Martinsville, Warren County's Lost City

By Victor Moulder - Early 1900s
Smith's Grove Gazette

We have read stories how, in ancient times, cities were obliterated and their identities lost. In our new and progressive America, very few places that ever grew to any size have been entirely deserted, and their very existence almost forgotten. So far as the modern history of our state is concerned, there is only one place in Kentucky which reached the proportions of a city and passed from the memory of man: Martinsville.

This city, at one time, could boast of her 300 residences, her fleets of flatboats that plied the river, her great warehouses and immense shipping, and her 1,000 souls within her limits.

With overflowing storehouses, surrounded by thousands of acres of the most fertile farming lands in the world, this ill-fated city declined and gradually passed from the shores of the quick into the haven of the dead.

Martinsville was founded in the spring of 1785. It was located on the north bank of the Barren River, in Warren County, some 20 miles east of Bowling Green. The place was first settled and took its name from Hut Martin, a hardy pioneer accustomed to the vicissitudes of frontier life. He was a native of Virginia, who came to Kentucky in 1777 and settled at Boonesboro. He was a friend and companion of Daniel Boone, and materially aided that great explorer in conquering the wilderness and opening to civilization a vast domain of untold wealth.

In the fall of 1777, Boone, Martin, McFaddin, and others left the infant settlement at Boonesboro and set out on a journey into the wilds of the unexplored West. They crossed the divide; passed through what are now Green, Adair, Cumberland, and Barren Counties; and came to the Indian house on the Barren River in Warren County. From that point, they scoured the larger part of Warren and Allen Counties in quest of game.

In December, they returned to Boonesboro, where they were compelled to remain for some time, on account of the hostility of the Indians. During the interim, Martin kept his mind's eye on the fertile valley down on the beautiful "Wah-ri-he" (Barren) River, determined to journey thither, as soon as the disturbed state of the natives would allow.

Accordingly, in March 1785, he put his resolutions into effect and set out with his family and possessions in a caravan train for the shores of the "Wah-ri-he." With him came Andrew McFaddin, Stephen Claypool, Charles Dabney, and 15 other families.

McFaddin settled on the Barren River, four miles east of the present city of Bowling Green. His place was known as "McFaddin's Station" and was located on the farm now owned by Mr. Emmet Logan. Ruins of this old station are still visible. Claypool settled on the south side of the river, one mile from Martinsville. Dabney took up land in "the Bend," four miles above Martinsville.

In all, 17 grants were issued in 1785 by Patrick Henry, who was then Governor of Virginia, to settlers on the Barren River in the "County of Kentucky." Of all of these original patents, only one, that of Charles Dabney, dated at Richmond, Virginia, October 2, 1785, and bearing the signature of Patrick Henry, is known to be extant.

Hut Martin settled on the north bluff of the river, above the large spring, which is known today as Martinsville Spring. Four other families built their cabins on lots, or grants, adjoining Martin's, thus forming the nucleus for a village.

The new settlers were prosperous from the start, and during the next few years, immigrants poured into the settlement, steadily. In 1790, Martinsville had grown from a stockade of four cabins to a town of 300 inhabitants. Game was abundant, and the soil yielded bountiful harvests. Corn and tobacco were the chief products. Flatboats were built, and these valuable commodities were shipped by water to New Orleans. The little village on the hill, above Barren River, soon became a busy mart, and in the year 1799, had a population of 600 souls. Over 300 flatboats were loaded and floated from that point to New Orleans annually.

McFaddin's and Claypool's Stations, while of considerable importance, were left far behind in the race as commercial centers, with their sister settlement at Martinsville. In 1800, Martinsville was the metropolis of Warren County, and with a steadily increasing population, promised to be the place of first importance in Southwestern Kentucky.

Wealth continued to pour into the coffers of the industrious husbandmen and the staunch captains of the river craft. Business increased as the population increased. Large warehouses were built, substantial residences were erected, and more boats were launched. The index pointed toward prosperity and happiness. Those were the golden days; the days of peace, health, and plenty. Soon after the death of Martin, the founder of the city, other old pioneers passed away in rapid succession. The energy of the people was broken.

One by one, the fleet of flatboats sank to the bottom of the river to rot. One by one, the people perished. Houses were deserted, and the homes of a once-happy people became resting places for bats and owls. The hum and whirr of busy workmen was heard no more. Business was paralyzed, and the river ceased to carry its freight. Dissolution and ruin seized the place, which men said was "scourged of God." The buildings crumbled and fell. The streets became a garden of weeds.

In 1860, a party of roisters dared to face the spooks, which walked abroad in the desolate places. After a night of revelry, they tore the old Martin residence and warehouse from their foundation stones. Not a house was left in the once populous city of Martinsville.

Today, only the gloomy graveyard and piles of debris remain to mark the old town site.

Patsy Ground Lee, 2147 Pondsville, Smith's Grove, KY 42171, shares this story written by her great-great-uncle, Victor Moulder, in the early 1900s. A family cemetery called Cedarfield, because it was surrounded by cedars, was started by the Moulder family in the 1880s, on land owned by Jacob Moulder, Jr. (the author's father). Many of the Moulder family descendants are buried there today.