A History of Estill County

by Ralph Barnes


The birth of Estill County as a governmental entity occurred two centuries ago when the early pioneers, living in the easternmost sections of Clark and Madison Counties, decided to create their own county and name it for a pioneer martyr named James Estill.  Over the past two centuries thousands of people, whose descendents are now scattered throughout the United States and beyond, had a personal connection to the county that left an indelible imprint on all who passed this way. This brief history highlights some of the major historical events that molded the area and its people into the present day community known as Estill county.


The county lies juxtaposed between the western rim of the Cumberland Mountains and the eastern fringe of the Bluegrass region of central Kentucky. The dominant geological feature is a valley carved eons ago by the Kentucky River.  The river flows westward out of the Appalachian headwaters and meanders through the heart of the county on an incessant march toward its confluence with the Ohio River.  The Estill County section of the Kentucky is bounded by fertile bottomland and lush forests that have provided food and shelter to the region's inhabitants since the first humans discovered the place more than a dozen millennia ago.


Prior to the coming of the white man, the region was well known and frequently visited by the Shawnees, Wyandottes and other tribes.  One of the principal Indian trails followed an ancient buffalo trace that traversed the county.  The abundance of Native American artifacts and graves found throughout the county attest to the fact that ancient civilizations were present in the area long before the Europeans arrived. When the first white settlers came there were no permanent Indian settlements within the present boundaries of Estill County. There was, however, an active Indian village known as Eskippakithiki near the Indian Old Fields location in what is now Clark County


Among the first people of European descent to visit the area was a 1769 hunting party, led by Daniel Boone.  The hunters established a base camp at the place still known as Station Camp, near the center of present day Estill County.  While encamped at the site Boone climbed nearby Pilot's Knob to get his first unobstructed view of the rolling hills of the Bluegrass.  That event is depicted in a painting that adorns the rotunda of the State Capital.  Daniel Boone's original visit to the area began as a smashing success as he and his partners acquired a large number of pelts, but the expedition turned into a disaster when Boone and one of his partners were captured by the Indians.  They were later released unharmed, but the large cache of pelts the party had stored at Station Camp was confiscated by the Shawnees.  After six months of hard labor the hunting party returned to North Carolina empty handed. In spite of his misfortune, Boone was enthralled with the beauty and richness of this paradise that seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of fish, game, giant hardwoods and other natural resources. Perhaps Boone's pleasant memory of that idyllic river valley at Station Camp spurred him to eventually return to Kentucky and establish a permanent settlement at Boonesborough.


Most of the original settlers in the territory that became Estill County spent time at Fort Boonesborough. The ancestors of several Estill County families arrived at the fort in the early Spring of 1778 as part of the militia sent to Kentucky by Governor Patrick Henry to help defend the frontier outpost against the British and Indians.  The establishment of Boonesborough in 1775 was perceived by the Indians as an encroachment on their tribal territory. Soon after the fort was established, the American colonies declared their independence from England and the Revolutionary War ensued.  When the colonist broke with England the British military teamed with the Indian nations in a joint effort to dislodge the settlers from their precarious toehold in Kentucky.  By January of 1778 the situation in Kentucky became critical when Daniel Boone, along and a party of some two-dozen men from Fort Boonesborough, were taken captive by the Indians. The survival of the fledgling settlements became a cause for concern among the members of the Virginia General Assembly in Williamsburg. In response, Governor Patrick Henry formed a military unit out of the men in Washington County, Virginia for the defense of the settlements. The men, some accompanied by their families, left for the three hundred mile journey to Boonesborough in the dead of winter.  Everything they owned had to be loaded onto pack animals and transported to Boonesborough.  The trek to Kentucky meant spending six weeks or so under the most difficult conditions imaginable.  A number of mountains had to be traversed and numerous icy streams forded.  Most of the adults walked every step of the way, often carrying small children.  The route followed was known as the Wilderness Road but in reality it was no more than a series of buffalo traces and Indian trails. The road was hardly fit for hiking and was nearly impassable for pack animals or carts.  In addition to being exposed to the harsh winter elements, the trekkers had to be constantly on their guard against an ambush from the Indians. Their situation did not improve much after their arrival at Fort Boonesborough. Life was difficult and dangerous in the crowded quarters of the fort where the threat of disease was nearly as great as the threat from the Indians. 


The critical period occurred when the defenders were attacked by a large force of British led Shawnees who besieged the fort for two weeks in September of 1778. That battle was, arguably, the most important ever fought between the settlers and Indians.  After the Indians and the British were repulsed at Boonesborough they never again seriously challenged the westward expansion of the American nation where retrenchment was even a remote possibility.  Had the Indians and British forced the settlers out of Kentucky that could have set in motion a series of events that may have detrimentally affected the eventual American victory in the Revolutionary War.  Had the colonist lost the war, the history of the United States would have been significantly altered.  The Indians continued to raid south of the Ohio River until the end of the war but after September of 1778 the survival of the settlements in Kentucky was ensured.  The genes of those intrepid pioneers, who possessed so much courage and fortitude, have been passed through succeeding generations to many of the people now living in Estill County.


When the threat from the Indians abated somewhat in 1780, the occupants of the fort were ready to leave the cramped quarters of the stockade for more livable accommodations known as stations.  The stations were simply a group of cabins clustered together for greater security that were less confining than living within an enclosed stockade.  A number of stations were established within the triangle formed by the present cities of Lexington, Winchester and Richmond.  Several of the occupants of the old fort received grants or subscriptions to land in the area that eventually became Estill County.  As the pioneers went into the back country to claim their preemption land many of those who would later settle in the county moved to the station headed by Captain James Estill near present day Richmond.


The Battle of Estill's Defeat

On March 19, 1782, an event occurred that was to cost James Estill his life and would forever immortalize his name.  An empty Indian raft, a sure sign that the Indians were in the area, was seen floating down the Kentucky River past Boonesborough.  The alarm was sent to all of the surrounding stations including Estill’s.  Estill immediately rounded up twenty-five men from the nearby stations and set out to find the Indians.  Nearly all of the available men accompanied the search party and hardly any were left to defend the station. The following morning twenty-five marauding warriors suddenly appeared at Estill’s Station. A young girl and a slave named Monk were captured during the surprise attack.  To the horror of the helpless women in the station, the Indians immediately killed and scalped the girl.  Monk, in an effort to save the nearly defenseless women and children, told the braves that there was a strong force of men inside the station.  Evidently the ruse worked and the Indians beat a hasty retreat.  Two young boys were dispatched to find the search party and inform them of the raid.  Estill’s party had gone to the Kentucky River in what is now Estill County to look for Indian tracks on the sandy banks of the river. The boys finally caught up with the group on the twenty-first near the mouth of Drowning Creek and gave them the bad news.


The trackers soon uncovered the trail left by the Wyandottes and the pursuit began.  The Indians were fleeing in the direction of what is now Montgomery County. Estill’s group caught up with them on March 22, 1782, at the Little Round Mountain near present day Mt. Sterling.  They came upon three Indians that had stopped on Hinkston Creek to skin a buffalo.  The surprised buffalo skinners bolted to the other side of the creek to join the main body of Indians. Heavy gunfire commenced immediately as both sides sought cover behind trees.  At the onset of the fight each of the warring groups had about twenty-five members. However, a Lieutenant named Miller, under the pretense of flanking the Indians from the rear, fled the scene with six men leaving the Americans at a disadvantage in the fight.  The thickly wooded terrain also favored the Indian mode of warfare.


The battle probably was a short one and covered an area of only a few acres.  After Miller and his group fled, the Wyandottes could detect from the slack firing that their opponents were undermanned.  To take advantage of the weakness they rushed across the creek and engaged Estill’s force in hand-to-hand combat with knives and tomahawks. At least seven and perhaps nine of Estill’s men were killed in the charge.  Captain Estill, who was recuperating from a broken arm from a previous battle, was again wounded during the charge.  Estill became engaged in a knife fight with an Indian much larger than himself.  When his weak arm gave way, his adversary was able to plunge a knife into Estill’s chest rendering a mortal wound to his heart. Joseph Proctor was watching the unequal struggle but was unable to get a clear shot at the Indian until after Estill fell. Proctor immediately killed the Wyandotte but never publicly acknowledged it because of his religious beliefs that prohibited killing. Proctor would only say that he never heard of that big Indian doing any more mischief.


William Irvine, for whom the county seat is named, also was wounded in the battle.  Irvine was shot in the groin and a Wyandotte warrior, seeing his weakened condition, moved in for the kill. Irvine repeatedly bluffed the Indian with an unloaded rifle.  Joseph Proctor, who could not reach his fallen comrade, advised him to mount the horse belonging to the slain James Estill and ride to safety.  After several attempts the badly wounded Irvine was able to get on the horse and ride to a designated spot where Proctor could help him.  At great risk to his own personal safety, Joseph Proctor found Irvine and escorted him to Bryan’s Station some twenty miles distant.  Irvine eventually recovered and lived almost forty more years.


A few days after the battle, a group of fifty men returned to the battle site to bury the dead and were overcome with the carnage they witnessed. Only a handful of Estill’s men survived the battle with the Wyandottes.  The Indians won the skirmish but, according to Wyandotte legend, none survived to return to their village.  People in the area told of finding human skeletons and lost weapons for years afterwards.  The site of the battle was eventually forgotten. Even Joseph Proctor could not identify the spot when he was taken to the area shortly before his death.


James Estill and William Irvine never lived in the county and neither played a direct role in the County’s development. Several of the men, most notably Joseph Proctor, who fought in the battle, were instrumental in founding and naming of the new county and it's county seat. Consequently, The county and it seat of government were named for the two leaders of the American forces.  Joseph Proctor, perhaps the greatest hero of the battle, spent the remainder of his life here and was one of the pillars of the community. 



The Settlement of Estill County

Once the British were defeated and the Indians subdued, settlers began to flock into the area to claim their preemption and grant lands.  The hardships faced by the original settlers are difficult for their modern day descendants to comprehend. Cabins had to be built, lands cleared and crops planted within a few weeks after settlement. Since only the most primitive of tools were available to the pioneers, every task was labor intensive and every member of the family, except infants, put in long backbreaking hours producing the basic necessities for survival in the wilderness. Those who were injured or got sick had to rely on home remedies administered by the family or neighbors since no professional medical help was available. Diseases such as Cholera, Typhoid Fever and Smallpox, that are relatively benign today, wrecked havoc on the early inhabitants.  The mortality rates were high in the backwoods but large families and a steady influx of new settlers kept the population growing.


The following Census chart demonstrates how Estill County’s population has developed over the last two centuries. Estill County experienced steady population growth from its founding with growth spurts between 1850 and 1860 when the furnaces were at full blast and again between 1920 and 1930 when the L&N Railroad moved its eastern Kentucky division headquarters to Irvine and a big oil boom hit at about the same time.


