Kentucky Tourism

John James Audubon History

Established October 3, 1934

On October 3, 1934, the Commonwealth of Kentucky dedicated John James Audubon State Park. Some of the most jubilant members of the crowd attending the dedication included members of the Henderson Audubon Society. Founded in 1898 to preserve the legacy of the great American artist and naturalist, John James Audubon (1785-1851), the Society had worked for over three decades to establish a fitting memorial. In 1910, Susan Starling Towles, the town librarian, became president of the Society. She envisioned a museum housed in the old Audubon gristmill located on the banks of the Ohio River. Unfortunately, fire destroyed the mill in 1913. After the destruction of the old mill, citizens dedicated the site as Audubon Mill Park. 

In 1930, the Henderson Audubon Society requested $100,000 from the Federal government to help construct an Audubon Museum. The Society had a large and growing collection of Audubon artifacts that needed proper housing. National interest in the works of Audubon had increased through the years and now seemed the right time to involve the government in helping preserve and promote the Audubon collection. A bill introduced in Congress to appropriate money for the Audubon project failed to pass. Undeterred, local citizens continued to raise funds for the proposed museum. By 1934, 275 acres had been acquired through donations and purchase. The goal of establishing a state park seemed possible. 

Work began on the John James Audubon State Park on October 3, 1934. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Number 1540 constructed cabins, gardens, shelter houses, picnic areas, a lake, trails, and a museum. The Audubon Museum is an impressive structure designed as a replica of a Norman-French inn to honor Audubon’s French heritage. Architects Donald Corley representing the WPA (Work Projects Administration) and Barnard Stebbins of Kentucky designed the museum building. The structure has a round tower that has nesting places for birds. A cobbled courtyard with French garden graces the immediate grounds of the museum. 

The Audubon Museum contains many of the artist’s original oil and watercolor paintings, along with personal effects that once belonged to the Audubon family. The museum also houses a complete set of the very rare and magnificent double-elephant folios of The Birds of America.

John James Audubon's journey into Kentucky history started in 1803 when he arrived in America. Born in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) in 1785, Audubon lived on his father’s sugar plantation until the age of five when slave uprisings forced him and his father to move to their ancestral home in Couëron, France. Jean Audubon, a French naval officer and slave trader, had fought in the American Revolution and owned land near Norristown, Pennsylvania. In 1803 Audubon’s father sent him to manage his Mill Grove farm. In 1807 Audubon moved to Louisville to become a partner in a store. 

From early childhood Audubon wanted to sketch the birds he saw in the woods near his home in France. Throughout his life he never lost his interest in the beauty of the natural world. By 1810 he had a collection of 200 drawings of birds. While in Louisville he met the renowned Scottish ornithologist, Alexander Wilson, who had traveled to Kentucky to sketch the birds of the region. Audubon observed that Wilson’s drawings were inferior to his own. He told Wilson that he had been drawing birds, but still considered it a pastime. He also informed him that he intended to sketch all the birds of North America. 

Later in 1810 Audubon and his business partner moved to Henderson to open a new store. Although with a wife and family to support, he did very well in his new enterprise for a few years. He continued to draw the birds that so fascinated him. Lean economic times forced him to sell his Henderson properties and return to Louisville. After being briefly jailed for debt he went bankrupt in 1819. To make a living he gave art lessons and painted portraits. For a time he worked as taxidermist and exhibit painter for Dr. Daniel Drake’s Western Museum in Cincinnati. 

Audubon's love of nature did not go unnoticed. Between 1827 and 1838, a four- volume work entitled The Birds of America was published. In 1842-1845, a three-volume work, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of America, saw publication. Other Audubon works include, Ornithological Biography (1831-1839), the Julius Bien edition of The Birds of America (1858-1860), and A Synopsis of the Birds of North America. Audubon later moved to New York where he died in 1851 on a farm overlooking the Hudson River.