Mt. Sterling Advocate Articles

Hinkston Creek: A Living Legacy and Link to the Past – and the Future

Authored by Barry Tonning

Note: Information for the Hinkston Creek column series comes from a variety of online, published, and personal sources. A key reference for the series has been the invaluable book by Carl B. Boyd Jr. and Hazel Mason Boyd, “A History of Mt. Sterling Kentucky 1792-1918” which was published in 1984. It is available at the Mt. Sterling – Montgomery County Public Library.

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Hinkston Creek: Where the buffalo and Adena roam (Read more...)

August 5, 2010:

Hinkston Creek begins as a small trickle between Levee Road and Fog Pike southwest of Mount Sterling, and flows north to join Stoner Creek and form the South Fork of the Licking River. Along the way, the creek and its tributaries meander past some of the most beautiful countryside in the eastern U.S.—rolling green pastures, neat rows of tobacco plants, tree-lined country roads, and quiet communities with names like Little Rock, Sharpsburg, Headquarters, Jackstown, Bunker Hill, Grassy Lick, Plum, Judy, and Sideview.

It might be hard to believe, but our little creek has been a silent witness to history: the annual migration of hundreds of thousands of buffalo across Hinkston Creek near Millersburg prior to European settlement; mound-building by the ancient Adena people throughout the Hinkston region; the comings and goings of Daniel Boone and his family in and around Nicholas and Bourbon counties; and a bloody battle fought for several hours just a few steps away from a day care center on Hinkston Pike in Montgomery County. Many people are familiar with the frontier era stories of the “buffalo trace” or “warriors path” from Maysville on the Ohio River southwest to Frankfort and beyond. Accounts from the late 1700s describe a mass of moving brownish-black beasts a mile wide and so long that one pioneer describes watching them cross the Kentucky River at what is now Frankfort for a full day, from sunup to sundown, braying, bawling, and bullying their way from the tasty salt deposits at Blue Licks, across Hinkston Creek near the US 68 bridge, through the Elkhorn Creek’s north fork at Great Crossing near Georgetown, and on to Kentucky’s western prairies and woodlands.

The Adena people hunted the buffalo and built mounds across the area drained by Hinkston Creek. Dozens of them were found by settlers and later leveled for crop planting south of Mt. Sterling, which is also the site of the large Gaitskill Mound, still visible just behind the west end of the Mount Sterling Plaza shopping center. Another notable Indian mound gave Mt. Sterling part of its name: a 25-foot tall conical clay “Little Round Mountain” located along the banks of Hinkston Creek near the corner of Locust and Queen streets, right in the middle of Court Day USA. That mound—sited at the intersection of a starburst network of ancient trails (and later, paved roads) leading north to the Ohio River country, south and east to the mountains, and west to the fertile Bluegrass plain—was likely a gathering and ceremonial site for tribes from throughout the region. One can imagine a pre-settlement tribal “court day” of sorts along the banks of the creek and throughout the springs area of Mt. Sterling (in Garden Springs subdivision, for example), with hundreds or even thousands of Indians celebrating a successful summer hunt, the fall harvest, or camped comfortably for a cold Kentucky winter. Sentries stationed atop the mounds might be seen keeping campfires to communicate information by torch and smoke from mound to mound across the region.

Isaac Ruddell built a gristmill in 1788 on the north side of Hinkston bridge and a sawmill in 1795. A 720-spindle cotton mill was erected nearby which, despite being burned in 1836, spun wool until about 1855.

But times changed, as we all know, with the westward push of settlers from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and other places. Colonel John Hinkston (actually spelled Hinkson), for which the creek is named, established a military encampment for a short time at the confluence of Hinkston and Stoner creeks in northern Bourbon County, where Isaac Ruddell later built and operated a mill in 1779. Hinkson, a tall, rangy, strong, and colorful outdoorsman, had left Pennsylvania after alleged involvement in a plot to kill an old Delaware Indian named Joseph Wipey. At the time of the American Revolutionary War, Hinkson led a company of soldiers from the Keystone State down the Ohio River and up the Licking River in canoes to build a rough collection of defensive log shelters at the confluence of Hinkston and Stoner, where the South Fork of the Licking begins. Incidentally, Townsend Creek and Coopers Run were named for two other “Johns” in his party, John Townsend and John Cooper, who later raised corn and supplied seed to new settlers arriving in the Bluegrass. After the war, Hinkson served as Bourbon County sheriff and later followed his good friend and traveling companion Benjamin Harrison on a land speculation venture to New Madrid in Missouri, where he died in early 1790.

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Estill’s Defeat (Read more...)

August 12, 2010

The settling of the Hinkston region continued, despite the brief appearance and abrupt departure of the creek’s namesake. Indian skirmishes and British attacks during and after the Revolutionary Way led to the surrender of the Ruddell’s Mill inhabitants in 1780, and a fierce, deadly battle on the banks of Hinkston Creek near Mt. Sterling two years later. According to historical records, Captain James Estill and at least seven of his men were killed by a group of 25 Wyandot Indians on March 22, 1782 during a two-hour fight that started with musket fire among the trees lining the creek and ended with brutal hand-to-hand combat with tomahawks, knives, and clubs.

Historical marker highlighting the location of Estill's defeat.

The encounter started three days earlier, with an Indian raid at Estill’s Station near Richmond, one of a series of stockaded settlements that dotted the early frontier. A young girl was killed and a slave named Monk was captured by the two dozen attackers, but they retreated after Monk told them the fort was manned by a strong force led by Captain Estill. Monk’s tale was a tall one—Estill and nearly all of the men were miles away looking for the Indian party—but it undoubtedly saved many lives that day. After the Indians left, two young boys from the fort were sent to find Estill’s group and raise the alarm. They caught up with Estill and his men along the Kentucky River in what is now Estill County, looking for signs of the raiders along the sandy banks of the Kentucky River. Estill returned to the fort and began tracking the Indians to the northeast, intercepting them two miles downstream of Mt. Sterling (called “Little Mount” or “The Little Round Mountain”) on Hinkston Creek. The location is just across Hinkston Pike from the Cuddlebugs Day Care Center. (Hinkston Pike once began at the “Little Mount” Indian mound and ran up Willow Street and on to the northeast. It was called “Carrington Road,” because it led to Carrington’s Mill, a few miles from town).

The Indians were skinning a buffalo near the banks of the creek when shots from Estill’s party of 25 rang out. The Wyandot chief was wounded immediately, and rolled under some brush to save himself. He called for his men to fight, and they quickly began their counterattack. The bloody battle which followed took a terrible toll on both sides. Estill died while wrestling with one of the Wyandots, from a fatal knife wound to the heart. At least seven of his men were killed in the battle after a small group of his party abandoned the fight and left them sorely mismatched. Later accounts referred to the battle as “Estill’s Defeat,” even though most of the Indians were also killed or wounded, because the Americans had been forced to retreat. The slave Monk, who helped Estill’s party before and after the battle (and was one of the best gunpowder makers in Kentucky at the time), was later freed by the Estill family, thereby becoming the first freed slave in the history of the Commonwealth. Five months later, the Americans suffered another disastrous defeat at the hands of Shawnee Indians led by their British allies at the Battle of Blue Licks, with 11 captured and 72 killed—including Israel Boone, Daniel Boone’s son.

Indian raids in the Hinkston region and nearby would continue for another decade, culminating with the brazen attack on Morgan’s Station on Slate Creek in 1793. The following years would see many changes in the Hinkston Creek Region. Bluegrass would be discovered, reportedly along Grassy Lick Creek. Religious revivals at Cane Ridge, which separates the Hinkston and Stoner Creek drainage areas, would reverberate throughout Christendom. Waters that once teemed with fish would be devastated by corn mash slop-pond discharges from Mt. Sterling’s bourbon distillery, soil erosion, dumping, and poor conservation practices in some areas. Farms would flourish and fade and bloom again as tobacco, corn, and livestock prices rose and fell. These and other topics will be the focus of coming installments of this series on Hinkston Creek.

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Finding Religion and War in Hinkston (Read more...)

August 26, 2010 (No column on August 19th)

The promise of prosperity posed by the rich silt loams—Lowell, Crider, Faywood, Cynthiana, and Shelbyville—piled deeply along the snaking ridges of the Hinkston Creek country in Bourbon, Montgomery, and Nicholas counties brought people by the wagonload after the bloody Indian battles of Estill’s defeat (1782), Blue Licks (1782), and Morgan’s Station (1793). When the last few skirmishes between the Indians and early settlers led by Daniel Boone, Simon Kenton, James Estill, and their fellow pioneers ended, new residents poured into east-central Kentucky. They came on foot, in wagons, and on packhorses, often after long and arduous trips down the Ohio River by barge or raft, to claim lands in the huge new county of Bourbon, which had been part of Fincastle County, Virginia before the American Revolution.

Paris (once known as Hopewell Spring, then Bourbontown) was established in 1789, with Mount Sterling following in 1792 as the town “established on Little Mountain Creek,” as the original charter stated. The town’s location—between Lexington and the Slate Creek Iron Furnace, and the Olympian Springs resort, and between Maysville to the north and the mountains to the south—helped it grow throughout the 1800s. In the beginning, the men hunted and fished, cleared the land, split and sawed logs, built homes, and farmed, while the women tended gardens, spun wool, sewed, knitted, and cared for their small rough cabins. The seemingly endless bounty of the land—good soil, unbroken forests, wild game, and clean water—supported the proposition that anyone could make it in this country, with a little hard work.

Located in Bourbon County, the Cane Ridge Meeting House was built by Presbyterians in 1791. Here Barton W. Stone began his ministry in 1796. A famous revival was attended by pioneers of many faiths in 1801. Springfield Presbytery dissolved and "Christian Church" was launched June 28, 1804.

The labors of nearly all in Kentucky paused for a week during the great Cane Ridge Revival of August, 1801, when 20,000 to 30,000 people converged on the western edge of the Hinkston Creek watershed to experience in full the contagious fervor of the spirit. Individuals fell to the ground, crying and shouting in fits of prayer and song and worship, rising again to exhort others, for days on end—until provisions ran out. The old meeting-house still stands, on KY 537, preserved for the ages.

With upwards of 10,000 people living in the Hinkston Creek region by 1820, a steady flow of corn, hemp, wheat, tobacco, hogs, logs, and other products moved out to markets in Lexington and Maysville and beyond, with imports consisting of cloth, tools, housewares, and fabricated iron and metal goods. Carpenters, blacksmiths, and stonemasons arrived, joined later by tailors, hatters, bricklayers, merchants, and artisans. Census tallies by the time of the Civil War listed lawyers, gunsmiths, saddlers, hotel keepers, wool carders, confectioners, barbers, druggists, doctors, dentists, and clergy, along with hundreds of slaves, who provided much of the muscle for the economy throughout the 1800s.

Mt. Sterling suffered the bitter divisions and deprivations of the so-called “War Between the States,” and was occupied by both Union and Confederate troops—changing hands a dozen times in four short years. Union troops established Fort Hutchinson late in the war,perched above town on the Machpelah Cemetery hill, where a number of Civil War officers now lie in peace. A group of black Union soldiers are also buried not far away, their service to the United States rewarded by freedom from slavery months—even years—before passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

Confederate General John Hunt Morgan and his raiders routed the Yankees in Mt. Sterling during a major battle in early June of 1864, only to be crushed in a pre-dawn attack less than two days later by Union troops under General Stephen G. “Butcher” Burbridge, a Kentuckian and graduate of Georgetown College in nearby Scott County. Burbridge’s men rode down the rebels on horseback as they lay sleeping in their tents south of town at their camp on Camargo Road, killing 54, wounding 120, and capturing 150—while suffering losses of 8 killed and 20 wounded. The Confederate camp was centered in the front parking lot of the current Montgomery County High School, on a hill above Hinkston Creek, the primary water source for the soldiers. Dozens of Civil War era bullets and mini-balls were found in the area just before the lots were paved when the school was built in the 1960s.

Interestingly one of Morgan’s men was not among the casualties—or those left standing—after the Battle of Mount Sterling. R.R. Goode, a surgeon in Morgan’s command, had forced the cashier of the Farmer’s Bank to open the safe hours earlier, taking about $59,000 (some accounts say $72,000). He mysteriously disappeared soon afterwards, missing the battle, the subsequent court case regarding the legality of robbery during wartime, and was never seen or heard from again!

The war—the “Lost Cause”—though bloody and brutal, ended human bondage and forced servitude, and brought out the best—and worst—in people. After Union and Confederate troops had swept back and forth through the area a half-dozen times, skirmishing and stealing and shooting and stirring up the populace throughout the early 1860s, a Mt. Sterling woman wrote in her diary that “the country is full of swindlers, horse thieves, and murderers, all justifying their crimes in the name of Liberty—Good Lord deliver us!”

The coming decades were somewhat calmer, as we will discuss in future installments of this series.

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A Tale of Two Very Different Lives: Nancy Green and Richard Reid (Read more...)

September 2, 2010

The rapid settling of the Hinkston Creek region in east-central Kentucky and subsequent spasm of Civil War violence spanned only a few decades. There were those born at the time of the last Indian raid at Morgan’s Station who watched in sad silence as the broken, bloodied soldiers returned from the grim scenes of Gettysburg, Antietam, Atlanta, and The Wilderness.

The sheer intensity of life in such a rapidly evolving time was remarkable. The crucible of existence that defined the country during those years indelibly shaped the character of the Commonwealth, and even now defines the paradoxical struggles of morality and social adaptation, community sharing and rugged individualism, and the overall pursuit of survival strategies in a rapidly changing, almost wholly untethered world.

Two remarkable characters personify the physical, psychological, and spiritual struggles of the people of Kentucky during this period. Nancy Green and Richard Reid were born four years and a few miles apart in Montgomery County, two decades before the Civil War. The lives of the poor African American female slave and the white, well-to-do man of letters and the law provide a glimpse of the chaotic swirl of humanity of the Hinkston Creek people in the mid-1800s.

Statue of Richard Reid.

The popular and brilliant Richard Reid, a prominent Mt. Sterling attorney and widely respected Christian gentleman, spent the War Between the States in town, too frail to fight due to a severe childhood injury. After the war, he and his equally beloved wife—both introspective and scholarly—quietly supported progressive causes (like women’s suffrage and assistance to former slaves) that were not yet popular during the sad “Reconstruction” days of carpetbaggers, copperheads, scalawags, and opportunists of all stripes. On April 16, 1884, Reid—who was campaigning for a judgeship at the time—was attacked by another attorney who mistakenly believed he was secretly opposing him in a legal proceeding. John Jay Cornelison beat Reid with a cane in his office, threw him into the street, and lashed him viciously with a bullwhip before finally being restrained by passersby.

Reid, severely injured and shaken to his core, retired to his home, expecting public opinion and the law to make things right. News of the attack created a national uproar, with newspaper editorials and letters calling for Christian restraint and dignified prudence—and others urging Reid to shoot down Cornelison in the street “like a dog.” The pain of the beating, the public humiliation, and the uncertainty of what to do—honor the law and his religion, or defend his own honor and manhood?—drove Reid and his wife to near madness over the next few weeks. Gradually, local opinion shifted from dismay over Cornelison’s actions to disgust about Reid’s failure to avenge the attack. The long-suffering Reid finally made his decision: he pulled out a revolver in a friend’s law office, aimed it at his tortured head, and ended his agony. Elizabeth Jameson Reid documented the devastating ordeal in a biography, and erected a large statue to her husband overlooking Hinkston Creek in Machpelah Cemetery. His back is turned toward town...the inscription remembers him as “a martyr to religion and the law.”

