Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Standing on Shaky Ground

It was a hot Sunday afternoon in July, a slight breeze stirred and the sun was poking out of the clouds that had hung around most of the day after some brief showers that wandered through earlier.  My sister was inside the mobile home we lived in cooking while my mom was mowing the back yard.  My dad was working on the farm that day and I was on the porch of our home being a typical six year old; hammering nails into a two by four for whatever reason.  I raised the hammer to strike a nail and as contact was made, the whole porch started violently shaking.  I tossed the hammer down and ran out into the yard, fully thinking I had caused the end of times.  I ran to my grandmother's house next door and my great-aunt was crouched on the floor yelling, "oh honey, it's an EARTHQUAKE!"  In a couple of minutes, the shaking was over but our nerves were still rattled.

The strongest recorded earthquake in Kentucky happened Sunday, July 27, 1980 at around 2:50 p.m.  The magnitude 5.2 quake was centered just west of Sharpsburg and  felt as far north as Canada.  There was some slight damage to brick chimneys, foundations and some small cracks in the ground in Bath County, with more damage noted in Maysville some forty miles north.  According to the United States Geological Survey, some thirty aftershocks were recorded, with a 2.5 magnitude aftershock recorded July 31.  When people think of earthquakes, they usually envision large faults like the San Andreas Fault or the New Madrid event; that they won't occur in the area of Kentucky Bath County lies. So, what exactly is a fault?  A fault is basically a crack in the rocky areas deep in the Earth's crust.  These cracks are from the movement of rock mass against other rock masses.  Large faults are the result of what's called plate tectonic forces, where large masses of rock cause boundaries between the plates the rock beds set upon.  Energy released when one of these plates move causes an earthquake. 
Fault line along I-64 in Bath County
There are a few ancient faults that lie far below the surface of Bath County; one is in plain sight along Interstate 64 near the 117 mile marker headed east bound.  The rocks along the cuts in the hillside reveal a shift in the geology where, millions of years ago, the Earth's tectonic plates collided.  This fault is very old and dormant, running across the interstate to Day Road, where it is deep below the surface and out of sight. 

Earthquakes have been recorded in Kentucky since the late 1700's when the early explorers began settling the Bluegrass State.  The most famous earthquake to affect the state was the New Madrid event in 1811 when a series of magnitude 7+ earthquakes rocked the Missouri/Kentucky border.  Starting December 16, 1811 with a powerful estimated 7.5 quake, the event was felt over 976,000 square miles.  Damage to structures within close proximity was limited due to the area being sparsely populated, but the landscape was changed greatly.  Landslides, sand blowouts from fissures occurred, and in some cases, land simply disappeared; sinking below the ground;  Reelfoot Lake in western Kentucky was formed due to the land sinking.  In some places the land thrust upward and islands in the Mississippi River disappeared totally.  Further away from the epicenter, damage was reported all over Kentucky and Cincinnati, as well as throughout Tennessee and St Louis, Missouri.  Two more powerful quakes struck on January 23, and February 7, 1812, both with a magnitude estimated as 7+.  The stories of the Mississippi River running backwards is not entirely untrue; the intense shaking churned the water with such great force, boats were toppled and portions of the riverbanks collapsed.  There were no modern seismographs in the area back then, so the magnitudes of the quakes were just estimations, and may be underestimated.  Undoubtedly, these earthquakes were felt in Bath County, however there is no mention of them in John Richards' book.

USGS map showing the areas affected by the 1980 earthquake
The Kentucky Geological Survey's website shows in addition the the fault that runs across Interstate 64, there is another that runs from the Montgomery County line near Saltwell Road and extends across the countryside to a point just south of US 60 and west of Bob-O-Link Drive.  Curiously, the fault that sparked the 1980 quake isn't shown on the interactive map.  That earthquake was classed as a right lateral strike slip type event focused in a northeast direction.  Maysville reported the most damage to older buildings in town; mainly cracked chimneys and bricks or tiles knocked off.  The total damage from the July 1980 earthquake reached over a million dollars, with  59 homes and 27 businesses sustaining major damage and 210 homes and 10 businesses with minor damage in Maysville alone.  In Owingsville, the damage was minimal, with some older buildings receiving cracks in foundations, chimneys and mortar.  It was said at the time that the balcony at the Majestic Theater was damaged, however I am unable to verify that information.  The ornate brick and concrete roof facades on the older business district received some damage and was enough concern to have them removed later.  Thankfully, no one was reportedly injured, but nerves were on edge after the earthquake.  Most people, like me, were caught off guard and had no inkling that an earthquake could happen in Bath County.  This event seemed like just a random, isolated incident that was a quirk of nature.

