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Cemetery Celebrities

Sounds of Renfro Valley

Cemetery Celebrities

Kentucky has a storied past. Pioneer great Daniel Boone, who left his footprint indelibly on the rolling landscape, now lies in the Frankfort Cemetery. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., grandson of explorer William Clark, opened the starting gate on thoroughbred horse racing at Churchill Downs in 1875, beginning its tradition as “Home of the Kentucky Derby,” America’s oldest continuously held sporting event. Col. Harland Sanders cooked up a recipe for fried chicken that has people all over the world licking their fingers. Clark and Sanders both lie in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville. Duncan Hines, whose name is synonymous with rich, moist cake, lies in Fairview Cemetery in Bowling Green.

Much of Kentucky’s heritage is buried beneath the Bluegrass. Six feet under in northern Kentucky, Academy Award-nominated and Tony Award-winning actress Una Merkel (Destry Rides Again and Summer and Smoke) took her final curtain call at Highland Cemetery in Ft. Mitchell. Painter Frank Duveneck, one of the most influential American expatriate realists of the 19th century, laid down his brush at historic Mother of God Cemetery in Covington. And Kenny Price, a country western star who garnered fame for his appearances on television shows Midwestern Hayride and Hee-Haw, departed for that last roundup in the sky by way of Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Erlanger.

If you think politics makes for strange bedfellows, the afterlife is even a shade beyond: actors, athletes, senators, statesmen, captains of industry, the literati, the glitterati, and the late-great and glorious of Kentucky crisscross the graveyards of “the Great Divide.”

At the Springfield City Cemetery in Washington County, one of Kentucky’s greatest voices in literature, novelist and poet Elizabeth Maddox Roberts (The Time of Man and The Great Meadow), shares real estate with John Simms “Shipwreck” Kelly, Outstanding Football Player at the University of Kentucky, who holds the record for most yards gained by a player in a single game and was a charter member of the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame.

Not too far away, rumor holds, Captain Abraham Lincoln (the president’s grandfather) came to his final resting place—along with the Berry family, who took in and raised Nancy Hanks (their niece, the president’s “Angel Mother”).

Says Amy Bishop of the Springfield-Washington County Chamber of Commerce: “Legend goes that Captain Lincoln was plowing his fields in Poortown outside Springfield (he came to the area in the 1780s) and was killed by an Indian in 1786. Supposedly, he was buried in the area where he was killed and, at one time, a large stone etched with the initials A.L. covered his grave.

“This has been affirmed by many locals who state that they saw this stone—but it cannot be proved,” says Bishop.

Another Poortown resident, Edwin Carlile Litsey (1874-1960), buried at Ryder Cemetery, was the Poet Laureate of Kentucky.

Keith Kleine of the Lebanon Tourist Commission recalls Litsey’s legacy: “He became known as a banker-writer. Banking was his livelihood but writing was his love. Litsey married Carrie Selecman of Springfield in 1900, but his wife died very young and he never remarried. The Love Story of Abner Stone, a beautiful romance, is said to be his own story.

The Princess of Gramfalon, his first novel, was published in 1898 when he was 24 years old. He also wrote two books of poetry, Spindrift and The Filled Cup, for his daughter, Sarah (also an author and poet). Litsey won prizes for many of his poems and was named Poet Laureate of Kentucky in 1954, for his poem Federal Hill. This was his greatest honor.”

From a world-renowned clairvoyant, Edgar Cayce (1877-1945, Riverside Cemetery in Hopkinsville), to America’s greatest cave explorer, Floyd Collins (Flint Ridge Cemetery, not far from Mammoth Cave), to the writer of the first work of fiction to sell a million copies, John Fox Jr. (author of The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, Paris Cemetery in Bourbon County), and music icons Ike Everly (the eldest of the three original Everly Brothers) and Merle Travis in Central City, Kentucky has a spate of extraordinary kinsmen who left a legacy to the state and, in some cases, to the world.

“Henry Clay (1777-1852) and many of his descendants are buried in the Lexington Cemetery,” says Ann Hagan-Michel, executive director at Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate. “When Clay was buried on July 10, 1852, over 100,000 people traveled to Lexington to pay their respects to the beloved and respected statesman. The population of Lexington at that time was around 9,000.”

William H. Natcher of Bowling Green, who served as a distinguished United States representative between 1953 and 1994, is buried at Fairview Cemetery in Bowling Green.

“For 40-plus years, he never missed a vote!” says Vicki Hawkins Fitch, marketing director of the Bowling Green Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “He also dictated a total of 59 daily journals with rich descriptions of his impressions of his contemporary presidents and legislators.” The Kentucky Museum and Library at Western Kentucky University has many items from Natcher’s personal collection on display, and on October 1-17 will present the special exhibit, William H. Natcher: The Gentleman From Kentucky.

The Helm Cemetery in Elizabethtown includes the graves of John LaRue Helm (1802- 1867), twice governor of Kentucky, as well as his son, Confederate General Ben Hardin Helm, and General Helm’s wife, Emilie Todd—the half-sister of Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd.

In Paintsville, coal baron John C.C. Mayo rests in a cemetery named in his honor that is located behind the campus of the Mayo Technical College on Third Street.

At the Kentucky Horse Park, Man o’ War, a legend that left a historic hoofprint in the state’s proud tradition of thoroughbred racing, made his final lap. He is buried with his most famous son, War Admiral. And like other cemetery celebrities, mourners (2,000 of them) came out in droves to pay their last respects to this Kentuckian who distinguished himself in life and whose contribution lives on after his death.


