There is a small wooden chair in the front hall of my childhood home. Made of cherry or walnut, it is a nice little chair, but unremarkable except for its story. From an early age, I knew the chair traveled strapped to a horse through the Cumberland Gap in the 18th century. I fervently wanted that chair (like a Disney movie) to animate, and tell me about that journey. My willpower, unfortunately, did not compel the chair to break into song or speech, so I made up my own stories (likely much more romantic and exciting than the reality). Today, I satisfy my curiosity with detours to places like Pineville, Kentucky.
The valley in which Pineville lies served as the interstate highway of its day, ushering in families from Virginia and North Carolina looking for fertile land in the ever-reaching westward expansion. Located on the west bank of the Cumberland River, Pineville originally went by the name “Cumberland Ford.” Little construction transpired, though, until after the Civil War, and the formation of Bell County in 1867.
Initially settled in 1781, (only seven years after Harrodsburg, Kentucky) the county seat town of Pineville is nonetheless a young town (architecturally) for all of its history. The town was platted and laid out in 1888 by the Pine Mountain Iron and Coal Company. The Bell National Bank Building, a handsome Romanesque/Classical Revival stone and brick structure, is one of the oldest buildings left in the courthouse square. The Comptroller of the Currency approved the Bell National Bank’s application to organize as a national bank in 1904 – the man filing the application was J.R. Rice (which made me chuckle, though I have no idea if there is any relation).
I found the early 20th century buildings in the courthouse square just stunning. The three-story Masonic Temple, designed by Thomas Nolan, dates to 1921, and is a stripped down, “modern” interpretation of an imposing temple. Down the street is a handsome Craftsman Commercial Building known as the Asher Building, erected between 1916-1920.
The 1930s saw the introduction of the Art Deco/Moderne style to Pineville, with the construction of the Bell Theater. So many Kentucky towns tore down their early 20th century theaters (or else dramatically remodeled the buildings), and I was thrilled to see the Bell Theater maintains its marquee and ticket booth.
The Great Depression slowed the growth of Pineville in the 1930s, but the town, like much of Eastern Kentucky, benefited from the programs of the New Deal. Bridges, roads, trails – and buildings – many handsome stone buildings serving as schools or municipal offices were built across Eastern Kentucky in the 1940s. Pineville’s former City Hall was built in 1941 by the National Youth Administration, designed to help the “nation’s youth stay in school and gain meaningful employment and vocational training during the Great Depression.”
The ensuing years have changed the facade of the City Hall building, but the Bell County Jail, constructed by the Works Progress Administration, maintains its original form and overall appearance.
Pineville’s courthouse square, one of the last such plans laid out in the Commonwealth, suffered a tornado in 1890, demolitions in the 1970s, and an 1986 fire, but is still remarkably intact. My family’s passage through the Cumberland Gap provided an excuse to visit the town while en route to another location for work, but I didn’t expect to find much of the 18th century lingering in the valley. Mineral extraction, both coal and timber, provided the stimulus for growth in Pineville in the late-19th century, and reshaped the natural landscape in the 20th. I don’t need any excuse to take a detour and explore a town or crossroads, or peer through a field at a lone chimney – all of these excursions make me a better student of the Kentucky I love.
 Rachel Kennedy and Cynthia Johnson. “The New Deal Builds: A Historic Context of the New Deal in East Kentucky, 1933 to 1943.”