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So You Wanna Be a Librarian?

John Beemer

“Why would you want to be a librarian? Sitting around reading all day—that sounds like the most boring job. Aren’t libraries dying, anyway? And don’t you want a career that pays better?”

I’m sure most library workers have heard these questions dozens of times. I know I have. About midway through a master’s in library science, I’ve almost gotten used to the quizzical looks and smirks that accompany questions like, “What on Earth do the words ‘library’ and ‘science’ have to do with each other? What exactly do you do?—learn about the best books and how to shelve them?” My usual response: “I guess that’s part of it.” Sometimes I’ll give in and wax poetic about metadata, the different types of libraries, and our goal of bridging the gap between patron and information. Usually, this just gets me more strange looks and sometimes an unconvincing, “Oh—okay.”

Not that I blame their confusion. Learning the lingo of the library world can be daunting. Everything occurring behind the scenes at even a small library can seem incomprehensible. The science of running a library as we know it is a relatively new discipline—an evolving, thriving field sure to become more important in our information-saturated world. Working in a public library has given me a chance to examine some of the things I’ve been learning—to test myself—to see how people look for information, day to day, and how I can help them.

Starting as a new staff member of DCPL beginning in September, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was intimidated by a new workplace with new faces and new patrons. I knew it would take time to familiarize myself with all of the unknown. At first, I felt totally inept—like I couldn’t help anyone. (Halfway to my MLS and I mis-alphabetized a set of magazines. Way to go, John.) But I’m gradually falling into the groove of things, and I look forward to going to work. It doesn’t hurt when I’ve yet to encounter an unfriendly face or unhelping hand among my coworkers.

Coming from a small academic library, the most obvious difference I’ve encountered is the number of people I come into contact with daily. Although foot traffic ebbs and flows, once our doors open, patrons of every demographic and background come to us for their various needs. Some people want books or movies or CD’s. Some visit for a special program or for genealogy research. And some just want a comfortable place to sit and spend time. Nothing’s wrong with any of those. And here’s a difference between academic and public libraries I’ve noticed: an academic librarian usually deals only with the students, faculty, and staff of his or her institution; a public librarian should expect to interact with everyone and anyone and, in fact, has a responsibility to serve every person who comes through the door. That’s one of the most attractive and powerful sentiments about the public library’s role—that everyone is worthy of equal service and information access, regardless of status, education, or income (of course, actually following this aspiration is sometimes easier said than done).

Serving the entire public in the reference department comes with its own challenges. I never know what question I’ll be asked or which subject I’ll need to dive into. Library science is truly multidisciplinary—librarians have to be able to interact with the entirety of humanity’s information. In a given day, I’ve been asked for information about pumpkin carving, diabetes, car repair, and crockpot recipes. I don’t have to be an expert on it, but I need to know where and how to find it. This not only keeps me on my toes, but it’s also the main reason I want to be a librarian: I enjoy helping people. I’m not working at a library to make money or sit around reading. I work there to help you find what you need—what you’re looking for. And I think all of my coworkers would say the same.

Sacred Silence: Marijuana, God’s Law, and Kentucky’s Cornbread Mafia

This article was written by James Higdon (The Cornbread Mafia) for The Marginalia Review. It is re-posted with the permission of the site and author.

When I started working on the book that would become The Cornbread Mafia, I never thought that I would be telling a story of God’s law versus Man’s law. But that’s how it turned out. Which was scary stuff, I thought. The supremacy of divine law over secular law was (I assumed) a concept reserved only for religious fundamentalists, so what was I doing with it in a story about large-scale marijuana growers?

I thought I was writing a true-crime story, and at the start I didn’t know much more than the basics: between 1985 and 1989, 70 men from a three-county area in central Kentucky were arrested on 30 farms in 10 states with 200 tons of marijuana in what federal prosecutors said was the “biggest domestic marijuana [syndicate] in American history.” They called them “the Cornbread Mafia.”

Now, having grown up in the middle of that three-county area (Lebanon, Kentucky in Marion County), I had some clue about this Cornbread deal, who some of the men were and what kinds of cars they drove. I went to school with their kids. We were all part of the same Catholic parishes and ended up at the same Catholic wedding receptions. But what did our rural Catholic identity have to do with a giant marijuana cartel?