The population reached its historical peak during World War II and declined after the war when the railroad replaced the labor-intensive steam engines with the more efficient diesel engines that required fewer employees. During that same period the oil refinery at Pryse shut down. As a result of these two events, hundreds of people in the county lost their jobs and many were forced to relocate causing a decline in the population count for the first time in its history.






















































































The first people of European heritage to move into the region that now comprises Estill County were a homogenous group in the sense that nearly all of them were of western European extraction with a Scotch-Irish, English or German heritage and held in common many similar traditions and customs. Nearly all belonged to the Christian faith with the preponderance of them being of the Protestant persuasion.  Several Catholic families were among the early settlers but were never more than a small percentage of the total population.  A Catholic Church existed in the county as early as 1850 with a membership that ranged between 200 and 400.  The Black population in the county has always been relatively small in comparison to the White population. In 1840, out of a total population of 5335,there were 575 Negroes listed on the census and all but 17 were slaves. The African American population fluctuated with the economic and social conditions over the next century until the county's black population dwindled to near extinction by 1960 when only 41 African Americans remained in the county. Despite the low number of black residents in the county, one of the most popular locally elected officials to ever serve in public office was Nathaniel Strickland.  He served for several years as a member of the Irvine City Council and led the balloting in most council races. He also served as vice mayor and Chief of the Irvine volunteer fire department. Another native-born notable of African American descent was Dr. Mary E. Hyatt-Smith. Dr. Hyatt-Smith was noted for her work as a physician and author in Indianapolis during the first half of the last century.


Some thirty years after the first settlers moved into the area, the population had grown to the point that the residents decided to petition the Kentucky State Legislature to form a new county. The motivation for creating a new county was the distance to the county seats at Winchester or Richmond. To reach either town from Irvine on horseback required a half-day of hard riding. Those who lived in the far eastern areas had an even longer ride over almost non-existent roads.  There were no bridges and few ferries during those early years. Travel was an ordeal and something to be avoided except when absolutely necessary. Trips to the county court house were required of nearly everybody sooner or later. One had to make the long trek to register a deed, get a marriage license or for many other reasons. The remedy was to create a smaller governmental area with a closer county seat. This process was carried out repeatedly as the original counties subdivided into smaller and smaller units.


A charter was granted on January 27, 1808 and Estill County was formed from territory taken out of Madison and Clark Counties.  The original area of the newly formed county greatly exceeded the present boundaries and took in all or part of several nearby counties.  Estill County also underwent subdivisions as various sections of the county broke away to form new counties. All or parts of Jackson, Lee, Owsley, Breathitt and Powell counties were within the original boundaries of Estill County. 


The Governor appointed local residents, Peter Evans, James White, Bennett Clark, James Hoy, Benjamin Holliday, Samuel Brown, Henry Beatty and Barlett Woodward as a transitional Commission to fashion a government for the new county. The group met at a tavern near the old sulphur spring at Sweet Lick on following April Fools Day to create the framework for county government.  Absolum Oldham became the first Sheriff and a young man named Robert Clark who was less than twenty-one years old was appointed as the first county clerk.  Clark, the nephew of Governor James Clark,was destined to become one of the influential leaders in the county during its formative years. He would hold that office during much of the remainder of his life.  John H Barnes, father of Sidney M Barnes, replaced him from 1817 until Barnes' death in 1825. Upon the death of John Barnes, Clark resumed the office for the next twenty-five years.




An Act for erecting a new county out of the counties of Madison and Clarke.


Approved January 27,1808


Section 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That from and after the first day of April next, all those parts of the counties of Madison and Clarke, included within the following bounds, shall be erected into one separate and distinct county, to wit: beginning at the mouth of Drowning creek; thence up the same to Red lick; from thence to the line of Clay county, at the head of Horse lick creek; thence with the same line to the Kentucky river; thence up the same to the Clarke and Montgomery county line; thence with the same to Red river; thence down Red river to the Kentucky, and up the same to the beginning; and shall be called and known by the name Estill.


Sec. 2. A court for the said county of Estill shall, on the third Monday in every month, except those months that circuits courts are hereafter directed to be held in said county, be held by the justices of said county, under the same rules and regulations that other county courts are now held within this commonwealth.


Sec. 3. The justices named in the commission of the peace for said county,shall meet at the Sweet Lick, in the county aforesaid, on the first day of April after the county shall take place, and having taken the necessary oaths, and a sheriff being qualified to act, shall immediately proceed to appoint and qualify a clerk, and fix upon a place to hold courts in said county, and shall have power to erect their public buildings on the ground so chosen for that purpose; and until such buildings shall be erected, they

may appoint any other Place for holding court: Provided, that no

appointment of clerk (except pro tempore) nor place for erecting the public buildings shall take place, unless a majority of all die justices for said county shall be present and concur therein


Sec. 4. A circuit court for said county shall be held at the place for holding courts in said county, on the third Monday in March, June and September in every year; and at the first meeting of said circuit court,the judges thereof shall have full power to appoint their clerk, and make such other rules and regulations for the well ordering said court as they may deem requisite and necessary.


Sec. 5. It shall be lawful for the sheriffs of the counties of Madison and Clarke to collect and make distress for any public dues and officers* fees which shall remain unpaid at the time said county takes place, within the bounds formerly belonging to their several counties, and shall be accountable for the same in the same manner as if this law had not taken



Sec. 6. The courts of Madison and Clarke shall have jurisdiction in all actions in law or equity that shall be depending before them at the time of division, and shall try and determine the same, issue process and award execution thereon


Sec. 7. That the ferry on the Kentucky river, in said county of Estill, shall be kept free, and immediate passage shall be given public messengers and expresses, whenever required; and the said ferry shall be kept free for all citizens of said county, living on the opposite side of said river from the said seat of justice, on all court, election, regimental and battalion

muster days, without toils.




Green Clay, noted politician, general, legislator and entrepreneur donated 20 acres of land to the county in 1811 to establish a county seat. Town lots were sold from the property to raise funds for construction of a courthouse.  The town was named for William Irvine who was gravely wounded in the same battle that took Estill’s life.


History of Industrial Development in Estill County


Kentucky River Development

The Kentucky River that bisects the county into nearly equal halves has from the beginning been an important factor in the lives of area residents. In the early years, the river and its tributaries served as the county's only highways. Area waterways provided the only practical means for delivering farm produce and raw materials to the markets down river.  Rough-hewn rafts laden with local produce were familiar sights on the river in the early years.  It took weeks for the unpowered rafts to drift downstream to the markets in Natchez and New Orleans. The river rafts were eventually displaced by steamboats, that were in their turn superseded by the powerful diesel tugs that could push a long line of barges up and down the river. Prior to the erection of the dams the fluctuations in the water level rendered the river unreliable for navigation by the larger river craft.   When lock and dam number twelve and its sister locks upriver were completed shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, the river became a dependable avenue for commercial traffic all the way to the eastern coalfields. Although the river is used primarily today as a water source and for recreation, in its day the river carried Oil, coal, iron ingots, lumber and other products to downstream markets. Before the coming of the railroad, steamboats carried mail and passengers to destinations up and down the river.


The river was definitely an asset to Estill County, however, there were some negative aspects to the river. The problem of getting across the stream could be an arduous task for pioneer residents.  In the early years the river had to be forded and that was a problem during periods of swift current.  It was not always convenient to wait for the river to go down and urgent business often had to be left undone when the channel was at flood stage.  So it was not long after the county was formed in 1808 that Green Clay the opened his ferry crossing at Irvine. 


Several early ferries carried people and cargo across the river during Irvine’s formative years. The most enduring of these was established in January of 1813 by William Horn. William’s grandfather, Aaron Horn, died at Fort Boonesborough during the renowned Indian siege of 1778. His parents, Matthias Horn and Susan Hall, were married at Boone’s Station in 1782.  William Horn’s uncle of the same name is the patriarch of nearly all of the Horns now living in Estill and Lee counties.  William’s mother was a sister to Edward Hall who was the progenitor of many of the Halls in Estill and Powell counties. The Horns were the original owners of much of the property that now contains much of West Irvine. Matthias and Susan are believed to be buried in the cemetery behind the Oak Tree Inn on Highway 52.


Horn’s charter to operate a ferry across the Kentucky River required that the boat be forty feet long by seven feet wide and that the ferry be staffed by two able-bodied men.  He further was required to give immediate passage to all people, messengers and express.  The charter could be revoked if the operator failed to meet the established standards. 


William Horn operated the ferry until around 1831 when he sold out and moved to Missouri.  Ironically, the Horns also were among the last families to operate a ferry in Estill County.  Simpson Horn, whose great grandfather was a first cousin to the original ferryman, ran a ferry at Old Landing during the forties and fifties of the last Century.


The business was acquired eventually by the White family.  The Whites ran the operation longer than any of the ferry proprietors.  Daniel White, progenitor of the White family in West Irvine, acquired the ferry around 1835 and the family operated the business until after the Civil War. 


When Daniel died in 1849, his wife Ruthy, by all accounts a shrewd business woman, ran the ferry until she turned the enterprise over to her son Richard in 1862.  The White’s residence, often referred to as the ferry house, stood near the West Irvine Memorial Gardens.  The house became a target of the Union Army during a Civil War skirmish. The Rebel troops were positioned around the dwelling during an exchange of fire with the Federal soldiers defending Irvine.  One of the White children, Robert Cobb White, was wounded in the leg and remained crippled for the rest of his life. Daniel and Ruthy Henry White are buried in the cemetery behind the Oak Tree Inn. 


It was while the Whites operated the ferry that the infamous outlaw Ned Hawkins crossed while being chased by a posse from Madison County and rode away without paying the fare. 


Samuel Congleton, probably the last proprietor of the Irvine ferry, was granted a charter to operate a ferry in 1908. Safety regulations were much stricter than a century earlier when the first ferry was chartered.  New rules required that the ferry have headlights and reflectors.  In addition there had to be two lifeboats available in case the ferry sank.  However, prices remained reasonable. A one-way fare for a horse and rider was only a nickel.  Pedestrian fares were three cents one way or five cents round trip. 


Nearly all of the streams that could not be forded were served by ferries in earlier years. A person traveling across the county might have to pay several ferry fees. In addition ferries were slow and boarding the ferries with bulky or heavy cargos could be a time consuming task. Ferry boats were the only means of crossing the Kentucky River for more than a century after the settlement of the region. 


A railroad trestle was the first permanent structure to span the Kentucky River at Irvine. That bridge was built by the railroad when it first came to Irvine during the last decade of the nineteenth century.  Although the railroad owners discouraged pedestrian traffic, many people used the bridge to cross the river. If a train came along while they were on the long structure, they jumped onto the concrete pilings under the tracks until the train passed. The bridge stood until it was torn down for scrap iron during World War II.


The Kentucky River ferry at Irvine was replaced by a toll bridge built by a group of speculators as a business venture in 1910. The tolls for the bridge were similar to the fees charged by the ferry, but the bridge was much faster and the ferry was quickly forced out of operation.


In 1931, the Fiscal Court petitioned the state government to either buy the old toll bridge ,and make it a toll free span, or to build a new public bridge.  The state opted for a new structure. The new connection across the Kentucky River at Irvine was opened for traffic in 1940.  That span still stands and is known by the unimaginative name of New Irvine Bridge.


In 2000 a second bridge was opened a couple of miles downstream from the 1940 structure providing Irvine with two reliable bridges for the first time in the city's history.


