Gardens to Gables

Wandering Woodburn: A Warren County, Kentucky Treasure

It’s been years since anxiety gripped me about getting lost in Kentucky. Back when I succumbed to those fears, it was my driving skills that should have caused nervousness, not the likelihood that a wrong turn would result in me getting hopelessly lost for days. County roads meander like a crop of morning glories across our rural state, and such fortuitous discoveries usually await along their path – such was the case with the wandering community of Woodburn in southwestern Warren County, Kentucky.

The survivors of what was once a thriving commercial square in Woodburn, Kentucky.

The survivors of what was once a thriving commercial square in Woodburn, Kentucky. The mayor of Woodburn expressed dismay that this handsome two-story brick building (once a grocery) was not in use and deteriorating. It seems to me it could be a great adaptive reuse project –  maybe a destination restaurant?

I needed to stretch my legs after a few hours in the car, so en route to Simpson County, Kentucky, I departed US Highway 31 in favor of smaller roads, hoping for a spot brimming with history, interesting buildings, and maybe a sidewalk (my needs are small). Woodburn, located about eight miles south of the county seat of Bowling Green, greeted me and provided the perfect respite from the road. Incorporated in 1866, the community was originally located along the Louisville and Nashville Turnpike. The completion of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad in 1859, however, prompted a gradual move of the town one-half mile to the east to take advantage of the new transportation route.

Woodburn, as seen on the 1877 Atlas of Warren County, Kentucky.

Woodburn, as seen on the 1877 Atlas of Warren County, Kentucky. The streets have changed somewhat, as Main and Market Streets are not now parallel to one another.

Supposedly named after a fire in the 19th century that destroyed much of the surrounding woodland, Woodburn prospered from its neighboring railroad. A stockyards, commercial buildings, and depot clustered around a small park in the center of the town. In 1862, Confederates troops set the depot ablaze; the resulting conflagration caused the Shakers at South Union to note in their community journal that”Woodburn has been fired by the Rebels and we can see the dark smoke rolling up in huge columns.”[1] The rebuilt depot didn’t last long – it burned again in 1864, and wisely, the L&N waited until 1869 to build yet again. Sadly, the depot remains locked in history, as no version of the building is standing.

Looking northeast up Main Street, toward Route 240 (Woodburn Allen Springs Road).

Looking northeast up Main Street, toward Route 240 (Woodburn Allen Springs Road).

An 1876 directory of businesses in Warren County states that Woodburn was home to two hotels, five mercantile stores. two blacksmiths, a shoemaker, a saddle maker, an undertaker, two carriage and plow makers, three doctors, and two saloons. Historically, there were five churches in the community, including two African-American churches: First Baptist Church (established 1866) and St. Paul’s AME. According to a brief conversation I had with Woodburn’s mayor, I arrived too late (a common refrain when I travel across Kentucky) to see the historic Presbyterian Church, now an empty lot.

Despite the loss of several commercial buildings and churches, a number of historic dwellings remain in Woodburn. This pyramidal early 20th century cottage (clad in rolled asphalt siding meant to look like brick) has a wonderfully inviting wrap-around porch.

Despite the loss of several commercial buildings and churches, a number of historic dwellings remain in Woodburn. This pyramidal early 20th century cottage (clad in rolled asphalt siding meant to look like brick) has a wonderfully inviting wrap-around porch.

There were a number of schools in Woodburn, and during the 1930s, the girl’s basketball team was legendary, winning the state championship in 1931 and 1932. Woodburn was the first consolidated school in Warren County, drawing in a number of nearby one and two room schools into a large brick building constructed in 1915. Fire took the school in 1941, and shortly thereafter, the school bus transported Woodburn’s students to larger schools in the county. Although the post office still operates, the demise of the local school had the same negative effect on Woodburn as on countless communities across Kentucky…the combination of the Great Depression and loss of the school pulled at the heart of the community, and little by little, it dwindled.

The Woodburn School, circa 1940. Photo courtesy http://www.warrencountygov.com/PhotoGallery?page=0

The Woodburn School, circa 1940. Photo courtesy http://www.warrencountygov.com/PhotoGallery?page=0

But the residential district remains impressive, and not only was there a sidewalk, there were several houses that caused my heart to flutter and daydreams to bubble. At the end of Main Street, my eyes widened at the sight of the William Robb House, a frame side-passage dwelling dating to around 1869. The two-story portico highlights the tall and narrow profile of the dwelling, built for prominent physician Dr. W.D. Robb, who practiced in Woodburn.

The William Robb House originally had arched second story windows, but the portico with its balcony is original.

The William Robb House originally had arched second story windows, but the portico with its balcony is original.

A number of early 20th century dwellings are located on Clark Street, forming a very tidy linear pattern that reinforces the sense of a small town. Clouds roiled in the sky as I walked around, making for perfect walking and documenting conditions. I wished I had allotted more time to my brief stop. (My tendency is to take photographs of absolutely everything, and while digital cameras make that incredibly easy, it still means time…and I had other places to go.) Woodburn has spread over the years, and while some buildings have been lost, the cluster of structures within the original village brimmed with potential stories, as did the farms on the outskirts. Sometimes, though, I can only capture a glimpse of a place, and must move on – but Woodburn, Kentucky, wanderer from road to railroad, is a spot to which I would very much like to return.

Woodburn thrived from the late-19th century through the 1920s. A handful of bungalows stand testament to the continuing development in the area, and this was one of my favorites.

Woodburn thrived from the late-19th century through the 1920s. A handful of bungalows stand testament to the continuing development in the area, and this was one of my favorites.

[1] Jeffrey, Jonathan, “Woodburn, Kentucky” (2003). DLSC Faculty Publications. Paper 15.
http://digitalcommons.wku.edu/dlsc_fac_pub/15

Print Friendly

One Thought on “Wandering Woodburn: A Warren County, Kentucky Treasure

  1. I enjoyed this post. Was particularly interested in the house with the wrap around porch since I live in one similar in Lexington. I’ve never seen this style anywhere else in the country, but it is all over Lexington and I have not been able to find out any info about it.

Post Navigation