A Historical Sketch of Trimble County
John C. Strother, read before the Filson Club, Louisville, Kentucky, February 2, 1920
The territory embraced in what is now the state of Kentucky was a part of the unorganized territory of Virginia until 1734, when Orange County was formed, and embraced the country from the western boundary of Spotsylvania County to the Mississippi River, and until 1735 when Augusta County was formed, embracing the territory now the State of Kentucky. Orange County was not authorized to organize its county government until it was known to contain enough people to bear the expense of county government, which condition was proclaimed by the Governor of Virginia in 1745, who at the same time appointed officers of the County. Up to this time, all deeds were recorded, wills probated, and other records kept at Orange Court House, Virginia.
In November, 1769, Bottetourt County was formed out of the western portion of Augusta County, and embraced the territory extending to the Mississippi River, including what is now Trimble County, and continued until October, 1772, when Fincastle County was formed, embracing all of what is now Kentucky and also West Virginia and part of the present state of Virginia.
Kentucky County was formed in 1776, and embraced all and only all, of the present state of Kentucky. This was the first separate governmental organization, embracing only the territory which is now the State of Kentucky, and it is interesting to note that it was formed in the year in which American independence was declared.
In May, 1789, Kentucky County was divided into three counties – Jefferson, Lincoln, and Fayette. Kentucky District was formed in 1779. Trimble County was in the territory embraced in the County of Jefferson.
Shelby County was formed in 1792 from Jefferson County, and embraced the western part of what is now Trimble County. Gallatin County was formed in 1798 from Franklin and Shelby Counties, and embraced the eastern part of what is now Trimble County. Henry County was formed in 1798 from Shelby County. Oldham County was formed in 1823 out of Jefferson, Shelby, and Henry Counties.
Trimble was formed in 1837, out of Oldham, Henry and Gallatin Counties. Collins, Smith, and other historians of Kentucky give the date of the formation of Trimble County as 1836, and historical sketches of the County have fallen into the same error. The Act creating Trimble County was approved by the Governor, February 9, 1837. (See Acts 1836-37, p. 141.) And the Act took effect in the separate governmental establishment of the County, as of April 1, 1837.
The boundary of the County, as originally established, extended up the Ohio River to the mouth of the Big Kentucky River, but in the Session of the General Assembly in 1849, the Eastern part of the County was cut off and added to Carroll County, and the line brought to the Ohio River at the mouth of Spillman’s Lane, so that now the County is bounded on the North by the Ohio river, on the west by the Ohio River and Oldham County, on the south by Henry county, and on the East by Carroll county. It lies in a great bend of the Ohio River, giving it, for a county of small territory, an unusual amount of river front.
The country embraced by Trimble County is largely a river hill county, and it is in what is known as the Cincinnatian geological formation. The river hills are of unusual height, extending back for miles. The tops of the hills have free stone, and are above the limestone strata. The hillsides and creek bottoms are limestone. The tops of the hills between the streams are high rolling table lands, well adapted to agriculture and the use of all modern farm machinery.
The soil is a light gray loam which, in the early days of agriculture in the county, produced hemp and other crops usual in the climate; and by modern fertilizer, scientific farming and what is claimed to be a natural chemical improvement of the soil within the last thirty or forty years, is in a high state of cultivation and very productive. The hillside and creek bottoms are very productive – the limestone soil adapting the hillsides especially to the cultivation of tobacco, which is raised in large quantities and brings high prices. An instance now called to mind of a large tobacco crop raised in the summer of 1919, which is said to have produced an average if 1700 pounds to the acre, and to have been sold in Louisville market at an average of 45 cents a pound – nearly $800 an acre.
That part of the county lying along the Ohio river, extending back for many miles, was originally as heavily timbered as any part of Kentucky, the forest growth embracing poplar, walnut, beech, ash, hickory, maple, hackberry, oak, and other timber growths indigenous to the soil.