But let us turn now to the happier life of Nancy Green—born into another kind of bondage—whose quick-witted, gregarious, and oversized presence made her the toast of millions at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Yes, this clever, robust, natural story-teller from Mt. Sterling took the world by storm! She had been hired by a grain milling company to demonstrate a new concept in cooking: ready-mix self-rising pancake flour. During the fair, the 56-year old Green—who had gone north earlier for a job as a nurse—ran a nearly non-stop griddle operation in the shade of a gigantic stage-prop flour barrel. Her job was to show people how easy it was to use the mix to make a quick stack of breakfast cakes—and the casting was perfect.

Hers was not the soft, smooth patter of the suave, smiling, sales professional—no! With Ms. Green, the homespun stories, countrified philosophies, personal observations, advice to housewives, and hotcake ruminations flowed like sweet warm honey over the adoring crowd, which grew into the tens of thousands on the first day. Special security officers were brought in to keep people moving past her cook-stand kitchen/soapbox/arena. They stumbled by awe-struck, amused and mesmerized. All they could do was smile, nod, listen to the booming lyrical banter, and taste a bit of the more than one million pancakes she cooked during the six-month event. And buy the mix—one day, 50,000 orders were taken.

During the 1950s and 60s there was a gradual change in public attitudes about the appropriateness of the “Aunt Jemima” character portrayed by Ms. Green from Mt. Sterling, who was hired under a lifetime contract after her “Queen of Pancakes” run at the fair. But most of the recent scholarly research on stereotypes does not explore the sheer resourcefulness and personal creativity of this intelligent and successful woman, who became a prominent Chicago philanthropist, activist, and supporter of antipoverty programs before her tragic death in an automobile accident in 1923, at the age of 89.

Green and Reid—juxtaposed personalities who shared a special time and place—manifest many of the struggles of our somewhat brief Kentucky history. The lessons they learned, and those they can still teach us, are a legacy that can enrich our lives beyond measure...if only we listen.

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Bourbon Comes to Hinkston (Read more...)

September 9, 2010

In the late 1700s, the fertile lands, pristine waters, and boundless opportunity of the Hinkston Creek region proved to be a strong enticement to those seeking freedom and a more prosperous future. One group of Pennsylvania settlers in particular contributed to the rich history of the area, which was all part of the vast domain of Bourbon County at the time. Montgomery County was not carved out separately until 1796.

Dr. James Henshall of Harrison County (1836-1925) was the author of the Book of the Black Bass.

Early harbingers of what would become a recurring theme in American history, the Pennsylvanians went west to escape the stifling rectitude of what they perceived as an overbearing government—manifested, in this case, by high taxes...not on tea, but on distilled spirits. The Whisky Rebellion of 1794, an armed citizen uprising against Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s new federal excise tax on alcoholic beverages, had just been quelled by troops commanded to the region by President George Washington in a demonstration of the growing federal power of the young country. The Pennsylvania rebels, along with others who appreciated low taxes—and of course, the sanguine evening glow of high-octane corn squeezins—migrated to the Hinkston and Stoner Creek lands to ply their trade and sip their spirits in peace and quiet, far from the larcenous gaze of Uncle Sam and his taxman. They began calling their golden elixir “Bourbon,” in honor of the new frontier county that provided their refuge.

Distilleries soon dotted the region, and became one of the great industries of central Kentucky during the 1800s. In the 1860s, Henry Clay Howard, William S. Barnes, and William T. Lane opened the Howard, Barnes, and Lane Distillery just outside of Mt. Sterling on seven acres of land near the banks of Hinkston Creek, a few steps north of the present-day intersection of the KY 686 bypass and Levee Road. This facility was supplied with a steady flow of the sweetest, purest limestone spring water, which originated underground just east of the Prewitt Pike, flowed through the present-day Estates Subdivision, and then moved southeast, traversing a series of at least three moderately-sized sinkhole caves before reaching the site of the distillery, where it was combined and processed with corn mash and other secret ingredients and aged in charred oak barrels to create the smoky social lubricant—or curse of humanity, depending on your perspective—now known the world over.

The company sold 250 barrels to Louisville in 1869 for $40 per barrel, but fell on hard times because of an apparent failure to realize that the taxman had also migrated at last to central Kentucky, where he found that HB&L had forgotten to pay over ten thousand dollars in whisky taxes, resulting in a seizure of the property in 1870. It was later sold to the Farmers and Exchange Bank, then to E.H. Taylor, and by the 1890s was known as the Newmarket Distillery, and later, J.H. McBrayers’, which produced 60 barrels a day off and on for the taverns along Locust Street and throughout Kentucky until Prohibition shut it down in 1920.

Industrial scale production of Kentucky consumer goods was in its infancy during the heady (and sometimes headachey) days of “Old McBrayers” bourbon, and the policies, procedures, and protocols for dealing with wastes and other by-products had not yet been addressed. The article below from the front page of the June 11, 1901 edition of the Mt. Sterling Advocate—picked up from the Advocate’s sister newspaper in Paris, the Gazette—speaks volumes on the nature of many of the issues Americans have grappled with over the years regarding the high ideals of resource conservation, corporate responsibility, the role of the news media, and of government, and the overall concept of cleaning up after yourself:

Fish Killed In Hinkston Creek

Game Warden T.E. Clay has been busy investigating the killing of fish in upper Hinkston by the McBrayer Distillery Company located in Montgomery County. Mr. Clay found that the McBrayer people had let their slop run into a large pool on a slight eminence overlooking Hinkston. There it was allowed to ferment until it became a stench in the nostrils of people residing in that community, and the distillers were about to be indicted for it. One night, the dam was cut and all of this poisonous slop allowed to empty into the creek.

The result was that fish were killed by the thousands, not only in Montgomery but for a distance of sixteen miles in Bourbon and Nicholas, Hinkston being the dividing line between those two counties. On the farm of Mr. Jesse Fishback there are several water-gaps, and Mr. Fishback states that the fish were piled up so thick that a wagon-load could have been secured. They were fine bass and large cat fish, some of them weighing ten pounds, and many of them from three to seven pounds. The fish were affected as far down as McConaighay’s Mill, but at this place, very luckily, a rise came, which relieved the situation temporarily, but the farmers state that this poisonous slop is at the bottom of the creek, and when the water gets low it will continue to ferment and work greater destruction. They have no doubt but that fish will be killed from the point where the slop was run into Hinkston down to its mouth.

The farmers on both sides of Hinkston are indignant not only on account of the great destruction to fish, turtles, and etc., but the water is rendered unfit for stock uses, and in many instances the creek afforded the only source of water supply, as ponds have not been constructed, it heretofore being unnecessary. The distillery people plead guilty to polluting the creek and were fined the insignificant sum of ten dollars and costs. However, the farmers do not propose to let it rest there, and this morning they will hold a meeting in the law office of Mr. Harmon Stitt, with a view of prosecuting the offenders not only in Montgomery, but in Nicholas and Bourbon, and see that the law is enforced to its fullest extent.

The Gazette again calls attention to the splendid work that is being done by the Game Warden, and in all probability the office that was established by the true sportsmen of Bourbon County will prove to be of such value to the general public that the State will recognize the services and establish the office by law. This undoubtedly ought to be done, not merely for those who hunt and fish, but for all people who think anything of the health of residents along our streams, and the farmers who are dependent upon them for stock water.

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The Iron Horse Links the Coalfields to the Cities (Read more...)

September 16, 2010

The alternating land and sea coverage of ancient Kentucky during the Pennsylvanian Period produced the coastal swamps and bogs that were later covered with sediment and pressure-cooked for millennia to form the layer cake mountains of coal and sandstone which transformed the early era of the Commonwealth. Dr. Thomas Walker reportedly discovered and used coal to warm the members of his Kentucky exploration party in 1750. Coal production statewide grew slowly at first, then shot from 2,000 tons in 1830 to 285,000 tons in 1860 and on up to one million tons by 1879, despite a nearly 50 percent temporary production loss during the Civil War. And then it skyrocketed even more, due to the arrival of a great, magnificent, smoky, snorting beast from the east.

The Iron Horse, in the form of the Big Sandy Railroad, linked the coalfields of Kentucky to bustling cities of post-war America by 1872, and it was a long time in coming. The railroad had been proposed for Mt. Sterling as early as 1850, to augment the stage coach services that ran at least weekly to the Olympian Springs and the Bourbon Iron Works in Bath County, and to Lexington, Maysville, Owingsville, and Paris. The area’s first rail development project, under the direction of the city of Lexington (which had taken over the earlier, ill-fated Louisville and Ohio short line), was part of a larger plan to connect central Kentucky with Covington, Maysville, Danville, and the Big Sandy River region, where coal mines were beginning to enter the boom times.

In Mt. Sterling, the first rail project in the early 1850s was met with great enthusiasm due to its potential to promote local agricultural trade and bring in cheap coal and other heavy goods. The Lexington and Big Sandy Railroad Company began stock sales after an organizational meeting in Owingsville in 1852, under the direction of president Richard Apperson Sr. of Mt. Sterling. Rail line surveys and construction began almost immediately, eastward from Lexington and westward from Ashland. Montgomery County voters authorized a $200,000 stock purchase in the young company, with other cities and counties kicking in over a fourth of the $3.5 million overall projected expense. But high construction costs, a national recession, and a severe financial panic in the late 1850s resulted in the bankruptcy of the Lexington and Big Sandy Railroad, leaving Montgomery County taxpayers on the hook for what seemed at the time to be a worthless investment.

After the Civil War, however, the properties of the L&BS Railroad were reorganized as the Elizabethtown, Lexington, & Big Sandy Railroad around 1870. Although the previous LB&S company had brought the county nothing but grief (the original stock payments were not retired by the county until 1918, after several special tax assessments), the great need for a rail link again moved voters to approve yet another stock subscription, for $250,000. This time, however, county officials had learned their lesson, and made payments contingent upon actual progress in construction.

Work moved along quickly on the previously graded L&BS RR rights-of-way, and on June 11, 1872, the first train entered Mt. Sterling from Lexington on tracks laid along and across Hinkston Creek at the present location of the Old C&O Depot. The rail line to the east of Mt. Sterling—the link with Ashland and the eastern U.S.—was not completed until mid-1881, however, due to another national bank panic and railroad finance problems that were later resolved when the EL&BS was merged into the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company. It was then that the Kentucky coal really began to flow throughout the state and the entire young nation. Even more coal arrived in town after the completion of the Mt. Sterling Coal Road railroad line, which opened in 1876. The Coal Road line operated on an inferior narrow-gage track with strap-iron rails mounted on wooden stringers, running from a depot on Tenny Avenue along the Spencer Pike toward Rothwell. But the coal hauled by the railroad from the Menifee County region was of poor quality, and the rolling stock was, shall we say, less sturdy than that of a full-gage railroad like the Big Sandy line: in 1881, a Coal Road locomotive hit a cow, and was disabled for a week.

A few relics from the early railroad days a hundred plus years ago are still visible. Between the old Fitzpatrick and McCormick (now McCormick) Lumber Company—which began operations in the early 1880s—and the old C&O Railroad Depot, one can still see portions of a 60 ft diameter stone and concrete ring running through the mowed grass, the site of the old locomotive turntable. This structure featured a sturdy frame mounted on steel wheels and overlaid by railroad tracks, which lined up with the rails on each side. Men would turn cranks connected to a series of gears that rotated the entire contraption, which functioned like a big Lazy Susan, allowing locomotives to be turned around without the use of a large Y-track siding.

You can also still see tell-tale signs of the days when the Mt. Sterling rail station and her crew served to feed and water the hissing, coal-fired, smoke-belching, steam-driven Iron Horses of yesteryear. Bulkhead walls along Hinkston Creek near the Old Depot indicate sites for low-head dams and water pumping facilities for the locomotive boilers. Also still visible along the creek are the last remnants of the days when the Little Mountain Town was the site of a large and continuous depository of coal, sold regionally to homeowners, farmers, and businessmen and used to power the steam engines plying the rails on the former L&BS RR. Behind the current Post Office, on the opposite (south) bank of Hinkston Creek, just above the water line, lies a noticeable layer of gravel and coal, used as fill and spread and graded out years ago, after the heyday of the coal boom that powered the region just before and during the roaring 90s, when the modern town of Mt. Sterling was born.

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Progress in Mt. Sterling: The expansion of farming, industry and manufacturing (Read more...)

September 23, 2010

As the prime farm lands in the Hinkston Creek region were cleared and the towns were being settled throughout the 1800s, the countryside began to change. The small ridgetop farm plots of the early settlers were enlarged as manpower, mule-power, and horsepower increased. Logging grew steadily in the region to supply timber for construction and manufacturing operations in the bustling community of Mt. Sterling. The Star Planing Mill, McCormick Lumber Company, W.E. Cassidy’s Lumber Yard, Campbell and Lindsey’s barrel-making operations, and the railroad all needed wood during the late 1800s, along with a score of local wagon makers, whose names hint at the countries of origin of the settlers migrating to the area: Henry Lander, Howell Manier, William B. Chambers, William B. Smith, B.F. Thomas, Frederick Senieur, C.H. Bussey, J.M. Doty, B.H. Hull, George McDonald, Alfred Fawcett, David Dimon, George Perkins, A.C. Tipton, James L. Conroy, John H. Shore, Benjamin and Edward Settles, and others.

Photo of the Little Mountain Indian Mound historical marker.

Little Mountain Indian Mound historical marker.

The “Little Round Mountain,” built thousands of years ago by the Adena Indians near the corner of Queen and Locust streets, was removed in 1845 to make way for growth in the burgeoning Mt. Sterling manufacturing district along Hinkston Creek. Extraordinary artifacts of copper, marble, stone, and shell were discovered during the excavation, and the clay soil of the mound itself was probably used for fill and brick-making in the downtown area. Tanning yards—including the one operated by Peter Troutman near the intersection of Locust Street and South Maysville—supplied leather for horse saddles, collars, harnesses, strapping, and other tack, as well as boots, carriage upholstery, and other goods.

Farmers produced thousands of acres of hemp to supply Mt. Sterling’s cloth bag loom and rope factories, which produced goods for cotton growers, shipbuilders, and other customers. A wool carding factory produced yarn and cloth near the corner of Main and Sycamore. Hugh Wilson operated a cotton-spinning factory on Bank Street until 1830, and flour millers used the flow from Hinkston Creek to grind wheat with water-wheel mills at several locations: one at the east end of East High Street, another near Richmond Avenue, and yet another at the present Monarch Mill building, located conveniently near the new railroad terminal. W.K. Burton, D.B. Garrison, and Lewis Apperson incorporated the Mt. Sterling Iron Fence Foundry and Machine Company in 1884 in a building near the railroad off Sycamore Street, and other nearby factories produced brooms, plow handles, chewing tobacco, bourbon whisky, and other products—sporadically, and at least for a while—between the boom and bust of recessions, bank panics, foreign competition, fallouts among partners, and the ever-unpredictable business cycle.

