By Arthur Dixon
The Mountain Eagle
WHITESBURG, LETCHER COUNTY, KENTUCKY.THURSDAY, OCTOBER 21, 1976
From tiny Summit City to a thriving county seat
The photo of Summit City was furnished us by our good friend, Walter Banks of Whitesburg. The photo was made October 7, 1836 *, six years before there was ever a Whitesburg, and as you know by now Summit City became Whitesburg, Kentucky, in 1842.
In 1842, a request was made to the then Governor, Robert P. Letcher, to establish a new county in Eastern Kentucky. The Governor appointed Nat. Collins, Hiram Hogg and Benjamin Adams to lay out the new county. The Legislature of Kentucky enacted a law providing for the establishment of the new county and part of the Act reads: “That the surveyors of Knox and Clay counties shall be, and they are hereby appointed commissioner, with such assistance as they may deem necessary to employ, to run and mark the boundaries of said county, who shall be allowed two dollars per day for their services whilst engaged in the same, and the assistants shall be allowed one dollar per day for their services, payable out of the county levy of said county.”
After the Commissioners and surveyors had made their report to the Legislature, that body enacted the following law:
“An Act concerning the boundary line of Letcher County.
“Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, That from and after the passage of this act, Letcher County shall be known by the following boundary, viz: Beginning on the top of the Pine Mountain, opposite the house of Samuel Cornett; and then with the top of the dividing ridge between the Linefork and the North Fork of the Kentucky River, to cross said North Fork at the lower end of John Dixon's plantation (the writer's ancestor); and thence a straight line to the mouth of Irishman on Carr's Fork; and thence a straight line to the head of Jones' Fork, at the Floyd County Line, where the road crosses leading from Perry Court House to Prestonsburg; and thence with the Floyd County Line to the Pike County line; and thence with the Pike County line to the Virginia state line; and thence with the Virginia State line to the Sulphur Springs; and thence with a straight line, crossing the Poor Fork of the Cumberland River, at the lower end of John Jenkins' old plantation; and thence a straight line to the beginning; the same being the boundary originally intended and petitioned for, but inaccurately described.”
Thus this new county of Letcher needed a county seat, as provided by the legislature. Several sites were considered, such as Indian Bottom, Colson, Mayking, Ermine and Summit City. Hiram Hogg, who seems to have owned most of the buildings at Summit City, offered to give about ten acres of land to the county if it would locate the county seat at Summit City. The county officials readily accepted this offer and commissioners were appointed to lay out a place for the county buildings, courthouse, jail, etc., and to lay out the balance of the ten acres in lots to be sold to individuals.
The new county seat, formerly called Summit City, was changed to Whitesburg in 1842. It was named for John D. White from Clay County, who was our Congressman at that time.
In 1885 the boundary line of Letcher County was changed somewhat. The Elkhorn and Beefhide sections were taken from Pike County and added to Letcher, and Carrs Fork and the section where Hindman is now located, was taken from Letcher and given to the newly formed Knott County.
In the latter part of 1842, a contract was let to Ephriam Hammonds to build a courthouse. It was to be of hewn logs and was to cost $500. Mr. Hammonds failed to complete the building and the county was forced to put up $400 more and Elder John A. Caudill completed the building. Three other courthouses have been built since that time. We have heretofore dwelt on that subject and will not now repeat it.
Ned Polly took the contract to build the first jail. It was to be built of logs and to cost $100. Mr. Polly was the first jailer of the county, having been appointed until county officials could be regularly elected. The present jail, located up-stairs in the courthouse, is the fourth one to be built.
While the county was having the public buildings erected the court held its meeting in the old Moses Adams log building, located near the mouth of Pert Creek. Accompaning this article is a photo of the building where the first court sessions were held.
The census of 1860 shows Whitesburg with a population of 100. In the election of 1860 only one vote was cast for Abraham Lincoln.
Some of the first postmasters of the new Whitesburg were William Caudill, William B. Stamper, Stephen Caudill, Douglas Vermillion, John M. Burns, Daniel W. May, James W. Vermillion, Robert D. Gibson and Elbert S. Fugate.
When the county seat was first established it was designated “Whitesburgh.” This was on February 10, 1843. This name continued in use until January 7, 1892, when it was changed to the present spelling of Whitesburg. The office was discontinued on November 8, 1865, but was reestablished June 12, 1866. We suppose this was on account of the Civil War.
