Monday, October 24, 2016

A Cryptic Message

Owingsville has a rich and storied past, but perhaps it's the words found scribbled in peculiar places that tell something more. 
A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go inside the Bath County Courthouse's bell tower for the first time, accompanied by Emergency Management Director Jason York and his step-daughter Kenzie. On one of the boards, there were names scribbled with dates from as far back as 1917 on it; surprisingly well preserved over all this time.  As we made our way downstairs, one cryptic message was found written on a wall behind a door.  This message wouldn't normally be visible and is almost hidden behind the door, but is written in an old style of lettering.  But first, a little back story.
July 6, 1895 was probably a hot summer day in Owingsville.  One could imagine the sun beating down and the dust kicking up off the dirt roads in town.  A circus was in town on that day with many people taking in the day's activities.  Around 11 o'clock in the morning, two men met at Young's Saloon in town for the first of several times that day.  John D. Young, Jr. was the son of Congressman John Young and well known in Owingsville.  Pliny 'Clem' Fassett was a cousin to Young and the pair were soaking in some drinks when an argument erupted over an unpaid debt Fassett owed Young; another witness attested that the argument was due to Fassett asking Young to borrow money.  At either account, the pair squared off, then parted ways into the street. 
A while later, Young and Fassett were seen at the saloon once again, and another heated argument ensued.  A witness by the name of Coyle saw Young strike Fassett, knocking him to the ground.  Clem was put out of the saloon at this point, but was seen outside the doors with an open knife, taunting Young and threatening to "cut his heart out".  Fassett made such a ruckus in the street, that a crowd had gathered around him.  Witnesses stated they saw the drunken man with a knife and he was spouting off obscenities and threats toward Young. Town Marshal Marks approached Fassett and made him leave the street, escorting him to a bench in front of the Owings House, which was a hotel at the time.  After sitting with Fassett a few minutes, the town marshal left and went into Gaunce's Grocery Store across the street (in the row of businesses next to Smith's Hardware).  In the store, Marshal Marks saw John Young and asked him to go to the circus with him.  Sheriff James Lane was also in the grocery and witnessed this exchange.  Young told the marshal to go on, that he would catch up to him at the circus later.
After a few more minutes, Young walked out across the street and approached Fassett, who was still sitting on the bench.  Mr. Brother, who ran the dry goods store at the corner of North Court and Main Street, was leaning up against a lamp post talking to two other men when they noticed Fassett and Young begin to exchange words once again. 
"What did you follow me for," Pliny Fassett asked John Young.  Not saying a word, Young approached Fassett and knocked the hat off his head.  The Congressman's son then grabbed his cousin and dragged him outward into Main Street.  Fasset broke loose from Young's grip and asked, "what did you hit me for?  Why don't you tell these good gentlemen why you hit me".
Pliny shoved John away at that point and said again, "I want you to tell these people why you hit me for!". 
"I ain't afraid of you!  You better do something about it," Fassett taunted.  Young opened his coat and reached in it.  Witnesses scurried into the hotel, fearing Young was about to brandish a firearm.  E.V. Brother, George Young and C.C. Hazelrigg intervened and separated the two men, believing they had defused the conflict. At this point, the witness' recollections vary; it is agreed that Young backed Fassett against a rail, but their actions  are debated.  According to one testimony, Fassett lunged at Young, holding the knife he was seen with earlier.  Another witnessed stated he saw the men lock into a struggle and Young had a knife.  Whatever was the case, the result was Young struck Fassett in the neck with a knife, inflicting a fatal wound.  Fassett stumbled backward a few steps and collapsed against the railing outside the hotel, dying a short time later.
John D. Young, Jr., son of a congressman, was arrested for the killing of Pliny Fassett.  He was tried in Bath County Circuit Court, found guilty and sentenced to eighteen years in prison in May, 1897.  The case was appealed and a motion for a new case was granted the following year.  The first retrial resulted in a hung jury. At least four of the jurors were heard openly talking about the case and how they felt Young should 'pay dearly for his actions'.   The second trial resulted in a fifteen year sentence, and an immediate appeal was granted on the grounds that an impartial jury could not be seated due to the Young family's stature in Bath County.  Circuit Judge Cooper granted a change in venue to Menifee County and the case was heard for a third time.  The Southwestern Reporter, Volume 42, published in 1898, contains Young's appeals case with a wealth of information regarding the case's details.  The final hearing was heard in April, 1899, with a sentence of two years for Young to serve for the killing.  It was the defense's argument that Young feared for his life and acted in self defense, due to statements made by Pliny Fasset that were overheard by witnesses;  some statements were in the context of Fassett stating he would "cut Young's head off and kick it in the hollow".  Eventually, in December, 1899, John Young, Jr. was formally pardoned by Governor William S. Taylor. 
This incident surprisingly isn't chronicled in John Adair Richards' A History of Bath County book, and I personally hadn't heard anything regarding this story until the day I went into the bell tower.  The cryptic message written on the wall reads, "Clem Fasst killed by John Young Clem Fassets gost inhabits this court house attic".  Whoever wrote this message is a mystery, and if Pliny 'Clem' Fassett's ghost really does haunt the attic of the courthouse is an equal mystery.  So, the next time you are in the courthouse and think you hear someone walking around upstairs or feel a strange presence, it may be Clem Fassett seeking justice after all this time.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Turning Back Time: Restoring the Bath County Courthouse Clock Tower

The Bath County Courthouse is undergoing a renovation project just in time for it's 150 year anniversary.  The courthouse you see today is actually the third one for Bath County.  The first one was planned in June 1815 and completed in early 1816.  It was described as a brick two story structure and sat almost in the middle of Main Street at the stop light in Owingsville.   A second, wood frame courthouse was built in 1831, where the current one stands today. 
During the Civil War, Federal troops occupied Owingsville and were briefly garrisoned in the Bath County Courthouse.  Early on the morning of May 22, 1864,  the troops were alerted that a Confederate column was approaching Owingsville.  In their haste to meet the rebel troops, a coal stove was knocked over, quickly igniting the courthouse.  The building and many vital records of Bath County's earliest days were consumed by the fire.  The county received an indemnity from the Federal Government, and a new, and present, courthouse was built on the same site in 1866.
From 1866-1903, the Bath County Courthouse was a rectangular, ordinary structure.  The interior rooms were built to be fire proof and sturdy to prevent the loss of other vital records.  Under the administration of Judge Executive John A. Daugherty, a major renovation project was contracted, starting in 1903 and finishing in 1904.  The front of the courthouse was extended over four feet toward Main Street and a balcony was added for town criers.  The most prominent addition was the construction of the 102 foot tall clock and bell tower.  The tower was built with four clock faces pointing at each direction of the compass.  Built entirely of wood and brick, the tower is supported by several long iron rods that bear the weight of the structure and the 1,500 pound bell inside. 
Galvanized iron ornaments adorn the upper corners of the tower near the clock, and the belfry is an open structure with slats to reduce the elements from creeping in.  The upper dome of the tower is covered with slate tiles and more iron ornamental accents; indeed a commanding structure once finished. 
Accessing the bell and clock is not for the claustrophobic or those uneasy with high places.  Over the years, able bodied men, including my father Tommy, would make the climb up the narrow wooden ladder to wind the Seth Thomas clock mechanism and to clean the mounds of potentially harmful bird droppings.
Access into the bell tower via ladder
Some of those people added their names on a board near the clock's southward face; the earliest I personally found was the name John W. Brother, dated July 6, 1917.  
The bell, located on the fourth story of the five, was cast by the MC Shane Bell Foundry from Baltimore, Maryland and is date stamped 1903.  The large wooden wheel still turns and rocks the bell on the pedestal, but the pendulum was replaced with a mechanical striker attached by steel cables to the clock mechanism on the fifth story at some point.  Over the years, the elements crept into the aging tower and the boards began to decay.  It became unsafe to climb into the clock and perform the maintenance needed to keep it going; the once hourly bell fell silent.  The clock faces, however, still light up at night as a sort of beacon of time. 
Current Judge Executive Bobby Rogers has committed to restore the aging Bath County Courthouse during his term.  Utilizing local contractors and labor from inmates under the supervision of Jailer Earl Willis, work is being done to bring the structure back to its glory.  Tommy Johnson, owner of TJ Construction, was contracted to restore the interior of the bell tower.  Emergency Management Director Jason York gave me an exclusive tour of the tower recently and gave a progress report of the work that has been completed and what's yet to come.
"When they started working on the tower, there was about four inches of pigeon droppings all over the place," York said. 
"We had to have the guys working up there wear hazardous materials suits and respirators in order to stay safe".
The tower itself had shifted about four inches to the west due to seeping water damaging boards and support beams, according to Mr. Johnson.  Some of the ladder's rungs had to be replaced, along with other surrounding support beams that had rotted.  A large hydraulic jack was used to shore the tower and correct the lean, which wasn't readily noticed from street level.
Soon, the clock and bell will be restored back into working order, according to Emergency Management Director York.  Another proposed project at the old courthouse, spearheaded by the newly reorganized Bath County Tourism Council, is the creation of a Bath County Museum in the second floor court room area. The museum is only in the initial planning phases at this time, pending final approval and other preparations that need to be made to accommodate  
Judge Executive Rogers says he "feels the old courthouse is a lasting monument that has meant so much to the people of Bath County. 
That's why the Fiscal Court and I placed such an emphasis on restoring this county treasure." 
 The restoration and future projects at the old Bath County Courthouse should make this historic county treasure an active part of many more generations to come.

