It thus became symbolic of the slavery line dividing the North and the South, with Louisville to the south. Further confusing the issue was that, despite the fact that Kentucky was a slave state, it was horribly divided over the issue while declaring itself officially neutral. Still, the Mason-Dixon Line placed Kentucky in the South — a historical starting point.
It’s a point picked up by Metro Councilman and University of Louisville archivist Tom Owen, who quite literally knows the city backward and forward as he leads tours of its streets walking in both directions. Owen added another historical iron to the fire by reminding us that up until the Civil War, Louisville actually had an image as a western city — partly because much of the Great Midwest hadn’t yet been invented in the minds of the Easterners who made such decisions.
Owen went on to list a few more “stream of consciousness” points in the North-South debate, such as:
“Our city hall has a stone billboard over its main entrance depicting a steam locomotive headed toward a palm tree. The billboard celebrates our city’s ‘doing the Deep South hustle.’”
“The Kentucky Derby, with its natty gentlemen, brightly costumed women, and sweet, minty drinks is a welcome to Southern springtime.”
“We have a Confederate soldier monument despite the fact that Louisvillians contributed many more Union troops than Confederate.”
“A giant neon sign atop a waterside LG&E power plant once welcomed visitors coming across the Clark Bridge with the words: ‘Welcome to Louisville: The Gateway to the South.’”
Owen left no doubt where Louisville historically stood in his eyes: “If you lived where slavery existed, do you live in the South? My answer is YES!” And yet he went on to mention a Louisville and Kentucky icon that has helped to soften that blow: “The Kentucky Colonel is a genial, tamed old Confederate who innocuously connects both North and South and takes the sting out of the Civil War bitterness,” Owen said. (Here’s the kicker to that thought: Our beloved chicken-pushing, finger-lickin’ Kentucky Colonel — Harland Sanders — was born in Henryville, Ind.)
Louisville cannot be considered a Southern city horticulturally speaking. The traditional Southern magnolia, most camellias, the Southern live oak and the ever-popular loropetalum shrub — all of which grace Southern gardens — will struggle here. The magnolias will burn an ugly brown in our winters, many camellias will perish and the live oaks will host no Spanish moss. Indeed, any annual or perennial flower, shrub or tree that will do well across the lower Midwest will also do well in Louisville.
Even more confusing, the multi-tasking tulip poplar is the state tree of Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky, although at one point the Kentucky coffee tree was given that honor in Kentucky. At least there’s never been an Indiana coffee tree.
On the economic front we turned to Paul Coomes, professor of economics at the University of Louisville, the local go-to guy on business forecasting — who got his master’s at Indiana University and is a direct descendant of the original 1772 settlers at Fort Harrod, Ky.
“Louisville,” declared Coomes at the outset, “is at its core a Midwestern city,” linking Louisville with the other Midwestern-type industrial towns that grew up along the Ohio River — Cincinnati, Evansville and Owensboro among them. “You can go right down the river and see those towns, the old factories,” he said. “Maybe some people think Louisville is Southern. I don’t.”
Coomes pointed out that Louisville has long been more of a union town, something you don’t see in the South. He said every state south of Kentucky is a “right-to-work state” in which you cannot be required to join a union or pay dues, which is not the case here or in Indiana.
“You go about 40 miles south of Louisville and it starts to become Southern,” he said, “and Lexington feels Southern.”
As a closer to his argument, Coomes pointed out a comment professional golfer Mark O’Meara made about coming to Louisville for this year’s Senior PGA Championship. “O’Meara,” Coomes explained, “said he liked coming to the Midwest because the crowds are so enthusiastic.”