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.

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