50 Things Every Louisvillian Should Know

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By: Jack Welch
courtesy of Louisville Magazine

 

1.There are eight other Louisvilles in the U.S. — in Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio and Tennessee — but ours is the only one with a silent “s.” Apparently the others were named in honor of fellows who were not French kings.

 

2.While it’s true that no native Louisvillian has ever been elected Kentucky governor, Lawrence Wetherby (1950-55) was from Middletown and Thomas Bramlette (1863-67) lived in Louisville for one year as President Lincoln’s U.S. district attorney for Kentucky before successfully running for governor. Oh, and Martha Layne Collins taught at Fairdale and Seneca high schools in the early 1960s.

 

3. Since 1994, when the University of Louisville/University of Kentucky football rivalry resumed after a long absence, neither school has been able to win both the football and basketball match-ups in any year, with the exception of 2003, when U of L won an offensive football battle, 40-24, and then a defensive basketball contest, 65-56.

 

4.  Nobody’s found a way to turn them into a loud, fully accoutered theme park yet, so the fossil beds at the Falls of the Ohio — the area’s most extraordinary natural wonder, formed by the skeletons of marine life 430 million years ago — will most likely remain a recreation spot for curiosity-seekers, birders and geology enthusiasts for decades to come.

 

5.  Twenty years ago, Louisville banks founded and headquartered here included First National Bank of Louisville, Citizens Fidelity Bank and Trust Co., Liberty National Bank, Bank of Louisville and Stock Yards Bank & Trust Co., and newcomer Republic Bank & Trust Co. All except Stock Yards and Republic were bought up by outside bank holding companies in ensuing years: Citizens Fidelity by Pittsburgh-based PNC in 1987; First National by Cleveland-based National City in 1988; Liberty by Chicago-based Bank One (now Chase) in 1994; and Bank of Louisville by Winston-Salem-based BB&T in 2001.

 

6.  Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather, also named Abraham Lincoln, was shot and killed by Indians in 1786 while clearing trees on his farmstead near present-day Long Run Baptist Church in far eastern Jefferson County, where he is buried. In the attack, his son Mordecai shot an Indian attempting to snatch the family’s youngest, Thomas, the father of the future president. 

 

7.  One of the tangible rewards of Louisville’s Sister Cities program is the goliath Louis XVI statue, sculpted by Frenchman Achille-Joseph Valois, at the northeast corner of Sixth and Jefferson streets. The 12-foot-tall, nine-ton marble figure was a surprise free gift, delivered in 1967 from Montpellier, France — the first of eight Sister Cities partners — which hooked up with Louisville 13 years earlier.

 

8.  The phrase describing Louisville as the “Gateway to the South” goes all the way back to the opening of the Clark Memorial Bridge (then Municipal Bridge) in 1929. LG&E erected a huge sign atop its Second Street substation that read “THE GATEWAY TO THE SOUTH/LOUISVILLE GAS & ELECTRIC CO.” The company says the sign was taken down sometime in the 1970s.

 

9.  It’s perfectly acceptable for women in Louisville to call anybody — children, men or other women — “sweetie” or “honey,” as long as you have the sugary Southern accent to back it up or 20-plus years of experience waiting tables at a local diner.

 

10.  If you were wondering whatever happened to Corn Island, the 70-acre site of the original Louisville settlement (corn thrived there — thus the name), its soil was stripped and its limestone bedrock mined for 19th-century cement-making, layer after layer. When LG&E constructed a dam and hydroelectric power plant (1927) in the main current of the Ohio, huge amounts of river water were diverted toward the Louisville side — in effect, “sinking” the island, situated in the entrance pool to the Portland Canal.


11.  Some streets and roads disappear and reappear on local maps, but none does so with such crafty elusiveness as Manslick Road in southern Louisville, which starts at Beulah Church Road and undergoes six name changes as it jags its way west around Iroquois Park and then north to Berry Boulevard near the Shively city limits.

 

12.  It will forever be recorded in etymology books that the late University of Louisville basketball player Derek Smith popularized, if not coined, the term “high five” during the Cards 1979-80 championship season. Whereas the gesture itself started decades before, the origin of the phrase — says none other than the Oxford English Dictionary — took hold in 1980 and found its first print use in an October 1980 issue of Maclean’s Magazine. Smith, it should be noted, did take credit for inventing the language.

