Owen County, 1923


Owenton, , Ky., April 3, 1923  It was in 1853 that John Cabell Breckinridge (external) gave Owen county the affectionate nickname by which it has ever since been known- Sweet Owen.  He had good reason to express his devotion to this northern hill county.  There was a congressional race that year which had aroused intense interest.  Young John C, then only 32 years old, but already, like his distinguished father and grandfather, a man of brilliant promise, was the Democratic candidate to succeed himself.  His opponent was ex-Gov. Robert P. Letcher (external), a seasoned and professional politician and one of the most popular stump speakers of the time.

 Letcher had been chosen as the strongest representative of the Whigs of the State, for the defeat of Breckinridge was very much desired by that party.  Two years before the attractive and energetic Breckinridge had defeated Gen. Leslie Combs, the devoted friend of Henry Clay, in a Whig district.  His chances had been declared hopeless against Combs, and his election was regarded as a miracle. For him to attempt the impossible a second time against such a man as Letcher seemed incredible and ridiculous.

 The future Vice President of the United States, instead of being disheartened by the adverse odds, was stimulated to greater activity by the reputation and prowess of his foeman.  The campaign swept on and ended in a blaze of red fire and dashing oratory.  Then came that period of tenses waiting for the returns.  Precinct after precinct reported for Letcher. County after county gave the Whig a majority.  The Whigs were jubilant.  The Democrats were melancholy - all but Breckinridge himself.

Perhaps he kept in mind that line from Psalms, "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence comes my strength."  At any rate he pleaded with his sympathizers to be cheerful and optimistic.  When they demanded to know, in face of the returns, what ground he had for optimism, he replied, "Boys, Owen county is yet to be heard from."  Breckinridge was peculiarly attached to Owen, and he had reason to believe Owen was peculiarly attached to him - that from Owen's hills would come his help.

 At that time, Owen was an isolated district.   With no railroads, telephones, or telegraph lines, the process of gathering and counting ballots was very slow.  It was many hours after the polls closed before Owen itself knew how things had gone.  Breckinridge knew of the delays to which Owen's returns would be subject.  And it was that knowledge that gave him fortitude while his companions had abandoned hope, even while viewing the ever-increasing Letcher majority.  The climax to the drama was romantic in the extreme - almost melodramatic.

 Some days after the election when the Whigs had already celebrated their victory, a mounted man left the fastness of Owen county at top speed.  He was headed for the headquarters of John C. Breckinridge.  Imagine him drawing up at the door of the house in which the dejected Democrats were holding what they thought was a useless vigil.  Imagine him bursting into the room with his message - a message which electrified the state.  Owen county had gone so solidly for Breckinridge that the huge Letcher plurality was wiped out and John C. Breckinridge was elected to Congress with 5265 votes to spare.

 Sweet Owen! Cried Breckinridge as he heard the news.  Sweet Owen! And sweet Owen it is.  Soon after a son was born to John C. and Mrs. Breckinridge.  He was called Owen County Breckinridge, in testimony of John C.'s gratitude.

 Up to the present day Owen never wavers in its loyalty to the Democratic party.  It never fails to poll a huge Democratic majority and a Republican vote that is negligible.

 During the Civil War the citizens of Owen were almost unanimously on the side of the South.  In proportion to its size the county contributed perhaps more soldiers to the Confederate cause that any other in the state.  Moreover Owen county was refuge for Southern soldiers and sympathizers who had escaped from Northern prisons; it was a place where raids were organized; it was a place where recruiting for the South was conducted.  It is hardly necessary to say that, as a result of their intense Southern feelings, the citizens of Owen county suffered much from the raids of federal soldiers.  There were two Confederate camps in the county - one called Camp Marshal, near Lusby's Mills; another at Vallandingham's barn, about a mile and a half from Owenton, the county seat.

 Owen county was formed in 1819, from sections of Scott, Franklin and Gallatin counties, and became Kentucky's sixty-seventh county.  It is large in area, containing 267 square miles, and the terrain is quite hilly and broken.  In some places, particularly in the cliffs along the waterways the county is wild and exceedingly rough, too rough to bear cultivation.  In others, such as in the Wheatley-New Liberty, the Greenup and Pleasant Home sections, the land has a more or less gentle roll and is very fertile.   The northern half of the county is generally better for agricultural purposes than the southern.  Too bad Owen was so badly creased when the great glacier passed over it, for its soil, based on limestone, is very productive.  Had the terrain been left a little flatter the county would have been much better off.