You’ll See Dead People
The Paducah Parks Department has offered an award-winning graveyard drama at Oak Grove Cemetery featuring cemetery celebrity Irvin S. Cobb (1876-1944). The beloved American humorist/writer/actor/ newspaper reporter/war correspondent, who was a contemporary of Harry Truman and Paducah son Alben W. Barkley, lies beneath a dogwood tree and a large granite boulder etched with the words “Back Home.”

In the drama, Cobb, portrayed by Paducah local Dr. Jim Roush, acts as host and is joined by other Oak Grove residents returned from the dead: A.Z. Hammock, who invented the then new experimental embalming fluid that was used to embalm “Speedy” (Paducah resident made famous by traveling through Kentucky and across the country); Sarah Smith Campbell, “the Betsy Ross of Paducah,” who made the Paducah flag; and John T. Scopes, who violated a Tennessee law forbidding the teaching of evolution. The popular play, Inherit the Wind, is based on the famous 1925 Scopes Trial, which garnered international attention. (The law Scopes violated was repealed in 1967.)

This year, according to Pat Earles, a retired City of Paducah employee who in years past has acted as assistant director of the drama, the program is offered between September and May, during the day to accommodate western Kentucky’s school children, so you should call ahead to check dates. Parks Department volunteers will be in character and enact the different mini-history lessons at the appropriate gravesites.

For more information about the program at Oak Grove Cemetery or Paducah’s cemetery celebrities, contact the Paducah-McCracken County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, 128 Broadway, P.O. Box 90, Paducah, KY 42001, (800) 723-8224,,

Kathy Witt is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.
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Sounds of Renfro Valley

One of the most rugged regions of the Bluegrass is also one of the most melodic: Rockcastle County, land of steep hills and narrow valleys nestled in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains, is also a land of song. And nowhere is the melody sweeter than at Renfro Valley, “Kentucky’s Country Music Capital” since 1939 when John Lair began national radio broadcasts of a country music program, the “Renfro Valley Barn Dance,” that continues today.

At Renfro Valley Entertainment Center, country, bluegrass, and gospel music, along with comedy, headliner concerts, and festivals, raise the rafters from March through December. Long-running shows like the Jamboree, Mountain Gospel Jubilee, Funny Bone Comedy, and Front Porch Pickin’ keep visitors’ toes tapping long after they’ve left the Valley.

Wayne Combs, a guitarist with the Front Porch Pickin’ group, likes to tell visitors “there’s some mighty ‘pickin’ and grinning’” in the Valley where fellow picker Jeff Watson loves to perform the crowd-pleasing fish song, I Lobster and Never Flounder.

Combs is also co-director of the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum, just a stone’s throw away and already garnering a reputation as a musical showcase with its hands-on recording studio and working stage—plus area performers are known to show up and share a song or two with visitors.

The museum honors the state’s greatest performers, songwriters, broadcasters, publishers, comedians, and many others who have contributed across the spectrum of music, from country to opera, and highlights such Kentucky legends as Bill Monroe, Red Foley, Rosemary Clooney, Loretta Lynn, and many others. “Kentucky is known throughout the world for its music,” says Combs. “And we finally have a central location to display and honor our musical achievers.”

Visitors to the Hall of Fame and Renfro Valley are treated to a variety of musical genres and get a sense of how different styles have evolved. Combs says that the fun of the Valley is hearing music that is only played here.

“There’s a saying that was penned by John Lair that goes something like, ‘At the Valley, time stands still.’ You hear music that you might not have heard since childhood or not heard at all. It’s remained this way since that first Barn Dance on November 4, 1939.”

Renfro Valley Events
Fiddler’s Festival, October 29-31, features fiddlers from all over the country uniting to perform their favorite tunes. Adults $8 Friday or Sunday, $10 Saturday.

Christmas in the Valley, November 19-December 18 pulls out the holiday stops with a beautiful display of lights, Santa’s Workshop, and an original stage production of favorite holiday songs and comedy. Adults $19, children ages 12 and under half price.


Renfro Valley Entertainment Center
(800) 765-7464

Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum
(800) 356-3263

Area Attractions
Contact Mt. Vernon-Rockcastle County Tourist Commission for more information about lodging and other area attractions. Call (800) 252-6685, go online to, or write to P.O. Box 1261, Mt. Vernon, KY 40456.

Bittersweet Cabin Museum, (606) 256-9814, is a collection of historic Appalachian cabins that narrate the story of Kentucky’s pioneering past through artifacts dating from the 1700s to the 1940s, and displayed in a village that includes a blacksmith, a broom maker, and a woodworker, as well as general store and an old-fashioned outhouse.

Rockcastle River Trader Company, (606) 843-0854, a unique family-owned home and garden shop founded by nationally known garden designer John Carloftis. Mom Lucille runs the day-to-day operations and invites visitors to stroll the grounds, which include show gardens on 18 acres. Inside you’ll find pots and urns, cast-stone statuary, soaps, candles, dinnerware from Italy, and other treasures.

Autumn in the Valley
Camp Wildcat Re-enactment, October 16-17, (606) 528-1817,; take I-75 to exit 49 to Hazel Patch Road. Walk the trails blazed by Civil War soldiers during the original Battle of Wildcat Mountain on October 21, 1861. Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis will be in attendance. Talks cover the role of women in the Civil War, soldiers’ equipment, and demonstrations on food preservation, rope making, cooking over an open fire, and using artillery.

Cruise in the Valley Car, Truck and Motorcycle Show, November 6, a first-time event, presented by Renfro Valley Entertainment Center and the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame. Fifty trophies will be awarded in a wide variety of categories. To enter the cruise-in or for more information and cost, contact the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame at (877) 356-3263 or go online to

Kathy Witt is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.

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