All of these operations were sited on—or a block or two away from—Hinkston Creek, roughly between Interstate Fence Supply on the bypass and the old wastewater treatment plant at the east end of town. There were few standards for dealing with factory emissions and waste disposal at the time, and the manure from hundreds of horses, the smoke from wood and coal fires, and dust from unpaved roads created a thick, pungent atmosphere that challenged the senses daily. With all this activity, one can only imagine the transformation of Hinkston Creek between 1800 and 1900 from a tree-lined lush, lazy, clear, cool, pastoral bluegrass stream to an urbanized industrial drainage channel that regularly received wastes and runoff from nearby manufacturing plants, distillery operations, horse stables, timber harvest sites, residential development, land clearing, and other activities.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the rolling slopes north of the creek between Judge Richard Reid’s fine house on Vista Court and the old Carrington Mill Road (Willow Street) were graded and drained to improve the land, first for farms, then for building lots and roadways. Underground stormwater drains were eventually installed where forested swales once carried rain and snowmelt. These have been upgraded over the years, and can still be seen where they discharge into Hinkston Creek—at the south end of Sycamore Street, under the viaduct, just southwest of the Health Department, and other locations. Parking lot grates (“drop inlets”) behind the Adrian Arnold (old National Hotel) building, north of the library, and curb inlets throughout town began to carry whatever was on the street or in the yard directly into the creek, without any kind of screening or treatment whatsoever, which is still the case today. (Incidentally, behind the Arnold Building, you can still see the flow of the old springs from the neighborhoods around the former Mt. Sterling Elementary School in the storm drain pipe below the parking lot grate, even during the driest days of summer.)

As the 1900s began, citizens started to recognize the problems associated with waste discharges into the creek (including the infamous distillery slop fish-kill affair), rain-driven runoff of mud and manure, and the need for household sewage treatment, which was being promoted nationwide and in Europe to deal with periodic outbreaks of disease linked to slopjar dumping and outhouse-related groundwater pollution. These topics will be examined in the weeks to come, as we continue to reflect upon where we came from, where we are now, and where we want to be in the future.

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Hog Wallow Streets?! The need for early public works (Read more...)

October 14, 2010

The first 100 years of settlement, agricultural expansion, and commercial and industrial development in the upper Hinkston Creek region transformed the area around the old Little Round Mountain, which now hosts downtown Mt. Sterling and, of course, the annual October Court Day festival. Roads were an early concern, because of their importance both in town and throughout the countryside. When the area west of Maysville Street was opened to development in 1871 with the creation of Clay, Elm, and the Sycamore Street extension, heavy street traffic, rainy weather mud, and the unique combination of pungent elements created by driving hogs to market through the streets caused a local clamor for better road surfacing.

Rock pavement was tried for a while, but there were quality problems with the slabs and gravel dug from the Queen Street quarry. The local newspapers—the Kentucky Sentinel and the Mt. Sterling Democrat—noted the relative softness of the soapstone-type rock used along the roads (some of which still lines sidewalks in town), and its inability to stand up to heavy wagon, horse, and cattle traffic. When exposed to rain and traffic, one editorial said, the roads presented “the appearance of a hog wallow,” because “the rock used in repairing (the road) is so broken and bad that it is raked up in the spring as mud, and hauled away a few months after it is spread.”

Photo of historical buildings.

Historic National Hotel, Now the Adrian Arnold Building (center).

In 1872, the city issued $5,500 in bonds to improve the streets. By the time Harrison and North Queen streets and the Mattie Lee area was opened to homebuilding in the 1880s and 90s many of the streets downtown were being paved via the popular “macadam” process, which featured careful measuring and layering of roadbed rock (large pieces on the bottom, and progressively smaller chunks toward the surface) with a top coat of coal tar to bind the fines on the surface and prevent water intrusion. As the city streets transformed from a fetid mix of manure and mud in the springtime and a deep, disagreeable dust in summer, the modern city of Mt. Sterling began to emerge. The 20-year building boom that began in the mid-1870s is still evident downtown, manifested by the old National Hotel (now the Adrian Arnold Building, developed originally by enlarging the even older Coleman House hotel during 1881) and the other buildings within a block or two of the intersection of Main and Maysville (formerly “Main Cross”) streets.

Fine buildings and more passable roads were important, and no doubt greatly improved city life, but two other developments put the town on the road to respectability and prosperity after 1900: city water, and city sewer service. Water for the early settlers in the late 1700s was plentiful at first, from the cool, clean waters of Hinkston Creek, shallow clear-water wells, and the limestone springs that bubbled from the surface throughout the area. A few high-volume springs served as the original drinking water sources for some of the more prosperous homes in town. For example, Joseph Simpson hired John Smith in 1815 to build a water line constructed of wooden piping laid in covered and open trenches from a large spring at the site of the old Mt. Sterling Elementary School on North Maysville Street to a hotel he owned at the corner of Main and Broadway. Over time, Simpson gradually built branch lines from the main pipe and sold water to others, such as the general store at Main Cross, owned by George Howard.

Service ebbed and flowed in accordance with the volume of water from Simpson’s spring, which varied considerably, and caused some complaints during dry periods. Another early water system was constructed by John Mason Jr., who owned several homes in town, but rotting wooden pipes, freezing weather, and the susceptibility of wooden pipes to frequent breaks left the early “city water” pioneers discouraged and financially strained. In the spring of 1819, the pipe that supplied water to the four-story brick Montgomery Hotel at Main and Broadway broke apart, causing water to flow into the street, where it created a giant mud hole on Main Street that had to be repaired by work ordered by the city trustees and ended all local interest in piped water for decades to come.

The result was an even greater dependence on creeks, springs, and wells for drinking water. But as the land was cleared and industrial and commercial activity increased, Hinkston Creek and the springs and wells nearby became too polluted for human use. Most of the larger homes and barns in the region without clean near-surface groundwater wells began to use metal roofing with gutters and downspouts to catch rainwater and divert it into underground cisterns, where it could be drawn to the surface using bucket-chain pumps operated by a crank handle—many of these are still around today, and some are still operable. With nearly 50 inches of precipitation a year on the average, the upper Hinkston Creek area certainly had sufficient rainfall to keep the wells, springs, and cisterns recharged during most years. However, the close living quarters, universal use of outhouses and yard-dumped slopjars, groundwater and well contamination, and generally unsanitary conditions provided a near-perfect habitat for the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, which sent wave after wave of devastating disease epidemics through the frightened population throughout the 1800s. The modern water and sewer system built during the first decade of the 1900s finally quashed the cholera bug, and sent the bustling city of Mt. Sterling careening into the excitement of the new millennium. That water and sewer system will be examined in a future installment of this series.

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How Cholera Led to Public Water in Mt. Sterling (Read more...)

October 21, 2010

The first stage coach line in Kentucky started running between Lexington and the Olympian Springs in what is now in Bath County in 1803, providing the growing ranks of Fayette County gentry with a place to soak their boils, bunions, bruises, and burns: in baths brimming with a confluence of waters high in iron, sulfur, calcium, and even carbonation, if local legends are accurate. Stage line passengers bounced over the rough, uneven country roads for decades through Clark and Montgomery counties, crossing Hinkston Creek in downtown Mt. Sterling, where they could stretch their legs and seek refreshment at the Main Street taverns while the horses were fed and watered—and sometimes replaced—at the Phoenix or Smiters liveries, or the ones operated by William Hodgkin or Adam Baum.

The refuge at the springs became vitally important to wealthy Lexingtonians during the 1830s, due to the one of the earliest and most vicious of several cholera epidemics that swept through central Kentucky over the decades prior to 1900. This particular strain of the disease, which was thought to have originated in 1817 in India, reached the New World in 1832 and quickly moved with the tide of settlers to the Bluegrass Region. When it passed through Lexington during the summer of 1833, it killed 500 of the 7,000 residents and caused a near-panic, resulting in a mass exodus of the affluent to the Bath County springs, which, of course, helped spread the disease through Mt. Sterling and beyond. Cholera lingered in the population—and in sewage-contaminated groundwater—for many years, rising and falling in unpredictable cycles. The 1850s were especially perilous in Montgomery County, with well contamination from the numerous outhouses in town spreading the bacteria freely throughout the city and surrounding farms.

Of great interest to the field of epidemiology was a similar outbreak of the same strain of Asiatic cholera in 1853 in London, where more than 10,000 died. The following year, when hundreds more succumbed to the disease in the city, a local anesthesiologist linked the illness to a certain public water well pump in the Soho District of London. Dr. John Snow, after careful observation and interviews with the residents, advised local officials to remove the handle on the Broad Street pump after he linked the use of its polluted water to symptoms of the disease. The number of infected individuals fell to near zero almost immediately, shocking and intriguing local religious and political leaders, who had generally rolled their collective eyes at the curious doctor’s conjectures. When Snow later described small white “flocculent particles” observed under his microscope as a likely source of the infection, their interest grew and details of his work spread to the highest levels of European academia.

Keas Tabernacle, at the corner of Locust and Queen Streets. Built in 1878.

Dr. Snow’s statistical and geographic study of the spread of cholera, its linkage to contaminated water, and the discovery of the tiny pathogenic bacteria contributed to research that rocked the field of medicine in the late 1800s. The great chemist Louis Pasteur, who lost three children to typhoid, was also studying the role of tiny organisms in spoiling milk, curing cheeses, and causing diseases. Over time, supported by studies like Snow’s in London, Pasteur convinced scientists, the church, politicians, and the public that communicable diseases were caused by germs (bacteria, viruses, and other microbes). In Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, in the 1890s, acceptance of germ theory of disease led local leaders to finally conclude that a public water system was essential if the city was to conquer lingering and persistent illnesses like cholera and prosper.

So in 1890, city leaders approved a referendum for voters to decide whether or not to build a water system. Gas and electric service had been developed recently, and it appeared that momentum favored quick development of public water. However, since many people already had well, cistern, or spring water, the effort lagged—despite periodic flare-ups of water-borne disease. Finally, in 1900, after several false starts and a lopsided vote (416 to 35) in favor of a water system a few years earlier, things began to happen. Due to lower flows and poor quality, water from Hinkston Creek was judged inadequate as the source water for the public system. A site was purchased at Howards Mill on Slate Creek—which had higher flows and none of the industrial development and urban runoff issues plaguing Hinkston.

Soon, the Mt. Sterling Water, Light, & Ice Company began laying pipe. Local businessmen T.J. Bigstaff and George W. Baird were part of the initial group of investors in the system, which featured a dam on Slate Creek to pond water for the intake pipe, a pump house, 5.5 miles of pipe, a 120 ft standpipe to store water and maintain adequate pressure in the supply lines, and service piping for customers. After some construction delays, a strike, and a flurry of contract completion disputes, the water finally began to flow on November 30, 1901. There was no filtration of the Slate Creek water initially, an indication of the purity of the water runoff from what was then a mostly forested area. Runoff from the hide-tanning yards at Peeled Oak, where tree bark was stripped away and used to extract tannic acid for curing leather, entered Slate Creek just downstream of the water intake at Howards Mill.

The local system performed well, selling 30,000 gallons of water for $12 and providing free water for horse troughs on Bank and East Main streets. Water even flowed without interruption during the 1904 drought, when several central Kentucky towns had to halt service until the rains resumed. The availability of an ample supply of clean water improved the economy, health, and quality of life in Mount Sterling—and highlighted the need to do something with all the wastewater generated by the new system. Discussions on a public sewer system soon began to occupy the leaders of the bustling little city lying between the Bluegrass and the mountains.

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The Italians Come to Town: Construction of Mt. Sterling’s wastewater system (Read more...)

November 11, 2010

With the public water system in operation by December 1901, threats from cholera and other communicable disease began to subside. However, the dramatic increase in water use—a phenomenon still evident today when “city water” is extended to areas with smaller septic systems designed for cisterns—caused new problems. Homes that might have used less than a few dozen gallons of water per day for dishes, laundry, bathing, and drinking were now using a hundred gallons or more...and all that water had to go somewhere.

Within a few years, the drainage of wastewater from homes and businesses into yards, street, gutters, swales, and Hinkston Creek itself became almost unbearable, especially in the summertime. In 1909, after a 629 to 50 affirmative vote, the city council authorized a $50,000 bond issue for the construction of public sewers. The Charles E. Collins engineering firm from Philadelphia was contracted to design the system. The survey crew arriving in Mt. Sterling no doubt found an almost ideal topography for building a gravity-flow sewerage system. Streets were laid out in a simple rectangular grid overlaid upon gently rolling hills that drained naturally down toward Hinkston Creek. The old plan sheets for the original sewer system are frayed and cracked, with a few brown stains, but are still very legible. Printed on blue oil-cloth paper, the plans show 10 to 12 inch sewer main pipes on North Maysville, Locust, and East High streets, with 8 inch laterals down the side streets and 6 inch service lines to the homes and businesses. The lay of the land provided pipe slopes/grades of around one percent in flatter areas and 10 to 14 percent on the steeper hills.

Historic Redmond Building on N. Maysville Street across from the courthouse. Built in 1890.

The March 23, 1910 edition of the Mt. Sterling Advocate reported that the firm of Paul Kershner of Dayton, Ohio had been hired to build the sewer system, which featured gravity-flow clay piping laid down the streets in the area between Hinkston Creek and Hinkston Pike, bounded on the east by Willow and the west by Antwerp. The entire network of laterals and mains was designed to bring the sewage to the intersection of Hinkston Creek and Main Street, where a 20 inch cast iron pipe emptied into a 36 inch siphon 12 feet below ground level. The siphon pulled the wastewater under the creek and sent it farther down East Main, to a location in the floodplain just behind what is now Giovanni’s. Here, the engineers placed a large septic tank, measuring about 100 ft long and 25 ft wide, and probably around 6 to 8 ft in depth. As is the case with septic systems today, the tank functioned to trap settleable solids and floatable material. After about 24 hours of detention time, the clarified effluent emerged from the tank via a perforated pipe at the north end and flowed underground toward Hinkston Creek, where effluent that was not soaked up by the surrounding soil would be discharged – downstream from town.

After the initial survey work was completed and the construction drawings were produced, work on the system began. The Kershner company brought in a gang of 40 Italian laborers to dig the trenches and lay the pipe. The April 20, 1910 Advocate reported that the Italians “arrived on Monday night, and are quartered in the east part of town...the largest man in town is Mr. Sullivan, the time-keeper for the firm,” who was “over six feet tall and weighs about 380 pounds.” Excavation began at the septic tank location, and continued through the summer. There were some delays, caused by the need to remove an unexpectedly large amount of rock for the 10 inch piping, along with the usual difficulties of trenching in the middle of streets busy with traffic from horses, carriages, wagons, and even an occasional automobile. The lack of basic safety measures we take for granted today—orange cones and mesh fencing around pits and trenches—was of course only a gleam in the government’s eye a hundred years ago...and the results were predictable. The August 17 Advocate reported that George Richardson, a farmer living on land owned by G.A. McCormick, filed a lawsuit against the city for $3,000 for personal injuries suffered after falling into an open sewer line ditch on East Main Street.

