George G. Humphreys, past research director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives and later the extended campus director for Madisonville Community College, has written an invaluable study of a much-neglected region of Kentucky. In the process, he has filled a gap in the historiography of the politics of Kentucky. At first glance, I thought this was a book that I, a retired history professor at Murray State University, should have and could have written. But after a close reading of this wonderful book, I now know that I would never have been up to the task. Humphreys’ research for “The Fall of Kentucky’s Rock” is staggering, both in secondary and primary sources, oral interviews conducted by the author and in oral history collections at Murray State’s Pogue Library and the University of Kentucky’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History.
In an introductory chapter, a geographical, economic and historical introduction of Western Kentucky, Humphreys defines his region of interest “as all counties west of the line connecting the eastern borders of Hancock, Ohio, Butler, Warren and Simpson counties. The remaining borders are the Ohio River on the north, the Mississippi River to the west, and the Tennessee state line on the south.” (p. 5) Thus Western Kentucky encompasses 11,130 square miles, 28 counties, and represents 28% of the state’s land. The entirety of the Jackson Purchase and the Western Kentucky Coal Field, as well has a portion of the Pennyroyal region, are included in this study.
All of the major players in Western Kentucky politics are here: Ruby Laffoon from Madisonville, Thomas Rhea from Russellville, A. B. “Happy” Chandler, originally from Robards, Alben Barkley from Graves County and Paducah, Earle C. Clements from Morganfield, Harry Lee Waterfield from Clinton, Emerson “Doc” Beauchamp from Logan County, Rainey T. Wells from Murray, Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt from Hopkinsville, J. R. Miller and Wendell Ford from Owensboro, William “Bill “ Natcher and Jody Richards from Bowling Green, Julian Carroll from Paducah, Katherine Peden from Hopkinsville, and Steve Beshear from Dawson Springs, among them. In all, there have been seven Kentucky governors hailing from Western Kentucky since the 1930s. Impressive to me, however, was Humphreys’ familiarity with other lesser-known politicians such as Kenny Imes from Murray, J. Murray Blue from Providence, and Garrett Withers from Dixon.
Although the University Press of Kentucky pitched this book as a history of politics, it is much more than that. Humphreys has also written artfully about Civil Rights, the region’s economic development, including discussions of roads, bridges, industry, and education, including the impact of Murray State University, Western Kentucky University, and the region’s community colleges at Paducah, Madisonville, Hopkinsville, Henderson and Owensboro. The author also discusses the interplay between local, regional, state and national politics from the New Deal on.
Finally, in the last chapter, “The Fall of Kentucky’s Rock” follows the tale of the decline of the dominance of the Democratic Party until the 1990s when political control came into the hands of the Republican Party, where it still lies today. During the middle years of the 20th century, powerful factions of the Democratic Party fought for political control with only minimal interruptions by Republicans. Social issues—in effect “God, gays, and guns”—eventually led to a transferal of political power in Western Kentucky, a rural region that has long been conservative in mindset.
Order this important book from the University Press of Kentucky or from Amazon.com. This book finally fills a void in the literature of the Bluegrass State.