Below are some pictures inside the clock and bell tower:

A Seth Thomas type clock mechanism

An ominous message scribbled on a wall
Names and graffiti from long ago

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Close Call: Downing & Yates' Escape From Natives

John McClung published a book in 1832 entitled "Sketches of Western Adventure" that offered a glimpse into the settlement of the Western United States.  This book tells the stories of Kentucky's earliest settlers and the struggles with the Native Americans who inhabited the area.  One local recollection can be found in the book and tells the story of two young men and their close encounter with Natives. 
It was August, 1786, and two young men, Francis Downing and one only known as Yates, were living in the blockhouse fortification adjoining the Bourbon Furnace.  A horse belonging to Yates had wandered off from the settlement and, with the help of Downing, a search commenced.  By evening, the pair found themselves some seven miles from the ironworks overlooking a valley.  Downing halted and hushed Yates, advising him to listen closely as he heard what sounded like sticks being broken behind them.  Concerned that the pair were being followed, Downing urged caution.  Yates, who was a bit older than Downing, was an avid hunter and warded off the concern as nothing more than the usual sounds associated with the forest.  Downing voiced his concern again, noting that the sounds seemed to have been following them for some distance before they stopped.  Again, Yates passed it off as paranoia and continued onward into the valley.  Downing followed at a cautious pace, fearing they were being tailed by hostile Natives.  Eventually, Yates had walked several paces ahead and down a hillside.  Downing took the opportunity and ducked into some tall brush nearby, waiting to see if his fears would be verified.  Sure enough, two Natives appeared out of a cane thicket and were observing Yates' movements.  Downing brought his rifle to bear and misfired the shot before he could get the Natives in sight.  The Natives were startled and before they could gather their senses, Downing headed in Yates' direction in a full run.  Yates had heard the shot and was running back to meet his friend, seeing the Natives hurriedly pursuing the pair.  The young men bolted across the field, while the Natives took another path to cut the distance.  The Natives gained on the pair as they tried to outrun them, and soon, a deep trench ahead proved to be the deciding factor in the fight or flight response.  Seeing that retreating back toward the Natives could spell certain disaster, Yates took a bounding leap across the ravine.  Downing attempted to follow suit, but fell short and landed into the deep trench.  The Natives crossed the ravine down from the fallen settler, but either failed to see him or assumed he was too far gone to try and fight.  Downing regained his senses and began to follow the trench until it crested, coming into view of a Native returning to his location.  During his haste, Downing failed to reload his rifle and threw it at the advancing Native as he retreated away.  Fatigue began to set in with Downing as he ran for his life and the Native rapidly gained ground.  The pair ran along a large downed tree, and just as they approached the roots, fate intervened on Downing's behalf.
The Native arrived at the base of the fallen tree, and as he made the turn to meet Downing, a large mother bear with a cub was there.  The bear jumped up at the Native and pounced on him; both Native and animal interlocked in a fight.
The Native managed to brandish his knife and stab the bear, who was viciously defending her cub.  Downing watched this event very briefly and took the opportunity to flee back toward the Bourbon Furnace stockade.  The young man ran at full speed and finally reached the stockade without further incident.  Yates was already back, having escaped his pursuers who had given up the chase some two hours before Downing's arrival.  The pair told their harrowing tale of survival and were thankful they had been spared.  The next day, a party of men returned to the tree's location, but found no sign of the bear, the cub, or the Native. 
Although few, clashes between settlers and Natives weren't uncommon in Bath County.  Two more incidents near the Bourbon Iron Furnace are noted in John Richards' A History of Bath County;  John Ely was attacked and killed by Natives a short distance from the furnace in 1787 along what is now called Ely's Branch, and John McGuire was shot and injured by Natives in the same vicinity in 1792.  Several more widely known, and very bloody, fights occurred in surrounding counties; Little Mountain and Morgan's Station in Montgomery County, Battle Run in Fleming County, and Blue Licks in Robertson County.  Eventually, Native attacks in Kentucky subsided and settlers began taking over the once 'dark and bloody ground' the Natives used for hunting.  While these tales have been handed down through many generations, the early days of Kentucky were surely a fascinating, and dangerous time; painting an adventurous scene in the minds of those who followed.

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Night Riders & Tobacco Wars

Around this time of year, farmers are cutting their tobacco crops and hanging them in barns to cure, eventually selling their crop product at warehouse auctions.  It is hard work, and relatively uneventful these days, but around the turn of the Twentieth Century, tobacco farming was a dangerous job for area farmers.  

The American Tobacco Company had acquired a sizeable trust and had monopolized the tobacco industry, becoming the third largest trust in the United States by 1908; third only to the Unites States Steel Corporation and American Oil.  Their dominance over the market eliminated any smaller competition.  Farmers were forced to sell their crops for barely the cost of producing the tobacco, while the American Tobacco Company's income grew.  At the end of 1907, American Tobacco's gross surplus was approximately 32 million dollars.  After stock dividends were paid out, the company showed a 117 percent income profit, while the farmers were barely getting by.  A growing discerning among farmers spawned the creation of the Burley Tobacco Society and Planter's Protection Agency as a way to make a stand against the American Tobacco Company and to secure fair prices for farmers' crops at market.  Waller Sharp from Sharpsburg was among several who led the charge locally with the Burley Tobacco Society.  The movement was statewide, and soon other states were joining the fight against American Tobacco.  Farmers were urged to deliver their crops to the Burley Tobacco Society's warehouses and barns for storage until their tobacco could be negotiated and sold at a fair price.  In 1907, the farmers agreeing to pool their crops resulted in over 10 million dollars worth of product, with an additional reserve of 6 million in the previous year's being held.  It was proposed to cut the 1908 crop to avoid increased surplus and to create a demand for the unsold tobacco, but some farmers declined to cut their crops as requested. Like a workers' strike, the fight against the burley giant American Tobacco would send a message to both the big corporation and to those who shared the ideas of the cause, but refused to stop production.  As a result, a group called the Night Riders came to be. 

