Written by: Tom Stephens Ky. Historical Society
INAUGURATION HAS COLORFUL HISTORY
When Paul Patton takes the oath of office to become the next governor of Kentucky on Dec. 12, he will follow customs and traditions that span the entire 203-year history of the Commonwealth.
They range from the legal and necessary to the obscure and notorious.
Among other things, Patton will swear that he has not fought a duel or acted as a second in a duel. Kentucky's strangely antiquated oath of office dates from 1850, when so many of the state's leaders were being killed in affairs of honor that lawmakers placed the largely unenforced law into the state constitution where it remains to this day.
Frankfort citizens will renew their tradition of presenting beaten biscuits and white cake at the Governor's Mansion on inauguration morning. Following custom, Gov. Brereton Jones will leave the items on a table for Patton.
Kentucky's first inaugural traditions began on June 4, 1792, in Lexington, three days after statehood became official. Isaac Shelby, Revolutionary War hero and member of the Danville constitutional convention, rode to the inaugural on horseback from that city, escorted by brilliantly dressed soldiers on white horses as cheering crowds lined the road. A witness said "the citizens made the valley of the Elkhorn resound with the cracking of their flintlock rifles and with the roar of an old six-pounder (cannon)."
After a welcoming ceremony, Shelby took the oath of office, becoming Kentucky's first governor. He then joined a parade in his honor amid the sounds of drums, fifes and "village bells." True to their frontier reputation, Kentuckians again hailed their new governor with gunfire as the inauguration ended.
In 1796, James Garrard became the first governor inaugurated in Frankfort, the new capital, and the first to occupy the first governor's mansion, then known as "the palace." (The house, on High Street in Frankfort, is the present Lt. Governor's Mansion.)
One early tradition was that governors took the oath of office beneath an elm tree in the yard of the Old State Capitol. The tree, known as "Inauguration Elm," died several years ago. A marker rests in its place.
Although traditionally military in style, Gov. Beriah Magoffin's inaugural raised the rattling of sabers to new heights on August 30, 1859, just prior to the Civil War. Drawn in a open carriage by four white horses, Magoffin was escorted into the city by "several militia companies" of cavalry, an artillery corps complete with four brass cannons and the Lexington Rifles of Capt. John Hunt Morgan of Lexington, who was soon to gain fame as the "Thunderbolt of the Confederacy."
John LaRue Helm was the only governor inaugurated outside the capital and the only one to represent two political parties. He first became governor in 1850 when, as lieutenant governor, he succeeded his political mentor, Gov. John J. Crittenden, when Crittenden resigned to become U.S. attorney general. The Civil War turned Helm from a Whig to a Democrat, and he was elected governor in 1867.
Helm became gravely ill just after the election and was unable to come to Frankfort to be sworn in. At his wife's request, the inauguration was held at Helm's home near Elizabethtown. A procession of supporters, friends and newspaper reporters arrived by train and went to Helm Place, the governor-elect's home. He took the oath of office in his bed and died five days later.
The climax of James B. McCreary's first inaugural, in 1875, was a 40-foot-tall hot-air balloon made of colored tissue paper, which briefly rose above shouting onlookers before catching fire and crashing to the ground. Martha Layne Collins renewed the hot-air balloon tradition during her inauguration in 1983, when several balloons lifted off from the capitol grounds.
Gov. William O. Bradley became the first Republican governor in 1895. His inauguration turned into a kind of Fancy Farm-style affair, as outgoing Gov. John Young Brown and Bradley exchanged good-natured political barbs. Since Bradley's election, seven Republicans have served as governor, including Bradley's nephew, Gov. Edwin Porch Morrow.
The 1895 inauguration was also attended by a band of "well-organized pickpockets," who reportedly made off with the wallets and valuables of about 500 attendees.
Kentucky's first governors were inaugurated in June. The state constitution of 1850 changed the month to September and in 1851 Lazarus W. Powell became the first governor inaugurated in that month. Governors have taken office in December since the ratification of the present state constitution in 1891.
James B. McCreary's second inaugural, in 1911, was the first ceremony held in the present state capitol. A torrential rain that day forced the last-minute construction of a flag-draped platform inside the capitol, where the oath of office was administered in the presence of about 7,000 citizens. McCreary was also the oldest governor and the first to occupy the present governor's mansion.
One of the longest-lived traditions has been the dances held after the inauguration ceremony. The early ones were known as "Inaugural Hops," and were held in the House chamber of the Old State Capitol. By 1855 Inaugural Balls were held at the old Capital Hotel on Main Street, which had built a ballroom for the purpose in 1853.
Located on the second floor of the hotel, the ballroom was "renowned throughout the South for its beautiful, highly polished floor of wide,white ash boards set on springs, which dancers claimed made the floor so resilient that they could dance ... without weariness." Today's inaugural balls relive the original tradition of being held in the capitol.
The Inaugural Parade has been a tradition since Isaac Shelby's day. Governors have ridden on horseback, in carriages and in automobiles to the music of the day and the cheers of the crowds. Participants usually include military units, political leaders and other dignitaries. John Y. Brown Jr.'s parade in 1979 featured Muhammad Ali and the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.
One of the most enduring traditions has been that of leaving beaten biscuits and white cake in the governor's mansion for the incoming governor. This custom, followed for at least a century, has become part of Frankfort folklore. An earlier version had the outgoing first lady leaving "a baked ham, a cake and a platter of beaten biscuit(s) on the dining table" for the incoming first lady.
By the 1950s, the tradition had evolved to include the citizens of Frankfort, considered the hosts of the inauguration. Then, the fare, prepared by "Frankfort hostesses," included "ham, turkey, eggnog and oysters."