It didn’t take long into the reporting process to encounter these facts: of the 70 men arrested in Cornbread-related busts, 69 were Catholics and zero agreed to cooperate with law enforcement in exchange for a lesser sentence. Those facts, and others like them, left me searching for a cause-and-effect relationship between Catholicism and criminal activity — and I found it in newspaper microfilm and in church archives as they illuminated the parallel histories of the frontier Catholic church and the distilling industry.

The first Catholic church west of the Appalachian mountains was built in 1790 in Holy Cross, Kentucky — ground zero of what would become Cornbread country 200 years later. Five years before the church was built, the land had been settled by a group of Catholic families of English descent led by a man named Basil Hayden, a distiller of whisky.

Hayden’s grandsons would later bottle the old man’s bourbon recipe under the Old Granddad label. By the turn of the 20th Century, Marion County had nine active distilleries employing hundreds of men. And then, Prohibition came to Marion County in 1919 and all those distilleries closed, taking the jobs from hundreds of Catholics (with about a dozen children each) and criminalizing the only thing they knew how to do.

So suddenly, an entire Catholic community descended into lawlessness. To read the newspaper microfilm of The Lebanon Enterprise for the 13 years of Prohibition is to read about comic book-level violence and absurdity: revenuers leaping from the running boards of one moving vehicle onto another, gun fights, car chases, and one record-setting still bust after another.

In this sort of environment, where men felt forced into criminal activity to provide for their children, those children learned quickly that silence was the only weapon they had against the men with guns who were taking their fathers away. When the man asked questions, not answering was the only way to fight back. When everybody did it together, it created a strong bond between them and a strong wall of silence that was almost impossible for outsiders to penetrate.

In the 1950s, I discovered in the newspaper archive that Lebanon still had the reputation for bootlegging, as Marion County was the last “wet county” to the Tennessee line. It came to a head in 1958, when an agent for the Alcoholic Beverage Control was building a new house when someone dynamited it in the middle of the night. Authorities in Frankfort, the state capital, took this attack on their authority personally. They sent 30 state policemen to harass the local liquor merchants while investigating the ABC agent’s house bombing. The state’s public safety commissioner, a young Harvard grad, accused the whole community of “open and commonplace gambling, prostitution and illegal whisky sales.”

The public safety commissioner then traveled to Lebanon with the state’s press pool in tow, claiming to have evidence to make arrests in connection with the ABC agent’s house bombing. But when he exited the courthouse empty-handed, a mob had assembled against the commissioner, shouting things at him in response to the prostitution accusations, like “Where are those girls?” and “Where are those girls!”

There, in the back of this mob scene, the local newspaper editor explained to a big-city reporter what the hell was going on, and that conversation made it into print, which was preserved in the newspaper microfilm where I found it 50 years later: “Gambling and liquor violations are a sin against the state, but prostitution is a sin against God,” the local editor said. “That’s a serious charge.”

He’s saying that the community wasn’t angry about the accusations of drinking and gambling, because they were true — but claiming that prostitution was also going on just went too far. And more importantly, it seems to suggest that this community existed in a moral universe that successfully ignored a number of state and federal laws while still maintaining its moral center by focusing on the authority of the Church instead of the encroaching power of the state, which was hell-bent on trying to control things it couldn’t control.

The children of that mob scene would grow up to become the Cornbread generation: men who seemed to possess an ability to live outside of civil authority without losing their souls in the process. Of course, this is not universally true, and the story of those who successfully walked this line is littered with others’ failure. The body count in my book is about a dozen, and the number of families torn apart by mandatory federal prison sentences and property seizures is too great to count.

But many of the men doing those prison sentences did more time than they would have, if they had only turned on their friends and cooperated with the government. But none did, zero out of 70. Family and community were more important than staying out of prison.

Step by the library on Monday, September 30 at 6:00 PM to hear Higdon speak on The Cornbread Mafia. He will have books on hand to sell and sign after his presentation.

The Derringer – History of Legion Park and James H. Hickman

by Courtney Hatley

Legion Park, the oldest city park in Owensboro (with the exception of Smothers Park which was set aside as public grounds in the 1816 plat of Rossboro), was acquired as a shady picnic area in 1894. At the time, the location of Legion Park was outside the city limits and patrons paid a fare of 5 cents to ride a streetcar the 1 and a half miles to and from the park, which was operated by the Owensboro Railway Company and ran every 20 minutes. James Hardin Hickman (1852-1931), “tall, handsome, ram-rod straight” and Mayor of Owensboro at the time, purchased the land from Camden Riley, Sr. for a total of $4,000.

