The more I explore Kentucky, the more surprised I am by how many very interesting and beautiful things lurk in the next holler. Even though I moved to Kentucky with the intention of only staying long enough to finish my degree, I don’t really ever plan to leave. You know, unless I happen to find a Montana cowboy. I suppose then I could be persuaded to leave my rolling hills for more wide open spaces.
One of the places that inspired me recently was a small village just south of Maysville, Ky. Its store-lined Main Street looks like something from a painting, the sight helped along by the number of period buildings still standing. Washington isn’t the kind of place you go to see something restored in pristine condition – it isn’t that kind of tourist attraction. In fact, it doesn’t feel like a tourist trap at all. Many of the old homes are private residences, and are opened to the public only for certain events. Of the places that are open to the public, they are accessible only on a walking tour through the town.
We visited in late spring, when the town was still waking up from winter. There were some vendors on the sidewalk in front of the Old Courthouse Lawn (more on that location later), and more traffic through the various shops than I expected. I can’t say the buildings were in pristine shape, but they weren’t ramshackle, either. You will see some minor wear and tear, maybe a missing or damaged shutter here and there, but all of these things add to the charm of the town. I’ve been to fully-restored historic towns, forced to keep to a certain code so they always look just-so, and they do not have the charm and personality of Washington.
When I walk on flagstone sidewalks along Main Street, it’s easy to imagine hearing the clop of hooves on the road. What is harder to imagine is the impact the people of this blip on the map have had on the world.
In the beginning, there was an explorer.
Washington Village, now part of Maysville, Ky., is older than the state in which it resides. It was one of the first towns established in modern-day Kentucky, one of the first American settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains, and the first town named after George Washington. It’s a whole lot of firsts. Washington was founded in 1786 by Revolutionary War Veteran William Wood and many of the original settlers were Revolutionary War soldiers, and are buried at the Old Baptist Cemetery just outside town.
One of the most memorable things about Washington is the number of log cabins still standing that date to the town’s founding in the late 1700s. One of these, Mefford’s Fort, is the last known flatboat cabin still standing. Mefford was in on the whole repurposing trend about 300 years before it was cool. He floated his wife and children down the Ohio River, then hauled the boat about five miles uphill from the river and made a log cabin out of his boat. His wife and 13 children shared this house. All I can say is it’s a good thing they didn’t have indoor plumbing. There would have been bloodshed in that house over the bathroom.
As one of the first settlements, it’s post office became the first established west of the Appalachian Mountains and served the entire Northwest Territory, which encompassed Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The original post office was torn down in 1848, but the existing building is the only working log cabin post office in the country.
Other cabins in the town include the Cane Brake Visitor’s Center and the Simon Kenton Shrine. The town’s Visitor Center now occupies the Paxton House on the opposite end of Main Street, and the Cane Brake cabin has become the Bluegrass Artisan Center. Simon Kenton never lived in the cabin named for him, but he did once own a store in the town and sold the land for the town to its original settlers. The town still honors its earliest explorer the third weekend in September with the Simon Kenton Festival.
A town divided over slavery
Much of the advertised history of Washington relates to the Civil War and Underground Railroad. As a border state, Kentucky tried to stay neutral and act as a liaison between the two sides. But just as this approach didn’t work for the state, staying neutral didn’t work at the town level, either. The debate trickled into a church congregation and ripped it apart. In 1845, the Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington split over the issue of slavery.
The congregation in Washington became the Methodist Episcopal Church South and had a separate slave gallery that was removed in the 1970s, according to the inscription outside the building. The Methodist Episcopal Church North relocated to Third Street in Maysville. More than 100 years later, the congregations reunited as the Trinity United Methodist Church.
Nowhere is there a better example of the divide in Kentucky than the Albert Sydney Johnston House on Court Street.
This quiet, white dwelling housed two men who eventually faced each other on opposite sides of the Civil War.
