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It meanders through the heartland of Kentucky and its history claims heroes such as Daniel Boone, George Rogers Clark, Isaac Shelby, John Harrod and Benjamin Logan. However, most of the time it murmurs stories of the common folk who settled along its banks and who, despite ravaging floods, were inescapably drawn back to the Kentucky’s ancient song.
When asked why he always returned to his flooded home on the Kentucky, one old-timer adamantly declared, “It’s where we was raised. Where my daddy was raised. Why you are here is something you never even think about. You are this place.”
For 36.5 miles, the Kentucky river laps at the banks of Owen County. Through time, it has been both old friend and nemesis to the people who made their homes along its winding path. It conveyed Indians to the tall grasses and the canebreaks where buffalo trampled, chewed and hid. It watered dense forests which provided materials to build the cabins of early Owen County settlers and supplied rich fertile soil to nourish their crops.
In the age of steamboats, Owen countians served as captains on these smoking, fire-breathing giants; and tobacco, farm produce, animals, and people traveled to distant destinations aboard these water churning wonders.
About 20 miles downstream from Frankfort, along the bank in Owen County, stood Byrnes Landing. Owner/Captain Dennis Byrnes piloted boats and also served as warfmaster for the area. He is described in a letter written by Stamping Ground paper maker Ebenezer Stedman, a passenger on Dennis’ keel boat in the 1800’s.
Stedman wrote an entertaining portrait of Dennis Byrnes:
“Never shall I forget Capt. Burnes looks. He was in the prime of life, near six feet in high, of a sandy complexion, Bill from the ground up, a pleasing face as much as to say, ‘I never leave the latch string inside.’ He was what I call a man, independent, courteous, open hearted, glad to see you. Dear Sophy (Stedman’s daughter), those men have or soon will pass away. I can almost weep to think of the hepocritic friendship that has taken the place of that manly independence of Capt. Burns of Burnes Landing.”
Byrnes put on his regimental (from the War of 1812) before reaching Byrnes landing and was most hospitable in offering Ebenezer Stedman an overnight rest in his home.
Capt. Dennis Burnes died in 1880 at the age of 89 and is buried in a cemetery near his home on the Old Landing Road.
Other Owen County riverboat captains included Reuben Lucas, Frank Lawler, Curtis Leitch, Noble Nash Hundley, Capt. Newt Abraham and Capt. Samuel Sanders.
Sam Sanders captained several boats during the Civil War. The Blue Wing #2 was confiscated by a Union gunboat during the conflict and when taking some provisions from Louisville to Shaker Landing, Capt. Sam came under fire from Confederate snipers.
Other stories of folks living along the Kentucky River during the Civil War were told at the Historical Society Kentucky River Day.
Amalie Preston, who grew up along the Kentucky and whose family included several riverboat captains, painted a delightful picture of life along the river.
One day as Amalie’s aunt and her aunt’s daughter were busy making lye soap, a man came running into town sounding the alarm that troops were on their way. No one was sure whether the soldiers were Union or Confederate, so auntie and her daughter took to the hills surrounding the town and hid in the bushes.
Worriedly, the youngster asked her mother what they would do if confronted by unfriendly soldiers. Mama replied, “I’ll give it to them in the eyes.” Smiling she lifted up a ladle of lye she had brought with them as they made their escape.
The Kentucky River played an integral part in the lives of Owen countians; and in an effort to highlight its history and the need for its preservation the Owen County Historical Society and the Kentucky American Water Company have joined together to present future educational programs both to the schools and to the public.
Though times have changed and history marches onward the Kentucky River’s continuous flow still nourishes the soul of mankind.
A Kentucky River exhibit is currently on display at the Owen County Historical Society Museum. Please stop in to visit and don’t forget to wander into our Kentucky River Room which is filled with pictures of the river, the locks and dams and the people who worked and lived along the Kentucky.
We want to thank all the historical society members who worked so hard to bring about a very successful Kentucky River Day. Special thanks to Jarl Lee Harris who made the banner for the front porch and to Joyce Hill Hardin who loaned us the banner for the pavilion which featured The Falls City II. Joyce also brought a steamboat whistle whose shrill voice announced the cutting of a special Falls City II cake.
Bobby Gibson made sure the yard was well trimmed before the event, and Teresa Swigert, with the help of Arthur Kinman, mulched and beautified both the backyard and around the front porch. Jim Acton donated to the society a new flagpole and an American flag to proudly fly on the pavilion.
Ruth Ann Hazlett and Peggy Trinkle provided tours through the museum and Ruth Ann did a stupendous job of making sure folks signed our visitors’ registry.
Tom and Mary Lou Morrison, with the enthusiastic help of young Tessa Sestito, recorded the watermelon-seed spitting contest and Christina Rice stayed on top of things to assure everything ran smoothly.
Ann Bush served as our resident calliope player and her talented fingers coaxed lively music from the calliope pipes. Our thanks also to Dave Stowe of the First Baptist Church who also played energetic tunes on the instrument.
Big Tricky’s Catering enticed folks with the aroma of his delicious offerings, and Tom Strassell, experienced at setting up and taking down tents, applied himself to those necessary tasks.
Joy Arnold stopped by to help take down awnings and set things back in place; and guests who were attending a birthday party at Joy and David’s home graciously put our picnic tables back on the pavilion.
Most of all, our thanks goes to Owen Co. Historical Society President Larry Dale Perry, who capably leads the society as we continue to grow and dedicate ourselves to the preservation of the history and heritage of Owen County.