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They came on horseback, by wagons laden with worldly possessions, or on foot, driving a bony family cow over twisted trails.
For many, the long wilderness trek from Virginia and the Carolinas ended among the rolling hills and winding creeks of what is today Owen County, Kentucky.
Families with names still familiar in the area - Cobb, Sparks, Haydon, Vallandingham, Forsee, Herndon, Ford, Threlkeld, and Wilhoite settled the land. With determination and ingenuity, they build homes from the timbered forests, organized communities, and developed businesses.
Entrepreneurs were plentiful in Owen County and businesses thrived under diligent hands. Mills dotted the landscape and were identified by the name of their owner: Herndon’s was between Caney Fork and Richland; Sparks’ on the Kentucky River; Campbell’s at Cobb’s Station; Duvall’s on Elk Lick Fork; Branham’s near Monterey; Lusby’s on Cedar Creek; and many others rested along the creeks of Owen.
Early trading posts provided supplies and a gathering place to exchange news of the day.
Around 1792, Mr. Rowlett settled near Severn Creek and eventually built and operated at trading post at its mouth.
In 1805, James and Alexander Williams settled in the area of Monterey (originally called Williamsburg) and established the Old Williamsburg Trading Post.
At the close of the Civil War, this log structure and the surrounding land was purchased by Capt. Thomas Jefferson Hardin of Monterey.
A 1907 issue of the News-Herald contained several articles describing early Monterey businessmen.
Among the first records of Owen County was an 1820 order granting John Duvall the right to construct and operate a grist mill on Cedar Creek.
Col. Duvall was a commander of a company of American forces during the War of 1812 and was involved in many battles including the Battle of Fort Meigs.
Another entrepreneur John Wems, a Scotchman, opened a small store in Monterey in 1821. “His offerings consisted chiefly of whiskey, with a little sugar, coffee and tallow candles.”
In the same issue of the newspaper, the Cedar Brook Canning Factory (Monterey) posted a wanted ad for girls 15 years and older to peel tomatoes for a daily wage of $1-$1.50.
General stores sprang up in every community; and even during the Great Depression the resourcefulness of the proprietors kept doors open and supplies on shelves.
In an article in the Owen County Kentucky Family History Book, Georgia Green Stamper introduced us to a memorable Owen County entrepreneur by the name of Nat Lee.
Nat was a big man (nearly 400 pounds of bigness) with a big vision. He owned a profitable gristmill and lived in a modest home in Natlee.
Across the road from his house, Nat constructed a wooden distillery and made the determination to produce one of Kentucky’s finest sour mash whiskey.
At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Nat entered his whiskey, competing against 5,000 other entries. Housed in a simple local stone jug Nat’s recipe won the gold medal, and according to Georgia, “it was declared the best whiskey on Earth ...”
By the early 1900s businesses were thriving in Owenton.
In 1906, Fritz Honaker and Joe Lewis opened a new business next door to Littrell’s on Court Street. It was advertised in the News-Herald as “a first class meat, restaurant, and grocery store ...with homemade candies, fruits and vegetables kept fresh on tap at all times.”
Pictures and articles about many of these businesses can be found in the Owen County Kentucky Family History Book. These thriving entities included: Morgan and Thomas Drug Store, Owenton Roller Mill, P&A Cox Co., Mitchel Wagons, the Johnson Store, Larry Tackett’s Mens Wear (formerly Vallandingham’s), the Blue Front Department Store, and Curtis and Swetman’s.
After World War II, Owen countian Price Minch opened a hardware store on Seminary Street in the heart of Owenton.
According to his daughter Verna, her father “was a great lover of new technology and he kept busy repairing radios, televisions, household appliances and electric motors.”
For 68 years, Minch Hardware and Appliance has served the people of Owen County.
Verna and her brother Gary exemplify the dedication of Owen County business men and women; and it is with great pleasure that the Owen County Historical Society welcomes Verna as our guest speaker Thursday evening at 7 p.m.
Please join us at the I.O.O.F. hall for insight into the success of one of Owen County’s vital businesses.
You can purchase a copy of The Owen County, Kentucky Family History Book at the historical society museum. At $60, the cost is minimal considering the treasure of Owen County history contained within its cover.