Today, the six regions are carved into 120 counties housing a population of 4 million people in a primarily (approximately 48% in 2000) rural (towns of 2,000 residents or fewer) landscape. However, in 1900, the population was 2.1 million with 78% of the residents living in rural areas. The major industries included coal mining in the east and west, tobacco and hemp farming in the central areas, bourbon distillation in the Bluegrass, and subsistence survival in most of the state. Many people struggled to make ends meet, and women and African Americans, struggled, as they did everywhere, just to be considered "people."

State Historian, James Klotter, observed in 2000, that "whether male or female, adult or child, Kentuckians of 1900 lived in a much more violent society than we live in now."[1] He went on to note,

When asked why the South had such a high murder rate, one Southerner remarked, "Maybe more people deserve killing." In Kentucky, it seemed, a huge number fell into that category. Racial lynchings, feuds such as the Hatfields versus the McCoys, the assassination of a justice of the state's highest court, and then, in 1900, the murder of Governor William Goebel, all gave the state its well-deserved reputation for violence.[2]

Indeed, the first signal event in Kentucky's history of the 20th Century was the death of the newly elected Governor following a contentious election. After being gunned down on the Capitol steps on Jan. 30, 1900, Goebel was proclaimed governor after the final count of the ballots and the caucusing of the parties. He died three days after taking the oath of office. His only official act as governor was to dissolve the militia.

Peppered throughout the decade were other violent events, such as the "tobacco wars" or "Black Patch Wars" which began in the first decade of the 20th century in western Kentucky. Tobacco farmers, desperate to preserve their rights and improve their condition midst the monopolies of the tobacco companies, resorted to "night riding," or rampaging the properties of tobacco companies, their families and their sympathizers.

Feuds and duels were regularly reported in the Kentucky press, right alongside the latest news of Garrard County's Carrie Nation who was nationally known for hatcheting local saloons. In the Berea Citizen of 1904, one notes the weekly feature called "Eastern Kentucky News" which records marriages, deaths, duels and feuds in columns adjacent to the regular department called "Temperance Notes" and the advertisement for Berea College which proudly stated "Largest College Library in Kentucky. NO SALOONS".

In addition to the legacy of poverty and violence, this decade saw the emergence of many educational innovations and reforms. Although limited opportunities were available to rural citizens who received their primary education in one-room schoolhouses, an enhanced awareness for improved educational opportunities can be noted in the historic record. Transylvania University, the Kentucky State University, the University of Louisville and the Agricultural and Mechanical College (to become the University of Kentucky) were growing steadily in the prosperous Bluegrass while many smaller colleges and academies were being established elsewhere. The establishment of educational opportunities for adult illiterates, African Americans and rural populations rank among the stellar achievements of Kentucky's education reformers during 1900-1910.

As a backdrop for social and educational innovation and bloody feuds, Kentucky's economy was supported largely by coal mining, agriculture and modest business enterprise in the river cities of Louisville, Maysville, Owensboro, Paducah and Henderson, in the Bluegrass center of Lexington and in the Capital in Frankfort.

In the 1900-1910 timeline, these signal events were reported in the press depicting the state's turbulent times:


  • William Goebel won a controversial election for governor but was shot as he approached the Capitol. He was sworn in on the steps and died soon after.
  • Garrard County native, Carry A. Nation, attacked saloons in Elizabethtown. She was infamous for her numerous attacks on saloons with a hatchet to promote temperance.
  • Battleship U.S.S. Kentucky was commissioned. Became part of the North Atlantic Fleet, "Great White Fleet", from 1907-1909.
  • Kentucky economy ranked second in the South for value of farm products and first in the South for manufactured goods.


  • Hargis-Cockrill Feud 1901-1912, Breathitt County. Started over an election. Founding of The Louisville Presbyterian Seminary
  • Kentucky State Bar Association founded.


  • May Stone and Katherine Petit founded Hindman Settlement School, Hindman, Knott County. It was the 1st rural settlement school in U.S.
  • 1st Kentucky State Fair. Held at Churchill Downs.
  • Desha-Kimbrough duel took place on dueling ground on the Fayette/Scott county line near Donerail. This was among the last Kentucky contests to use the strict "code duello."
  • Matt Winn took over Churchill Downs and began to build the Kentucky Derby into a world-renowned sporting event.
  • Hazard Baptist Institute in the Eastern Coal Fields, later renamed Hazard College, was established as a high school of 200 students, graduating its first class in 1908.


  • U.S. paid the Commonwealth of Kentucky $ 1, 323,999.25 in compensation for damages and services rendered during Civil War
  • "The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come", by John Fox, Jr., became the first U.S. novel to sell 1 million copies.
  • African-American, Joseph Seamon Cotter, wrote "Caleb the Degenerate."
  • Abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay died.
  • "The Kitty League" was formed. This was a professional minor league organization from Kentucky (K), Illinois (I), and Tennessee (T) for the next 51 nonconsecutive years. Teams were formed in Paducah, Mayfield, Hopkinsville, Fulton, Owensboro, Madisonville, Princeton, Dawson Springs, and Bowling Green.
  • Lindsey Wilson College was founded as a prep school for Vanderbilt University.


  • Beckham County was carved from Carter, Elliott and Lewis Counties and was abolished 80 days later due to land line disputes.
  • Commonwealth Life Insurance Company founded. Oldest and largest insurer in the state.
  • The "Day Law" took effect segregating public and private schools. Berea College's commitment to interracial education was overturned by the Day Law. As a result, Berea College established the Lincoln Institute near Louisville for black students.
  • Planters' Protective Association was established for the purpose of pooling tobacco and setting price which resulted in much burning and pillaging of property.
  • KY established a 15mph speed limit for automobiles.


  • The nation's first full-service library for African Americans was established as the Western Colored Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library in Louisville, KY
  • "The Black Patch War" 1905-09. A faction of farmers in western Kentucky violently opposed tobacco monopolies and persecuted those farmers who sympathized with the monopolies.


  • The legislature passed a State Normal School law leading to the establishment of the colleges at Bowling Green and Richmond that later became Western and Eastern Kentucky Universities.
  • Burley Tobacco Society founded.
  • Campbellsville College founded.


  • Kentucky Library Association founded.


  • The General Assembly enacted the state's first child labor law.
  • The Sullivan Law was enacted, mandating a complete overhaul of the Kentucky public school system.


  • Construction of the fourth and current Capitol was completed in Frankfort.


  • Edward Underwood organized NAACP Frankfort chapter.
  • Pellagra Epidemic ran through southeastern U.S. from 1900 - 1940's.
  • Blood feuds in Kentucky were prolific from 1865 - 1910.
  • Mrs. Cora Wilson Steward, Superintendent of Rowan County Schools, advocates for "moonlight schools" intended for adult illiterates.

[1] Klotter, James C., "Looking Backward Into the Future," Kentucky Humanities (2000, no.1): 8-12.

[2] Klotter, p. 9.

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