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OPINION: Kentucky is so much more than fried chicken and horse racing

Price Wilborn

On June 1, 1792, the Commonwealth of Kentucky was admitted into the Union as the 15th state of the United States of America. The commonwealth has had a long, storied history of making this country a better place, with so many groundbreakers, visionaries, leaders and artists who have come from one of Kentucky’s 120 counties. We have here in the commonwealth some of the most beautiful natural wonders that people from around the country travel to see.

Yet, if you ask someone what they know about Kentucky, they will likely give you one of two answers: Kentucky Fried Chicken or the Kentucky Derby.

Don’t get me wrong, these aren’t bad things. Because of these things, people know about Kentucky. When Colonel Harlan Sanders opened his Sanders Court & Café in 1930, he had no idea that it would eventually become the fourth largest fast food chain in the world with over 27,000 stores.

The Kentucky Derby had its first running in May of 1875. The race is the first leg of the Triple Crown, horse racing’s biggest prize. Today, more than 150,000 people from all over the world attend the race. Celebrities and dignitaries from across the globe attend the event, like Queen Elizabeth II, who attended the race in 2007, and Patrick Mahomes, who attended in 2023.

KFC and horse racing are great and they’re important pieces of what makes Kentucky awesome, but there are so many people who think that those things are all that Kentucky is. That’s simply just not the case.

One of the most important voices in American political history came from Kentucky. Henry Clay was born in 1777 in Virginia. In 1797, he began practicing law in Lexington, Kentucky, and he began his political career in the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1803. He was eventually elected to both the United States Senate and the United States House of Representatives. During his political career he earned the nickname “the Great Compromiser” because of his leading roles in the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, both of which were intended to keep the Union together before the outbreak of the Civil War.

Another great Kentuckian from this period needs no introduction. The 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky, in 1809. It was because of actions by Lincoln that the Civil War was won by the Union and that the United States remained a whole country.

Throughout American history, Kentuckians have helped to shape the nation, and they continue to do so today. Alben Barkley represented Kentuckians in both houses of the United States Congress before serving as the 35th Vice President of the United States under President Harry Truman.

Today’s Congressional delegation includes two of the most powerful Republicans in each house. James Comer represents Kentucky’s First Congressional District and serves as the Chair of the House Oversight Committee, which is the committee that investigates other parts of the federal government. It is the Oversight Committee, under Comer’s leadership, that has investigated Hunter Biden’s business dealings and that has initiated an impeachment inquiry into President Biden.

Mitch McConnell is one of Kentucky’s two senators, who has served as the leader of the Senate Republican conference since 2006, making him the longest-serving party leader in the history of the Senate. As the Republican leader, he has served as the Senate Majority Leader, in charge of setting the Senate’s agenda and priorities while leading the Republican caucus.

Kentucky is more than its politics, too, however. Across American life Kentuckians have been important and influential, helping to shape the nation’s culture into what it is today.

Musicians from the commonwealth have helped shape country music and music as a whole. Lorretta Lynn was one of the first and biggest female country music stars. Billy Ray Cyrus, Dwight Yoakam and more carried on the legacy of Lynn and others while musicians like Tyler Childers, S.G. Goodman, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson are some of country music’s biggest names today – all hailing from the commonwealth.

Country music isn’t the only genre where Kentuckians are making it big. Jack Harlow is not just one of the biggest names in modern hip hop and rap, but one of the biggest names in music today, and he is proud of his Kentucky roots.

Kentucky is home to some of the biggest names in acting, too. George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson all hail from the Bluegrass State.

So do some of the most famous athletes, like Muhammad Ali, often called “the Greatest”, thanks to his storied career both in and out of the boxing ring. Other athletes who may not have been born in the commonwealth have had their careers made thanks to Kentucky sports. Athletes from all of Kentucky’s universities have gone on to lead successful careers in professional sports across the nation and the world, becoming some of the biggest names in sports.

Even still, however, Kentucky is much more.

Not only is Kentucky home to some of the most influential people in the world, but it is home to some of the most beautiful scenery and natural wonders in the world.

Red River Gorge is home to beautiful rock formations, arches and Natural Bridge that makes for beautiful hiking, camping or even underground kayaking. Mammoth Cave is one of the United States’s 63 National Parks. The longest cave system in the world, Mammoth Cave is a unique experience that allows Kentuckians to visit both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve in their own backyard.