The county built a single lane free bridge that connected Madison Avenue to South Irvine in the late twenties. But it was a flimsy structure and not safe for heavy loads. It too was torn down and salvaged for scrap iron during the war.


Perhaps the most compelling bridge story is about a bridge that never was.  A sad tale of a bridge constructed across the Kentucky River that never carried traffic.  In the 1930s, a span was built in one of the more remote areas of the county above Old Landing. Just as the structure was completed a great flood washed it away. People living near the bridge watched anxiously as drifting logs and other flotsam piled up behind the bridge.  In time the span was wrenched from its pilings with a great shriek and disappeared into the river.  The project was abandoned, but the great iron pilings remain as edifices to man’s folly and nature’s power.


The bridge at Old Landing was not the first man made structure to be destroyed by the rampaging river. Throughout the county's history the river has periodically risen out of its banks on destructive rampages through the low lying areas.  Probably the most devastating flood occurred in 1936 when scores of residences were inundated by the river and the backwater from its tributaries.   The flooding has been less severe since a new flood control dam and lake was constructed upriver at Buckhorn.



Iron Production in Estill County

Another of Green Clay's many business investments was in Estill County's first iron foundry known as the Red River Iron Works. The furnace was built circa 1804/05 and was located near present day Clay City on the Red River.  The original iron furnace was built by Robert Clark Sr. and William Smith. Robert Clark Sr. was the father of Estill County's first County Clerk, Robert Clark Jr. Green Clay acquired Clark’s interest in the enterprise in 1811, after his death. The furnace and the nearby foundry filled a void in pioneer Kentucky by manufacturing badly needed iron tools and utensils. The early smelter was dependent on the river-powered waterwheel to provide the force for its bellows.  The invention and ascendancy of the steam engine, a portable power source, eventually freed the smelting furnace from its dependence on the river. Consequently the old furnace was moved to its present location around 1830 and renamed Estill Steam Furnace.  The remnants of that historic old edifice still can be seen in the Old Furnace community.  Iron was discovered early in the county's history and became one of the major industries in the county for much of the nineteenth century. Two other long abandoned iron furnaces are located in the county. The well-preserved ruins of Cottage Furnace and the Fitchburg Furnace still stand as reminders of that bygone era


Iron production proved to be the most durable of the local industries.  During much of the nineteenth century, iron ore was mined and processed in the county. Iron making was a primitive process when iron was being forged in Estill County. Ore bearing rock was heated with charcoal to a molten state so the iron could be separated from the slag and other impurities.  Massive amounts of timber were required to fuel the fires of the furnaces.  An average furnace could produce approximately a thousand tons of iron in a year.  Forty-five cords of wood were required to make one ton of pig iron.  An average stand of timber would produce only thirty cords of wood per acre.  Timber stands require twenty years or so to regenerate useable timber for charcoal purposes, consequently the furnace proprietors had to acquire thousands of acres of the surrounding forest to support their operations on a continuous basis.


Hundreds of workers were required to supply and operate the iron furnaces. Iron bearing ore had to be mined and transported to the site.  Great quantities of timber had to be cut by hand and then turned into charcoal through a laborious process.  A multitude of teamsters were needed to haul raw materials and to ship the finished product to the forge or market. Labor consisted of a mixture of a few skilled workers and large numbers of unskilled labor.  Slaves and later free blacks were a significant portion of the work force.  Making iron was grueling work with long hours and low pay.


In spite of the difficult circumstances, hundreds of people moved to the area seeking jobs in the iron industry.  Several county families are descended from families who came to the area as furnace employees.


Self-contained communities grew up around the furnaces to provide housing and commodities to the workers.  In addition to employee housing, a typical community might have a company store, churches, schools and perhaps even an inn. The areas around all three old furnaces today are sparsely settled and are surrounded by lush woods. A visit to the locations during the middle of the nineteenth century would have produced a totally different scene. The sites were bustling with sweating men and horses, the woods were denuded of trees and scores of houses and other buildings dotted the landscape.


The Estill County furnaces were eventually eclipsed by improved smelting technology and new discoveries of high-grade iron ore in other states. With the end of the Civil war the iron industry in Estill County began to wane, creating serious economic problems for the locals who had become dependent on the furnaces for employment.  In an effort to cut costs, foundry owners began to replace the higher paid white laborers with recently freed blacks who were paid lower wages. A riot broke out June 26, 1871 when 12 white men who had lost their jobs to blacks attacked Bonaparte Vaughn's Negro boarding house at Fitchburg. Three people were killed and several were injured before a company of infantry troops were dispatched to control the mob and maintain peace in the community. When the iron economy played out many Estill families packed up moved west seeking new opportunities.  Some of the ironworkers remained in the county and found other means to support their families.  One of the industries where some job opportunities existed was in the lumber trade.


Timber Industry Development

In addition to iron making and farming the timber industry has been a mainstay in the county's economy since its formation. The initial visitors to the area were awestruck by the size and abundance of hardwoods. Having an abundance of valuable timber was only an asset to the local economy if it could be transported to market.  In the early days there were no railroads and few roads of any kind. To overcome this serious handicap, local lumbermen developed a system for floating their logs to downstream markets. Timber was cut, then hauled by oxen or horses to the nearest tributary of the Kentucky River.  When the spring rains raised the water level of the log-filled creeks the logs were put together into large rafts and floated down the river to saw mills at Frankfort and other points down river. In order to keep track of the log floats the owners unique brand was cut into the logs. More than a few men went to prison for removing the markings of the rightful owner and inserting their own.  Folklore has it that one of the county's best-known attorneys began his study of law, through a correspondence course, while serving time for removing log brands. The arrival of the railroad at the turn of the Twentieth Century rang the death knell for that romantic era as the log rafts and their colorful shepherds disappeared from the river forever.


Several large sawmills have operated in the county during much of the last century. Among the largest and most enduring were the Mobry & Robinson mill at West Irvine and Smyth's sawmill at Cow Creek.  The earliest sawmills were powered by waterwheel and had to be located adjacent to a free running stream.  The advent of steam and later gasoline engines made smaller mills economically feasible and these secondary sawmills have operated in virtually every section of the county.  Local timber has helped to fuel the growth of America. More than a few houses throughout the eastern half of the United States contain timber grown in the county.  The problem with the timber business is that the production capacity of sawmills far outstrip the supply of hardwoods available for cutting.  It takes decades for a hardwood forest to regenerate itself. Consequently, Sawmills tend to come and go and cannot be depended upon to provide long-term employment for a very large workforce.  In spite of that very serious drawback the timber industry continues to be a significant sector of the local economy.

Development of the Estill Springs Spa

The mineral spring located at the base of Sweet Lick Mountain, known as Estill Springs, is the most historic spot in Estill County. The spring probably was flowing long before man came to the North American continent.  Prior to the arrival of man, a buffalo trace, created by vast herds of bison during their annual migrations, ran near the spring.  In time the first humans crossed the land bridge that once connected Asia to Alaska and eventually filtered down into the area that became the United States.  The early Americans found it much easier to travel by following the well-worn buffalo paths.  One of the major Shawnee Indian trails was an old buffalo trace that passed near the mineral spring.  The early Indians undoubtedly were the first humans to refresh themselves with the iron-rich water that flowed from the old spring.  The first person of European ancestry to drink from the spring is thought to be a French explorer who was traveling from Fort Detroit to a French outpost on Mobile Bay years before Kentucky was settled.  He described in his journal a spot that matches perfectly the Sweet Lick area.  According to the testimony of Daniel Boone's son, Daniel also visited the site while encamped at Station Camp during one of his early expeditions to Kentucky.


The water from the spring is heavily laced with sulfuric iron particles that give it a unique taste and odor, something akin to rotten eggs.  The early pioneers reasoned that anything that tasted that bad must be good for you and many people ascribed medicinal qualities to the water. Even today some people swear by the health benefits that are derived from drinking or bathing in mineral waters.


It can be said that the old spring gave birth to Estill County, since it was at the spring where the framers of the petition to form the county met to work out the details for establishing county government.


The indigenous populations that first visited the site had no concept of property ownership and believed that everything on Earth was for the benefit of all the creatures on the planet.  It was not until the Europeans arrived and instituted their system of private ownership that the use of the spring was restricted to those who held title to the property.  The first person with a deed to the property was a pioneer named Walter Welch, who had a 400-acre patent for the area where the spring and much of Irvine is sited.  Welch cleared the land and built the first cabin on the site.  The property was referred to as Welch's Settlement on early documents. Green Clay purchased the property in 1808.


After the War of 1812 ended, Irvine became a boomtown and was the primary gateway to all of Eastern Kentucky. Clay decided there was money to be made by providing a place to eat and sleep for all of the people passing through the town.  He built two inns to accommodate the demand. The first was constructed near the Courthouse and the second near the spring that Clay named and promoted as the Sweet Spring (The site was not referred to as Estill Springs until slightly before the Civil War).


The first mention of an inn at the spring was in an 1814 newspaper.  Clay ran an advertisement in the Lexington Reporter on October 1,1814 advertising taverns (inns) to rent at the Estill Court House and the Sweet Spring. The accommodations were described as being new, large and well furnished. The ad went on to say that a great number of people visited the Springs. The announcement pointed out that the spa was located only a half mile from the Court House where all the leading roads to the upper country (eastern Kentucky) intersected, making these very valuable locations for public housing.


Green Clay's heirs sold the Springs property to Isaac Mize, a prominent Irvine civic and business leader.  The property then passed through several owners until it was acquired by John Chiles in 1848.  Chiles saw the potential for turning the site into a first class spa and built the first large hotel on the site and changed the name of the spa from Sweet Springs to Estill Springs. Prior to Chiles's time there was only a small inn on the site. This was the period in American history when plush spas were very popular vacation spots for the wealthy. The newly remodeled spa became a regional favorite for Southern planters and other wealthy residents of the area.  The resort grew into a 120 room main hotel plus a number of large cottages.  The facility, which may have been the largest of its kind in Kentucky, could accommodate up to eight hundred guests.  It also boasted the largest ballroom in the state, plus tennis courts, riding stables, bowling alleys, billiard parlors and beautifully landscaped grounds.  Most of the food served in the sumptuous dining room was grown on the property.  The Estill Springs Spa was in a class with the most elegant spas in the country and its clientele included such famous personages as Henry Clay and John C. Breckenridge.


In addition to renowned Green Clay the Estill Springs property had the distinction of being owned by another distinguished Estill Countian, Sidney M Barnes.


Barnes acquired the Springs property in 1859 and used it as a training camp for several months during the Civil war as he assembled and trained the Eighth Kentucky Infantry Regiment.  Sidney Barnes sold the Estill Springs property to a group of businessmen from Pennsylvania who drilled unsuccessfully for oil on the property.


The prime time for the resort was during the "Gay Nineties" when spas were much in demand.  Estill Springs was among the more elegant spas in the country and the rich and famous flocked to Estill County to partake of the miraculous waters that flowed from the ancient wellhead.  Even John Hunt Morgan's men who had defiled the pristine splendor of the site during the Civil War returned to the resort for their annual reunions.