‘Whitesburgh loses its ‘h’’
The first Circuit Judge to hold court in Whitesburg was Judge Timothy Quarrels; the first Commonwealth Attorneys were John W. Jenkins, A. D. Hale and Ezekial Brashears; the first jailers were Hiram Hogg and Jesse Adams; the first Sheriffs were Samual Francis and Hiram Hogg; the first County Judge for Letcher County was Nathaniel Collins; and the first Assessor was John Whitt Stamper.
The late N. M. Webb, who was the first Editor of The Mountain Eagle, brought that famous journal into existence in 1907. He liked to write about the old town and the old ways of the first settlers who came to this part of Kentucky in about 1800 or earlier. He states that probably the first house built on the grounds of Summit City, “was a lone sentinel that stood on high ground on one side of the toe part of the horse-shoe. The house belonged to Hiram Hogg and was occupied by Andrew Adams, a son of John Adams, the first.”
Mr. Webb goes on to say that the one and only street of the proposed town was stretched across the point. The laying off of the street about 40 feet wide was the first thing the surveyors did after laying off the ten-acre boundary donated by Mr. Hogg to the county. The surveyors began at the upper end of Main Street and laid off around 50 lots, say 25 on each side of the street ???e lots about 100 feet deep ???ed on one side of the bord???? to the ten-acre plot, and on the other side to the river. A boundary line for the courthouse and jail were staked off about the middle of the proposed town. There was no public sale of the lots, so far as the record shows and citizens of the county had their own farms and primitive homes and were reluctant to buy lots and build on them unless they wanted to start businesses of some kind and there was very little necessity for any kind of business. So sale of the lots went extremely slow. A few persons dropped in from the old counties of Perry and Harlan, but most of the strangers came in from the adjorning state of Virginia, some from Tennessee and now and then a man and his family dropped in from North Carolina, buoyed on by stories told them by Daniel Boone of the wonderful opportunities that awaited them in the “Happy Hunting ground of Old Kaintucky.”
There were no lawyers or doctors for some years after the new county seat was established, and outside of a merchant or two, and these dealt almost exclusively in gensing, feathers, hides, pelts, beeswax, wool, wheat and corn, and for these they exchanged coffee, cotton, some sugar, cloth, leather, shoes and a few farming implements and tools. There was little necessity for any housekeeper to go to the store and buy anything, for if he tried he could produce on his farm or from the woods everything he needed for the household.
Money was by no means a necessity and whatever he could hold of was more of a novelty and curiosity than necessary to his life and living. The woods were full of wild game, the creeks and rivers were teeming with fish, honey was readily obtainable from wild bees; deer and bear skins were used a lot for clothing and the heavier hids for moccasins. The women invariaby wove and made their own clothing and knitted their own woolen stockings, as well as woolen socks for the men.
The first house erected after the street was established, was a single room log building on the south side of Main Street where the First Security Bank now stands, (formerly the Jim Frazier brick building). It was erected by Robert Brashear, the grandfather of the late Robert 0. Brashear, who at that time lived near the mouth of Big Leatherwood Creek in Perry County. The log house, just before the Civil War, had an additional room built onto it, two additional rooms were overhead and weatherboarded with lumber
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Whitesburg used to have a Haunted House
cut out at a saw pit on the Wat Long Branch. The late Stephen J. Caudill did the carpenter work. This building was torn down some time later and a brick building erected in its place. When the building was torn down it was found that wooden pegs were used in the original building, and that shop-made nails held the old weatherboarding in place. Up until the middle of the Civil War the old house was the home of Bill Brashear, a son of the builder. The house was built in 1843.
While the above building was in the process of erection, the first courthouse was going up on the public square. Noah Reynolds, a young man and the first brick mason to come to the county, burned the brick on the lot that lies between the new Presbyterian Church and the old Letcher County jail (now the County Health Center). Mr. Reynolds not only burned the brick but built the walls of the old courthouse also. The brick chimneys at each end of the Bill Brashear house were built about the same time by Henry Reynolds, a son of Noah Reynolds, above.
