A city proclamation issued by Mayor JoEllen Reed declared October 14th Fanny Cole Day. The festivities were celebrated at Abettor Brewing Company on Depot Street. Although it was a windy, chilly day, a number of food trucks and vendors turned out for the “Fanny Fest.” There was Fanny Cole beer and hard cider for sale. So, you might ask, who was Fanny Cole?
Fanny Cole was an African American born into slavery back in Virginia who came to Kentucky in the 1820s as the property of John Battaille. At some point, she fell in love with Aaron Cole, a free man who saved his money until he could buy Fanny’s freedom in 1827. The deed described her as Aaron’s wife. The industrious Aaron was able to purchase a house and lot at the northeast corner of Broadway and Maple Street, where he and Fanny kept a grocery store.
After Aaron died in the early 1830s, Fanny expanded the business and became a well-known entrepreneur in town. One of her white contemporaries recalled that “there were many small factories run in Winchester, such as Aunt Fanny Cole’s.” Fanny had a small brewery where she made beer and an “African kitchen” where she made ginger cakes that were very popular. She proved so successful operating the store that she was able to buy an adjoining lot with a blacksmith and wagon maker’s shop.
It is a testament to her innate abilities and hard work that she was able to achieve commercial success at a time when free blacks were subject to severe discrimination. Even more surprising is the fact that at the time of her death in 1839 she left a sizeable estate, far exceeding that of Winchester’s average white citizens. Her will bequeathed a total $2,260 to 11 individuals. In addition, she left the store and its contents to her nephew Jerry Johnson, $303 in goods and furniture plus $2,258 in cash. Remarkably, the entire estate was worth nearly $200,000 in today’s dollars, and that’s not including the value of her properties.
Abettor drew a good crowd to Depot Street to honor Fanny Cole. The highlight of the day was an in-person performance of Fanny Cole by the multi-talented Jane Burnam. Jane had told Fanny’s story in a rousing performance at “The Voices of Winchester: A Night of Storytelling” at Leeds Theatre on October 6. But her stirring dramatic impersonation on Saturday afternoon showed a whole new side of Jane’s gifts.
Jane graduated from GRC and earned a degree in elementary education from Morehead State University with a minor in music before doing graduate work in early childhood development at Eastern Kentucky University. Now a retired educator, she is an active member of the Winchester Black History & Heritage Committee, and member of First Baptist Church where she was the church organist. Jane has a daughter, Narcissus, and two granddaughters, Skylynn, and Save’yah.
For Jane’s performance, she donned a period costume similar to one Fanny Cole likely would have worn. Jane first displayed her beautiful clear singing voice then gave a moving portrayal as Fanny. I believe all of us in the audience felt like Jane was channeling the real Fanny.
Thanks to Abettor and all the sponsors and participants who made the day a triumph. If you weren’t one of those fortunate enough to attend, then let’s hope there will be another Fanny Cole Day next year. And cheers to Jane Burnam for her wonderful presentation of Fanny Cole; surely it will not be her last!