Day 46/ Apr 13th – Berea, KY to Richmond, KY: A tale of two colleges

It can be disorienting to be British in Kentucky.  The headline of today’s Lexington Herald-Leader read ‘UK Defense Has Big Holes to Fill’, and I was momentarily puzzled why a local Kentucky newspaper would be writing a story about the crisis in British defence budgets.  But it turned out to be a feature about the University of Kentucky basketball team, which, after Christianity, is probably the major religion in this state.

After more than a week in southern and central Kentucky, we felt like we were getting the measure of the state: rolling farmland, feed silos, dingy diners, farmers in dungarees, bare-chested boys haring around in souped-up pick-ups, and women in sizes large and extra-large.  Berea, however, provided the first sign that the north of the state might be different.  As we walked into its centre through a line of grand old houses on Chestnut Street, we were passed by a middle-aged couple languidly pedalling a tandem bike.  This may sound to you like the mildest of eccentricities, but it’s been several weeks since we saw a cyclist, much less a tandem pair, so the sight threw us.  Further on down the street, we saw more cyclists, as well as two skateboarders on the opposite pavement and – most unusually of all – several people walking around the streets, very casually, as if they did it every day.  We stared at them like visitors to a safari park.

Campus of Berea College Kentucky

The shady lawns of Berea College

Berea is a college town, and home to what must be one of the most extraordinary seats of learning in America.  Berea College was founded in 1855 by the abolitionist John Fee, and from the start was both co-educational and integrated, the first college in the South to be so.  It was forced briefly to close during the Civil War when a local pro-slavery faction seized power, and later forced to segregate for almost half a century when Kentucky outlawed integrated education.  But, for the most part, it has always been an extraordinary beacon of liberalism and tolerance in an area not historically noted for either – a sort of polar opposite to Farmville, which we walked through last month.  Perhaps most incredibly of all, Berea College charges no tuition to any of its students, who are largely drawn from low-income families in the Appalachian region.  Instead, all of its students work part-time for the college in some capacity.

And it was a lovely place, with a set of imposing brick faculty buildings on lush lawns shaded by mature oaks, facing a line of bookshops and coffee houses in an immaculate mock-Georgian terrace.  We stopped in for breakfast at Berea Coffee & Tea, where the chalkboard menu offered half-forgotten exotica like biscotti and pesto, panini and frappés, espresso and bagels.  Our last three meals had been taken at Denny’s: we nearly burst into tears.  The coffee shop was filled with students in shorts and Tevas, carrying backpacks and complaining about last night’s essay crisis.  None of them, we noticed, spoke with an Appalachian twang – all of their accents were East Coast neutral.  When one of their professors came in, they stood to greet him and called him ‘sir’.  To find an island of liberal academe in this part of Kentucky was as surprising as finding a thriving Amish community in Manhattan.  We munched on our panini with a faint sense of disbelief.

Inside Berea Coffee & Tea

Yuppie food heaven in Berea Coffee & Tea

Berea is also a major craft hub – its first students in the 19th century paid for their lessons with exquisite home-made bedspreads, and the crafting tradition has continued to the present day.  As we left town, a sign pointed to the various departments of the college Craft Centre, including Woodcraft, Broomcraft, Wrought Iron and Ceramics.

We followed Route 25 into Richmond, a hot slog along a busy road whose builders had neglected to include a shoulder, so we spent much of the morning stepping off into shin-length nettles to distance ourselves from especially large trucks.  The town was ringed by half-a-dozen white and pale blue water-towers, like an army of Martian tripods.  Richmond was also a college town, but without a tenth of the charm of Berea: Eastern Kentucky University’s campus covered its south side in a sprawl of Seventies brick and concrete.  It was the alma mater of Lee Majors and, more surprisingly, Thaksin Shinawatra.  He doesn’t seem to have spent any of his billions improving the college architecture.

Eastern Kentucky University Campus

Strolling through EKU campus on Kit Carson Road

We walked down Richmond’s Main Street, culminating in a handsome courthouse in a sunny hilltop square.  Fully a quarter of the buildings downtown were dark and empty, and, as usual, most of those that were occupied were law offices.  America has more than a million lawyers, and judging from their plush premises, most of them seem to be weathering the recession rather well.  Over dinner, we read about one recent local lawsuit in the Richmond Register, in which the lead story was ‘Burglary Suspect Attempts to Flee’.  An 18-year-old man had been caught by police breaking into a restaurant while drunk in the middle of the night.  He was being charged, the article said, with intoxication, first-degree burglary and ‘second-degree fleeing’.  We’re planning some first-degree fleeing of our own from Richmond tomorrow morning.

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2 Responses to “Day 46/ Apr 13th – Berea, KY to Richmond, KY: A tale of two colleges”

  1. Jason Says:

    I’ve been waiting for this post! I was the one that served you at Berea Coffee & Tea and have been reading of your travels ever since. I hope you are both faring well and enjoying what the United States has to offer.

  2. Angie Farmer Says:

    I really wish that you had taken the time to visit Union College while you walked through Barbourville, Ky. You may have saw that Barbourville was more than just quilters and dogs.

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