Ky. Chief Justice speaks on origins of Kentucky Bluegrass

Published 2:15 pm Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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When Laurance B. VanMeter walks into a room, the current Chief Justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court commands respect often due to his legal standing. 

Yet on April 11, VanMeter – raised in Winchester – was in town for a different reason. 

As a part of the Second Thursday program, Chief Justice VanMeter spoke on the history of the bluegrass throughout Kentucky and particularly Clark County in front of a full crowd at Bluegrass History and Heritage Museum at 217 S. Main Street. 

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“There are multiple stories about how bluegrass comes to Kentucky, because it’s not a native grass.” VanMeter said. “A lot of those stories center on this area…which I think is really cool.” 

As a part of his presentation to the audience, VanMeter projected numerous slides.

One such slide identified Kentucky bluegrass as a high-quality and highly palatable, long-lived pasture plant with limited use for hay. 

Compared to many other grasses, bluegrass tolerates close, frequent grazing. 

It also has low yields and low summer production and becomes dormant and brown during hot, dry summers. 

Largely as a result of the above information, courtesy of the 2023 Timothy and Kentucky Bluegrass Report, Kentucky bluegrass is widely valued as a pasture and turf grass. 

With his grandfather owning a farm in Clark County, VanMeter’s personal interest in bluegrass goes back a long way. 

“I’ve walked every inch of that [farm]…I’ve mowed every inch of it,” he said. 

As noted during VanMeter’s presentation, there have been many proposed theories about the origins of bluegrass and how it found its way into the commonwealth, including the idea that French traders brought it along.

Another such theory is that, in the later half of the 1700s, the wife of Dr. Samuel Martin sowed the seeds in a Boonesborough garden, with the grass growing so rapidly that she pulled it up and threw it in an adjoining lot. 

Many of the theories were presented with maps, such as one showing Clark County in 1861, while VanMeter opined that he felt skepticism towards a few. 

However, among others, he believed the account of brothers Isaac and Robert Cunningham to be verifiable. 

In 1801, the Cunningham brothers came from the south branch of the Potomac in Virginia to Strode’s Creek in Bourbon County. 

Having previously grown Bluegrass in Virginia and brought seeds to Kentucky on a pack horse, they sowed approximately 200 acres in Timothy and Bluegrass. 

Both grew wealthy, with later farmers attributing their Bluegrass to the Cunningham brothers’ instruction and influence. 

“They were instrumental in bringing [and] propagating bluegrass,” VanMeter said. “It’s fun because…everybody’s family has a story!” 

The Cunninghams are honored with a historical marker on VanMeter Road. 

In the future, Winchester citizens can expect to see additional historical markers of local figures, specifically former Chief Justice James Simpson. 

As for learning about Bluegrass, VanMeter continues to see it as a personal passion. 

“As you get older, you have a greater appreciation for where you came from [and] for the beauty of this land,” he said.