History of Kentucky Governors

Kentucky Governors and Elections

 Judge Flem Sampson



1927-1931 --Term

            Republican Flem Sampson was the 41st person to serve as Kentucky’s Governor and the second person in less than ten years from Knox County to serve as governor when he was elected Governor in November 1927.

            Flem Sampson was the 9th of ten children born to Joseph and Emoline Kellum Sampson in Laurel County near London. 

            Like Democratic Governor Black, Flem Sampson practiced law in Barbourville prior to entering politics.  He was also a member of the Methodist Church as Governors Black and Fields before him.

            Sampson was educated at Union College (Barbourville) and received a law degree at Valparaiso University (Indiana)

            He married Susie Steele on September 20, 1897 with whom he had three daughters, Pauline, Emolyn and Helen Katherine.

            After receiving his law degree, he was admitted to the bar in 1895. and practiced law as the Barbourville City Attorney and then as President of the First National Bank of Barbourville.  Sampson’s law partner included the politically connected future KY Secretary of State and U.S. Congressman Caleb Powers.  Powers was indicted in 1900 in the conspiracy to assassinate Governor Goebel serving time in prison prior to being pardoned before being elected to Congress.   In 1906, Sampson was elected county judge (now judge executive) of Knox County and five years later was elected Circuit Judge.  With a reputation for toughness on liquor law violators Sampson was elected judge on the Kentucky Court of Appeals in 1916.  He was Chief Justice of that Court from 1923 to 1924.

          Sampson was also allied with   and future U.S. Congressman (1919-1930) and U.S. Senator John Robison of Barbourville.

            In 1927, Sampson was the Republican nominee for Governor.  The Democrats were divided over prohibition and the pari-mutual gambling issue.  Sampson’s Democratic opponent was former Governor and U.S. Senator J.C. W. Beckham.  Louisville and Lexington Democrats sympathetic to the liquor and horse industry supported Sampson over Beckham.  Sampson ran as a person who did not drink, smoke, chew or gamble “even on an election”.

            While little noticed at the time, one of the first actions as Governor, Sampson appointed the next Republican Governor, Simeon Willis (1943-1947) to the Kentucky to the Court of Appeals.  It should be noted that Sampson served during Prohibition and during the early years of the “Great Depression”.  Unemployment was high as 40% in many Eastern Kentucky counties.

            Sampson’s accomplishments include creation of the Kentucky Progress Commission, the forerunner of the Commerce Cabinet.  He was able to get the General Assembly to pass legislation to provide free text books for Kentucky’s public schools.  However, he was unable to get the funds appropriated to pay for them.

            The most controversial action of his administration was his support to build a dam and a hydro-electric plant at Cumberland Falls and rejection of a proposed gift to the state from the DuPont Family in order to purchase Cumberland Falls and the land around it in order to turn it into a state park.  The General Assembly over-rode his veto and accepted the DuPonts' gift and established Cumberland Falls State Park.

            As a result of Sampson’s actions concerning the “Falls” and other issues with the Democratic General Assembly, the legislature stripped him of most of his statutory authority and turning it over to a three person committee which included Sampson, the Democratic Lt. Governor James Breathitt, Jr. and  the Attorney General. 

            With the resignation of Kentucky’s U.S. Senator Fred Sackett to become President Hoover’s Ambassador to Germany in January 1930, Sampson appointed U.S. Congressman John M. Robision of Barbourville to the U.S. Senate.

            The events surrounding the Battle of Evarts in Harlan County  was one of the biggest challenges of Sampson’s last year as governor.  It began in February 1931 when The Harlan County Coal Company cut wages for its employees.  In response the United Mine Workers Union responded by holding a rally in Pineville (Bell County) which drew over 2,000.  In May 1931 broke out and three non union miners were killed.  In response Governor Sampson called out the KY National Guard to the coal fields of Harlan.  Unfortunately, violence in the coal fields of Harlan, Bell and Knox counties and even northeast Tennessee continued into 1932.

Following his term as governor, Sampson returned to the practice of law in Barbourville and was elected Circuit Judge.  He attempted to regain a seat on the Kentucky Court of Appeals but was defeated by Eugene Siler Sr. who later served as a US Congressman.

Flem Sampson died at age 92 on May 25, 1967 in Pee Wee Valley.  He is buried in the Barbourville Cemetery.