The county is divided into practically two equal parts by a broad ridge extending entirely through the county, from the western boundary not very far from Sligo, which is in Henry County, to Milton, and forming a water shed. The streams on the north side empty into the Ohio River, and on the south side of the ridge into the Little Kentucky River. There is perhaps no county in the state better watered than Trimble County. Besides the Ohio river, which forms its entire northern and a large part of its western boundary, it has the following creeks: Kanip, which empties into the Ohio river just above Milton; Spring Creek, Corn Creek, Bare Bone, and Middle Creek, which lie wholly within the county; and Patton’s Creek, which forms the boundary between Trimble and Oldham Counties. All of these creeks empty into the Ohio River. On the south side of the ridge are Carmen, Daugherty, Hardy and Buck Run, which empty into the Little Kentucky River, and George’s Creek, emptying into the same river, and forming part of the boundary between Trimble and Carroll Counties. The Little Kentucky River, not navigable, but a stream of considerable size, rises in Henry or, perhaps in Shelby County, [ It’s Henry – ed.] and passes through the entire southern part of the County, into Carroll county, and empties into the Ohio River about three quarters of a mile below the mouth of the Big Kentucky.
It may be noted here that there has recently been projected what is called the Federal Aid Road, as projected, to extend from Louisville to Covington, opposite Cincinnati, Ohio. The funds for building this road are to be furnished, one-half by the federal government, one-fourth by the State of Kentucky, and one-fourth by the counties through which the road is to pass. Trimble County was the first to raise its quota of $112,000, which was raised almost exclusively by private subscription. Madison, Indiana contributed $15,000. Carroll, Gallatin, and Boone have not raised their quotas, and at this writing it is believed will not do so. Oldham County has raised its quota with the help of Louisville, and the road, as now contemplated, will run from Louisville to Milton, where passage across the Ohio River will be afforded by a steam ferry, connecting there to a thoroughfare running to Cincinnati on the North side of the river. It is contemplated, if possible, to locate this Federal aid Road along the ridge above mentioned, the doing of which will make that part of the road which lies in Trimble county one of the most beautiful and picturesque in the State of Kentucky.
The formation of Trimble County was promoted by George Strother, who settled in the county in 1802, having come from Virginia in 1796, and spent about six years in Bourbon County, Ky. Associated with him were the leading citizens of the county, who memorialized the legislature and went to Frankfort and secured the passage of an Act creating the County. George Strother was the first County Judge of Trimble county, and presided in the Fiscal Court when the site for the public square was conveyed to the county and the contract made for building the first court house. Leonard Sibley was a member of the Fiscal Court at that time, and it may not be uninteresting to note that James Strother, the grandson of George Strother, is now County Judge of Trimble County, and a grandson of Leonard Sibley is at present a member of the Fiscal Court.
After the Act creating the county became effective in April 1837, the Town of Bedford donated to the county the public square. At that time the ground forming the square was practically covered by a pond. This was filled up and the court house built of brick of a substantial and attractive design for the period in which it was built, and which continued in use until 1884, when it was removed and the present Court House of more modern architectural design and more commodious was built.
The most important town in the county is Milton, on the Ohio river, opposite Madison, Indiana. It is one of the oldest incorporated towns in the State of Kentucky. It was incorporated by an Act of the General Assembly of Virginia in 1789, three years before Kentucky became a state. Originally it was situated between Kanip Creek and Town Branch. In later years, improvements below Town Branch formed the Town of Kingston, which was annexed to and now forms a part of the town of Milton. The town has three churches, Methodist, Baptist and Christian, and several stores, a prosperous bank, and the activities usually [found] in a town situated in a prosperous agricultural community.
The only town of any importance other than Milton and Bedford, is Wise’s Landing on the Ohio River, which contains a population of probably two hundred. Twenty or twenty-five years ago, the site of Wises Landing was a dense forest. But the enterprise of the people in the vicinity, whose shipping activities center at this point, and the excellent landing for steamboats which it affords, have caused activity and growth unexcelled by any landing between Louisville and Cincinnati.
