History in Louisville, Kentucky

The Kentucky Derby

When referring to Louisville, most people tend to think first of horses. Indeed, horse racing has a rich history in the state of Kentucky, even before the origin of Churchill Downs, the race track that holds the renowned Kentucky Derby race every May.

Historians believe that horse racing began in Lexington in 1787. At that point in time, there weren’t any official race tracks in Lexington, so horses were raced in a park, The Commons. After enough people complained of the location of this sport, the men who organized the races, including Kentucky Statesman Henry Clay, formed an organization called Commonwealth’s First Jockey Club (in 1809, this was renamed the Kentucky Jockey club). Soon after, a race course was constructed, making it the first race track in the state.

In Louisville, horse racing dates back to 1783. Because there were no race tracks, the races were held downtown, namely on Market Street (to those who know Louisville now, this is interesting to visualize because Market Street is an extremely busy). In 1805, the first course in Louisville was developed on Shipping Island (this is now an abandoned island). This course was called Elm Tree Gardens.

In the late 1820s, another track was developed; however, at the time, horse racing was equally divided among public race tracks and private tracks located on farms throughout Louisville. A few other race courses were opened in the following years until the horse racing industry in Louisville began to decline. By 1873, it was so weak that many horse trainers threatened to take their business to other, more prominent horse racing cities.

Before doing so, a group of horse breeders approached the very wealthy Meriwether Lewis Clark, grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and asked for his guidance and financial support. Although his family was known for their love of this sport, Clark knew nothing of the horse racing industry. In order to gain knowledge, he traveled to Europe to study the race tracks of England and France. Upon witnessing these tracks, Clark designed a series of races specifically for (what would later be called) Churchill Downs. Clark designed this series of races with a grand finale, The Kentucky Derby. This race would be a mile and a quarter long, and it would race three year old thoroughbreds.

Clark’s maternal side of the family, the Churchill's, were prominent members of the Louisville community, and they owned a majority of land in Louisville. Part of their property, a few miles in southern downtown, was the chosen site for the new race track. The track was referred to Churchill Downs in 1883.

Churchill Downs opened its doors on May 17, 1875. At the time, there was only a small wooden grandstand to hold its ten thousand spectators. Once it was bought over by horse breeder William Schulte in 1894, there was an immediate construction of a fifteen-hundred person grandstand on the western side of the track. The grandstand was complemented with two spires on the rooftop, where they remain a symbol of Churchill Downs today.

The Kentucky Derby, as well as the Kentucky Oaks, which takes place on the eve of Derby, is the oldest continuous sport event and the only thoroughbred race ran annually at the same site of its origin. In 1986, Churchill Downs was named a National Historic Landmark. Today, Churchill Downs' commitment to quality racing has made it America's most famous race track, and it brings many tourists into our city every May to see the fashionable hats, to hear "My Old Kentucky Home", and to see the gorgeous thoroughbreds run for the roses.

The sources used within this text include ChurchillDowns.com and The Encyclopedia of Louisville.

Kentucky Derby Museum

Interested in seeing memorabilia of past Derby winners? Then visit the Kentucky Derby Museum! In the spring of 2000, this museum was newly renovated to include a three-level, fifty-six-thousand-square-foot facility. It is a non-profit organization “dedicated to expanding public awareness, appreciation, and understanding of the Kentucky Derby and thoroughbred racing” (The Encyclopedia of Louisville), and it is not financially or legally connected to the racetrack.

This museum includes an award-winning, high definition Derby film, displayed on a 360 degree screen, that places the viewer in the center of Derby Day action. The museum also includes many interactive exhibits, including "Place Your Bets," which illustrates pari-mutuel wagering. “The Warner L. Jones, Jr. Time Machine,” another exhibit, shows select footage of Derby as far back as 1918. The many other exhibits found within the museum further allow visitors to experience other hands-on activities.

After viewing the museum, visitors are welcome to take guided tours of Churchill Downs. They can view the actual Finish Line pole that was used at Churchill Downs for many years. In addition, three famous Derby winners, Carry Back (1961), Swaps (1955), and Brokers Tip (1933), are buried just outside the museum grounds and are easily seen along the guided tour. The Kentucky Derby Museum includes a gift shop and a Derby Café. It is open seven days a week, and is located on the grounds of Churchill Downs at 700 Central Avenue Gate #1.

