The Filson was founded on May 15, 1884, by ten men, primarily Louisvillians, with a common love of history. The primary founder and first president was Reuben T. Durrett.

The organization was named in honor of John Filson, Kentucky’s first historian, whose book, The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke, and map of Kentucky were published in 1784. In honor of Filson and the centennial of those historical publications the organization was christened The Filson Club. From that small gathering of amateur historians in Durrett’s home, the institution evolved into Kentucky’s privately supported historical society.

Today, thousands of people visit annually to conduct research, attend programs, and view the rotating exhibits on the Filson’s campus in historic Old Louisville.

The Ferguson Mansion has been the Filson Historical Society’s headquarters since 1986. Designed by the architectural firm of Dodd and Cobb and completed in 1905, the Ferguson mansion is one of the finest examples of Beaux Arts architecture in Louisville. Built for industrialist Edwin Hite Ferguson, it showcased his success and family’s social status.

Sold to the Pearson family in the 1920s, the mansion was a funeral home for almost half a century. After passing through two other owners, the Filson purchased the mansion and accompanying carriage house in 1984. Renovation and a stacks addition for the collection were completed in spring 1986. Both beautiful and functional, the Ferguson has been a wonderful home for the Filson and, in turn, by owning this historic property the Filson is assuring its preservation.

The Filson opened its renovated campus and the newly constructed Owsley Brown II History Center in October 2016.

A Timeline of the Filson Historical Society

John Filson publishes The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke

Map of Kentucky drawn by John Filson, 1784, Library of Congress

John Filson was Kentucky’s first well documented historian. He was born in Chester County, Pennsylvania around the year 1747. He worked as a schoolteacher for some time, then eventually purchased 12,000 acres worth of land in the region that would soon become the commonwealth of Kentucky. He worked in the area as a surveyor, arriving in 1783 and publishing his book and accompanying map a year later. Filson’s book published the first biographical information, lore, and legend of explorer Daniel Boone, whom Filson encountered and interviewed during his time in Kentucky. Filson’s publication also widely circulated the myth of the area as a “Dark and Bloody Ground,” benefitting colonial settlers’ claims to territory and encouraging European settlement of the area.

Filson Club Founded

Print of Reuben Durrett, founder of the Filson, Filson Historical Society

The Filson was founded on May 15, 1884, in Louisville by ten Kentuckians with a shared passion for collecting history. The primary founder and first president was Col. Reuben T. Durrett (1824-1913), who was joined by George M. Davie, John Mason Brown, Basil W. Duke, Thomas W. Bullitt, Alex P. Humphrey, William Chenault, James S. Pirtle, Richard H. Collins, and Thomas Speed. The early Club was comprised of both Union and Confederate sympathizers and to avoid the contention of the Civil War, focused on historic accounts of Kentucky’s pioneer era, primarily relating to white settlement.

First Filson Club Publication

Filson Club List of Publications, Otto A. Rothert, 1944, The Filson Historical Society

During the fall of 1884, Reuben T. Durrett wrote and released the first Filson Club publication. A Courier-Journal article about the publication notes, “The first publication of the Filson Club has just made its appearance. It is, most appropriately, an account of the life and writings of John Filson, the first historian of Kentucky, and is the learned and skillful pen of Col. R.T. Durrett.” Prior to the quarterly publications that you will learn about as you traverse this timeline, the Filson produced monographs on Kentucky history and were written by members of the Club.  

1890 Tornado

No. 10: Destruction of Main Street between 11th and 12th Street, March 27, 1890, W. Stuber & Brothers 1890 Tornado Views Photograph Collection, Filson Historical Society

On March 27, 1890, a massive tornado tore across downtown Louisville, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. The storm hit at 8:30 p.m. and lasted only about five minutes, but it nonetheless levelled homes and businesses, destroying warehouses, churches, and the railroad station. One hundred people were killed and at least 55 were injured. 

On April 14, 1890, recognizing the historic nature of this catastrophic event, Filson Club president, Reuben T. Durrett issued a call for Club member’s responses to this event to document the human response and experience. These written experiences were compiled into “an authentic and permanent narrative for publication as one of the Filson Club monographs.” 

This action by Durrett set a precedent for the Filson to collect and preserve personal narrative responses to historic events throughout our history as an organization. Continue exploring the timeline to learn about the future of documenting the past!  

