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Fire has always been a destructive force in people’s lives. The Bible associates fire with God’s judgment on wickedness and unbelief, and He is represented as a “consuming fire” when His wrath is revealed.
The early pioneers in Kentucky experienced the heartbreak of fire either as a result of a faulty chimney or the attacks of Indians who were determined to stop the seemingly endless wave of settlers. Fire has destroyed records when courthouses have burned to the ground. The 1790 and 1800 Kentucky censuses were lost during a fire in the War of 1812, and important birth, death, and marriage records have been destroyed over the years.
Since its formation, Owen County has experienced the consuming destruction of fires to homes, bridges, buildings, and communities. The covered bridge at Natlee burned many years ago, never to be rebuilt. The community of Poplar Grove, with its several stores, post office, poolroom and bowling alley, burned; and although the community still stands, the businesses are gone.
Another piece of Owen County history was taken from us when a fire destroyed the home of Dennis Atha, mayor of Monterey, in the early morning hours of Aug. 15. Thankfully, no one was at home, but the house and contents were a total loss, perhaps due to a curious mouse chewing through wires in a computer.
This home was built around the earliest structure in Monterey, a trading post, which was established in 1805 by two brothers, Alexander and James Williams, who came from Maryland. Monterey is located about a mile from the Kentucky river and is a natural Indian trace, which made it an ideal place for a trading post. Originally the settlement that grew up around the trading post was called Williamsburg, named after the Williams brothers, but when the first post office was established around 1825 it was known as “Mouth of Cedar Creek,” later just referred to as “Cedar Creek.” Maybe people got tired of posting their letters “Mouth of Cedar Creek” and eventually left out the Mouth. The name Cedar Creek was changed to Monterey in honor of several local boys serving in the Mexican War.
The Williamsburg trading post was bought by Thomas Jefferson Hardin who was a captain in the Civil War, a lawyer, and the first president of the First State Bank in Monterey. Captain Tom moved his family into the log trading post, which were two cabins facing each other with a dog trot in-between. He covered the dog trot, joining the two cabins, and over the next few years added more rooms. Tom’s only daughter, Stella, remembers as a small girl climbing a ladder to the second story, where the roof had been raised to allow space to build more rooms, and watching the workmen. Her parents must have had their hands full keeping their little daughter from this rather dangerous pastime.
Over the years, the house fell into disrepair and it went up for auction. In 1943 T. Stone and Peg Spicer purchased the house and made it into a home once again. Their son, Stoney, married Bee O’Banion and for several years Bee and Stoney shared the home with his parents. Several years ago, Dennis Atha, who had always admired this house, purchased and renovated it.
I talked with Bee Spicer – News-Herald correspondent for Kays Branch News – about the loss of this home, loss not only for the Monterey community, but also for the county of Owen and the state of Kentucky. I heard the pain in her voice as she described how despondent she felt when she viewed the ruins of what was once a vital part of her life. Anyone who has lost a home to fire can relate to Bee’s loss. As a community, Monterey will recover, and as Owen countians, we need to share their sadness – and if need be, help those in Monterey in whatever way we can. That’s what communities are about.
While losing a historic home is tragic, it would be much more tragic if we forget the history behind the walls of that home. Many have memories of this house, and it’s those memories that will keep the history of Owen County alive. So, share those stories with your children, your friends, and even the stranger who might pass by. Stop and look at the ruins of this home, while wondering about the lives of the people who lived there.