The Night Riders were a posse of armed, masked men who used intimidation tactics, and in many cases, violence to try and force farmers to abide by the stand against American Tobacco.  These groups of marauders were more prominent in Western Kentucky, with the most violence occurring in Caldwell and Christian Counties. The men called themselves the Black Patch Society in that area of the state and part of Western Tennessee.  They found where crops were being raised and destroyed tobacco beds and standing fields.  Barns and warehouses were set afire by the Night Riders, lighting up the skies in the darkened cover of night.  Farmers began arming themselves to protect their homes and farms, on some occasions intense gunfights erupted, with the bloodiest of the fighting taking place December 7, 1907 in Hopkinsville.  Approximately 200-300 armed riders rode into the city of Hopkinsville that night and set two large warehouses on fire near the L&N Railroad yards. Gunfire erupted and a railway worker was fatally wounded.   According the the newspaper The Country Gentleman's March 12, 1908 edition, a man was forced from his home and beaten nearly to death in the streets that night by the Night Riders.  Entire cities feared for their safety, and the rural farmers were especially vulnerable.
Typical Night Rider attire
Bath County farmers were not spared the intimidation or acts of violence, although nothing to the extent of the ordeals in Hopkinsville.  Local farmers in went to the county court to express their concerns about the threats made against them, with many of the farmers vowing to continue to raise their crops regardless of the Night Riders.  A group of around twenty masked riders rode into Bethel and Bald Eagle in late November, 1907, posting notices on the barns belonging to Oscar Chandler, Thornton Snelling, Claude Whaley, Richard Donaldson and others, warning the owners against selling their crops at market.  The actions of these marauders prompted Governor Augustus Wilson to mobilize a detachment of twelve mounted cavalrymen to Bath County in an attempt to thwart any violence.  The presence of the armed militia prompted Judge James Lane to inquire what their purpose was, but the commanding officer only stated they were under orders by the Governor.  Judge Lane then ordered the cavalry away, telling them that if he felt the need for armed troops, he would appeal to the Governor himself.

Twenty Night Riders approached Bethel one night early in 1908 and cut the telephone lines into the town.  They stopped at a warehouse belonging to A.S. Robertson, which housed 35,000 pounds of tobacco purchased on the open market.  Beside the warehouse was a dry goods store belonging to the Peters Brothers, with one of the brothers present upstairs.  One rider voiced his concern that the Peters man would fire upon them, prompting a remark that "if he sticks his head out, shoot it off his shoulders".   The riders poured coal oil into the warehouse and set it alight.  The fire quickly consumed the warehouse and spread to the Peters' store.  The lone occupant of the store escaped the flames and began to try and salvage goods from the store, but was unsuccessful.  The warehouse and store burned to the ground, but thankfully no one was injured. The riders left the blazing inferno, heading down Little Flat Road into Sherburne and set fire to the barn of Thomas Daugherty before disappearing into the night.  Although these men weren't masked, no one could identify who they were, even after Governor Wilson issued a $500 reward for the capture and conviction of any member of the Night Riders.
 A couple of nights after the incident at Bethel, the farm of Hiram Hedges at the Bath and Nicholas County line was targeted by the Night Riders.  Hedges was awakened by rocks being thrown against his house late that night.  Armed with a gun, Hedges went to investigate the sound and was met by a group of men.  After lowering his weapon, Hiram agreed to destroy his tobacco bed he had sown and not produce a crop in compliance with the riders' demands.  It is unclear what exactly happened, but a shot rang out and bullet struck Hedges in the stomach.  Hedges fell back into the house as his son ran out to try to help.  Convinced they hadn't shot Hedges, the riders' leader entered the house, and found the man's lifeless body inside the home. The riders quickly rode away, and their true identities were never known. 
Another incident along Prickly Ash nearly ended fatal near the same time, when a group of residents were guarding Nunley Everman's wagon loads of tobacco that were set to be sold in Mount Sterling.  A previous warning was issued not to sell this crop, but Everman ignored it.  Around 10 p.m. on the evening of the incident, horsemen were heard coming down Prickly Ash.  Twelve to fifteen men dismounted and walked to the barn, coming within sight of the guards.  The guards ordered the riders' leader to halt, but the order was ignored as the marauder continued forward with a bottle of coal oil.  A warning shot was fired, which quickly became an all out firefight between the barn's guards and the Night Riders.  One of the guards was inured in the hand by a bullet and the fight intensified.  The riders began to retreat with the guards pursuing them to the junction of the Wyoming Turnpike as the guards continued to fire upon them.  After the Night Riders retreated, several items, including a bottle of coal oil, were located along the road.  The sheriff was summoned to the scene, and more guards dispatched to the barn, but no more incidents occurred and the tobacco was safely delivered to the market in Mount Sterling the following day.

Faced with a short supply of tobacco during the 1908 growing season,  American Tobacco was forced to negotiate with the coalition of tobacco farmers.   The actions of the burley corporation and the Night Riders gained national attention.  The American Tobacco Company was charged with violating the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 by the Department of Justice in 1908.  A judgement was entered  May 29, 1911, splitting the American Tobacco Company's assets into four competitive markets; R.J Reynolds, Liggett and Myers, Lorillard and a reduced version of the American Tobacco Company.  The ruling in United States v. American Tobacco Co. stated that the combination of the tobacco companies “in and of itself, as well as each and all of the elements composing it whether corporate or individual, whether considered collectively or separately [was] in restraint of trade and an attempt to monopolize, and a monopolization within the first and second sections of the Anti-Trust Act.”  The farmers had won their battle to gain fair market value of the crops that provided them with much needed income to survive; with much bloodshed and fear during their fight.  

Today, the tobacco industry is in a steady decline.  Some Bath County farmers who once had sprawling fields of burley have resorted to alternate crops to sustain their way of living.  The Tobacco Wars and the Night Riders passed after just a short amount of time, but the violent legacy left will always be etched into the annals of our local history.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Sky Is Falling!

Most of us have seen the movie Armageddon, or at least know the plot; an asteroid is on a collision course with the Earth and could spell certain doom and disaster for the planet and its inhabitants. Popular television shows on The History Channel and other stations show a 'what if' scenario should an asteroid or large meteor strike happen in populated places, and makes for good entertainment.  The reality is, these kind of things have happened many times in the 4 billion year history of Earth.  Billions of years ago as the universe was being born, hundreds, or thousands, of meteors and small asteroids struck the planet on a regular basis as planetary bodies slammed into one another, raining the rocky debris into the atmosphere.  Most smaller meteors or meteorites are torn apart and disintegrate due to atmospheric friction, but occasionally, some penetrate through the volatile conditions and strike land. 
Perhaps the best and most poignant example of a stellar strike is what scientists believe caused the extinction of the great dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.  An asteroid or comet plunged into Earth near the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and created a worldwide destructive event that killed off the vast majority of plant and animal live.  This may not have been  the first mass extinction event; scientists now hypothesize a much earlier event may have happened between the Triassic and Jurassic period that also wiped out much of the life on Earth.  Another incident in 1908 in the remote regions of the Ukraine involved what scientists believe was a comet that exploded in the atmosphere.  That explosion caused widespread destruction to the area, which was thankfully uninhabited.  Kentucky has been no stranger to these cosmic events, but with much less catastrophe.
There are three documented meteor strike zones in Kentucky significant enough to leave a lasting scar.  One such zone was mistaken for a volcano from 1887 until 1968.  The Jeptha Knob is located in Shelby County between Lexington and Louisville and is a 425 million year old impact site that caused the Earth to rise above the surrounding countryside, creating what's called an astrobleme.  Another strike occurred near Versailles some 440 million years ago.  The town of Middlesboro sits inside a 300 million year old meteor crater that struck the area adjacent to the Cumberland Gap.  The evening of November 15, 1902, residents in Bath County were shaken by the sonic boom of a meteor that struck five miles southeast of Salt Lick.
Around 7:45 p.m., residents in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia observed a brilliant streak in the sky as a meteor burned across the upper atmosphere.  People in each of those states described the stellar light show as a "bright streak, like a roman candle; starting off dim and growing in intensity".  John Richards' published account in his book An Illustrated History of Bath County states that an eye witness in Owingsville said the streak started low above the horizon and grew almost as bright as daylight for about five seconds before disappearing.  A loud sonic boom was heard over Owingsville in a southeasterly direction toward Preston or Olympia, followed by a low rumbling sound. 
Meanwhile at White Sulphur Springs, near present day Clear Creek Lake, Buford Staton heard the noise and went out to investigate the sights and sounds above.   Observant scientists and curious people also traced the path of the falling object, but weren't sure of the exact point of impact.  The next morning, Mr. Staton found a piece of peculiar rock embedded in the ground along the roadway almost directly in front of his home.  Scientists from Kentucky and Ohio had studied the path and deducted from the azimuth calculations that the meteor should have struck somewhere near where it was found.  A day or so later, Buford Staton became a sort of local celebrity when word got out of his unique find.  Staton sold the piece to W.H. Daugherty for a sum of fifteen dollars.  Scientists arrived within the next few days to inspect the piece of extraterrestrial rock and documented it as being a polygon shaped, crusty, black piece  eight and a quarter by six and a half inches, weighing about thirteen pounds.  They also deducted that this must be just a fragment of the meteor that had broken off from a main body, as this small specimen couldn't have made such a spectacular entry from space.  The piece changed hands again when Mr. Daugherty sold it to Professor Harry Ward of Chicago for $300.  Eventually, the fragment found its way to the National Museum in Washington, D.C. and officially called the 'Bath Furnace Meteorite'.
Once at the museum, Professor Merrill studied the composition of the meteor fragment and determined that it was made of nickle, iron, olivine and pyroxene.  Other metallic deposits were scattered in the rock, mostly of rare elements not normally found on Earth.  Professor Merrill officially designated it as a chondrite, a type of meteor that hasn't been melted or altered from the original body mass.  Back in White Sulphur, local residents hunted for the remainder of the meteorite, and after the new year, Dick McCarty found two smaller pieces weighing a few ounces each.  These fragments found a home at the State A&M College in Lexington and officially called 'Bath Furnace 1 & 2'. 
In May, 1903, Hugh Pergram noticed some trees that had the bark skinned off and branches broken high atop them while out hunting about a mile and a half from Buford Staton's home.  Upon investigation, he struck lucky as what appeared to be the main body of the meteor was located partially buried under a grove of trees.  With some help the next day, Hugh Pergram excavated the large rock and took it to Thomas Pergram's home, where he traded it for two mules.  The meteor was triangular shaped with each side being roughly eighteen inches long, eleven inches deep and weighed an astonishing three hundred pounds approximately.  It was a glazed brownish-black with pitted holes throughout.  Word quickly got around and soon, college professors visited Pergram to view and attempt to purchase it.  One offer for $2400 was rejected in hopes a higher price would be offered, but a legal process soon began over the rights to the meteor.  The space debris was found on the land belonging to the heirs of Clell Ewing, who laid claim once it was discovered the meteor was so valuable.  Their argument was that since the meteor fell upon their property, they were the rightful owners.  Thomas Pergram refused to relinquish the piece to the Ewings, and a lawsuit followed.  Before the suit came to trial, both parties made an agreement; the Ewing heirs agreed to pay Thomas Pergram $300, with understanding if the meteor sold for more than $1200, Pergram was to receive one-fourth of the amount.

