Gardens to Gables

Kentucky’s First Town: Historic Harrodsburg

I learned this morning that a family friend passed away after a long illness. Terry White was a historian, a storyteller, and a wonderful man.  A fixture of trips to Harrodsburg, my mother’s hometown, since I was a little girl, I relished our conversations then (he never talked to me like I was child) and appreciated them even more as I grew up. There are people much better-suited to pay tribute to Terry than me, but it seems appropriate to honor him today with a post about Kentucky’s first town.  It’s a perfect fit for not only Terry, but for Preservation Month, because Harrodsburg has done an amazing job  preserving history, landscapes, and the historic built environment. Terry played a large part in those efforts, and he will be greatly missed.

Looking up South Main Street in Harrodsburg, Mercer County, Kentucky.

Looking up South Main Street in Harrodsburg, Mercer County, Kentucky.

Even within the parameters I listed above, the options of what I could highlight about Harrodsburg and Mercer County are endless: Beaumont Inn, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Fort Harrod – but I will focus on one of the historic districts I know pretty well, the North Main Street District.  First, a little background about Harrodsburg, the first permanent English settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains.  The area was settled by James Harrod, a hunter and explorer from Pennsylvania. Harrod’s exploration of the area began in 1767; after recruiting some 31 men, Harrod led a group of pioneers to a spring near the Salt and Kentucky Rivers. In 1774, these settlers laid off lots near the spring and the new town was christened Harrodstown.[1]     The first street laid out ran east and west and was named Water Street, later to become Broadway, which runs through the North Main Street Historic District.

The 1818 plat of Harrodsburg - the area outlined in red shows the North Main Street Historic District.

The 1818 plat of Harrodsburg – the area outlined in red shows the North Main Street Historic District.

In the summer of 1775, George Rogers Clark, the commander of the Virginia militia in Kentucky (then a large county of Virginia), oversaw the construction of Fort Harrod, which was attached to his command. A year later, the Virginia legislature named Harrodstown the county seat of Kentucky County. In 1786, the town was surveyed and laid off in a grid system of one-half acre inlots and five-acre outlots. The town of Harrodsburg covered one square mile, or 640 acres. This plat was entered into the Mercer County plat book in 1818. The fort’s substantial size included blockhouses on two of the corners and a row of single pen log cabins on one side. Almost 200 people were living in and around Fort Harrod in 1777.[2]

Cardwellton is located on the original inlot number 86.

Cardwellton is located on the original inlot number 86.

Nearly every form and architectural style common in Kentucky county-seat towns between 1823-1949 is represented in the North Main Street District in Harrodsburg. John Chenoweth, the first owner of inlot number 86, appears to have constructed a log house, likely just one pen, on the site at  by 1786. By 1820, he had expanded the dwelling with a frame addition. Cardwellton, as the home has come to be known, is the earliest dwelling within the North Main Street District.

In 1843, Benjamin Passmore purchased a portion of inlots 89 and 90 and built a two-story brick hotel  with Greek Revival detailing.

In 1843, Benjamin Passmore purchased a portion of inlots 89 and 90 and built a two-story brick hotel with Greek Revival detailing.

The Passmore Hotel, now home to the Harrodsburg Herald, dates to the 1840s. The building went by many names during the heyday of the stagecoach: Lyens House, City Hotel, Mercer House, Hansford House, Williams Hotel and the Chambers House. An 1851 account of the hotel states that the “house and all the outhouses are entirely new and recently erected in a favorable part of town…it takes its place among the taverns of the place, according to the design of the builders.”

The Tumey House dates to the 1850s.

The Tumey House dates to the 1850s.

Outlot three or four was sold by Richard Sutfield to John L. Tumey and his wife in 1850. The two-story brick house appears to have begun as three-bay side-passage house, with a three bay wide section added on the south gable end at some point. Tumey sold the house and lot in 1854 for $1,200.

One of the homes built along North Main Street in the late-19th century.

One of the homes built along North Main Street in the late-19th century.

The second major construction phase along North Main Street occurred between 1895 and 1900, when five more houses were built. The third wave of development in the North Main Street Historic District occurred between 1900 and 1940. This period was characterized throughout Harrodsburg and rural Mercer County by WPA activity, rural electrification, the spread of automobiles, and other innovations and trends. Another 13 buildings were built along North Main Street during this time.

McGuffin and Ella Claunch bought the lot at 368 North Main Street and in 1917 built this one-and-one-half story bungalow.

McGuffin and Ella Claunch bought the lot at 368 North Main Street and in 1917 built this one-and-one-half story bungalow.

Like many of Kentucky’s historic downtowns, business owners lived near (or sometimes above) their business. McGuffin Claunch, who built the bungalow above,  ran the store located at 123 North Main Street.

One of the commercial buildings in the North Main Street District.

One of the commercial buildings in the North Main Street District.

Constructed between 1914 and 1929, the store McGuffin Claunch walked to each day, (pictured above) housed a number of businesses over the years, including a dry goods store called Claunch and Hatchell, a cream station run by Albert Hatchell, and several groceries. It has a Craftsman Commercial stylistic influence.

North Main Street in Harrodsburg illustrates a common trend many have forgotten: Kentucky’s mixed-use neighborhoods were the norm historically. Commercial and residential interests could and did co-mingle comfortably in a small downtown neighborhood. If, like me, you are intending to be a tourist in the Commonwealth over the summer – Harrodsburg is a fine place to start! And if you go, and enjoy the beautiful buildings all around you, spare a thought for the nameless people who work to preserve that history  – because it is their gift, and their legacy, to you.

Terry – your humor, your stories, and your spirit will be missed.

 

 

[1] Helen Powell, ed. Historic Sites of Harrodsburg and Mercer County, Kentucky.( Harrodsburg, Kentucky: Mercer County Landmark Association and Kentucky Heritage Council, 1988), 10 .

[2] Max Charleston,. The Oldest Town in Kentucky.(Harrodsburg, Kentucky: 1929), 11; George Chinn, The History of Harrodsburg and the Great Settlement Area of Kentucky 1794-1900. (Harrodsburg, Kentucky: Self-published, 1985), 21; Willard Rouse Jillson. Pioneer Kentucky. (Frankfort, Kentucky : The State Journal Company, 1934), 4.

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One Thought on “Kentucky’s First Town: Historic Harrodsburg

  1. Janet Johnson on May 17, 2015 at 1:09 pm said:

    We recently “rediscovered” Harrodsburg. Love staying at the Beaumont Inn and exploring the downtown shops. Enjoyed reading the history of these buildings.

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