Every year about Kentucky State Fair time, someone reminds me of the old man with a long white beard and walking stick who trudged barefoot to the state fair each year to watch the World Championship Horse Show.
If you were at the fair during the 1960s or before, you may have seen him there, or walking along a highway en route, always with the legs of his bib overalls rolled up to mid-calf.
Charles Ben Wilson was born in Anderson County in 1883 and grew up on a farm in the Alton Station community near Lawrenceburg.
He loved horses and could recite the pedigree of most prominent Saddlebreds.
Ben, a lifelong bachelor, was eccentric to be sure, but neighbors regarded him as intelligent, hardworking, and not without financial resources. Many children in the community believed he was Santa Claus.
Passing motorists who gave him a ride were treated to bits of his homespun philosophy, such as this quip from 1956:
“This is the day of unlimited knowledge, but not unlimited wisdom. Our trouble is that our wisdom hasn’t kept pace with our knowledge.”
Ben naturally became a favorite subject for the media, and he seemed to enjoy the celebrity. He made a cameo appearance in the motion picture The Flim-Flam Man, some scenes of which were filmed around Lawrenceburg in the mid-1960s.
Richard Crutcher, John Allen Perry, and Kenneth Smith, all of Anderson County, still remember seeing Ben often walking barefoot—sometimes even through the snow, according to Perry and Smith—and Smith recalls once seeing him barefoot in the middle of a briar patch picking blackberries.
Crutcher overheard Ben mumbling as he walked barefoot past his place on the hot asphalt highway one summer, “Suffer, xxxx feet, suffer.”
During the state fair, Ben usually slept in a tack room or in the cattle barn.
One night while window-shopping along Fourth Street in Louisville, he was arrested for loitering. But influential horsemen and cattlemen raised such a fuss that a judge apologized to Ben for the arrest and dropped the charges.
Ben had gone West during his younger days, working as a sheepherder in Idaho and at a logging camp in Washington state.
Asked what people out West thought of the way he dressed, he snapped, “The people out West minded their own business.”
After his death in August 1969 at a home for the elderly near Lawrenceburg, a letter dated 1956 was found among his personal papers. It stated: “I want to congratulate you on your performance as Santa Claus for the kids the other day. You made a good one.”
A few years ago, an elderly state fair goer who I had never met stopped me at the fair and said he wanted to give me something.
It was an envelope filled with small black-and-white Kodak snapshots of Ben Wilson in his bib overalls—barefoot, of course.
The state fair is not the same without Ben.