Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Success After Failure

In 1810, John James Audubon moved his family down the Ohio River to Henderson, KY (population 27,373) where his fortunes quickly rose, making him the third-richest person in the town. However, a doomed venture into a steam powered flourmill bankrupted him 1819. It was only after that failure that Audubon decided to put his energies into painting birds. When he couldn’t find any U. S. publisher who was interested, he travelled to Europe where his Birds of America was published and found great success. Perhaps we can be grateful that there is no longer an Audubon Flour but there is an Audubon Society.

I was in Henderson to give a talk to the Kentucky Association for Economic Development, the statewide ED organization that just celebrated its fortieth anniversary. It was in Henderson that I felt the first major earthquake, if you can consider a 5.2 to be major, in forty years. Henderson was my second of five talks in a row with the rest in CA. When the earthquake hit at 4:37 am I sat straight up in bed and the first thought was that somehow I’d missed KY.

In reading a bit of the history of John James Audubon it was interesting to read about his experience in the 1811 earthquakes that transformed the Midwest. These earthquakes, which achieved high 7s or low 8 readings on the Richter Scale, caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards for two days and literally moved river channels. Audubon was galloping on his horse when the horse came to a sudden stop, sat down and braced itself for what Audubon had not yet felt. It must have been a very frightening experience in those days.

The impact of Audubon is everywhere in Henderson. There is a 700 acre state park on the outskirts of town, named in his honor; a series of nine sculptures of Audubon’s work graces the downtown streets with his osprey sitting on the site of his defunct mill; and the John James Audubon Birding Trail, a series of four trails that showcase the almost 100 birds that are found in northwest KY.

Henderson is doing a wonderful job of leveraging one of its failed but famous former residents.

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