Filson Club Women

Dorothy Cullen (seated) and Phyllis Covatta (standing), c. 1950s, Filson Club, Filson Historical Society

According to our records, the first woman to read a paper before the Filson Club was Ida Symmes in 1891. Women joined the Filson staff in the early 20th century and were major contributors to the Club’s early success. Ludie Kinkead began working for Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston in 1910. She became Curator in 1923 and took on Librarian duties in 1929. Evelyn Dale joined the staff in 1928. Dorothy Cullen took over as Curator and Librarian after Kinkead’s retirement in 1952. Cullen retired in 1968, and Dale served as Curator and Librarian until 1974. On top of their roles, these women were responsible for additional labor such as office organization and “housekeeping” duties around the building and garden. Other women served on the Filson’s staff such as Margaret Schafer, Katherine Healy, Mary Verhoeff, Thelma Dolan, and Mabel Weaks. In addition to staff, women were contributing researchers and authors of Filson publications, board and committee members, as well as Club members.  

Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston and the Filson after Durrett

Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston, 1858-1946, “Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston, n.d.,” The Filson Historical Society

Upon Durrett’s death in 1913, arrangements were made for his collection to be sold to the University of Chicago, due to the lack of a fireproof vault for document storage in Louisville. Unfortunately, many of the Filson Club’s collections were incorporated into Durrett’s personal collection, meaning a portion of it left the state. 

The Filson Club’s collections that remained after the sale were transferred to the library of Filson vice president, soon to be second president, Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston (1858-1946), located in the Columbia Building at Fourth and Main Streets in Louisville. Prior to his work with the Filson, Thruston was hired as a geological assistant under Albert Rogers Crandall (1840-1926) of the Kentucky Geological Survey. The Survey’s goal was to explore and record the natural resources in Appalachian counties. See the photographs here.

1918 Flu Pandemic

“Filson Club Called Off,” Discher Family Papers, 1917-1921, Filson Historical Society

In 1918, an outbreak of influenza including the strain known as the “Spanish flu” spread rapidly around the world hastened by World War I as soldiers moved across international borders. Camp Zachary Taylor, the city of Louisville, and the state of Kentucky were hit with cases. To slow down the spread of the flu, Kentucky closed churches, businesses, and schools, and banned social gatherings of more than 15. Even the Filson closed during this time! 

The Filson holds a collection of letters from the Discher family of Louisville to their brother and son, Louis Discher, a soldier serving the American Expeditionary Forces during the Great War. He was trained at Camp Zachary Taylor and was later moved to Camp Sevier in South Carolina. You can view the complete collection of the Discher family letters online by following the link here. 

Filson Club History Quarterly Published

Caricature of Otto Rothert by Wyncie King, ca. 1920, Filson Historical Society

Published between 1926 and 2002, The Filson Club History Quarterly offered scholarly articles related to the history of Kentucky and the surrounding area as well as genealogy, news and comments geared toward the Filson membership. The journal was started by Filson’s secretary, Otto Rothert. Learn more here.

First Home Secured

The Filson Club’s first permanent home at 118 West Breckinridge Street, Filson Historical Society

Thruston, and other Filson members, recognized the need for a stand-alone building. A drive for funds was successfully conducted in 1926, and a property was purchased, remodeled, and fireproofed. In June 1929, the Filson’s materials, along with Mr. Thruston’s personal collection which he gifted in full, were transferred to the Club’s new home at 118 West Breckinridge Street. The Louisville Herald Post noted: “It’s handsome building is an outward symbol of the appreciation in which it is held.” Architect E. T. Hutchings renovated two townhouses into one Georgian-style building, housing the Filson’s archives, library, museum, and offices.

The Annual Garden Party

The Filson Club staff standing outside, (left to right) Otto Arthur Rothert, Secretary of the Filson, and Editor and Manager of the Filson Club History Quarterly; Margaret Schafer, Clerk; Ludie J. Kinkead, Curator and Librarian; Evelyn Dale, Curator and Librarian; Katherine Healy, Clerk; and Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston, President of the Filson, 1932, Filson Historical Society

After the Filson moved into the Breckinridge Street location, an annual Garden Party was established, which was held in the flourishing garden that surrounded the Club. The garden was named “The Friendship Garden” and was tended to by Margaret Schafer and Ludie Kinkead. The parties continued throughout the Filson’s residence on Breckinridge Street. In a publication from 1958, the author comments, “For many members the garden party was the Club’s event of the year.”

