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Wes Cowan, Bob Edwards: Learn History by Exploring Your Own Roots

From his appearances on Antiques Roadshow, auctioneer and appraiser Wes Cowan has seen plenty of family heirlooms come across his velvet-covered display table. While most of those objects have little monetary value, Cowan believes they are critically important to helping people connect to history.

“That’s what I call history with a little ‘h’,” Cowan says. “History with a little ‘h’ revolves around these individual stories that we have about our families that often relate to an object that then ties that family into a bigger story about American history.”

Cowan and fellow Louisville native Bob Edwards appeared at the Kentucky Historical Society’s 2015 Boone Day celebration on June 7 to discuss the value of knowing history and their journeys through their respective family genealogies.

Public radio host Bob Edwards, left, with Antiques Roadshow appraiser Wes Cowan and moderator Alan Lytle from WUKY at the 2015 Boone Day celebration at the Kentucky Historical Society. (Photo by Marvin Young.)

A Knowledge (or Lack Thereof) of History

“I now live and work in Washington, D.C., where you’d swear everyone is ignorant of history,” Edwards says with a sardonic smile. He was the longtime host of NPR’s Morning Edition and The Bob Edwards Show on Sirius-XM satellite radio.

“What’s the old saying? ‘If you don’t know history, you’re doomed to repeat it,’” Edwards says. “Well they do on a daily basis.”

Cowan contends Americans know so little of their history because of how it’s traditionally been taught: sweeping overview courses in high school or college that present a recitation of dry facts that start with the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock. That’s what he calls history with a big ‘h’.

Instead, he wants to see schools start teaching history to grade school children by asking them to bring in a family treasure and then challenge them to research the history of object.

“Anybody can be a history detective. All it takes is a keyboard and persistence,” says Cowan about the wealth of archival resources available online.

Enriched by His Family’s History

Despite doing hundreds if not thousands of interviews relating to historical topics in his 40 years on public radio, Edwards says his most rewarding explorations of the past have come through researching his own deep roots in the commonwealth.

“My life is enriched by knowing where my family fits in in Kentucky and U.S. history,” he says.

Former NPR host Bob Edwards discussing his family genealogy at the Kentucky Historical Society. (Photo by Marvin Young.)

When his father was dying in 1991, Edwards says he felt compelled to learn more about his genealogy. His research uncovered an ancestor who was banished from six different American colonies, as well as distant relations to President Abraham Lincoln and Oscar-winning actor George Clooney.

He also proudly relates the story of his Hayden relatives, who along with other Catholic families came to Kentucky in the late 1700s to escape persecution in Maryland.

“Even after the Revolution was won, religious discrimination was still okay,” Edwards explains. “Catholics in Maryland were double-taxed, couldn’t run for office, and had other indignities.”

Edwards’ ancestor, William Hayden, along with his brother, Basil, were among the early Catholics who settled in Nelson County, which became a seat of Catholicism in the west. Basil donated the land on which the first Catholic church in Kentucky was built. He also did as many farmers in those days did: He started distilling whiskey. Edwards says Basil Hayden’s name lives on today in the premium bourbon that bears his name, and in the whiskey he inspired, Old Grand-Dad.

“So in this one family you have religious discrimination in colonial and post-colonial America, mass migration from the east coast to frontier, the establishment of the Catholic Church in Kentucky, and the history of bourbon,” Edwards says. “That stuff just fascinates me.”

The Adventure of War

Cowan, who owns a prominent antiques auction house in Cincinnati, grew up Louisville’s Highlands neighborhood. As a child he spent summers with relatives who farmed in Union County, and he says those experiences shaped his definition of what it means to be a Kentuckian.

“I think my love of Kentucky in part stems from that exposure to the land and the people who are working the land,” Cowan says.

Antiques appraiser and auctioneer Wes Cowan at the Kentucky Historical Society’s 2015 Boone Day celebration. (Photo by Marvin Young.)