The Bath Furnace Meteors gained national attention through scientific publications of the day and the fragments were displayed in various science centers.  The largest piece and the smaller thirteen pound fragment was eventually purchased and placed in the Ward-Coonley Collection.  These pieces were also featured at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase World's Fair and viewed by hundreds, including visiting dignitaries from other nations.  The Smithsonian Institute voiced interest in the Ward-Coonley pieces of the Bath Furnace Meteor, but an agreement could not be reached.  The pieces are now housed at the Field Museum in Chicago.  Other meteors have struck Earth since the 1902 incident, but no more in Bath County.  Each year there are various meteor showers that give a sometimes spectacular show in the night sky, but nearly all the ones seen burn up before they pass the atmosphere.  A meteor streaked across the sky recently in Russia, causing a sonic boom that shook buildings and shattered windows for many miles.  With modern technology by NASA and other observatories constantly watching the skies, should a large asteroid or significant meteor pose a danger to Earth, there will be some advanced warning.  While it is unlikely, a small meteor can, and at some point will again, strike the planet creating a flurry of social activity, anxiety and awesome wonder.

The pictures are from the Field Museum and Ward-Coonley Collection, and are of the actual meteor fragments found in Bath County.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Battle of Little Mountain

 Although not fought in Bath County, the Battle of Little Mountain was an encounter in neighboring Montgomery County that pitted a few brave Kentuckians against an equally strong Native force.  This is an event that is largely ignored outside the Gateway Region, but an important piece of our local history.

The early Kentucky frontier was a place of marvel and promise.  Early Virginian settlers came to the 'dark and bloody land' to establish western colonies, expanding the New World that was quickly overcrowding.  Kentucky was also prime land that provided abundant resources for the early settlers and pioneers who bravely cut trails or followed the Native American and large game trails along the rich waterways and mineral deposits.  Although the frontier was a much desired place to be, it was also very dangerous.
The American Revolutionary War was still raging in the late 1700's; the Natives allied themselves with the British on a premise that they would retain their lands.  The British armed and equipped the Natives with munitions and weapons to assist in their fight against the Americans who were fighting to gain independence from King George III's reign.  The Natives were well acquainted with Kentucky territory and frequently raided settlements and stations.  Toward the end of the Revolutionary War, the fight had spilled into Kentucky as the Natives increased their raids and attacks on the western frontier theater.  A siege at Fort Boonesboro in 1778 conducted by over 400 Natives and a few militiamen fighting under the British flag was the largest insurgence against any Kentucky settlement at the time.  The siege lasted from September 7-18 and ended with the Natives retreating from Boonesboro; dividing up into smaller raiding parties, attacking stations and settlements along the way back to Ohio.

Captain James Estill of the Kentucky County, Virginia Militia, established a blockaded station in present day Madison County, about fifteen miles south of Boonesboro.  On March 19, 1782, an alarm was raised when empty canoes were observed floating past Boonesboro.  Knowing this was a sign of a Native war party in the area, runners were sent to Estill's Station and to Logan's Station near Stanford to gather men in an attempt to protect settlements north of Boonesboro.  Nearby Strode's Station in Clark County had been raided by a fearless Wyandot war party a couple of weeks before; a siege that lasted thirty-six hours, so the settlers knew this was a formidable force to reckon with.  Colonel Benjamin Logan sent fifteen men to Estill's Station with orders to mobilize an additional twenty five for a reconnaissance mission to see where the Natives were gathering.  The following day, Natives began to attack nearby stations, including Captain Estill's.  The attack was swift, catching those outside the confines who had been gathering wood by surprise. Fourteen year old Jennie Glass was killed  and Estill's slave, Monk, was taken prisoner.  The fort had been nearly abandoned of all able men at the time of the Wyandot raid.  In fact, only one man was in station that day, nursing wounds he had suffered during another raid that had also left James Estill with a broken arm; an injury that would prove fatal for the captain. 
During interrogation by the war party chief, Monk gave the impression that the fort was fully manned and armed.  The Wyandots rarely took on a well fortified station or fort, relying only on 'hit and run' tactics, so they retreated with their prisoner only after slaughtering several head of cattle.  Samuel South and Peter Hackett set out to catch up with Captain Estill's force and alert him of the attack.  They caught up with the party near the Red River at the mouth of Drowning Creek in what is now Madison County on March 21st.  About twenty men were sent back to Estill's Station but found that the Wyandots were nowhere to be seen.  Five men stayed back to defend the station while the rest of the party began to track the marauders. 
Estill's party made camp that night near Little Mountain.  The next morning, ten men of the party were forced to stay at camp due to their horses being exhausted from the hard ride.  A light snow had blanketed the ground and soon, tracks were seen heading northeast.  Captain Estill and about twenty five men set out to find the war party, and soon, their efforts paid off.  Along Hinkston Creek, about two miles from the small settlement we know today as Mount Sterling, a group of Natives were cleaning a buffalo carcass near a crossing.  Taking up positions within the thick trees, Estill's men got into position and fired off a volley of shots, killing one Wyandot instantly.  David Cook lined up a Native in his line of fire and struck the flint just as another Native stepped in front.  The musket ball tore through both Natives and they fell from the same bullet.  The fight was divided by Hinkston Creek, or Little Mountain Creek as it was known then, with neither side budging.  Musket balls struck the surrounding trees, sending splinters of wood flying, and one lucky shot hit a Wyandot chief early in the engagement.  The Wyandot Chief lay mortally wounded, but still rallied the Natives into a fighting frenzy. 
Monk, the slave who had been taken captive, bravely shouted the Natives' numbers and movements across the creek to Estill's men. Captain Estill ordered his men into three squads in an attempt to flank the Natives.  Lieutenant William Miller was ordered to take his men to a crossing downstream to protect the party's horses and cut off any advance the Natives may make.  Miller got into position when suddenly a bullet struck his weapon, knocking the flint off the locking mechanism.  Miller and his squad retreated from their position, with Miller reportedly shouting, " it's foolhardy to stay and be shot down".  Estill and other men offered Miller another flint, but the lieutenant and his men fled the battleground, leaving the left flank open.  Casualties were mounting on both sides, but now the Wyandots had the upper hand and decided to make their move. They forded the creek and a brutal hand to hand fight ensued.  Monk, meanwhile took the initiative and secured the horses away from the battle, insuring the surviving Kentuckians would have a means of egress.