Another problem was encouraging property owners to pay the fee and tap on to the new sewer system. In the July 6, 1910 paper, Mt. Sterling Mayor W.A. Samuels advised property owners to “make taps while the sewer is being constructed,” because “if done now, such work will be under the direct supervision of the Sewer Engineer, and at less cost than can possibly be done hereafter.” The mayor warned that after the system was built, all new taps into the sewer line would have to be inspected, which would entail additional cost. For those properties downtown, the mayor served notice that “it has been definitely determined that the streets of the business portion of the City will be paved in the near future and no sewer, gas, or water connections will be permitted to be made for a period of five years thereafter.”

A boxed advertisement next to the mayor’s entreaties in that edition of the Advocate, placed by the Mt. Sterling Water, Light, & Ice Company, pushed things along from another angle. Under the heading “Make Your Tap Now,” the company noted that “Now that Mt. Sterling has a modern sanitary sewer system, you have no excuse for not installing that BATHROOM and KITCHEN SINK which you have been wanting for so long. Make housekeeping a PLEASURE instead of a GRIND by giving your wife these conveniences.”

The sewer system was completed in November, 1910, exactly one hundred years ago. And while the septic tank system for large-scale municipal sewage treatment would prove to be inadequate in later years, housekeeping did indeed improve—along with the condition of the streets and gutters of the Little Mountain Town on the banks of Hinkston Creek.

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Corn, Hemp and Turkeys: Farming and livestock in Mt. Sterling in the early 1900s (Read more...)

November 18, 2010

Mt. Sterling city life became more bearable by 1910 with public water, new sewers, better streets, improved manufacturing technology, and increased trade due to rail transport. But life on the farm continued to be hard work until after World War I. Subsistence farming—clearing the land and planting corn, bean, pumpkins, squash, and melons—occupied settlers in the Hinkston Creek region initially. Most “city” residents in the early period had extensive gardens, hog pens, and stables, and raised other crops in the long, deep lots extending behind their log homes.

Those able to buy the fertile eastern Bluegrass lands dominated by the thick bamboo stands called “Kentucky Cane” were rewarded with rich harvests and a ready market in town. Men, women, and children all worked the fields along with horses, oxen, and African-American slaves. The Civil War ended slavery, but was devastating for farmers and city dwellers alike. Mt. Sterling suffered multiple military occupations, robberies by marauding soldiers, and a number of burned buildings, including the court house. In the countryside, hay, crops, and livestock were stolen or destroyed by both Union and Confederate troops. For the former slaves, the end of the war brought new opportunity. Although there were at least some free blacks in the county prior to the Civil War, the percentage of the population listed in the census as slaves varied from around 20 percent to nearly 40 percent during the first half of the 1800s. After the war, many of them began to learn skilled trades and continued to work in the region, especially in the carpentry and construction industry, such as Lewis Hathaway, Sam Bradshaw, James E. Magowan, James Bridges, Peter French, and Robert Davis, whose sons Sydney and Fountain followed him in the construction crafts.

Sickle-arm mechanical mowers were developed and used in the Hinkston Creek region before tractors were developed. They were pulled behind a team of mules or horses, with cutting power for the reciprocating blades supplied by the large drive wheels as they turned.

Out in the country, white farmers and freed blacks worked alongside each other on farms throughout the late 1800s, supplying Mt. Sterling and its trading partners with an incredible variety of food, fiber, and other products. Corn was the first big crop. It was grown on ridgetop and creek bottom farms tilled by horses, oxen, and mules, ground at local creek-powered mills, packed into barrels, and hauled by wagon to flatboat landings and later to the train depot for sale. Hemp was grown throughout the region, and supplied the rope-making factory located near the corner of Queen and Locust, not far from the hide-tanning yards, the wool carding factory, and the cotton mill.

The wild, wooded lands to the south and east of Mt. Sterling also provided an agricultural bounty that sustained rural people. Ginseng was collected in the forest, sold for about eight cents a pound to local traders, and taken over rough roads to Philadelphia, where it would bring four times that price when loaded on ships bound for the Orient. Loggers supplied oak, poplar, and other hardwoods to several mills in Mt. Sterling, which produced lumber for homes, businesses, barns, and factory buildings. Wheat grown in the area was ground at the New Climax Mill—owned by I.F. Tabb, Adam Baum, and others—which marketed Silver Leaf, Golden Rule, and Acme flours. Wheat, corn, and other grains were also processed at Montgomery Mills on Hinkston Creek at Richmond Avenue, owned by C.M. Slocum; and the Mt. Sterling Roller Mills, established by Badger, Henry, & Co. near the railroad (later named Monarch Milling Co., which once had the largest gasoline engine in Kentucky). The Kentucky Blue Grass Seed Company’s plant on Queen Street near the railroad was one of the largest grass seed suppliers in the world.

And then there was the livestock! The Mt. Sterling Cattle Pen near the railroad depot was the largest in the state in the early 1900s, handling up to 5,000 head at a time. Livestock sold there was raised in Montgomery County and the surrounding region, with animals driven overland from Ezel, West Liberty, and other places in Morgan, Magoffin, and Johnson counties. Cattle drives—and others moving sheep, hogs, geese, and turkeys to market—would take days, and fill the area along Locust Street with braying, bellowing, and squawking animals in pens and corrals during the spring and fall court days. It was not unusual to see flocks of more than a thousand turkeys being driven by men and boys along the dirt road between West Liberty and Camargo, traveling ten or more miles a day, and roosting in the trees at night. Poultry from farms in Montgomery, Morgan, and Menifee counties was processed in local facilities owned by Edward T. Reis, Thomas Heinrich, Garret Sullivan, and Sell Renaker on Queen, Bank, and Locust streets during the late 1800s. During the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas period, more than a hundred workers would be hired to butcher, pick, and dress 10,000 or more turkeys in Mt. Sterling prior to shipment to the east coast by rail. The egg business was also huge locally, with hen, goose, duck, guinea, turkey, bantam, and even wild bird eggs packed in town and shipped off by rail or wagon.

Of course, like much of the rest of Kentucky in 1900, farm country in the Hinkston region was dominated by horses and tobacco. As demonstrated at the local Historical Society Museum recently, the horse ruled the city roads and the farm field rows until the arrival of mass-produced automobiles and tractors between 1910 and 1925. In 1886 there were six large stables in downtown Mt. Sterling alone, with a combined floor space exceeding an acre, capable of handling more than a thousand horses. Montgomery County farms were full of horses, and the locals excelled in breeding, raising, training, and equipping everything from heavy draft horse breeds to the lighter, faster saddlebreds. Saddle-making began in Mt. Sterling in 1802 and by 1900 supported a number of local leather craftsmen, including Joe M. Conroy—specializing in the popular and comfortable Spring Tree saddle—and John M. Daily, H.S. Thompson, Charles and Vincennes Reis, John R. Salmon, R.H. Dale, and Owen, Pat, and Frank Laughlin, among others.

Some tobacco was grown in the Hinkston Creek region prior to the Civil War, but it wasn’t until White Burley was introduced in the mid-1860s that production began to grow significantly. By the 1880s, Garrett Sullivan—the local “Tobacco King”—and other Hinkston area farmers were supplying two warehouses on Wilson Alley, one owned by Thompson & Kirkpatrick and the other operated by S.S. Gaitskill. Alice Robertson, J. Will Clay, A.S. Hart, S.S. Pinney, and John R. Crockett were also managing successful tobacco warehouses just after the turn of the century. Local warehouse operations were eclipsed during the first decade of the 1900s, however, by the growing monopolization of tobacco purchasing by buyers from the American Tobacco Company. Prices paid to the farmer declined during this period, and violence flared in western Kentucky in 1904. Price-fixing suspicions and producer unrest spread east to the Burley Belt in 1907-08. Auction sales and the growing popularity of grower cooperatives—through which farmers joined together to increase their bargaining power—eased the price declines during the run-up to World War I. As the fighting began overseas, tobacco prices doubled and then quadrupled, sparking a boom in the Hinkston Creek burley region and beyond.

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Swapping Stirrups for Pedals: The rise of the automobile (Read more...)

November 25, 2010

A hundred years ago, agriculture and manufacturing had fully developed into twin powerhouses of economic development throughout the Hinkston Creek counties of Montgomery, Bourbon, and Nicholas. The bustling Kentucky Blue Grass Seed Company’s plant in Mt. Sterling on Queen Street near the railroad was an almost perfect example of how observation, ingenuity, luck, and hard work could pay off for those willing to put forth the effort.

Local lore—long harrumphed by the academics—maintains that the first bluegrass ever seen in Kentucky was found in the late 1790s on a tributary of Hinkston Creek. Captain B.A. Tracy’s account, gleaned from the elderly sons and daughters of the first settlers near the turn of the last century, claims that the now-iconic grass was found originally “growing around an old deer lick about three miles north of Ebenezer Chorn's, in what is now Montgomery County, near the banks of the creek which derived its name from the spot—Grassy Lick.” Tracy notes that “there was not more than an acre or so of this grass, but it grew thick and luxuriantly, and from this patch of grass Mr. Chorn stripped seed with his fingers, and sowed it upon his farm.”

This reconstructed log cabin near the intersection of “Main Cross” (North Maysville Street) and Main Street is typical of the first homes built along Hinkston Creek in the vicinity of the “Little Round Mountain” Indian Mound.

The rest, as they say, is history. Bluegrass was planted on tens of thousands of farms throughout the commonwealth, which later became known as the Bluegrass State—and the birthplace of the soulful, rock-a-bye, walking-the-dog banjo and fiddle based tranmongrification of Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and English ballads called Bluegrass Music. But a hundred years ago—before the term “Bluegrass Music” had even been dreamed up by music festival marketers—another song was in the air, a musical melody that changed Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, America, and the world: the staccato cadence of gasoline engine pistons, firing on all cylinders.

Yes, the automobile came to town a hundred years ago. Henry Ford had studied the primitive “horseless carriages” designed by Karl Benz, Louis Renault, Ransom T. Olds, the Studebaker brothers, and others in the late 1800s, and by 1908 had instituted mechanized mass production of the Model T, which enjoyed an immensely popular 20-year market run. A notice on the front page of the December 7, 1910 Mt. Sterling Advocate—complete with a line drawing of a spiffy spoke-wheeled motorcar, heralded the new era: “The Garage is on Bank Street—Automobiles for Rent at All Times. We Will Meet Any Train on Notice (Strother & Frazier, Phone 268, Mt. Sterling, Kentucky).”

It is almost impossible to convey the dramatic change in city life (and farm living) brought by the automobile, and its country cousin, the tractor. The transition is sharply evident in old photographs from the era: pictures of horses and carriages around the B.F. Settles Livery Stables, the Punch and Gatewood Clothing Store, Adam Baum’s Grocery on East Main, and other downtown locations around 1900...and lines of cars nearly everywhere fifteen short years later. By 1918 there were five garages in town. In 1920, the livery stables—which a few years earlier had enough room for a thousand horses—were nearly gone.

The horses flying around the dirt track outside of Mt. Sterling at what later became the “Race Land” Subdivision couldn’t hold a candle to the car. Paul Strother was selling Reo & Haynes and Ford autos by 1913, and wowed the locals by cruising to Lexington from Mt. Sterling in less than 80 minutes. Down the street, Will Day, H. Clay McKee, and his sons Trimble and Reid were selling the 22.5 horsepower Metz, the 30-HP Regal, and the big 40 and 60 hp White motorcars for up to $5,000 each, a small fortune in the day. As World War I stoked the farm and manufacturing economies of the state and nation, the list of auto dealers grew. Robert L. Stone and Perry Flora built the Mt. Sterling Garage behind the newspaper plant on Main Street, aided by stockholders C.C. Chenault, Lee Orear, and William Smathers. A few blocks away, S.S. Pinney, L.E. Griggs, and W.P. Oldham bought and converted the old Harper livery stable to compete with them and others in the business, including O.W. McClure and J.D. Wrenn.

The transition from the horse to the automobile was relatively quick—but not painless. Accidents were common, and the years when horses and cars shared the road were tense, trying, and turbulent. Old-school riders demanded that the smoking, clattering, metal contraptions yield to the graceful saddlebreds and their brethren on the roadways, which prompted a tongue-in-cheek article in the December 27, 1911 Mt. Sterling Advocate, titled “Auto Rules,” which included the following:

“Upon discovering an approaching team (of horses), the autoist must stop off to the side and cover his machine with a blanket painted to correspond with the scenery...on approaching a corner where he cannot command a view of the road ahead, the automobile must stop not less than 100 yards from the turn, toot his horn, ring a bell, fire a revolver, hallo, and send up three bombs at intervals of five minutes...automobilists running on country roads at night must send up a red rocket for each mile and wait ten minutes for the road to clear. They must then proceed carefully, blowing their horns and shooting Roman candles.”

There are many that noted with sadness the loss of the direct and very personal bond and communication between man and the “beasts” of nature that came with the automobile. Dogs and cats are fine and dandy, but they love us—no matter what we do. Working up good enough relationship with a two-thousand pound draft horse to plow eight acres of tobacco land requires a little more give and take, a more complete understanding of the needs of others, and what we have to make our plans a reality. The precise mechanics of the internal combustion engine are dependent on physics, mechanics, and the principles of engineering—rather strict and narrow offshoots of the laws of nature, which may promote different aspects of the human personality.

Philosophy, however, is best left for later. For now, let us acknowledge the coming of the car for its effect on Hinkston Creek: fewer horses on the roads, less manure in the street, and cleaner runoff during heavy rains. Of course, automobile manufacturing, metal mining, and the global quest for oil to run our cars have had their own ramifications, but remember—we’re leaving philosophy for another day!

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Fighting Like Wildcats: Sports come to town (Read more...)

December 2, 2010

The coming of the car to the rolling hills and narrow, curvy roads of the Hinkston Creek region marked the beginning of a very short “war for the roadways” that was, of course, won by the horseless carriages. But with victory came regulation. The public was alarmed by the speeding, close calls, and careening crashes associated with automobiles, which incorporated and concentrated the four-legged horse power removed from the roads into increased horsepower under the hood.

So in 1912, the Mt. Sterling City Council adopted the first speed limits for autos: 15 miles per hour on all roads, slowing to 8 mph at intersections. In addition, all cars were required to have horns (or bells), brakes, and mufflers. There was also a requirement to stop when encountering a frightened horse.

Other changes were in the works during the second decade of the 1900s. The first loose-leaf tobacco warehouse opened in 1912 and loosened the grip of the tobacco buying monopolies. Prices received by farmers rose as a result, and the previous unrest manifested by farmer boycotts, night riders, and tobacco belt violence subsided. Two additional leaf warehouses were opened four years later. Livestock producers picked up on the theme with the development of a local cattle market that handled up to 10,000 animals during the Fall Court Day weekend, and was said to be the largest such market in Kentucky. By then, city ordinances required that livestock brought to town for the popular April and October Court Days be confined in pens and lots in and around town, which facilitated manure cleanup and re-use, and kept both the streets and Hinkston Creek cleaner.

The historic Bell House on North Maysville Street. Originally built by William Bell around 1815, it was used for more than a century as quarters for the city jailer. It was restored through community efforts in the late 1990s, and currently houses professional offices.

