A news report in 2003 telling the horse racing world that a past Kentucky Derby winner, Ferdinand, had been put to death in a Japanese slaughterhouse was the impetus to start an organization with a passion to save Thoroughbred racehorses and stallions to ensure they would be put to good use.
Old Friends and its founder, Michael Blowen, have figured out a way to recycle racing stallions that once earned lots of money from racing, breeding, or both. Today, these horses, which had been unable to earn their keep, are now the main attraction in drawing tourists and visitors to the 92-acre Dream Chase Farm near Georgetown.
Blowen is an interesting sort of fellow, who on the surface is not one you would expect to be running a 40-plus horse farm in central Kentucky. First, there’s the still-Boston accent that will probably always be there, and there’s the fact that his first involvement with horses was betting on them at Suffolk Downs in Boston.
“I played on an adult basketball team,” says Blowen. “And our team went together and bought a horse.”
It didn’t take long, however, before his pari-mutuel interest had to share the stage with a genuine love affair that was beginning to emerge. Soon he was hanging out at the barns more than at the betting window.
“I volunteered to help with the horses,” says Blowen. “I’d clean out the stables if needed and do some of the grooming.”
Totally out of character, when you consider that his real job was as a film critic for The Boston Globe. Routinely he dealt with movie stars as a part of his business, but more and more his thoughts were of his horses, even to the extent of concerning himself with “what happens to those horses after the crowds stop cheering?”
Several trips to the Kentucky Horse Park finally led him and his wife, Diane White, also a columnist at The Boston Globe, to discuss following their hearts and moving to Kentucky.
“I told her we had to die of something but it wouldn’t be boredom,” laughs Blowen.
As wonderful as Old Friends is and as enthusiastic as Blowen, his wife, and a handful of workers are, they never lose sight of the need for money to keep the farm going.
With the average daily cost for upkeep for one horse being about $100, including vet bills, it’s easy to see it does indeed take money.
“We get some of our vet bills donated,” says Blowen, “and that really helps.”
But the great thing about Old Friends is that visitors can actually see the story as it unfolds. They can see the 62-year-old Blowen climb a fence with the agility of someone much younger, as he cuddles and feeds one of his horses a handful of carrots. Visitors learn that the rescue of stallions is different from other horses. Stallions are more expensive to board. Their stalls have to be a little larger. Good solid fencing and, of course, horse people who know what they are doing are a must.
“We go through some 200 pounds of carrots a week that we make available for visitors to feed the horses,” he says. “It’s important for everyone to enjoy their visit.”
In some cases, being turned out to pasture may not be all good, but in the case of Old Friends it’s a wonderful thing.
1841 Paynes Depot Road
Georgetown, KY 40324
Open daily for tours, but reservations are required; 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
At Old Friends the horses are the stars. But one in particular is really a star. Popcorn Deelites, an 8-year-old bay, took on another name in the movie Sea Biscuit where he was one of eight horses that played this famous horse on the big screen.
Wine goes with a lot of things, but Old Friends thinks nothing goes better with it than horses. Chrisman Mills Winery in Nicholasville has created an Artist Signature Series of wines, whose values have been increased by labels featuring resident horses at Old Friends drawn by famous movie stars.
Blowen used his film critic connections that led to actor Jack Nicholson sketching the first label of the series. No, it didnï¿½t picture one of the several stallions, but instead a 17-year-old miniature horse Blowen bought for $40 just before it was headed to a slaughterhouse.
Then came labels from Albert Brooks and Angelica Huston. Each series will offer 3,000 bottles at $21.95 each, with a portion of the sales going to Old Friends.
WHERE MARES RETIRE
Our Mims Retirement Haven
2810 Millersburg-Ruddles Mills Road
Paris, KY 40361
Hours: by appointment
Whereas Old Friends is a home to retired stallions, Our Mims takes in mares whose careers are over.
The shelter took its name from 1977 Eclipse Champion 3-year-old filly Our Mims, who died at the age of 29 in 2003, and is buried in Calumet Farm’s equine cemetery.
“We’re politely called a rustic farm,ï¿½ offers Jeanne Mirabito, who, along with Cheryl Bellucci and Pam Boyce, heads up the all-volunteer organization.
Our Mims consists of 42 acres with a 14-stall renovated tobacco barn, and its operating dollars come strictly from donations and the sale of some most unusual artwork.
“The mares actually do the painting with nontoxic water colors on their noses,” says Mirabito. “We sell a lot of them on eBay.”
Explore Kentucky’s rich African American heritage in churches, schools, museums, cemeteries, historic homes and neighborhoods, and on designated walks and drives all over the Bluegrass.
From Maysville on the eastern edge of the state with its Underground Railroad History, to Russellville in the western reaches with its tribute to pioneering African Americans like author and journalist Alice Allison Dunnigan, a multitude of venues house, honor, and interpret the legacies of African Americans.
