Lewis County Courthouse in Vanceburg, Ky.

Lewis County Courthouse – Vanceburg, Ky.
(Photo: NRK)

It’s really hard to get to Vanceburg, Kentucky. Like many of the counties I have visited on this Kentucky 120 journey, you really have to have a good reason to visit Lewis County. Vanceburg is one of those great Kentucky river cities that are so tough to reach.

This courthouse is the fourth in the county, and the second to sit on this site. It was built in 1938-40, and was modeled after Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Like so many others, it was built with Public Works money. It cost just under $100,000. The rock for the building was quarried only four miles from Vanceburg.

As I believe Peter noted in a previous post, this is the site of one of the few Union Civil War Monuments in the state. (ed. note: the only Union monument on a courthouse lawn south of the Mason-Dixon line!)

NoD: Sen. Kathy Stein now represents these eight counties

Montgomery County stream – east of Mount Sterling, Kentucky

Late last week, the governor signed the state’s new redistricting law (HB1) into effect which redrew the boundaries of state legislative districts. In a highly political process, many were directly affected. Politicos and pundits have had much to say, with the most contentious move being the transfer of Lexington’s 13th Senate District to nor’eastern Kentucky taking with it Senator Kathy Stein. Lexington has gone all a’twitter and the folk at Barefoot & Progressive have led the charge. But this post isn’t about politics.

(UPDATE 2-24-2012): The Kentucky Supreme Court has ruled that HB1 was unconstitutional and, as a result, this won’t be Kathy’s new district. She shall continue to repesent the people of Lexington. But keep reading about eight of our wonderful Kentucky counties!

While the Herald-Leader took the opportunity to introduce Lexington its new state senator who lives two-and-one-half hours away in Henderson, no one appears to have yet offered Sen. Stein a tour of her new, very rural district. Having formerly represented a small, compact, urban district, Stein now has a lot of acreage to cover in representing her new constituents in Bath, Fleming, Harrison, Lewis, Mason, Montgomery, Nicholas, and Robertson counties. Off to the new 13th…

Maysville, KY
Maysville, Ky.

Mason County. Kathy may be most accustomed to Maysville (Mason County) which is the district’s largest city, though it still has fewer than 10,000 people. It was here that Rosemary Clooney started her career. In the small hamlet of Minerva, Kathy will find the birthplace of Supreme Court Justice Stanley Reed. As an attorney and ACLU member, Senator Stein will be interested to know that the Justice grew up in a house that was on the underground railroad all of which may have influenced his laying the groundwork for voting rights and ending racial desegregation in Smith v. Allwright.

Montgomery County. On Comment last Friday evening, Joe Gerth of the Courier-Journal noted that though Senator Stein was staying in Lexington, her temptation would be a relocation to Mount Sterling. With convenient access to Lexington via Interstate 64, Montgomery County offers beautiful rural scenes. Mount Sterling’s downtown features excellent examples of historic preservation and its annual Court Days festival is renowned.

Bath County. Getting to Owingsville is challenging, but well worth the effort. The people I encountered were all friendly and all well-informed about their community. The old jail was built in the late 1800s and is almost a miniature of the county courthouse. Quite unique! Civil War heritage is present, but the historical prize is the Owings House which ties political intrigue, fine architectural, royal guests, and a remembrance of the Alamo!

Fleming County. A look at our map shows that I haven’t yet ventured to Flemingsburg, but I can assure Senator Stein that there is something to see here! After all, Fleming County is the covered bridge capital of Kentucky!

Harrison County. When Senator Stein ventures into Cynthiana, she’ll see welcome signage to “a town as beautiful as its name.” Behind the courthouse is a log-house in which Henry Clay defended an accused murderer; at the close of the trial, Clay had given such an impassioned plea that the accused’s wife planted a big kiss on the great orator’s lips.

The AA Highway
AA Highway

Lewis County. The only courthouse lawn memorial to a Union soldier south of the Mason-Dixon line can be found here, in Vanceburg. It is a fine town with a great recognition of its history – more can be learned at the visitor’s center which is located in the restored home in Rep. George Morgan Thomas, a Republican who also received numerous appointments from Presidents Garfield and McKinley.

Nicholas County. A well-known landmark in the county seat of Carlisle is the Doll and Toy Museum. And Nicholas County had no greater ambassador than her native son, the late Gatewood Galbraith.

Robertson County. Without a doubt, Mount Olivet is the most different from downtown Lexington. But it does have its own sense of charm … and its own golf driving range. Robertson County, in terms of both population and square acreage, is Kentucky’s smallest. In history, the Johnson County Covered Bridge reminds of bygone times and the Blue Licks Battlefield State Park and Nature Preserve is a contemplative place that recalls a great incident from the French & Indian War.

