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Constance Alexander: Calloway County bicentennial history book from a triumph for the community

At 448 pages, Calloway County’s bicentennial history book packs a hefty wallop. Weighing in at 5.2 pounds each, copies are flying off the shelves. According to one of the three co-editors, Bobbie Smith Bryant, the initial press run of 1400 is almost sold out, with fewer than 100 still available for purchase at press time.

Romantics might describe the effort as a labor of love, but those closest to the project confess to waking in the middle of the night haunted by fears of inadvertently leaving someone or something out. The specter of inaccuracy stalked Bryant, Randy Patterson, and Pat Seiber – the three editors – as they pored through historic documents, reviewed past histories, and worked with around 400 collaborators to begin piecing the story together.

Trying to simplify a complex task, the editors established detailed directions for contributors.

“When we set forth on this book adventure,” the introduction explains, “we established guidelines so that anyone interested in contributing a story or a photo would have the opportunity to do so.”

Entries were to be based on facts. Subject matter had to be significant to the county’s history, and a Calloway County connection was essential, either by birth or residence. In addition, entries had to offer a new slant on a topic, promote what is unique about the county, educate the reader, and be readable and entertaining.

Each glossy page, each section, presents something unexpected and informative, starting with a historical timeline of Calloway County that alludes to historic Native American sites in the extreme western Kentucky region. After that, the other sections include Agriculture; Arts and Media; Building, Infrastructure, and Significant Sites; Law; Medical; Military; Science Sports and Traditions. The last section identifies relevant printed publications and sources, and suggests websites that might be of interest for future reading and research.

The result of the systematic guidelines and coherent organization is a volume that is informative, entertaining, impressive, and occasionally gob smacking.

Hard to imagine reading straight through. An easier approach might begin by choosing a topic of interest and then concentrating on those pages first. Each section begins with a relevant quote, attributed to someone with a close connection to Calloway County. For example, Arts and Media, my favorite, quotes Cleanth Brooks, a Murray native who went on to become an important national figure in the development of modern literary criticism.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Brooks is just one example of a Calloway County native whose work was recognized beyond the region. Others included may have been born elsewhere but they made their mark locally. The individuals and organizations represented feature a mix of Calloway natives and folks from other places who made important contributions in their fields before, during, or after their residency here.

Bisbee’s Comedians are covered in an article by Martin Tracy, who described the old-time dramas, down-home humor, and magic acts that characterized a twenty-five year run of lively entertainment. The annual summer appearance of Bisbee’s was anticipated by people of every age. Along with a summary, Tracy provided an image of a poster from 1961 and a ticket advertisement.

Another arts event, Murray State University’s annual Campus Lights, is highlighted as a tradition that goes back to 1938 when Murray State was still a Normal School. Playhouse in the Park is also featured as a community theatre that brings together people of all ages and backgrounds.

Natives and “imports” are given credit for their contributions. Biographies of individual artists and performers are showcased, including some who grew up here and went on to careers in New York, Hollywood, or elsewhere, such as actress Molly Sims and founder of Boston Bel Canto Opera Bradley Pennington.

A local success story is Roderick Reed, actor and director, who made his mark in New York but came back home to work with university and community theatre. He also founded HUSH, a performing group of young people based on the idea of helping local kids see the world beyond the boundaries of their neighborhood. Even after Reed’s death, the group continues to perform at the reunions of Murray’s Douglass High School.

There is so much more in the bicentennial book but the editors are still quick to admit fallibility “Have we left someone, someplace, an event, or a topic out?” they ask.

“Likely,” is the answer.

“Even with our best efforts to be inclusive and include many facets of our hometown, we may have missed the mark. For that, we apologize; it was not for want of trying and putting forth our best effort.”

A best effort indeed. The book is a triumph for the community and a tribute to the individuals and organizations that grace the pages.

Hats off to all who played a part in producing the Calloway County Kentucky Bicentennial History Book. It is available online at www.acclaimpress.com or by calling 573-472-9800, at a cost of $60 plus shipping and handling.

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