The soil of Trimble County is adapted to fruit growing. For many years, in fact back to a period prior to the Civil War, it was noted for its production of blackberries, which were gathered from briars that grew spontaneously in great profusion and especially at the time of high prices of the Civil War and following that period were marketed at prices which brought no inconsiderable income to the people. Peaches have been and are grown in great quantities, and the soil and the climate seen to be so adapted to their production and to the excellence of their flavor and the beauty of their coloring that it is no uncommon thing to see on the eastern markets peaches advertised as “Trimble County Peaches.” The production is less now than thirty to fifty years ago, at which time there was one orchard in the county containing 327 acres all in one enclosure.
The farms in Trimble County, with one or two exceptions, are not large, averaging perhaps about 80 acres. The population of the county is more than 90 percent native. There are, perhaps, less degrees of poverty and wealth in the county, than in any other county in the state. There are few wealthy people. The farms are usually owned by their occupants. Less than ten percent of the population belongs to the tenant class. This condition results in a steady, intelligent, law-abiding citizenship, unexcelled anywhere in Kentucky. It is no unusual thing for the doors of the County Jail to stand wide open for a year or eighteen months at a time without a single prisoner.
It cannot be inferred, however, that the county is free from violators of the law, and a number of notable criminal prosecutions have occurred. In the late fifties, there lived in the county a young man named Taylor Roberts, who was recognized s being of evil tendency. He had a large collection of weapons. A gatepost about the size of a man was riddled with bullet holes, where he had practiced with his pistol. In the late fifties, the body of a young man named Conway was found by a log in the woods, murdered. Suspicion at once fastened itself on Taylor Roberts. He was arrested and indicted for the murder. Under a change of venue, the trial was held at Carrollton. He was convicted and sentenced to the penitentiary. It was rumored through the country that he was pardoned and entered the Union Army during the Civil War. This rumor seems never to have been confirmed, but the fact is that after his confinement in the penitentiary, he dropped out of public knowledge, and what became of him does not seem to be known. This crime stirred the population of the county as perhaps no other did in the period in which it occurred.
Some of the noted lawyers of the State have presided over the Trimble County Court. The first Circuit Judge of the Trimble Circuit Court under the Constitution of 1850, was James Pryor, a profound lawyer, and eminent citizen. He removed to Covington, Ky., where he enjoyed the respect of the Bar and the community, and practiced his profession until his death at a ripe old age.
Succeeding Judge Pryor, in the late fifties and early sixties, was Elijah Nuttall, who lived on a farm on the Kentucky River in Henry County. He was not noted for erudition in the law, but enjoyed the respect and confidence of the people of his district. He had many eccentricities, and about him many stories are told, which have caused him to be one of the bet remembered of the Circuit Judges of the olden days. This story was told to the writer by Judge Samuel E. DeHaven, and narrates happenings in the Trimble circuit court:
Judge Will S. Pryor filed a suit against an administrator of an estate. Judge DeHaven, then just beginning the practice of law, was employed to defend the suit. Judge DeHaven prepared the answer at night. It consisted of two paragraphs, the first denying the allegations of the petition, and the second pleading a counterclaim. He filed the answer, and Judge Pryor demurred [i.e., objected] to the second paragraph, which Judge Nuttall immediately sustained. The jury was called to the box, the case stated, and Judge Pryor called his only witness. Judge DeHaven, as a last desperate chance, objected to the competency of the witness to testify against the estate of a descendent. Judge Nuttall immediately sustained the objection. Judge Pryor began to argue in favor of the competency of his witness, when Judge Nuttall said “You need not argue that question, Will. UI decided in your favor on the demurrer. I decide in favor of Sam this time. The witness is not competent.” The burden of proof was on the plaintiff, and Judge Pryor had to dismiss his suit.