 

13.  When a stranger to town asks you for directions — so says the unwritten Louisville stylebook — don’t hesitate to provide a route that includes no-longer-there neighborhood landmarks. Example: “Drive past the old Sears on Theirman Lane — it’s across from the old Circuit City — then turn left when you come to the old Haller’s Pet Shop and continue on past the old White Castle. You can’t miss it.”

 

14.  In August, Airports Council International ranked Louisville International Airport the third-busiest cargo airport in North America and the ninth-busiest in the world, reflecting its status as the global air hub for United Parcel Service (UPS), the world’s eighth-largest airline. Still, wouldn’t you think that an airport that calls itself international would have passenger service to at least one or two foreign destinations?


15.  Your standard city tax as a resident of Louisville goes into a general fund to pay off general city-bond indebtedness, but your occupational license tax of 2.2 percent of gross earnings for working here gets split up to go into three separate pots: 1.25 percent for some murky reason to “Louisville Metro, Kentucky,” 0.75 percent to Jefferson County or Anchorage school boards, and 0.2 percent to TARC, the public-transit system. Duly ordained ministers and domestic servants are exempted from the Louisville Metro and TARC portions, and people who work here but live outside the city are exempted from the school board portion. If you live here but work somewhere else, you get a free pass.

 

16.  Notable big-screen actors who appeared in at least one Actors Theatre production include Holly Hunter, John Lithgow, Julianne Moore, Chris Cooper, Kevin Bacon, Calista Flockhart, Kathy Bates, Armand Assante, John Turturro, Dianne Wiest, Mercedes Ruhl, Lili Taylor — oh, and let’s not forget favorite son Ned Beatty.

 

17.  The Italianate-style Brennan House, built in 1868 at 631 S. Fifth St., is the last vestige of an era when grand private residences were abundant in the downtown business district north of Broadway. As late as the Great Depression, according to The WPA Guide to Kentucky, “a number of brick homes in the Greek Revival style (were) sandwiched between business properties” north of Jefferson Street, and bigger homes with spacious yards lined the south side of Walnut Street (Muhammad Ali Boulevard) between Floyd and Sixth streets.

 

18.  Louisville’s 1937 flood is referred to as a 500-year flood, meaning there’s a 0.2 percent chance the Ohio River will flood to that extent in any given year, whereas — for comparison sake — the swollen river produced only a 40-year flood in 1997 (although 10 inches of rain created a 100-year-plus inland flood). To get a sense of how high the ’37 floodwaters were, visit any of the city’s floodwalls (built subsequent to the deluge) and measure three feet down from the top edge. That’s where the water would be lapping.

 

19.  Louisville whiskey distiller Isaac Wolfe Bernheim (the I.W. in I.W. Harper bourbon) not only donated the land that became Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, but he presented Louisville with Moses Ezekiel’s Jefferson statue (1899, in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse) and George Gray Barnard’s Lincoln statue (1922, alongside the Louisville Free Public Library on York Street), as well as a 1918 addition to Jewish Hospital.

 

20.  The 68-foot-high dome in the rotunda of the Greek Revival Jefferson County Courthouse, along with the rotunda’s cast-iron floor and winding staircase, was not the work of Kentucky Capitol designer Gideon Shryock, the building’s original architect, who quit or was dismissed from the 1836 project after years of delays. The credit goes to bridge designer Albert Fink and partner Charles Stancliff, who saw to the completion of the courthouse in 1860. It did double duty as county facility and Louisville’s city hall — a first stab at city-county merger — until the present City Hall was completed in 1873.


21.  Louisville’s most colorful local leg/files/storyimages/— even better than picturing Al Capone scurrying down a secret passageway at the Seelbach after an Oakroom raid — is that of the goat-headed Pope Lick Monster, who lures teens onto the high railroad trestle over Pope Lick Creek, just beyond the Gene Snyder Freeway off Taylorsville Road. The leg/files/storyimages/spawned a locally produced short film (
The Leg/files/storyimages/of the Pope Lick Monster, 1988) and the 1998 Naomi Wallace play The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek. 

 

22.  Most people know that Male High School grad Louis Brandeis went on to become a distinguished Supreme Court justice. Fewer know that another Louisvillian, John Marshall Harlan, also served brilliantly on the Supreme Court, dissenting against the “separate but equal” Plessy v. Ferguson court upholding (1896) by declaring, “Our Constitution is color-blind. All citizens are equal before the law.” Fifty-eight years later, in Brown v. Board of Education, the court finally came around to his opinion.