The Falls of the Ohio

Although this site is less than twenty years old, Falls of the Ohio has become a trademark for both Louisville and Southern Indiana. Located in Clarksville, Indiana, this 68 acre site contains fossil beds and a rich history in geology, nature, and culture. Those who visit here will be able to picnic, fish, and explore the woods and fossil beds.

Falls of the Ohio is actually part of a larger area, called Falls of the Ohio National Wildlife Conservation Area. This National Wildlife Conservation Area was established in 1982 to protect wildlife, fish, and water quality. Within it is the home site of George Rogers Clark, founder of Louisville.

The ideal time to visit the Falls of the Ohio is late summer and early fall. At this time, you can see the fossil beds better than other time of year.


The historic Farmington site is the best example of Federal architecture found within the state of Kentucky. It is a beautiful fourteen-room house that was built by John Speed in 1816. Many speculate that this house resembled a house plan that was designed by Thomas Jefferson, for it has many “Jeffersonian” features, including perfectly proportioned rooms, a steep and narrow hidden stairway, and fanlights between the front and rear halls.

For Speed and his wife, Lucy, Farmington became a 500 acre hemp plantation. The plantation also cultivated livestock, apple orchards for cider production, corn, wheat, and tobacco. In order to keep the plantation running, many African American slaves were bought and put to work, both in the fields and inside the house.

One of their sons, Joshua, moved to Springfield, Illinois in 1835. There, he met and befriended the future 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. Speed and Lincoln lived together for three years until Speed returned to Louisville at the time of his father’s death. Although living in Louisville, Speed remained in contact with Lincoln, and, in fact, Lincoln is said to have stayed at Farmington from anywhere to three to six weeks in 1841. At the time, Lincoln was having relationship problems with Mary Todd, so Speed invited him to Farmington in an effort to raise his spirits.

German farmers purchased Farmington in 1865. By 1959, Farmington Historic Home became the flagship house of Historic Homes Foundation Inc., and it was at this time that tours through this 18 acre site began.

Farmington currently resides on the National Register of Historic Places, where many public and private schools within Louisville visit it to learn more about the history of Louisville. The tour today includes viewing an early 19th century garden, a stone springhouse and barn, seeing the cook's quarters and kitchen, a blacksmith shop, and an apple orchard. There is also a museum store, as well as a remodeled carriage house, which may be rented out.

The sources used within the text include HistoricFarmington.org and The Louisville Encyclopedia.

Louisville Slugger

The most famous and widely used bat in the world, the Louisville Slugger, has brought much fame to Louisville. Its founder, John Andrew "Bud" Hillerich created the first Louisville Slugger in 1884 at his father’s wood-working shop in Louisville. Hillerich made the bat out of northern white ash, producing a lightweight, yet sturdy bat.

Although there have been several versions behind what made the Louisville Slugger immensely popular, the company holds that the bat’s fate relied solely on Hillerich playing hooky from work one day to see Pete "The Old Gladiator Browning" play. At that game, Browning broke his beloved bat. Hillerich saw that as his chance, so he invited Browning to his father’s shop, where Hillerich served as an apprentice. Browning came with Hillerich, and he left with a new bat, which Hillerich had made from a piece of white ash. At Browning’s next game, he got 3 hits with the new bat. This caused quite a commotion and ultimately led to other famous baseball players ordering their versions of the Louisville Slugger. At this time, however, the bat was known as the Falls City Slugger. By 1893, it had acquired the name Louisville Slugger and by 1894, the U.S. Trademark Office registered Louisville Slugger.

Honus Wagner of the Pittsburgh Pirates became the first baseball player ever to sign a contract endorsing a bat. He started a trend, which still exists today, where his signature was branded onto his bat.

The year 1915 marked an especially important year in Louisville Slugger history. At this time, Louisville Slugger began production of youth-size models, which greatly increased revenue. Because all the major league players used Louisville Slugger to create their bats, the amateur players wanted Louisville Slugger as well, because they, rather uniquely, could make a bat just like the one used by their favorite major league player.

Louisville Slugger began producing aluminum bats in 1978. Today, Louisville Slugger provides adult, youth, and softball bats, both wooden and aluminum. And, Louisville Slugger is still in charge of producing the wooden bats used for major league players.