Also during that decade, more modern methods of farming, manufacturing, and housekeeping resulted in more leisure time. Baseball began in the area after the Civil War, and by 1912 games were regularly played at Riddle’s Park on the Jeffersonville Pike (now South Queen Street) and in front of the newly built grandstands at the fairgrounds on East Main. The local team, “The Federals,” was part of the Blue Grass League, and the growing popularity of what is now acknowledged as “America’s Pastime” apparently inspired some rather impassioned play: a pickup game at Grassy Lick ended when one player was killed by a bat and the assailant badly injured by another bat used in retaliation.

Football also came to the Hinkston region, and as one might imagine from the level of intensity of baseball, the game was rough. Play had begun at the University of Kentucky (then called State College) in 1881, and in 1909 the “Wildcat” was adopted as the official team nickname after Commandant Philip W. Corbusier, the head of the military department, told a group of college students at a chapel service after a 6 to 2 victory over Illinois that the Kentucky football team had “fought like wildcats.”

Football caught on quickly in Montgomery County, with teams organized at the Mount Sterling High School, Professor Milton J. Goodwin’s School, the Mount Sterling Collegiate Institute, and Miss Kate Corbett’s School. Back then, it was not unusual for high school and college teams to play each other—MSHS beat Kentucky Wesleyan 26 to 0 in 1903, and crushed Lexington 33 to 0 in 1905. Padding at the time was rudimentary: a heavy leather vest to protect the chest, stuffed leather shoulder pads, and thick leather strips fashioned into thigh protectors, shin guards, and primitive wrap-around headgear.

One of the only saving graces in terms of personal injuries was that—though the teams were tough and the game was rough—the players were lightweights by today’s standards. The 1916 MSHS team had only 14 members, whose weights ranged from Oldham and Kelly at 155 pounds to Duty at 115 pounds. The team average was only 134 pounds. The coarse padding and thin head protection also promoted a more cautious approach to blocking, tackling, and moving the ball, more similar to rugby scrums than today’s head-spearing, bone-rattling, body-thumping crash of muscle-bound titans, made possible by space age polymers and plastics, synthetic shock-absorbing foam rubber, engineered pad and helmet design, and better player nutrition (and, some would add, better nutritional—and other—supplements).

Hunting and fishing clubs were also formed to occupy the hours a hundred years ago. The Fin & Feather Club, Blue Jay Fishing Club, Straw Bed Fishing Club, and others traveled throughout the region and state. The Advocate reported in 1909 that one group bagged 145 quail and hundreds of partridges during a particularly successful outing along nearby Slate Creek. From these and other reports of abundant fish and game in the region, it seems clear that much of the Hinkston Creek and surrounding area was still heavily wooded prior to World War I, with logging, land-clearing, and agricultural activity conducted mostly by hand using horses and oxen, and concentrated along the ridges and creek bottoms. This would change a few years later, when the car’s country cousin—the mass produced farm tractor—puttered onto the scene.

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The Great War (Read more...)

December 9, 2010

After the late-May “Decoration Day” flowers were placed at the veterans’ graves in Machpelah and Olive Hill cemeteries and the war memorial speeches, remembrances, and prayers concluded at local churches, the hazy, lazy summer of 1914 rolled out across the Hinkston Creek region like sweet warm honey. Horse-drawn tobacco setters jockeyed slowly down the last rows of burley, and in town the blacksmiths and farm boys were salvaging wrecked Model T Fords and retrofitting them with spoked iron wagon wheels and moldboard plows, experiments being repeated across the country that would eventually produce a nimble, compact, sturdy tractor far superior to the chunky steam-driven beasts lumbering across the Iowa cornfields.

The news from the Balkans in late June that a distant and relatively unknown Austrian archduke had been shot and killed as his motorcade wound through the streets of Sarajevo by a member of the secret “Black Hand” Serbian nationalist group passed almost unnoticed. But a month later, the combined state of Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, sparking a military mobilization in Serbia’s ally Russia, and then Russia’s ally France, then France’s ally Britain, Britain’s colonies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India...and similar war preparations in Austria-Hungary’s powerful ally, Germany. The so-called Great War—World War I—had begun.

Stone marker listing Montgomery County soldiers killed in action during World War I, located in front of the Montgomery County Courthouse.

President Woodrow Wilson was able to keep America out of the war for more than two years, and the nation prospered as a key supplier of food, munitions, and manufactured goods for England, France, and the allies. Demand for farm products boomed—in Mt. Sterling, corn prices shot up from 68 cents a bushel in 1915 to $1.14 in 1916. Wheat and tobacco jumped by 50 percent, and the economy went into overdrive.

When the German “underwater boats” or U-boats—the first widely used submarines—refused to stop sinking American supply ships, Wilson took the country to war, and demand boomed even more. By mid-1917, food and fuel shortages sparked the creation of government-run bureaus with the power to limit private consumption and help supply the war effort. Stanley O. Wood, the local fuel commissioner, fixed the price of coal at 24 cents per bushel to prevent gouging. The new electric lights in town were turned off at night, Sunday automobile driving was restricted, and the Mt. Sterling tobacco markets were closed for several days to save fuel during 1917-18. S.S. Pinney became the local food administrator, enforcing supply and price rules for wheat, flour, corn, sugar, milk, and other staples. By October 1918, sugar purchases were restricted to two pounds per family.

Local people bought war bonds to help finance military operations. Around 2,000 Montgomery County residents joined the Red Cross, and women made surgical dressings to aid the wounded troops. The increase in manufacturing nationwide pulled workers from central Kentucky and other rural areas to the factories up north, spurring a migration that continued for decades. The U.S. military draft pulled men too, sending them from the towns and farms of Hinkston to the cold, wet, disease-ridden trenches near the French Marne River, Amiens, and the Somme.

An estimated 200 men from the county enlisted or were drafted into the service, about a fourth of them black, serving in segregated all-black units. Lee Fisher, a local barber, had four sons in the service. County soldiers were trained at Camp Taylor in Louisville and Camp Sevier in South Carolina.

Many of the Montgomery County boys who served did not see action “over there,” but some did. They slogged through the mud, fighting Germans and chlorine gas and disease, battling it out during the final Hundred Days Offensive to the Hindenburg Line. Of those who fought, some returned home. Some did not. You can read the names of those who died there on the stone marker in front of the courthouse—Roger Baker, Howard Cassidy, Moton Judy, the Karrick boys, Strauder Prewitt, the Rices, Pasleys, Jesse Wilson, Gibbs, Gibson, Reid, Sharp, Shouse, Summers, and the others, 26 in all. They’re also listed in the entryway of Memorial Hall at the University of Kentucky, just to the right, as you walk in the front door. Stop by and see them some time.

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Logging and Splash Dam Log Runs Come to the Watershed’s Forests (Read more...)

December 16, 2010

As World War I wound down, an end to the fighting “over there” in Europe and the Far East was at hand. Things weren’t entirely settled, however—the seeds for the second world war were planted as the first one ended. Another battle, too, was coming to a standstill: the American conservation movement, born amidst the splendor of towering inland forests and unmatched natural wonders, and fueled by the dreamy lore of the open range, by Indians, by living off the land, and by the spirit of freedom that Nature abides, was at loggerheads.

On the one hand there were the utilitarians, like Gifford Pinchot—the “father of American forestry” and first chief of the US Forest Service—and Teddy Roosevelt, who elevated conservation ideals through the protection of huge land tracts, as manifested by his expansion of the National Parks system. For these folks, conservation meant managing natural resources “for the greatest good, for the greatest number of people, for the longest period of time.” This philosophy was embraced widely across Kentucky—in the Hinkston Creek region and beyond—because it recognized the need for people to have food, fiber, and recreation, provided by the land and the plant and animal communities it sustained.

Tobacco setters pulled by mules or horses rode the rows in the Hinkston Creek country for decades before gas-powered farm tractors came to the region in the 1930s.

On the other hand, there were Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and the preservationists. To them, the land meant more than just three squares a day and a warm place to sleep. They talked about almost indefinable psychological—even spiritual—connotations and connections among humans, animals, the giant Sequoias of California, the Tulip Poplars of Kentucky, and the natural awe of the mountains, valleys, and rolling hills. They wanted to preserve these lands—not conserve them for man’s future use, but to keep them wild and untamed, as a place for recreation, reflection, and rebirth, for all living things.

For the Hinkston boys and the log dogs, cant-hookers, sawyers, and axmen hired to harvest timber in the Red River country just southeast of Montgomery County during 1900–1920, the battle lines became clear over time. Logging started out slow along Silvermine, Swift Camp, Gladie, Indian, and the other creeks knifing out from the Red River through the deep gorge along the Cumberland Plateau Pottsville Escarpment. But as big trees elsewhere became scarce and the Great War got bigger, the logging camps in the Red River Gorge grew, and more trees were felled. To get them downstream to the sawmills in Clay City and elsewhere, a series of splash dams were built to pond up water and logs until heavy rains could swell the creeks and the river.

Loggers could trigger the splash dam flood gates to quickly release the stored water and logs, with the upstream dams sprung first, and then the next ones downstream, so that a cascade of rising water would sweep the logs stored on the banks through the creek and river channels and on to the mills. Coordinating the release was key—floating out four-foot diameter logs 20-feet long took a flood-tide of water, barreling down the hollows of the gorge like a roaring freight train.

When the heavy rains came and the dams were sprung, the action began. Bull crews of country boys and lumberjacks armed with peaveys and crow-foot cant-hooks rolled and poked the logs into the rising flow, prodding them along if they got stuck. Jams in the swollen river would be broken up by daredevils dancing across and pushing against the heavy, thumping, bobbing, bumping logs. It was dangerous work. They still talk about a legendary logjam on Gladie Creek, stretching for about a mile, with 35 to 50 thousand logs that had to be blasted loose with dynamite.

The excitement and adrenalin rush associated with splash dam log runs was not shared by the farmers bordering the river, however. The tide of gushing water and grinding, groaning, moving logs destroyed barns, fencing, and crops. Stranded logs left by the receding river often laid in fields for months or years, creating an obstacle to plowing and planting. Splash dams were finally banned in Kentucky around 1920, after the Red River valley was mostly logged out and the railroad had penetrated the inner gorge through the Nada Tunnel.

It is interesting to note that decades later, when the area was still healing from the massive logging operations and tremendous loss of topsoil off the steep slopes, the Red River Gorge once again drew the interest of resource management professionals. A dam was proposed on the river after the great Clay City flood of 1962. But John Muir’s philosophical grandchildren in the Kentucky Sierra Club—aided by U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas—protested the proposal during a November 18, 1967 hike along what is now known in the gorge as The Douglas Trail. Like the river itself, the dam proposal ebbed and flowed for years, until “The Red” was officially listed as a National Wild and Scenic River by President Clinton on December 3, 1993. The preservationists carried the day in that place, at that time. But the long national conversation on preservation and conservation would continue.

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The Temperance Movement and Hatchetations Dry Out the Watershed (Read more...)

December 23, 2010

In his seminal 1784 work on “The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke,” John Filson described the Hinkston and Stoner Creek country in Montgomery, Bourbon, Clark, and Nicholas counties, and the soil of the Commonwealth, which he observed to be “a loose, deep, black mould, without sand...well timbered, producing large trees of many kinds, and to be exceeded by no country in variety.” As far as the Hinkston and Stoner lands, he noted that “the southern branch of the Licking, and all its other arms, as appears in the map, spread through a great body of first, and some second rate land, where there is an abundance of cane, and some salt licks, and springs.”

The trees impressed him the most, perhaps for their ability to provide a variety of brewed beverages. “Those which are peculiar to Kentucke are the sugar-tree, which grows in all parts in great plenty, and furnishes every family with plenty of excellent sugar. The honey-locust is curiously surrounded with large thorny spikes, bearing broad and long pods in form of peas, has a sweet taste, and makes excellent beer. The coffee-tree greatly resembles the black oak, grows large, and also bears a pod, in which is enclosed good coffee. The pappa-tree does not grow to a great size, is a soft wood, bears a fine fruit much like a cucumber in shape and size, and tastes sweet.”

But there was more—much more, in the untamed wilderness of the state 200-plus years ago. “The cucumber-tree is small and soft, with remarkable leaves, bears a fruit much resembling that from which it is named. Black mulberry-trees are in abundance. The wild cherry-tree is here frequent, of a large size, and supplies the inhabitants with boards for all their buildings. Here also is the buck-eye, an exceeding soft wood, bearing a remarkable black fruit, and some other kinds of trees not common elsewhere. Here is great plenty of fine cane, on which the cattle feed, and grow fat. This plant in general grows from three to twelve feet high, of a hard substance, with joints at eight or ten inches distance along the stalk, from which proceed leaves resembling those of the willow. There are many cane brakes so thick and tall that it is difficult to pass through them.”

By the end of World War I, the great cane fields stretching northward from Aarons Run, Bunker Hill, and the Paris Pike had mostly given way to tobacco and corn (some clumps of cane are still visible along Hinkston Pike and elsewhere). After January 16, 1919, however, corn production declined due to the closing of the bourbon distilleries upon passage of the Volstead Act and ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited the manufacture, transport, and sale of intoxicating liquors, except those used for religious purposes.

The resulting growth of organized crime—along with a quiet expansion of some spiritual groups and practices—affected the entire country. Rumrunners, bootleggers, and moonshiners once again plied their lucrative trade, as they had before the American Revolution, during the Whiskey Rebellion, and after the Civil War. The production of sweet limestone water laced with smoky oak corn nectar moved from the big operations in central and western Kentucky to the hills and hollers southeast of The Levee and beyond.

The battle between the prohibitionists of the temperance movement and the beverage industry and their customers had raged for years. Mt. Sterling residents voted 569 to 357 to remain “wet” in 1914, with only the First Ward swinging to the “dry” side. But the county precincts overwhelmingly endorsed temperance, and a new state law at the time held that the majority would rule county-wide. So the city became dry in 1915.

The vote would have been especially pleasing to one Carrie Amelia Moore, of Garrard County, Kentucky, who had married an attorney, minister, and newspaper editor named David A. Nation. Prior to her death in 1911 and before prohibition became the law of the land, Carrie Nation terrorized the saloons and taverns with her trademark axe and widely publicized “hatchetations,” which featured hymn-singing women accompanying the bottle-smashing 6-ft tall, 175 pound woman. She would often open the festivities by marching up to the bar and telling the startled patrons: “men, I have come to save you from a drunkard’s fate!”

She was arrested many times, in many states. Ms. Nation was reportedly a guest at the “new” Montgomery County jail in the early 1900s, the one that used to be attached to the back of a still-standing house built by local hatter William Bell in 1815 at the southeast corner of Maysville and High streets. Though newly built and furnished by county taxpayers, Ms. Nation was apparently not impressed with the cleanliness of the facilities. Fortunately, her friends bailed her out quickly and she left for Lexington on the train after a speech before a large audience at the courthouse. Unfortunately, the train wrecked on the way out of town, near Prewitt’s Station. She summed up her disgust with the entire episode in a later assessment of the accident. “Whiskey was the cause of it,” she reportedly told her supporters.

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Prohibition and County Fairs Impact Entertainment in the Watershed (Read more...)