The evening of September 7, 1988 was a typical late summer evening.  Around 10:30 p.m.,I was lying in bed when a loud boom sounded and the house began violently shaking.  I immediately jumped out of bed, thinking a car had ran off Wyoming Road and into the house.  We ran outside as the earth started settling down from the rumbling and checked on my sister and her family next door.  While outside, a low roar started northwest of our location and gradually increased as a strong aftershock rolled across the land.  The 4.6 magnitude earthquake centered along a tributary fault near the location of the 1980 event, but this time the energy moved in a southeastern direction, meaning Owingsville and surrounding communities would feel the most shaking.  It was felt in five states and registered on seismographs in Canada.  There were twenty-three aftershocks within the following two weeks, most too small to feel.  There were some reports of the usual damage to brick walls, chimneys, basement walls and mortar cracking, but no injuries or major structural damage reported.  Once again, we were all rattled physically and emotionally thanks to Mother Nature.

A few more smaller earthquakes have shaken Bath County in recent times; in fact, a total of eight recorded earthquakes have happened since 1980's big one.  Most have been small, ranging around 2.3 to 2.5 on the Richter Scale and rarely felt.  The largest Bath County earthquake since 1988 was a 3.3 magnitude centered near Blevins Valley Road, close to Old State Road, on September 8, 1990.  Another 4.2 earthquake near Hazard, Kentucky was felt as just a slight rumbling in Owingsville on November 10, 2012. The most recent quake in Bath County was December 23, 2013 and registered 2.3 magnitude very near the center location of the 1988 event.  That quake made a loud booming noise and the shaking was felt in Mount Sterling, causing a flood of calls into the 911 center at Montgomery County with people reporting anything from an explosion to a plane crash.  It is very likely that there will be more earthquakes in Bath County as the Earth continues is evolution and the tectonic plates deep underground stay in motion. The New Madrid Fault System has been the focus of concern for scientists and geologists since the massive quakes of 1811-1812; it is anticipated that another equally large or larger earthquake could, and statistically will, strike again.  With the dense population in the area now, the effects will be most certainly devastating.  Emergency officials throughout Kentucky have plans in their local operation plans for a large scale earthquake event if, or more appropriately when, it should happen. 

For further earthquake research go to: 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Voices in the Walls

There is a special beauty to living in a small town that a big city can’t offer.  That beauty is the unique buildings and homes that line the streets, nestled behind trees along the way.  Downtown Owingsville is a prime example of this.  When Owingsville was founded in 1811, the area was a thick forest with small paths and dusty trails that zig-zagged across the land.  Main Street as we know it today didn’t exist; Coyle Street was the main drag with a few rough built homes, a school and some merchant shops lining the dusty wagon trail.  As the town grew, homes and buildings were erected across the plats that were laid out by proprietors and soon, Owingsville became a booming place.  Today, it is hard to imagine how Owingsville looked during the early times; as a matter of fact, in the forty plus years of my existence, things have changed so much.

Most residents of Bath County know the story of the Owings House and the Bath County Courthouse, but there are so many more buildings and places that have stories of their own.  The heart of the town at the stop light has been the most changed.  The shops and church are not the original structures, but were built after the great fire of September, 1893.  The block from the Perfect Lady Salon to the Citizen’s Bank was reduced to rubble and brick shells after that devastating fire.   Within a few months to a year, the town was rebuilt, including the First Christian Church we see today.  The Christian Church was founded by renowned pioneer evangelist John ‘Raccoon’ Smith in 1828, along with the Upper White Oak and Sharpsburg Christian churches.  Smith was a minister associated with the Calvinism Movement and early Baptists.  The original church was described as a ‘magnificent wood frame structure’ in John Richards’ book An Illustrated History of Bath County.  The wooden church was replaced by a brick structure in 1849 and was similar to the present day church, standing in the same spot as it does today.  The Christian Church was rebuilt and finished in 1894 and is indeed a magnificent and beautiful place of worship.  John Smith's residence further down West Main Street is still standing today and is listed on the Owingsville/Bath County Chamber of Commerce's tourism pamphlet, along with several other homes and buildings, that can be picked up at the Bath County Memorial Library. 

