Local historian and retired politician Tom Owen talks community and identity
By Rick Redding
Photos by Andrea Hutchinson
As Louisville’s unofficial historian, Tom Owen makes it his business to know the city’s neighborhoods. In fact, he’s so confident in his inventory of knowledge that he plays a game during some of his talks. Participants get cards with the name of a neighborhood printed on them. Owen has them turn over the cards, and he offers a little-known fact about the place.
“Every neighborhood has its story,” he said. “It’s like picking up a rock, and there’s going to be a story under every rock. Do I prepare for that? You’re at the end of a gangplank and you’ve gotta jump. That’s fun, that’s invigorating, that’s exciting for me.”
Three years ago, Owen decided to end his career in politics after serving in local government for 23 years, including 2002-2016 as a member of the Louisville Metro Council. Meanwhile, he’s in year 43 as an archivist at the University of Louisville. He estimates he gives several dozen walking and bus tours annually in various neighborhoods.
“It was the right decision,” he says of the 2015 choice not to run for re-election, though he likely would have easily won another term in District 8, which covers the Highlands. “There’s been a little decline in energy level. I’m drinking a lot less Maalox now. It was an increasingly frustrating job. I thought I had pulled as many rabbits out of a hat as I was going to be able to pull. I thought it was better to go out while you’re still decent at your game rather than being driven out with pitchforks and sticks. All of those dynamics played into it.”
Nearing his 79th birthday, Owen does not own a car. He arrived at our interview in Cardinal Towne on his bicycle, which he rode from his Tyler Park home, something he does on a regular basis. Other times, he takes the bus.
“I’m fortunate,” he said. “Apparently I have fairly decent genes. But you never, ever know. I take every day at a time. Be grateful for every day you’ve got, but I know how fortunate I am to have the parts working.”
During his time as a politician, he was frequently spotted riding around Metro Hall and his district, where he created the idea of front-porch talks with constituents.
Several of his walking tours are available on video and are occasionally shown on KET. For 20 years, he did a public radio show called “Sidewalks.” Knowing local neighborhoods, he says, is the accumulation of knowledge gained in nearly eight decades.
“Part of it was always preparing for gigs,” he said. “I was always preparing for a small story. I have gigantic buckets of information, and I pour them into my skull. A lot flows out, and inevitably something, hopefully, is going to stick. There’s a lot there.”
One such story involves the origin of Pleasure Ridge Park, which he explains was known as Paynesville. That was until the steam locomotive came down Dixie Highway in the late 1870s, and the Payne family, which operated a hotel at Greenwood and Dixie, established a park there they called Pleasure Ridge.
It’s as if there’s no topic in the city Owen doesn’t have a story about.
Clifton, Owen explains, is named for the home built there by Joshua Bowles in the early 1800s. It was on the Louisville-Shelbyville-Lexington turnpike. Owen is fascinated by the names of places and how they originated, whether they come from people who lived there or geographic features. Asked to reel off a few interesting ones, Owen mentions that Fisherville, Douglass Hills, Hikes Point, the Russell neighborhood and Seatonville are all named after individuals. Watterson Trail, he said, is how Henry Watterson went to work at the Courier-Journal from his estate in Jeffersontown.
“It’s entertaining, it’s history,” he said. “I come from a very, very broad historical perspective. I was raised in this community. I have loved this community. My dad and grandfather had post office jobs but were interested in small-time, speculative real estate. I got around the community at the time. I heard their stories. I’ve always been interested in the relationship between geography and history.”
Owen is in demand to give talks about a variety of topics, not just neighborhoods. One of his favorites he calls “The stink that will not die” about the city’s history as a meat producer. He also has one about the way creeks and streams affected the development of the city.
In his work at UofL, Owen oversees a library that includes 2.2 million photographs. Rare books include Latin and Arabic manuscripts from the 12th century. All historical records of the university plus regional history collections are housed there. If you want to conduct research there, Owen is the man to see.
“I enjoy my work. I’m wallowing in it, delighting in it,” he said. “I’m not choosing to retire. There’s no automatic retirement at university. I enjoy coming to work every day. It’s good for me, and my long-standing marriage to (my wife) Phyllis. We tease, but there’s some truth in it. My marriage has been strengthened by me not being home during the daytime.”
Owen loves talking about the city’s neighborhoods – he says his favorite is Portland – and believes that where you’re from is a key part of who you are.
“I’ve always thought that people take some identity – they build nests, in part – based on where they live and the stories about where they live,” he said. “If you were in (another city) and were asked where you’re from, you would say Louisville, even if you lived in Simpsonville. Once you’re here, you tend to say I’m from Clifton, I’m from Okolona, I’m from Fairdale, oh, I’m from Eastwood. Or I’m from South Dixie, I’m from Pleasure Ridge Park or Orell, you’re from the Highlands, or wherever.
“My theory is the bigger the community gets, the more you need to identify and nest into a place that is closer to home,” he added. “Everybody’s gotta be from somewhere.” VT