A (Brief) History of Lexington


Big things have been happening here for a while now. Our history goes way beyond what can fit on a timeline—but here’s a few of our greatest, weirdest, and most notable hits. Also, be sure to check out All Things History to dig further into Lexington's past. 

1775

1775

A party of frontiersmen make camp at the Middle Fork of Elkhorn Creek— the same waterway that runs beneath downtown Lexington today. When these settlers hear of the colonists’ victories in the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Lexington gets its name.

1775

1775

An old lithograph of the original distillery at Buffalo Trace Distillery.

Distilling starts on the site that is now the Buffalo Trace Distillery, making it the oldest continually-operating distillery in the country.

1779

1779

Lexington becomes a permanent settlement.

1783

1783

A vintage illustration showing a wildcat standing fiercely on a rock.

John McKinney, schoolmaster of Lexington’s one-room schoolhouse, is attacked by a wildcat in his classroom. Yes, really.

1787

1787

An old Kentucky Gazette clipping with the letter head intact.

The Kentucke Gazette is first published in Lexington, locking in its title as the first newspaper west of the Alleghenies.

1789

1789

The campus grounds at the historic Transylvania Univeristy.

Transylvania Seminary—chartered in 1780 as the first college west of the Alleghenies—moves to Lexington from nearby Danville.

1790

1790

The First African Baptist Church—the oldest black Baptist congregation in Kentucky and the third-oldest in the nation—opens in Lexington under founder Peter Durrett, an enslaved preacher in circa 1790.

1792

1792

A vintage stamp detailing the statehood of Kentucky.

Kentucky enters the Union as the fifteenth state, with Lexington as its (temporary) capital.

1795

1795

Kentucky’s first library—a Carnegie Library—is founded in Lexington. Later, it will become the Lexington Public Library.

1812

1812

The national historic landmark Buffalo Trace Distillery

A distillery is built on the banks of the Kentucky River, on the site of what is now Buffalo Trace Distillery.

1826

1826

The Kentucky Association forms in Lexington to promote Thoroughbred breeding and racing.

1828

1828

The Kentucky Association opens a racetrack near downtown.

1850

1850

An oil painting of the famous Lexington horse Big Lex

A racehorse named Lexington—one of the best of his day—is born. Today, you can see him on our city flag.

1860

1860

a black and white historical headshot of Belle Brezing

Belle Brezing, a famous Lexington brothel owner and (allegedly) the model for Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind, is born.

1865

1865

The Agricultural and Mechanical College of Kentucky is founded as a land grant university. Later, it’ll be known as the University of Kentucky.

1865

1865

The Ashland Distillery is established on Manchester Street—the first registered distillery in Central Kentucky. The building lives on as Manchester Music Hall.

1875

1875

Bluegrass-bred Aristides wins the very first Kentucky Derby.

1877

1877

Garrett Morgan, inventor of the traffic light (among other things), is born in nearby Paris.

1880

1880

James Pepper distillery historic lithograph.

James E. Pepper builds a distillery on what is now Manchester Street. The site is now the home of the Distillery District.

1887

1887

A beautiful staircase leading upstairs in the historic Lexington Opera House.

The Lexington Opera House opens.

1892

1892

Sweet Evening Breeze, one of America’s first openly trans citizens and the originator of Lexington’s drag scene, is born (under a different name) in Georgetown.

1898

1898

Large, old, regal building with domed top made of grey textured stone.

The Lexington-Fayette County Courthouse—now the site of the Lexington Visitors Center—is built.

1910

1910

Prohibition begins, spiking bourbon prices. Arrests for illegally selling whiskey in Lexington begin immediately.

1917

1917

An oil painting of the famous race horse Man o' War

Man o' War is born at Lexington’s Nursery Stud.

1924

1924

Ike Miller, the “Bootlegger King” of Lexington, is finally sent to the Atlanta Penitentiary after years of arrests, trials, and flaunting the law.

1927

1927

A historic black and white photo of the first plane landing at Halley Field.

Lexington’s first airport, Halley Field, opens near downtown. A year later, Charles Lindberg will land his Spirit of St. Louis there.