 Owen is bounded on the east by Grant and Scott, on the north by Carroll and Gallatin, on the west by Henry, and on the south by Franklin and Scott.  It suffers the great disadvantage of not having a mile of railroad within its boundaries.  When the L & N short line from Louisville to Cincinnati was being built the engineers decided to route it along the northern bank of the Eagle creek rather than the southern.  Eagle creek, a stream nearly large enough to be called a river, is the dividing line between Owen county, on one hand, and Carroll and Gallatin on the other.  Thus Carroll and Gallatin got the railroad, and Owen got none.

 When the Queen and Crescent [a.k.a. the Southern, or the Norfolk Southern] was built from Cincinnati to Lexington, Owen county was off the logical and shortest line of construction, which was through the center of Grant county, Owen's neighbor.  To the south, the railroad from Louisville to Frankfort and Lexington misses Owen by several miles.  It just happened that Owen didn't happen to be in the line of march when railroads were being built, and it does not seem likely now that it will ever be traversed by railroad.  Some years ago some promoters conceived the idea of building a line east and west from Owenton to the neighborhood of Dry Ridge in Grant county, where connection was to be made with the Southern.

 A good deal of money was put into the project, and Owen county was beginning to believe that its transportation troubles were about to be solved.  Work began on the right of way, and many thousands were spent buying and grading the land from Owenton to the Grant county line.  The grade was completed for the whole distance and was made ready for the ties, when all of a sudden the project was abandoned.  It was claimed that it was impossible to float bonds to continue the work, or something of the sort.  The deserted grade may still be seen in Owen along the Sparta pike.  It is grown up with grass now, and its only function is as an unpleasant reminder of what might have been, in addition to breaking up many fields or appearing as an ugly gash in front of farm houses.

 So that Owen is forced to place its dependence on roads.  The western part of the county, which is bounded from one end to the other by the Kentucky river, used to do a great deal of shipping by boat.  But this method of transportation, for more than one reason, is not satisfactory and with the exception of Owen's annual supply of coal, which comes by boat to Gratz, the river isn't much help in getting out products or bringing in supplies.  For one thing, the good old commodious steamboat has been largely replaced by small gasoline affairs which hardly encourage heavy shipment by water.

 As to roads, there is one in Owen which is as vital to its life as the jugular vein to the human body.  That is the road from Owenton to Sparta, a little town on the L & N twelve miles north of Owenton.  The major outlet and inlet, this road must bear heavy traffic the year round. In past years Owen has spent a great deal of money on this road, an expenditure which, despite its evident necessity, has caused much dissatisfaction in parts of the county which it does not directly serve.  Now eight miles of the twelve, water-bound macadam, surface treated, have been taken over and maintained by the state.  The remaining four miles are still under the county's charge.  It takes about forty minutes to drive from Sparta to Owenton.  Taxis ply between the two points, charging a dollar each way for passengers.  Over the Sparta road is hauled Owen's tobacco, its livestock, its dairy products, both in local and long-distance trucks.  What is not transferred to railroad cars at Sparta is usually hauled on to Cincinnati, with which Owen county does a good proportion of its business.  Over the Sparta road, likewise, is hauled a thousand different kinds of supplies.  Daily bus service is conducted to Owenton both from Georgetown and from Frankfort, although these represent longer distances and, as a result, are less popular routes to Owenton than the Sparta road.

 It was in recognition of Owen's absolute dependence upon roads that inspired the county last fall to sanction a bond issue of $200,000 for road construction.  The understanding upon which the issue was approved is that the money is to be used only in connection with the state funds; that is, it is to be used with the State's help to build Owen county's section of the primary road system.  That system contemplates five fine highways-from Owenton toward Worthville and Carrollton, toward Williamstown in Grant county, toward Frankfort, toward Georgetown, in addition to the Sparta road.

According to County Judge Howard Ellis, a definite promise has been received from the State to begin work this year on the Worthville and Georgetown roads.  The remaining four miles of the Sparta road is to be completed and turned over to the state for maintenance as soon as possible.  The completion of the other roads, with the sale and expenditure of the proper share of Owen's bond issue, awaits the State's pleasure.  The theory is that once this system is completed with the $200,000, plus the state's share, the county will proceed to improve the smaller and less important county roads, a consummation devoutly prayed for by farmers who live off the pikes.