The property passed through several hands during the declining years of the grand old spa. The site was acquired by Harvey Riddle, brother of Judge Hugh Riddle, after the World War I and he sold housing lots off the portion that became known as Estill Springs Addition. The great hotel burned to the ground on December 14, 1924.  Befittingly the conflagration that consumed the facility was the most spectacular fire ever to occur in Estill County.  The blaze was so high and the heat so intense that the efforts of the fire departments from Irvine and Ravenna were rendered useless.


Doctor O. F. Hume, who operated a hospital in the old River View Hotel, owned the property briefly before selling it to a local group who, who built a private residences on the site.  In the end the historic property succumbed to the bane of modern America and became a housing development. 


Estill County in the Twentieth Century

Prior to 1900 life in the county was pretty much the way it had been since Roman times.  Most of the people earned their livelihoods by farming with basically the same labor-intensive tools and methods used for centuries.  Farm machinery was powered almost exclusively by horses, mules and oxen. Horses were also the primary mode for transportation. Farmhouses had no running water or bathrooms and were heated by log-burning fireplaces. Kerosene lamps provided the lighting during the dark hours. Meals were prepared on a wood-burning stove and nearly everything the family used or wore was made on the premises. Roads were barely passable in bad weather and many streams lacked bridges and could only be crossed by fording. Isolated farms families seldom traveled outside of their immediate neighborhoods.  Ordinary tasks such the weekly family laundry required two full days to accomplish.  The laundry was soaked in large iron kettles of heated water with strong homemade lye soap.  The wash was constantly stirred with a stick during the entire cleaning process. Once cleaned and air dried the washed items were pressed with heavy irons that were constantly returned to the stove or fireplace for reheating. Wood was the primary fuel for heating and cooking and maintaining the supply required many hours of intensive labor.  Trees had to be felled and then chopped into firewood with hand axes. It was then hauled from the woods and stacked near the family residence.  If heat was maintained during cold nights, someone had to get up at regular intervals to stoke the fire.


Much of the farm labor was performed by hand.  Farm families spent long hours in the fields maintaining their crops with garden hoes and horse-drawn plows. Most families had their own dairy cows that had to be milked by hand. Since there was no refrigeration dairy products were kept in springs or water wells to keep them cool.  Meat was smoked or salt cured for preservation.  Fruits, vegetables and berries were dried or later vacuum-sealed in glass jars.  Estill County families, like rural families in much of America prior to 1900, were self-sufficient entities whose farms supplied most of their basic needs. They were not as dependent on the outside economy for their subsistence and erratic swings in the national economy had a minimal influence on their lives. 


That system was fundamentally changed after 1900, as large numbers of the rural population left the farms to seek employment with private industry. The move away from a farm economy was accelerated in Estill County with the arrival of new job opportunities in public work. Many farm workers jumped at the chance to escape the drudgery of farm labor for the better paying industrial jobs. It was often a case of leaping from the frying pan into the fire since many of the new jobs required backbreaking toil comparable to or worse than farm work. However the higher wages and better job security tended boost the overall standard of living for most local residents. The change from an agrarian based economy to a modern industrial system provided the impetus that lead to Estill County's most prosperous period.


Estill County's Golden Era


Prior to 1900 Estill County experienced economic boom times but nothing compared to the economic growth that occurred during the first half of the Twentieth Century.  During that crucial half century Estill County was propelled from an isolated backwater locality into a robust community with first-rate schools, roads and utilities. The fifty year economic boom peaked around mid-century and faltered after that point.  The five decades of unparalleled economic prosperity was fueled by the completion of the lock system on the Kentucky River, the coming of the railroad and Carhartts, the discovery and exploitation of the county's oil resources and the transformation of a cow pasture east of Irvine into a modern city.  In addition, electrification, paved roads, a sewage disposal system, countywide school bus pickup, Irvine's first free bridge and other important advancements provided impetus to the booming economy. 

As the Nineteenth Century came to an end, roads remained primitive and traveling was a slow and arduous process. In the first decades following the turn of the century travel within the county as well as to neighboring cities was greatly facilitated with the construction of all-weather macadamized roads with safe and dependable bridges. For the first time in history Irvine residents had easy and speedy access to Richmond, Winchester, Beattyville, Stanton and points beyond. 


Public health services were improved with the establishment of the Estill County Health Department under the direction of Dr. Richard Snowden in 1934.  The department enforced public sanitation standards and provided health care to indigent patients.  More importantly public health nurses inoculated the county's population against smallpox, polio and other dreaded diseases that had been the scourge of local residents for generations. The isolated one room schools were consolidated into modern multi-grade facilities that were better equipped and staffed.  The county-wide busing of elementary and high school students equalized educational opportunities for all of the county's students. Even those students who lived in the more remote sections could now be bused to the upgraded schools and receive an education equivalent to that offered by the town schools.


The economic depression that dominated the thirties put a damper on economy, but even during that austere time new jobs were created when the Carhartt Overall Company built a factory in Irvine. In addition the National Recovery Act passed by Congress to create employment and relieve the wretchedness during the depression completed many projects in Estill County through the Works Program Administration better known simply as the WPA. The WPA built roads, bridges, forest trails and public buildings. The most prominent of the WPA financed projects was the Estill County courthouse.  The present courthouse opened in 1940 was the fourth courthouse to stand on the spot.  The first was a of log construction was erected in 1808, a brick replacement was built in 1830 and that structure was in turn replaced in 1870.  In order to meet the nation’s increased demand for oil and coal after the United States entered World War II, the local economy returned to the robust status that it had enjoyed during the twenties.


The new construction and other improvements that came about in the first half of the century were primarily due to the growth in personal wealth and increased tax revenue created by the new industries, especially the railroad. As the iron industry dictated the history of Estill County during its first century, the railroad dominated the second century of the county's existence.


Coming of the Railroad

Of the new enterprises that located in the county none had a greater impact on life in Estill County than the railroad due to its conspicuous presence and the number of local people employed by the L&N. By the time the last dam was built on the Kentucky River a more efficient system for moving produce and people was already in the works.  A group of investors formed a railroad company in 1888 for the purpose building the first railroad to serve Estill and Lee Counties. Estill County had been served by a stagecoach line connecting to Richmond.  The trip to Richmond required four hours of hard travel since there were no bridges and the river and other streams had to be forded or crossed by ferry. The coming of the railroad spelled the death knell for stage travel and the line ceased operations in 1892.  William Pigg the last owner of the stage line sold his twelve-passenger couch and horses to the operator of the stage line between Monticello and Burnside, the last stage line to operate in Kentucky.  The new railroad originated near Versailles and terminated at Beattyville. The line was routed through Nicholasville, Richmond and Irvine and was given the all-inclusive name of The Richmond, Nicolasville, Irvine and Beattyville Railroad Company.  The locals gave the line the practical nickname of RINYB.  The trains made freight and passenger stops at Rice Station, West Irvine, Irvine, Ravenna, Millers creek and Pryse.  Vestiges of the long abandoned railroad bed can still be seen at various locations in the county.  The original company went into receivership before final construction was completed and the Louisville and Atlantic Railroad Company bought the company's assets in 1890 and completed the line to Beattyville.  The L & A Railroad was in turn purchased by the Louisville & Nashville Railroad in 1909 in a shrewd business move that gave the L&N access to the profitable coal business in eastern Kentucky. A year later, the L&N bought out a small line, that specialized in hauling coal out of the eastern Kentucky, known as the Lexington and Eastern Rail Road Company.  The combined routes put the L&N in position to become the principal rail service to the lucrative Eastern Kentucky coalfields. To take full advantage of the opportunity to capitalize on the booming coal market, the railroad needed a marshaling yards and repair facilities in close proximity to the coalfields.  Irvine was ideally situated for that purpose.

In November of 1915, just as the oil boom was hitting full stride, L&N executives announced its Eastern Kentucky Division headquarters would relocate to Irvine. In addition to a headquarters for the administrative staff, the railroad built a large roundhouse repair facility and a switching yards, bringing hundreds of additional people into the county to fill the large number of jobs created by the move.

The demise of the steam locomotives coupled with the ascendancy of the more powerful diesel engines have greatly reduced the number of employees needed to run the railroad, and far fewer county residents are employed by the railroad than in earlier years. The venerable old L & N, affectionately known as the "Old Reliable", merged with the Seaboard Coast line in 1982 and became the Seaboard System Railroad. That line was absorbed by CSX Transportation in 1986 and the old L&N, that had carried freight and passengers for more than a century, vanished from the scene.  As with the iron furnace ruins and the rusting refinery, relics of the railroad's heyday still stand as graphic reminders of the glory years when numerous local families were sustained by wages earned from the "Old Reliable".


Founding of Ravenna

Perhaps the most significant benefit Estill County derived from the arrival of the railroad was the influx of new people into the county.

Irvine’s sister city of Ravenna was developed by the railroad to provide housing for its workers. The new arrivals brought fresh ideas and skills into the population mix that strengthened the community.  The newcomers insisted on better schools and improved public services.  They quickly moved into positions of leadership in the community as they were appointed to boards and commissions and ran for elective offices. Many of the people living in Ravenna today can trace their roots to the railroaders that moved to the area in 1915.


The terrain where Ravenna now stands was originally surveyed by Josiah Hart as part of a 5200 acre tract patented to Charles Morgan and his partners in 1800. The original patent included much of Irvine and all of the land that bordered on the Kentucky River from the Irvine bridge to the American Legion building at Millers Creek.  Neither Morgan nor his fellow land speculators lived in the area and soon sold their holdings. Among the first white people to establish permanent residences on the Ravenna site were: William and David Chamberlain (Chamberlain Branch is named for them), James Blackwell, James Hoy, George R Smith, Isaac Wilson and Jesse Noland.  The properties, after passing through several owners during the nineteenth century, were acquired by the L&N Railroad in 1909.


 The character of the land changed dramatically after the railroad established the headquarters for the Eastern Kentucky Division on the site in 1915.  In addition to erecting quarters for the administrative staff, the L&N built a switching yards and a roundhouse.  As a result, large numbers of employees were transferred to Irvine, creating an acute housing shortage.  Due to the scarcity of housing, the railroad provided camp cars as living quarters for some of its employees. The influx of new families caused the largest building boom the county has ever known.  Many of the new dwellings were constructed on railroad land just beyond the eastern edge of the Irvine city limits.


To help ease the housing shortage and to increase profits, the L&N decided to develop part of its property for residential use and sell lots to railroad employees. The Ravenna Realty Company was established to sell lots for the company.  The railroad guided the early development of the town by laying out the first streets and providing electricity during the early years.


By December of 1920, the community had grown large enough for Bernard M. Burns and others to petition the Estill Circuit Court to allow the growing village to incorporate as a sixth-class city.  Judge Hurst ruled in favor of the motion, during the January term of the Court in 1921.  A board of trustees was appointed to manage the village.  The interim officials appointed to administer the community until an election could be held were: Chairman of the Board: Walter. S. Yaden; members of the Board: W.S. Robbins, W. J. McLemore, C.H. Smith and R. L. Mclemore. Police Judge: G. Hackworth; Town Marshal: Dudly Webb; Tax Assessor: Mack Richardson and Clerk: Dr. E. S. Caywood.


