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Owen Historical Society News: Kentucky history linked to waterways

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By Bonnie Strassell

The presentation of “The Kentucky River: Memories, Myths, and Magic” was cancelled April 9 due to the fact that my husband, Tom Strassell, suffered a heart attack. He is on the road to recovery and we will be presenting the program at a future historical society meeting.
Vickie Lynn Maxwell Frechette stepped in as the guest speaker for the evening. Vickie stopped at the museum Wednesday on her way across the country. After an inquiry as to the location of her home, President Jeannie Baker was surprised to discover that Vickie, a resident of Massachusetts, was walking across America. With all her traveling gear stuffed in a backpack, Vickie began her journey in May of 2010 and depends on the kindness of people along the way to meet her needs. Jeannie provided meals for her, invited Vickie into her home to spend the night, and washed all her clothes. Vickie’s program included many different topics including wars, the Bible, and the pollution of our waterways. Though pollution might affect the Kentucky River to some degree, it continues to flow onward, wielding a mighty influence on the lives of the people it serves.
The Kentucky River has always held a fascination for people of many cultures who traveled its pristine waters or roamed its lush banks. There is not a single fork, creek, or spring branch of the Kentucky River that hasn’t produced a piece of history reflected in the lives of the people who made their homes along its winding waters.
The Shawnee, Delaware, Cherokee, and Choctaw tribes who roamed Kentucky didn’t erect villages in the forested Kentucky woodlands, but rather claimed it as a hunting ground as they were richly rewarded in their search for the plentiful game along the riverbanks.
From the confluence of the North, South and Middle Forks, the Kentucky River flows 225 miles dropping 226 feet from Beattyville to Carrollton. Major faults cross its waters with two particularly dangerous ones in the Clays Ferry area of Madison, Clark, and Fayette counties.
Early means of transportation included flatboats and keelboats. Ferries were used to cross from one side of the river to another. At various times there were more than 150 ferries operating on the Kentucky River. They were chartered first by the state then by the counties they served. After the locks and dams created deeper water, most ferries pulled themselves across the river with a cable. Earlier ferries undoubtedly used oars, paddles, poles, or an underwater rope that could be pulled by hand to make the crossing.
A series of 14 lock and dam systems were built between 1836-1842. Lock 1 was at Carrollton, formerly known as Port William. In 1754 the date and initials of James McBride were carved on a tree near the mouth of the Kentucky River at Carrollton. Lock 2 served Lockport, and Lock 3 was at Monterey. Tom Bondurant was a colorful character in the area of Monterey, and one hot summer day he donned a lifejacket, climbed into the river to cool off and fell asleep. When Tom woke up, he was going over the dam and received quite a beating from the experience. When asked if he was going to try that again Tom replied” Yeah, but next time I’m going to tie myself to a willow limb.”
Even during the Great Depression, Kentucky River people found ways to survive. Keeping to an old tradition, shantyboat people could live off the land and the river. Several people along the river today can trace their heritage to shantyboat ancestors. Avery Imel’s father came up the Kentucky in one such vehicle and tied up near Ball’s Landing (Perry Park). He met a girl on the farm where he worked and married her. Farmers usually allowed the shantyboat people to pilfer their corn crops as long as they weren’t too greedy. There’s an old saying on the Kentucky: “The first three rows of corn are for the shantyboat people.”
There are many stories to tell of the boats, bridges, ferries, and people which combine to define the Kentucky River. In his book, “The Kentucky River,” Willard Jillson’s succinct description leaves one with a sense of awe at this magnificent waterway: “Hill and valley, mountain and plain, gorge, meander, sandbar and riffle-all are but the passing local features in the ceaseless change of a great river.” 
The Historical Society is busy preparing for The Owen County History Day, which will be celebrated from 10-4 June 25. Thanks to the hard work of Darrel Baker, Bobby Gibson, and Jarl Harris, the picnic pavilion is well on its way to becoming a reality. The Owen County Electric Co. graciously offered to dig holes for the posts, and Jeannie Baker spent endless hours coordinating efforts and lending a hand when needed. It sure would be appreciated if some younger people in the community would help with erecting the roof. If you are so inclined, please call the museum 484-2529.
The Cincinnati Museum Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, has donated an air-powered calliope to the Owen County Historical Society Museum. It will need some minor repairs but sounds excellent. Our plans are to reform the sunroom in the museum into a Kentucky River Room, complete with pictures, stories, and featuring the calliope. Our sincere thanks to the donor.
Mark your calendars for June 25 to attend the history day at the museum. We will be dedicating the pavilion in honor of Scott Hardin who passed away this year. We have requested the attendance of several local and state dignitaries. Join us as we celebrate the history and traditions of Owen County.