Jefferson Davis Monument
Jefferson Davis was the first-and-only President of the Confederacy, leader of the rebellious South that broke away in 1861 and sparked the Civil War. He never really wanted the job (You can see it in his statues, which always make him look grim), the South lost, and the North viewed him as a traitor -- yet his sleepy birthplace is marked by the second tallest obelisk in the world.
Some people are just luckier after they're dead than when they were alive.
Approaching the Jefferson Davis Birthplace Monument, driving down a quiet two-lane road through farm country, it's hard not to be impressed by its hugeness. You can see it for miles; it's 351 feet high. Until the 1970s it was the tallest thing in all of Kentucky (It's still by far the tallest thing in Fairview). Pam Terry, who was running the elevator on the day that we visited, said that the Davis Monument was built to mimic the Washington Monument in Washington, DC, because Washington, like Davis, was also a first President.
But is it appropriate? "He wouldn't have wanted this," said Ron Sydnor, the Birthplace manager and resident Jeff Davis authority. "He was humble. He would have told them no." Davis, however, had no say in the matter; he had been dead for decades by the time his boosters opened the Monument on June 7, 1924. The South had turned him from a sad loser into a noble statesman worthy of a gargantuan tribute. His actual birthplace, a long-gone log cabin, stood in a spot currently occupied by Fairview's post office.
Ron estimated that 60 percent of visitors to the monument come because they saw it from miles away and wondered what it was for. "Quite a few people come who've never heard of Jefferson Davis," said Ron. This gives Ron frequent chances to educate the public about Davis. It also puts him in a sometimes awkward position because Ron happens to be black, and Davis was President of a Confederacy that enslaved blacks. "Some people look a me like a deer caught in headlights," said Ron. Others, appreciating the irony, "walk away laughing like crazy."
Pam told us that whenever she hears a rumble of thunder she has to remove all visitors from the monument, because it attracts lightning. The walls are nine feet thick at the base, two feet thick at the top, where an observation room provides views of trees and fields mostly unchanged since Davis's time. The Monument is built of 14,376 tons of solid concrete, with no interior iron or steel; it's the tallest unreinforced concrete structure in the world.
"We try not to tell the unreinforced story until after we're in the elevator," said Pam.
She added, however, that the Monument is inspected every two years by the State, and that it's survived tornadoes (and lightning strikes) without apparent damage. "It doesn't even move," Pam said. "If it swayed even a little, I wouldn't be in it."
The Birthplace also includes a visitors center and small museum, where visitors can view a handful of Davis artifacts and another glum Davis statue ("He had the weight of the Southern people on his shoulders," said Pam). Both Ron and Pam agreed that this building is haunted by something that knocks things over and makes loud footsteps (An embarrassed Davis? An envious Yankee?) but the Monument itself has remained ghost-free.
Davis was a U.S. Representative, a Senator, and a Secretary of War before he dumped the USA. A "Highlights of a Distinguished Career" list at the Monument points out those earlier accomplishments, and adds that Davis was the first to suggest a Transcontinental Railroad and that he was "primarily responsible" for the Gadsden Purchase (Missing from the list is what may be his greatest feat: importing camels to the American Southwest). But the truth is that latter-day Confederates ennobled Davis's birthplace because he was their President, not for his well-rounded resume.
The biggest event of the year at the Monument is still the first weekend in June: the annual Jefferson Davis birthday celebration (Davis was born June 3, 1808, according to a historical marker by the highway). The festivities were perhaps best staged in 2004, when the Monument was reopened after five years of renovation. Festivities included night artillery firing, a Celebration Ball, the annual Miss Confederacy Pageant (and its sister pageants, Wee Miss Confederacy, Little Miss Confederacy, and Junior Miss Confederacy), rifle and artillery salutes to President Davis, and a keynote address by Gary Rope, portraying Robert E. Lee, who said that the Monument was "the symbol of a great God-fearing culture."
Then, after the monument was officially reopened, there was a battle.