The Natives bore their tomahawks on Estill's men, clubbing them as they were interlocked in hand to hand combat.  The Kentuckians fought for their lives, swinging their rifle butts in self defense.  Other men fell back into the trees for cover in an attempt to regroup, striking down several Wyandots with their musket fire.  Knowing they were outnumbered and outgunned, Estill ordered the militiamen to retreat as the Natives pounced on them.  One Wyandot warrior tackled Captain Estill and quickly gained the advantage on him.  Both men struggled and rolled across the ground, locking arms as the Native attempted to stab the captain.  Joseph Proctor watched with his rifle at the ready, waiting to get a clear shot of the Wyandot, but couldn't due to the intense fight.  Meanwhile, Estill's other men were being attacked just as fierce and six fell where they fought.  The Native who was wrestling with Captain Estill was described as a large warrior, weighing approximately 200 pounds, and was showing no signs of relenting.  While the two were arm locked, the captain's previously injured arm began to fail and gave out, giving the Native the final blow.  With a yell of triumph, the warrior plunged his knife deep into Captain Estill's chest, killing him.  At almost the same moment, a shot rang out from Joseph Proctor's rifle and the warrior fell across the slain captain's body.  The battle lost momentum after this, while the Kentuckians retreated back with their wounded, the Natives fell back across Hinkston Creek and disappeared into the thick woods.  The battle was brutal and mostly non stop, lasting about two hours.  The entire battlefield was concentrated to only a couple hundred yards deep; unlike conventional battles we know today as being over large spans of ground. 
Captain Estill's grave marker in Richmond Cemetery depicting his final battle with a Wyandot Warrior
The surviving men of Estill's party were bloodied and exhausted, but knew they had to make haste back to the protection of the station some forty miles away.  Joseph Proctor reportedly strapped a gravely injured man named Irving to himself and carried the man all the way back to Estill's Station.  Monk, who had secured the horses, joined the party and assisted another seriously injured man all the way back to the fort.  Seven Kentuckians, including Captain James Estill, were killed; Monk counted as many as seventeen Natives killed.  One of Estill's party was taken prisoner, but escaped soon afterward and confirmed the number of Native casualties. 
Three days after the battle, a party of about 40-50 men from Estill's and surrounding stations returned to the battlefield to bury the dead.  In the haste of retreat, the bodies were left where they fell; the Natives had either taken their dead with them or had returned after the battle.  According to witness statements taken at a deposition regarding a land dispute in 1803, the bodies of Captain Estill and his men were buried where they fell using the rocks, brush and logs from the battlefield to cover them.  They had not been desecrated by the Natives, either as a sign of respect, or a sign of an equal hasty retreat by the Wyandots.  In the same depositions, it is said that for years after the battle, bullet marks on the trees could still be seen and the bones of some of the dead were exposed from their resting site.  No markers were placed at the battlefield marking the dead or who was placed where.  Today, the Battle of Little Mountain site is on private property, and Interstate 64 runs right through the middle of the battlefield. 
The battle was considered a defeat in the eyes of the early Kentuckians, as the Estill militia did not hold the ground and repel the Natives.  Lieutenant Miller nor his men never returned to the station and all were considered cowards, which would have resulted in death by hanging.  David Cook, a survivor of the battle, vowed for twenty years that he would personally kill Miller should he ever show his face again.  Miller reportedly lived until the age of 95, forever shamed by his actions that March day.  Captain Estill's slave, Monk, would receive great accolades for his actions before and during the battle, gaining the distinction of being the first freed slave in the state of Kentucky.  He later went on to become a Baptist minister, married twice and had thirty children.  Monk died in Madison County in 1835.  Joseph Proctor was the last surviving member of the Battle of Little Mountain, passing away in 1844 with full military honors and fanfare. 
Captain James Estill is forever immortalized by the Kentucky county that bears his name.  A bronze plaque was placed on a millstone on the site of the Battle of Little Mountain, but moved when the interstate was built.  Today, that millstone is at the entrance to a Mount Sterling Factory near Midland Trail Industrial Park.  A historical marker was placed at the corner of North Maysville Street and Hinkston Pike in Mount Sterling that gives a brief account of the battle, although the battlefield is some mile and a half away.  This wouldn't be the last fight between the Kentuckians and the Natives; five months later, the Battle of Blue Licks took place not far from where Captain Estill fell.  In 1793, a Shawnee and Cherokee war party raided Morgan's Station along Slate Creek in present day Montgomery County, the last known organized Native American raid in Kentucky.  Although the Battle of Little Mountain is regarded as Estill's Defeat, it was a courageous and hard fought battle by a group of brave men who helped shape the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
Millstone marker depicting the Battle of Little Mountain, along US 60 in Mount Sterling.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Tater Knob Tower

Tater Knob Fire Tower, after the 1959 renovations.
Atop the highest point in Bath County, there are the gleaming, silver remains of a structure that once played a vital role in the Daniel Boone National Forest.  Sitting 1,388 feet above sea level, Tater Knob is a rock outcropping millions of years old that perches high above the native trees and provides a spectacular view of the entire region.  On a clear day, one can see up to thirty miles in each direction; a place many have found as the calming solace in this busy day to day world.
Fires have always been a danger to heavily forested areas.  The fallen timber, dried leaves and vegetation are a rich catalyst for a conflagration.  A forest fire can be started by lightening, careless campers, or at the hands of an arsonist.  As people began to settle near the natural beauty of the Daniel Boone National Forest, and industries based on the resources began to boom,  a wildfire could be personally and economically devastating to those involved.  One such wildfire burned over three million acres across Washington, Idaho and Montana in August, 1910.  The fire killed 87 people, many whom were firefighters trying to contain the inferno.  This fire is considered the largest wildfire in United States history.  After the fire, a focus was placed on preventing such an incident from happening again.  Public awareness of conservation and new rules incorporated by the newly formed U.S. Forest Service sought to educate and reduce the fire danger, and to provide an early detection of fires in the forested areas of the United States.  Lookout towers were built across the nation to do just that; with men staffing the towers who would be the watchful eye.
Early towers were either built atop the high points in the forests, or built as towering structures high above a metal grid in order to see several miles in each direction.  Other towers were built in a network within the forest's district and communicated via telegraph, visual signals, and later, telephone to pinpoint the location of a fire if smoke was spotted.  It is believed the first lookout towers were built in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire around 1910.  The Civilian Conservation Corps was organized in 1933 as a way to provide much needed jobs during the Great Depression.  The Forest Service utilized Corps laborers to construct lookout towers and access roads through the dense forests, including the Daniel Boone National Forest.
The Tater Knob Lookout Tower was built in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  The area the tower stands was much more rugged back then; no wooden steps or good roads led to the tower.   Built with hand tools, the tower was a 14x14 foot wooden structure with a wood stove, two cots, a cabinet, storage box, small table and stool occupied by two Forest Service men during the fire seasons.  In the middle of the small room was the alidade, or "fire spotter" that the men used to determine an azimuth when smoke was spotted.  One tower would communicate with another and together, with the azimuths they recorded, the smoke's location would be triangulated and the location given to firefighters who would trek into the forest.  
A forestry service worker fire spotting, 1930's

Constructing the Tater Knob Tower was no easy task.  Materials had to be hauled in by mules and an elaborate pulley system was rigged to bring items up to the top of the mountain.  A rough road was cut through the forest and across steep cliffs just south of the tower's site and was the only access at the time.  The finished tower stood 35 feet above the knob's crest; one of around 160 statewide.  During fire seasons, the tower was manned twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.  Men worked long, and mostly lonely, shifts scanning the horizon for anything that would raise the alarm.  Until Cave Run Lake was constructed, the Licking River Valley was dotted with homes and businesses.  Licking Union and Yale were the closest towns to Tater Knob and the lumber mills would have been visible from the tower.  In 1959, the tower was remodeled and reduced inside to 10x10 feet.  The wooden parts of the tower was wrapped in an aluminum skin which protected it from the elements and rot.  The conditions hadn't changed much by then; a new road which is now Zilpo Road was cut through the forest along the ridge to the north of Tater Knob sometime later, and the area was incorporated as a campground and tourist attraction after the lake was built.