Fratman's Hall, early 1900's.
At the corner of Main Street and North Court Street is what locals know as Smith's Hardware store.  Owned by Charles 'Chick' Smith, the building as we see it today looks like a typical, nondescript late 1800's brick frame structure, but if you look up to the second and third level, you'll notice stained glass windows that seem out of place with a hardware store.  On the second floor of the building, there was once a live theater called Fratman's Hall.  The hall held around 500 people and had dressing rooms, a curtained stage and boasted as having the first fully electric lighting system in Owingsville at the time.  During fall and winter months, traveling actors entertained with vaudeville comedies and tragedies.  The Owings House across the street would be busy with entertainers and visitors renting out rooms to stay during the theater season. Today, the second floor is mostly a storage area and there is an area where the tongue and groove hardwood floor is sagging due to age and disrepair.  The stage is now gone, but the service elevator is still behind where it once was, still stuck between floors.  

A Howe type fire apparatus
Site of Owingsville's early fire station
 The small white building next to the present day courthouse annex is a plain, white structure that has been many things over the years; from a beauty shop, a law office, to its present function as the Hometown Mortgage business.  While searching old maps, a Sanborn Insurance map from 1903 shows in that location a fire station; likely the first fire station in Owingsville.  While I am not sure if the current structure is in fact the old fire station, the dimensions on the map seem to correlate.  The same map has a note that states there was a Howe type hand pump truck, a two wheel hand hose, 1000 feet of cotton hose line and two 25 foot ladders housed at the station.  While the fire department was mainly ordinary citizens who would mobilize in a time of need, much like the volunteer fire service we have today, it appears the city was sufficiently equipped to stop a major fire in 1903.

The Kimbrough House
The Nesbitt House
Down West Main Street, there are many large homes that range from the earliest days of Owingsville to the more modern era.  The Kimbrough House, the Nesbitt House, the Smith House are all prominent homes that have survived the times, and in at least one case, a fire that threatened to destroy.  The Nesbitt House is occupied by the Collinsworth family and is registered on the National Registry of Historical Places.  It was built between 1876 and 1878 by J.J. Nesbitt, who was a prominent lawyer and later state representative.  The nearby Kimbrough house, occupied by the Richards family who are direct descendants of John Kimbrough who built the home, is an elegant two story home with a wrought iron fence around it that features an old hitching post.  In the late 1980's, the home was threatened when a fire broke out in the rear section and did extensive damage.  Efforts by the Owingsville, Salt Lick and Sharpsburg fire departments saved one of the oldest homes in town that day.  

John Kimbrough's drug store, 1893
If you walk along the streets of Owingsville, you may notice the names Kimbrough, Richart, Ramsey and the word bank etched into the store fronts along the main business district.   Prior to, and after the 1893 fire, these buildings housed businesses owned by people of these names.  The bank was Goodpaster's  Bank and is where the library is today.  John Kimbrough owned a drug store where the florist shop is now located.  Next door, where the library's main entrance is, was J.M. Richart's dry goods store.  The Ramsey Building, now a community fellowship hall for the Christian Church, was a hardware store ran by John Ramsey.  Many people still associate the Ramsey building as the old 'dime store', which was popular store for many years  The facades of the store fronts have changed many times over the years; ornate brickwork along the top of these stores was removed in the 1980's, partly due to the earthquakes that struck Owingsville.  Byron's Department Store was among these buildings and another thriving business during its tenure.  One store building that is now gone was the Bath County Drug Store, which was on the right of the church on Main Street.  The store had a little diner in it with the red topped swivel stools and some of the best ice cream one could eat.  It was razed in the early 1990's, along with the old two story building at the corner that was the C.H. Hoon building and more recently, Farmer's Bank.

Some of the oldest structures in Owingsville still stand today, like the Bailey house at North Court and Main Street which was built around  one of the first cabins built in Owingsville.  The site where Richardon Funeral Home is located is where Harrison Conner built a cabin around 1803; eight years before Owingsville was founded.  The Catholic church on East Main Street began as the Presbyterian Church and was established in 1876.  After the great fire, the First Christian Church congregated at the Presbyterian church until the new building was erected.  The house belonging to the Elam family located at the corner of East High Street and East Alley was once owned by E.V. Brother, an early county judge executive, and is reportedly the location of Owingsville's earliest church. Each one of these old houses are magnificently built structures of a bygone day; built with a construction method that is entirely hands-on with very little modern amenities.   

