Robertson County Courthouse – Mount Olivet, Ky.

Robertson County Courthouse – Mt. Olivet, Ky. 

One of the things I’ve always tried to stress with my entries on this blog is how special it is when you can find living history in Kentucky. So many buildings have been demolished; so many stories have been forgotten.

That is why a place like the Robertson County Courthouse is so important.

The building you see above is the only courthouse that has ever stood in Robertson County, and it is a beautiful structure. I have never had the chance to practice in Robertson County, and I keep waiting for a case to happen there that I can swoop in and take, just so I can make appearances in this courthouse.

The courthouse renovation project saw an annex added
to the historic 1872 structure. Photo: Peter Brackney.

It was built in 1872, and when it was half completed, the project ran out of money. The Masons fronted the necessary $1,500 to finish the second floor, and that space was reserved for their use. This structure, which is of Italianate design, was said to be the only brick structure in the county when it was completed.

Robertson County is tiny. In fact, it’s only about 100 square miles. Even with its tiny size, some remarkable history has taken place here. It is the site of what many believe to be the final battle of the Revolutionary War – the Battle of Blue Licks – where in 1782 a group of Native Americans, led by the British, ambushed 176 Kentuckians.

And here’s a weird note – at one time, county seat Mt. Olivet, which is obviously a name with Biblical implications, was called “Hell’s Half Acre.”

The Saddest Courthouse of Them All … in Booneville, Ky.

Owsley County Courthouse – Booneville, Ky.

They all can’t be winners, folks.

I visited Owsley County on a snowy morning last spring. Driving down through Jackson and Beattyville, it was a pretty surreal experience heading through Lee County and along the edge of the Natural Bridge State Park through the snow.

When I arrived, I parked in a muddy gravel lot across from the courthouse and headed into the courthouse.

To be completely honest here, Owsley County is a depressing place.

Owsley County is extremely isolated and is in fact one of the poorest counties in the entire country. Forty-five percent of the county is below the poverty level, and the median income for a household is just under $16,000.

Old Owsley County Courthouse from 1929-1967

This lovely little gem of a courthouse was built (suprise!) in the 1970s. It replaced a beautiful 1929 Colonial revival courthouse that stood on this site before burning in 1967. That courthouse had already been condemned when it burned.

You can still (and may actually be required to) smoke in the Owsley County Courthouse. The permeating smell of tobacco smoke makes the trip to Owsley County even more unpleasant.

The figure you see emblazoned on the front of the courthouse is Earl Combs, Owsley County’s most famous son.

Combs was the leadoff hitter for the famous New York Yankees teams of the 1920s and ’30s. He played on teams with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and compiled a lifetime .325 batting average, deserving of this place in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Combs left Owsley County when he turned 18 and rarely returned.  Combs ultimately settled instead in Richmond at the end of his life.

[ed. note: without a doubt, there is rampant poverty in Owsley Co. and its condition is sad. These are our neighbors and I’ll never forget what I saw in 2012 when Huffington Post published photos from when the Poorest County in America Celebrates Prom.]

Off the beaten path, Morgantown and her courthouse have an interesting past

Butler County Courthouse – Morgantown, Ky.
I rolled into Morgantown on an oppressively hot summer afternoon. The courthouse square was almost completely empty when I parked my car and did my usual walk around. 
Morgantown is another one of those communities for which you have to have a reason to go. It’s not along any major interstate or four-lane highway. Butler County only makes itself known to the casual visitor to Kentucky through the brief stretch of the Western Kentucky Parkway that just barely nicks the corner of the county.

Carpenter’s Kentucky Courthouses entry on this courthouse raises more questions than it answers. This present courthouse is the third such building on this cite, but appears to have undergone some considerable renovation since Mr. Carpenter profiled it in his book.  The original building was dedicated in 1975, but this building used to have a cupola, complete with a clock, and the wings on the side were just a single story. Somewhere along the line, the second story was added and the cupola was replaced. Anyone out there know the story? [ed. note: According to the Doyan Courthouse Survey, the Butler County courthouse was extensively renovated in 1998.]

Regardless, the building pictured above, or some iteration of it, replaced a beautiful Italianate two story courthouse that was demolished in 1974. [ed. note: that Italianate, second courthouse served from 1873 until its demolition.]

Morgantown may have originally been known as Funkhouser Hill, after founder Christopher Funkhouser, who donated the land for a proposed county seat. It is unknown for whom the town is named. Possible theories include a hunter named Morgan, or the first child born there (Daniel Morgan Smith who was born December 14, 1811).

To give you an idea of what early 20th century life was like in Morgantown, the first hard-surface roads in Morgantown weren’t built until the 20’s. As a river town, this modern innovation wasn’t felt necessary until 1917 when the Green River froze and the town was left without contact from the outside world for two months.

