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.
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.
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.” 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 Jeffrey, Jonathan, “Woodburn, Kentucky” (2003). DLSC Faculty Publications. Paper 15.