NoD: Vanceburg Visitor’s Center located in historic home, hotel

Vanceburg Streetscape
George Morgan Thomas Home / Vanceburg Visitors Center – Vanceburg, Ky.

This home built in 1883 has had many lives, but its ornate rail, turreted corner and peaked roof speak to its Victorian-era origin. Built originally as the home of George Morgan Thomas, the house would later be utilized as a hotel before its present service as the Vanceburg Visitor’s Center.

George Morgan Thomas
A Lewis County native, George Morgan Thomas was born in 1828. He was educated in the “common school” before becoming the local school’s commissioner at age 28. GMT began the practice of law in 1851 after studying law – an era when law school was not a prerequisite to esquiredom. After becoming the prosecuting attorney in Lewis County, GMT went on a roll of political offices utilizing his Masonic and Republican connections: state house, county judge, circuit judge. In the election of 1880, GMT sought a seat in Congress and though he received more votes in Kentucky’s Ninth Congressional District then did presidential candidate James A. Garfield, GMT lost the race. Garfield, however, appointed GMT as the United States District Attorney for Kentucky – an office he held until the end of the Chester Arthur administration. In 1886, GMT claimed his seat in Congress which he held for only one term in favor of an appointment President McKinley as Internal Revenue solicitor. All sources here confuse me as it appears GMT served simultaneously for two years in both the legislative and executive branches of government. GMT retired in 1901 and passed in 1914. 
Though rail traffic had been found since the house was only five years old, the installation of a second rail in 1913 required the removal of homes across the street. Fortunately, this house was saved though the view from the front porch would never be the same. Nearly ten years later, GMT’s heirs sold the family home in 1925 to Maurice Burriss who renovated the home to repurpose it as the Commercial Hotel – a useful occupation given the location of the rail depot now facing the home-turned-hotel.
Burriss died in 1963 and, with him, the hotel closed in 1965. The history of the building vanishes until 2001 when the bank-owned property was given to the City of Vanceburg. Using Kentucky Renaissance on Main project funds, the City restored the fifteen-room home. On July 3, 2006, the  newly restored George Morgan Thomas home was dedicated to the citizens of Vanceburg as the new visitor’s center. 

NoD: How Horses Found Lexington

Vanceburg Streetscape
Historic Marker #205 – Vanceburg, Ky.

Just outside Vanceburg in Lewis County, where the Salt Lick Creek meets the Ohio River, is a historic marker, “Route for Horses and Cattle.” The names and date on this historic marker reveal to the careful reader an important history. The marker reads:

In 1775, Col. Robert Patterson, Wm. McConnell, David Perry and Stephen Lowry brought the first horses (9) and cattle (14) into northern Kentucky. Animals were brought by boat from Ft. Pitt and driven overland from here to the early inland settlements.

For those who read of the Patterson Cabin, you know the importance of Col. Robert Patterson. William McConnell, for whom Lexington’s McConnell Springs was named, is another key leader in early Kentucky history. Yes, these men would go on to establish much of the Bluegrass. And they brought with them the first horses and cattle into northern Kentucky. OK, these may not be the ancestors of Man-O-War or Seabiscuit, but the species that has so contributed to our state and it image first arrived by way of boat from Pittsburgh near this spot in Vanceburg.

NoD: Lewis County’s Union Monument

Lewis County Courthouse
Union Monument at the Lewis County Courthouse – Vanceburg, Ky.

One hundred seven young men from Lewis County died answering Lincoln’s call to “preserve the Union.” They were not alone. Over two million Northerners took up arms against their Southern brethren for a conflict that would last four years and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands. In Kentucky – a border state with dueling state governments and its star being counted on the flags of both Union and Confederacy – the War pitted brother against brother.

After the war, the practice of erecting statues and monuments in memory of the brave soldiers began. We see them in cemeteries, in parks and on the lawns of courthouses. But if you look closely at those erected by public subscription on the lawns of courthouses, you will find that only one in Kentucky is dedicated to the soldiers of the Union Army.

The Union Monument on the lawn of the Lewis County Courthouse, Vanceburg, is not just the only such memorial in Kentucky — it is the only such memorial south of the Mason-Dixon Line! All other Union memorials are located in cemeteries with the fallen.

Thirty feet tall and cut from limestone, it was also the first Civil War monument with a statue erected in the Commonwealth. The soldier, clutching his musket with both hands, wears a kepi cap, cape and winter coat.

Erected in 1884, the distinction of this monument as the only such monument south of the Mason-Dixon Line evinces Lewis County’s strong Union leanings. The following is inscribed upon this monument to the fallen: “The War for the Union was Right, Everlasting Right; And the War Against the Union was Wrong, Forever Wrong.”

Sources, inter alia, National Register.