Archives for posts with tag: Ohio River

Most of us learn about life in a small river town through the stories of Mark Twain, but I’ve also learned through my own family history.  Focusing on my family’s stories from Uniontown, Kentucky, I’ve absorbed so much information that brings it all home to my heart.  Founded in 1840 by an act that merged two existing communities into one, Uniontown flourished along the Ohio River due to the surrounding rich agricultural lands and the mining industry.  Here’s a picture taken by one of my relatives of one side of Main Street back when there were still horses and buggies with new fangled cars being introduced to the dirt streets.imageThanks to Mike Guillerman, author of “Face Boss:  The Memoir of a Western Kentucky Coal Miner,” who was nice enough to send me a copy of the June 12, 1903 special edition of The Telegram, Uniontown’s newspaper, I’ve learned that this little town at one time or another had three hotels, a bank, a distillery, granaries, confectionery, millinery, dry goods, and furniture stores, along with a saloon and a wagon works.  There was a livery stable, a saddle store, and a tobacco and cigar store, along with a grocery story, a meat market and a fish market.  This little town of 2,000 had a fire department and a fairgrounds with a paddock (Kentucky does have horses, you know), an amphitheater and floral halls.  There was a Cooper Shop, which I surmise was a brewery for local beer.

My great-great-grandfather arrived in Uniontown as a doctor.  There were doctors, a dentist, and lawyers.  My great-grandfather, who bought and sold grain with an office on the river, also sold insurance for Aetna.  What didn’t they have?

Uniontown had lovely wide streets lined with lovely homes with tall trees and schools for both white and “colored” children (The Telegram reported a scholastic population of 820 with 520 whites and 250 blacks in 1903).  There were at least 6 churches, including Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and Christian.  Ferries crossed the river for those on the Indiana side and riverboats arrived to pick up grain and coal and bring visitors to town. Riverboats also brought entertainment with special shows that everyone would await with excitement.  There was a town band, whose members met twice a week to practice and learn the latest tunes.

And there were the Kentucky “burgoos,”  which I learned about from my great aunt in her book, “My Sun Shines Bright.”  My Uniontown friend, Treva Robards told me more about burgoos, which are a Kentucky tradition, a get together where everyone brings something to contribute to the burgoo, a kind of stew.  There were all kinds of vegetables and meats, everything from Kentucky hams to wild game, all thrown together into a wonderful meal for all.  Each time had to be different since you never knew what people would bring.  Treva shared this older photo of a burgoo.  She said it is always good!Scan 268This was as good as it gets anywhere, I would imagine.  I’ve read the stories of my grandfather being sent on errands when he was only three, watched over by the whole town along the way.  I’ve read of my grandfather and his siblings playing with the black children who lived across the street, riding their horses together, at a time when the town was growing away from the days of slaves and slaveowners in the post-Civil War years.  Children played along and in the river, went hunting in the lush forests nearby, and feasted on Kentucky hams, fried chicken, biscuits and peach pies.

On the other side of town, my grandmother’s family were farmers, working hard in their tobacco fields, the children picking the worms off the tobacco plants. The town had its other side as all towns do, all part of the Uniontown story.   And the town has changed through the years, victim of nature and the times.

My family wrote of the floods, when the Ohio spread across the town and people moved their furniture to upper stories and stayed in the homes of family and friends on higher ground.  Here’s my family’s home with high water.imageIt was fun for the kids to walk on stilts to school or ride in a boat to the store.  I’ve cleaned up after flood waters and it must not have been as much fun for the adults.  Here’s a stereoscope photo I found of one of the floods.ajaxhelper

But, the river was a part of the town, a huge part.  Treva shared some photos with me of a day’s catch…

Scan 267…and the river when it was frozen.  Her father and brother walked across the ice.  Scan 269There were huge floods in 1884, when the entire Ohio River flooded, devastating towns all along its banks.  Clara Barton and the American Red Cross used their new network of helping others to bring relief to the flooded areas.  I found a later newspaper clipping of my great-grandmother attending a Red Cross meeting in nearby Morgansfield.  The 1937 flood did much damage to my family’s home and my great-grandmother’s insistence on staying in the dampness led to the pneumonia that caused her death.