Judge William S. Pryor, whose home was at New Castle, Henry County, became Judge of the Circuit embracing Trimble County in 1868. September 7, 1871, he resigned a Circuit Judge. On the same day Judge George Robertson resigned as Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals, on account of ill health, and on the 6th of September, Judge Pryor was appointed by the Governor, Chief Justice. He was subsequently four times elected as a judge of the Court of Appeals, serving as such more than twenty-five years, and was four times Chief Justice of the Court. He was a citizen of the highest character, a lawyer and judge of eminent ability, and universally beloved and respected by the bar and the people of the state.
Judge Samuel E. DeHaven, whose home was at LaGrange, Oldham County, became Judge of the Trimble Circuit Court in 1880. He was a man of high character, a lawyer of splendid ability, quick, alert, and able as a judge, and was recognized buy the Bar as on of the greatest nisi priusjudges in the state.
Delia Webster, a noted abolitionist, whose home was somewhere in the East owned a farm in Trimble county about three miles from Milton and nearly opposite Madison, Indiana. She was known to be engaged in abducting slaves and conveying them to Ohio. She was indicted, convicted and sentenced to the penitentiary for two years, but was pardoned y Governor Owsley on Christmas Day, 1844, as a result of many petitions for her pardon on account of her sex. She was a frequent visitor to Trimble County while she owned the farm, and was always regarded with suspicion and was an unwelcome visitor.
A notable citizen of Trimble county was Col. John Preston, a brother of General William Preston: a gentleman of the old school, ponderous, dignified, and congenial to his neighbors. He represented the county in the General Assembly. His wife, Mary Howard Preston, owned a tract of about 2300 acres, on which was the home of the Preston family. They had many tenants. Their home, overlooking the Ohio River, was a noted spot in the Northern part of the county. The place was called “Norfolk.” The only source of criticism of the Prestons was their friendship for Delia Webster. Mrs. Preston was a devoted member of the Catholic Church, and, being childless, in her old age made a will in which she devised the bulk of her estate to the Catholic Church and the Catholic institutions. Fearing her will would be contested, and desiring to have the jurisdiction for the contest in Louisville instead of in Trimble County, Mrs. Preston attempted to change her residence to Louisville. She died in that city. Attempt was made to probate her will in the Jefferson County Court, but the Court held it was without jurisdiction, holding her legal residence was in Trimble County. The case was appealed to the Court of Appeals, and decided by an opinion in the case of Fidelity Safety Vault and Trust Co. vs. Preston, in 96 Ky.217. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Courts of Jefferson County. The will was then offered for probate at Bedford, was contested, and set aside.
According to tradition, on one Sunday afternoon in April of 1836, Noah Parker, a prominent citizen of Bedford, and his wife, started out hunting for turkey nests. Growing tired of walking, they sat down at the foot of a hill where a little stream of water ran out of the soil. They drank of the water, which had a peculiar taste, attracting their attention. They had the water analyzed, and it was found to contain very valuable medical properties. They at once opened Bedford Springs, about a half a mile West of the town of Bedford. At first the improvements were modest, but they were increased from year to year, until 1848, when the Bedford Springs was one of the most noted in the state, having accommodations in a large Hotel and many cottages, and was visited by people in search of the recreation it afforded and of the benefits of its health-giving water, from Louisville and practically all over the south. Many noted people were visitors there, among them being Governor Lazarus W. Powell, who spent his vacation there in 1851, just before he was elected Governor. It was doubtless during that visit that the plans were laid for his campaign. There was a clubhouse furnishing wines and other necessaries for the convivialities of the times.
In the summer of 1851, there was a large concourse of visitors at the Springs, and a ball was in progress, attended by several hundred guests, in the dining room of the great hotel.
“There was a sound of revelry by night
And Belgium’s capital had gathered then,
Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o’er fair women and brave men.
A thousand hearts beat happily, and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry as a marriage bell.”
