If you have read anything at all about the founder of Bernheim Forest, you are likely to have encountered a few pieces of information in the first sentence or two: he was an immigrant from Germany, he made his fortune in the bourbon industry, and he was a philanthropist. All of that is absolutely true, but like any summarized version of a long, rich life, those statements leave so much more to be said.
I wish to focus on the final element of that description. Usually when we see the word philanthropist, we think of large donations of money to causes that benefit others. This is very much true of Mr. Bernheim – he gave considerable sums of money to many worthy causes, the highlight of which is the magnificent forest that we enjoy. However, philanthropy means more than the giving of money to worthy causes. The word comes from the Greek philanthropia, “kindliness, humanity, benevolence, love to mankind”. Isaac Bernheim embodied those traits in numerous ways.
In 1895, seven years after Isaac moved to Louisville from Paducah, his friend William O. Bradley became Kentucky’s 32nd governor. Governor Bradley asked Mr. Bernheim to take on the duty of being the commissioner of the Lakeland Hospital for the mentally ill in Anchorage, Kentucky. Lakeland was created to serve the needs of those diagnosed with mental problems, though some of the residents were there merely because they were poor or elderly with no one to care for them. Isaac accepted that responsibility. This would be the only political post he would ever have and he never sought any other. He continued in that position until Governor Bradley left office in 1899.
Lakeland’s patient population declined considerably during the latter part of the 20th century. The hospital would continue to serve the area for many years in a reduced role even after much of its land was used to create the very popular E. P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park. Mr. Sawyer was the Jefferson County Judge Executive when he died in a car accident in 1969 and he was the father of TV journalist, Diane Sawyer. The hospital was eventually closed, its remaining residents were moved elsewhere, and the buildings were demolished. There is now little sign of the former use of the property.
A year after he finished his term as commissioner, Isaac purchased his estate, Homewood, about a mile from Lakeland. He commissioned the famed Olmsted Brothers Landscaping Architecture firm to create the gardens surrounding that home. In 1914, he arranged for that same firm to design a city plan for the town of Anchorage. Also in 1914, he again volunteered when he was selected as the first president of the Anchorage Civic League. He called Anchorage home until he moved to Denver in 1925. Fifteen years later, in 1929, the Bernheim Foundation was formed to transform 12,500 acres of abused and neglected farmland into a place where people could connect with nature. Isaac W. Bernheim once again turned to the famed Olmsted firm to create a design for the arboretum.
Clearly philanthropy includes not only financial gifts but also the gifts of volunteering time, enthusiasm, and knowledge to a worthy cause. Choose your cause, perhaps Bernheim Forest, and help make this a better world.
-Ken Johnson, Volunteer Naturalist