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.
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.
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.
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 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?
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.
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.