Tater Knob Tower remained in constant operation until the mid 1970's.  Forest Service personnel resorted to spotter aircraft when locating fires, rendering the lookout towers obsolete.  Many towers were dismantled, but Tater Knob was left to the elements and started deteriorating.  The once busy tower remained abandoned until an interest in restoration began during the early 1990's.  A committee was formed and together with the Kentucky Bicentennial Commission, the Bath County Historical Society and the Frenchburg Jobs Corps, Tater Knob was restored in 1993.  Tourists could trek up to the tower via over 200 steps up the mountainside and see the breathtaking views at the top.  Trail markers and signs along the way tell the story of the lookout tower and how important it was during it's time of service.  Over the years, thousands of people have climbed the metal steps to gaze into the beyond; but sadly, it would come to an abrupt end.  

On December 3, 2008, a call of smoke from atop Tater Knob was dispatched to the Salt Lick Fire Department and U.S. Forestry Service.  Once units arrived, it was discovered that the Tater Knob Tower was on fire.  The wooden structure under the aluminum wrap was burning from the inside, with the aluminum material oozing down in a molten mass.  After some time, the fire was put out, but the tower was forever damaged.  People had vandalized the historic tower over the years, which had been placed on the National Registry of Historic Lookout Towers after the 1993 restoration, by spray painting names and slogans on the metal frame.  It was discovered that the fire was no accident; someone had used spray paint as an accelerate and lit it on fire.  The Forest Service closed Tater Knob Tower due to unsafe conditions, and a piece of local and National history was lost.  After an investigation and tips from the public, a man and woman were arrested and charged with arson.  Salt Lick native Landon Dickerson, along with Morehead native Danny Blevins, organized a music festival and fundraiser at the Morehead Conference Center in 2009, raising over 2,500 dollars to help restore the tower.  Other fundraising events have been held and private donations have been made toward the tower's reconstruction, but to date, the tower is still as it was that December day; a scorched remnant of the past.
The Bath County Tourism Council, in conjunction with the Forest Service's Cumberland Ranger District, is actively looking at ways to reopen the Tater Knob Tower, restoring it possibly to its original state as a functional tower.  Tourism Chairman Brent Frizzell hopes to have this project under way very soon, as funds become available.  Until then, the tower atop Tater Knob remains closed to visitors; the last fire tower that hopefully will stand again soon.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Moonshine & Murder

Replica moonshine still at Gladie Creek, Red River Gorge
The Eastern Kentucky hills and mountains are beautiful to look upon, especially in fall and winter.  The sheer cliffs of Southern Bath County along the Menifee County boundary is a majestic view, but a dangerous journey.  These cliffs once hid another danger; moonshine stills and those who wished to keep their clandestine activities guarded from revenuers. 

 During the Prohibition Era between 1920 and 1933, it was illegal to possess, sell, or transport alcoholic beverages in the United States.  People found ways to bypass laws by making their own alcohol in secret, and often heavily guarded, locations.  The Bureau of Prohibition was organized in 1920 with the sole mission of  thwarting the sale, possession and transport of the illicit spirits.  Federal Agent U.G. McFarland had received word during a raid  that Charley Ballard had a large distilling operation on his property along East Fork Creek near Means, Kentucky.  Bath County resident and former Bath County Jailer Robert Duff was a Federal Agent with the bureau division, joining in October 1921.  He was approaching fifty years old with a wife and seven children during the winter of 1922 and tasked to take on the Ballard family and shut down the illegal distillery.  On December 9, 1922, Agent Duff, accompanied by Agent D.R. Carter and a group of other deputies, set out to execute a search warrant on the Ballard farm. 
The group arrived at the home of Jeff Ballard and confronted him with the warrant to search for and seize any items related to the illegal distillery.  Ballard denied having any moonshine stills on his property, but was detained by two other deputies while Duff, Carter and another agent, W.P. Treadway, began their search.  The trio found a path behind the Ballard home that led to the base of a mountain along a creek bank.  At the edge of the mountain side, they noticed what appeared to be a large brush pile; but at closer inspection, they could make out what looked to be a pathway into the brush. 

Cautiously, the agents moved in to inspect their find and noticed it was a fortified structure dug into the side of the mountain.  In the front were double logged walls with space between them filled with rock and dirt.  Other logs were made into a lean-to type structure across the top, with a layer of tar paper to make a roof.  The entire structure was covered in surrounding brush to camouflage it's true appearance.  A door was to the right of the logged walls and a small shuttered window was in front, giving those inside a view of the outside.  The elaborate structure was built to withstand even the most powerful bullet from a long rifle, and to conceal anyone who may be inside. 
Agent Duff took the lead to open the door, which was secured from the inside.  Finding a stick, he began to beat on the shuttered window to gain entry, when suddenly the door flew open and a hail of bullets flew out, striking Duff.  The other two agents sought cover and returned fire into the still house.  The other deputies, hearing the commotion, quickly ran up to assist but were met with gunfire, pinning them down.  The agents and deputies fell back to protect themselves, returning fire as they could.  Agent Duff lay near the entrance of the fortification, in a direct line of fire.  Attempts were made to retrieve Duff's lifeless body, but quickly abandoned in fear others would suffer the same fate.  Not knowing how many assailants were inside the fortified still house or how much fire power they controlled, the agents and deputies retreated, leaving Agent Duff until an arrangement was made for an undertaker to retrieve his body.  
The next day, Prohibition Bureau Director Sam Collins arrived in Lexington and organized a posse to return to Means and bring the Ballards to justice.  Joining Collins was Lee Stewart, who had a reputation of being one of the most feared and tenacious agents in Eastern Kentucky, and eight other deputies.  The group arrived in Mount Sterling and were joined by five other deputies before trekking to East Fork.  Once the party arrived, they made their way to the site of the previous day's bloody gunfight; Agent Duff's body had been removed by the undertaker as agreed.  The still house was unoccupied but housed an enormous distillery operation; seventeen barrels and fermentors, forty gallons of moonshine, 1,400 gallons of beer and a substantial assortment of related manufacturing materials were seized and destroyed. A still and a 'worm' - a coil made of copper that is a vital part of a still - were missing.  Stewart exited the still house and began following a trail up the mountain, attempting to locate the other components of the operation.  

At the same time, Deputies Eubanks and Phillips began searching for a missing firearm lost during the previous day's battle.  A shot rang out from above and the two dashed for cover, not knowing where the shooter's position was.  A group of eight or ten agents and deputies began to move around to the back of where they heard the shots, to close in on the shooter.  At the crest of the mountain, another shot rang out even closer, but the party couldn't ascertain where the shot had originated. After regrouping from taking cover, the posse cautiously continued along the ridge crest.  About fifty yards from where they had ducked for cover, David Treadway, one of the deputies, lifeless body lay along the path.  Treadway was a twenty-four year old Montgomery County resident and had just joined the posse when they met in Mount Sterling earlier in the day.  The group retrieved Treadway's body and headed off the mountain; a second bloody day in the hollows of Means, and the Ballard's were still on the run. 

The bureau agents convened in Lexington that night and decided to wait a few days for tensions to ease before launching another raid.  Kentucky Governor Morrow offered a $500 reward for the capture of Bob and Charles Ballard for their connection in the murders of the bureau agents.  Twenty agents and deputies moved out at 2:15 a.m. December 15, 1922 with the sole mission of taking the Ballards into custody once and for all.  A new strategy would be deployed; the posse would park at the Means Post Office and walk to the Ballard farm.  It was a cold, drizzly night as they made their way on foot.  Along the way, agents detained anyone they found along the way to insure the Ballards wouldn't be alerted.  Around daylight, the posse arrived at the home of Albert Ballard and arrested him and a cousin, Willie Ferguson.  Soon after, they arrived at the home of Jeff Ballard and found no one was home.  About a half mile away, the group found a cabin behind Willie Ferguson's place and cautiously surrounded it.  Mat Sanders, a deputy in the posse, busted the door open with the butt of his rifle, to be met with instant gunfire.  Sanders was struck and fell at the front door.  While Agent Guy Cole attempted to enter the back door, he was shot three times; twice in the torso and once in the head. 

