Articles & Stories

A Look At Jessamine County's

Features In Its Early Years

Transportation, Agriculture, Mills, Camp Nelson,

Bridges, And Other Aspects

By Verne Cool - 2009

Jessamine County's name is unique, in that it is the only Kentucky county name that isn't masculine. According to a Kentucky Historical Marker, located on the Jessamine County Courthouse lawn in the county's seat of Nicholasville, it isn't known for certain the origin of the name. It could have been the plant jasmine which bloomed profusely along the creeks. The other possibility is that it was named for Miss Jessamine Douglas, daughter of James Douglas, an early surveyor.
Jessamine County was formed in December of 1798 from a portion of Fayette County. Nicholasville was laid out also in 1798, although its first charter was not until 1812. The town was named for George Nicholas, who was the father of the Constitution of Kentucky.
Transportation by horses and buggies or by walking was slow, and the roads were poor or nonexistent at that time.
The Palisades, which are one of the most scenic and beautiful features of the area, made crossing the Kentucky River difficult. The mouths of creeks allowed breaks in the impassable wall along the river. Here a ferry landing could be constructed. Also, some low-water fords were utilized. In the early days of Jessamine County's history the ferries carried livestock, wagons, farm crops, and various merchandise across the river. After the automobile came into the picture, they were usually transported across the river by ferry, especially in times of high water. Today, the Valley View Ferry remains in operation, mainly transporting automobiles. It is the oldest business operating non-stop in Kentucky.
Some areas of the county had roads built and kept up by private owners. These owners charged a fee for using the road. Roads used for detouring around these toll roads were called shun roads. Even today some of the names have stuck, such as Shun Pike.
Early crops consisted of the usual garden crops, as well as fields growing large acreages of corn, oats, wheat, tobacco, hay, and hemp. Hemp thrived here and was of excellent quality. According to a friend of mine, hemp was a very labor intensive crop. He had worked in the hemp fields when he was a young man. He also was employed to break up the plant's fibers for manufacturing into rope and bag fibers. The sturdy bags were used for baling cotton. The growing of hemp began in the 1700s in Kentucky. Growing hemp is curtailed at present; however, I can remember seeing it growing in the fields as recently as the 1940s.
The 1800s were filled with construction of multiple mills along the creeks. Some mills were powered by steam. The most practical and probably the cheapest form of power for the area was water. Water was used to drive both vertical and horizontal wheels. The horizontal wheels lay in the water and didn't require a dam to hold back the water. The vertical wheels did require a dam. The water traveled from the dam through a chute to drive the wheel. The wheels could be either an undershot or an overshot type. Some mills were also powered by oxen. The mills were many and went by names such as Bryan's Mill (later known as Glass's Mill) Grozer's Mill and Hickman's Mill (later called Union Mill) to name a few.
The mills constructed in the 1800s were used for a variety of purposes. Sawmills were powered by water wheels. Some water-powered mills were used as grist mills, which turned huge stones used in grinding wheat and corn. Farmers would load a sack of corn or other grain on their horses and travel to the nearest mill to have it ground. The miller usually ground it on halves. The sack of corn was referred to as a turn of corn. Some mills were paper mills and used rags for the manufacturing of paper. Some of the early mills produced blue paper from these rags. This was before the days of bleaching the materials.
Some iron ore was mined in Jessamine County and transported into Clark County for smelting. Hemp factories, cotton factories, and hat factories were in operation during these early years. Fur was used in the manufacture of hats. The growing of hemp for these factories was an important industry. There was a strong demand for rope and other items made from hemp. According to a local historical marker, Jessamine County was one of three Bluegrass counties which together produced more than half of the hemp grown in the entire country.
In 1793 a former Revolutionary War soldier, Benjamin Netherland, built the Mingo Tavern. It was a well-known landmark in Jessamine County before the establishment of Nicholasville in 1798. In recent years, the stone marking his burial site was discovered near the old Mingo Tavern location. It was moved to the location of the old jail which was built in 1870. It remains there today on its Main Street location.
The pastoral beauty and peace of Jessamine County was shattered by the Civil War, and in 1863 Camp Nelson was established. Camp Nelson was located by the Union on the banks of the Kentucky River. A covered bridge was in place there, where it could be a potential crossing point for Confederate troops. The bridge had been constructed in 1838 and was in excellent condition. The Union forces chose the location for Camp Nelson because of the major road and crossing point. They proceeded to guard both Jessamine and Garrard County sides of the bridge. The only poorly defensible side of the Camp was the side facing north. Here they set up their major line of defense. The Kentucky River, Hickman Creek, and the Palisades (limestone cliffs) guarded the other sides.
Camp Nelson was a supply depot for the Union forces. It was also a recruiting and training camp for black soldiers, as well as a defense point for stopping Confederate movement north; however, the Confederates never reached Camp Nelson. The fact that the camp was there possibly stopped their venturing into Jessamine County by way of the bridge.
After the Civil War, all of the buildings at Camp Nelson were dismantled and removed, except for the officers' quarters. This was the Oliver Perry House and widely known as the White House.
Transportation into Jessamine County improved after the war. People no longer had to depend on low-water fords, ferries, and small bridges for access to Jessamine County from the south.
The highest bridge in the country, at the time of its construction, was built near Shaker Landing. This bridge was built in 1876 and was known as High Bridge. High Bridge was a railroad bridge.
Previously, in 1871, Brooklyn Bridge was built across the Kentucky River near Wilmore and upstream from High Bridge. Brooklyn Bridge was used by horses, buggies, and automobile traffic. This allowed easier access to Mercer and other nearby counties.
About 1890 industry and human commerce relations were greatly improved by the construction of the Riney-B Railroad across the Kentucky River near the Valley View Ferry landing. This connected Jessamine and Madison counties, and it was used until 1932. The bridge was dismantled for the metal. The bridge piers can be seen today from the river on the Valley View Ferry.
Nicholasville, even today, shows the influence of the early years. The architecture of the buildings on Main Street is reminiscent of the 1800s. The Sparks building, which was built in 1881, along with some other buildings on Main Street has been preserved. The buildings precede the courthouse lawn which exhibits a statue of a Confederate soldier. On nearby streets and in rural areas, churches dating back to the 1800s are in existence yet. The small creek which flows through the town is probably fed by the springs which originally decided the town's location.
Today, nearby Wilmore has flourished, boasting of a city council form of government. It has the usual necessary types of businesses such as stores, restaurants, and medical treatment. Wilmore also is home to nationally-known Asbury College and Asbury Theological Seminary.
Jessamine County has moved into the new century with increased modern development and expansion. In spite of this, the county proudly retains much of its proof of the important early years. It is of vital importance to not lose the history and these reminders of the early years.

Verne Cool, 201 Orchard Drive, Apt. 11, Nicholasville, KY 40356, shares this article and photos with our readers

To view stories such as this one and many others with accompanying photos, subscribe to The Kentucky Explorer.