When information was brought to this thong that cholera had broken out in the cottages, chaos reigned, and in a few moments in this hall of revelry,
“The tearful wails of the stricken ones were heard
Where erst the song and joyous shout resounded.”
An exodus began at once, and early the next day not a visitor remained at the Bedford Springs, except those too ill to get away. Sad to relate, this resulted in the abandonment of the Bedford Springs as a place of resort, and its hotels and spring house have for years been unoccupied, except by the bats and the owls, and the cottages and sheds as depositories for handling and stripping tobacco, and the whole place, except its bluegrass lawns, is a place of destitution and ruin.
In the late sixties or early seventies, a scheme was started to build a railroad, called the Cumberland and Ohio, from a junction with the Louisville and Nashville Railroad at Gallatin, Tennessee, northwardly, to the Tennessee and Kentucky line, thence across the State of Kentucky to Milton, where a bridge across the Ohio River was contemplated. The scheme was financed chiefly by large issues of bonds voted by the counties through which it was proposed to build a railroad. Every county voted these bonds. The scheme failed, however, and only three shorts parts of the road were built: one from Scottsville, in Allen County, to Gallatin, Tennessee; one running south from Lebanon to Greensburg; and one running south from Shelbyville to Bloomfield, in Nelson County.
Shortly after Trimble County had voted to subscribe a hundred thousand dollars toward the building of this road, Dr. Anthony W. Bartlett was elected County Judge of Trimble County. Dr. Bartlett was a physician who began his career at Palmyra, a small village in Trimble County. A few years before the Civil War he went to Mississippi, where he remained until the close of the war; and having been broken up financially by the war, he returned to Trimble County and located at Bedford. Shortly after Dr. Bartlett was elected County Judge, the attorneys and representatives of the Cumberland and Ohio railroad came to Bedford to the County Court and entered a motion that the County Judge issue the hundred thousand dollars of bonds in accordance with the vote which had been taken, stating that the road had been surveyed and located through Trimble County.
Judge Bartlett refused to issue the bonds until the railroad had been completed through the county. The attorneys and representatives of the railroad left, but returned the following county Court Day and renewed their motion. Again their motion was denied. They mildly intimated to the judge that unless he issued the bonds, they would take proceedings against him in Federal Court, and if he continued to refuse he would be in contempt of court. This rubbed the judge the wrong way, and in language more forceful than polite, he informed the gentlemen that he would rot in a Federal prison before he would sign a bond until the road had been built, and told them if they did not get out of his court and out of the town of Bedford damn quick, they would languish in the Trimble County Jail.
It is needless to say that they appeared no more before Judge Bartlett for that purpose. The bonds were never issued, and the County was thus saved of an enormous debt, which it would have been compelled to pay without having a foot of railroad built within the limits of the county. This railroad debt became a great burden on all of the counties that had voted the bonds. Two of the counties, Green and Taylor, were unable to pay it, and compromised the railroad debt at about fifty cents on the dollar, issuing new bonds on that basis. Litigation came up which was conducted in the Circuit Courts and the Court of Appeals, and even in the Circuit court of Appeals and Supreme Court pf the United States. The counties were held responsible, and within the last two or three years, green and Taylor Counties have paid off this railroad debt on a compromise basis of about fifty-five cents on the dollar.
Marble is contained in the hills of Corn Creek near its mouth at the Ohio river. It is of a grayish drab color in the main, though portions of it are variegated with pink, brown or flesh-colored lines and spots. It is susceptible of a fine polish. It has never been worked or quarried for commercial purposes, though a corresponding vein across the Ohio River in Indiana was worked to a limited extent about 1853, and the marble produced then was pronounced by an able geologist “the best and most beautiful material for construction and ornamental purposes that had come to his notice in the locality.”