December 30, 2010

As Prohibition and the Volstead Act rolled out just after the First World War—the “war to end all wars”—sobriety reigned supreme across the Hinkston Creek region and nationwide. Well, almost.

Alcohol was still allowed at religious services. And manufacturers became adept at selling all the ingredients for fermenting wine or brewing beer at home, with full directions on how to do it, but with printed warnings enclosed that the purchaser should not follow the steps outlined because the end result would be an alcoholic beverage, and that would be illegal. Sales soared.

And then there were the café and restaurant back-rooms, where illegal refreshments could be had in good company, if the patrons would only hold down their rowdiness and “speak easy” lest any boisterousness draw the attention of the every-vigilant authorities. Rumors persist that such establishments could be found in certain locations in the Hinkston country—even in town, a few feet from the creek itself—but of course these are only rumors.

The long period of Prohibition that began in 1920 gave people a chance to dry out, reflect, and pursue other interests. In Mt. Sterling, the fair became popular. The Montgomery County Fair Association had organized a fair in 1909 at what was then called Estill Park, the big field along Hinkston extending eastward behind Giovanni’s and Mike’s Liquors. By the mid-1920s, the fair was booming, with horse shows, trotting races, a floral hall, “flying machine” demonstrations, hot-air balloons, and other events. Pete Hensley and other black community leaders organized a parallel fair association, which used the same facilities for an August event that featured bicycle races, fox chases, night-time dances, style shows, a carnival, and of course, horses. The fairgrounds grandstand could seat 2,000, and up to 7,500 were in attendance during good weather in some years.

I.F. Tabb’s Opera House on South Maysville Street brought in concerts, vaudeville acts, the new “moving picture shows,” and big-time rasslin’—competing with the other local motion picture houses operated by W. Hord Tipton, Luther Redmond, Lewis Judy, and Marvin Gay. Teen-agers began discovering the telephone, which first appeared in town during 1900-05 and grew to 1,000 users by 1923. Drug stores operated by C.B. Geiger, Ben Land, Hunt Priest, Frank C. Duerson, and W.S. Lloyd, among others, competed with the R.H. White Company to ease the population’s burns, boils, and bunions.

With a clear mind and a sober perspective, people also began reflecting on what had happened over the past hundred years, since first big European migration into the area between 1800 and 1820. The Shawnee and the buffalo were long gone, and the landscape had changed dramatically. Mechanized timber harvest was starting to replace the axe and sawyer mule gangs, and the big trees were coming down everywhere. The first farms—planted on the flatter ridge tops and creek bottoms—began expanding to the steeper slopes, increasing erosion and sending valuable Kentucky topsoil down Hinkston to the South Fork of the Licking River, and on down the Licking to the Ohio, the mighty Mississippi, and finally the Gulf of Mexico.

Locals began wondering and asking about the past. Little girls growing up along Hinkston Creek during the 1930s and 40s can still remember the old folks talking about “the buffalo trail” that crossed the creek where the battle of Estill’s Defeat was fought. This is where James Estill and his men caught up with a group of Wyandottes who had raided Estill’s Station near Richmond—they were skinning a buffalo they had killed along the trail, which was part of the Warrior’s Trace that connected Ohio to Tennessee, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

Indian Old Fields (Eskippakithiki) lies on a broad, flat plain where the Red River Gorge empties into the Eastern Bluegrass Region at the Clark – Montgomery County line. Nearly a thousand Shawnees lived here during the early 1700s.

People began exploring the history of the old Indian trails that crossed the Ohio, at the mouth of the Scioto River, and near Maysville. These major routes headed south, toward the settlement at Eskippakithiki, later called Indian Old Corn Fields and now just Indian Fields. Eskippakithiki was a major Indian trail crossroads, providing access to the Red River gorge to the east, the Cumberland Gap to the south, and the Inner Bluegrass to the west. One trail entered the Hinkston Creek area from the northeast, passed by the site of Estill’s Defeat on Hinkston Pike, and continued southwest past the Little Round Mountain across from Keas CME Church, along Levee Road to Kiddville Road, and then south through Kiddville to the village. More than 1,000 Indians lived there, growing corn, tobacco, potatoes, beans, pumpkins, and sunflowers. Wigwams and eventually cabins were scattered from the village trading center two miles to the north, where Kiddville now stands. Deer and other game once came to drink the salty, sulfury water in the springs, in view of Pilot Knob, between Lulbegrud and Howards creeks.

People were becoming more aware of the changes that had taken place on the landscape by the end of the 1920s, and some began to explore the topics of soil and water conservation, and how they might be applied to mechanized agricultural practices, and modern land stewardship. Interest would increase further by the 1930s.

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Mt. Sterling Welcomes Eleanor Roosevelt (Read more...)

January 6, 2011

When the “roaring twenties” gave way to the 1930s, times changed in the Hinkston region and the nation. The stock market crash in September and October of 1929 wiped out the savings of millions of people. Unemployment shot up to nearly 25%, and the homeless congregated in makeshift “Hooverville” camps in the major cities to mock outgoing President Herbert Hoover and plead for jobs and food.

Shortly after the new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was inaugurated in 1933, drought and severe farmland erosion added to the nations misery, generating huge, billowing clouds of dust when hot summer winds whipped the bare, bone-dry Midwestern landscapes. Hundreds of thousands of people left their farms during these “Dust Bowl” days to seek relief in the cities, and out west. Times were hard. The combination of dry weather, crashed markets, and increasingly nervous lenders caused the depression in the farm sector to worsen. Jobs were scarce. Crop prices fell by half – and then fell some more. International trade fell by two-thirds.

Roosevelt’s new administration moved quickly, adopting a series of “alphabet soup” work programs designed to put people in jobs that improved the nation’s infrastructure, reduced soil erosion, and contributed to the arts, recreation, and society at large. In Mt. Sterling, relief came quickly. Six months after the presidential inauguration, more than 200 local men jammed the courthouse to register for jobs with the new federal Civil Works Administration. Forty had been hired by November 1933, and 150 more would be brought on in the months that followed. B.F. Caudill, William Wilson, Clarence Barnes, and George Botts interviewed the applicants at the local registration office, which was staffed by program manager Stanley Brown, secretary Nell Tipton, and stenographer Charlotte Rogers.

Former Oldham’s Apparel Store on S. Maysville Street.

The men were put to work immediately, extending sewer lines, eliminating the old park at the intersection of West Main Street and Richmond Avenue, painting the courthouse, completing the city high school athletic field, repairing and improving county school buildings, and improving dirt roads throughout the area. Labor rates were 45 cents per hour for the most rigorous construction work, 40 cents for general skilled labor, and 30 cents for unskilled work. Workers were limited to 30 hours per week, as a means of conserving funds so more people could be hired.

W.R. McKee, J.C. Tipton, Ben H. Scott, R.H. Lane, and R.P. Baird conceived, planned, and directed most of the work for the local CWA program at no charge to the government. Volunteer management assistance was common for the CWA, which was the sister agency of the better-known Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC. The CWA lasted only about 6 months, but nationwide it hired 4 million people who laid 12 million feet of sewer pipe and built or improved 255,000 miles of roads, 40,000 schools, 3,700 playgrounds, nearly 1,000 airports—and 250,000 rural outhouses.

The CCC, which lasted longer and worked on larger projects, hired 90,000 laborers in Kentucky, who worked out of 17 statewide camps to build Mammoth Cave National Park, install soil erosion practices, and plant millions of trees. The Works Progress Administration built schools, city halls, public parks, and other structures. Of note to those in the Hinkston Creek region was a visit on May 25, 1937, by a special WPA guest, who wrote the following in her daily diary from West Liberty later in the evening:

By six o'clock (am), Mrs. Scheider and I were on the train and on our way to Mt. Sterling, Kentucky. My little car had started out with a chauffeur as soon as I had returned Saturday evening, so as to meet me in Mt. Sterling this morning, for I would far rather drive these mountain roads in my own small car than in a large limousine. Senator Barkley was also on the train... Both Senator Logan and Congressman Vinson have shown great interest in the WPA work, especially the schools, which I am here today to dedicate. We left the train at seven o'clock and went to the home of Dr. and Mrs. Henry. First I had an interview with the press which consisted of two very young reporters, a girl and a boy, both most anxious to do a good job...Then we had what they told us was a typical Kentucky breakfast. If so, everyone living in Kentucky should be plump at twenty-five and fat at thirty-five! Everything was much too good not to eat, and I, who rarely have more than orange juice, coffee and toast, found myself eating a sumptuous meal. Then a short drive to Camargo, where I laid the corner stone for a new high school building which is to be built with the aid of WPA. Senator Barkley drove this far with me and made a speech. Then he was taken off in another car to speed as rapidly as possible to West Liberty, for he was on the morning program there. I had trouble all the way with my car, something having gone wrong with the gas pedal. I couldn't climb any hill at over thirty miles an hour because I couldn't feed the car any more gas, and the long stream of cars behind us must have thought me the most conservative driver they had ever had to follow.

- Eleanor Roosevelt

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The Civilian Conservation Corps Puts Hinkston Creek to Work (Read more...)

January 13, 2011

The Great Depression of the 1930s etched deep scars in financial markets, families, the human psyche, and even the land itself. The combination of world-wide demand for wheat, corn, tobacco, and other crops, along with the development of mass-produced rubber-tired tractors, had prompted farmers to clear and plant millions of acres of land, some of which was marginal due to thin soils, steep slopes, or frequent flooding.

The soaking rains that blessed the plains with impressive crop yields throughout the 1920s dried up in the 1930s, with precipitation totals lagging throughout the Hinkston region, the state, and beyond. In 1930, rainfall in central Kentucky—which usually averaged about 46 inches a year—fell by over a third. Precipitation during the growing season was down by nearly half. And temperatures soared—to 100 degrees and upward, hitting 114 in the state on July 28th that year. In July of 1936, the mercury in Kentucky floated above 100 for 15 days, scorching crops, critters, and the countryside. It was devastating.

Black, billowing, angry clouds did roll across Hinkston Creek during those trying times...but they didn’t carry rain. It was dust. Some of the dirt was red; connoisseurs in the Midwest recognized that as emanating from Oklahoma. Other dust was yellow, or some other color. Before long, people could tell what part of the Great Plains was sailing past that day. When the winds came from the north, it brought Montana or the Dakotas. When the south wind blew, it was Texas, or Oklahoma. There was a different assortment of soils with each change in the wind.

View of Pilot Knob (right) from the Indian Old Corn Fields (Eskippakithiki) just south of Kiddville. This was a major Shawnee settlement, and crossroads on the Warrior’s Trace from Mt. Sterling.

In May of 1934, the newspapers reported a gigantic cloud of dust, 1,500 miles long, 900 miles across and two miles high, which “buffeted and smothered almost one-third of the nation.” In America’s breadbasket, animals in the fields had no place for refuge. Cattle became blinded during dust storms and ran around in circles until they fell and died, their lungs caked with dust and mud. Newborn calves suffocated. Carcasses of rabbits, small birds, and field mice lay along roadsides by the hundreds after the dust storms. With no forage growing in the pastures, livestock subsisted on thistles. In March of 1935, a dark, ominous cloud of dust blocked out the sun in Washington DC, as a Congressional committee was debating whether or not to create the federal Soil Conservation Service. Public Law 46, the first soil conservation act in the history of this or any nation, passed the 74th Congress without a dissenting vote, and was signed by President Roosevelt on April 27, 1935.

Against this backdrop of agricultural and ecological devastation, the Civilian Conservation Corps began its long march. In Montgomery County and beyond, desperate young men crowded into enlistment centers. About half were from the city, and half were from rural areas. Over a third of the enrollees had less than eight years of school. Only 11% were high school graduates. Seventy percent were malnourished and poorly clothed. Few had any work experience beyond occasional odd jobs. But this rag-tag army shaped up and shipped out after training to fight soil erosion, deforestation, polluted waterways, and build parks, recreation centers, and trails from Camp Red River and Camp Woodpecker near Stanton, Camp Green Brier near Frenchburg, Camp Elkhorn near Georgetown, and Camp Happy Valley at Natural Bridge.

Peace was maintained in the 2,600 U.S. camps by the threat of “dishonorable discharge” and the prospect of returning home, where hunger, poverty, and despair awaited. CCC workers used the recently developed soil and water conservation principles forged by Hugh Bennett and Walter Lowdermilk to stabilize stream banks, plant trees and shrubs along the channel, fill and plant gullies, reforest barren lands, stabilize eroding hillsides, and recreate the battered American landscape. During its years of operation, 2.5 million CCC enrollees planted 3 billion trees, built 800 parks, erected 3,000 fire towers, constructed 97,000 miles of fire roads, installed erosion controls on 20 million acres, and spent 4 million hours preventing and fighting fires.

For the Hinkston Creek boys, CCC life sure beat starving to death at home. The men had to work a 40-hour week and serve a minimum of 6 months, with an option of continuing for up to two years. Their pay was $30 a month, and they had to send most of it to their parents or family. They also received food, clothing, and medical care. The camps were located where the work was to be performed, and could include up to 200 civilian employees. Each camp had several 50-man barracks, a headquarters building, dispensary, mess hall, recreation hall, lavatory and showers, tool rooms, and other facilities. The CCC included 200,000 African-American enrollees, who received equal pay and housing. There was even an Indian division, with members from many tribes.

CCC workers built dams, crop land terraces, flood control structures, planted trees and shrubs, did nursery work, and developed public parks. In Kentucky, they cleaned trash and debris from Hinkston Creek and conducted survey and design work on the first soil conservation demonstration projects near Henderson, where a number of farms were terraced to prevent erosion. The approach of the CCC and the Soil Conservation Service—based on applied science, engineering, and technology—marked a major shift in how we treat the land, and how we manage our lakes, streams, and rivers. It would take a little longer for these new principles to be fully embraced.

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The Depression Erodes Hinkston Creek Farms and Homes (Read more...)

January 20, 2011

The dry, dusty, depressing 1930s were hard everywhere. People lost their savings, their jobs, their homes, and their farms. Some lost their families, as people moved across the country looking for work. The Hinkston Creek region was not spared from the general national misery—rainfall was sparse, farm prices fell, and money was tight.

In Montgomery County, Judge Henry R. Prewitt saw the increasing tide of home and farm foreclosures passing through his court during the grim months after the stock market crash, and decided to act. The February 2, 1933 Mt. Sterling Advocate noted his bold move on the front page:

“Expressing the opinion that a moratorium should be declared on farm foreclosures to prevent bankruptcy and protect the home, Judge Prewitt entered an order last week granting such a moratorium on a judgment of about $5,000.” The judge’s order involved the estate of Elijah Coons, his wife Blanche, and Georgia Sledd Wilson, the executor of the estate.

In his order, the judge wrote that “the court takes judicial knowledge of the world-wide depression and of the great decrease of farm values in the Union and in Kentucky,” and recommended that lenders “postpone as within reasonable and fair limits” any court-ordered action for the collection of farm debts, given the economic plight of area producers. “I believe that to destroy the home is to destroy the nation,” Prewitt wrote, adding that “the courts ought to try to hold the homes intact as far as they can in the face of present conditions.”

