Oldham County’s famous people crept in from everywhere. Like the Declaration of Independence, Oldham County has been pivotal to the formation of American history. Once considered the “Gateway to the Western Frontier”, visitors can learn about famous people with ties to Oldham County such as: Commodore Richard Taylor (distinguished Revolutionary War officer), Capt. William Kellar (circuit riding pioneer preacher), Henry Bibb (Underground Railroad slave & abolitionist), D.W. Griffith (filmmaker), Gov. Richard James Oglesby (best friend of Abraham Lincoln who wrote the rail-splitter speech), Annie Fellows Johnston (author of the Little Colonel books that made actress Shirley Temple famous), Kate Matthews (photographer), and Buddy Pepper (composer of “Vaya con Dios”), Theodore Klein (Nurseryman/Horticulturalist) and Rob Morris (Freemason).
Slaves, war heroes, governors, presidents, filmmakers, movie stars, life-changing authors, singers, songwriters, and preachers. Oldham KY’s famous people consist of common folk. But our famous people also went on to be become influential politicians – to make a difference in the lives of all Americans. Our famous people bucked the system by giving credibility to women and slaves. Our famous people were, well, famous – if only to us. But without them, we would not be here. So we salute you…Oldham’s famous people.
Commodore Richard Taylor was commissioned as a captain in the Navy during the Revolutionary War in 1776. He was wounded twice, in the knee and thigh and retired from active duty in 1781. His vessel, “The Tartar” was engaged in battle with an English schooner when he received his first wound, which was in the thigh. In November of 1781, he was commodore of “The Patriot” in another battle with an English cruiser, just outside the Chesapeake Bay. In Oldham County, La Grange became an incorporated city in 1840. The town’s name was originally chosen to honor the French estate of Revolutionary War hero, General Marquis de LaFayette. General LaFayette had visited America in 1824 as a guest of the nation and was entertained by his friends, Major William Berry Taylor and Taylor’s uncle, Commodore Richard Taylor.
Rev. William “Billy” Kellar established four Baptist churches in Oldham County. Harrod’s Creek Baptist Church, established by Rev. Kellar in 1797, is located just north of the town of Brownsboro in Oldham County, Kentucky. The old stone church has been restored and in on the National Register of Historic Places. He was also a farmer, cabinet maker, and operated a distillery with his son, Abraham. As Indians disappeared from the Oldham County landscape, pioneers moved slowly from Fort Kuykendall, a couple of miles east, to establish a new community. The small hamlet of Brownsboro that still exists today is a reminder of this early Oldham County community, established in 1788. Families, composed of mainly Baptists and Methodists, met in one another’s log cabins for worship until the arrival of a dynamic and promising young preacher, William Kellar. Kellar left his congregation briefly in the War of 1812 to join a corps of Kentucky foot soldiers and mounted rifleman under the command of the governor of Kentucky, 66-year-old Major General Isaac Shelby.
Henry Bibb was a prominent abolitionist who endured and overcame slavery to become the first black editor of a newspaper in Canada. Mr. Bibb has already been designated in Canada as a prominent and important historical figure. On July 16, 2016, The National Park Service National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom included the Bibb Escapes/Gatewood Plantation as a site on the program. This is the site where the Oldham County Historical Society has conducted archaeology investigations since 2005. This was a final escape for Henry Bibb from Kentucky, before he, his wife and daughter, were sent to the Louisville slave jails and then further shipped to the New Orleans Slave market. Henry Bibb’s odyssey is a true story of a slave who kept running away, in spite of everything, until he was truly free. Long prized by scholars, The Autobiography of Henry Bibb, is girded by contemporary validation by slave owners, by jailors, and by others who encountered Henry along the way. These letters have become an integral part of the story since its first edition in 1849-1850. Scholarship within the last ten years has validated Bibb’s references to people, places and events in Henry, Trimble, Jefferson, and Oldham counties in Kentucky. In the 1830’s he was married trying to obtain ways to obtain his freedom. When a slave trader forced his wife to become a prostitute, Bibb’s search for freedom grew intense. He escaped to Detroit in 1842 and attended school for a couple of weeks. In the next few years Bibb lectured on anti-slavery and campaigned for the Liberty party in Michigan. He impressed on his audiences all the contradictions in slavery. A journalist once said the audience “cheered and wept” during some of his speeches. In 1849 he published one of the most reliable of the slave autobiographies, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave. In 1851 Bibb established Canada’s first Negro newspapers, the “Voice of the Fugitive”.