The other members of the posse  formed two lines and began openly firing into the cabin.  Approximately 150 shots were fired into the cabin; the return fire ceased after a few minutes.  Charley Ballard ran out of the rear door and fled into the woods, being struck twice before disappearing into the thick brush.  Mat Sanders was injured, but Guy Cole succumbed to his injuries on site.  As agents looked inside the cabin, they found Bob Ballard lying in the floor with a fatal wound to his head.  The remaining agents pursued Charley Ballard's trail to the home of Henry Reffett, where they learned the injured assailant had been bandaged up and left via horseback toward Mill Creek in Bath County.  They broke off the chase around dark and returned to the Ferguson cabin to find that Jeff Ballard had been apprehended.  

The following day, agents returned to Means to attempt to locate Charley Ballard.  They were met by Menifee County Sheriff Ben Wells who had a message from Ballard stating that he would surrender to Wells only.  Wells was reportedly a relative of the Ballards and had knowledge of Charley's hiding spot near Preston's train depot.  The bureau agents agreed, on the condition that Ballard be brought to Fayette County.
A total of five were arrested and brought before the United States District Court in Lexington for their roles in the moonshine operation; Jeff and Albert Ballard, Willie Ferguson, Joe Clem and Henry Reffett were charged with violating the National Prohibition Act.  Charley Ballard was charged for the killing of Agents Duff, Cole and Treadway in Menifee County, and charged similarly by the US District Court.  He was under hospital care during the judicial process due to wounds he received in the final gunfight at East Fork, and had to have surgery while in jail to avoid an amputation of his foot.  

The raid garnished national attention; numerous papers nationwide told the story of the raid and killings within the following days.  Headlines across the country told of the spectacular raid and shootout in the hills of Eastern Kentucky and how the slain bureau agents were bravely performing their duties before they were cut down.  A Lexington Herald Leader article states that the initial court appearances of the men accused was set for January 2, 1923 at the US District Court in Lexington; however, not many records relating to the trial, which started in 1924, are readily available.  It is known that Charley Ballard was initially acquitted of his murder charges in Menifee County, but was later sentenced by the US District Court to six years in prison for his actions. 

This event was known as the Menifee Moonshine War, the last great and spectacular raid in the area.  Other illegal distilleries were raided and destroyed in the hills of Eastern Kentucky throughout the Prohibition Era, some with heated confrontations, but none would result in the loss of life as the Ballard raid.  Agent Robert Duff was buried in his hometown of Owingsville, Deputy David G. Treadway was buried at Machpelah Cemetery in Mount Sterling, and Agent Guy Cole was interred at Mount Pigsah Cemetery near Bowling Green.  These men are added to local and National fallen officer memorials as a reminder of their public service.  Today, clandestine moonshine operations still exist, and agents of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, FBI and other local law enforcement agencies still battle the 'shiners' nationwide.  The lore of the moonshiner takes on a nostalgic and cultural feel, mixed with legend and romanticism, but still a very dangerous and illegal activity.
Agent Robert Duff's grave at Owingsville Cemetery

Special thanks to Felicia Stalder for inspiring this story, and the pictures she sent!

For more information about this incident, go to 


Friday, June 3, 2016

Ancient Mounds

Shannon, Kentucky's Indian mound, just to the right of the church.
Long before Kentucky was settled, nomadic tribes of people wandered the forests and fields, hunting and gathering resources to survive.  We know that when the first white men entered Kentucky, bands of Shawnee, Iroquois and Wyandot natives, with smaller factions of Cherokee, were present within the region; but long before those people, another cultures existed and left lasting remnants with their artifacts and ceremonial sites we still find today.
Around 13,000 B.C., early humans began migrating into North America during the Pleistocene Era, probably with the glacier movements that linked Asia and the American Continent.  Some of the earliest ancestors of indigenous North Americans, called the Clovis People, arrived around this time and first settled in what is now New Mexico.  The Clovis People began migrating to other parts of North And South America; archaeological sites attributed to this early culture are found from Oregon to Pennsylvania and as far south as South Carolina.  Other sites are found as far away as Brazil and Chile.   A time at the end of the last great Ice Age called the Paleoindian Era, circa 9,900 B.C., descendants of the Clovis People had begun to appear in Kentucky, but the only evidence so far are a very few arrow and spear tips that have been found.  Mastodon and other large mammals roamed Kentucky and gathered at the rich mineral springs and salt deposits.  The early inhabitants hunted these giant beasts for food, clothing and shelter; in fact, remains of a mastodon were recovered in Sharpsburg, at a place called Fleming's Pond near the Sharpsburg Cemetery.  In the nearby cemetery, there is a conspicuous earthen mound that greets visitors as they enter.  This mound is indeed man-made, but not due to digging graves and discarding the unused soil. 
Earthen mounds are found dotting the landscape through Ohio and parts of Kentucky, made by the Adena People from around 1000 to 200 B.C.  These mounds range from just a few feet high and in diameter like the one in Sharpsburg Cemetery, while others are much larger.  The name Adena is derived not through historical accounts passed down from the original people, but from the large mound found on the estate of Thomas Worthington called Adena in Chillicothe, Ohio.  These mounds are burial sites used multiple times, usually filled with human remains and artifacts, such as arrow points, spears, pottery and other items.  In early settler times, and even up until the early modern age,  the mounds were often leveled by farmers as they plowed fields, not knowing the significance these earthworks held.  One large mound that suffered a similar fate was located off Ramey Road in Sharpsburg.  From an aerial map, one can still make out the trace of the mound's large base diameter.  There were two more smaller mounds that flanked the larger one, but they are completely gone now.   The mounds in the region are believed to be from the Middle Woodland Era of the prehistoric timeline, a time that is not well understood as far as their social habits; however their culture was obviously well structured. 
Some of the best preserved mounds still existing in the Bluegrass Region are in Sharpsburg, Mount Sterling, Mays Lick and Shannon.   The Gaitskill Mound in Mount Sterling stands about twenty feet high and his largely untouched.  A larger mound, which gave Mount Sterling its name, was located at South Queen Street and East Locust near the Keas Church and described as being a large diameter earthwork with a large elm tree growing at the top.  Unfortunately, during Mount Sterling's early settlement, the mound was cut down and leveled to accommodate dwellings.  Many artifacts were recovered from the mound, giving a glimpse into the skill and artisan work the Adena People had in the production of tools and weapons.
Mt. Sterling's Gaitskill Mound
The Gaitskill Tablet

The Gaitskill Mound stands just off Kentucky 686 adjacent to the Gateway Plaza Shopping Center.  Only slight archaeological excavations have been conducted yielding one curious object; a tablet made of baked clay that appears to be a spider with a human face on it.  The purpose of this tablet is still a mystery.

A small Adena mound in Sharpsburg, Kentucky
Shannon Cemetery mound
The Sharpsburg Cemetery mound is largely intact, and no in depth excavations have been conducted there.  More mounds were located between Sharpsburg and Bethel, toward Upper Blue Licks and along Flat Creek, but have all mainly been leveled off by farmers.  More mounds in Montgomery County are still slightly visible near Camargo on private land.  At a small country settlement known as Shannon, about twenty minutes west of Maysville, there is a mound in a cemetery.  Atop the mound are graves of early residents who were buried there before anyone realized the historical value the mound held.  No excavations can be performed there due to the burials, so it will always remain safe and unharmed.  Another mound is visible along Route 11 near Maysville almost to the intersection of the Double A Highway, in a field next to an large, white house.  In Mayslick, a large village site was discovered on what's called the Fox Farm Site and dates to the Fort Ancient People during the First Century A.D.  Burial mounds are present on the site, which is on private land, but listed on the Historic Registry. On Prickly Ash Creek just outside Owingsville, many artifacts have turned up in a field, but it's not known if the site once had a mound or if it was a hunting settlement.  The best known mound site in Kentucky is the Wickliffe Mounds in Ballard County.  At this location, a village of the Mississippian People thrived between 1100 and 1350 A.D.  Two large mounds and several smaller ones dot the grounds around the site, including an excavated mass burial grave site.  Wickliffe Mounds is a Kentucky State Historical Site and has a living history event to show visitors how the later era people lived from day to day.

