The past can feel so close

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By Georgia Green Stamper

Writing is a solitary avocation. I’m reminded of the wonderful old movie where Jimmy Stewart rambles on and on to an invisible giant white rabbit named Harvey. Writing is like that – a one-sided conversation, with the author doing all the talking, while the reader, as invisible as Harvey, may or may not be listening or even be in the same room.

So when the phone rang a few weeks ago, I was delighted to learn that my story about 19th century commercial traffic on the Kentucky River had resonated with the caller, Mr. Charles Clements, of Louisville. Mr. Clements, age 82, was especially touched by poet Maurice Manning’s words quoted in the preamble. I told him he had good taste. Manning is the recipient of the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Prize and is one of Kentucky’s – and America’s – pre-eminent poets. He lives near Danville.

 “Here in Kentucky” Manning said, “… (the) past has always felt close and I’ve always felt connected to it, sprung from it, like it or not. Down the road from my house is an old family graveyard. One of the graves there is for a woman whose first name was America. Even though I live in the middle of nowhere, sometimes it feels like I live in the center of it all.” You see, Mr. Clements’s grandmother was also named America – America Rowlett – and she, too, is buried in a family cemetery, but in Owen County, not Danville. Mr. Clements isn’t a famous poet, but like Maurice Manning (and I’m going to take a leap here and guess that many other Kentuckians do too) he’s always “felt connected” to the past, “sprung from it, like it or not.”  With a Revolutionary War veteran’s land grant in hand, his grandmother’s people, the Rowletts, arrived in what would later become Owen County, Kentucky, by at least 1790 – probably earlier if family lore is accurate. They settled in where Severn Creek flows into the Kentucky River at a spot still known locally as Rowlett’s Landing. The lower Kentucky flows in the shape of a giant oxbow through that region, and Rowlett’s Landing lies near the center of the bow, about halfway between the present-day communities of Monterey and Gratz. One generation or another of Mr. Clements’s family has owned that place on earth for over two hundred years. He took ownership of it in 1976, and now it has passed to his son.  Indian lore and stories about the river were as common to his childhood as fairy tales.

The earliest settlers, for example, found limestone covered mounds scattered throughout the Severn Creek valley. These are thought to have been cremation sites configured by Indians of the ancient Adena culture who wandered the area between 1000 to 200 B.C. 

A limestone watch tower also stood on a hill south of Severn Creek. It, too, is believed to have been built by the Adena Indians who – like the white men who came after them more than 2, 000 years later – employed the Kentucky River for travel and trade. Rowlett’s Landing was surely a small part of the Adena’s extensive trading network that stretched from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast.  

Mr. Clements’s early Kentucky ancestors established a trading post at Rowlett’s Landing in flatboat days, and all matter of farm products were shipped from there to New Orleans.

Oral tradition says they were often paid in Spanish dollars, back then which were cut into pieces called “bits” when small change was needed. 

Later, when steamboats began to plow the river, the trading post morphed into a general store that served the community, and a warehouse was established nearby where freight such as tobacco could be stored for pick-up by a passing steamboat.

A large wooden screw was used to compress the tobacco into hogsheads for shipping on to Louisville markets, and Mr. Clements’s family still has that apparatus.  Then – my cup runneth over – another reader called in. Joyce Hardin of Springfield reported that her husband’s late grandfather, W. D. Hardin of Monterey, and his brother, Thomas Hardin, were among the owners of the Louisville and Kentucky River Packet Company, which owned two steamboats that carried the name Falls City.

The one pictured in the newspaper with my story was built later, about 1898, and is known by historians as the Falls City II.

However, each steamboat during its period of service, she said, was referred to in the vernacular and on its signage as simply the “Falls City” (and my subsequent research in early newspaper accounts confirms this.)  Her family retains the Falls City log books detailing the pick-ups and sales at stops such as Hardin’s Landing, Monterey, Rowlett’s Landing, and Gratz. Kentucky-American Water Company, in recognition of the Hardin family’s role in local river history, has named its significant new facility now under construction in Owen County, “Hardin’s Landing Water Treatment Plant.”  Her call sent my tireless assistant (in real life my husband) and me on a quest for more information. I now know more about steamboats with Falls City in their name (there were at least five and one was piloted by Mark Twain on the Mississippi!) than any woman prone to seasickness should. I’ll expand on that topic another day.

For now, I will only say that I am ever amazed at how grounded Kentuckians are in their local history, how deep and rich their sense of place remains even into the 21st century, how tenderly they treasure the stories of their people. America Rowlett – or America Smith or Jones – we are, indeed, each of us, a bit of America’s story.