Technology may be shrinking our globe, and social media providing connections heretofore not possible, but with the global village (thank you Marshall McLuhan) comes the disappearance of many actual physical places and communities (not to mention language, cultural identity, and sense of place).
The contraction of rural places has been happening in Kentucky since World War II. The visible and tangible landscape elements that announce “this was a place” are crumbling into decay. Maybe you see them as you drive down a two-lane rural road. Or you’ve wondered about all the names spilling across a USGS topographic map. Once the people are gone, and their memories and stories no longer circulating, who will recall places like…Epworth, in Lewis County?
Lewis County, the 48th county created in our county-mad state, was carved out of neighboring Mason County on December 2, 1806. Located on the Ohio River in northeastern Kentucky, it was named for explorer Merriwether Lewis. Epworth is not included in a 1912 list as an “early settlement” in the county, like places such as Kinniconnick, Quick’s Run, Sycamore, Quincy, and Burtonville – so it was a later community, and always quite small.
Local tradition holds that the community was named for the Epworth League, a young adult association of the Methodist Church. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was born in the English village of Epworth, and one-quarter mile from Epworth is Ruggles Camp, a meeting ground (established in 1872) owned by the Methodist Church. Epworth was a late-19th century community, with a post office from 1898 to 1931 – a period of time that coincides with the birth, growth, and death of many Kentucky crossroads communities. The population of Lewis County shot up 20% between the 1890 and 1900 census, likely due to railroad construction. This store was built around that time, when the county was growing and the future looked prosperous.
Although now forlorn, with its pressed metal siding peeling off, the shelves long since emptied, and the roof dipping down toward the floor, this former store in Epworth has many characteristics of rural stores across Kentucky. At one time, those design elements announced to passersby that it was an important place along the road – time and money went into presenting a sturdy yet stylish façade to the world. This wasn’t just another frame building by the side of the road – its form and decorative details would have translated the same both for the people that lived in Epworth as well as those from outside of Lewis County.
Broad, display windows – canted out to maximize the space – to either side of the double entry doors enticed residents and travelers to come inside and peruse the available wares. The pressed metal cornice, with its decorative scrollwork, is flanked on either end by a metal console bearing a fan and foliate design. Visitors were sheltered from the weather by the extended metal canopy over the porch. A side shed addition provided extra room for the store and perhaps even garage space. Behind the store is a tobacco barn and on the east side, a side-drive-through corncrib. There was probably a house associated with these buildings at one time, but it has faded from the landscape.
Located at the intersection of two roads, Epworth was some place. Now, like the old store, the place itself maintains a hold on existence with tenuous threads. A good wind, a bad storm – with no one left to pick up, cut down, and keep going – these tiny communities, like their buildings, melt back into the earth.