1936

1936

Keeneland opens, replacing the Kentucky Association track downtown that closed three years earlier.

1937

1937

Cumberland National Forest—later renamed Daniel Boone National Forest—is officially established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

1938

1938

The Lexington Children's Theater logo of a shooting star and elegant type.

Lexington Children’s Theatre is founded.

1948

1948

The Kentucky Wildcats win their first NCAA basketball championship.

1949

1949

Lyman T Johnson on the University of Kentucky's campus.

The University of Kentucky begins admitting African American students following a lawsuit by civil rights leader Lyman T. Johnson.

1957

1957

Smiley Pete, 'Lexington's dog' with a bow around his neck.

Smiley Pete, Lexington’s “town dog,” passes away after years of making friends in downtown Lexington. A plaque at Limestone and Main commemorates him.

1958

1958

Lexington establishes the country’s first Urban Services Boundary to manage growth and protect farms.

1961

1961

George Clooney is born in Lexington.

1969

1969

The outer wall with turrets of the Kentucky Castle.

Construction begins on Lexington’s odd and iconic Kentucky Castle.

1972

1972

Adolph Rupp wins his fifth and final NCAA basketball championship with the Kentucky Wildcats, making him one of the most successful college basketball coaches in history.

1975

1975

Grays Arch at the Red River Gorge.

Red River Gorge is designated a National Natural Landmark.

1976

1976

Newspaper clipping of the beginning construction of Rupp arena.

Lexington Center and Rupp Arena open.

1976

1976

The Gay Services Organization (GSO) is founded in Lexington.

1978

1978

Outdoor arena of Kentucky Horse Park.

The Kentucky Horse Park—one of the world’s leading equine facilities—opens.

1988

1988

An aerial view of the Toyota Georgetown plant.

Toyota opens a manufacturing plant—now its largest outside Japan—north of Lexington in Georgetown.

1991

1991

A beautiful flower on a tree at the Kentucky Arboretum.

The University of Kentucky Arboretum is established.

1999

1999

Mayor Pam Miller signs Kentucky’s first county-wide, fully-inclusive Fairness Ordinance into law.

2002

2002

Costumed attendees participate in the Halloween Thriller parade.

Lexington’s first Thriller parade creeps, crawls and dances its way through downtown Lexington.

2002

2002

A couple celebrates Pride at the Pride Festival.

Lexington celebrates its first Gay Pride Parade.

2009

2009

Keeneland is ranked the #1 racetrack on the continent by the Horseplayers Association of North America.

2010

2010

The first ever FEI World Games at the Alltech Arena.

Lexington hosts the (Alltech) FEI World Equestrian Games—the first site outside of Europe to do so.

2010

2010

A mural at the stockyards for PRHBTN.

The first PRHBTN Street Art Festival takes place.

2011

2011

The door at the Green Lantern bar announcing Harry Dean Stanton fest written in chalk.

The first Harry Dean Stanton Fest, a movie and music festival honoring Kentucky-born actor Harry Dean Stanton, is held in Lexington.

2011

2011

Jim Gray is elected mayor—the first openly-gay mayor in Kentucky.

2011

2011

A Brewgrass Trail pint glass and guidebook sit on a table with a patron.

The Brewgrass Trail is founded, celebrating craft beer in Central Kentucky.

2012

2012

A tour takes place inside the Town Branch Distillery.

Town Branch Distillery opens in downtown Lexington.

2015

2015

Keeneland hosts the Breeders’ Cup World Championships for the first time.

2016

2016

Horses sold at Keeneland win all three Triple Crown races.

2017

2017

Lexington's first ever rainbow crosswalks.

Lexington installs the state’s first rainbow crosswalks.

2018

2018

The first ever LGBTQ historic marker.

Kentucky’s first LGBTQ+ historical marker is installed in Lexington.

2019

2019

Brandi Carlile plays to hundreds at sunset during the Railbird Music Festival.

Keeneland hosts the inaugural Railbird Music Festival.

You’re now a bona-fide Lexington historian!

All Things History

Mill Street and Gratz Park

Ticket to History

Ticket to History