Johnston, the home’s namesake, spent time in the United States Army before retiring to join the Texas Army. He then returned to the U.S. Army only to again retire to join the Confederacy. He became a general in the Confederate Army, taking a mortal wound early at the Battle of Shiloh.
Also fighting at the Battle of Shiloh was Union General William “Bull” Nelson. His family took up residence in this house after Johnston’s father died. Both men attended the same Presbyterian Church in Washington, both men attended West Point and both men fought at the Battle of Shiloh. But where Johnston’s story ends there, Nelson’s continues until his murder in 1862.
Nelson was known for publicly disciplining his officers. One of them, General Jefferson C. Davis – not to be confused with Confederate President Jefferson Davis – gunned him down in a hotel after one of these public disciplinary sessions by Nelson some time before. Davis admitted to the murder, but was not charged or arrested and went back to duty about two weeks after the incident.
Inspiring “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
One of the things Washington is best known for isn’t a resident, but a famous visitor. Harriet Beecher Stowe visited the town before she was married. At the time she was teaching in Cincinnati, and came to the small town to visit one of her students. While in Washington, she witnessed a slave auction on the Old Courthouse Lawn.
The sight stayed with her and was one of the experiences that influenced “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The courthouse burned down in 1909 after being struck by lightning. Today, the only thing to mark the dark history of the spot is the sign commemorating the Old Courthouse.
While she was visiting, Stowe stayed at the Marshall Key house. Key was nephew to Supreme Court Justice John Marshall. Today, the home has been converted to the Harriet Beecher Stowe Slavery to Freedom Museum and is available to tour.
All aboard the Underground Railroad
Northern Kentucky’s position along the Ohio River lent itself to several stops for the Underground Railroad. At least one of these stops was in Washington in the Paxton Inn. This Inn also served as an important community center where meetings were held to discuss important issues, including slavery. There is a secret stairway between the first and second floors where people could be hidden until they were moved across the Ohio River. I wonder if Underground Railroad passengers ever overheard one of these debates while they were in hiding?
Influencing international law
Even though Washington was host to some impressive visitors in its heyday, one of my favorite characters of the town would have been overlooked by most of the citizens. His story didn’t even make it to the inscription outside the home.
Thornton Blackburn was a slave who served in the Murphy-Lashbrooke house on Main Street. He was sold, eventually ending up in Louisville, where he escaped with his wife and fled along the Underground Railroad to Detroit. They lived there for about two years before being discovered and arrested in 1834. Detroit’s first race riot broke out while they were incarcerated, giving the Blackburn’s enough cover to escape from the city into Canada.
Once in Canada, slave hunters again located the couple and tried to arrest them and have them extradited to the States. But Canada refused to release the couple to United States custody, determining a person cannot steal himself, and establishing case law that determined once a slave set foot on Canadian soil he or she became a free man or woman.
The Blackburn’s earned a very American ending to their Canadian story. In Toronto, the Blackburns helped many slaves reach freedom in Canada, thanks to the law they helped create. They built a prosperous, influential life for themselves in Toronto. Blackburn became a successful businessman when he established the city’s first cab service. He chose yellow and red for his cab’s color scheme, and Toronto kept this when they adopted city transportation.
Washington’s worldwide influence
At the beginning of this story I promised that Washington residents had a worldwide impact. So far, we’ve talked about the Civil War and slavery issues stretching into Canada. Now, I’m going to shift focus a bit – to Pakistan.
I’m told there are ruins of a house on a golf course in Washington, but I haven’t found them. These ruins are what’s left of the former residence of Charles William Forman, a hemp farmer turned missionary to India. Forman tried to establish a mission to the slaves in Washington before leaving to attend the Centre College in Kentucky and then the Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey.
Forman settled in Lahore, India (now part of Pakistan). There, he established an English-speaking school, Rang Mahal School. The school added a college in 1865, and Forman continued helping develop the education system in the area.
