For almost 44 years, Lexington, Kentucky native Hal Farnsworth Bryant (1888-1975) labored as a statistician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, first in West Virginia and then in Louisville. In his youth, however, he spent a rollicking few years as a reporter for the Lexington Leader. Not content merely to serve the audience in his home town, Bryant partnered with a Leader editor to offer stories and photographs for syndication to newspapers and magazines around the country.
From intrigues in Frankfort to social and political gossip across the state, Bryant and his colleague churned out copy and sent it off with instructions to editors to either “remit at your customary rate” or “fire it back promptly with postage herein.” Early 20th-century doings in the Bluegrass State provided lots of fodder. There was horse breeding, railroad construction, tobacco markets, the Night Riders, colorful public figures, and the seemingly endless feuds and violence roiling eastern Kentucky. Human interest stories abounded: for example, that of a “greybeard ‘Yank’” and an “old ‘Johnny Reb,’” two former officers on opposite sides of the Civil War, who operated a peach orchard together near Cumberland Gap. There was the clergyman who served both the Methodist and Presbyterian churches in Clifton, Tennessee, and who wrote Bryant a touching personal letter explaining the arrangement and the difficult life he had led up to that time.
Other stories had more of a tabloid flavor. There was the legend of Colonel John Bartlett, a Revolutionary War veteran and Nelson County planter who watched his daughter endure the persistent and unwelcome attentions of a fellow officer. Long story short: the pesky suitor became a gruesome part of the Bartlett agricultural output, having been churned up in a cotton baler and shipped off to a mill in Boston. And then there was Lexington’s beautiful Mason “Macie” Talbott, engaged to marry a family boarder, a Canadian book salesman who the family found quite unsuitable. The next anyone knew, the preacher and wedding guests had been sent home, the gifts all returned, and Miss Talbott whisked off by her brother for a lengthy tour of Europe.
Perhaps the strangest story Bryant covered is only hinted at in his papers. It’s a photograph of a baby, labelled on the back as a Bourbon County infant, “raffled off Paris Opera House.” Indeed, in September 1910, a standing-room-only crowd watched as this child of destitute parents was awarded to the winning ticket holder, a local police officer. “As soon as the necessary adoption papers can be secured,” reported the Bourbon News, “he will come into legal possession of the cherubin.”
Hal Farnsworth Bryant’s journalism is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections. A finding aid can be downloaded here. For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.