The second house in the old town was built by Noah Green on what is known as the Jim Sarver and Judge Baker (S. E. Baker) property near the river on Main Street (where the Dollar General Store is now located). It, too, was a log affair and was the home of Greer until it passed into other hands. Following the erection of this home Hardy Graves from Russell County, Virginia, bought the lot where the Dawahare store building now stands and built a log house on it. This house stood until the Civil War. The late Dr. Joe McCreary built a then very modern home about where the old Graves building stood. For a long time there was a long stretch of vacant lots between the McCreary home and the old “KY” Hotel (now the R. H. Hobbs building). The old “KY” Hotel, once a very prominent stopping place in the old days stood until it gave way to a number of fine and costly brick buildings which now extend from the Daniel Boone Hotel to the very banks of the North Fork of the Kentucky River.
Along before the Civil War, a man named Tom Strong built a good long residence on the lot where the Daniel Boone Hotel now stands. John A. Craft, formerly a prominent Baptist minister and a former County Judge and County Court Clerk, tore the strong building away and erected about the first modern home on the lot. The home was later shifted down on Eagle Street where it still stands. It served for a time as the residence of deputy jailor, Jim Stamper. The Family Walgreen Drug Store now stands on the corner of a part of this lot, though other buildings used for other purposes stood on the lot.
Passing by the courthouse square we cross Jail Street to the Main Street Service Station, where formerly James H. Frazier had a large store building. On this lot a way back Jonathan Richmond, once a leading merchant of the town, built a long store building with a residence in connection with it. Just below it someone else built an addition which extended down to the corner of the Mart Lewis beautiful brick home (now the Blair Funeral Home). This stretch of buildings was destroyed by fire many years ago. Before the war a good two-room single story log home was erected on the lot where the Mart Lewis home now stands. It was once the residence of Jailer Henry Polly and afterwards the home of W. B. Nickels. This old monument of the town gave place to a nice home erected by the late Sam C. Tyree, the father-in-law of the late Judge R. Monroe Fields. This home was later sold to the Lewis family. Next down the street and where the Kentucky Power Company building now stands was the ancient home of Robert 0. Brashear. From this building on down to the Kentucky River lay a long stretch of lots known as the Ezekiah Brashear or Aunt Minerva Brashear property. Long before the Civil War Ezekiah Brashear, a highly unique man and a great character, came over from Tennessee and became the owner of this wide stretch of land. Down next to the river on the land and facing Main Street, he build a good, hewed-log house. Soon afterward additions were made to it until it became the best known and most popular home and plantation in the town. The Aunt Minerva home stood until about 1908, when it went to the wayside and Dow Collins built the now Steve Frazier residence on it. Only an old barn stood between it and the river. An arrow on the photo of Summit City indicates the location of the R. O. Brashear home. The writer had the privilege to visit Uncle Bob Brashear in his beautiful two-story log building above, about the year 1912 or 1913.
We now trace our steps back to the upper end of North Main Street to the old Greer home, or Judge Baker property (now the Dollar General Store). A number of persons in the old town bought lots but little improvements were made on them. Wm. V. Lusk and others owned the lots on which the brick veneer property stands. Finally Joe Cooley built a home which stood for many years on the property now known as the Federal Building or post office lot. After the Cooley building was razed the late R. B. Bentley built the Dave Hays home on it. On the lot now owned by Wilson Fields (the Craft Department Store building) soon after the Civil War Uncle Solomon Yonts, then Clerk of the County Court, built a little log home. Then on the same lot or lots the late Sam C. Tyree also built a small home. In time these all gave way to other improvements. Farther down the north side of the street stood the Hiram Hogg log house and other small buildings. In time these gave way to the First National Bank Building (now the Bank of Whitesburg) and the Lewis Brothers brick store building as they now stand.
The Moses Adams house, built about 1812, served as Letcher County's first courthouse
Along back before the Civil War a man of prominence and wealth came over from Scott or Russell County, Virginia, and became the owner of the property on which the old brick home of Jim Frazier stands (now First Security Bank). He lived in the home and sold goods in the store before the war and after. Wm. Henderson Nickels, once one of the best known citizens and one of the county's wealthiest men, finally became the owner of the property, and about 1878 built the old brick building on it (the first in the town except the courthouse) and lived in it until it was sold to Jim Frazier. The storehouse built by Mr. Nickels was finally removed out on Webb Avenue where it stood until it was replaced by the Reynolds Furniture Store building.
