From Kentucky to New York

The Kentuckians menu, 1904, and dance program, 1909 (WKU Special Collections Library)

The Kentuckians menu, 1904, and dance program, 1909 (WKU Special Collections Library)

As transplants from the Bluegrass State began to make their mark in the finance, legal, business and literary sectors of New York City early in the 20th century, a group of them decided to organize a club in order to perpetuate their heritage in Gotham.  Incorporated in 1904, “The Kentuckians” was designed to promote fellowship among its members and to “conserve interest and pride in Kentucky history.”  Today, the group known as the Kentuckians of New York continues that tradition.

In the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Special Collections Library, we can see evidence not only of the club’s prestige but of the pleasure that its social events have given members hailing from southcentral Kentucky.  Auburn native Harold H. Helm (1900-1985), who attended Bowling Green’s Ogden College as a young man, joined The Kentuckians as soon as he arrived in New York to begin his distinguished career with the Chemical Bank & Trust Company.  Speaking at a club dinner in 1957, he delighted in telling stories of the exceptional characters he loved back home, such as his father-in-law, Warren Circuit Judge John B. Rodes.  Bowling Green native Phineas Hampton Coombs (1869-1919), who worked in New York from 1901-1918 as agent for the St. Louis Southwestern Railway, kept some of The Kentuckians’ dance and dinner programs, yearbooks and menus from what were undoubtedly glittering social events held at such New York landmarks as Delmonico’s Restaurant and the Plaza, Knickerbocker and St. Regis hotels.

The Kentuckians, needless to say, began as a male preserve, but in 1913 the club held a dinner to honor authors of both sexes who had contributed to the state’s literary fame.  Among those invited was Bowling Green native Lida Calvert Obenchain, who, under the pen name Eliza Calvert Hall, had published two highly successful short story collections, Aunt Jane of Kentucky and The Land of Long Ago.  Lida was also a tireless worker for women’s equality and voting rights.  When the after-dinner speaker, humorist Irvin S. Cobb, chivalrously noted that “In Kentucky, we don’t admit that women are our equals; we insist that they are our superiors,” Lida bristled.  “What on earth made you talk belated nonsense like that?” she demanded afterward.  “Aw, I’m a suffragist,” Cobb replied meekly, “but a fellow’s got to say something at a dinner!”

For more of our collections documenting the lives of distinguished Kentuckians, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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