The Richmond Register

April 22, 2013

1939 WPA guide describes Madison County

Madison's Heritage

By Fred Engle
Register Columnist

RICHMOND — (EDITOR’S NOTE: Recent public meetings about building a road from Nicholasville to connect with Interstate 75 at Exit 95 in northern Madison County have prompted us to reprint this article from some six years ago.)



I recently ran across the reprint of a book entitled “The WPA Guide to Kentucky,” originally published in 1939. Complied and written by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Projects Administration, it was edited by F. Kevin Simon.

The Federal Writers’ Project was a work-relief program under the WPA started in 1935 to assist out-of-work writers during the depression.

Thomas D. Clark wrote in the 1999 reprint that he was the only surviving contributor to this evocative publication.

There were two motor tours through Madison County among the many routes presented in the book.

One covered US 25 from Clay’s Ferry through Berea. The other followed US 227 from Boonesborough to Richmond. The old US 227 is now KY 627.

At some point “the powers that be” in Washington declared that a highway entirely within one state could no longer be a federal road, so no more US 227.

I found it interesting to read and rediscover what the writers of 1939 had to say about Madison County. Nothing striking here, but the guide describes the interesting flavor of an era nearly 70 years ago.

The first tour followed US 25 and US 25W from the Ohio line to the Tennessee line. US 25 was known then as the “Dixie Highway, East” and it paralleled the Old Wilderness Road for the most part.

As US 25 enters Madison County at Clay’s Ferry, mention is made of the palisades of the Kentucky River gorge. Their striking beauty remains today, particularly during the colorful fall season.

Fox hunting is listed as a favorite regional sport. For the most part the locals did not ride to the hounds, but rather sat around a fire and tried to pick out their own hounds’ unique baying above the general sound of the pack in pursuit of the elusive fox.

Next, mention is made of White Hall Lane leading to Cassius Clay’s mansion (designed in 1864 by T. Lewinski, a Lexingtonian of Polish extraction) and said to be open upon request.

The mansion was not open by request when I first went there some 10 years later, and it was in extremely poor condition.

In an impressive display of local and state cooperation the restored Whitehall of today is a wonderful showplace commemorating a fascinating Madison County resident.

Arriving in Richmond, we are told that in early writings it was described as “a manufacturing little log village” but now (in 1939) is an old town with majestic trees and old houses.

The guide states city founder Col. John Miller served at Yorktown in the Revolutionary War. The county courthouse (circa 1849) has a pedimented Doric portico and its clock tower has two octagonal stages. The book contains a thumbnail sketch of the Battle of Richmond (August 29-31, 1862) and the Richmond Cemetery.

Old Central University and its successor, Eastern Kentucky State Teachers College, are described, and mention is made of two historic buildings – the University Hall (1874), now called the University Building, and Memorial Hall (1883) built to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky. Unfortunately Memorial Hall was torn down.

The John Wilson Townsend Library at Eastern was important enough to be mentioned, as was the Pioneer Memorial Fountain (1906) dedicated to David Francis, a native son of Richmond, later governor of Missouri and ambassador to Russia.

Three houses are described – Irvinton, Woodlawn and Castlewood. Only Irvinton remains standing. (A Walgreen’s drug store is planned for the Woodlawn property at the Big Hill Avenue/Eastern Bypass intersection.)

A side trip to the Bybee and Waco potteries is suggested. The reader is reminded that Boone’s Trace follows Otter Creek from near Richmond to Boonesborough. Mt. Zion Church is mentioned for its part in the Battle of Richmond.

As for the city of Berea, the guide devotes most of its space to Berea College, emphasizing it historic opposition to slavery, early interracial admittance policy, the student-work program and the Fee Memorial Church (now known as the Union Church).

The final section of the guide relevant to our review talks about Churchill Weavers (now out of business), Indian Fort Mountain and Basin Mountain.

PUBLICATION NOTE: Dr. Fred Engle passed away March 8 at age 83. He had already written a number of Madison’s Heritage that his family is making available for publication.

Readers are reminded that a compilation of some 60 Richmond Register articles from over the last 40 years by Dr. Engle and Dr. Robert Grise is available in the paperback book, “Madison’s Heritage Rediscovered.” Combined with relevant photographs selected from Eastern’s Archives by Dr. Engle’s granddaughter, Kathryn Engle, who edited the volume, the book is available for $19.99 plus tax.

Autographed copies may be purchased at the Richmond Tourism Office (Irvinton House) on Lancaster Avenue as well as ClearSight Optometry, 5019 Atwood Drive, and Baldwin CPAs, 713 W. Main St.

Autographed copies also are available by calling Kathryn Engle at 893-0947 or 623-1150.

These books make excellent birthday presents for family or friends. Keep in touch with out-of-town family and friends by sharing this gift of home.