A sign on the courthouse lawn tells the interesting story of Butler County native William Taylor,  a Republican who was declared winner of the 1899 governor’s race in Kentucky over William Goebel. The Democrats contested the election, and the bitterness over this election led to Goebel being shot, declared governor, and upon his death Goebel’s successor being named governor. For 160 days, Taylor served as governor, two-thirds of that time unofficially, with Kentucky being split between two functioning state governments. After courts decided against Taylor, he moved to Indiana and practiced law and became president of an insurance company.

Am I the only one who finds that story really, really sad?

The Courthouse in Bloody Harlan, Kentucky

WWI Doughboy Statue at the Harlan County Courthouse – Harlan, Ky.

A lot of areas in Kentucky can be described as being remote. But Harlan County is about the most remote county in the state. Its located in the far southeastern corner of the state, high up in the mountains. Driving into Harlan, you immediately notice the tall flood wall along the Martin’s Fork River, which was constructed back in the 1990s in response to flooding problems back in the late 1970s.

This beautiful courthouse sits in the center of town, which is surprisingly large. Based on historic population figures, Harlan County now has less than a third of the population that it had back in the 1930s. This large and beautiful courthouse was built during this boom time in Harlan, from 1918 through 1922. It is a two story Beaux-Arts style structure built of stone. It is actually the fifth courthouse constructed in Harlan, and the second on this site.

Memorial to the Coal Miner in Harlan, Ky.

The initial site for the first three courthouses in Harlan located on a mound in the city, which due to this mound was initially called Mount Pleasant. Turns out that this was an Indian burial mound, as further digging an excavation during the building of subsequent buildings onsite revealed bones and other artifacts. When the courthouse was moved to the present site pictured above, the old courthouse remained, and was later used as a meeting hall and Masonic lodge.

Sitting on the courthouse lawn is a monument to those who were killed in coal mines. Coal mining remains an important part of Harlan and its history. Repeated attempts to organize labor and the related conflict between mine owners and their security led to a great deal of violence in the region, and the nickname “Bloody Harlan” being attached to the area. The National Guard was even called in May 5, 1931, in response to violence surrounding a strike.

The courthouse itself was the scene of many heated contests over land suits, mineral rights, settlement cases for disabled miners and widows. In its mining heyday, Harlan was bustling with activity and the courthouse was at the center of it all.

Pendleton County Courthouse in flood-prone Falmouth, Ky.

Pendleton County Courthouse – Falmouth, Ky.

Pendleton County and Falmouth were one of those counties and courthouses that were a huge hole in my map for a long time. Pendleton County sits right there along I-75, but is so far off the road that it takes a special trip to get there.

This beautiful little courthouse sits perfectly within downtown Falmouth, and is only the second courthouse in Pendleton County. According to John W. Carpenter’s Kentucky Courthouses, this courthouse was built in 1848.

Apparently, the original structure sits to the right in the picture above. Pilasters on the front of that square building indicate construction in the Greek Revival style.

But a huge remodeling took place in 1884. An addition (shown to the left of the photo) and a clock tower were built with the clock tower connecting the original structure with the addition.

The remodeling brought the building up to “Victorian standards” and added trim, carved lentels over the windows, and other Victorian elements.

A further expansion occurred in the 1970s, when a new addition was added and paint was sandblasted off the old brick.

Falmouth has an interesting history. Located at the convergence of Licking River and South Fork, it is at the site of an early Native American settlement. Floods have devastated the community on a number of occasions, including 1937, 1948, 1964 (when more than 75% of homes in the city were flooded), and 1997 (when the river reached 52 feet and 80% of the town was submerged under several feet of water).

Breckinridge County Courthouse – Hardinsburg, Ky.

Breckinridge County Courthouse – Hardinsburg, Kentucky

Breckinridge County is, of course, named for John Breckinridge, Kentucky’s famous statesman and attorney general under Thomas Jefferson. Breckinridge also served as a U.S. Senator and was the first cabinet-level official from west of the Alleghenies.

This courthouse was built in 1958 at a cost of $260,000. It’s the third courthouse to sit on this site, replacing a quite beautiful courthouse that burned. It’s a pretty simple building that serves its purpose well.

Cloverport, one of the communities in Breckinridge County, was near the site of Clover Creek Tar Springs, a fashionable nineteenth century spa. Cloverport was also the home of Joseph Holt, postmaster general and secretary of war under James Buchanan.

Brandenburg’s Meade County Courthouse Looks Like a Middle School

Meade County Courthouse – Brandenburg, Ky.
Brandenburg is another of those cities that you have to have a reason to go. Downtown Brandenburg is confusing from the moment you arrive. Homes and businesses seem spread out along a small valley, and as far as I could tell, there doesn’t appear to be a real main street area. As I pulled into town, there was a large empty lot along the main drag that had a historical marker – noting that the lot was the site of the third Meade County Courthouse. However, I didn’t find the current courthouse anywhere nearby. The Meade County Courthouse, pictured above, sits high on a hill, surrounded by a huge parking lot. Meade County’s current house is one of those courthouses built in the 1970s that, unfortunately, looks like a middle school. It’s pretty unfortunate. 