The Board held its first meeting on February 5, 1921.  At that meeting and subsequent meetings in March and April, the trustees enacted a large number of ordinances.  Privilege taxes were imposed on the various businesses, a speed limit of 15 miles per hour was set for city streets and many other ordinances needed to govern the growing city were decreed.


In the November elections a new board and other city officials were elected to replace the appointees.  They were: Chairman of the Trustee Board: S. A. Hunt; members of the Board: J. E. Power, Dr. E. S. Caywood, Guy Congleton and J. M. Hamilton; Police Judge: H. E. Neal; Town Marshal: Jack King and Clerk: Orie P Gruelle. 


The little village continued to grow and prosper.  By 1924, Ravenna had a population of twelve hundred and forty-five souls and was elevated to a fifth class city by the Kentucky General Assembly.  At that time the government of the city was changed from a trusteeship to a mayor and city council form of government.  C.C. Stanfill became the first mayor and was the predecessor of a long line of enlightened Ravenna mayors.


Most towns, including Irvine, developed over many years in a haphazard fashion without much thought to planning.  Ravenna was a planned community that grew to its present size in just a few years.  As a result, the town was one of the best laid-out and most modern communities in the state.  Streets were named and house numbers assigned in 1916.  In 1924 contracts were let to pave Main Street and to install sidewalks, curbs and storm drains throughout the town.  During that same busy year a contract was let for a sanitary sewer line to run from Seventh Street to Cow Creek.  As was the norm for the time, there was no sewage treatment plant and raw sewage was dumped untreated into Cow Creek.  Unfortunately, Cow Creek fed into the Kentucky River just above Ravenna’s favorite swimming hole below the locks.  Not many people concerned themselves about such things in those days, and large crowds flocked to the river beach on hot summer days.  During the great Polio epidemic of the nineteen-forties, warnings were posted not to swim in the river.  Even then, many people continued to use the beach.


At its inception, Ravenna was a company town, dependent on the railroad for its very existence.  At that giddy time, few foresaw that within a few years the railroad would became a less significant factor to the town that it created.  Beginning in the nineteen fifties, Ravenna was required to make some difficult adjustments when the railroad cut back operations.   Those who oversaw the painful process of weaning the city from dependency on the railroad saved Ravenna from the fate that has befallen so many company towns.  The town is now less vulnerable to future economic upheavals.


In earlier times Ravenna contained a bank, post office, theater, city park, train station and one of the finest elementary schools in the state.  No place on Earth is more richly endowed by nature.  The magnificence of Ravenna’s Alpine setting and the easy access to mountains, creeks, caves and the river make for a rustic quality of life missing in much of the modern world.


A somewhat envious editor of an Irvine newspaper wrote, in jest, during the early development of the town, that Ravenna was no more than a mud hole and a cliff on the side of a hill with nothing to recommend it other than its being the site of the Edward Hawkins hanging.  The picturesque little village is a great deal more than that.


The Oil Boom Years

A few years after the county’s last iron works at Fitchburg closed, the first horseless carriages powered by the newly invented internal combustion engine, that burned a crude oil derivative called gasoline, began to appear on the scene. Prior to the coming of the automobile, a limited amount of crude oil was refined primarily into kerosene for lamps. After Henry Ford began mass-producing automobiles, that were within the price range of average Americans, the demand for cars and consequently gasoline increased dramatically.  Oil had been found years before in the county and when the demand for crude oil mushroomed there was a mad rush of speculators into the area to buy up oil leases from local landowners. Once the leases had been signed, drilling apparatuses of every description were hauled into the oil fields to punch holes through the earth to reach the pools of crude oil. Getting the bulky rigs into the mountains where much of the drilling took place was no easy matter.  Horses, oxen, motorized vehicles and dozens of sweating men were used to wrench the drilling machines up the steep slopes. The oil boom era was an exciting time for the local folks.  Every few days word would spread of a new oil strike raising the hopes of all landowners that they too might strike it rich.


The discovery of the largest oil pool yet found in Kentucky sparked another economic boom that lasted roughly from just prior to the start of World War I until the close of World War II.  The oil fields in Estill and Lee Counties  became the most productive oil producers in the state.  The woods resounded with the sounds of the many pump houses constructed to power the pumps at the well sites.  The oil fields throughout the county employed dozens of people to tend the pumps that lifted the oil from the wells. A single engine was used to pump several wells by running metal rods to a central pump-house. An oil refinery eventually was built at Pryse to process the crude.  The name of the community was changed to Texola in honor of the refinery's owner, the Texas Oil Company. Company houses were erected for employees of the refinery and for a time, particularly during World War II, Texola became a bustling boomtown that operated around the clock.  When the oil played out and the boom ended the name Pryse was restored to the community.  Rusting relics of the refinery still stand as mute testament to the forty-year period when black gold dominated the Estill County scene.


The History of the Carhartt Plant in Irvine

When the Great Depression hit in November of 1929, Estill County was more fortunate than many places, because the railroad and the oil industries continued to provide employment to some county residents.

However a large number of county residents were unemployed and the community decided to do something about it. As a consequence, one of the County’s most enduring economic assets resulted from a civic-minded group bent on creating jobs during the Great Depression. 



The stock market crash that struck Wall Street in October of 1929 had a catastrophic effect on the national economy.  Markets dried up, companies closed and large numbers of people became unemployed.  The government provided very little in the way of relief in those days and many families were absolutely destitute.  These were not people addicted to the welfare roles, but hard working people who simply could not find work.  There were few jobs, little money and no public assistance.  Charitable relief agencies were overwhelmed and desperate families were scrounging for the necessities of life.  It is difficult for post Depression generations to visualize the terrible gut wrenching deprivation that gripped the country in 1930.  A sense of hopelessness pervaded the land as more and more people joined the ranks of the unemployed and dispossessed.  Estill County was not spared the repercussions of the Great Depression.  The desperate economic situation here mirrored that of the Country.


Fortunately, Irvine had a number of exceptional civic leaders who came to the aid of their beleaguered community during that desperate time.  According to the newspapers of the period, Charles E. Yeager was the initiator of the movement that brought the Carhartt factory to Irvine. Yeager was the president of the Irvine-Ravenna Kiwanis Club in 1930 when the club became the catalyst in a remarkable community venture to improve the dire employment predicament here.  Under his leadership, the club promoted the notion of  bringing a factory to Irvine.  Other Kiwanis officers were:  C. M. Lykins, Vice President; Jonathan Wallace, 2ndVice President; and Arch M. Clark, 3rd Vice President.  Probably no Kiwanis club, in the history of that international organization, ever achieved more for their communities than the local chapter accomplished for Irvine. 


To broaden the scope of the initiative into a community-wide undertaking, a Board of Commerce was established to oversee the project in the fall of 1930. Officers of the board were: E. S. Scott President (Manager of the local Kentucky Utilities office); Charles E. Yeager, Secretary-Treasurer;  Arch Wallace, Vice President;   Elbert A. Smither, 2nd Vice President;  and John Wallace, 3rd Vice President.  Once the board was in place, contact was made with the Carhartt officials in Detroit.  The Irvine delegation and Carhartt company officials worked out a financing arrangement that served as an enticement for the company to locate a plant in Irvine.  The original deal was for the citizens of Estill County to raise two hundred thousand dollars through a stock subscription to help finance the new plant.  The amount required was later lowered to one hundred and fifty thousand dollars because construction and equipment costs were less than expected due to the depressed economic situation.  Raising that kind of money in 1930, during the Country’s greatest depression, was a monumental task.  The Carhartt Holding Company was incorporated by the Board of Commerce to raise capital by selling stock.  Most of the required capital was raised quickly when one thousand and twelve Estill County citizens invested in the new venture.  This is an astounding fact considering the times.  Many of the people who put up money probably could not really afford to make the risky investment, but were willing to chance their meager resources to aid the community.


Wylie Carhartt visited Irvine in November of 1930 to look over the town and to determine the feasibility of locating a plant here.  He was favorably impressed but made no final commitment.  He did however ask his engineers to explore site possibilities for the new plant.


Not wanting to leave anything to chance, a Board of Commerce committee including O. W. Witt, R. M. Bergman, Clarence Miller,  C. S. Rice and others went to Detroit in December of 1930 to plead Irvine’s case to Carhartt.  Upon their return, they reported that if the community could raise the necessary capital, prospects were good for Irvine to get the new plant.


By March of 1931 the fund was still some nine thousand dollars short of the goal.  The community responded by holding a extravaganza that included a parade and many other events designed to raise money and to show support for the project.  Nearly everyone in the County turned out for the happening.  The street fair was a tremendous success and by the end of the day the final nine thousand dollars was raised.


Carhartt was contacted immediately and given the news that the community had raised the money and needed only a commitment from him to make the project a reality.  Carhartt management then made, the courageous and risky decision to open a new manufacturing facility in the middle of a depression.  Shortly thereafter the company engineers began the site selection process and the location was finalized in June of 1931.  The contract for the building was let on the seventh of August of the same year.  The original building consisted of 32,600 square feet of interior space with an estimated construction cost of fifty thousand dollars.  The company operated at that location for many years, before moving to into more modern facilities at the industrial park off Winchester Road a few years ago.


Wylie Carhartt’s faith the community was validated by the success the Irvine operation has achieved over the years.  Carhartt Inc. has remained profitable and competitive in an industry that has all but disappeared from America's shores.  That success is in no small part due to the hard work, efficiency and innovative ideas contributed by the local work force during the many years of the plant’s existence.


The Boom Years of the Forties and Fifties

The economic development that occurred during the span between the two world wars set the stage for what many regard as Estill County's most prosperous period.  The economic depression that gripped the country for a decade ended abruptly when the United States entered World War II on December 7,1941.  The industries that had located in the county in the previous two decades operated at full capacity to support the war effort. The products that drove the local economy; timber, Oil, coal and garments were all in great need. The boom continued into the post war era due to the pent-up demand for consumer goods that had been unavailable during the war.


The pivotal twenty-year span between 1940 and 1960 was perhaps the most consequential epoch in Estill County’s history.  It was during that crucial period when life in America was redefined. At the conclusion of World War II tensions between the former allies spawned an arms race that led to the proliferation of atomic weapons of mass destruction.  The daily awareness that the world was on the brink of destruction created an underlying terror that pervaded the lives of all people. The constant threat of nuclear annihilation was an ever-present shadow that hung over the world during a period of unprecedented upheaval and change. Other developments such as the automobiles, television, telephones, supermarkets, electrification, air conditioning, jetliners and the interstate highway system greatly affected local residents as it did other Americans.


In addition the population count had grown to more than seventeen thousand, the highest count ever during the long history of Estill County.  With the Prosperity came improvements in the county's infrastructure.  Paved roads, upgraded schools, streetlights, city parks and medical services were only a few of the many improvements that come about during the boom years.  Perhaps the most telling statistic is that in 1940 less than one in three houses had electricity, by 1960 virtually every dwelling in the county was wired for electrical power.


