Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Abandoned Places, Natural Beauty and Prehistoric Relics

It doesn't matter where the road goes, it's how you travel it....

When I was a child, my family owned a farm on Prickly Ash Road, just northeast of Owingsville.  I spent many days roaming the hills, fields and creek bed, exploring what was around the farm.  Along the gravel road are abandoned homes in the adjacent fields; reminders of a simpler time and of the hard work the residents put into building their farms to provide a means for living.  In the creek bed, I would find remnants of a far earlier time, millions of years into the past; fossils of shells and coral along with other prehistoric sea life that predated the age of the great dinosaurs.  The fields on our farm would reveal ancient Native American artifacts every spring when the ground was turned.  Arrowheads, stone spearheads, pieces of flint would surface and I would fill my pockets full.  As I grew older, I started to look into the why and how these relics and old homes came to be and found  fascinating historical stories, right in everyday plain sight.

Let's go back to around 1983.  I was walking through the tobacco field one spring looking for arrowheads and found what looked like a fossilized horn protruding through the reddish dirt.  I picked it up, puzzled by what it appeared to be; could it be a horn off a dinosaur?  My dad took my mysterious item to Roland Burns who worked at Morehead State University and it was determined my find was a piece of coral approximately 400 million years old.  He explained that the area was once a vast sea teeming with life and this fossil was one of the earliest known forms of life on Earth.  It just baffled me at a young age that the fields we used to grow tobacco once was an ocean.  Over the years, I would find much more of this coral of varying sizes, along with fossilized mollusks, brachiopods and small bone fragments embedded in the slate and limestone rock.  Even today, if you walk the creek bed during summer, it doesn't take long before you spot these ancient reminders. 

I mentioned the Native American artifacts we would find, and to say there were a few items would be a gross understatement.  Arrowheads of all sizes were found there.  I found what I believe to be a stone axe blade one time just lying in the dirt waiting to be found after so many years.  Most of these artifacts date back to the Adena People, a society that lived between 1000 and 200 BCE in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.  Early Kentucky was considered prime hunting ground for the early people who inhabited the area west of the Appalachians.  Bath County was a regular hunting area for ancient people and later tribes of Iroquois, Shawnee and Cherokee.  John Adair Richards chronicles some early conflicts between early Bath County settlers and Native Americans in his A History of Bath County book, so it is a good bet the area in Prickly Ash was abundant in native peoples throughout history.  While it isn't certain, it is suspected that my family's farm was a native camp or hotly contested hunting area.  Either scenario is likely, considering the natural springs, salt and ore deposits that in the area. 

Up the hollow behind the barn that once stood on our property was a field we used to grow tobacco; we called it the Apple Tree field, because of the large apple tree that stood at the small creek crossing.  When the field was turned, numerous artifacts, cut stone, coal and pieces of wood would surface.  Once upon a time, a house stood in that spot and what we found were the remains of the coal pit, the chimney and foundation stones.  Other items we found were small reminders of life inside that house; like dice made from bone, an old lock with a date of 1876 imprinted on it, old coins dating back to the mid to late 1800's and early 1900's and various other small artifacts.  Dad told me the house was actually moved by oxen cart to another location down Slate Creek, and is quite possibly still standing today.

Structure fire on Prickly Ash October, 2013
Several abandoned houses are still standing along Prickly Ash Creek, mostly used to store corn or hay by the land owners.  There used to be a large two-story house in the field beside our barn that burned down around 1978 or 79.  Another house across the creek that still stands was the scene of a terrible hunting accident that took the life of one of my childhood friends in 1983.  Up the creek there was another house that stood and had fallen into disrepair over the many years it stood vacant.  A family from Indiana bought the property and restored the house into a vacation home with a large walk out deck on the second floor.  The home stood as a welcome sight of life among the long forgotten residences, but sadly, was destroyed by fire in October, 2013.  Along a tributary called Washington Branch, still stands the old one room school house, well at least it was still there a few years ago when I hiked back to the area.  I recall one old house having old newspapers as wall paper, showing headlines and stories from World War II and earlier.  Man, if these old homes could talk.....

We sold the farm in 1997 and now a home stands in the field that once bore tobacco.  The barn is long gone, a victim of time and natural process.  Although I jokingly say I don't miss the work on the farm, I truly miss spending time there exploring the creek and fields. I wonder if the people who live there know what interesting history lies under their yard, and if they still find those fossils and artifacts that fascinated me for so long. 

A sacred place for me....
Another favorite place of mine is behind my parents' home on Route 111.  Deep hollows and dense forests span the landscape behind their house.  It is a rugged path that leads to some small streams that spill into Slate Creek; the hills are nearly vertical in some places with rock outcroppings.  As a kid, I would go down into the woods there and build small forts and other encampments as my imagination would dictate.  The most exciting features in those dense woods is undoubtedly the waterfalls that are nestled in the deep ravines.  The path to reach these natural wonders is treacherous and not easy at all.  Perhaps God made the path so difficult to navigate so the sites would remain unharmed, because they are not tainted with tourist markings.  The first waterfall is a sheer rock face approximately fifteen feet tall and can only be accessed from below stream safely.  Following the old creek bed, which is filled with rocks and ancient fossils, there is a Y-intersection with one way going to Slate Creek and the other going westward toward Owingsville.  Walking in the creek bed ravine is truly an awesome sight indeed, and the second waterfall stands as the pinnacle of the trip.  Standing around twenty feet tall and around forty feet wide, the fall's prominent feature is the rock shelter that cuts back into the hillside.  One can just imagine this being used as a resting point for early hunters or Native Americans.  I haven't found arrowheads or other artifacts there; only pieces of glass left behind from modern hikers.  There are no graffiti slogans painted on this shelter, but there are scorch marks from campers who have used the waterfall retreat to rest or come in from the elements.  I have used the shelter a few times to shield from the rain, or to just sit in it, quietly taking in the sights and sounds of the natural beauty around me.  Even though I and others have been to this place many, many times, it is on private property, so permission is always necessary.

 Bath County is full of history, most of it is right under our feet and we don't even know it.  We see the monuments and old buildings in town and know they are a reminder of another time; but what we don't pay attention to as often is the natural beauty or the reminders of the earliest forms of life as we know it.  The prehistoric relics are right under our feet, along the highways and creeks, ultimately telling the story of all of us and of what we see around us.  Eventually, the abandoned places will disappear, whether it be by natural process or developmental progress.  The natural beauty will last only as long as we will allow it.  I hope my children and theirs that follow understand and appreciate these sights as I have, and that the places I called sacred for so many years remain in their natural state for them to always see.
If our history and past are to be preserved, the future should stand with arms wide open ready to embrace.

Special thanks to my parents, Joyce and Tommy Kiskaden for allowing me to explore and be imaginative as I grew. 

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