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Owen County Historical Society News: Wagons were indispensable

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By Bonnie Strassell

Wagons have always played an important part in the history of Owen County. After the long hunters made their trek over the Appalachian Mountains and claimed land in Kentucky, they returned home (most often to Carolina or Virginia) and brought their families to this wilderness. The rich, fertile land of Kentucky was considered to be a paradise on earth. According to T.A. Perry, the first entries claiming land in what is now Owen County were filed in the Virginia Land Offices in 1780.
Originally, the Wilderness Trail was barely passable, and many early pioneers traveled by foot, piling household belongings onto packhorses. Eventually, though, farm wagons were employed, and one type of wagon, the Conestoga, became popular for migration along the Great Wagon Road. At times, farm wagons were fitted with five or six wooden bows that arched from side to side across the wagon bed. Then canvas or other sturdy cloth was stretched across these ribs. Primarily these covered wagons were used to transport goods, but the very young, elderly, and sick or injured also rode in them.  Because of the rough roads, most able-bodied people preferred walking rather than having their bodies jerked about riding inside the wagon.
The farm wagon was indispensable to the Owen County farmer. Prior to the 1950s, when baling hay became popular, a method commonly used for hay harvest was cutting the hay with a horse drawn sickle bar mower, raking into windrows, and loading into a wagon to which hay racks had been attached. Then it was transported to the stack site.
Sometimes referred to as a “jolt” wagon — perhaps because of the jolting and shaking it delivered to its  passengers — the farm wagon was a vital piece of equipment on the Owen County farm. 
Margaret Alice Murphy of Monterey remembers as a young girl, riding across the fields in a jolt wagon driven by her papa. She found it fascinating to watch the mud fly through the wheel spokes, spraying mud over anything in its path. 
The farm wagon carried farmers’ produce or merchandise to trade or sell at Owen County Court Days in the early 1900s. Most Owen countians would transact their business and return to their homes in time to milk and have an early supper. The gypsies who attended this affair came into town driving heavily-laden and brightly-painted wagons from which they sold beads and told fortunes. These wagons were home to the gypsies as they traveled the country, finding likely spots to stop along the way.
Carriages and wagons presented opportunities for businessmen in Owen County during the early 20th century. Bud Dunavent’s father, Ed, owned a harness shop, and Gayle and Allen sold buggies, carriages, road wagons, harnesses, robes, and whips. In many of our communities blacksmiths saw a lively business keeping horses in shoes, and repairing wagons and wheels.
It has been said that when a man has lost sight of his past, he loses his ability to look forward to the future, and so whether it’s a memory, a story, an heirloom, or just an old farm wagon, let it be preserved and shared that we might not lose our past in order to gain insight for our future.
The historical society is looking for an old wagon wheel to be displayed in the yard at the museum. If you have one, or know of someone who does and would like to donate it, we would be most appreciative.
Don’t miss the next Owen County Historical Society meeting, which will be held at 7 p.m. Oct. 13 at the I.O.O.F. hall. The program will be presented by Fay Shelton, an accomplished pianist and history enthusiast. Just a reminder to join the festivities for the dedication of Owen County ‘s Kentucky River Room and calliope at 2:30 Sunday afternoon. There will be refreshments and entertainment for all.