The Solar Eclipse, the Great Man o’ War, and Mammoth Cave!

By Leslie Potter | 10/15/17 9:00 AM

The community of Hopkinsville came together to support thousands coming to view 2017’s Great American Eclipse; learn more about the science courtesy of the Franklin drive-in and the scientists and eclipse enthusiasts who came to Simpson County to view it; Doug and the Kentucky Horse Park celebrate the birthday of Man o’ War as 2017 is the 100th anniversary of his birth; and before European settlement, native peoples made extensive use of Mammoth Cave.

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Hopkinsville: The Point of Greatest Eclipse
When the moon covered the sun over much of the United States on August 21, 2017, the best place to witness this astronomical event was just outside of Hopkinsville, Ky.

Hopkinsville is a town of about 30,000 people in the western part of the state. The eclipse brought 116,000 visitors from more than 25 countries and 47 states to the town, which adopted the moniker Eclipseville during a festival in the weekend leading up to the main event.

Hopkinsville mayor Carter Hendricks presented the key to the city to Dr. Renee Weber, a planetary scientist from NASA, who was on hand to give eclipse-watchers some context for what they were about to witness.

“It’ll start by looking like a bite taken out of a cookie,” Weber explained to the crowd. “Over the course of the next hour and a half, that bite’s going to get bigger and bigger until we’ve got a crescent sun, until we’ve got totality. That’s when you’ll be able to see the corona, which is the sun’s hot outer atmosphere. It’ll look like a white, wispy crown that comes out in all directions.”

When asked to describe the eclipse experience in a single word, Hopkinsville residents and visitors said, “rewarding,” “humbling,” “unforgettable,” “epic,” “spectacular,” “extraordinary,” “magical,” and “eclipsetastic.”

Among those in attendance were Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin and Lieutenant Governor Jenean Hampton.

“There’s a serious part of my duties,” said Hampton. “I have to look at this as Jenean Hampton, Lieutenant Governor. But as Jenean Hampton, science geek, yes, I am geeking out. I cannot believe I have the great fortune to be here in this place of maximum totality. I am so blessed to be here, and I am grateful.”

“I hope that [visitors] walk away with a sincere appreciation that this community rolled out the red carpet to help them enjoy two minutes and 40.1 seconds of an eclipse,” said Mayor Hendricks. “But more importantly, to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience that allows them to say, ‘You know what? Those people were pretty good people. I want to come back and meet a few more new friends.’”

Eclipse Viewing at the Franklin Drive-In
Hopkinsville may have been the point of greatest eclipse, but there were plenty of places in Kentucky to get a good view of the totality.

In Simpson county, the Franklin Drive-In offered a perfect location for eclipse-watching.

“Franklin is very close to the centerline of the eclipse, so this area is going to be getting well over two minutes of totality,” said Rico Tyler of Western Kentucky University’s SKyTeach Program. “An eclipse occurs somewhere on the earth every 18 months, but an eclipse happening that crosses the United States within an easy drive of a few hundred million people, that’s a very rare event.

“I’ve been working with teachers to get ready for this for about four years,” says Tyler. “Training teachers, sharing with them what’s going to happen, where they need to be, how it’s going to occur, all the details a teacher would need to have a really good eclipse experience.”

Man o’ War’s 100th Birthday
On March 29, 1917, the greatest American racehorse in history was born in Kentucky. The Kentucky Horse Park is honoring Man o’ War throughout the year in celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth. The park’s International Museum of the Horse (IMH) is currently featuring an exhibit about the life and racing career of Man o’War.

“One of the highlights of the 100th anniversary is the exhibit, Man o’ War: The Mostest Horse,” says Travis Robinson, Assistant Director of the IMH. “Some of the people behind him were really fascinating folks and I think that’s one of the things that we try to bring out in the exhibit.”

“One of the first names that comes up is August Belmont Jr.,” says Robinson, referencing Man o’ War’s notable breeder. During World War I, Belmont volunteered to serve in the U.S. Air Corps, despite the fact that he was 64 years old. Man o’ War was born at Belmont’s Nursery Stud while he was overseas. Belmont and his wife, Eleanor, decided to sell their horses since August’s service made for an uncertain future.

Belmont’s trainer, Louis Feustel, gave Sam Riddle a tip that he should buy the colt. Riddle thought he might be getting a new field hunter.

“Riddle was an avid sportsman,” says Robinson. “He thought, ‘I’ll take him out in the fields and run around.’ Little did he know that he was getting Man o’ War.”

Riddle paid $5,000 for the horse, who would go on to win 20 races out of 21 starts and become the leading money-earner in U.S. racing history. According to one story, Riddle was offered $1 million for Man o’ War. He responded to the offer by saying, “Any man can have a million dollars, but only one man can have Man o’ War.”