Today, known and documented mound sites are protected by Federal Laws to preserve cultural and early American heritage.  While we may never know the true customs of the earliest people to inhabit Kentucky, we can piece together their ceremonial practices through these sites.  There are probably many more sites yet to be discovered, or realized, hidden along the ways or maybe even in plain sight.  Arrowheads, spears and other early native artifacts are highly sought after by collectors, but are the physical remnants of the first people to arrive in North America, and should be treated as precious relics.  The mounds were considered a sacred place for those early people, and should still be considered just as hallowed as they were thousands of years ago.

For information about the protection of Native American sites and artifacts, go to

For more information about Kentucky's Historic State Parks, go to

Monday, May 23, 2016

Back on the Road Again

When some people these days hear the name REO Speedwagon, they think, "oh yeah, I've heard them on the radio a time or two," but they don't realize the origin of the band's name stems from one of the workhorse vehicles of the early Twentieth Century and it has an Owingsville connection.  Ransom E. Olds, founder of the Olds Motor Vehicle Company that later became Oldsmobile, established the REO Motor Car Company in 1905.  Based in Lansing, Michigan, the REO line of vehicles lasted until 1975 and at one time was one of the wealthiest automobile manufacturers of the early 1900's.  Touring cars were largely produced by the REO Company those early days; usually open top convertibles that people used to drive across the dusty country roads on a leisurely afternoon. 
A truck manufacturing division was established in 1910 to help move products across the booming nation.  A light duty truck called the REO Speedwagon hit the production market in 1915 with a state of the art chassis and basic design that became a widely used service vehicle until around 1953.  These trucks were the predecessor of the modern pickup truck and used as hearses, ambulances, delivery, tow, dump and fire trucks.  Prior to World War I, the Speedwagons were a highly successful and durable line of vehicle.  

Fire trucks have been in service for hundreds of years throughout the world.  The earliest trucks were hand drawn pumps that were deployed by men carrying or dragging them to fire scenes.  Cities soon began to sprawl out, demanding the need for more efficient trucks to carry more water and get to fires more quickly.  The first self-propelled fire truck was a steam powered engine built in New York City in 1841; probably the first modern fire truck powered by a combustion engine was manufactured by the Knox Automobile Company in 1905.  The REO Speedwagon fire trucks usually featured what was called the 'Gold Crown' type six cylinder power plants; a heavy duty motor which gave them extra power to pull the weight of the truck with a load of water and other equipment.  The top speed, however, was left to be desired; most of the trucks only managed about 45 miles per hour at best. 
Classic open cab style 
The City of Owingsville sought a new, modern fire truck sometime in the 1930’s.  The earliest known fire truck Owingsville had was an old hand-drawn Howe pumper housed where the Hometown Mortgage office now stands.  Water was drafted from cisterns or wells into the truck via large rubber hoses as men used a lever/piston type mechanism to get water pressure through the cotton fire hoses.  The City Council voted to purchase a reliable fire truck and settled on a 1932 REO Speedwagon vehicle.  Unfortunately, the council meeting minutes from that era have been lost, so the actual date is unknown.  Current Fire Chief John Barry Staton recently sat down with Tom Byron and discussed some of the history of Owingsville’s ‘Old REO’.  In the early 1930’s, Owingsville’s water supply was upgraded with new fire hydrants to better protect the city under the direction of Ernie Downs.  Byron said that Downs was in charge of the water company and held a significant role in the city’s affairs.  He wasn’t sure of Downs was fire chief at the time, but Tom says his uncle, Ed Byron, was the mayor during this time.  “I believe Dinks Jones may have been the Fire Chief when the truck was bought,” said Tom.  “Jones actually went to St. Louis and drove the fire truck all the way back to Owingsville".  This was an interesting feat due to the slow speed of the truck and the fact it was an open top.

The 'Old REO' stayed in service many years and was housed at the old city hall building which is located across from Gray's Funeral Home on Slate Avenue.  During this time, the fire truck was only allowed to respond to fire calls within the city limits; a policy that remained until more recent times.  Tom Byron said that the city bought another fire truck around 1953 or 1954; a Ford that with the Speedwagon, were the two front line trucks for the City of Owingsville. It was mentioned that the REO fire truck was an open topped vehicle, which maintains that vintage, classic look.  The padded wooden seat probably wasn't very luxurious or comfortable for long rides, but it served the purpose.  The truck's hose bed is wooden planks that were stained to protect against the wet cotton hoses that were stored until the next call.  Unlike today's fire trucks that hold 1,000 or more gallons of water, the REO Speedwagon only held maybe fifty gallons of water.  There is a coupling that is fitted onto the driver's side of the truck that hooked to a hose firefighters secured to a fire hydrant which fed water into the tank for larger fires.  In its day, the fire truck was a vibrant red with gold trimmings painted on it and Owingsville F.D. painted in gold on the hood.  A simple 'O.F.D.' was also painted in gold on each side of the truck's body just behind the cab.  Only a couple of people could ride in the open cab, which left the other firefighters to ride on the side boards or tailboard to the fire scene.  One can envision this classic sight of a fire truck roaring down the streets as firemen hung onto the sides.

Eventually, standards in firefighting were streamlined and certain rules were established regarding how much water a fire truck needed to flow to effectively extinguish a large fire, rendering the REO Speedwagon truck obsolete.  The truck went out of service sometime before the fire department reorganized in 1975. Jeff Adkins, who has been a member of the Owingsville Fire Department since 1984, recalls seeing the 'Old REO' sitting at the service station that once stood where Owingsville Fire Department's station is now located.  Around 1982 or 1983, the truck was even decorated as a parade float and pulled through the May Day Parade.  As time went on, the REO Speedwagon was moved to the old water plant that used to be along Slate Avenue, and next door to Tom Byron.  Tom told Chief Staton that he was talking to the late Mayor William Steele and the mayor told Tom, "this old truck needs to go away somewhere soon".  Understanding the historical and local tradition the old truck had, Byron purchased 'Old REO' , saving it from being scrapped.  The truck was moved to a barn Tom owned and there it stayed for twenty-eight years. 

About a month ago, Tom Byron needed help repairing a tractor that was on the farm.  Randy Ferrell, who owns a local repair shop and tow service on East High Street, came to help Tom.  Along with him was Jeff Adkins, who had always knew the truck was somewhere on the property.  With permission, Jeff opened up the door to a barn and before him was "Old REO".  Randy and Jeff negotiated with Tom and was granted permission to haul the vintage fire truck out of the barn to the shop on a journey of restoration.  The truck is in quite remarkable condition; the vibrant red and gold paint has faded and oxidized, the tires have dry rotted and seat cushions are gone, but the truck is just stunning to look at. 
Owingsville's REO Speedwagon fire truck will be restored back to its original state over the course of the next several months.  If you attended the May Day Parade last week, you saw the truck poised upon
Randy Ferrell's roll back truck with Mayor Gary Hunt and Owingsville Fire Department junior member Jacob Purvis atop it.  Randy said that over the past month, several people have stopped to snap pictures or even asked to buy it.  The truck still belongs to Tom Byron, who has the original title dated 1932, and there are no immediate plans to sell it anytime soon. There are only 7,000 original miles on the REO Speedwagon, most of which were tacked on when the maiden trip from St. Louis to Owingsville was made. One piece of equipment that isn't on the truck is the old bell, which was donated to the Bath County Memorial Library in honor of Mayor Robert Gilmore, but an old pike pole and section of hose is still there.  The spotlight and red beacon light is still on the truck and appear to be in great condition.  Randy said the power plant six cylinder motor is in remarkable shape, and has been pulled out to be restored along with the rest of the truck.  As months go by, it will be interesting to see the restoration progress of this vintage gem of a truck; a true visual relic of Owingsville's history.

Hand crank type windshield wiper

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Faint Owingsville FD on the hood