Reuben Thomas Durrett (1824-1913) was an attorney, editor, civic leader, and honorary colonel with a passion for collecting materials related to the history of his home state, Kentucky. After his retirement in 1880, he devoted his time to creating an extensive personal library, in which he hoped “to secure every book about Kentucky or Kentuckians or that was written by a Kentuckian or even printed in Kentucky”. The resulting collection contained not only books, but all manner of documents – newspapers, maps, journals, pamphlets, and an extensive collection of manuscripts dating back to the seventeenth century. If it was in any way connected to Kentucky, it was of interest to Durrett!
He was committed to providing public access to his collection and founded both the Filson Historical Society and the Louisville Public Library. To assure that his library would remain accessible after his death, Durrett initially planned to donate his collection to the city of Louisville, where he had lived and worked for most of his life. In declining health, he was persuaded by his family to instead find a buyer who would make the collection available for broader scholarly research. William E. Dodd and Andrew C. McLaughlin, faculty members of the University of Chicago Department of History, expressed interest and travelled to Kentucky to examine the collection - a contract for the purchase was signed shortly before Durrett passed away.
The collection is remarkable in scope – when it arrived at the University of Chicago in 1913, it filled 287 large packing crates and contained 20,000 bound volumes (many of which were absorbed into the university’s general collection), 200 volumes of atlases and loose maps, and some 50,000 pages of manuscript materials. It provides a view of Kentucky life from the Colonial era to the late nineteenth century, detailing everything from the routine daily activities of soldiers, travelers, settlers, and merchants, to the core military and political events which led to the founding and organizing of the city of Louisville, and the state of Kentucky itself.
Prominent names and events are well represented – including Daniel Boone, George Rogers Clark, James Wilkinson, and Thomas Jefferson – and the materials capture some compelling “behind the scenes” moments, both somber and humorous. Did you know that the Isaac Shelby, the first governor of Kentucky, had a certain fondness for coonskin caps in his youth?
Just as stimulating, for the scholar of early Kentucky, are the commonplace items that highlight the experiences and activities of Kentuckians from all walks of life. Receipts for salt and grain, arrest warrants, school exercise books, and a generous assortment of personal letters and journals can be found throughout the collection. These pieces, often brief and at times banal, bring the day-to-day workings of the Ohio River Valley to life and illuminate the stories of those individuals who did not make it into the history books.