Augusta, Maysville and Washington are three small pioneer towns in northeast Kentucky - a gentle and pastoral land with a savage history, where old buildings are left to tell some of the story. And the Ohio River keeps rolling on.

Soon after leaving Cincinnati and crossing the Ohio River into Kentucky, you suddenly enter the rural South. Accents are soft and life seems to move at a slower pace.

State Route 8 follows the river to Augusta (35 miles from Cincinnati) and Maysville (65 miles). Washington is four miles southwest of Maysville on U.S. 68, a road that began centuries ago as a path beaten through cane fields by herds of buffalo.

You see rolling hills and fields in varying intense shades of green, limestone cliffs, red barns and blackened tobacco sheds with tin roofs that shine in the sun, a few covered bridges along back roads. This is good fishing, hunting and hiking country. People are warm and welcoming to strangers. And the birds do ''make music all the day,'' as Stephen Foster wrote.

The three towns were founded in the late 1700's, Washington being the smallest (pop. 500) and oldest (1784). Maysville's population is around 8,000, Augusta's 1,400. They've survived wars, raids, cholera epidemics, floods and fires, and all have old cemeteries with cracked and sinking tombstones.

The towns take pride in their old buildings, many of them saved by a fairly recent interest in historic preservation and local efforts. Walking tour maps are available for visitors; those who like history, architectural details and the quirky charms of small-town life should be particularly rewarded.

Kentucky has always been a land of legends. Settlers in the first colonies heard tales of a rich country, full of game, where the wild cane grew - Can-tuc-kee. Shawnee Indians came there to hunt but didn't stay; according to one legend, they believed the place was haunted by ghosts of white Indians who had been killed by their ancestors. (They may have been early explorers or survivors of Sir Walter Raleigh's colony at Roanoke, Va., who made their way west in 1587.) The towns' history begins in the 1770's when scouts from the outpost at Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh) took advantage of a truce with the Shawnees to begin exploring the south side of the Ohio. Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton laid claim to large areas of land, marking trees with their tomahawks. And the first settlers, coming down the river on rafts and flatboats, were not far behind.

Augusta, founded in 1797, was built on the site of an ancient Indian burial ground. Gen. John Payne, building a house in 1800, wrote that he found many skeletons while digging out the cellar. After investigating another site, a few years ago, a state archeologist estimated that 10,000 Indians may still be buried there. Lois Greene, owner of the Piedmont Gallery at 115 West Riverside Drive, said that she seldom worked in her garden ''without digging up something. My best find so far is an Indian awl.''

In its early days, Augusta was a busy river port, the site of the first Methodist college west of the Alleghenies, flourishing vineyards and a winery. Only the winery remains, a massive limestone structure built into the side of a hill, just off Route 8 on the way to Maysville.

John Boude started a ferry service in 1798, and a ferry still operates between Augusta and Boudes Landing on U.S. 52 in Ohio.

On a brilliant summer day, Augusta looks shady and somnolent. An empty building bears a ''For Sale'' sign that adds, ''This Property Slowly Dying Along With Main Street.'' Most of the activity is at the waterfront, where the river glitters in the sun.

The view of the river here is open, intimate and inviting. You see fishermen, barges and pleasure boats going by and the ferry approaching its dock with flag flying.

''It's one of the very few 19th-century waterfronts left in the country - a real treasure,'' said Bill Grooms, a producer of the recent Public Broadcasting Service movie ''The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,'' filmed in this area. (Portions of the TV series ''Centennial'' were also filmed around here.) Buildings from the pioneer, Federal and Victorian periods, edged with boxwood hedges, flowers and brick walks, line Riverside Drive. A brick house at 209 West Riverside is one of the oldest in northern Kentucky; the 1795 log cabin in back, known as Tom Broshears Tavern, is said to have sheltered Simon Kenton.

The building at the corner of Riverside and Main Street was a drugstore when it was hit by Morgan's Raiders in an 1862 Confederate attack; now it's the new Beehive Tavern, serving regional specialties like country ham, transparent pie and blackberry jam cake.

Augusta's walking tour map lists 54 buildings, including a waterfront house owned by the singer Rosemary Clooney, a native of Maysville, and an 1861 house said to have the first bathroom in Augusta.

''It's a wonderful place to unwind and get away from the world,'' Miss Clooney said of Augusta as she sat on her front stoop and watched the boats go by.

