Gardens to Gables

The Abandoned Commercial District of Dover, Mason County, Kentucky

The evocative nature of abandoned houses permeated my childhood. I spent countless hours exploring forgotten houses on our farm, spinning stories in my head, and brandishing a dust rag at the curtains of cobwebs. Cleaning, I suppose, was my way to bring order to rooms given over to hay bales and critters. The Internet has opened up the world of abandoned places to a global audience, and I’ve learned to not be surprised by what I find posted by those much more intrepid than I. (I do occasionally trespass, but as the child of a rural family, it makes me uncomfortable, and I prefer to seek permission first.) It’s no surprise, then, that I find myself documenting homesteads across the Southeast long since relinquished to the insatiable appetite of nature, if not quite forgotten by former occupants. But it is a rare day when I find an abandoned downtown – or at least the historic commercial core of a once-thriving river port.

The ghost block of downtown Dover, Kentucky.

The ghost block of downtown Dover, Kentucky.

I’m enchanted by Kentucky’s small river towns. Whenever I have the opportunity, I detour to see what remains, and am usually greeted by a handful of residences, some churches, and a woebegone frame grocery store or post office. I wasn’t prepared for the size of Dover, nor for the anguish of seeing four impressive brick buildings, daylight streaming in from the collapsed rear wall at their backs, on Dover’s Market Street.

The town of Dover, Kentucky, as depicted in the 1876 Mason County Atlas, prodcued by Lake, Griffing, and Stevenson of Philadelphia.

The town of Dover, Kentucky, as depicted in the 1876 Mason County Atlas, produced by Lake, Griffing, and Stevenson of Philadelphia.

Located at the very northern tip of Mason County, northwest of the county seat of Maysville, the town of Dover traces its beginnings, like so many Kentucky communities, to a Virginia surveyor. Arthur Fox Jr, a native of Virginia, acquired 2,200 ares of rich bottom land on the Ohio River from his father, and settled in the Dover vicinty in the early 19th century. Fox helped lay out a town in 1818 named for Dover, England, the ancestral home of his family. The Dover post office opened just five years later, and in 1836, the town was officially chartered.

A mid-19th century commercial/residential building in Dover.

An abandoned mid-19th century commercial/residential building on Market Street in Dover. The window and door arrangement on the first floor suggests it had a dual purpose (dwelling and store? Tavern and hotel?). The style is that of the transitional vernacular Federal/Greek Revival so popular in rural Kentucky.

The river fueled early growth in Dover, and the coming of the Maysville and Big Sandy Railway in the 1880s further ensured what looked like a profitable future for the town. The 1876 Atlas shows some 279 lots in Dover, two tobacco warehouses, a mill, a brick yard, a hotel (Helatt Tavern, one of the earliest hostels, burned in 1854), and numerous blacksmiths and merchants.

The late-19th century commercial building on the left

The late-19th century commercial building on the left was used as a grocery store and gas station in 1983. Its the cast iron storefront (on the first floor) was manufactured by the George Mesker Company in Evansville, Indiana.

The morning I wandered along Market Street, the only bustling came from some busy chickens in nearby yards. A few cats lolled in the lemony sunshine, keeping a wary (yet disinterested) eye on me. What happened to this block of buildings? Why do they stand, mute sentries to a more prosperous time, their back walls collapsed, light streaming in from all directions?

The same store as pictured above, circa 1983, during brighter day's for Dover's Market Street buildings.

The same store as pictured above, circa 1983, during brighter day’s for Dover’s Market Street buildings.

Natural disasters played their part in shaping the Dover I found – and I must stress that Dover itself is not an abandoned town. A population of roughly 300 calls Dover home, and tidy streets of houses and churches are still very much lived in and loved. The town also retains its post office.

But the commercial core of its wide main street is a haunting, forlorn specter. A tornado in 1968 caused extensive damage in the community, as did the devastating tornado of 1974 that impacted so much of Kentucky. Any river town endures the ravages of floods, and Dover was inundated in time and time again, especially with the epic flood of 1937. Fires, too, destroyed and reshaped the town, including large conflagrations in 1854 and 1875.

These four buildings comprise the abandoned commercial block of Dover's Market Street.

These four buildings comprise the abandoned commercial block of Dover’s Market Street.

Rural towns – like the inner city – have suffered in the decades since suburbanization trilled its siren song, and Urban Renewal followed in its wake, remaking downtowns in a gross parody of efficiency and acquiescence to the automobile. Keeping a rural store open – not to mention making a living from that store – was a tall order as customers moved away, or found their needs met by larger stores miles away.

There are so many questions I can’t begin to answer about this block of buildings, but I’ve seen their kith and kin scattered across the Commonwealth, vestiges of a way of life no longer sustainable in today’s world. No amount of furious dusting could begin to save them all, but I imagine their portraits have danced across many a computer screen long before my early morning sojourn there on Market Street.

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2 Thoughts on “The Abandoned Commercial District of Dover, Mason County, Kentucky

  1. David Ames on May 10, 2016 at 8:01 pm said:

    What a curious rising parapet on the end brick store with corbeled cornice. This post is cool for a newcomer to Ky. On the commercial/residential building, what do you see as evidence on commercial use? As to the Federal/Greek transition, the facade looks pretty Federal and austere to me (does it reflect what Clay calls the “The Geometric Phase?”) The Greek influence I see is the corbelled cornice and shallow roof, and maybe the window frames — can’t see them very well. Am I getting that right? Is this mix typical in Kentucky? I learn a lot from your interpretations keep them coming and thanks.

    • Janie-Rice Brother on May 10, 2016 at 8:23 pm said:

      David, I am guessing on the dual use of that 6-bay building. And you are absolutely right about the different traits of the transitional style. The house pictured in the post today about the NRHP is another transitional Fed/GR – the facade is restrained and Federal (with Flemish bond) but the inside has this gorgeous Greek Revival woodwork. It was a fascinating period in KY, 1830-1850. After about 1855, you start seeing the GR/Italianate blends. The parapet on the store was rebuilt after the 1974 tornado (according to the survey form).

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