted Vanderbilt’s, Roosevelts and Mellon as well as important murals such of “Peace and War” in the Library of Congress.
By the time Corrine would meet him he was already established as renowned artist. While sailing to Italy on the S.S. Aller in April 1902 with her mother, Corrine learned one of her fellow passengers was Melchers. “I am prostrate and overjoyed,” wrote 21-year-old Corinne Mackall in her diary, “at finding Gari Melchers’ name on the passenger list and keep all eyes open to see him.” She found him. Despite a 20-year age difference, the young art student and the famous artist married a year later, and they shared a wonderful love story, a life devoted to art and to each other.
When World War I broke out, Melcher grew uncomfortable living in Germany. He and Corinne returned to American in 1915 and purchased Belmont which was home for the remainder of their lives.
“There’s a story told about his early days in Falmouth. Dressed in overalls, he headed down the dirt road toward Nelson Berry’s Store. Inside the store, two local residents gave him a friendly greeting and inquired about his occupation. ‘I paint,’ replied the artist. Exchanging amused glances, they shook their heads, and one broke the news to their new neighbor, saying, ‘Well, mister, you won’t get much work ‘round here, ’cause we jist whitewash.’”
Melchers’ years in Virginia were prolific, in volume and in diversity. He painted landscapes, still life’s and religious subjects, but portraits were his mainstay. When he was at Belmont, he painted prominent Virginians such as Douglas Southall Freeman and Governor John Garland Pollard. But his favorite subjects were the everyday people and scenes of rural life he encountered in and around Fredericksburg.
Corrine, for her part, filled her days as lady of the manor, as a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy, as founder of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which still owns one of her oil paintings, helping to ensure the restoration of the nearby Kenmore estate of George Washington’s sister, founder of the local garden club, and when she had time painting.
Melchers died at Belmont in 1932. Corinne remained there another 23 years – until her own death in 1955, promoting her husband’s work and cultivating his reputation along with her roses and tulips. Her last act of devotion to her husband’s memory was to turn the Belmont estate which together they had enhanced with gardens, nature trails to the state of Virginia. The home is filled with an eclectic mix of antiques and decorative items they collected. Though Melchers didn’t allow his own art to hang in the house during his lifetime, several of his works are now on display. Because Corinne meticulously kept everything as it was when they both lived together you can see the life that she and the man she called ‘my artist’ lived.
Melchers was not only a gifted painter whose works appear in many of the finest museums in the United States, he gave his time to the development of the National Gallery of Art in DC. In recognition of his services to the larger art community, the Gari Melchers Memorial Medal was named in his honor. I leave wondering if he’d be dismayed at his position in the history of art. Surely, he died thinking his art would have a lasting impact, that his would be a household name. But, the museum says they are seeing a resurgence of interest… so maybe his time is yet to come? Maybe all our better days are still ahead. When I think that way, I can’t wait for the next bend in the road. Especially if it brings us together again.