Woodford County Historian, William Railey

By Danna Estridge, Curator - 2000
Woodford County Historical Society

William E. Railey's History of Woodford County is one of the books most often used by genealogists researching Woodford County families. Sometimes criticized by modern researchers for its faults, the book has, nevertheless, withstood the test of time, becoming an indispensable tool for genealogists and historians alike.

William E. Railey was born on Christmas Day, December 25, 1852, "in the dear old village of Clifton," in Woodford County. Railey's father, Richard H. Railey, was engaged in the mercantile business. The family moved several times, while he was a youngster, and by his own admission, he received "only a limited education," some of which was gained at the old Grier's Creek School in eastern Woodford County.

In spite of his lack of schooling, Railey had a string of careers, which would have done justice to any man. Some of the jobs he held included: assistant sergeant-at-arms and sergeant-at-arms of the Kentucky House of Representatives, farmer, hotel clerk, postmaster of Versailles, and a position with the U. S. Internal Revenue Department. Railey also worked in the Capitol at Washington, D. C., for two years; owned half interest in the Bluegrass Clipper newspaper in Midway (Woodford County) for a time; and worked in the distilling industry for several years.

He married Annie Owsley of Woodford County in May 1886. Their daughter, Jennie Farris Railey, was born in June 1887.

In 1919, Railey took a position as curator with the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort. At that time, the Society had four rooms in the new Capitol building, but in 1920, the Society moved to the old Capitol, where it had the entire building. Railey remained curator of the Kentucky Historical Society for 15 years. He resigned in 1934 "on account of a deafness that was noticeable in 1931 and serious" by 1934, according to his writings in Re-collections and Observations From Childhood to Old Age, a collection of memories "written at random" about Railey's life, when he was 85 years of age.

It was during his 15 years at the Kentucky Historical Society that Railey undertook the task of writing a series of articles, which would eventually become his now well-known book, History of Woodford County. Mrs. Jennie C. Morton, who was in charge of the Kentucky Historical Society in 1919, urged Railey to record the history of Woodford County.

"She said she had urged other friends in the county to do so," Railey wrote in his Recollections and Observations From Childhood to Old Age, "but all had declined."

Railey's duties at the Society kept him busy throughout the day, so his work on Woodford County history had to be done at night, after the Society was closed. He described his experience in Recollections and Observations From Childhood to Old Age:

"For ten years, I sat in the Society's library from 7:30 p.m. to near midnight, working on the history, denying myself all recreation and social pleasures."

Each chapter of the book was published in the Society's quarterly magazine, the Register, as he completed it. The entire book was finally completed in 1929, and Railey had 200 volumes printed at his own expense. They sold out within a year. After he resigned as curator in 1934, he received many requests to have additional copies printed.

He found that the $600 needed to reprint the book was more than he could afford. He wrote to two wealthy men whom he knew, asking each for $200 to help him reprint the book. He assured them that the book would sell out and he would return their money, with interest. Both men declined.

Railey was not deterred, however. He went to Gov. Happy Chandler and asked for a job with the state, so he could earn the money to reprint the book. He was 84 years old at the time. Chandler gave Railey a job as host to visitors in the State Reception Room in April 1937. By the winter of 1938, Railey had earned the money he needed, and ordered the books.

"I have the promise of the delivery of the books no later than the spring of 1938," Railey wrote in Recollections and Observations From Childhood to Old Age, "and I am anxious to live to see my plans carried out."

He was able to see his plans carried out, but it is interesting to note that Railey never made any money from his reprint. The proceeds of the reprinted books were used "to preserve the memory of men, who fought our battles in the Revolution, and later had a part in the early affairs of Woodford County, and other causes dear to my heart," he wrote.

Railey arranged with the Marquis Calmes Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution to sell 100 volumes of the book and use the money to restore Calmes' mausoleum, which had fallen into a state of disrepair. Gen. Calmes fought in the Revolution, and later became an early Woodford County settler. It was Calmes who wanted to name the Woodford County seat after the French city of Versailles, where he lived before coming to America.

Another 50 volumes were to be sold by the Midway Woman's Club, with the proceeds to be used "to erect a suitable marker at the home of George Francisco, another Revolutionary soldier of French extract, who was also an early settler in Woodford County." Francisco owned the land upon which Midway, Kentucky, was built.

He placed 100 paperbound books in the care of David L. Thornton and the Boy Scouts. These volumes were to be sold for $1.25 each to raise money to establish a town park and playground.

Mrs. Dr. D. C. Darnell, who helped Railey proofread the reprint, received a clothbound book for each of her children and 50 of the paperbound books to be sold in Franklin County.

Another 50 of the clothbound books were given to the Kentucky Historical Society.

Another 40 volumes were reserved for people who had subscribed for them five years earlier.

"Somewhere in the Woodford County History, I said that my services in writing the book was 'a labor of love,'" Railey wrote in his small booklet of recollections. "So, say I, in reproducing the book, and turning the proceeds of the sale into purposes so deserving."

Railey was a member of the Presbyterian Church and was a Mason for more than 50 years. He said he saw Masonry as "the hand-maiden of Christianity." He attained his Master's degree at Midway in 1892 and his Chapter and Templar degrees at Versailles, soon afterward. He stopped attending meetings, due to his deafness, but he loved Masonry so much that he continued to respond "to all calls for dues and charity, and that duty will be a pleasure for as long as I live."

He was a Democrat "of the Jeffersonian type, firmly believing, as he did, in freedom of the press, of speech and conscience, and the right to vote." Railey also had room in his heart for his beloved Woodford County, and expressed his affection in many ways, including his writing:

"I love Woodford County and its people, so many of whom I knew in my youth and early life, but most of my old friends and associates have passed on to their reward; leaving me lonesome in my old age, and so deaf that I can scarcely converse with satisfactory results. I have been blessed in so many ways that I bear the burden, thanking God that I have no other serious affliction."

William E. Railey died November 12, 1943, just a few weeks before his 91st birthday. He was buried in the Frankfort Cemetery.

Editor's Note: This article was researched and written by Danna Estridge, curator for the Woodford County Historical Society Museum and Library, 121 Rose Hill, Versailles, KY 40383-1221. She also provided the photo. Please visit the museum's website at: www.rootsweb.com/ ~kywchs/woodfordpage.html