Kentucky Life celebrates Christmas with the Northern Kentucky Brotherhood Singers; Maker’s Mark invites local visitors for the holidays; Effie Waller Smith wrote poetry inspired by her Eastern Kentucky home; Covington’s Haven Gillespie wrote the now-famous lyrics to Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.
Maker’s Mark Christmas
The Maker’s Mark distillery in Loretto is a tourist destination for visitors from far and wide But as Chief Operating Officer Rob Samuels explains, the picturesque campus is designed for hospitality for friends, family, and locals. It’s been that way since his grandparents, Bill and Margie Samuels, started the business in the 1950s.
“While we host visitors from all over the world, our candlelight tours, which are the first two Saturdays in December, are all about locals and Kentuckians and coming to celebrate the holidays with us at Maker’s Mark,” says Rob. “We drape our campus with Christmas lights and we spread a little Christmas cheer.”
Today, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is one of the state’s most important tourism initiatives, but the very idea of distillery tours has modest roots.
“My grandfather was a craftsman in his soul,” says Rob. “His passion was in the distillery. He thought, we’re going to treat every customer as a friend, and what more personal way to connect with a friend than to have them to your home? So they set this entire Victorian village up in the beginning with the idea of welcoming friends to come visit.”
The idea expanded thanks in large part to Margie, who was the creative force behind the marketing of Maker’s Mark.
“Not only is she credited with inventing bourbon tourism, but she also created the Maker’s Mark name and bottle design,” says Rob. “She wanted to create a name and a bottle design that would celebrate the handmade values of this handmade bourbon, and she drew inspiration from her collection of English pewter. The craftsmen and -women would always make their mark to celebrate the handmade pieces. The mark of the maker, or the maker’s mark, is blown into every bottle and is also on the label.”
The distillery’s location is, as Rob says, “a bit off the beaten path.” But with a continuing focus on being a visitor-friendly destination, roads and access to the campus have improved over the years. Additionally, Maker’s Mark has added expanded tours on Thursdays with Rob or his father, Bill Samuels Jr., for bourbon enthusiasts who want a deeper dive than the regular tour.
“Today, what’s so very exciting, is not only are we hosting a lot of visitors, but they’re coming from all over the world,” says Rob. “They want to spend such quality time here with us soaking up what we do here at the distillery. They get to live each and every step of the process.”
The Poetry of Effie Waller Smith
“Effie Waller Smith embodies so much of what this region is about,” says Rusty Justice, Pike County resident and historian. “It’s not what you think. In the age in which she was born and lived here in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, a widely renowned poet, all the things that are counterintuitive to the stereotypes, we see.”
Smith was born in Chloe Creek to former slaves. Her father, Frank Waller, had been a laborer on a plantation in Virginia. Her mother, Sibbie Ratliff, was native to Pike County.
Santa Claus is Coming to Town
With versions by Bing Crosby, Bruce Springsteen, and everyone in between, you won’t get through a holiday season without hearing some rendition of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”. Now a classic, the popular Christmas song has roots in Northern Kentucky.
James Haven Gillespie, who went by his middle name, was born in 1888 in Covington. He was making a living as a printer’s devil—a low-level assistant in the printing industry—when he got into songwriting. At the time, sheet music was the medium of choice for popular songs.
“Every home that could afford one had a piano,” says Gary L. Johnson, Vice President of the Behringer-Crawford Museum. “That’s what families did: They stood around and they sang at the piano. That created a tremendous demand for music, and simple music.”
Gillespie returned to Covington after his songwriting career took off, but eventually moved to the hub of it all: New York’s Tin Pan Alley.
“Tin Pan Alley was an area of New York right off 5th Avenue on 28th Street,” says Dr. James Claypool, Professor Emeritus at Northern Kentucky University. “There were about 20 publishers [there]. Everyone was afraid you would steal their songs, so they would muffle their pianos and you would hear what was going on in a tin-sounding format so that people couldn’t really pick up the melody and steal those melodies.”
As a lyricist, Gillespie collaborated with songwriter Fred Coots to create many songs that would become popular in the day. In 1934, their publisher asked for a children’s Christmas song.
“[Gillespie] would write most of his songs while he was riding on public transportation,” says Claypool. “He happened to be in the process of writing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and he was stuck. He just couldn’t get this line. There was a young boy up in front of him, and [Gillespie said], ‘Is Santa Claus going to come see you this year? …Well you’d better be good.’ And he got that line that he used later in ‘Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town’.”
“Adults can straighten out their children: Better not do this, better not do that,” says Johnson. “Basically, it’s saying, you won’t get anything from Santa Claus if you don’t behave. From that standpoint, it’s really as much of an adult song as it is a children’s song.”
Eddie Cantor debuted the song on his radio show, and it was an instant hit. But it wasn’t the only hit for Gillespie, who also penned lyrics for now-legendary singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Billie Holiday.