Lois Greene discovered the town in 1975. ''Some restoration was already going on, but this whole block was empty then - windows out, doors banging in the wind. There was talk of tearing it all down and putting in a trailer park.'' She said that people come to Augusta for the same reasons she did: the old houses, the sense of history, the river. ''The river is always changing, fascinating to watch, a living force,'' she added, looking at a boat on the river. ''Did you hear the captain blow his whistle? He's saying hello to a friend here on Riverside. We get greetings like that all the time.''

Twenty miles east of Augusta is Maysville, a skinny town squeezed between the river and a steep hill where houses stand on descending terraces. Seen from the hill, Maysville is immediately appealing. You see rooftops, green trees, the white spire of the Mason County Courthouse and the sweep of the Simon Kenton Bridge crossing the river to Aberdeen, Ohio. (Not only are accents different across the river but some people in Maysville will also tell you that Ohio people look different.) It's a friendly place. A visitor who'd stopped to study the walking guide map was spotted by a Maysville resident who came up, beaming. ''Honey,'' she said, ''if you need help, I hope you'll ask. Anybody!''

Many of the buildings date from the early 1800's and the steamboat era when merchants took the farmers' tobacco, whisky and cattle down the river on consignment, sold them where they would bring the best price and brought back household goods and luxuries from New Orleans. The New Orleans influence still shows in the use of ornate iron grillwork and exuberant touches of Steamboat Gothic trim.

The 1838 January house, built by Andrew January, a commission merchant, is now occupied by the seventh generation of that family. It has all the original furnishings, including a portrait of Andrew January, a stern-looking man, who still seems to be guarding his domain.

Nearby is Phillips' Folly, built by William Phillips, the second mayor of Maysville, who ran out of money and disappeared until a lucky gambling streak in New Orleans allowed him to return and finish the house in 1828. The basement, made of hand-quarried stone, was a stop on the underground railway.

An 1860 house known as Buffalo Trace, not included in the guide, stands on a hill outside of town. It is a splendid example of Gothic Revival architecture.

Most of the houses in the guide are privately owned and open only to guided tours, which can be arranged ''by chance or by appointment,'' as a Maysville resident said. ''Meaning, a lot depends on who's leading the tour and which owners are at home. Most of the owners have always been very generous.''

Visitors should start at the Mason County Museum to learn about Maysville's early history. What a story it is, and what a cast of characters. More than enough for another TV drama, you conclude.

The first name was Limestone Landing, a good place for settlers coming down the Ohio river to disembark. Most of them didn't linger, due to the threat of Shawnee Indians on the Ohio side, but headed over the hill toward a cluster of log cabins near Kenton's Station that became Washington.

Simon Kenton was a poor Virginia farm boy who fled west because he thought he'd killed a man in a fight. (The man survived, but Kenton didn't know that for years.) For a while, he used the name of Butler, and that was what the Indians called him - Bahd-ler, a feared and respected enemy.

Captured by the Shawnees, he was tortured and held for nearly a year before he escaped. Later, he saved his friend Daniel Boone from capture. Over six feet tall, with long red hair, Kenton was a scout and woodsman as well as the settlers' friend.

On the other side, there was Tecumseh, the chief who almost succeeded in uniting the Indian tribes into one great fighting force. And Blue Jacket, a fierce Shawnee chief who was originally the son of settlers in Virginia, with the unlikely name of Marmaduke Van Swearigen. He was taken by the Shawnees at 17, named Blue Jacket for his homespun blue shirt and adopted by the tribe.

The adoption was wholehearted. Blue Jacket led many raids against the settlers and, during one raid, killed John May, a Virginian who owned the land at Limestone Landing. (The town's name was changed in May's honor.) The fighting around Maysville and Washington was part of a larger period of intermittent warfare between the Indians and the American forces, as the Indians tried to hold onto land that was theirs by treaty. Survival was at stake, and acts of great courage - and hideous atrocities - occurred on both sides.

In the end, the settlers won out. The forest and hunting grounds gave way to farms and towns. Land owned by Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton melted away in lawsuits and counter claims. The son of a man Kenton had helped get settled had him jailed for debt; in a last touch of irony, the jailer was Thomas Williams, his companion on their first trip down the Ohio 50 years before.

Finally, both Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton gave up and moved west, victims of progress - like the Indians.