 Owen county, we were informed by Mr. M. H. Bourne, the able and courteous editor of the News-Herald, one of Owen county's two newspapers (the other being the Owen County Democrat), that the last fifteen years has witnessed a great improvement in its agricultural and financial condition.  So marked is this change that old citizens who came back after long absences fail to recognize certain sections as being the same they once knew.  It seems that because of unsatisfactory prices for tobacco and other farm products in the early 1900s many farmers left the county in despair of making a good living.  The flurry of hope caused by the formation of the old Equity Association was soon succeeded by even deeper disappointment and discouragement than had existed before, when that association failed in its purposed.  At best not an easy terrain to cultivate, with no chance to realize a decent return on the work expended on it, due to depression of prices, Owen's farm lands were hardly coveted.

 Thousands left, but those thousands who remained were soon to witness the introduction of sweet clover.  As in Pendleton county, which has already been treated in these articles, sweet clover, sweet clover wrought an enormous change in Owen county's condition.  Where fields had been cut into numerous gullies by erosion, their ugly topsoil exposed to view, sweet clover became a healing balm to fill the gullies, smooth the fields, and enrich the soil with its restoring nitrates.  Farms that looked as though they were good for nothing, in a few years resumed something of their virgin good looks and virility.  After sweet clover came alfalfa, after alfalfa came better prices for farm products.  After a period of hard trails, Owen began to hold its own.  Now with a good price for tobacco it is getting along well.  If the tobacco price holds up for three or four years the county will be in tip top shape.

 Tobacco is Owen's principal crop.  Its annual yield of this lies between 4,000,000 and 8,000,000 pounds.  At an average of 30 cents a pound, or even 20 cents, it can be seen that the amount of revenue is great. [$6,000,000 times .25 per pound would be $1,500,000.00].  With the liberal use of soil restoratives and fertilizers, Owen county can keep up this production year after year.  It is safe to say that, with any encouragement at all with fair prices, this will be done.

 Tobacco may be Owen's principal source of revenue, but its main distinction is in the sheep industry.  Owen has the reputation of being the largest sheep-raising county in Kentucky.  Certainly a drive over the road from Sparta to Owenton leads to this belief.  On nearly every farm that is passed on the road may be seen a flock of sheep grazing in the pasture.  The census for 1920 credits Owen with 35,294 head, the next largest sheep county being Scott, with 29,853.  Each year, thousands of ewes are imported from the Southwest into Owen, where they are bred in many cases to purebred rams.  Figuring the average ewe to cost $9, her lamb to be worth $10, her fleece to be worth $3, this gives an annual return of $13 more than the purchase price.  The sheep business is pretty thoroughly understood in Owen county.  Flocks are usually not large, but it is said that eight out of every ten farmers will have on ranging from fifty to a hundred and fifty head.  This means that the huge revenue derived from this source is divided pretty evenly throughout the country and helps, in good years, to keep the county prosperous.

 There is at least one purebred herd in Owen county that deserves mention.  That is the Hereford herd of P. O. Minor, which is maintained for breeding purposes on this 3200 acre farm at Balls Landing.  These Herefords are in large part descendent from the famous Woodford herd of the late Col. E. H. Taylor, Jr., and are closely related to both the famous Taylor and Camden herds of Woodford county.  Some of Mr. Minor's calves have brought as high a price as $500 apiece.  Mr. Minor is also a breeder of the Berkshire and Poland China hogs.

 An inland town, Owenton, with a population of a thousand or thereabouts, has been considered for years by traveling men one of the best inland towns in Kentucky.  Its grocery, drug, department, and other stores constitute a retail district where shopping is a pleasure.  The stocks are not only completed, but of high order.  There are many pretty homes in Owenton, a hotel which is inviting because of its cleanliness and neatness and which serves a good meal, and a good looking courthouse in the Greek-Doric style.  The town radiates from the courthouse as a center.  A pleasant little place, and one that seems to be less affected by being inland than most.

 The county officers are: County judge, Howard Ellis; clerk, Walter Wilhoite; attorney, James G. Vallandingham; school superintendent, Mrs. Clara A. Jones; sheriff, Addie Coates; circuit clerk, E. R. Mason; tax commissioner, L. S. Starnes.  The principal of city schools is H. W. Puckett.

 There are three churches in Owenton.  The Baptist is the largest, but it has a present no resident pastor.  The pastor of the Christian church is the Rev. D. H. Griffith; of the Methodist Church, the Rev. R. L. Oliver.


From the 1923 Louisville Herald, by Ralph Coghlan