A row of early homes in Owingsville
An interesting row of houses along West Main Street across from Brooks Alley are some of the oldest structures in town and Bath County.  Shella and Walter Bailey own the row of houses and have worked for the past several years  restoring them.  At the western flank stands a restored log two story cabin with a large brick fireplace. Shella told me that the cabin was built between 1795-1810 and was once used as a stagecoach stop.  The interior is intact and features the original fireplace and mantle.  A fire did some damage to an added on section of the cabin around 1990, but the original part wasn't damaged.  The two structures adjoining the cabin were built around 1810 and sit on the original stone foundation.  The easternmost house was known as the 'rock house' and at one time featured two massive stone fireplaces, one of which still stands. Across from these buildings, where the gas station is, stood the Brooks House.  The Brooks house was built either just prior to or shortly after the founding of Owingsville.  It was a boarding house and tavern in the early days, being a favorite stop for travelers before the Owings House was constructed.  In 1828, President Andrew Jackson stopped at the tavern on his way to take the Presidential Oath, creating a whirlwind of excitement.  The Brooks House continued to serve as a hotel, boarding house and restaurant until the early 1900's when it was torn down.  To my knowledge, there are no pictures of this historic place.  

The 'pocket' behind the Bath County Courthouse was once a center of activity for Owingsville.  Starting at the Owings House, the rows of shops bear little resemblance to how they would have looked even in the past sixty or even forty years.  Law offices, a post office, a grocery store, and drug store once occupied the row of buildings, with the Masonic Lodge and Majestic Theater being the standouts.  Davis Department Store was also a busy and popular business in the pocket for many years.  Patrons could buy all the latest fashions and home items at the store and it remained open at some capacity until the late 1980's.  In the corner of the pocket was one of Owingsville's most popular places, Boyd's Restaurant.  Marjorie Boyd operated the eating spot and served highly acclaimed  home cooked style meals for many years, even to passing senators and governors.  My aunt Frances Willman once owned a beauty shop next to the Karrick's Cut Rate Store building; I can still vaguely remember being there as a small child while my mom and grandmother had their hair permed.  The most popular hot-spot in the pocket was the Majestic Theater. 
The Majestic Theater, 1947
From 1922 until 1984, the Majestic was one of the key meeting places for people in Owingsville,  Starting out as a silent film type theater, countless people still recall seeing their first Elvis Presley movie, or a news reel report of a local soldier from World War II there.  I personally have the fond memory of standing in line almost to the Owings House waiting to see the premier of Star Wars.  The modern age of home video brought a decline in theater patronage and the Majestic soon fell by the wayside, closing the curtain permanently after 62 years of entertaining Bath County and Owingsville.  In the 1990's, the row of buildings from the Karrick store to the corner where Doc Cameron's office stood was razed, including the Majestic.  A bank and clinic was built in the spots these once popular businesses thrived for all those years.  The Davis Department Store became a pool hall, Boyd's Restaurant became a number of businesses, including another short lived eating spot, and the law offices moved.  The WKCA radio station still occupies a spot in the pocket
where it has since the mid 1980's next to the Owingsville Bank.

So many other buildings and houses in Owingsville have a rich and storied history; it would literally take volumes to tell all the stories of these places and how they have evolved over the generations.  A leisurely walk through Owingsville on a warm spring, summer or fall day or evening is relaxing; one must really stop occasionally and take in the elegance and beauty these places hold.  The voices in the walls echo back to a day that sadly, will soon be forgotten.  For now, take a moment to hear the stories the walls offer and see the beauty of a small town.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Unconventional Medicine: The Wells Family & Herbal Remedies

Long before the days of modern medicine, people relied on home remedies to treat ailments using herbs and 'potions' that were passed down through generations.  Most people who were called 'doctors' during the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Kentucky were just simply a title only, as they couldn't afford to attend a medical school, and most couldn't even read or write.  Regardless, these people were highly regarded and trusted to treat, and sometimes cure, any illnesses they were presented.

Botanical practitioners, as they were formally called, were predominate in early Appalachian settlements.  They were said to have received their recipes for their medicines from the Native Americans or they were brought over from Europe generations before.  They relied on roots, seeds, leaves, bark and other natural resources that could be mixed and used to heal problems from sore throat to gastrointestinal ailments.  Side effects, however, could be deadly if not mixed properly.  Some of these practitioners also used faith-based techniques and local folklore combined with the herbs and roots to heal the sick. Even today, there are still botanical practitioners prescribing their home remedies in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky.

Bath County had its own botanical, or herb, doctors that were from the same family, and relatives of mine. They were William Mayhall Wells and his sons, Zachary Taylor and Benjamin Franklin Wells.  The Wells family story starts when the early descendants immigrated from England in the 1600's and settled in Baltimore, Maryland.  William Wells, born in 1710 to Richard and Catherine Wells in Baltimore, moved to Lee County, Virginia with his family, where in 1780 he was reportedly killed by Indians.  William's son, Zachariah, served in the Revolutionary War with the Virginia Continental Army's cavalry, participating in battles at Germantown, Brandywide, Bordentown (or Bonhamtown).  He was captured on December 12, 1777 near Fox Chase, Pennsylvania and held in a British camp as a prisoner of war for five months.  After Zachariah's release, he resettled in Lee County, Virginia and led a quiet life until his death in 1826. One of  Zachariah's sons, also named Zachariah, is the first to have been known as an herb doctor.  It is a fair assumption that he learned the practices of botanical medicine as it was passed down the generations.  Zachariah Wells, II moved to Wise County, Virginia where he died in 1870 at the age of 92 years; an almost unheard of age during that era.

