Motorists hopping to and from the Watterson Expressway via Poplar Level Road pass by the small, blue-collar neighborhood of Camp Taylor and likely are unaware of its rich history. Bounded by Audubon Park to the north and Prestonia to the west, the neighborhood originally was part of Camp Zachary Taylor, a massive military camp established at the start of the United States’ entry into World War I.
“Camp Taylor was rural. It was all farmland. It was outside the city limits by about 3 miles,” said Ken Maguire, founder and curator of the Camp Zachary Taylor Historical Society, when asked about Camp Taylor’s history prior to becoming “the largest single project built in the city of Louisville in its time.”
When the United States entered the war in early 1917, Maguire said the government needed to build training camps to help bring its armed forces up to snuff before sending troops to Europe. The government called upon several cities to compete for a military camp in their neck of the woods, and Louisville was one of the winners.
Louisville beat out 10 cities in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois for the right to build a military camp on June 11, 1917, thanks to the city’s access to a nearby Civil War-era, 16,000-acre artillery range, which would later become Fort Knox. Maguire said the military ran out of room within a year of establishing Camp Zachary Taylor, moving south of Louisville to establish Camp Knox in August 1918.
Camp Zachary Taylor — named after the 12th U.S. president — was designed to attract soldiers from Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois, going so far as to name three streets in the camp after the states.
The camp’s main roads were Crittenden Drive (then known as Ash Bottom Drive) and Eastern Parkway, and the area extended all the way to the land currently occupied by Louisville International Airport.
The main camp where the Camp Taylor neighborhood now resides included 1,500 buildings — ranging from large barracks to small supply sheds — on 2,000 acres of former farmland bounded by Preston, Poplar Level, Clarks Lane and the Watterson Expressway. Around 10,000 to 12,000 horses and mules also were housed on the land. Two nearby camps were located on the Kentucky State Fairgrounds and the northern section of Louisville International Airport (the Maneuver Range), and south of Preston (the Rifle Range).
During Camp Taylor’s life as a military training camp, a few famous faces passed through the barracks, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of “The Great Gatsby.”
According to Maguire, Fitzgerald was as despised as an officer as he was famous as an author: “Apparently, he was kind of a brat in a way, according to a lot of the reports and the things that I’ve read… In an effort to keep from being drafted [after dropping out of Princeton], he joined [the Army]. He went to officer school, and he graduated as a lieutenant.”
Maguire continued, noting that Fitzgerald attended officer school to avoid fighting in the trenches. In March 1918, the author landed in Camp Zachary Taylor, where his presence was felt for the two months he resided there: “He apparently had a real big ego, and he was always trying to make the other privates and staff give him respect by demanding it.”
Some soldiers weren’t originally citizens of the United States, and when they joined the Army they could attain citizenship. At Camp Taylor, the ceremony was held underneath a large ash tree dubbed The Naturalization Tree; some 2,000 soldiers swore allegiance to the Stars and Stripes under the tree. A marker from the Daughters of the American Revolution would later take the place of the tree, though it eventually was moved to Camp Taylor Park, where it stands today.
For most soldiers living at Camp Zachary Taylor, it was a dream come true. Via hundreds of postcards and letters in Maguire’s collection, the consensus — as best exemplified in one letter — was the camp “was the best thing to ever happen” to them. A lot of soldiers were originally the sons of farmers who had never been away from home, and were happy to be able to wake up at 5 in the morning with breakfast ready to be served after making their beds, as well as enjoy three meals a day, running water, flush toilets and laundry service.
On a darker note, Camp Zachary Taylor found itself in the midst of the 1918 flu pandemic, which Maguire says came in three waves between 1917 and 1918. Admission rates were “thousands and thousands of people a day” through the camp’s hospital area, later expanding into nearly 30 barracks — each capable of housing 200 soldiers — once space ran out. Around 1,000 died of the pandemic at the camp, all within a three-week period; the camp was quarantined from the rest of Louisville during the outbreak.
Much like America’s involvement in World War I, the majority of the military camps built around the U.S. were short-lived. For Louisville, this meant Camp Zachary Taylor would be dismantled in favor of Camp Knox. However, the name would live on thanks to an agreement between the U.S. and Louisville governments.
“When it was originally built, the City of Louisville Board of Trade saw a chance to make money. They brought in people to negotiate with the Army to have the camp built here. They formed several land companies… went around to all these property owners that owned the large acreages in [the] outskirts of Louisville. They convinced them it was their patriotic duty to sell [the Board of Trade] their land to be used to assemble into this large mass, to offer it to the U.S. government to build the camp.”
The Army was then given the land free-of-charge to use as a military camp for two years, after which they could lease the land for $10,000 a year (that’s $204,000 a year in 2016 dollars). Once the lease expired or the Army vacated, the government was required to remove every building but leave all utilities; the Army had brought in water, telephone, telegraph, sewer and electric lines; light rail service and a train station also were introduced to the camp, connecting soldiers to Louisville.
Following the camp’s official closure in 1921, salvage companies took the wood and other materials from the many buildings erected in the camp’s brief life, and resold the goods for new construction. Most of the wood from Camp Zachary Taylor became material for houses, built upon parcels auctioned off to the public by the U.S. government after the latter bought back the land from companies linked to the Board of Trade. Though the government hoped to recoup the $7.2 million ($146.8 million in 2016) spent to build Camp Zachary Taylor, only $1 million ($12.2 million in 2016) was made from auction proceeds in 1921. The houses soon followed, with construction continuing until the 1950s.
Camp Taylor as a neighborhood was — and still is — a working-class neighborhood.
“I don’t think [Camp Taylor] changed all that much,” explained Maguire when asked if any changes to the neighborhood occurred following the end of World War II, when suburbanization took off. “A lot of the land wasn’t built on, just simply wasn’t developed… There were some original homesteads that are still there that were part of the farming community; those houses remain. You can tell easily which ones they are because they’re in an odd position; they don’t match the layout of the rest of the houses.”
As for the neighborhood today, Camp Zachary Taylor Neighborhood Association Chair Erin Fitzgerald puts it best:
“I love it. It’s very quiet. In a way, it’s a little bit of a hidden neighborhood. I think it’s not a huge, cut-through neighborhood, partly because if you drive in it, and you don’t know it, you might get swirled around and lost a little bit… I just really like it. It’s quiet. It’s unassuming. It’s close to anything you really need.”
Fitzgerald also praised the neighborhood for its park, community center, and its location near the Watterson and I-65, with ease of access to all points in and around Louisville. She moved to Camp Taylor in 2009 while searching for an affordable, working-class home in the city with the aforementioned qualities.
“I know that on my street, it’s quiet, but there’s connection, too,” Fitzgerald says. “There are a lot of people who live in the neighborhood who’ve lived there for a very long time… there’s at least one element of the neighborhood that’s familiar… people knowing each other and watching out for each other, there’s definitely that feeling.”
For visitors and potential residents looking at Camp Taylor, Fitzgerald says Taylor Memorial Park, which includes a ballfield and a public swimming pool — one of the few Louisville parks that still has the latter feature — is one of the neighborhood’s best features.
Little evidence of the military camp survived the transition to the neighborhood, the most identifiable being the Motor School Building at Joe Creason Park, a curved-roof barn which was the last building erected in Camp Zachary Taylor, serving as a mechanics school in its brief military career.
Camp Taylor’s rich history is noteworthy and especially worth revisiting this month, which mark’s the 99th anniversary of the camp. Its official centennial is on June 23, 2017; before then, both Maguire and Fitzgerald hope the city and residents will work together to plan a celebration.