Local families were impacted by the war as perhaps no other conflict in history. Nearly every family had at least one or two members serving in the military. Special flags were proudly displayed in front windows with a star for each member of the family serving in the armed forces. Events on the battlefronts dominated the news and most conversation. There was a patriotic fervor that mobilized the county's citizens in support of the war effort.  Everybody did their bit to help win the global conflict by conserving scarce resources such as tires, sugar, gasoline, and meat.  Community scrap drives were organized to collect discarded metal and other usable scrap to be reprocessed into war materials. Elementary school students bought ten cent saving stamps each week that could be converted into war bonds when the stamp book was filled. People adjusted to doing without many commonplace items such as butter, sugar, chocolate, nylons, tires and gasoline.  All were rationed and required a special stamp before purchase. Plastics and other synthetic materials came into widespread use as they replaced natural materials in the production of consumer goods.


Irvine’s downtown was the thriving center for commerce and entertainment.  Downtown businesses included an A&P and a Kroger store, a Western Auto, a dime store, several clothing stores, new and used furniture stores, two theaters, a bus station barber shops, pool rooms, hardware stores, two hotels and numerous restaurants.


On Saturday nearly everybody in the county converged on Main Street in Irvine. Cars and trucks parked curbside so their occupants could view the throng parading the sidewalks. The Saturday routine included a visit to the movies for the children while their parents shopped and socialized. Irvine High School's sports teams were among the best in the state. The local golf club, with a magnificent panoramic view of the river and the mountains offered recreational and social activities in an unequaled setting.


Downtown Ravenna was equally vibrant. The Ravenna Drug Store, Hatfield’s Clothing and Flynn’s Paint store were fixtures in the Ravenna scene. Ravenna eating places included at various times, Chrome Dome’s, Bush Brothers, Cruse’s Corner Cafe and Galt Brackett’s.  Hackworth’s grocery was another major business in town.  Ruffners’s Grocery, was just across the Irvine city line and did a booming business in both towns. Two of the more famous barbershops of the era were operated by Claude Isaacs Sr. and Ed Hester in Ravenna.  Tall tales and checkers entertained customers and loafers in both shops.  The Ravenna depot was a busy place with the trains constantly loading and disgorging passengers and cargo. The Wig Wam, Estill County’s first drive-in restaurant, was opened by Earl and Mable Floyd in the mid-fifties and became a Mecca for teenagers.


The railroad ran through the heart of the both cities and dominated the local scene. The noise created by the immense steam locomotives with their constant whistles, bells and escaping steam were an ever present component of daily life in Irvine and Ravenna.  The round house, where dozens of men worked around the clock to keep the locomotives running added to the cacophony of sounds choreographed by the railroaders.  There were numerous section gangs that kept the tracks repaired and entertained the local youth with their colorful language.  Hobo camps existed where a “king of the road” could cook a meal and bed down for the night.


During the forties and much of the fifties Estill County by any measurement was a busy and prosperous place. On the surface, Estill County was a bustling, pulsating, vigorous community like those celebrated in Walt Whitman’s poetry.  But job liquidating technological advances, coupled with the depletion of the County’s natural resources, created economic problems that plagued the county during the second half of the Twentieth Century. As the oil industry and railroad reduced their work forces, laid off employees were forced to leave town to find work and the county's population declined as a result. Many of the commercial businesses in Irvine and Ravenna closed and the downtown areas deteriorated. Local civic leaders waged a fifty year battle to entice new industry to replace the railroad and refinery but with limited success.


The History of Public Education in Estill County

Public education in Estill County as well as the rest of the state was not a high priority in pioneer Kentucky. The prevailing attitude was that education was a private concern and not the affair of the government. Besides, pioneer children were needed at home to help feed and clothe the family and in that agrarian society people felt there was no need for an education.  Consequently, illiteracy was prevalent among much of the local population during the first century of the county's existence. 


The state legislature as early as 1798 enacted legislation that set aside six thousand acres of unclaimed land to support a county academy.  To the modern ear that sounds like a great deal of support, but the land was normally poor land in a time when land was cheap and had relatively little market value. In any event most of the land was in areas of the county that eventually split from Estill and much of the school support land became the property of the new counties. The first school became known as the Jefferson Seminary and later from 1816 to 1897 as the Estill Seminary.  The designation seminary was appropriate since many of the teachers were also ministers who supplemented their meager earnings by teaching.  There were a few private schools that were supported financially by local families who were willing and able to pay. Wealthier families often hired tutors to come and live with them and teach their children. However these were the exception and not the norm.


An 1832 educational survey by the state of children between the ages of five and fifteen revealed that only one child out of five had ever attended school for any duration. Education continued to languish until the post-Civil War era when the state and consequently the county began to focus on improving public education. For example, the 1870 Estill County Federal census reported that of the 9198 people in the county only 1707 were students while 3202 of the adult population were illiterate. The educational system made continuous progress in the following decades so that by 1950 illiteracy was virtually eliminated with only 255 illiterates reported on the 1950 census. The student population as with the total population peaked in the thirties and forties when the number of students enrolled in all schools exceeded 4000.


The first public schools were normally housed in a single room that housed all grades through the eighth grade. The basic one-room schools were Spartan facilities without modern amenities, such as electricity, running water, inside toilets and central heat. Due to transportation difficulties it was necessary to locate schools within walking distance of the students they were to serve. It was not uncommon for rural students to walk five miles or more to school. Some had to traverse rivers and creeks by boat or climb mountains to get an education.  The school system had to build, staff and maintain a relatively large number of these community schools to cover all of the sections of the county.  The schools were in session normally after the harvest was completed in the fall until crop planting time in the Spring.  The students were kept home the remainder of the time to help with the farming.  Teachers were sorely underpaid and many had limited educations.  Textbooks and other teaching materials were in short supply. The leading social events in many rural communities were the annual "pie suppers" sponsored by local schools to raise money for school supplies.  In spite of the hardships many Estill County children got respectable educations while attending community schools. 


For many years Estill County like most other counties had more than one educational system in the county.  The cities of Irvine and Ravenna maintained school systems that were independent of the county system. Irvine schools consisted of an elementary school and high school while Ravenna's system was limited to a single elementary school.  As roads improved and busing became feasible the old one-room schools gradually disappeared and were replaced by modern multi-grade schools with larger student bodies and faculties.  The Irvine and Ravenna independent schools were eventually absorbed by the county system and all the educational facilities in the county came under the jurisdiction of the Estill County Board of Education.




Some Notable Estill County Personages

Many people have contributed to the development of Estill County as the large number of people who have been selected for induction into the Estill County Hall of Honor will attest.  However there are four historical individuals with an Estill County connection whose fame extended beyond the county boundaries that require special mention.  The four included three highly regarded individuals and one infamous outlaw.


Green Clay

The man who donated the land for the county seat was Estill County’s first and greatest financial tycoon.  Clay was born on Aug. 14, 1757 in Powhatan County, Virginia to the same family that produced his more famous distant cousin, Henry Clay. He had some formal education but was pretty much self-taught. Clay was a man for all seasons and excelled in several professions including: business, politics and the military. The skill that enabled him to become wealthy was his adeptness at surveying and locating land grants.


He served in the Revolutionary War and probably was awarded a land patent in Kentucky for his military service. Clay arrived in Kentucky in the fall of 1780. His services as a surveyor were very much in demand due to the many overlapping land claims that resulted from the inaccurate maps that existed at the time.  As a surveyor he received half of all of the land that he surveyed or located. He was very skilled at deciphering survey plats and was able to personally gain by capitalizing on the many mistakes that were made on the original land patents. As a result he soon accumulated large amounts of acreage in Estill and Madison Counties.  He originally owned the land where much of downtown Irvine is located and very shrewdly deeded some of the town lots to the city to help offset the cost of erecting public buildings.  He operated a famous ferry on the Kentucky River near Boonesborough known as Clay’s Ferry. The old ferry crossing is now spanned by twin bridges on I-75 but the area is still referred to as Clay’s Ferry.


In addition to being a skilled and ruthless entrepreneur, Green Clay was also a politician.  He served in the Virginia Legislature and, after Kentucky became a state, he served in both the House and Senate of the Kentucky Legislature.  He was named Speaker of the Senate in 1795(a title no longer in common usage).


Clay was a powerful and influential man by the time the War Of 1812 began.  He was commissioned as a Major General by Isaac Shelby, Kentucky’s first governor, and ordered to form a regiment of Kentucky Militia to defend the western frontier from the British and Indians. The commander of the American forces in the western territories that ran to the Canadian border was William Henry Harrison, a governor of Indiana and later President of the United States. After Harrison was defeated in the battle of Raisin River, the British and their Indian allies under famed Chief Tecumseh, lay siege to Fort Meigs.  The isolated fort was located on the Maumee River in upper Ohio. Clay and his 1200 Kentuckians, including several Estill County men, were sent to relieve the besieged fort.  Clay’s forces arrived in May by boat and, after suffering heavy losses, were able to get into the fort and break the siege.  A large number of the Kentucky troops were captured and some forty of the captives were slaughtered by the Indians as the British watched.  As a result of his military duty, Clay added the title of General to his honors and has been known ever since as General Clay.


Green Clay arrived in the area that now includes Estill County as a twenty-three year old surveyor with not much more than the clothes on his back.  By the time Clay died from cancer in 1827, he owned thousands of acres of land, dozens of slaves and many business enterprises.  Clay created enough wealth to maintain his descendants in grand style or several generations. The wealth accumulated by Clay is exemplified in his final will and testament upon his death in 1828.