Overall, the decade marked the low point for America in general, and American agriculture in particular. In just over 200 years, immigrants from Europe and elsewhere using nothing more than mules, manpower, iron tools, and a few steam engines had built a nation—but devastated its countryside. Over a hundred million acres of forest land had been cleared, Nearly 70 percent of the topsoil in some areas was gone, washed by rains into creeks and rivers or blown away as dust storms in the summer heat. Streams that once ran clean and cool between shaded banks of oak and elm were converted into bare, slick-bottomed storm sewers, choked with mud and manufacturing wastes.

The desperate times called for drastic measures. Farmers and landowners had always embraced science and engineering when it came to livestock breeding, seed selection, labor-saving machinery, and moving crops and logs to market. Applying these principles to the land itself and the biological systems it sustained, however, was new—drastically new.

Hugh Hammond Bennett, a former North Carolina farm boy whose father built terraces on the steep hills “to keep the land from washing away” led the charge. A few days before Judge Prewitt entered his order stopping the foreclosure of the widow Coons farm in Montgomery County, Bennett—now chief of the federal Soil Conservation Service—was reading the final indictment of destructive land management practices at the Farmers’ Week Program sponsored by Ohio State University.

“Land impoverishment and land destruction by excessive erosion, the washing of the soil by uncontrolled rains, have recently come to be recognized as farm and ranch problems of sinister and wide-spread importance,” he told the assembled crowd, with “vast areas which have been and continue to be seriously impoverished, and others which have been essentially destroyed by this process that never stops of its own accord.”

Bennett laid out the causes of erosion—the “excessive washing following (a) the removal of nature's stabilizing cover of trees, shrubs, grasses and decaying vegetable matter, and (b) the weakening of the ground structure by plowing and by excessive trampling of livestock”—and the costs: an estimated one to two billion dollars a year, just in lost soil fertility. He also spoke of the cure: “Vegetation of all kinds slows down erosion,” he boomed out to the crowd. “The thicker the cover, the more effective it is.”

He noted the gullies, soil loss, and erosion in Kentucky and Tennessee, and called for widespread changes in how we select uses for the land—row crop, hayfield, pasture, etc.—and how we plow, plant, and manage livestock, stream banks, and fallow fields. Bennett's approach did not require drastic changes in the crops that farmers grew. But his ideas about farming the land according to its capabilities did entail rearrangement of fields to follow contour lines, terracing, changes in planting methods, use of cover crops, and control of streambank erosion through bank shaping, willow plantings, and development of wooded wildlife habitat along stream corridors. We’re still working in that direction today, nearly 80 years later, mending the fabric worn thin during the first 200 years of building a new nation.

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The Great Flood of 1937 Paralyzes the Region (Read more...)

February 3, 2011

Creeks and rivers have a job to do, and they do it as best they can. They drain the landscape, and move water downstream toward the sea. They are also busy most of the time acquiring, sorting, and depositing their sediment loads, in accordance with the laws of nature, gravity, hydraulics, and physics. They create, build, and adjust their channels, as explored by the recently developed science of fluvial geomorphology, to such an extent that Luna Leopold (whose father was the famous ecologist Aldo Leopold) once remarked that “the river is the architect of its own edifice.” Finally, rivers and streams provide for their brood of fish, fly larva, flora, and fauna, depositing seeds collected at floodtide to vegetate the banks and shade the water to keep it cool and otherwise improve habitat in whatever way they can.

When it’s dry, a healthy landscape will keep up the flow by moving groundwater toward the river or stream channel, which by definition is the lowest point around. When it’s raining hard and flows are high, vegetation on the land and along the banks helps to hold things together, keeping the soil on the land and the water moving slow enough to prevent excessive erosion.

In January of 1937, as the Great Depression was beginning to loosen its skeletal death-grip on the economy and the weather, the principles of fluid dynamics, sediment transport, and stream bank protection would be demonstrated convincingly for all to see, along Hinkston Creek and throughout the Ohio River region. It was a cruel lesson, and for many decades it was one nobody forgot. Like all hard lessons, it started out innocently enough.

Early January 1937 was a little wet, with light-to-moderate rains off and on for the first couple of weeks. By the end of the national radio broadcast of President Franklin D. Roosevelt second term inauguration on January 20th, however, creeks and rivers began rising fast. It had been raining that day across the Hinkston region, and rained more the next day, and the next, and the next. Record rainfalls were recorded across the area that week—nearly 15 inches in some places. Louisville’s precipitation was six times the normal amount. The rains pounded down relentlessly, incessantly, and unmercifully on January 24th, later called “Black Sunday.” Two days later, the usually lazy Ohio River, known as the Spay-lay-wi-theepi by the Shawnee, crested at just under 80 feet in Cincinnati—nearly 30 feet above flood stage!

Where there were no trees or vegetation along the rivers and creeks, the hungry, raging water stripped the banks bare, gobbling up cubic miles of sediment, barns, homes, and livestock and spitting it all into the mighty Ohio, which rose from the valley like an angry, churning, muddy serpent, boiling across the landscape and ruining everything in its path.

Downtown Carrollton was under ten feet of water, along with Maysville, Ashland, Newport, and every other city on the lower Ohio. The deck of the old covered bridge across the Licking River at Sherburne was under four feet of water. Home plate at Crosley Field, the former Cincinnati Reds stadium, was under 21 ft of water. Rowboats easily cleared the ballpark fences. Hundreds of thousands of people were suddenly homeless between Cincinnati and Louisville, in the dead of winter. Up and down the river, martial law was declared as people scrambled for high ground, food, and warmth.

State prisoners from the Frankfort penitentiary were moved to Mt. Sterling and other towns after several were killed as they rioted to escape the rising waters of the Kentucky River. Nelson E. Ward, owner of the Mt. Sterling Amusement Company and his employee William Hill rushed to Louisville with Ward’s 30 ft power yacht to aid in the search and rescue effort there. Here at home, local officials offered to take in up to 1,000 refugees, even though Hinkston Creek, too, was out of its banks, flooding Floyd Stamper’s Drug Company and other downtown businesses. Across the region, people mobilized to help. The owners of The Magic Cleaners on Bank Street in Mt. Sterling even offered to donate all the money from press work that week to flood relief.

In Louisville, which was 70 percent flooded, WHAS radio switched from regular programming to non-stop, commercial-free news coverage for several weeks, relaying messages to rescue crews poking through the mud and providing the only centrally coordinated communication in the region. After the waters receded, the grim toll was tallied: in Ohio River towns from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, 385 people were killed, 1 million were left homeless, and property losses were estimated at a half a billion dollars.

The 1937 flood, the worst for the Ohio River valley in history, further resolved the leaders of the Soil Conservation Service to push for farm field terracing, grass buffer strips, and armoring stream channels with protective vegetation. In addition, the US Army Corps of Engineers was authorized to begin building a number of flood control reservoirs throughout the valley, prompting a decades-long dam construction boom that ended in the early 1970s with the impoundment of the Licking River just downstream of the creek called Big Cave Run. Incidentally, the resulting lake has been one of the cleanest in the southeast in terms of sediment, bacteria, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other pollutant levels. It lies entirely within the heavily wooded Daniel Boone National Forest—which was established originally as the Cumberland National Forest in the same year as the Great Flood: 1937.

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Stepping Out of the Depression and On To a Tractor (Read more...)

February 10, 2011

After the Great Flood of 1937, life in the Hinkston Creek region slowly began to return to normal. There was great interest in the new rubber-tired tractors that were rolling off the assembly lines in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Tractors had been around for decades, and the large, clunky, open-geared, snorting steam-powered metal behemoths of yesteryear had been replaced with smaller, more practical iron-wheeled versions by the mid-1930s. The use of rubber tires, though, along with the development of the three-point hitch and power-take-off or PTO really made things interesting.

In Mt. Sterling, the old Waterloo Boy and Model D tractors made in Moline IL by the company founded by John Deere of Rutland VT were being replaced with newer equipment made by firms founded by Henry Ford, Cyrus McCormick, Jerome Case, and E.P. Allis. The so-called “tractor war” of the mid-1920s had sharpened the competition and spurred incredible innovation in tractor design, production, and versatility, making them the must-have Christmas gift of many Hinkston Creek farmers as the 1940s dawned.

Horse-drawn cultivators were a big improvement over the hand-powered corn hoe, which blistered many a Hinkston Creek farmboy’s hand during the mid-1800s.

McCormick’s International Harvester Farmall tractor factory in Rock Island IL was transitioning the popular hand-cranked-starter F-series into the new A, B, and BN series “tricycle” models designed by Raymond Loewy and painted “Farmall Red.” Across the fields along Hinkston, one might also see an “Allis-Chalmers Orange” John Deere green, or red and gray Ford-Ferguson 9N, which was a vast improvement over the old and unreliable Model F Fordson tractor. The 9N featured the Harry Ferguson-designed three-point hitch, rubber tires, power-take-off, Ferguson hydraulics, a battery, an updated ignition system (with distributor and coil), an electric starter, adjustable front wheel widths, and optional lights—all for $585.

Other tractors, made by the Minneapolis Moline Company, the Cleveland Tractor Company, Oliver, the Case diesel models, and a half-dozen smaller brands could also be spotted chugging through central Kentucky as the 1930s closed out. By 1940, 95 percent of tractors had rubber tires instead of the old steel wheeled versions with protruding spikes or lugs, an innovation that began when orange growers in Florida became fed up with the metal cleats damaging the roots of trees in their groves.

Despite the growing popularity of tractors and their increasing efficiency in 1940, it would take 15 more years for tractors to outnumber horses and mules on the farm. The slowness of the transition from flesh-and-blood mule power to metal and gasoline “horsepower” was attributed at least partly to the rugged individualism and natural suspicion of some producers, who were concerned about transitioning their low-cost, self-sustaining operations—based on farm-bred animals fed farm-raised feed—to a new system that featured bank loans for tractors, gasoline from out of state, and crops raised for world markets instead of local ones. Walter Prescott Webb, a prominent author and history professor at the University of Texas, lamented the victory of the emotionless, unthinking tractor over the “intelligence of the patient and sarcastic mule” in a book published in 1937, observing that:

“The mule colt stood in the meadow and gazed at the strange contraption in awe and astonishment. Nobody has ever argued that the tractor did not take the mule’s job. The colt represented horsepower just as the tractor did, but the colt cost practically nothing to begin with. Nobody had a patent on him and he carried no tariff. He represented nobody’s capital except (farmer) John Smith’s and no wages or interest were tied up in his skinny skin. He would start paying for himself at the age of three, increase in value for six or seven years, and would continue to give good service for twelve or fifteen years and service only a little less valuable after fifteen. He was so perfectly constructed that he would never have to have a spare part, not even a spark plug. He was a self-starter, and a self-quitter when quitting time came.”

The steady advance of the tractor was marked by increased land clearing and cultivation, and matched by a redoubling of soil conservation efforts at the federal, state, and local levels. In the Mt. Sterling Advocate, weekly columns from Floyd McDaniel—“The County Agent”—began to appear in the late 1930s, addressing issues like how to build soil fertility, the value of streambank vegetation in stopping channel erosion, installing grassed waterways to prevent gullying, and terrace construction for hillside farms. The programs of the Soil Conservation Service (formerly the Soil Erosion Service) were firmly lodged in nearly every agricultural county in the nation by 1940, and farmers followed closely the rules and regulations of the tobacco program, diversion and soil building payments, rates for terrace construction, and support for seeding and other conservation practices.

Yes, things appeared to be finally settling down, at home and on the farm. By 1940, each American farmer could supply about 11 people with their food and fiber needs. Commercial fertilizer consumption had doubled to 13 million tons during the past decade, and tractor production—which crashed mightily during the Great Depression, like everything else – was booming. All seemed well...except for the worrisome news stories out of Europe and Asia, where followers of Germany’s president Adolph Hitler and Japanese Emperor Hirohito were escalating attacks on their neighbors and loudly beating the drums of war.

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Normalcy and Happy Times Return to Mt. Sterling (Read more...)

February 17, 2011

Throughout the late 1930s life in Mt. Sterling and the rest of the Hinkston Creek region was returning to what former President Warren G. Harding called “normalcy.” The Mt. Sterling Advocate published a string of fabulous front-page wedding spreads as the decade wound down—Frances Buchart and Daniel W. McDonald, and Marian Elizabeth Eastman and William Caldwell Clay in June of 1939, followed by Emily Elizabeth Hedden and Allie Crockett Conway in September, among others. The city school listed seniors Neva Barnes Collins and Mary Ruth Downs on the “super honor roll,” along with juniors Lucille Richardson and Eunice Wills, sophomore Ellen Baber, freshmen Joyce Arnett and Cora Pierce, eighth graders Ruby Collins, Dorothy McKamey, Mabel Prater, and Connie Richardson, and seventh graders Jacqueline Earley, Martha Ann Treadway, and Bobby Joe Turley.

At the same time, the city was gussying up for the arrival of nearly 15,000 Kentucky Democratic Party members, who poured into Mt. Sterling for an October 3rd rally to hear gubernatorial candidate Keen Johnson kick off his campaign. In a nod by America’s second-most-favorite pastime—politics—to the nation’s favorite pastime—baseball—the statewide radio broadcast of Johnson’s speech was delayed until 5 pm due to previously planned coverage of the Cincinnati Reds’ bid to win the 1939 World Series. Given the results of that series, which the Yankees won 4-0, the Democratic rally planning committee (A.N. Crooks, R.H. Lane, J.W. Hedden Jr., A.L. Mitchell, Jack Crawford, G.C. Eastin, J.C. Tipton, Mrs. Robert Chandler, and D.H. Bush) would probably have been forgiven if they had decided to bump the game coverage, rather than Johnson’s speech.

Montgomery County War Memorial Courthouse

Other news of the day was likewise mostly pleasant, a refreshing change from the recently ended financial depression and Dust Bowl drought. Jere Coleman, Mt. Sterling’s champion turtle catcher, and Stewart Sharp, king of the tall fishing tale, were both still vying to land “the big one.” Camargo teacher Georgia Kerns—educated at Georgetown College and Eastern Kentucky University—and William “Pard” Kendall—former high school football player and Morehead College student, then working at the Land & Priest Drug Store—quietly slipped away to Louisville for a lovely fall wedding. Harry M. Hadden and Robert Blount were planning the Central Kentucky Fox Hunters Association annual field trials with the help of Lucile H. Reed and Owingsville resident L.E. Richardson. The Junior Woman’s Club was hearing about “Scotland’s Contribution to Religion, Democracy, and Literature,” an event attended by Mrs. Horton Duff, Mrs. Duke Young (co-winners of third place in the state table-setting contest), Mrs. C.P. Killpatrick, Mrs. John McCormick, Miss Frances Kennedy, Mrs. H.B. Ringo, Mrs. Ratliff Lane, Mrs. Garnett Chenault, Miss Elizabeth Coleman, Mrs. Tipton Wilson, and Mrs. Tom Jones. Coach “Tiny” Jones and his purple and gold gridiron warriors, led by Captain Lindsey Douglas and Alternate Captains Paul Whitt and H.B. Pribble, were preparing to host the mighty Raceland Ramblers.