On July 17, 1996, the Louisville Slugger Museum opened its doors. In that year, more than 230,000 visitors came to learn more about the most famous bats in the history of baseball. Within the museum, there are exhibits, displays, and films that explain the history behind the Louisville Slugger and its role in baseball. You can even see movies that show some of the greatest hitters in baseball history. In addition, there is a tour of the factory, where you can view your favorite baseball player's bat being made. It is easy to find the museum; the "World’s Largest Baseball Bat" leans against the side of the building. The Slugger Museum is located downtown at 800 West Main Street (1-877-7-SLUGGER).

The sources used within the text include SluggerMuseum.org and The Louisville Encyclopedia.

Louisville Science Center & Louisville Free Public Library

Louisville Science Center was founded by the Public Library System of Kentucky in 1871. Due to lack of funding, the Public Library of Kentucky was closed down in 1878. At that time, the Polytechnic Institute, which resided in the same building as the museum, took the museum over and moved the museum, along with itself, to various locations.

In 1908, the Louisville Free Public Library was established, and caused the museum to move once more, this time to the library’s basement. A permanent home was made for the museum in 1965. Since then, it has expanded to include an additional 40,000 square feet and an IMAX theatre.

After is renovation, there was a call to establish permanent exhibits within the museum. These permanent exhibits include, Worlds of Wonder, a series of exhibits that display the influence of mathematics and science on daily living, the Space Science Gallery, which has many items from the Apollo and Gemini missions, and a mummy exhibit that stores a 3,400 year old mummy in a simulated tomb. The museum also includes presentations and experiments by its staff and volunteers that allow the children hands on experience. In addition, there is a conference room that allows the museum, through Kentucky TeleLink Network, to connect to hundreds of sites through Kentucky.

The museum's mission is to help people understand mathematics, science, and technology through innovative, interactive exhibits and programs. It has been a non-profit organization since 1985, and it is located downtown at 727 West Main Street.

The sources used within the text include The Louisville Encyclopedia.

Belle of Louisville

One of the greatest symbols of Louisville’s rich history is the Belle of Louisville. Commonly referred to as “the Belle,” this steamboat is owned and operated by the city of Louisville, and it docks on the belvedere in downtown Louisville. Built in 1914, the Belle was originally named the Idlewild. The Idlewild acted as a passenger ferry between Memphis, Tennessee and West Memphis, Arkansas. In addition, she transported such things as cotton, lumber, and grain.

In 1931, she worked in Louisville by running trips between Fontaine Ferry amusement park and Rose Island, which is 14 miles upriver from Louisville. During World War II, she was used to push oil barges along the river and as a floating USO nightclub for troops based along the Mississippi. In 1947, she was bought by J. Herod Gorsage and was renamed Avalon.

Avalon visited many ports for the next several years, including those in Omaha, Nebraska and Nashville, Tennessee. By 1962, she was in such poor condition that it looked as though she might be near the end of her days. Jefferson County Judge Marlow Cook, however, bought her and made the repairs that she desperately needed. She then came to Louisville and was renamed the Belle of Louisville.

Today, the Belle is the oldest river steamboat still in operation. She holds pleasure cruises on a daily basis, and she plays an important role during the Derby festival. Every Wednesday before the Kentucky Derby, she races the Delta Queen up the Ohio river. Many Louisvillians gather with pride to cheer on the Belle, a recognized National Historic Landmark.

Material used within this text was gathered from Wikipedia.

Louisville Bats

A popular summer activity is to attend a Louisville Bats game. Whether you want to take the family, go with a friend or significant other, or just go by yourself, you are sure to have fun. The Bats schedule runs from April to September, and on home game days, there are many promotions that run before and during the game. In fact, you are likely to see many Louisvillians gather at a Bats home game, especially as the stadium sells $1.00 Bud and Bud Light before game time!

The Bats are an AAA minor league baseball team that are affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds. They play in the International League, and their games are held at Louisville Slugger Field, a recently constructed stadium funded by Louisville Slugger. Prior to 1997, the Bats were known as the Riverbats, as they were affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1997, the team broke their ties with the Cardinals and became associated with the Milwaukee Brewers. By 1999, however, the team was renamed the Louisville Riverbats. At this time, they became affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds.

Throughout the years, this team has broken minor league records with their enormous attendance rates. They have even outsold many major league teams, including the Cincinnati Reds! For more information, visit BatsBaseball.com.

Material used within this text was gathered from Wikipedia and The Louisville Encyclopedia.

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