Daniel Boone's brother once had a tavern in Maysville. Later taverns had signs saying ''Bed, Board & Bourbon, 2 Bits.'' A restaurant often recommended to today's visitors is Caproni's on Rosemary Clooney Street, where four people recently had drinks, a decent dinner and a fine view of the river for $42.

Bill Grooms, the PBS producer, described Maysville as ''everybody's home town - a place full of tradition and family feeling. Half the Huck Finn crew talked about moving to Maysville.''

A short drive out of Maysville on U.S. 68, past a shopping center that could be Anywhere, U.S.A., is a sign: ''To Washington Business District.'' Business district? This is a village six blocks long and two blocks wide.

Washington began as a resting place for settlers who'd spent the day pushing their wagons up the hill at Limestone Landing. A log cabin settlement became a town and, in 1787, the county seat. In 1792, when Kentucky became a state, Washington was the second largest town in the state after Lexington. Washington had 119 log houses, 462 people, 22 wells, several private schools and, in 1798, the first post office west of the Alleghenies.

But once the Indian raids stopped and river traffic increased, Maysville began to grow and Washington waned. In 1848, the county seat was moved to Maysville. And Washington almost disappeared.

Local historic preservation efforts saved most of the old houses. (They'd survived, as one Washington resident explained, ''because people were too poor to do anything but keep living in them.'') Today Washington has 30 of its original buildings, the old limestone walks and a few of the old wells.

The tour, led by guides in bonnets and long skirts, starts at the visitor center in the 1800 Paxton-Evans house and includes the 1810 Paxton Inn, the 1803 Albert Sidney Johnson birthplace, the 1848 Old Church Museum, the 1790 Simon Kenton Shrine and the 1787 Mefford's Fort.

Mefford's Fort is the last remaining flatboat house, ''built of boards from the flatboat on which George Mefford, his wife and 13 children descended the Ohio,'' as a sign explains. And visitors look thoughtful as they go into the bare two-story building, trying to picture 15 people living in such small, dim space.

One of Washington's original log cabins has become the Simon Kenton Shrine; inside are displays and a life-size wax figure of Kenton, wearing buckskins and looking rather ghostly. Attempts have been made to plant some cane, which once grew in abundance, from 6 to 15 feet tall, around the cabin. ''But it hasn't done too well,'' the manager of the Cane Brake shop said.

Albert Sidney Johnson was a Confederate general, killed at the battle of Shiloh. His birthplace is a simple white frame house with walls one board thick; the interior has original mantels and period furniture.

Other old houses, privately owned and not open to the public, vary in style from Frontier Federal to Georgian, built of brick.

Houses built by Arthur Fox and William Wood, who bought the town's original 320 acres from Simon Kenton (for 50 cents an acre) still stand. Behind the Marshall Key house (1800) is a small brick building with gunslits; it was once used as a smokehouse and a refuge during Indian attacks.

Harriet Beecher Stowe visited one of the Key daughters in 1833 and saw a slave auction on the courthouse steps, an event that Washington historians feel was the inspiration for ''Uncle Tom's Cabin.''

Overlooking the town is Federal Hill, a Colonial brick house built in 1800 by Capt. Thomas Marshall, brother of John Marshall, the first Chief Justice of the United States. A family graveyard includes the grave of Captain Marshall's mother; the inscription is faint: ''Mary Randolph Keith, b. 1739. She was good, not brilliant, useful, not ornamental, and the mother of 13 children.''

Washington is a town that resists change, but the last few years have made a difference; there are more visitors, more shops, a commercial herb garden. Broderick's Tavern, which goes back to 1794, is now a restaurant, known for inexpensive fare and popular with tour-bus groups.

The homespun charm of Washington remains the same. Seen on a misty morning, with the streets empty, a dog barking in the distance and a faint scent of smoke in the air, the pioneer past seems real -crowded cabins, endless labor, the isolation, the surrounding forest and the threat of Blue Jacket, waiting in the shadows.

More change may be in store for this whole area, with a major highway from Cincinnati to Ashland, Ky., due to open in about a year.

The appeal of towns like Augusta, Maysville and Washington is as delicate, and hard to protect, as wildflowers. Already regional differences are fading, and small town Main Streets are struggling everywhere.