Since I was pretty confused about Brandenburg and its bizarre layout, so I decided to head to the internet to figure out what was going on. The layout of Brandenburg appears to have been caused by the famous April 1974 tornado outbreak. This “super tornado” outbreak hit 13 states, with 178 total tornadoes touching down. One of these tornadoes destroyed downtown Brandenburg and the third courthouse, and took 31 lives as well.

A quick drive out of Brandenburg gives you the amazing view of the Ohio River below. 

‘Hearsay’ at Bowling Green’s Warren County Courthouse

Warren County Courthouse – Bowling Green, Ky.

Bowling Green is much larger than you think it is. My usual method of heading downtown and looking around for something that looked like a courthouse misled me a bit here. I ended up on a street just outside of downtown that had a justice center and the Federal Courthouse. After realizing that there had to be an “old courthouse” I headed further in town and found this jewel. The picture really doesn’t do it justice.

William H. Natcher Federal Courthouse
Bowling Green, Ky.

Unlike most courthouses in the state, Warren County has a plaque on the outside that gives some amazing history. This courthouse was erected in 1867 to 1869 at the cost of $125,000. Designed by D.J. Williams, it contains elements of both the Greek Revival and Italianate styles. It is the fourth courthouse for Warren County. According to the plaque, the courthouse looks much as it did in 1869.

Perhaps my favorite part is the original Victorian iron fence that surrounds the courthouse lawn and remains intact. Interior changes have been drastic and unique. Before the advent of automobiles, the courtroom was moved from its original location in the front of the building to the back to muffle out the sounds of animal hooves on Bowling Green’s cobblestone streets. When these hooves were no longer an issue, the courtroom was moved back to its original location in the front of the courthouse.

Perhaps my favorite part of the plaque is a “hearsay” portion, that notes a few local legends about the courthouse. My favorite is that prominent lawyers would frequently climb in the windows after dark to gather in the empty courtroom to play cards, and that nails can still be seen in the main wall of the building where old campaign flyers and event posters used to hang.

This courthouse is the jewel of a beautiful downtown area. I definitely need to make another trip.

Hudspeth’s Well and the Simpson County Courthouse

Simpson County Courthouse – Franklin, Ky.

First, I apologize for the quality of the picture. It was getting dark when I arrived in Franklin, and I couldn’t find an angle that didn’t put the sun directly in my face.

Franklin has a beautiful courthouse lawn. The pictured courthouse was the third on the site and was built in 1882-83. This was the “standard courthouse design” of McDonald Brothers, an architect firm out of Louisville. Wings were added to the courthouse in 1962 that attempted to match the style.

Well on Courthouse Lawn – Franklin, Ky.

People often forget the boon that it could be for a landowner when their land was chosen for the county seat. The selection of Franklin in Simpson County illustrates this very point. When the county was formed, a commission was authorized to purchase a site for the county seat. Three owners sought to sell their site, but a water source was essential.

William Hudspeth had dug a well onsite, but it was dry. Secretly, he hauled in water to fill the well, and sold the 62 acres that serve as Franklin’s downtown area based on this deception. Amazingly, the water he brought in primed the well, and the well ended up being used for years.

There is a well on the courthouse lawn to commemorate this great story in Simpson County’s history. 

In a place called Munfordville…

Hart County Courthouse – Munfordville, Ky.

Hart County has long been a place that I heard much about, but had never visited. A truly good friend from college was a Munfordvillian, and he used to regale me with stories of its importance in the Civil War. We used to laugh as my friend would amp up his southern drawl, and begin to speak of the battles that took place in this tiny little community – including tales of the local boy who went on to be a general in the Confederate Army, General Simon Bolivar Buckner.

Turns out he was right. Hart County was first settled in the late 18th century around the Horse Cave area, with Munfordville being settled in 1816. Munfordville was named for Richard T. Munford, the man who originally owned the land upon which the town sits. Its strategic position along the railroad that ran between Louisville and Nashville made it an important location during the Civil War. Throughout the war, bridges were burned both figuratively and literally in Hart County.

John Hunt Morgan burned the bridge over Bacon Creek in 1861.  During the Battle of Munfordville in 1862, Confederate General Braxton Bragg, at the urging of General Buckner, captured approximately 4,000 Union troops under the command of John T. Wilder. Bragg’s men also burned the bridge which crossed the Green River.

This is the third courthouse in Hart County, constructed in 1928. Except for a small circa 1918 bandstand, it is the only building within the court square itself. Listed on the National Register in 1980, this two-story Colonial Revival has an aura of classical Beaux-Arts design. It kind of reminded me of an old high school. When I visited, there appeared to be some renovation going on near the front entrance – a positive sign as judicial activities moved in 2008 to the new judicial center one block east of the old court square.