The college in Lahore, now known as the Forman Christian College, has produced many notable alumni, including former Prime Ministers of both Pakistan and India, Pakistani and Indian senate members and presidents, diplomats, judiciary members, athletes, artists, military officers, journalists and business people.
Now, who among you would have thought that a hemp farmer from Kentucky would have helped create an education system half a world away? Be honest, now.
Visiting historic Washington Village
I know there is much and more I missed in my self-guided tour of Washington. If anyone reading has a place, story or anecdote to share, please comment below. I’d love to hear more about the town.
Some of the information in this post came from the washingtonky.com website, but this site is not sponsored by Historic Washington or Maysville and does not appear to have been updated in quite some time. According to the women working in the Visitor’s Center the day I was there, this site was put together by one of the residents of the town. It lists several community events – including a Chocolate Festival – which the village no longer offers. My hosts explained that they had too many events and it was too much for the town and the shop owners to keep up with. The two events that the town still hosts include the Simon Kenton Festival the third weekend in September and the historic Christmas walk the first weekend in December. Plus, historic tours are offered from April through the first week in December.
But for the weekends when there aren’t events, there are still several shops to check out in Washington.
Phyllis’s Antiques, David’s Brass Works and Elaine’s Gallery and Framing sits at the corner of Main and S. Court Street and carries a wide selection of Fenton glass, and everything you see in the picture to the right.
The 1790 Rowhouse Mall also contains some retail shopping, and was having a sort-of sidewalk sale the day I visited.
My favorite shop was the Strawberry Patch Country Store. It was a store-of-all-sorts with all kind of antique books, keys, tools, baseball cards, electronics, dishes … you name it. Don’t miss the upstairs or the basement.
I did not venture into The Grey Wolf with my backpack full of oxygen; it appeared to have some beautiful items but it was packed wall-to-wall with people. The Iron Gate is next door to The Grey Wolf, but was not open the day I visited.
I would encourage a visit to the nearby Baptist Cemetery when you visit the village. It is just south of main street off US 68. There was no sign for the cemetery, but there is the telltale log cabin standing vigil. Honestly, it appears to be about the only thing watching over the graves because many of the markers are falling or have fallen and broken.
I gave Historic Washington Village a two on the Gus Scale. The village proper is on relatively flat land and was incredibly easy to walk through. I would have rated it a one if not for the bumpy, though beautiful, flagstone sidewalks. If you’re someone who needs to use wheels to get around you won’t have quite as easy a time as I did.
Please keep up your articles. I was so well informed (or so I thought) about Maysville knowing mostly about Simeon Kenton and his Indian rival Blue Jacket among many many others. Wow— had I missed a major part of remaining Ky. History about Washington town just out of Maysville. Lord willing I will also be at the Simeon Kenton festivities in September. Please keep writing.
My hope is that you are still walking. I read with eager anticipation every word of your article. I was amazed to learn many facts about Washington and Maysville that I never knew. One of My favorite overlooked Kentuckians is Simeon Kenton. He was the original Kentuckian— even the very man Daniel Boone looked up to and the toughest Indian fighter that ever walked. So, I knew of him— but was ignorant of much of the rest, especially that of Albert Sidney Johnson and the Bull Nelson connection. Lord willing, I’m going to the Simeon Kenton festival this year— much because of this article you so wonderfully penned. Thank you— please email me if you can I would love to pick your brain on some of your more favored travels. My email is below. I have health issues also that challenge me, but I’m much younger. Your restrictions and age but hearty effort and refusal to quit, remind me to do the same, keeping in mind after all that I am a Kentuckian and as such a male God put me here to keep going and also be an example and refuse defeat by anything at all costs— Simeon, Johnston, Bull and the others would accept no less. Thank you
Hi Michael! Thank you for sharing! I am indeed still up and around. I’ve been fortunate. My Sjogren’s has been in remission for a few years now, and I no longer use supplemental oxygen. I’ve just been trying to maintain where I am and not trigger another flare. I hope you were able to make it to the festival! Be well.