I wondered why they didn’t build levees and finally realized how much work and money it costs to build such a structure for a town.  Uniontown continued on with a flood about every year, finally building a levee in the 1960s, I believe.  Here’s a later flood photo.Dorothy Deboe - town streetwalker in Uniontown after floodBy then, the riverboats were gone, leaving only barges to transport goods, and life was changing.  The town continued to be a great place to live into the 70s.  Now the town is down to a population of just over 1,250.DSC_0292The prosperous Main Street is virtually non-existent, with only this former movie theatre…DSC_0295…and this building left from the past glory days.

DSC_0296This building still stands by the levee…DSC_0199There’s still a granary…DSC_0303…and the miners keep mining coal to transport to the river…DSC_0291


DSC_0306Men still hunt and gather at the Uniontown Coon ClubDSC_0293to eat, drink and tell their stories.DSC_0294Druggies inhabited Toon Town on the outskirts of Uniontown during a past time but now it’s a family camp and young people are trying to bring the town back.  There’s a new market, a restaurant, and people who love this river community.  The landing is busy with fishermen loading boats onto the river.DSC_0236And there are people like my friend, Treva, who treasure the memories of what life on the river used to be.  Here we are by the levee.DSC_0305I feel connected to the town and the river through my family who lived there when it was the best of all places to be for the times.  At least that’s how it feels.  I dipped my feet in the Ohio, linking me to the river and my people who settled in Kentucky so many years ago.  DSC_0307I came from people who settled in many places through the years as this country grew.  There are quite a few who link me to Kentucky, especially Uniontown.  As long as I can, I’ll help preserve the stories because they help me understand them, this country and who I am.

Traveling has always been more than just a drive to get somewhere in my life.  Looking for the details was something my parents taught us, making sure we saw all the sides of the places we visited.  When I went to Europe for the first time in high school, I was surrounded by buildings that have endured for centuries, changing uses dozens of times.

Coming from one of our newest states, where progress meant constantly moving forward and not looking back, it took the Historic Preservation efforts of the 1980s to make community leaders stop and see the value there was in the Main Streets and the historic homes.  There was money to be had in the tourist trade and civic pride to be boosted in the salvation of buildings of various architectural trends through the years.  These structures and neighborhoods became works of art to be treasured for future generations.

About 1985 or so, I attended a preservation conference that forever changed the way I looked at towns and cities I visited, especially the city I live in and the surrounding towns.  Neighborhoods that had been decaying suddenly became trendy and adventuresome investors began restoring and updating old oil mansions around town.  The payoff was immediate as property values rose and visitors responded well.  Once, just a few years ago, I was driving an international guest through town, watching him gape at the number of beautiful homes in the older neighborhoods.  We came to a neighborhood shopping area with restaurants and shops in the old storefronts and he beamed…until he saw the section where someone had decided to “modernize,”  making it just another city in his eyes.   I understood because I feel the same way when I visit another city.

But, preservation isn’t always easy.  How do you save a town that let it all go for too long?  A couple of weeks ago, we detoured off the road to visit Cairo, Illinois.  This town sits where the great Ohio and Mississippi Rivers meet, an important location in our country’s history.  This should be bustling with tourists and historians learning about the commerce that flourished in that important time when the riverboats ruled the waterways.  Way back, money was diverted from other river communities to build levees in Cairo due to its importance so it wouldn’t be flooded and lost.

Instead, history and man dealt Cairo severe blows with racial tensions and changes in the use of the rivers and the building of the highways that went around the town.  It has become not even a shadow of its former glory.  And, yet, there are those who would like to restore it, an uphill struggle of epic proportions.

We came in under the bridge…DSC_0314…and headed along the main street.  Under a lovely sign declaring the Cairo Historic District, there was only this to be seen.DSC_0316 DSC_0317There was a beautiful old custom house, library and courthouse we’d driven by.DSC_0325A fading sign on a building gave a glimpse of advertising back then.DSC_0318Driving around the residential areas was dismal to one who loves to imagine the old homes bustling with life.DSC_0322I’m not sure I’ve seen such a stretch of sadness.DSC_0319A town that is being reclaimed by nature.DSC_0320Where would you begin?DSC_0321But, another sign had proclaimed an historic neighborhood district and we found a lovely park and a couple of restored mansions that could be toured.DSC_0338And admired…DSC_0328These are on a lovely brick, divided boulevard with a few other homes in various states of livability.  Grass grows through the bricks in different lengths.DSC_0334I salute those who are doing their best to preserve what’s left and I mourn for what the town might and should have been.  Our history is fragile and preservation is important.  We learn from where we were, where we are, and where we’re going.  At the conference I attended so long ago, a statement that stuck with me was the difference in a shopping mall that springs into existence and a downtown that has evolved through its history, showing all the difference eras through its architecture.

