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