Inaugural Blog Post Celebrates The Filson’s 125th Birthday and New Website
This month The Filson launches its new website. It has a new look that we believe viewers will enjoy; and more content that we know researchers will find useful. Additions will continue being made so viewers should check back regularly. One of the new features of The Filson site is a blog. Popular and informative, The Filson wanted to include this style of forum in order to tell more about our collections and the significant stories of Kentucky and the Ohio Valley. What more appropriate way to celebrate our new website than to look back and remember our founding 125 years ago, in May of 1884, when The Filson itself was brand new. Those familiar with the history of The Filson Historical Society know that it was founded on May 15, 1884, as The Filson Club. Ten Louisvillians, all prominent men, gathered together that month at the home of Reuben T. Durrett, at the southeast corner of Brook and Chestnut Streets, to form a group dedicated to “collecting, preserving, and publishing historical material, especially that pertaining to Kentucky.”
As a group they had a number of things in common, from most of them being lawyers to having deep Kentucky roots. They also had differences; politically they identified with both the Democratic and Republican parties, and during the Civil War they split pretty much down the middle in their support for the Union or the Confederacy. Topics such as these were generally avoided; and it was their love of history and Kentucky that brought them together for their collegial and educational gatherings.
The year 1884 marked a significant year in Kentucky history (no, not because the first Democrat since James Buchanan in 1856 was elected President – Kentucky after the Civil War becoming a Democratic Party dominated state). That year marked the centennial of the publication by theill-fated John Filson of his history and map of Kentucky. The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke, with its appendix “The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boon[e],” quickly became an international best-seller. Filson, one of the founders of Cincinnati, didn’t live to enjoy either the fame or rewards of his efforts. He was killed by Indians near Losantiville (the future Cincinnati) in 1788.
The founders’ lawyerly dedication to the law and legal form logically led to the incorporation of this group of amateur historians. Several names were no doubt considered, but The Filson Club – in honor of Filson and his book and map – was chosen. Meeting once a month – with a summer hiatus – in the library of Durrett’s home, a member delivered a paper on some aspect of Kentucky history. Filson cigars and Durrett’s secret recipe sparkling cider were enjoyed after meetings. The presenters’ papers were collected into a club archive that soon began to accumulate other materials – books, newspapers, letters, portraits, diaries, pamphlets, photographs, etc. Durrett, as primary founder and host of Filson meetings maintained the club’s collection. However, therein lay a problem. Durrett himself was a collector and had amassed one of the finest collections on Kentucky and the early West in the country.
In Durrett’s mind, The Filson’s collection was basically his collection – but not vice a-versa. This Durrettian philosophy and practice would have grave future consequences, but for more than The Filson’s first quarter-century it apparently wasn’t an issue. Colonel Durrett (no one is quite sure how he came by the title – perhaps because he seemed the archetypal Kentucky Colonel?) was the undisputed guiding light and leader of The Filson Club and in many ways The Filson Club was an extension of Durrett.
As the 19th century drew to a close and the 20th began, The Filson was active and growing. Membership quickly grew beyond the ten founders, as like-minded historically inclined men – and women – joined; but it is to those ten original founders that we owe our existence.
A future blog post – "The Filson’s Founders"