Kentucky’s rolling farmland creates beautiful scenery that can be seen for miles. Kentucky’s horse farms are beautiful swaths of land that are kept beautiful. Farms in places like Lexington and Versailles make for beautiful places to watch the sunrise.

In East Kentucky, Cumberland Falls State Resort Park is a place of top-tier natural beauty and is the only place you can consistently see a moonbow in the Western Hemisphere.

Not only is Kentucky one of the most beautiful places on Earth, but it is economically important to the United States and to other nations around the globe.

According to the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, the commonwealth exported over $29.5 billion in goods and services abroad in 2021. Kentucky’s top export was $7.9 billion in aerospace products and parts, followed by $3.3 billion in pharmaceuticals and medicines, and $2.7 billion in motor vehicles, according to the cabinet.

Kentucky is also home to the production of so many items that Americans use each day. Capri Sun drink pouches are produced in Shelbyville. For many years, all Post-It Notes were made in Cynthiana, and Kentucky remains the largest producer of Post-It Notes in the world. The list of things produced in the commonwealth goes on and on, and, according to the Kentucky League of Cities, includes much of the world’s playing cards, which are made in Erlanger, and JIF Peanut Butter, which is made in Lexington.

One can’t ignore the bourbon industry in Kentucky, either. Not only is 95% of the world’s bourbon made here in the commonwealth, but in 2022 was the best year for tourism in Kentucky, according to the Associated Press. This was in no small part thanks to the bourbon industry.

In 2022, over two million people visited the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Not only that, but the industry brought $9 billion in revenue to the commonwealth, as well as more than 22,500 jobs, according to Whiskey Advocate.

This industry has grown significantly in recent years, with the Kentucky Bourbon Trail identifying 51 distilleries across the commonwealth. Big names are made in Kentucky, like Jack Daniels and Woodford Reserve. This spring, Buffalo Trace, a 249-year-old distillery, is even opening a distillery in London, England, to make the Bourbon Trail experience a global one.

Not only is Kentucky influential, but it is important. But what truly makes Kentucky so much more than fried chicken and horse racing are its people.

No matter where you go in the commonwealth, you are going to find kind people who care about their neighbors and only want to see their communitie succeed. Kentucky is not home to very many large, bustling cities, which makes the success of its small towns all the more important.

Time and time again Kentucky has faced devastating events that have thrown its communities upside down. But in the face of this adversity, people came together and overcame.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the commonwealth, like many other states, shut down. Despite that, Kentucky came together. Gov. Andy Beshear was on television each weekday, and many tuned in. Beshear’s daily briefings brought calm during uncertainty and allowed Kentuckians to create an online community through their shared experiences.

After the Dec. 2021 tornado that killed 57 Kentuckians, people came together to help in the aftermath. They not only donated to the Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund but got out in their communities to clear debris and hold their neighbors the very next day.

The same thing happened after the Summer 2022 flooding in Eastern Kentucky that killed 39. Just as with the Western Kentucky Tornado, Kentucky came together. They held each other, were there for each other and did everything they could to make someone’s life better.

But Kentucky doesn’t just come together after tragedy. Its citizens are always there for one another. Neighbors lend a hand in home improvements, families bring in other families into their fold, they share meals with their friends and go out of their way to help others whenever and wherever they are able.

When people only associate the commonwealth with horse racing and fried chicken, they are perpetuating stereotypes that Kentuckians are uneducated and only care about themselves. It makes Kentucky look so much smaller and less significant than what it actually is.

Yes, Kentucky is a place where people feel excluded, and certain legislators in the General Assembly are continuing to make it that way. But we are so much more than what divides us.

Less than a year after the commonwealth’s founding, the General Assembly adopted the state’s seal, which included the motto “United we stand, divided we fall.” Time and time again, Kentuckians have shown that this is always the case, and they take this  to heart, whether they intend to do so or not.

Kentuckians love one another. They take in those who move into Kentucky just as they would anyone else. Kentucky is a place where anyone can find a place where they feel accepted.

We may not always stand united, but we do far more often than we don’t. And when we stand united, we are a formidable force, one that cares for each other and loves one another. That’s what it means to be a Kentuckian, and that’s what makes Kentucky great.

Commentary editor Price Wilborn can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on X @pricewilborn.

If you would like to submit a reaction to a piece, Letter to the Editor or other submission, please send it to commentary editor Price Wilborn at [email protected] or [email protected].

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