D.W. Griffith was an American director, writer, and producer who pioneered modern cinematic techniques. He is most remembered for The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). The Birth of a Nation made use of advanced camera and narrative techniques, and its popularity set the stage for the dominance of the feature-length film in the United States. The film has sparked significant controversy surrounding racism in the United States, focusing on its negative depiction of black people and the glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. Today, it is both acclaimed for its radical technique and condemned for its inherently racist philosophy. The film was subject to boycotts by the NAACP; screenings caused riots at several theaters and it was censored in many cities, including New York City. Intolerance was an answer to his critics. Several of Griffith’s later films were also successful, including Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921), but his high costs for production, promotion, and roadshow often made his ventures commercial failures. He made roughly 500 films by the time of his final feature The Struggle (1931). Griffith is one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and among the most important figures in the history of film. He popularized the use of the close-up shot. On the morning of July 23, 1948, Griffith was discovered unconscious in the lobby at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles, California, where he had been living alone. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage at 3:42 PM on the way to a Hollywood hospital. A large public service was held in his honor at the Hollywood Masonic Temple, but few stars came to pay their last respects. He is buried at Mount Tabor Methodist Church Graveyard in Centerfield, Kentucky (Oldham County). In 1950, The Directors Guild of America provided a stone and bronze monument for his gravesite.
Born on July 25, 1824 in Floydsburg in Oldham County, he was one of eight children born to Col. Jacob and Isabella Watson Oglesby, who, with two of his siblings, died in the 1833 cholera epidemic. Oglesby was raised by an uncle and moved to Decatur, Ill. in 1836. A close friend and supporter of Abraham Lincoln, he is credited with introducing the “rail-splitter” image into Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign. On April 14th, 1865, Oglesby spent the afternoon with Lincoln and declined Lincoln’s invitation to accompany him to Ford’s Theater. Later that evening, Oglesby was called back to the President’s side at the Peterson House, where, in the early hours of April 15th, Oglesby witnessed the death of an American president and his good friend. Oglesby was a brigadier general in the Civil War and a three-time governor of Illinois. Historical Marker #2470 in Brownsboro commemorates Richard James Oglesby, for whom Oldham County was named.
Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931) was a celebrated author of children’s fiction from the 1890s until her death in 1931. As an author, she is best known for her “Little Colonel” novels centered around old Kentucky aristocracy, and in particular, one little girl, Lloyd Sherman, who was nicknamed the “Little Colonel.” It was during a visit to her stepchildren’s aunt and uncle at the Burge home in Pewee Valley that Johnston met five-year-old Hattie Cochran and her grandfather, Colonel George Washington Weissinger, the inspirations for the characters Old Colonel Lloyd and Little Colonel Lloyd Sherman in the very first book in the series, “The Little Colonel,” published in 1895. Its phenomenal success led to the publication of 11 additional volumes in the “Little Colonel” series, two paper doll books, and a child’s diary during the next 17 years. In 1911, Annie Fellows Johnston settled permanently in Pewee Valley, where she lived at The Beeches with her stepdaughter, artist Mary Gardener Johnston. It was at The Beeches that she wrote the final book in the Little Colonel series as well as her autobiography The Land of the Little Colonel (1929), published shortly before she died. On March 29, 2017, a State Historical Marker was placed at The Beeches. Johnston received fan mail from all over the world — letters came from as far away as India and Japan — and children formed “Little Colonel Clubs” across the United States. Four years after her death, “The Little Colonel” movie, starring Shirley Temple in the title role and Lionel Barrymore as the “Old Colonel,” premiered in Louisville. Its release spawned ”Little Colonel” dolls, clothing, games, cards, paper dolls, handkerchiefs and other merchandise highly prized by collectors today.
Born in New Albany, Indiana, in 1870, pioneer female photographer Kate Matthews spent most of her life in Oldham County. Her parents had purchased a home in Pewee Valley in the 1880s and Kate, who never married, lived at Clovercroft until her death in 1956. The subjects in her photographs ranged from people and places in Pewee Valley and surrounding communities to staged tableaux of Annie Fellows Johnston’s storybook characters. She became the official photographer for the Little Colonel series and provided the photos for Johnston’s autobiography, “The Land of the Little Colonel,” published in 1929. Annie Fellows Johnston, in fact, turned her into a character in her novels – Katherine Marks, first introduced in “The Little Colonel at Boarding-School” in 1903.
Buddy Pepper was born Jack Retherford Starkey in La Grange, Kentucky, Oldham County, on April 12, 1922. He made his professional debut as a singing pianist and actor when he was 5, and at age 11 was a featured piano soloist with the Steedman Symphony Orchestra in Louisville. He won a Major Bowes Amateur Hour contest at age 13, then entered Vaudeville. For two years he was featured in the Broadway and Hollywood musical revue Meet the People, appearing as the younger brother of actor Jack Pepper and adopting the name Little Buddy Pepper. After service in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Pepper became a composer and lyricist for Universal Studios. He scored the Donald O’Connor picture Mister Big, and wrote songs for several other O’Connor films. Usually collaborating with Inez James, and sometimes others, he contributed songs to thirteen films in all, including The Hucksters (1947), Because of You (1952), Pillow Talk (1959), and Portrait in Black (1960). He is credited with co-writing the title song from Pillow Talk, sung by Doris Day in the film. The film’s score was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Dramatic or Comedy Score in 1959. With Larry Russell and Inez James he wrote “Vaya Con Dios”, which was a U.S. #1 hit by Les Paul and Mary Ford in 1953. Outside his movie songwriting activities, Buddy Pepper was an accompanist for Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich. Buddy Pepper died, aged 70, on February 7, 1993 at his home in Sherman Oaks, California.