Three revolutionary soldiers lived in Trimble County. One of them, Shadrach Barnes, owned the farm on which this writer was born and reared. He had a little brandy distillery on the spring branch below his home and a cellar in which he kept his liquors. I remember, lying back of the building under which was the cellar, a wooden mould board plow, which he had used in his farming, and which was permitted to decay. If I had then in my boyhood the foresight to realize how valuable it would now be as a relic of those days, I think I would have preserved it. I regret it was not preserved.
Shadrach Barnes was buried on the land which he owned, with military honors. His grave, when I was a boy, was overgrown with bushes and briars, on the brow of a hill sloping down to a spring. The grave is now in an open pasture, wholly unmarked. I doubt if there is anyone living, unless it be my brother, James Strother, who knows even the locality of the grave, except myself. Numerous and prosperous descendants of Shadrach Barnes still live in the county.
William Wise, another Revolutionary soldier, died and is buried in a country graveyard. His grave is unmarked, but its location is known. Descendants of William Wise, who are good citizens, still live in the county.
Another Revolutionary War soldier was Lieutenant colonel Butler, who lived on or near the road between Bedford and Campbellsburg. His grave is marked by a stone. I have endeavored to secure the inscription of the stone, but have been unable to do so.
In 1811, they had in the thinly populated territory now embraced in Trimble County, what was called “The Indian Scare.” I can only fix the date, which is not so far as I know historically mentioned, by the fact that my father, French Strother, was an infant. He was born in April, 1811. The rumor was to the effect that one body of Indians was crossing the Ohio River at the mouth of the Kentucky River, and another at the mouth of Corn Creek, and sweeping the great bend of the Ohio river in which Trimble County nestles. The women and children went to a blockhouse at Jesse Connell’s, which was on the road between Bedford and Milton, about half way between the two places. My father, an infant, was carried to the blockhouse in his mother’s arms. Among George Strother’s slaves was a Negro man named Dembo, who was called a Guinea Negro, because he was born in Africa. Dembo said the rumor was all foolishness, and refused to go to the blockhouse, and remained on the farm. It turned out that Dembo was right, and he had the laugh on the white folks. George Strother emancipated his slaves in the late forties.
The massacre of Pigeon Roost, a few miles north of Jeffersonville, Indiana, occurred, I believe, in 1813. I have not been able to ascertain the exact date. The men of Trimble County armed themselves as they did at the Indian Scare of 1811, and went across to the scene of the massacre to avenge its cruelty, but the Indians had too good a start, and got away unharmed. [The Pigeon Roost Massacre saw Shawnees kill 23 Hoosiers on September 3, 1812. You can read more about it here.]
Among the old settlers, in addition to those mentioned, are the following names: O’Bryan, Bell, Connell, Young, Whitaker, Garriott, Farley, Butler, Peak, Pendleton, Campbell, Pryor, Duncan, Wright, Conway, Barriger, Moreland, Buchanan, King, Mayfield, Morris, Barclay, Coleman, Jackson, Hudson, Avritt, Lane, Greenwood, Miles, Harley, Chowning, Tandy, Ray, Penn, Estes, Maddox, Davidge, Howe, Ewing, Abbitt, Moffitt, Bare, Totten, Glasscock, Gossom, Yager, Bain, Latta, McIntyre, Singer, Fisher, Fearn, Cooper, Muse and Callis. [To my copy, someone has also penciled in Collins, Spillman, Rolston, and Browning – ed.]
And so, Trimble County nestled in the embrace of the beautiful Ohio, which, like a ribbon of silver, forms its western and northern boundaries, its people forming no inconsiderable part of our great and beloved State, loyal and true in the quietude of their homes, doing their part to support the government of the country in which they live, they have lived and loved, have died and been buried in its hallowed soil, and their posterity today, still trusted and true, loyal and brave, are doing their part among the citizens of our great commonwealth.
May I close this rambling sketch with a paraphrase, perhaps, of a couplet in Emmet’s Lullaby:
A handful of earth, from the land of my birth
A flower from my dear Mother’s grave.
John C. Strother