Evidence of these contributions can be found everywhere in historic Maysville, home of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Slavery to Freedom Museum. Jerry Gore, retired director of Minority Student Affairs at Morehead State University and the former director of Maysville’s National Underground Railroad Museum, operates Freedom Time. This dynamic by-appointment touring presentation about slavery and the Underground Railroad movement includes a stop at his residence, once a safe house and now encompassing the Freedom Underground Railroad Station Museum.
“It’s a place people come and never forget,” says Gore, the great-great-grandson of Addison White, known as Ohio’s most famous fugitive on the Underground Railroad. “They leave inspired, realizing one person can make a significant difference.”
The museum is housed in the oldest brick house in downtown Maysville, one built with enslaved labor and once owned by a conductor on the Underground Railroad. More than 300 articles narrate a story of suffering and triumph: bills of sale, whips, shackles, a pair of slave shoes, a rifle owned by a black Civil War soldier, a quilt carried on the Underground Railroad.
“It’s a Sankofa journey,” says Gore, using the Asante word (from the African tribe) for “stepping back in time.”
Visitors can also step back in time in Russellville. According to Linda Slaton at the Historic Russellville Visitors Center, some of the properties in this National Register of Historic Places have associations with the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, Presidents Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, and both Roosevelts, and bank robber Jesse James. One of the structures has a connection to Alice Allison Dunnigan, the first African American female member of the White House Press Corps and Chief of the Washington Bureau of the Associated Negro Press (1947-1961).
Her former residence, the 1940s frame shotgun-style house known as the Payne-Dunnigan House, is now part of the West Kentucky African American Heritage Center, which comprises the circa-1810 Morton-Kimbrough House, the 1880s Cooksey House, and the KP Hall. The entire complex has undergone restoration. The Payne-Dunnigan House is the site of rotating exhibits on topics of local historical interest.
Less than 30 miles east is the ShakeRag Historic District. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000, the neighborhood was Bowling Green’s first National Register District recognized for its significance to African American history.
Two Western Kentucky University graduate students from Dr. Michael Ann Williams’ vernacular architecture class selected the district as an assignment on preparing National Register nominations.
“I don’t know where they came up with the idea,” says Williams, Folk Studies and Anthropology department head. “At that time, relatively few people in Bowling Green knew about ShakeRag, except those who lived there or who had family connections.”
Birthplace of Ernest Hogan, the Father of Ragtime Music, the neighborhood is characterized by Victorian Eclectic and Victorian Free Classic-style architecture as well as an abundance of early 20th-century bungalows. A walking tour encompasses the 1875 Frank Kister House, one of the oldest houses in ShakeRag; the first public school for African Americans in Bowling Green, built in 1885; the Southern Queen hotel, built in 1906 by James Covington, which served black travelers who were unable to stay in Bowling Green’s “white” hotels; and Alice’s Beauty Shop, built in the 1920s and listed on the National Register.
As for how ShakeRag earned its unusual and colorful moniker, Williams has heard two stories: “One is that local women used to take in washing in the neighborhood and would shake the laundry; and the other is that, because it was a lively entertainment district, people would go there to ‘shake their rag.'”
227 Sutton Street, Maysville
(606) 563-8683 or (606) 375-560 www.freedomundergroundrailroad.com
Tours by appointment; donations welcome.
Historic Russellville Visitors Center
280 E. Fourth Street, Russellville
Stop here to tour the West Kentucky African American Heritage Center. Admission is free. The Visitors Center can also arrange tours to the Bibb House Museum and the 1817 Saddle Factory Museum, possibly the oldest industrial building in the state, which had, in 1820, dozens of indentured servants and slaves living on-site who made saddles, bridles, shoes, and other leather goods.
ShakeRag Historic District Walking Tour
Bowling Green Area Convention and Visitors Bureau
352 Three Springs Road, Bowling Green
More African American Culture
The Kentucky Multicultural Tourism eGuide is available on the Kentucky Department of Travel’s Web site at www.visitkentuckyusa.com/multicultural-eguide. Also available is a guide to African American heritage sites, including churches, schools, museums, cemeteries, historic homes and neighborhoods, walks, and drives. Go to www.kentuckytourism.com, click on Things to Do/Cultural Heritage, then African American Heritage on the far right.
African Americans have left their imprint all over the state. At Mammoth Cave, African American guides and explorers helped usher in the “golden age of cave exploration” for this national park (www.nps.gov/maca/historyculture/black-history.htm). During the Civil War, some 10,000 African American soldiers, called the U.S. Colored Troops, were trained at Camp Nelson (www.campnelson.org) in Jessamine County, now the Camp Nelson Heritage Park. It was the largest recruiting, mustering, and training center for African American troops in Kentucky and one of the largest in the United States. Or explore a slave-built circa-1852 home once visited by Abraham Lincoln at Hall Place Bed & Breakfast in Glasgow (www.hallplacebedandbreakfast.com or www.kentuckybb.com). On the National Register of Historic Places, the home was a stop on the Underground Railroad and has a cave under the library.