Mary Louise Duke, who lives in Maysville, has been a leader in preservation efforts from the beginning. ''Lots of people think the new highway will be wonderful,'' said Mrs. Duke. ''But I worry about it. The way things are now, we're a little off the beaten track. People have to want to come here. And I'd like it to stay that way. What will happen when our towns are just a quick stop on the way to somewhere else?'' PLANNING A TRIP BACK IN TIME Getting There Travelers coming through Cincinnati can take Interstate 471 across the Ohio River to Fort Thomas, Ky. Past Fort Thomas, I-471 becomes U.S. 27. When you reach I-275, go east a mile or so to State Route 8 and turn south toward Augusta.

Alternate route on the Ohio side of the river: U.S. 52 past Point Pleasant, birthplace of Ulysses S. Grant, to the Augusta ferry (after Utopia and before Higginsport.) It operates from 8 A.M. to 7 P.M. Monday to Thursday and from 9 A.M. to 8 P.M. Friday to Sunday. Toll: cars $3.25 one way, foot passengers, 50 cents each. Where to Stay There are many hotels and motels in Cincinnati and around Covington and Newport, Ky. The 19-room Golden Lamb Inn (513-932-5065) at 27 South Broadway, Lebanon, Ohio 45036, is about six miles off I-75 about 25 miles north of Cincinnati. The oldest inn in Ohio, it was built in 1815 and has antique furniture and private baths. Charles Dickens and Mark Twain are counted among past guests. Its restaurant serves American fare for lunch and dinner. Rates, including Continental breakfast, are $55 a night for two in most rooms. Dinner runs $11 to $14 a person without wine. In Augusta Gertrude Scheier (606-756-2135), 203 West Riverside Drive, Augusta, Ky. 41002, rents four rooms in her 200-year-old house facing the river. Rates: $12 a person a night. Meals can usually be arranged. Breakfast is $2.50.

The Piedmont Gallery (606-756-2216) at 115 West Riverside is open from noon to 5 P.M. Thursday to Sunday, or by appointment. Contemporary and antique art and crafts.

At the Beehive Tavern (606-756-2202) at 101 West Riverside dinner costs about $10 a person. Open only from noon to 2:30 P.M. and from 6 to 9 P.M. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and from 1 to 8 P.M. on Sunday.

To arrange house tours, call Lane Stephenson, president of SHARE, the historical society. The number isĀ 606-756-3186. Walking-tour maps available at the Piedmont Gallery, the drugstore, the bank and City Hall.

An arts and crafts festival and a sternwheeler regatta take place on the third weekend in June, and Heritage Days (historic house tours, a flea market and a street fair) is held each Labor Day weekend. In Maysville Ramada Inn (606-564-6793), 84 Moody Drive at U.S. 68, Maysville, Ky. 41056, charges $42 to $44 for two in a room. At Victoria's restaurant in the inn dinner is about $9 a person.

Specialties at Caproni's (606-564-9725), 320 Rosemary Clooney Street, include seafood, fish, steaks and spaghetti. About $10 a person.

House tours can be arranged at the Chamber of Commerce (606-564-5534), 115 East Third Street. Maps available there and at the Mason County Museum.

Around the Fourth of July, the Main Street Festival offers parades, entertainment, square dancing and fireworks. On Court Day (the first Monday in October) there are sidewalk sales, crafts displays and entertainment, and traders sell or swap hunting dogs, old watches and guns. Tobacco auctions are held from late November to mid-January.

In Germantown, three miles east of Maysville on State Route 10. the local fair, held since 1854 during the first full week in August, offers music, exhibits, a horse show and competitions. In Washington Broderick's Tavern (606-759-7934) on Main Street is changing hands this month. Under the old management a roast beef dinner was $5.50.

On Dec. 6 and 7, the 19th annual Frontier Christmas celebration will offer tours of decorated historic homes and a candlelight vesper service at the Old Church Museum. On the first weekend in May, Geranium Days are observed with a plant sale, an antiques show and crafts displays.

Walking tour maps of Washington are available at the visitor center, and guided tours are offered from May 1 to early December.

Blue Licks Battlefield State Park (606-289-5507) about 30 miles south of Washington on U.S. 68, site of the last Kentucky battle of the Revolutionary War where Daniel Boone's son was among the casualties, has a museum and a monument on its 100 acres. There are also hiking trails, a swimming pool, picnic facilities, campsites and fishing. Each year on Aug. 17 and 18 the Battle of Blue Licks is re-enacted. M. A. R.



New York Times, October 5, 1986. By Mary Augusta Rodgers, a writer who lives in Birmingham, Mich.