He says his family genealogy includes Samuel Withers, a great-great-grandfather from western Kentucky who joined the Confederate Army’s 10th Kentucky Cavalry in the Civil War. Cowan says he wonders what would’ve motivated a teenage boy from a family that didn’t own slaves to volunteer for the Confederacy.

“I’m sure at 17 years old you’re not thinking about keeping slaves and states rights,” Cowan says. “I like to think he joined because he wanted to see the elephant. This was an adventure and, boy, wouldn’t it be great to get away from mom and my five brothers and sisters, and go off and ride on a horse somewhere.”

Cowan says Withers eventually served with John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate raiders and was captured by Union troops trying to cross the Ohio River. Withers rode out the rest of the Civil War in a prison camp in Chicago.

The Legacy of Slavery

Cowan says while most early Kentuckians lived a hard-scrabble existence, there were many prosperous Virginians who immigrated here with their slaves.

“Slaves provided the human capital to make more capital,” Cowan says. “It’s hard to realize how much wealth was built on the back of enslaved people throughout the South.”

Edwards says it broke his heart when he found a slave owner among his ancestors because of the “stain” he felt it cast upon his family. And he says it was a mistake that Kentucky embraced the South after the Civil War.

That mindset lasted long into the 20th century as the state wrestled with segregation. When he was young, Cowan says he joined with African-American protestors who marched in his Louisville neighborhood.

“They were demonstrating about the open-housing laws,” Cowan recalls. “And I, as a teenager, got out there and was walking with them because that was the way I had been raised by my mother.”

Rich in Discrimination

“We always thought in Louisville that we were progressive because we were ahead of the rest of the South,” Edwards says as he remembers student sit-ins at the old Blue Boar Cafeteria in downtown Louisville.

“We were still rich in discrimination,” Edwards says. “It was ugly and it was embarrassing and I’m ashamed of that.”

Cowan says slavery is just one issue that profoundly illustrates how history continues to influence our lives.

“The more we know about our past and how it shapes our country today, the better,” Cowan says.

Historical Odds and Ends

In their wide-ranging conversation at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History, Cowan and Edwards discussed a number of topics relating to the state’s past.

  • It turns out that arguing over a new bridge for northern Kentucky isn’t new. Cowan says building the first span across the Ohio River spurred intense debates in the 1850s. Kentuckians desperately wanted a crossing but Cincinnati businessmen feared a bridge would impede steamboat traffic and hurt commerce in their city. Even after engineer John Roebling designed a suspension bridge that would allow the stacks of steamboats to pass safely under it, Cincinnati civic leaders still had to be convinced of the merit of the plan, according to Cowan. Before they approved the project, Cowan says Cincinnati demanded that streets on either side not be aligned so as to make travel between Kentucky and Ohio less convenient. (A further note: That bridge had a toll for nearly 100 years.)
  • Although Frank Duveneck, a painter of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is closely associated with the Art Academy of Cincinnati, he was actually born and lived many years in Covington. Fine art patrons still praise Duveneck’s work, but Cowan argues that Kentuckians should embrace the Frankfort watercolor artist Paul Sawyier instead. “Duveneck painted dark, ugly pictures. Paul Sawyier painted great pictures of Hickman Creek and the Kentucky River,” Cowan jokes. “Embrace him, forget Duveneck.”
  • Edwards says pioneer Simon Kenton deserves more recognition for his efforts to explore and settle Kentucky – and not just because he led one of Edwards’ ancestors on a flatboat journey down the Ohio River. Edwards says Kenton saved Daniel Boone from being scalped by Native Americans. Yet Edwards says Boone is better known because he got better press, largely from the biography early historian John Filson wrote about him. Cowan agrees with that assessment, and adds that both Boone and Kenton were equally bad businessmen when it came to properly filing their land claims.
  • Edwards also expresses great fondness for the late historian and author Thomas D. Clark, who taught at the University of Kentucky for many years. “Every time I talked to him, it was a good time… So smart, so funny, and just charming company,” Edwards says. “I never met a woman who didn’t have a crush on Dr. Clark. He was just that charming.”