Written by Tom Block, the great-grandson of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest founder, Isaac Wolfe Bernheim. Tom serves as a descendant trustee on Bernheim’s Board of Trustees.
As I sit at home sheltering in place, I have had time to think about my great grandfather’s survival of the pandemic of his time – the Spanish Flu of 1918 – 1919. During the pandemic, he lived through many of the difficulties we face today and went on to live another 27 years. All his life he was committed to the wellbeing of his community and we are grateful that the culmination of his commitment was the creation of Bernheim Forest. Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are especially grateful for our founder’s vision and sense of duty.
I first started thinking about my great grandfather in college when I wrote a paper on his gift of the statues of Henry Clay and Dr. Ephraim McDowell that stand in the U.S. Capitol representing the Commonwealth of Kentucky. In 1928, my great grandfather visited the Capitol and was surprised to learn that Kentucky was the only state not represented in Statuary Hall with a prominent citizen from the state. The gift of the statues was just one of many acts of philanthropy Mr. Bernheim initiated during his life.
While the arboretum and forest may be his biggest contributions, another I have always admired was his gift of a water pumping station to his birthplace, Schmieheim, a small village in the foothills of the Black Forest in the German state of Baden. When Mr. Bernheim returned to his birthplace in between the World Wars, he learned that the village had no running water, so he donated the pumping station. Additionally, he agreed to match every resident’s expense to get pipes run to their homes.
In thanks for his gift, the people of Schmieheim built a small fountain in the center of town in his honor. While the fountain was desecrated in WWII, it has been restored and I was honored to visit with my wife and son and meet the mayor of the village.
My great grandfather’s generosity is seen throughout Louisville. Isaac and his brother donated the statue of Thomas Jefferson that now stands in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse. Mr. Bernheim and his wife, Amanda, funded the statue of Abraham Lincoln that is displayed in front of the Louisville Free Public Library.
The Bernheim brothers were major donors to Louisville’s Jewish Hospital and supported many other causes in Kentucky. I cannot help but think if my great grandfather were alive and distilling his bourbon today, he like other distillers, would be dedicating some of his distillery to the production of hand sanitizer which is in such demand and serves as an important tool in the fight against the Coronavirus.
I am very proud of my family legacy and to serve as a trustee on the board of my great grandfather’s gift to the people of Kentucky.