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Birthday History Lesson

There are several things that rank at the top of the list of what’s important to a certified, card-carrying, individualist Kentuckian; one is each person’s birth month.

Since February is mine I thought I’d rummage around on my Kentucky bookshelf and see what else occurred in this contrary month of ice and snow and mind-sapping wind.

On such a day–February 12, 1809–Abraham Lincoln was born. We gave him up to the rest of the world, but he started out among the good folks on the south fork of Nolin River in LaRue County. If nothing else ever happened in a February, Abe’s roots will do.

Since George Washington was born February 22, 1732, my loving, first-grade teacher, Miss Delia Tinder, thought it might be nice to hang me on the wall between their pictures each February 18, which was my birth date (just a couple hundred years later in 1930). At the time, I was 6 years old and not sure whether I was being honored or hung up high to dry.

Miss Delia meant well. I hope to meet up with her again, sometime. We could laugh about me hanging up there between Abe and George.

On February 11, 1808, anthracite coal was burned for the first time. In 1820, bituminous coal operations began in Kentucky–by the 1990s, Kentucky produced 160 million tons of bituminous coal, more than 15% of the nation’s supply.

February 22, 1819, was the date all of Florida passed from the rule of Spain to become a part of the United States, a dandy time for an elderly, frustrated Daniel Boone to go down there in his final year and buy up as much “worthless” land as possible. He could have bought and sold Kentucky and Missouri too. His descendants would have blessed him when Walt Disney swooped in and turned all that sawgrass into enough sawbucks to restock Fort Knox.

Henry Clay was instrumental in gaining the U.S. presidency for John Quincy Adams on February 9, 1825. Adams repaid the favor by naming Clay his Secretary of State, and Clay believed his turn to be president would come in 1832. It didn’t. He received only 49 electoral votes. Andrew Jackson was re-elected with 219 electoral votes. The Tennessean whupped the Kentuckian and fueled the aborning rivalry continuing to this day (Tennessee 24, Kentucky 0).

On February 7, 1839, Henry Clay declared, “I had rather be right than be president.” William Henry Harrison granted Clay his wish. “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” paddled into the White House. The Kentuckian who wanted so badly to be president tried again in 1842 and lost to another dern Tennessean, James K. Polk. Clay tried again in 1848 but lost the Whig nomination to Zachary Taylor. At least Clay could say he was whupped by another Kentuckian, even if he wasn’t native born (missing the noble distinction by only eight months).

February 15, 1845, was the date of Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century. This courageous woman might have changed “Weep No More My Lady” to “Get Out There and Give ’em Hell, Girl”–“I have urged on woman independence of man, not that I do not think the sexes mutually needed by one another, but because in woman this fact has led to excessive devotion, which has cooled love, degraded marriage, and prevented either sex from being what it should be to itself or the other.”

Stephen Foster was only 19 years old when Fuller’s book revolutionized popular culture, but it would be another 75 years before women were allowed to vote. The times were, you might say, out of joint, and My Old Kentucky Home is still a puzzlement on dueling grounds of ethnic intent.

Jesse Stuart died February 17, 1984. Buried in Plum Grove Cemetery in his beloved Greenup County, lifelong writer and teacher, he might have taken pleasure in this one-room school history lesson.

So why not spend this blustery month of February strolling through your own birth month’s history. No telling what you’ll find.

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