 

23.  In 1979 the University of Louisville’s logo became the “Fighting Cardinal,” a makeover that gave the bird . . . teeth. Even with its fierce set of chompers, though, it would still lose in a fight to almost every other Big East mascot, including the Blue Demon, Scarlet Knight, Bearcat and — yes — Friar. The only beatable opponent for the bird would be the Syracuse Orange, and that’s because it’s a piece of fruit.

 

24.  The city’s downtown and most of the county west of Dixie Highway sit on an 85-square-mile, 100-foot-thick alluvial aquifer composed of sand, silt and gravel deposited here as the last continental glacier retreated. In effect, while a building in the Highlands might be anchored to bedrock, a building downtown is anchored to an alluvial “sponge.”

 

25.  The cost of the ticket for parking illegally in a downtown fire lane, no-stopping zone or handicap space: $100 minimum. The cost of retrieving your car from the Ohio Street vehicle impoundment lot after it was towed for the above offense: $105 minimum. The indignity you’ll feel when you go to pick it up the next morning: priceless.

 

26.  Louisville has neighborhoods named Smoketown (for the tobacco warehouses that proliferated there), Butchertown (for its German-run stockyards and slaughterhouses) and Rubbertown (where most of the tires used in World War II were made), but no Bourbontown — despite, at one time, a slew of distilleries in the South End and a liquor warehouse district on Main Street.

 

27.  The bombastic and reflective sides of Muhammad Ali were first put on public display after the first Sonny Liston fight in 1964. Immediately after, he shouted to reporters, “Eat your words! Eat your words! I am the greatest.” The next morning he told them, “All I want now is to be a nice, clean gentleman. I’ve proved my point. Now I’m going to set an example for all the nice boys and girls. I’m through talking.”


28.  The only company town in Jefferson County history was (and is) Kosmosdale, off Dixie Highway in the southwest county. According to the Courier-Journal-published A Place in Time: The Story of Louisville’s Neighborhoods, the area had been known as Riverview when the Kosmos Cement Co. began operating in 1904. The enterprise built 12 duplexes for workers, a school, a medical office, a railroad depot and a company store, creating a community from a next-to-nothing burg.

 

29.  While merger has caused downtown’s economic-development crew and the Census Bureau to argue over Louisville’s population ranking among U.S. cities — the former, using 2006 estimates for all of Jefferson County, claims the 17th position; the census bureau, subtracting the 80 or so incorporated communities in the county, offers the 27th — this much is clear: Merger allowed Louisville to retake the top spot in the state after Lexington had temporarily overtaken Louisville through its own city-county merger.

 

30.  While gorillas, baby elephants and pygmy hippos grab the spotlight at the Louisville Zoo, the zoo’s 16-year-old black-footed ferret breeding-for-recovery program continues to help refill the wilds of North America with an animal whose numbers had dwindled to just 18 by 1987. To date, the zoo has birthed 694 of the ferrets, of which 530 survived, and released 419 of them into the wild, where the survival rate is 77 percent.

 

31.  One of the city attributes that can actually be described as world-class (without employing blind boosterism or gross exaggeration) is the Clfton neighborhood’s D.D. Williamson & Co. Much of the Coke and Pepsi and other brown beverages consumed worldwide would be pale imitations of themselves were it not for the Louisville-based caramel-color manufacturer, which operates seven plants on five continents.


32.  Before the first auto bridge between Louisville and Jeffersonville, the Clark Memorial, was built, Colonel Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame — who, incidentally, was a native Hoosier — operated a ferryboat between the two cities.

 

33.  What may well be Louisville’s best example of karst topography is the old section of Cave Hill Cemetery — complete with limestone outcroppings, a quarry lake, a spring-fed stair-step stream and several classic examples of sinkholes. The final stop for hundreds of notable Louisvillians also doubles as an arboretum for most every tree able to thrive in this climate.

 

34.  The club name “Colonels” has been used by Louisville teams in three different major-league professional sports. First were the baseball Colonels of the National League (1892-99); then the football Colonels of the National Football League (1926); then the basketball Colonels of the American Basketball Association (1967-76).

 

35.  Conceived of as having the biggest branding potential for Louisville since the famous Twin Spires, the Bingham-donated Louisville Falls Fountain — the largest free-floating spraying apparatus in the world — met its ignominious /files/storyimages/after 10 years of sporadic, less-than-grandiose Ohio River life in 1998.

 

 

36.  If you were wondering what those two little steeple-like nubs sticking up from the Grandstand area of Churchill Downs are, they’re what’s left of the once-prominent Twin Spires, erected in 1895 and gradually “swallowed” by renovations to the complex over the past five or so years.