Mayhall Wells, my third-great grandfather
William Mayhall Wells, my third-great grandfather, learned medicinal practices from his father Zachariah at an early age. He was born in Lee County, Virginia around 1823 and grew up in the rural part of Wise County, Virginia near Pound Gap, a mountain pass at the Virginia & Kentucky border.  He married Lavina Stidham in 1883 and together, they reared eight children.  During the Civil War, Mayhall was commissioned as a captain in the Virginia Home Militia and tasked to help defend the Pound Gap.  An interesting short story entitled The Army of the Callahan written by John Fox, Jr. in 1902 as an article for Scribner Magazine recounts the adventures of Mayhall and his 'home guard' during this era.  The article is dated and speaks in in a heavy Appalachian dialogue, but is an interesting tale.  Around 1865, Mayhall and his family moved from Big Stone Gap, Virginia to Morgan County, Kentucky.  It was there that he was first officially known as a physician in an 1870 census record.  It was interesting to know that Mayhall was unable to read or write, but was able to use his knowledge of herbal medicine passed down verbally to treat illnesses.   Sometime within the next decade, Mayhall relocated to Bath County near the Forge Hill community and applied for a formal medical registration.  His unique medicinal recipes were widely known; many people traveled long distances to be 'cured' of a variety of ailments.  The recipes were never written down, but he passed his knowledge to three of his sons, Benjamin Franklin, Jeremiah and Zachariah Wells.

Lavina Wells died in 1888 on the family's farm and was buried in Knox Hill Cemetery off Adams Road in Bath County.  Soon after her death, Mayhall moved to Breathitt County, Kentucky where his daughter Rebekah resided.  It was there in 1889 that Mayhall received his certificate for a botanical system and became known for his famous 'blood poisoning cure'.  This medicine seemingly cured blood infections that would otherwise constitute the loss of a limb or death. The remedy made Mayhall a much sought after celebrity of sorts.  He remarried a woman named Mary Fugate and treated patients well up until his older years, passing away in Breathitt County on March 3, 1902.

Mayhall's sons Zachariah and Benjamin, or Frank as he was called, stayed in Bath County and continued to practice the unconventional medicinal ways as they were passed to them.  Zachariah
 settled in the Preston area and Frank in the Forge Hill community.  They stayed busy treating patients and curing otherwise incurable ailments with their botanical system.   Frank married Effie Hunt and their daughter, Wynona, was my great-grandmother.
Doctors Zachariah and Frank Wells
  By the time Frank and Zachariah were older, the Wells name was household for their remedies, but the advent of modern hospitals and licensed physicians soon began to edge out the botanical practitioners in more populated areas of Kentucky.  Regardless, people still sought the Wells brothers for their blood poison cure.  The recipe was closely guarded by the family; in fact, only a few people were ever told and it's a mystery of who actually may have written it down and kept it over the generations.  Frank died in 1916 at the age of 68 and was buried next to his mother at Knox Hill Cemetery.  Zachariah died in 1944, aged 93 years, and is buried at the Kendall Springs Cemetery.  My great-grandmother Wynona married Thomas Ensor of the Bethel/Sherburne area of Bath County and lived in Sherburne until her death at the age of 95.  More descendants of the Wells family still live in Bath County near the Preston and Peasticks communities, and if they still have the blood poisoning recipe, they aren't revealing it.  Today, the botanical practitioners of Bath County have disappeared; modern medicine and strict regulations by the Food & Drug Administration have all but made the home remedies obsolete.  In recent times, Amish families have moved into parts of Bath County and brought with them some home remedies.  In one very recent incident near Preston, an Amish family was investigated and their remedies confiscated for not following FDA guidelines.  There are still a few botanical practitioners in Appalachian mountain communities nestled in hollows, but their practices aren't widely known; whether it be to protect a family tradition or just to plainly protect themselves from being prosecuted.

The Wells family doctors were a unique breed who had an art for healing using what we now call unconventional methods.  It makes one wonder if their art had been further honed within an institution of higher learning, would they had found cures to ailments much sooner than modern times?  For those who were treated by the Wells family, they attested to the abilities of the men and their home remedies as being the best in the medical field.