1937 Flood

Big Four Bridge at Shelby Street (C & O Trestles) during the 1937 flood, Turah Thurman Crull, Filson Historical Society

In a 1984 publication of the Filson Club History Quarterly, the staff author remembers the flood: “The Filson Club faced a watery crisis during the great January flood of 1937. As the waters rose, a plumber was called in on January 23 to cut off the water, drain the heating system, and disconnect the gas and electricity. The staff left a key with their next-door neighbor, Mr. Joe Pryor Neff. That evening, when he saw the waters lapping at the door, Mr. Neff, his mother, and a young nephew crossed to the Club on a bridge of planks and hurriedly moved everything they could to higher levels. The Neffs were rescued by boat on Monday; they got back to their home on Friday. As soon as possible, Mr. Neff fired up the furnace to start drying out the building.”

Second Home Purchased

The Ferguson Mansion, the Filson’s second dedicated home, as it appeared in 1912, Filson Historical Society

The Filson Club continued at its Breckinridge Street location for more than fifty years. As time passed, the administration and board began to look for a new location that could accommodate a growing collection and staff, along with additional programming space. As with the Breckinridge location, funds were raised from members and the community – this time to the tune of $3.3 million. The purchase was finalized in 1984, the centennial of the Filson’s existence, and then began the renovation and additions to the Filson’s new home, the Ferguson Mansion in Old Louisville. Building renovations and the addition of 6 levels of temperature controlled/secure stacks were completed throughout 1985, and in summer 1986 the Filson’s collections and staff moved into the new location, which encompassed the mansion for offices and library/archival storage, as well as a carriage house for Museum storage and display. The addition of the stacks and general adaptive re-use of the Ferguson Mansion from funeral home to historical society garnered the architecture firm of Grossman, Chapman, Klarer, as well as the Filson, an award and recognition for this project.

Name Change

The Front of the Ferguson Mansion, Home of the Filson Historical Society, 2021

The library, archival, and museum collections continued to grow, as did programming and staff, throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The Filson broadened its research and collections scope to include the Ohio Valley region and changed its name from “Club” to “Historical Society.”

Ohio Valley History Journal Published

Ohio Valley History, Volume 1, Number 1, 2001, Front Cover

Ohio Valley History is a quarterly, peer-reviewed journal of the history and culture of the Ohio Valley and the Upper South collaboratively edited and published by The Filson Historical Society, Cincinnati Museum Center, and the University of Cincinnati. This publication is the successor to the Filson Club History Quarterly.

Renovation and Expansion

Filson staff member, Laura Kerr Wiley showing off the Filson Expansion Project, 2014, The Filson Historical Society

Plans for expansion of the 3rd Street campus began in 2002 with the purchase of the Bank One building located at 4th and Ormsby, a 60,000 sq ft building with two parking lots. The Filson’s major expansion began in the 2010s with renovations to the Ferguson Mansion and carriage house, and the construction of the Owsley Brown II History Center, creating space for exhibition galleries, expanded library and special collections reading rooms, programming and event rental venues. The renovated and expanded campus opened in 2016.

COVID-19 Pandemic

Remembrance and Care, Amaiya Crawford, Kentucky COVID-19 Poster Project, The Filson Historical Society

As the COVID-19 Pandemic began to spread throughout the U.S. in the spring of 2020, the Filson closed its doors to the public from March 16, 2020, to August 31, 2021. Throughout this historic time, the Filson has been collecting stories and documenting life during the pandemic, continuing Reuben Durrett’s tradition from all those years ago. In the fall of 2020, the Filson initiated the Kentucky COVID-19 Poster Project. This effort commissioned seven local artists to create posters that reflected their experience throughout the pandemic and the racial justice movements of 2020. This project leverages the power of words and images to document, interpret, and find inspiration in a challenging historical moment. The posters were sold online between November 24, 2020, and December 30, 2020. All proceeds of the poster sales were donated to the Artists Relief Trust. See the poster project here.

2022 AIA Architecture Award

Owsley Brown II History Center at the Filson Historical Society

The 2022 Architecture Award program celebrates the best contemporary architecture and highlights the many ways buildings and spaces can improve lives. The nine-member jury selects submissions that demonstrate design achievement, including a sense of place, purpose, history, and environmental sustainability. The Filson’s Owsley Brown II History Center designed by de Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop is a recipient of this award.