The Filson Club was organized May 15, 1884, in Louisville. From the standpoint of continuous existence it is the oldest historical association in Kentucky, and one of the oldest in the Middle West. The thirty-one books of Kentucky history written by its members and printed as Filson Club Publications are well known among students of national and Kentucky history and can be found in many of the large libraries in the country. These Publications, however, represent only one phase of work accomplished by the Club. Other activities are shown by the papers written for the Club and by sundry materials gathered by members and now preserved in its Archives.
Historical societies in other states and cities have done much good work, but few, if any, were handicapped as has been The Filson Club in not owning a home of its own. A Filson Club building and money to maintain it would have encouraged even greater activities among the members and resulted in greater contributions to the Archives. Because the Club had no fireproof building much material in Kentucky pertaining to the State's history has passed into the hands of libraries and historical societies in other states. Its chief activity has been the encouragement of research work and the issuing of Publications. These Publications have given the Club a position among the best historical societies in America.
Historical societies have been organized from time to time in Kentucky for the purpose of gathering material, but they were short lived and such materials as they had collected were dissipated. Most of the pioneers who made early Kentucky history were then dead and gone, and even those who had heard them tell of the exploits of themselves and their contemporaries, were long past middle age and were rapidly dying out. Men like Dr. Lyman C. Draper had been holding interviews with pioneers and their families for many years, obtaining such written evidence as they were able to gather, with the purpose of writing one or more works dealing with those stirring events and the active, hardy people of pioneer times. Dr. Draper's wonderful collection of material long ago passed into the hands of the Wisconsin State Historical Society.
Much, if not most, of the material that was then gathered was collected by non-residents of Kentucky and removed from the State. Some Kentuckians began to recognize that it was high time the descendants of those who made the Mississippi River instead of the Appalachian Mountains the western boundary of our "Thirteen United States," and who built up the grand old Commonwealth, should bestir themselves and begin to collect and save what was left.
Accordingly, on May 15, 1884, Reuben T. Durrett, Richard H. Collins, William Chenault, John Mason Brown, Basil W. Duke, George M. Davie, James S. Pirtle, Thomas W. Bullitt, Alexander P. Humphrey and Thomas Speed, ten of the leading spirits of Louisville, met at the residence of Colonel Reuben Thomas Durrett—202 East Chestnut Street, at the southeast corner of Brook—and organized an association for the purpose of collecting and preserving Kentucky history. Colonel Durrett, the chief instigator of this movement, was a journalist, lawyer, a man of affairs, and a student of Kentucky history. He was elected president, with Thomas Speed secretary and E. T. Halsey treasurer.
The organization was named The Filson Club. It was so called in honor of John Filson who, one hundred years before, in 1784, published the first history of Kentucky—The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Ketilucke. The first paper read before the Club was by Colonel Durrett, and with equal appropriateness an enlargement of this paper was its first Publication—John Filson, The First Historian of Kentucky, An Account of His Life and Writings.
For the benefit of new and prospective members Colonel Durrett published the following synopsis of the career of John Filson:
"The Filson Club is an historical and literary association of ladies and gentlemen, located in Louisville, Kentucky. At its first meeting the association was named The Filson Club, in honor of John Filson who was the author of the first history and the first map of Kentucky. Filson's history, a quaint little volume of 118 octavo pages, entitled Kentucke, was published at Wilmington, Delaware, in 1784, and his map appeared in Philadelphia the same year. The book and the map have now become very scarce, and when sold bring high prices.
1. "A History of The Filson Club", The Filson Club and Its Activities, 1884-1922, by Otto A Rothert, John P. Morton & Company, 1922, pages 5-6.
The Filson Club and Its Activities 1884-1922