Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Benjamin Gratz, Civic Leader

Earlier this year, Mayor Jim Gray of Lexington, Kentucky, spoke in his inaugural speech of the "remarkable people who shaped and formed this city." One name he invoked was that of Benjamin Gratz, Rebecca Gratz's youngest brother. Although he was never the mayor of Lexington, Gratz was the sort of man any mayor would want in his locality.

During his long and active life in Kentucky (1819 to 1884) Gratz owned rope and bagging factories. He was an incorporator of the Lexington & Ohio Railroad, and its second president. He was also on the first Board of Directors of the Bank of Kentucky and a Director of the Northern Bank of Kentucky.

Besides the economic benefits of Gratz's business activities, Lexington also gained from his sense of civic responsibility. He was on the Board of Trustees of Transylvania University for 63 years, and participated in the successful effort to bring the University of Kentucky to Lexington. He sat on the Lexington Council which organized the city's first public library, was a founder of the Lexington Cemetery and the first president of the Kentucky Agricultural & Mechanical Association.

He was on the welcoming committees for LaFayette's visit to Lexington in 1825 and for William Henry Harrison's visit in 1840, and on the funeral and monument committees for Senator Henry Clay.

For the nation's centennial celebration in 1876, Gratz secured land for a pleasure ground for Lexington residents. Several years later, the city renamed it Gratz Park in his honor.

A description of Ben in his old age appeared in a history of the area in 1882: "Though Mr. Gratz lost his sight in 1876, he has never ceased to interest himself in the material and moral welfare of Lexington, where he has continued to reside, deeply respected by all classes of the people....The old gentleman adheres to the faith of his forefathers; takes his daily walks amid physical darkness, and has a friendly greeting for all, for all are his friends, and as he has a retentive memory and a thorough appreciation of passing events, his conversation is particularly interesting."

(The major sources for this post are the Kentucky Encyclopedia and Perrin's History of Fayette County, Kentucky.)

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