On the corner of North Main and Webb Avenue for some years has stood a costly brick building known as the State Bank Building. The building was erected by Ira Fields in 1916. The first building erected on this corner was built by the above-mentioned Bob Brashear. It was a two-story log building, erected for his son, Bill Brashear, and to be used as a storehouse and residence. This building stood until around 1885, when it was torn down and a large store building was built by Monroe Webb. In the years following various persons sold goods in it. In 1913 it, with much other valuable property near it and down farther on the street, was destroyed in a very disastrous fire. Another storehouse and post office structure barely escaped destruction. The law office of the late D. D. Fields was also lost in the fire. After this, Mr. Fields built the strong stone building now standing and belonging to W. E. Cook and S. T. Frazier (now partly occupied by attorneys Caudill and Cook).
‘Disastrous fire in 1913’
Many years ago a man by the name of Tom Cassidy built a house on the lot now occupied by S. E. Holcomb (now the old Johnson Hotel Building). The house stood until it, too, was destroyed by fire about 1913. Then Mr. Holcomb built the building as it now stands and was formerly known also as the Johnson Funeral Home. On this same lot one William Helton once built a house and lived in it for many years.
The lot on the corner of Bentley Avenue and Main Street once had a residence built on it and a man lived there until one night he died rather mysteriously, and for many years the house was known as the “Haunted House” and no one would go about it. Finally James P. Maars, a lawyer, who must have been braver than the rest, bought the lot and old house and built a neat modern home on it. About 1909, the late R. B. Bentley, for many years County Court Clerk, became the owner of the lot and all the land back of it and had a neat residence built on it. He died and his widow occupied the home for many years.
All the stretch of land lying from the Bentley residence to the North Fork was once owned by Carter Collins and his wife, Aunt Susan, known as Sookey. Mr. Collins before the war built a good log house on the property, where he lived until during the Civil War when he was shot and killed. His widow occupied the house for long years after the war. In the year 1909 it was bought by the late N. M. Webb, whose son; Woodford Webb, now owns the property, which has a modern stucco building on it, and is one of the finer homes of the town. The present building was erected in 1923. The George Zimmerman home stood on the property between the Webb home and the river. This property is now a parking lot.
There were no doctors in the town, as we know them today. There was a Dr. M. B. Taylor and a Dr. Cox, who went around the country concocting herbs, roots and barks for the healing of the sick. Long ago John Collins, Sam Breeding and Thomas A. Cook got enough funds together to enter medical college and became regular practitioners. Dr. Joe McCray was another one of these. He was a brother of Mrs. Ballard Salyer.
James B. Fitzpatrick, the father of the late Judge John D. Fitzpatrick, James E. Sarver and Judge Burns seem to have been the first lawyers who established regular practice in the town. In the period from 1866 to 1885 the names of numerous lawyers are recorded as practicing here and having to do with the courts. Among these were Judge Randall, Judge Granville Pearl and Bob Boyd, who were frequently here from London, Kentucky. Tom Sawyer was from Somerset; Frank Finley from Williamsburg; Tip Farmer from Pineville; John Dishman and his son Ben, from Barbourville; Giles French from Harlan Court House; David Little from Manchester and James P. Maars from Pike County.
This article would be incomplete without mentioning the first lighting system. Mr. W. C. Daniel, the father-in-law of the late Ercel Day, obtained an old steam boiler, something like a sawmill boiler and rigged it up to generate a little electricity. The power came on about 7:00 or 8:00 o'clock in the morning and remained, unless something happened to the boiler, until 10:00 o'clock at night and that was it. Many times we have seen Mr. Daniel feed and care for the old generator. This light plant was located on the bank of the river where the Boone Motor Company is now located.
In the old days a blacksmith shop was a necessary institution as the blacksmith had to “turn” the corks of the shoes before they could be fitted to the animals. And in those days there were only two modes of travel - by foot and by horse-back. After the old Bob Brashear home was torn down, a man by the name of Gus Harr operated a blacksmith shop in its place. The Kentucky Power building is now located on this site. Mr. Harr married the daughter of R. B. Bentley, who lived straight across the street from his shop.
There is much more that could be written about the old town, first known as “Summit City” but time and space will not permit. Some day we may write an article about the “hanging elm” which stood between the A & P Store and the railroad, and about the “Fitch Bottom” and about the Lewis Field, now the Whitesburg Athletic Field.
* NOTE: The date given for the above photo of Whitesburg/Summit City (ie. October 7, 1836) is doubtful, since the courthouse is clearly visible at left of center in the photo which wasn't built until sometime after early 1844.
Letcher County, KY, Genealogy