Born in 1905 to a horticulturist father, Theodore Roosevelt Klein spent his life in Crestwood, Kentucky building a legacy as a leader of the regional nursery industry and as an educator. Klein and his wife Martha purchased 34 acres in 1934 which became Yew Dell Farm, their family home, nursery and horticultural showcase. For more than 58 years Yew Dell was an active business, with a dairy, landscaping and nursery enterprise, and self-sufficient food producing farm. By the 1960s, Yew Dell had grown to 200 acres of land with livestock, crops, nurseries, greenhouses, and gardens. Klein’s gardens and greenhouses offered an impressive collection of plants obtained around the world, grown and evaluated to determine their usefulness in the local climate. Klein developed or introduced more than three dozen cultivars, mostly evergreens and particularly Ilex opaca (American holly). In 1995 a plant awards program to promote outstanding ornamental woody and perennial plants for Kentucky landscapes was initiated and named in Klein’s honor. Klein died at the age of 93, having worked in his garden every day until a few weeks before he passed away. A few years after Klein’s death the farm was purchased and reopened as Yew Dell Botanical Gardens and is open to the public with regular hours, events, and workshops. A castle that was once Klein’s pool house can be found in the gardens and is a favorite spot for weddings.
Dr. Rob Morris was born Robert Williams Peckham on August 31, 1818 near Boston, Massachusetts. When his father died in 1825 he was placed in a foster home and took the name of one of his foster parents, John Morris. His childhood and young manhood were spent in New York where he became a successful lawyer, lecturer, educator and instructor in Masonry. Dr. Morris became a Master Mason in Oxford, Mississippi, March 5, 1846. He soon became interested in an idea that the female relatives of Master Masons should share, in a measure, the benefits from knowledge of this great fraternal Order. He and his wife, Charlotte, worked on the idea of the Order and invited brother Masons and their wives to discuss the plans, with Dr. Morris demonstrating to them the theories he had formulated. This may be rightfully termed the origin of the Order of the Eastern Star, although it was many years before it was recognized. The Rob Morris Home in La Grange, Kentucky is kept as a shrine to Rob Morris by the Kentucky Grand Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star. He and his wife are buried at the Valley of Rest Cemetery within the town limits of La Grange, KY. The Oldham County Historical Society presently owns the Presbyterian Church where he preached, now known as the Rob Morris Educational Building, and uses it for educational classes, meetings and public programs on their history center campus. It was remodeled and dedicated on August 20, 2006 by Freemasons and the Order of the Easter Star. Rob Morris said there were two things in life dear to his heart: his little Presbyterian Church and Freemasonry. He taught at Funk Seminary which was a college for children of Freemasons. He also inducted Clara Barton into the Order of the Eastern Star.
An aristocratic Frenchman, received permission to travel to the United States in 1831 for the purpose of studying the United States prison system. On Dec. 5, 1831, the Ohio River froze over, making travel impossible for Alexis de Tocqueville and his party. They disembarked at Westport. He later wrote Democracy in America, a two-volume study of the American people and their political institution, in which he included his visit to Westport in Oldham County, Kentucky.
As the last surviving French general of the Revolutionary War, the Marquis de Lafayette made a tour of the United States from July 1824 to Sept. 1825, covering more than 6,000 miles. While on this tour, he stopped in Westport to visit his friends, Major William Berry Taylor and Taylor’s uncle, Commodore Richard Taylor. The name for the town of La Grange was chosen to honor the French estate of the Marquis de Lafayette.
Queen Elizabeth made a historic visit to Hermitage Farm in 1986. Under the ownership of Warner and Harriet Jones, Hermitage became one of the most famous thoroughbred farms in the nation. Since then, Oldham KY has had a long agricultural history and many scenic horse farms lie along Highway 42. Today, Oldham, KY Tourism has developed the most successful Agritourism Program in Kentucky, and is considered to be the “Farm Tour Capital of Kentucky“, with 3 of their 15 hands-on farm tours being notable horse farms, including Hermitage Farm, Windy Meadows Farm, and Second Stride – a nonprofit dedicated to re-training retiring race horses fresh off the track. Hermitage is owned by philanthropists Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown of 21c Museum Hotels, and also rents their historic “Main House” at Hermitage to visitors and is a popular spot for outdoor weddings.