Green Clay’s Will

To my son Sidney Payne Clay, in the county of Bourbon where he lives 1207 and 1/2 acres, to my son Brutus Junias Clay, to be cut out of   partnership and to be divided  equally, to Sidney P Clay the slaves: William, Sue Bob, Arbell, Duke, and Clark. All the land in Estill County to Sidney and Brutus, except 200 acres on each side of Drowning Creek in Estill and Madison Counties, where Phill S. Durbin now lives. To my son Sidney, as a trustee of the following slaves: Aaron and wife Edy, Jourdan, Sealy, Margret, Esther, Jr?, Levin, Linda, Dick, M alvina, and permit Brutus to use the labor of the slaves.   To Brutus the following slaves {Hanna, Padd, Rancy, Warner, Tabb, Tom, Dicy and her sister Sarah. To my son Cassius Marcellius Clay all my land in Madison County East of Muddy Creek to Red Lick except the 200 acres on Drowning Creek, the slaves: Sindy, Mary Jr. Cassey, GeoTge, Zack, Fagle, Pomp, Martha, Mackland, trust that he permit my daughter Betsy Lewis Smith to enjoy land, labor until during her natural life. To my son Cassius, the tract of 417 acres called the Will Rodes quarter', also the lots in the town of Richmond, numbers 55, 56, 57, 12 and 40, also the following slaves with their increase, Dean, Prise, Wesley, Hensley, Parethens, Arey, Gabe, Deiphia, Zaphariah, Phill and Jefferson, also that he permit my daughter Pauline Green Rodes to hold said land and lots, use said slaves for her natural life. My friend William McClanahan, a merchant in Richmond as a trustee of the 200 acres on Drowning Creek and a tract of 9 acres adjoining Colonel John S. Smith, on the Last by R. Coldwell, West by Thomas C. Howard, and on the South by my lot #6 in Richmond where my new brick building now stands, also Lots #62 and #75, and the following slaves: Bowden, Minerva, Charles, Gabrilla, Scotty, Woodson, Simeon, Amy, George, Stephen, Meriak, Lalayette, and Aprnelia, that he permit my daughter Sally Ann Arvine the use of the lots, land and slaves during her natural life. My son Sidney as trustee of a tract of 2000 acres of land and the following slaves Racheal and her six children, Frank, Jim, Emily, Solomon, Milley, Alsey, Lucy, Jackson Hannah jr., daughter of old Hannah, that he permit my son Cassius to enjoy said land, also give Cassius dispose of two tracts, one of 214 acres opposite the mouth of Jacks Creek in Madison County, the other 200 acres opposite the mouth of Silver Creek, and a 320 acre tract in the State of Illinois, also the following slaves: Mingo, Scott, Riley, Joe and his wife Ester, John and his wife Usley and their three youngest children, John Jr., Huldie and Nancy Jr., also David Matt, Adam, Ned.  My silver plates, table, household and kitchen furniture be divided aniong my 6 oldest children. My library books be divided among my three sons.  I emancipate the following slaves: Henry and his wife old Hannah, Confort, Fanny, Kitty, Nancy Jr., and her children Isreal, Ellen, Jane and Belinda. At some time my executors to sell at the best price, after my death, the following slaves: Peter, Squire, Sarah, son Daniel and his wife Winney, Grace, Isabella and Mary Sr.  My sister Martha Lewis, sister Priscilla, I give to each emancipated, to old Hannah her granddaughter Sinev forever to Kitty her granddaughter Caroline forever.  To my wife Sally my dwelling house, the west or half of my dwelling house and farm where I live by a line running through the house, yard and two gates to the place called "Shakertown" the plantation called 'Hockadays", half of the meadows, half of the apple mill and mill house, the wooden smoke house and stone kitchen, my riding carriage, horse and jack. If she refuses, the carriage and jack are to be taken to Natchez to be sold. My land on the Tennessee River, about 40 or 50 thousand acres are to be divided among my six children, dated 14 August 1828, Green Clay age 71 declared the foregoing will and testament.  To my daughter Sophia Green, one acre shall be free as a burying ground forever. Proven 3 November 1828.


Several of Clay's children achieved a measure of acclaim or notoriety. One of his sons, Cassius Marcellus Clay, owner of White Hall mansion in Madison County, achieved fame as an abolitionist and served a term as ambassador to Imperial Russia.  He also earned some notoriety when he married a young girl below the age of consent against the wishes of her family.  His bizarre antics in defense of his marriage earned him the epithet “Lion of White Hall."  The mansion, near the Boonesborough exit off I-75, has been restored and is open to the public.


Unfortunately, Green Clay is perhaps best remembered today as the owner of Clay's Ferry in Madison County and as the father of Cassius Marcellus Clay of Whitehall.  He did a great deal more and was a powerful force in shaping the early structure of Kentucky. Green Clay introduced many of the industries that drove the Estill County economy during the first century of its existence. Clay operated some of the early whiskey distilleries, Iron furnaces, river ferries, brick kilns and lumber mills.  He established and promoted the first inn at the celebrated Estill Springs where his famous cousin Henry came to vacation. Green Clay left his imprint on Estill County as no other has done.



Sidney Barnes

Sidney Madison Barnes is arguably the most notable individual ever born within the boundaries of Estill County. He possessed many of the same attributes of Green Clay, in that he too was a soldier, politician and an entrepreneur. He was the county's most influential citizen during the critical period prior to and during the Civil War.  He, like Clay, left his imprint on the Estill County as well.  


Sidney was born in 1821 to John Harris Barnes and Lucy Grubbs.  John and Lucy Barnes, while still in their twenties, died when one of the frequent Typhoid Fever epidemics struck Irvine in 1823/24. At the death of their parents, Sidney and his younger brother Thomas Barnes, were sent to live with an uncle in Montgomery County.  Thomas Grubbs was a farmer and insisted that his eldest nephew become a farmer. However Sidney was interested in following his father into the legal profession.  When he reached the age of eighteen he rebelled against his uncle and returned to Irvine to pursue a career in law. According to granddaughter, Maude Barnes Miller, Sidney’s net assets when he arrived in his native county were a horse, a dollar and a watch.  Sidney did odd jobs around the courthouse while his father’s old friend, Judge Burnham, tutored him in law.  After completing his legal training, he became one of Estill County’s most successful attorneys for the next three decades.


In 1841, Sidney married Elizabeth Mize, daughter of Isaac and Elizabeth Mize.  Isaac Mize was a wealthy landowner whose holdings included the well known spa, Estill Springs.  Sidney and Elizabeth had six children, several of whom became prominent in their own right.  Their eldest son, Thomas Harris Barnes, left Centre College after the outbreak of the Civil War to become one of the youngest persons ever promoted to the rank of Major in the U S Army. In later life he was appointed Prosecuting Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas by President McKinley. Another son, James Keith Barnes served as postmaster of Fort Smith, Arkansas. The house that James Keith Barnes constructed while living in Fort Smith has recently been given museum status by the Arkansas Heritage Commission.


When the Civil War erupted, Sidney rallied to the side of the Union. He was the prime force in the formation of the famous Eighth Kentucky Infantry Regiment.  The regiment was comprised mostly of men from Estill and her neighboring counties.  The soldiers earned national acclaim for their heroic efforts in capturing the crest of Lookout Mountain in that celebrated battle.  The names of Sidney and several of his subordinates are enshrined on a plaque atop the precipice. Sidney’s plantation at Estill Springs became the training base for the Eighth Infantry while the regiment was being assembled.  Sidney had acquired the estate from his father-in-law just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.  Barnes was given a Colonel’s commission and assumed command of the regiment.  As commanding officer, he is credited for much of the success achieved by the unit.  


Colonel Barnes paid a heavy price for his allegiance to the Union.  John Hunt Morgan, who had been a comrade of Thomas H Barnes during the Mexican-American War, occupied Estill Springs briefly in 1863.  Morgan permitted his troops to ravage the estate during the occupation.  The senseless destruction is confirmation of the animosity that developed between former friends due to the war.  When Sidney marched off to fight the Rebels he turned his law practice over to a local attorney named Robert Friend. He entrusted his financial affairs to his brother who was then an attorney in Madison County. Thomas Barnes was holding money to make mortgage payments on his brother’s plantation when he died suddenly and Sidney’s money became tied up in Thomas’s estate.  In addition, the government failed to keep its promise to reimburse Sidney for some of his expenses in forming and training the Eighth Infantry Regiment.  As a result, Barnes lost Estill Springs and somehow Robert Friend acquired the estate earning the enmity of his benefactor.  Consequently when the Colonel returned home to practice law after the War, his health as well as his financial holdings had deteriorated.  His son, Thomas Harris Barnes, joined his father’s law office in Irvine. Things were never quite the same for

the Barnes family after the war and they eventually left Irvine and moved to Somerset for a brief period,  where Sidney again became active in politics.


Sidney Barnes had first ventured into politics in 1848 when he won a seat to the Kentucky General Assembly as the Representative from Estill County.  In 1867, the returning war hero became a candidate for Governor on the Radical Union ticket and ran second to John L Helm in a three-man race.  The following year he ran for a seat in the United States Congress. He lost in a closely contested race that eventually was decided in the House of Representatives.  Kentucky remained in the Union during the Civil War but public sympathy shifted to favor the South after the war.  The former Colonel’s lack of political success reflects the population’s bias against Northern war heroes at that time. 


The family left Somerset after a brief time and moved to Arkansas where Barnes became a prominent member of the Little Rock community. He served as a delegate to the Arkansas Constitutional Convention in 1874.


In 1878 President Hays appointed him Prosecuting Attorney for the territory of New Mexico. It was in New Mexico that he became good friends with Lew Wallace, author of Ben Hur.  Sidney had another literary connection through his cousin, Joel Chandler Harris, who wrote the Uncle Remus stories.


Sidney M. Barnes died in May of 1890 and was buried with honors in the National Cemetery at For Smith, Arkansas.  The Federal Courts were closed on the day of his funeral, an indication of the high esteem in which this Estill County native was held.


Brief History of the Eighth Kentucky Infantry Regiment

The citizens of the county have long taken pride in the oft-told feats of the Eighth Infantry Regiment. One of the more famous photographs taken during the Civil War is the picture of a group of men from the regiment, led by Captain John Wilson, planting the American flag atop Lookout Mountain, after the Confederates had been dislodged from the precipice. The formation of the regiment was due primarily to the incredible efforts of Sidney M Barnes, who without any previous military experience recruited and trained the thousand-man contingent.


There was a sharp divide among the citizens of Kentucky on the slavery and states rights issues prior to the outbreak of the Civil War and many expected Kentucky to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy. After the attack on Fort Sumter, a group of prominent Kentuckians, loyal to the United States and known as the Union club, decided to take action to keep Kentucky in the Union. One member of the group was Sidney M Barnes, who was destined to command the Eighth Kentucky Infantry Regiment. Barnes was loyal to the Union as were most of the citizens of Estill County and volunteered to form a regiment of home guards to protect the area around Estill and surrounding counties from Rebel activity and influence.


The Eighth Infantry Regiment was actually formed at a picnic type affair at in Madison County in September of 1861 with Sidney Barnes commissioned as the commandant and John C Wilson and A. D. Powell as Captains.  Colonel Barnes decided to quarter and train the new the troops at his Estill Springs estate, and the old spa was renamed Camp Estill Springs.  The Colonel then set about the difficult task of recruiting and training nearly a thousand volunteers.  In the beginning there were no weapons or other equipment such as uniforms, tents and mess kits to issue the new recruits, so many brought rifles, shotguns, pistols and other necessities from home. The rag-tag group of local soldiers, after being properly armed and outfitted, went off to war in January of 1862.


The regiment was involved in several battles in various locations, in Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky. The most famous battles in which regiment was engaged were Murfreesboro, Chickamauga and Lookout Mountain. The regiment suffered heavy casualties during the battles at Murfreesboro and Chickamauga. In the battle at Chickamauga, Alabama in September of 1863 the regiment lost 299 men missing, wounded or killed out of total force of 1200.


Of the 275 men from the regiment who were actually involved in the fighting during the battle at Murfreesboro, 125 were killed wounded or missing. Because of the heroic efforts of the men from the Eighth, the battle scared flag carried in that battle by young Edgar Park was ceremonially presented to the Governor of Kentucky to be preserved in the state achieves.  Fragments of this flag, that supposedly was hand sewn by the ladies of Estill County, are still in storage at the Kentucky History center in Frankfort. The condition of the flag is too fragile to display. The plan is to restore the flag if and when funds are available for the project. There is also another flag at the center with a connection to the regiment.  That flag, made by a flag company in Cincinnati was stored in bank vault in Irvine for many years and was more recently presented to the History Center. Since the later flag had a connection to the Wilson family, it could possibly be the flag in the famous photograph of Captain Wilson and his group atop Lookout Mountain.