 

37.  To gain an idea of how invested in the bourbon industry Louisville was in the early 1900s, take a walk along the south side of the 100 block of West Washington Street downtown, part of what came to be known as “whiskey row.” There you’ll find porcelain plaques in the sidewalk marking the addresses of the nine distillery warehouses on the block: Thomas & Son, J.T.S. Brown, Old Kentucky, Brown Forman, Grabfelder, W.L. Weller & Sons, Bernheim, Wright & Taylor & Old Charter, and Bonnie Bros.

 

38.  All over the country people are voicing their promised determination to get something or other done “after New Year’s.” Only in Louisville can those resolutions be delayed four more months, until “after Derby.”

 

39.  One constant on hot summer weekends in Louisville is the Catholic Church parish picnic. The 2007 summer season (May 15-Sept. 15) included 50 of the highly social gatherings, 51 if you count the wingding at St. Joe’s Children’s Home in Crescent Hill.


40.  On Friday the 13th in February 1981, a spark from a car at 12th and Hill streets ignited thousands of gallons of the solvent hexane that had been illegally discharged into the city’s sewer system, resulting in a series of  manhole-cover explosions that helicopter police said looked “like a bombing run” down Hill Street. More than two miles of street pavement was destroyed or damaged, and getting everything back to normal took more than two years.

 

41.  The small brick Italianate building  at 536 S. Seventh St., now empty, was one of four city-owned public bath-houses for turn-of-the-20th-century residents too poor to have homes with plumbing. The two big doorways are men’s and women’s entrances. Appropriately enough, the big building across the street is the American Standard Building, once the world’s top manufacturer of plumbing fixtures and now the subject of preservation efforts to save it from the wrecking ball.

 

42.  You should know by now that when a fellow Louisvillian asks you where you went to school, he or she means high school, not college, with the implicit assumption that you’ve lived in Louisville at least since then. Of course you know — you do it yourself, even if you grew up somewhere else.

 

43.  The concrete filigree that sheathes St. Matthews’ Kaden Tower, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright protege William Wesley Peters and completed in 1965, has more than a decorative purpose. It acts as a sunlight filter to keep the building’s walls (and thus its offices) cool while not obstructing inside views of the surrounding landscape.

 

44.  If Mayor Jerry Abramson decides to run for a third consecutive term in 2010, after completing three previous terms in 1998, he will be shooting for an almost unheard-of (Chicago’s Richard J. Daley, 1955-76, only got to 21) silver anniversary mayoral reign.

 

45.  Douglass Loop in the Highlands got its name because it was the end-of-the-line turnaround for electric streetcars running on Bardstown Road from the early 1900s to the /files/storyimages/of World War II.

 

46. If you expect Louisville drivers in front of you to signal a turn they int/files/storyimages/to make—in advance, for your benefit— you picked the wrong town to live in. Here, when drivers do use their turn signals, it is to let you know that they are, at that moment, in the act of turning.

 

47.  The first major-league baseball scandal did not involve Shoeless Joe Jackson and the notorious Chicago “Black Sox” (actually, White Sox) in the 1919 World Series. Instead, it involved four players for the 1877 National League Louisville Grays, who either accepted bribes or had knowledge of the bribes from gamblers for throwing games, causing Louisville’s eviction from the league.

 

48.  Louisville’s relationship with France goes far beyond being named in Louis XVI’s honor. When Shippingport was not an unpopulated island but a thriving river-port rival to Louisville, it was populated largely by citizens of French ancestry. And in the area that now holds Thruston and Eva Bandman parks was a neighborhood known as The Point, where many a French merchant or businessman maintained his outside-the-city summer home.

 

49.  Lebowski Fest, the annual Louisville homage to the Coen brothers’ movie The Big Lebowski, has gained national notoriety since it was started in 2002 by young 30- somethings Will Russell, Scott Shuffitt and Bill Green, drawing attendees from 35 states and spawning Lebowski Fests in Los Angeles, New York, Austin, Seattle, Las Vegas, London and Edinburgh. Now the three, along with cohort Ben Peskoe, have a book out, I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski, that’s been on the Los Angeles Times’  bestseller list.  

 

50.  A theory accepted by many for Louisvillians’ propensity to gather like Capistrano swallows in Destin, Fla., over spring vacation is that Destin is due south of Louisville. To be accurate, though, only our teenage kids have true compasses, flocking exactly south to Panama City.

 

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