This article appears in the May 2011 issue of LouisvilleMagazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
As a Hoosier who has happily worked in Louisville for 36 years, I generally deal with the cultural geography that comes with all that by simply explaining: “I live in the Midwest and work in the South.” It’s a fun explanation that also sinks right to the bottom of the stereotypes we all still too easily harbor when any particular state or region comes up for discussion: Hoosiers are honest, conservative, mostly agrarian folk who dine on cow’s milk, apple pie and hayseeds; Kentuckians — still wary of the spoken and written word, and shoes — mostly believe Yale is a door lock and dine on moonshine, ham hocks and bluegrass.
Running through the middle of all that — at least in the Louisville area — is the mile-wide Ohio River, which, until the Big Four Bridge walkway is completed, allowing actual personal contact between the populaces of the two states, still serves as a mighty buffer for which passports might as well be required.
Thus we all live with the most ugly, awkward, lame and inane geographical term ever given a bi-state area: Kentuckiana.
Yes, Louisville is in Kentucky, which few would want to confuse with the Midwest.
And yet about 200 years after its creation the nagging question remains: Is Louisville more Southern or Midwestern in character — if not culture — and how did it get that way? Adding even more confusion is that seasonally Southern, first-Saturday-in-May, Kentucky Derby thing, which in truth adds more of a world-class and glamorous Hollywood flavor, if not international flair, to the city.
The North and South are different places, and Hoosiers and Kentuckians don’t like to consider themselves very much alike, especially during basketball season — the largest divide of all. But outside of good state government — which Indiana wins by at least 30 lengths — what is the real difference, especially along the Ohio River? Are the people and attitudes in New Albany or Jeffersonville that much different than they are in Louisville?
Actually, not even the rest of the commonwealth seems to think of Louisville as being Southern — or, for that matter, should even be located in their state. Name the first — or last — Louisvillian elected governor of Kentucky. (No, you can’t count merger-attached Middletown.) In many minds, the city only exists to continually shovel a lot more tax money in Frankfort’s direction than it will ever get back.
My belief is that Louisville may have begun Southern — mostly settled by surveyors, adventurers and business types from Virginia — and then drifted north by northeast toward Midwestern status with the economic and Civil War tides.
To seek more definitive answers to the question, I’ve added the voices and opinions of a few native Louisvillians and demographic professionals — not to forget a few Cracker Barrel restaurant employees — to put the whole matter in final perspective.
So y’all follow along as we discuss our not-so-great North-South divide in fun, frivolous, historic, attitudinal, cultural, athletic, linguistic, culinary and even horticultural terms.
We’ll begin the analysis with some distant history: the original North-South dividing line, the Mason-Dixon Line. It was created in the 1760s by surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon to serve as a demarcation line in a border dispute between the colonies of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and Virginia. Back then the inland side of Virginia was still considered the “rugged west” and George Rogers Clark was still about 15 years away from founding Louisville. The Mason-Dixon Line would form Pennsylvania’s southern border, but would head west to the Ohio River and in time — and in mind — continue along the Ohio River to the Mississippi River.