Periodically, the subject of the number of counties in Kentucky comes up. Most of the time, the subject is raised for no particular reason, just that someone suddenly realizes that the large number of counties in a state this small is somewhat of a paradox.
Kentucky’s 120-county setup seems either very quaint or totally ridiculous.
There are only three states with more counties than Kentucky: Texas (naturally, with 254), Georgia (159) and Virginia (134). Of course, it’s possible that, since Kentucky was split off from the state of Virginia, we picked up their habit of allocating so many counties.
Well, does having so many counties really account for anything?
Let’s look at the states according to their geographic area and see how the figures pan out.
Texas, with 254 counties contains 268,581 square miles, which amounts to an average of 1,057 square miles per county.
Georgia contains 59,425 square miles or 374 square miles per county.
Virginia contains 42,774 square miles for a total of 319 square miles per county.
And Kentucky contains 40,409 square miles for an average of 337 square miles per county.
Of the next four states on the list, Missouri, Kansas, Illinois and North Carolina, they average 606, 784, 568 and 538 square miles per county, respectively.
Even Rhode Island, the smallest state, with only 1,545 square miles of area, has only five counties, averaging 309 square miles each.
Only two states average less area per county than Kentucky, and one must wonder why this is so.
When one looks at the statistics for each state, it quickly becomes obvious that states east of the Mississippi River (generally speaking) contain counties with smaller average areas.
One possible reason may be that these states entered the union at earlier dates, when transportation and communication were less technologically advanced, and the necessity of having local government more readily accessible generated the need for smaller venues.
As states were added to the union, moving west, communication and transportation became more diverse and faster obviating the need for more numerous locations of central government.
In fact, despite the size of Texas and the number of counties in that state, there are several western states that have counties of much larger average size, illustrating the hypothesis of decentralizing government in connection with improved communications.
Colorado’s 64 counties average 1,626 square miles, Utah’s 29 counties average 2,927 square miles, Montana has 56 counties averaging 2,626 square miles and Oregon with 36 counties at an average of 2,732 square miles each. Even California, which is 61 percent the size of Texas, averages 2,822 square miles per county.
And the really large county states are: Wyoming at 4,253 average square miles in 23 counties; Nevada, averaging 6,504 square miles in each of its 17 counties; Arizona, with 15 counties averaging 7,600 square miles; and Alaska, with only 18 counties, but a whopping 36,848 square miles average in each one (imagine how far one might have to travel there to reach the county seat).
Aside from all these statistics, whenever the question of the number of counties in Kentucky arises, the next question seems to be how to combine and reduce them. And then the conversation seems to degenerate into one of combining whole counties, discounting the possibility of splitting existing counties along more rational lines than those now defining them.
Of course, the likelihood of changing the configuration of Kentucky’s counties is about as likely as Texas seceding from the union or California splitting into two states.
And if you think the issue of the number of counties is a brain puzzler, take a look at Kentucky’s congressional districts and try to figure out just how those were established.
As intellectual exercises, though, thinking about the possibilities can be fun. But trying to figure out congressional districts could send someone to a sanitorium.