“I like the old farm story about the difference in being involved and being committed. When it comes to making breakfast, the chicken is involved, but the hog is committed. Just like that old hog, I am committed. But I’m committed to Kentucky.” -Joe Bowen
Joe Bowen has a passion for all that is Kentucky. From the time he was born in the town that bears his name, Bowen, Kentucky, he has worked to improve the lives of Kentuckians.
Joe, with his four brothers, grew up on a hillside farm in Powell County. Joe was an avid horseman and is still locally remembered for riding two stallions standing up with a foot on the back of each horse. He also rode his horse to remote “hollers” to cut the hair of the local kids, for free, to “keep them looking sharp.” He graduated from Powell County High School in 1962.
In 1967, fresh out of the Air Force and with $43 dollars in his pocket, Joe rode his bicycle from California home to Eastern Kentucky. Rather than taking the direct route, he decided to discover America. His 14,000-mile odyssey earned him many friends, much publicity, and the legacy as the first person recognized to extensively tour the United States by bicycle.
In 1980, Joe Bowen walked 3,000 miles across the United States on stilts to raise money for Muscular Dystrophy research. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, he holds the world record for the longest stilt-walk. He also stilt-walked in five European countries to raise money for philanthropic purposes.
In the course of his humanitarian activities, he met with six governors and many celebrities including Jerry Lewis, Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon, Muhammad Ali, Joe DiMaggio, Elvis Presley, and many others.
However, don’t get the idea that biking and stilt walking are Joe’s only interests.
While in the Air Force, Joe twice gathered and delivered a military cargo plane full of presents and clothes to the Dessie Scott Children’s Home in Wolfe County, KY.
Joe envisioned, designed and raised the money to build a statue of legendary Eastern Kentucky horse trainer, Woody Stephens. With the help of Seth Hancock, a statue unveiling banquet was held in Woody’s honor that raised $80,000. This money was donated for Multiple Sclerosis research. The statue now stands at the Powell County Courthouse.
Joe was part of the Taylorsville Cemetery Restoration Project, a two-year effort to restore the cemetery and boost community pride.
Joe also bought, rescued and completely restored a gazebo originally built in 1898. He then moved it to where it now proudly stands as a landmark on the grounds of Spencer County High School.
Joe Bowen has researched and rediscovered the mystery of Felix Grundy Stidger, a spy for the Union Army, born in Taylorsville, who infiltrated the Confederate army. Stidger’s clandestine service was so significant and remarkable that Adjutant General Holt in his report to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton gave Stidger credit for winning the war. Joe is leading the effort to turn the house where Stidger was born into a historic site.
Joe Bowen is actively involved in the Eastern Kentucky Heritage Monument, which he describes as, “The single most important project for Appalachian Kentucky. Not only will it be a tremendous economic development project for the entire region, it will improve the image of all of Kentucky.” Joe was the first individual to contribute financially to the Eastern Kentucky Heritage Monument project which is co-sponsored by the Mountain Parkway Trails Corridor and the Appalachian Heritage Alliance.
Joe was the guiding force in building the statues to honor the memory and legacy of Governor Bert T. Combs. The first statue stands in Powell County just off the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway, the undisputed lifeline of Eastern Kentucky. The others stand in Prestonsburg and Manchester.
As Joe travels across the country on his bicycle-education tour, he will be promoting all of Kentucky. He will also be singing the praises of the newly designated Red River Gorge National Scenic Byway located in Powell, Menifee and Wolfe Counties.
He’s published a book, “Stiltwalk,” and has authored many magazine articles for sports, exercise and tourism publications. He has written four articles for the Kentucky Explorer Magazine.
For his commitment, Joe has won a multitude of awards. Twice, he has carried the Olympic torch. Twice he has been featured in “Ripley’s Believe it or Not.” He’s won the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, the Humanities Outstanding Service Award from the University of Louisville, and the Ambassador for Life award from the U.S. Jaycees. Also, he’s currently listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest walk on stilts.
Joe was the recipient of the first "Kentucky Unbridled Spirit Award." It was presented to him by Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher.
Joe is involved in the KY Rails To Trails Council. Currently, they are trying to turn thirty-six miles of the abandoned R. J. Corman Railroad in Breathitt, Magoffin and Johnson Counties into a hiking, biking and horse-riding trail.
After eight years of balancing a full time job with night and Saturday classes, Joe graduated from the University of Louisville in 1978.
His proudest accomplishment: his three daughters – Shawna, Lonna and Natalie Anne.
Not bad for a 63 year old construction worker from Bowen, Kentucky. A committed guy with an Unbridled Spirit for Kentucky.