Ironically, because of the famous flag-raising photograph, the Eighth Kentucky Infantry is better remembered for the so-called “Battle above the Clouds” at Lookout Mountain than their other engagements. According to a battle report filed by Colonel Barnes, a thick haze covered the entire mountain and the troops from the Eighth never seriously engaged the retreating Rebels during the battle. Not a single soldier was killed in the skirmish and only four men were wounded.


In February of 1865, near the end of the Civil War, the Eighth Kentucky Infantry Regiment was disbanded and some of the soldiers were mustard out of service. Those troops who remained in the military were transferred to the Fourth Kentucky Mounted Troops at that time. Some 205 men were killed or died from disease and many more were wounded while serving with the Eighth Kentucky Infantry Regiment.


Joseph Proctor
Joseph Proctor, noted Indian fighter and Methodist preacher, is perhaps Estill County's most famous historic figure. He was born around 1755 in Rowan County, NC, and later immigrated with several of his brothers to the wilderness in the extreme eastern portion of the state.

He was among the first people to settle on the Holston River located in present day Washington County, North Carolina. While living on the Holston, two important events occurred in his life that would have future consequences for Proctor and Estill County.

First, he met and married Polly Horn, daughter of Aaron Horn, progenitor of the Horn family in Estill County. Secondly, he enlisted in the Virginia Militia that was formed by Governor Patrick Henry of Virginia in 1778 to defend Fort Boonesboroug at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. The action was prompted when Daniel Boone and two dozen men from Fort Boonesborough were captured by Indians, leaving the settlement almost defenseless.
Several members of the Horn and Proctor clans joined Joseph and Polly, on the difficult trek to Fort Boonesborough. The settlers in the compound were in dire straits by the time the rescue party arrived. Proctor and his fellow troopers made several raids across the Ohio to free the captives, but were unsuccessful. Eventually Boone escaped in time to warn the Fort about an impending attack by the British and their Indian allies. The Proctors and their relatives were among the defenders of Fort Boonesborough during the famous siege of 1778. They were successful in defending the Fort against great odds in what probably was the most important battle ever waged between the European settlers and the Native Americans.

After the threat of Indian raids abated somewhat, the Proctors moved to Estill's Station located near present day Richmond. James Estill, for whom Estill County is named, established the station, a group of cabins clustered for better protection. While living at Estill's Station, two more fateful events occurred in Proctor's life. He joined the Methodist Episcopal Church and participated in the famous Indian battle known as Estill's Defeat.

Proctor not only contributed to the founding of the secular government but also was involved in establishing the Methodist Church in the eastern part of the state.  After Francis Asbury ordained him as a minister, Proctor founded one of the first Churches in the eastern section of Kentucky. He remained faithful in his religion to the end while performing hundreds of pioneer marriages, funerals and revivals.

It was his gallant actions in the battle of Estill's Defeat that immortalized Joseph Proctor. His heroic efforts on behalf of James Estill and William Irvine were told and retold around many fireplaces by the early settlers. Proctor died on December 3, 1844. His funeral procession contained a military escort and more than a thousand mourners. A large crowd of local citizens, political dignitaries and a military honor guard accompanied the casket in a parade down Main Street prior to the internment. 

Unfortunately, Joseph and Polly Proctor were buried in unmarked graves near the Methodist Church on Main Street in Irvine. At the time of his death, the county appropriated funds for a marker, but the stone was never erected. His feats were eventually forgotten and one of the more significant people to ever live in Estill County remained largely unknown to modern generations.

Sadly neither the County nor the Methodists honored Proctor.  There was a town in Lee County named Proctor but the newer town of Beattyville eclipsed that community.  Proctor was buried in the cemetery near the Methodist Church on Main Street. Due to the efforts of a group of elementary school students, with the encouragement and support of the Estill County Historical and Genealogical Society, Proctor's contribution was finally recognized when a new highway was named for him and a tombstone placed on his grave. 



The Legend of Ned Hawkins

Not all of the noteworthy people with a connection to Estill County were of a heroic nature.  One of the county’s best known and most infamous native born sons was a desperado named Edward Hawkins. Edward "Ned" Hawkins, in recognition for his criminal exploits, earned a coveted place among the likes of Jesse James, John Dillinger and other legendary outlaws so venerated by the American public.  Edward was born on Hardwick Creek in 1836 to John and Polly Barnes Hawkins.  Although he had no acknowledged progeny, descendants of the Hawkins and Barnes families still live in the county.  According to his own confession, he was engaged in criminal activities by the time he was ten.  His criminal career was a short one since he was hanged before he reached twenty-one years.


According to his contemporaries, Ned was a gift of gab, who could, if need be, talk his way out of Hell. A skill that was surely put to a stern test upon his demise. In spite of his abhorrent behavior, he was a handsome fellow and the fairer sex eagerly sought his company. His prison records indicate that he had a pretty good education in an era when few people could read and write. Edward confessed to killing several men during a crime spree that ranged as far west as the territory of Kansas. He sullied the reputation of a host of innocent young maidens and married seven women without divorcing any of them. Edward’s exploits are legendary and covered the entire spectrum of criminal activity from petty theft to murder. In Hawkins short but brilliant career, he became adept at counterfeiting, smuggling, larceny, polygamy, robbery, horse-stealing, pick-pocketing, card-cheating, forgery, storehouse-breaking, impersonating others for gain, murder and many other career skills too numerous to mention.

Hawkins was totally bereft of scruples as some of his deeds demonstrate conclusively. Ned once killed a man for simply recognizing and speaking to him. In Kansas, Hawkins turned in his accomplice in a robbery and collected the reward. While under close pursuit by a posse for stealing a horse, Ned put the animal in his brother’s barn to shift the blame to him. He stole and sold equipment that belonged to the United States Army. In his many scams, Edward passed himself off as a dentist, a lawyer, an army officer and a wealthy heir. He repeatedly swindled his gullible in-laws during his many brief marriages. He broke the hearts of his seven wives and a multitude of other unsuspecting women. One young wife committed suicide upon learning of his deceit.

The crime that finally led to Hawkins arrest, was the murder of two law officers. Edward Hawkins killed Estill County Sheriff James Land and his deputy Jesse Arvin, while they were transporting him to jail. Ned had stolen a horse in Richmond and managed to elude a posse that was chasing him. He hid out in Proctor, a town near present day Beattyville. Sheriff Land, acting on a tip, located and arrested Hawkins. The sheriff and his deputy were transporting him back to Irvine on horseback when Ned was able to grab Land's pistol and killed both men. The killing took place on the Winding Stairs hill just above Old Landing. He made his escape but was finally captured near West Union, Ohio and transported back to Estill County to stand trial.


He was prosecuted by famed Commonwealth’s Attorney Sidney M. Barnes and was defended by H.C. Lilly and D. C. Daniels. The jury convicted him of murder in April and sentenced him to hang on May 29, 1857. There was no long appeals process for criminals convicted of capital crimes in those days. He was convicted and sentenced to death in April and was executed in May of the same year.

Edward reportedly played a fiddle and sang a mournful ballad of his own composition as he was being hauled to the gallows. He occasionally interrupted his singing and shouted to the crowd lining the route: "Come and see a brave man hanged." While waiting to be hanged, he made an eloquent speech exhorting the young people not to follow in his footsteps. The audience was moved to tears and the doleful plea created a good deal of undeserved sympathy for the handsome youth. Just as he finished speaking, he dramatically leapt from the platform and hanged himself depriving his captors of the satisfaction of carrying out the death sentence. He is buried in the Woodward Creek cemetery off the Cressy Road.


Excerpts from the Gallows Speech by Ned Hawkins

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I have the opportunity once more for putting myself before you for the last time in this world. I have arisen before you, ladies and gentlemen for the purpose of making some brief remarks. I shall be very brief: for it is reasonable to conclude, that the condition in which I am now placed would prevent a very lengthy discourse. The time of my execution has arrived. In a very brief time I shall be hurled into eternity, and that too, by ignominious and disgraceful death! But before that awful moment, I wish to give the young and rising generations a piece of dying advice, and at the same time warn them against the indulgence of crime. And of evil habits of all kinds, that it may not be your unhappy lots to have to share the same fate which I must very soon suffer.

I now ask the special attention of the ladies for a few moments , and then I am done forever. Though you may think it very imprudent for a man of my character to thus address an audience of respectable young females, yet my experience and the cruel manner in which I have treated your sex makes me more competent to point out to you the many dangers to which you are exposed. And may the few remarks that I make serve as a beacon to guide your feet into the paths of virtue and safety.

In the first place let me implore you to never place your affections on a man with whose history you are not familiar; or without a recommendation from some of your own friends, and on whom you can rely with implicit confidence; for if you do you expose yourself to the greatest danger, the danger of being ruined forever. I, myself, have witnessed the everlasting downfall of young, confiding and unsuspecting females, which was caused by being too confiding and placing their affections on a flattering stranger.

Therefore my fair friends, my advice to you is to never listen to the flattery of any man, no matter how well acquainted you may be with him; and more especially the stranger. Never give the slightest attention to a man whom you do not consider worthy of your admiration. You will generally find that the most unworthy men are the ones best calculated to gain the affections of the young and unsuspecting female. And why? Because they are men who make their that constant study, and who are also accomplished in the art of seduction ; a thing that men of honor know nothing about. They turn their attentions to something better than destroying the peace and happiness of the almost helpless and inoffensive girls, and thus bring them as living sacrifices to the brink of destruction.

Never place your affections, my fair friends on men who visit the tippling shops and card tables, for they are unworthy of your attention. They are also very sure to render you unhappy, if you countenance them, or show the least degree of attachment for them.

Never place your confidence in a man whose natural trait is to have something disrespectful to say about others, for they themselves are the guilty villains, who wish to clear themselves by condemning the innocent and to pull down all others to their own detestable level.

I know this to be the fact by a shameful experience. For young as I am, I have become thoroughly acquainted with the art of seduction.

But it is unnecessary for me to say more on the present occasion as my time is near to a close. I have but a very few moments to stand before you; therefore I will close my remarks by entreating my young friends both male and female, to heed the advice that I have this day given them, for it will no doubt prove to be a great benefit to them, after I have been laid in the cold and silent grave.

And now permit me to return to you my thanks for your silent and respectful attention, and to bid you an eternal farewell.




Estill County's Future


Estill County has not only a storied past but also a hopeful future. Recent developments bode well for the future of the county and its residents. Downtown Irvine is being revitalized and looks a new bridge was recently erected across the Kentucky River roads are being upgraded and a new agency was created to promote the growth and development of the economic and cultural assets of the county.  Most importantly, the county is primed for future development. Land is relatively cheap, the crime rate is low, the scenic beauty of the place is second to none, and the county residents share a common heritage that makes for a cohesive sense of community that is lacking in much of America.


As current residents of the county face the travails of the new century, they can take comfort from the knowledge that their ancestors have faced and conquered similarly daunting challenges for more than two centuries. The marking of the 2008 bicentennial through commemorative events is a celebration of the rich heritage bequeathed to all who were fortunate enough to experience the Eden called Estill. 



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