States from A-Z: Kansas and Kentucky

Kansas – The Sunflower State

Kansas is a state in the Midwestern region of the United States. The name is derived from the word “Kansas” in the Sioux language, which means “people of the south wind.” Its capital is the city of Topeka. Topeka became very important as the home of American Pentecostalism in the early 20th century. In 1954, Monroe Elementary School in Topeka was one of four elementary schools where legal steps were being taken against segregation. In the landmark decision Brown vs. the Board of Education the United States Supreme Court ended this kind of discrimination. In 1992, Monroe Elementary was established as the Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site.

The period prior to the foundation of the state became known as “Bleeding Kansas.” The so-called “Kansas-Nebraska Act” was passed on May 30, 1854, and Nebraska and Kansas became part of the US as so-called “territories.” The territories were part of the US, but not yet states with the corresponding rights. Settlers quickly opened up the territory, some on their own, some with the help of settlement organizations (such as the New England Emigrant Aid Company, which founded several cities). The non-native population quickly grew from 140,000 in 1865 to one million in 1880. Life in the Kansas territory was dangerous, since supporters of slavery and abolitionists were fighting for control over the future states and guerilla fighters were making trouble. During the intense political dispute about the abolishment of slavery, four separate constitutions were framed for the future state. Kansas became the 34th state in the Union on January 29, 1861. It joined as a free state, i.e. it had abolished slavery.

Many Germans settlers came to Kansas

32 percent of people from Kansas are of German descent, which is well above the US average of 23.3 percent. The proportion of German-speaking immigrants is even higher, since many of them came from Austria, Switzerland, or the Alsace. Thousands of Mennonites and the first Amish arrived during the 1870s, when the railroads were expanded into the West and railroad companies started selling land. Especially the stockyards for cattle along the Chisholm Trail attracted settlers and cities like Abilene and Newton developed. German Baptists settled near Abilene and the greatest congregation of Mennonites west of the Mississippi settled in the area around Newton. Today, only few still speak German or a German dialect, even though the number of Low German-speaking Amish is increasing.

Kansas has a continental climate with cold winters, hot summers and low precipitation, and is, after Florida and Oklahoma, the state that has most tornados per square miles per year. These tornados frequently cause a lot of damage and even lead to some fatalities. Important economic factors are agriculture, aircraft construction, mining, and helium production. Kansas is the largest producer of wheat in the US, has the largest natural gas deposit in the world, and is the second largest producer of beef in the US.

Real GDP in 2006 was $34,242 (national average of all 50 US states: $37,714, place in the national ranking: 32).

Find more about Kansas here and more about Kansas German dialects here.

Kentucky: the Bluegrass State

The state is named after the Kentucky River, which, in turn, probably got its name from an Iroquois term meaning “meadow.” Kentucky is known as the Bluegrass State, which refers to the pastures with their blue-green grass in the months of March and April. The most important cities are the capital Frankfort, followed by Louisville, Lexington, Owensboro, Covington and Bowling Green. The capital with a population of 26,000 in the middle of the bluegrass region is a trans-shipment center for corn, tobacco, and thoroughbred horses. Industrial good produced here include textile products, electronic equipment, and bourbon whiskey. The Capitol (1910), which was modeled after the Capitol in Washington DC, and the Liberty Hall are especially worth seeing.

Kentucky became the 15th state of the United States on June 1, 1792. Since Kentucky is located right between the traditional Northern and Southern states, it remained in the Union during the Civil War, even though many Kentuckians also fought on the side of the Confederation. Depending on historic circumstances and geographical position, people didn’t always know whether they belonged to the North or the South. And two of the state’s most famous citizens suddenly were political enemies during the Civil War (1861-1865): Abraham Lincoln as the President of the Union and Jefferson Davis as the President of the Confederation.

Until the mid-1920s, Kentucky’s economy was dominated by agriculture. From the 1920s on, the service and industry sector started to become the most important economic factors. Same as in many other rural regions, cultural life in Kentucky centers around the old “traditions” of the American South. Looking at the various country musicians and singers such as Bill Ray Cyrus or Loretta Lynn who were born in this state, you have to, at least to a certain extent, rethink the cliché of the neighboring Tennessee being the exclusive birthplace of that type of music. Even some renowned jazz musicians are from Kentucky, for example Al Casey and Lionel Hampton. In addition, a special jazz type was created in Kentucky by Earl Scruggs and others, the so-called bluegrass jazz, even named after the state’s nickname.

Thoroughbred horses, whiskey, and George Clooney

Kentucky is famous for its thoroughbred horses and the Kentucky Derby, that takes place every since 1875 on the Churchill Downs near Louisville. The high standing that the horses and the 381 stud farms have in the population’s collective consciousness, was impressively demonstrated by the 2,000 mourners who attended the funeral of famous racing horse “Man o’ War” in Lexington in 1947. Even in modern times, pictures of horses are used for the background of official homepages. Another famous horse, Seabiscuit, was remembered both in literature and film.

Also the whiskey that is made here is world-famous. 90 percent of all bourbon whiskey consumed world-wide is from Kentucky. The special “toasting” procedure, during which the insides of the hickory wood barrels are exposed to a small flame for 45 seconds, gives the whiskey its special aroma. It produces a charcoal layer that contains sugar, which has been extracted from the wood by oxidation. The whiskey has to mature for four years, and due to the very hot summers and very cold winters in Kentucky, it rapidly expands and contracts into and out of the caramelized charcoal layer, absorbs the sugar and thus acquires its special flavor.

Some famous actors are from Kentucky. It was, however, not the real first stepping stone into their career. For them, the cultural offers of the direct neighborhood were an incentive to get out of the mostly rural area. For George Clooney, it was the active radio culture in Chicago, where his father was one of the top dogs. For Irene Dunne, on the other hand, it was the showboat-steamships she saw on her fathers steamboat inspection trips down in the South of Kentucky on the Mississippi River.