At the end of his racing days, Man o’ War was sent to stud at Faraway Farm outside of Lexington.

No history of Man o’ War is complete without a mention of his caretaker, Will Harbut, who not only cared for the stallion during his long career at stud, but presented him to the throngs of visitors who came to see him. Harbut gave Man o’ War the enduring title of “the mostest horse that ever was.”

“In the late 30s, early 40s, you could go to the farm and say hi to Man o’ War,” says Robinson. “We have five guestbooks that show just a sampling of the millions of people who came to visit Man o’ War. It was the middle of the depression, but people were spending money to come from all around the world to visit Man o’ War. “

Man o’ War died in 1947, less than a month after Will Harbut passed away. He was initially buried at Faraway Farm, but re-interred at the Kentucky Horse Park in the 1970s. His grave is marked by the iconic statue near the park’s entrance. The honoring of Man o’ War continues into downtown Lexington, where Mt. Brilliant Farm (formerly Faraway Farm) sponsored a new mural of the horse on the side of the Village Idiot pub on Short Street.

“We were looking to have a community celebration,” Kentucky Horse Park Executive Director Laura Prewitt says of the 100th anniversary. “The outpouring of folks who wanted to help us was tremendous. We had a sponsor in Windstream. We had a special beer. Crank & Boom did a special ice cream. We also have a commemorative Makers’ Mark bottle.

“His death was on November 1, so this whole celebration has run from March 29 to Nov. 1,” adds Prewitt. “We’re going to close it out at the National Horse Show, which has been at the park for several years. We’re going to incorporate a dinner with the bottles at the horse show.”

The Prehistory of Mammoth Cave
Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park is one of the oldest tourist destinations in North America—the park has offered tours since the 1800s. But the history of humans in Mammoth Cave goes back much further than that.

George Crothers, Director of the William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology, explains that more than 5,000 years ago, humans were regularly using the caves to collect gypsum crystals and other minerals.

“It was not a simple, casual activity to come in here and mine minerals,” says Crothers. “It was probably very sophisticated. They had very good knowledge of the cave; they knew where to do to find these minerals. They didn’t live in the caves but they probably spent a considerable amount of time down here. We believe these minerals were important to them for some ceremonial uses.”

“What we’ve deduced is that prehistoric people were collecting these crystals off the walls and out of the soil,” says Joel Gillespie, Mammoth Cave Park Guide. “What they used them for we don’t know. It takes a dry cave to produce [the crystals] and to preserve them. Once they removed them from the cave, they would have disintegrated out in the open air over time.”

These prehistoric miners would collect the minerals by scraping them off the walls. Although the exact use of the crystals is unknown, evidence suggests they were willing to go to great lengths to collect them, even bringing in poles from outside to climb to higher points on the walls.

“When the prehistoric miners were coming into Mammoth Cave, they didn’t have any trails to walk on,” says Gillespie. “There’s nothing but a lot of sharp, jagged rock between us and the entrance, and that entrance is 2.5 miles away. They had no daylight; they had to bring their light with them. And there’s a lot of steep hills that they had to climb to make it this far into the cave, so it was a very daunting journey for them to make it this far.”

But about 2,000 years ago, mining activity stopped.

“That’s one of the mysteries we don’t know: Why they no longer continued to use the cave so intensely,” says Crothers. “Ideas change. Whatever the mineral was used for no longer had as much importance. It became a lost knowledge until we slowly, with scientific evidence, pieced it together.”

The consistent cool, dry climate inside the cave helps preserve everything inside, including the remains of one prehistoric miner, which were rediscovered in the 1930s.

“This man had presumably had been collecting crystals out from this rock,” says Gillespie, referring to the boulder that fell on the miner 2300 years ago. “We can deduce many things from the remains they left behind and the artifacts that they discarded but in this instance, we had a photograph of time. We could look back to this man and see how he was dressed that day. We could look at what he had around him and see what he brought in that day. We could look at what he collected and verify that he was here collecting minerals just as we suspected.”

The man’s remains were on display at Mammoth Cave for decades, but have since been returned to the cave, away from the trail, per the wishes of the local Native American community. But what archaeologists learned from his story and other artifacts provide a link from the past to the present.

“It helps me open up the opportunity to our visitors who come to Mammoth Cave wanting to connect with our ancient Native American past.” says Gillespie. “They often lose sight that we have a Native American culture alive and well here at Mammoth Cave today. Some of our employees are Native American. Many of our visitors are Native American. It gives us an opportunity to go beyond just thinking of our Native American culture as a past American culture. It’s a modern American culture.”