Times were happy and peaceful as 1939 wound down, but everyone knew it wouldn’t last long. The wild, rambling, rants and crazed rhetoric of German President Adolph Hitler was driving the Nazi war machine to the Bavarian borders and beyond. On September 1st 1939, Germany attacked and invaded Poland without warning. By the evening of September 3rd, Britain and France were at war with Germany and within a week, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa had also joined the allies. The Mt. Sterling Advocate carried front-page stories on local recruiting parties for the U.S. Army, hosted by the Tenth Infantry at Fort Thomas and livened up by the Tenth Infantry Band. An article reporting on President Roosevelt’s request for repeal of the Neutrality Law before a joint session of Congress was also on the front page.

As the drums of war grew louder, it almost seemed that everything was being renovated, restored, rebuilt, and readied for the coming conflict. Late in 1939 the Advocate published a photograph of “Mt. Sterling’s New WPA Building” at the northwest corner of Bank and Locust streets, now occupied by Dr. Tom McCormick, which initially housed district forest ranger Karl Stoller, project engineer James O. Cassady, parole officer Gay Shrout, agricultural agent Floyd McDaniel, and Mrs. Virginia Harris, director of the Works Progress Administration sewing project. County Judge Earl W. Senff was credited with securing funding for the building, one of more than 50 office, educational, recreational, and sports buildings built by the federal Works Progress Administration that year alone. A few months later, an article on the new Kentucky Utilities drinking water treatment plant on Slate Creek featured manager Earl Curtis and information on the improved concrete settling basin, flood wall, chemical storage house, and mixing equipment. In addition, a group represented by contractor Newt Faulkner announced a heroic attempt to renovate and revive the defunct “Old McBrayer” bourbon distillery on the banks of Hinkston Creek, which no doubt cheered the champions of liberty at home and abroad.

In the weeks before the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, 1,200 Montgomery County men were registered for the recently enacted military draft by County Clerk Ben H. Scott. Large full-page “Hitler Must Be Stopped” advertisements—which began appearing in local papers throughout the Hinkston region in late 1939, and continued throughout 1940 and 41—were abruptly replaced by broader and more direct calls to arms after December 7, 1941, a date that President Roosevelt thundered “will live in infamy!”

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Out of Sadness Comes Growth: Early housing developments in the watershed (Read more...)

February 24, 2011

They say a river is a report card for it’s watershed, and it’s the same with streams. Whatever happens in the drainage area eventually affects the drainage way, whether it’s Hinkston Creek or the Ohio River.

Here in the outer fringe of the Inner Bluegrass region, the big drivers of creek water impacts are mainly how the land is used. When acres upon acres are paved over and built on, the rain runs off fast and hot, floods Mt. Sterling, blows out the creek channel, melts away the banks, and sends our best topsoil down the river to New Orleans. Soil compaction, removal of vegetation along the channel, and building everything so it drains to Hinkston as fast as possible ratchets up the response.

Commercial, industrial, and housing development are the focus of this whole process, and we now know there are ways to build that can greatly lessen the impact. The Hinkston Creek area has always drawn people, even now, during this recession, so it’s not surprising that residential construction is a consideration for water quality studies like the one going on now. It’s probably also not so surprising that the first homes in the area were greener than Mr. Gore—made of locally produced materials, sited with a minimal amount of vegetation clearing, and built without removing much of the rain-soaking topsoil in the yard. This type of construction helps minimize rapid runoff, flooding, and streambank erosion—nowadays they call it “low impact development.”

We’ve had quite a variety of subdivision types in this part of the Hinkston Creek watershed over the years. One of the first large subdivisions in the area was developed on a farm once owned by Dr. J.A. Hannah between 1884 and 1911 by a local man with a badly broken heart. His beautiful, popular young wife—who bore him several children during the late 1870s—was struck down by disease in the prime of life. She was only 28 years old when she died...and had known her own heartbreak, the kind parents struggle to bear.

Statue of Mattie Lee Mitchell and her son located in Machpelah Cemetery

Little Jameson, her first child and Christmas present—born on December 25, 1875—slipped away the following summer, on a thick, sultry July day too warm for the cold, stabbing pain death can bring. The burden of losing a child only six months old no doubt devastated Jameson’s parents, and the death of the mother six years and a few children later only deepened the sadness of one of Montgomery County’s first major single-family residential housing developers.

He committed himself to their memory, first by erecting an impressive and deeply touching sculpture to his young wife in Machpelah Cemetery, overlooking the old section, which lies just above Hinkston Creek, next to the old Civil War fort site. She stands there today, facing Mt. Sterling, holding little Jameson close to her bosom. Next, he set about building a subdivision that remains one of the county’s largest. It was to be an affordable place for working people, near the schools, stores, and churches that they built, brick by brick, for themselves, their employers, and their fellow citizens. He named the streets after his own parents and his children—Jameson, Strother, Ann, Mitchell, and the others—and registered the subdivision at the courthouse in honor of the warm and sunny woman he loved and lost—Mattie Lee Mitchell.

Housing development was fairly slow after Richard A. Mitchell sold all the lots in “Mattie Lee City,” until the boom of the 1960s and 70s, when nearly two dozen major subdivisions popped up on the hills of Hinkston. The building frenzy crested in the late 1970s, when another influx of workers—those staffing the big factories just outside of town—flocked to Mt. Sterling. Between 1975 and 1980, the county clerk registered The Estates, Foggy Acres, Holly Hills, Evergreen Estates, and Bent Brook, joining Brookmeade, Collinswood, Garden Springs, Fuller Estates, and Razor Heights, which had been established during the early 1970s.

It’s interesting to note that the modern “low impact” subdivision design matches almost exactly the way the earlier developments were built—with narrow roads, no curbs, grassed swales for drainage, preservation of most large trees, minimal grading, and retention of the flood-reducing topsoil, which acts like a giant sponge during heavy rain storms, holding back the flow and recharging the groundwater aquifer. There are even a few saw-briar patches, shrub clumps, and tanglewood thickets on the steep hills of the early subdivisions, which hold the slopes together, lower site development costs, and provide habitat for rabbits, birds, and deer—the delight of many an urban homeowner.

Yes, modern creek-friendly housing design mimics the old-school approach, which minimizes pavement, roof area, and soil compaction and maximizes vegetation, rain retention, and walking trails. Contemporary commercial and industrial development are following a similar path, using rain gardens and pervious pavement to soak up storm water, and vegetated swales and constructed wetlands to handle the excess.

As they say, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

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A Little Place Out in the Country with a Garden (Read more...)

March 3, 2011

During the opening session of the Kentucky General Assembly in 1991, the preacher brought in for the commencement invocation provided a thoughtful summary of the history of the economic trials, tribulations, and aspirations of the common people of the Commonwealth.

“We came to this land of abundance hundreds of years ago, from across the globe,” he intoned reverently, “and found a simple people living off the land. We found a place where the women honored and respected their husbands, took care of the housework, raised the children, and worked in the garden, while the men hunted and fished all day and smoked their pipes under shade trees down by the creek in the late afternoon...and we thought we could improve upon that way of life...somehow...” His voice trailed off a bit, to deep murmurs from the assembled lawmakers, lowing softly like cattle awaiting the dawn.

“So we pushed them away, and built our own little homes and gardens and farms. And we worked—we worked hard. But times were tough, and it was difficult to make a go of it. So over the years we’ve left our little homes and gardens and farms out in the country and we’ve gone to the city, to find a job, to get a paycheck. And now, we find that we’ve sweated and worked and slaved and saved enough to finally afford our dream: a little house with a garden, or maybe even a farm, out in the country...“

Yes, as the minister observed, things do tend to run in cycles. For example, the creek water samples, channel surveys, land management assessments, and other research conducted in the Hinkston watershed show that what’s needed most to clean up the sediment, bacteria, and other pollution is pretty much the same menu of corrective measures issued by the Soil Conservation Service in the 1930s—revegetation of badly eroding stream banks, better stock-to-grass pasture management, feeding on the ridges and not the bottoms, controlling livestock access to the creek, and reducing muddy and polluted runoff from construction sites, industrial facilities, city streets, and other areas.

A program run by the Fleming County Conservation District has provided funding for these and other soil and water practices for the past 20 years. The program doesn’t push excluding cattle from all of the creek, just most of it. About three-fourths of Fleming Creek is now fenced, and you can see the vegetation coming back naturally, without any extra work, from seeds carried by floodwaters, birds, and the wind.

There are some new wrinkles in the conservation mix, too. For example, the whole issue of endophyte toxicity associated with Kentucky 31 tall fescue (which was discovered in Menifee County in 1931 by Dr. E.N. Fergus of UK) has sparked a lot of speculation about cattle wanting to stand in the creek all day to cool off their fungus-fevered bodies. There are new low/no endophyte fescue varieties available today, and pasture mixes (orchardgrass, clover, etc.) and management practices (clipping fescue seed heads, keeping the grass grazed close—but not too close) that can reduce endophyte problems, increase weight gain, improve herd health, and reduce the need for shade and camping out in the creek.

The widespread availability of free aerial photography web sites like is also fairly new. These sites allow a virtual flyover of farm country, along with quick surveys of stream vegetation, pasture forage stands, and other parameters. The photos are only brief snapshots in time, but do provide at least some notion of where pasture grasses are thick (deep greens) and where they’re thin (brownish greens).

Another interesting new twist in farm country relates to the development of “silvopastures”—livestock pastures that double as tree farms. The idea of producing meat, lumber, forage, and nuts from the same piece of ground is of course not new—Kentucky was that way when we found it—but incorporating the practice into modern farming techniques does qualify as a fairly recent innovation. An intriguing prospect involves walnut trees, which are common to the Hinkston area and generate both logs and a prodigious nut crop in most years.

One guy I know calls walnut trees “calcium pumps” because their roots move molecular limestone from deep below the ground surface up through the tree trunk and ultimately to the leaves. Many farms sit on a king’s ransom worth of limestone, but the farmer has to pay somebody to haul lime from town to spread on the fields every year—he can’t get to the limestone under his own farm. With walnut trees in the pasture, you just sit back and watch the trees leaf out, get pumped full of calcium carbonate, and shrivel up and die in the fall, when they crumble to dust on the ground and lime the fields for free.

Walnut trees are also good for shade in hot pastures during the hottest part of summer. They’re the last thing to leaf out in the spring and the first to yellow and fall in autumn, so they don’t shade the grass too much and stunt its growth. And if you can hang on for another 60 years or so, you can sell the logs for over a thousand dollars a pop, and maybe buy your kids a little place out in the country, with a garden, or even a small farm...

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Some Day Along Hinkston Creek... (Read more...)

March 10, 2011

Hinkston Creek has been flowing for hundreds of millions of years, since the shallow seas of the Ordovician Period receded, leaving their legacy of what we now call limestone—the bones and shells of ocean creatures piled in thick layers and pressed into solid rock. You can see these easily in the chalky white chunks of limestone around the county, even without a microscope.

Visual evidence of the Adena people, who called Mt. Sterling home for hundreds of years at about the time Jesus walked this earth—is more difficult to come by. Signs of the Shawnee, too, are mostly gone, despite their long residence in the region. Our mark on the landscape, however, is still very much in evidence. The foundations of old mill dams along the creek from Mt. Sterling to Millersburg might be receding into the fog of history, but we have built lots of other things, some of which may last for centuries.

This column has explored that history, from the time of the Adena until the advent of the Second World War. Few people alive now can recall any of those years, but there are dozens—even hundreds—who remember the years and decades after the Japanese sneak attack. They remember the local boys caught in the war zone when the attack came—Charles E. Duff, James Moberly, Tommy Atkinson, Jack Land, John C. Toy, and Junior Noell, who were stationed at Hawaii, and Jimmy Shy, who was in the Philippines, and the others. They remember the Smokehouse Pool Room, in what are now offices across from the courthouse, where Paul Manley, Butch Colliver, Cramer Chandler, Jack Perkins, Jack Adams, Albert Risner, Matt Dykes, Paul Montjoy, George Easterling, Walker Williams, James Rose, and the others held court, tapping their cue stick on the table and shouting “rack!” to the scampering boys who teed up the new games.

Ask them about the old days. They’ll tell you about the Jersey Milk Company, where Earl and Billy Henry, George and Charles Turley, Donald Finch, Tom Calvert, Walter Johnson, Coleman Jackson, Bozo Raye, and the others produced the freshest, tastiest ice cream ever. They’ll talk about the Tabb Theatre, Moore’s Grocery, the White Dot, Mrs. Stockdale’s Used Clothing Store, Enoch’s Glove Factory, Jerry Boyd’s candy and Ale-8 emporium, Maloney’s, Sharp’s Studio, Calico and Whitt’s Pharmacy, Oldham’s Clothing Store, Lansdale’s Arcade, Castle Boys, Begley’s, the Teen Center, Moreland’s Shoe Shop, Newberry’s, Hobbs, Joyland, Dad’s Grill, Monarch Mill, Carrington Furniture, Herald’s Men’s Wear, Home Lumber, Collegiate Sports, Burger Queen, the Tasty Freeze, and maybe, if you’re over 21, about the Alibi Club and the BB Club.

Yes, there are people around who remember all of this – and much, much more. They remember Hinkston Creek in good times, and not-so-good times. Most will probably admit that the creek is in much better condition now than it was years ago, due to better sewage treatment, relocation of livestock away from the creek (for Court Day especially), more public awareness about polluted runoff, less dumping in ditches and curb inlets, better erosion and sediment controls at most construction sites, updated farm practices, and so on.

Even so, it’s hard to imagine that Hinkston Creek—which once drew people to the area by the hundreds—could ever make an even bigger comeback, and become the kind of stream that people visit to hike and bike and recreate along, like they do in Colorado, Montana, or even outside Gatlinburg. But it does have potential. Some sections of the creek in Montgomery County have a quiet beauty year-round, even on cold, dark, quiet winter nights, when its glittering inky blackness shimmers with starlight as it slides silently along through the soft, snowy hills. And of course, nothing is more beautiful than the land and waters of Kentucky in the spring and fall. Even summertime on Hinkston can be a treat, for those who like it hot and sultry.

Minnows, fish, ducks, turtles—even great blue herons—have all been spotted in the creek downtown recently, when things are still, in the early morning and late evening. They’re all waiting quietly, and watching, to see what happens next.

What will happen next? If we ever do develop a hiking and biking trail along the old Chesapeake and Ohio railroad line between Mt. Sterling and Lexington, the people from Fayette and Clark counties can cruise over and ride along our little creek for a mile or so, after they pass through some of the prettiest farm country this side of The Garden. Maybe there’ll be a museum in the old depot, and they’ll get off their bicycles for an hour or so and get a drink and walk around town to stretch their legs. Maybe they’ll amble over to the creek, pull off their shoes, and wade around in the cool water for a while, like Colonel John Hinkston, Daniel Boone, the Shawnee, and the others did so many years ago.

And if any of us are still around, we can tell them about the Little Round Mountain, the old McBrayer Distillery, the lumber and grain mills, the Yankees and Confederates, Nancy Green and Richard Reid, the Smokehouse Pool Room, horses and cattle at Court Day, Jerry Boyd’s Grocery, and all the rest of it. Maybe so...some day.

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Note: This is the last column in the Hinkston Creek series—thanks for reading!

Barry Tonning is a local resident and employee of Tetra Tech, an environmental engineering and consulting firm involved in water resource management issues nationwide. This series is archived at

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