Hickman was one of the most well-loved and admired Mayors of Owensboro; he was elected five more times and is considered the Father of Owensboro’s parks movement. Hickman’s titles included pharmacist, tobacco merchant, doctor, bank director and manufacturer of Owensboro Wagons. An extremely influential man, he also served as a school board member and city councilman, and successfully argued for the development of paved streets. Hickman regarded nature as something to be cultivated and treasured; in an editorial for the Owensboro Inquirer, Hickman wrote, “He is not a normal man who is not in love with woods and trees and shrubbery and flowers; for they are among God’s best gifts to the world.” Providing the city with beautiful places and parks became an obsession of Hickman’s and it is largely due to his initiative that we have such splendid ones today. Eminently popular among Owensboro’s citizens, Hickman’s wealth was generously used to advance the prosperity of the city. However, Hickman’s fortune was largely dissipated with the Hickman-Ebbert Wagon Company venture and he ultimately committed suicide after a long period of ill-health and despondency.

Originally called Hickman Park, the name was changed in 1923 to American Legion after Hickman encouraged the commissioners to honor the Owensboro men who fought in World War I. The large trees and natural setting, as well as winding walkways, picnic shelters, fish ponds, a bandstand, concession stand and a fountain enhanced the already exceptionally beautiful park. A monkey house was eventually added which featured two monkeys, white rabbits, foxes, coons and an assortment of birds.

“The parks we have are a sacred trust for the benefit alike of the normal, wholesome and merry folk, who may find recreation and relief from life’s toils, but to the sick, the weary and the care-worn, they offer a place where the cooling shadows kiss the tired brow and invite surcease from suffering and give a nature’s failing forces a chance to live again.” – James Hardin Hickman

Mayors of Owensboro, Kentucky by Jerry Long
History Owensboro Parks and Recreation 1815-1990 by Evan Ray Russell
Owensboro Messenger
Owensboro Inquirer

Echoes of Elmwood

For the Derringer
By Leslie McCarty

One was an aviation pioneer.
She led others, yet she was blind.
No mob was going to lynch his prisoner.
This Civil War hero made a fatal decision.
Why the Colonel went into the lion’s den, day after day.

Each of us has a story to tell; so do they. Come and here these voices speak for themselves at Echoes of Elmwood.

Have you missed some stories from years past of Voices of Elmwood? If you have, then this is your chance get caught up. Echoes of Elmwood is revisiting ten stories from Year One.

Performances will be under a tent at Elmwood Cemetery May 17 & 18 at 7 & 9 p.m.

To get your tickets, please call the Owensboro Museum of Science and History at 270-687-2732, or visit

This event is proudly hosted by Rosehill-Elmwood Cemetery

The Derringer Presents: The mystery of the stray balloon.

By Leslie McCarty

While looking at the current issue of the Kentucky Explorer Magazine, there was listed a newspaper clipping about a stray balloon that had flew over Daviess County and mysteriously crashed. The only date given for this was December 1887. I checked our archives of the Owensboro Messenger and found three articles that cover this strange incident. The first article was listed on Sunday December 11, 1887.

According to the article, “the citizens of the eastern portion of the city yesterday discovered a balloon to the northward, passing slowly from east to west. It was an immense affair and was sailing at a great height. After being in sight for some time it began wavering in the wind and finally began to descend, falling slowly at first and at last taking a desperate plunge earthward and passing out of sight. Nothing has been heard of a balloon ascension, and it is not known where it came from, or whether or not an aeronaut was in charge of it. It will probably be heard from within a day or two.”

According to two follow-up articles in the Owensboro Messenger on Tuesday December 13, 1887, “late Saturday evening an immense balloon was seen on the opposite side of the river and some distance back in Kentucky. It was sailing slowly at an immense height from west to east and after being in sight for some time, it began wavering in the wind, and finally commenced falling. It plunged toward the earth below the timber tops. This morning a search party went out from Hawesville to look for the balloon, and after a search of several hours they found, and to their horror, also the remains of a man a few feet away from the basket, which was partially torn from the balloon. No papers or evidence were found to indicate the identity of the unfortunate aeronaut. No balloon ascension has been heard of and the affair is a mystery. The general accepted theory is that he was dead before the balloon hit the earth and that he died in the upper regions of the atmosphere.”  

Who was the man and where did he come from?  Was he flying for pleasure or other purposes? Does ownership of the balloon indicate that he may have been wealthy? Our questions to this mystery may never be answered.

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