Here’s to those who fight to preserve and to make others aware.  It’s worth the battle.

Knowing where your relatives came from is intriguing, at the very least. Maybe it will explain something, anything about us. All those questions…

The family member I know the most about is my father. I have pictures of him from baby to the end of his life. He was born in 1912, so way back there. I have a book someone did of Hamilton genealogy that goes back to Thomas Hamilton leaving Scotland for Maryland and then joining a group that moved to Kentucky.

The greatest source I have is a book, “The Sun Shines Bright,” written by my great-aunt, Sue Hamilton Jewell, a book of stories about the family in Uniontown, Kentucky in the late 19th century into the early 20th, including a few about my Daddy as a child.

My great-grandfather, grandfather, and father were all born in Uniontown. Here’s a photo I found that must be the Main Street that she wrote about, where even a 3-year old could be sent on errands.


Last week, I journeyed to Uniontown on the Ohio River, near Illinois and Indiana. I had no idea what I would find. Getting closer made me very emotional as I drove past fields of corn in rich agricultural west Kentucky, called the Upper South.


My great-grandfather was a grain dealer with an office in the warehouse on the river. My great-grandmother was from a plantation near New Orleans…another story to find. How did they meet? They had a great love story. Nine of their 12 children survived to adulthood, living a Tom Sawyer childhood along the river, “Our River,” as they called it.


…and later…


They had a staff of servants to help with the large home they finally moved into. Their land covered about half a block, with a diversity of neighbors on each side. There were 14 rooms with a 40 foot hallway the younger kids raced up and down on velocipedes pulling wagons. My great-grandfather was never bothered and must have been the kindest of gentlemen.


So, I drove to Uniontown with this info, along with the knowledge that the town had suffered greatly from the Ohio River floods of 1884, which brought Clara Barton to town for the first Red Cross relief effort as the river raged for weeks through the Ohio River Valley and all the river towns in its path. The 1937 flood left my widowed great-grandmother to be rescued from the second floor balcony by rowboat. The damage to the house and the remnants of the flood led to her death by pneumonia. This must be just a regular flood in this faint photo…


I knew the latest population was 1,000 and I found it on the map, but it was missing from my iPad map. How do you lose a town in an aerial shot? Scary. What would I find?

There was a town still. A levee keeps the flooding away, but the river has changed. I first looked across, imaging a shore where kids could swim across, barges and riverboats coming ’round the bend with my relatives waiting.

There was more than I expected actually. No old buildings, but a post office, VFW, cafe, two grocery markets and a marine store for the boaters who launched their boats on the river. I drove around enough to get a feel for where the house might have stood, picturing what I could from stories…the family eating fried chicken, Kentucky ham, homemade peach ice cream, and asparagus they grew in the yard. They gathered with their friends for burgoo, a community stew of whatever was brought. Such an isolated little town, a river town.

A young girl with a Kentucky drawl at Floyd’s Food Market gave me directions to the cemetery and I hurried before dark to a small cemetery surrounded by cornfields ready for harvest. Where to look? It was all very clean and well kept, divided into about four areas. In frustration, I parked and walked up the little hill. I remember Aunt Sue writing about the babies buried on the hill.

Suddenly, there it was…


…my great-grandparents. And the babies were beside them, touching little headstones for Annie, Nell G. and Merritt.


Behind them were my great-great grandmother and their oldest son, who I actually remember. Then I found two of their daughters. One died after the birth of her second child and her sister married her widower. All three of them, Verg and the two sisters he loved, all buried together. There were some others near, too. I looked and looked for any of my grandmother’s people because she grew up here, too. I didn’t find anyone…another story.

In the end, I stood by the gravestone and put my hand on it and my eyes were overflowing with tears. I thanked them for all the love they passed down. I thought of all the generations that have followed them…

One last look at the wide Ohio River, which is now kind of My River, too.


Then back to Floyd’s for a souvenir…


What did I find out? Lots more than I ever dreamed, but I’ll leave it with this…some of the best things about my family were born in a little town on the Ohio River. No flood will ever take that away. And now that river runs through me…