Boone County: A Historic Overview
Located in the largest bend of the Ohio River, a few miles downstream from Cincinnati, Boone County is the northernmost county in Kentucky. For forty-two miles the Ohio River bounds the county on the north and west. As in most sections of the outer Bluegrass Region of Kentucky, the land in Boone County is gently rolling to steeply hilly. Historically, Boone County's economy was driven by agriculture, with corn, soybeans, produce, tobacco, and livestock being the principal cash crops. The land is drained by numerous small streams that flow west and north into the Ohio River from headwaters along the Great Ridge, or Dry Ridge Divide. The Dry Ridge Divide runs north-south just inside the eastern boundary of the county and has long served as both an ancient and modern transportation corridor (today's U.S. 25 or Dixie Highway) connecting Cincinnati and Lexington. The development of the airport in Boone County in 1947 and Interstate 71/75 in the 1960s accelerated the suburban growth that began about 1950. Today, residential, commercial, and industrial development is changing the rural landscape of Boone County.
The Earliest Days
Boone County has a significant prehistoric heritage. Glacial activity from long ago left substantial gravel and limestone deposits along today's Ohio River as well as natural wonders formed from glacial outwash such as Split Rock, at the mouth of Woolper Creek, and Boone Cliffs, along Middle Creek. Archaeological research has demonstrated that Boone County has been populated for thousands of years. Prehistoric Indian burial mounds, villages, and hunting sites are located throughout the county along the river and creeks as well as in the uplands. Today's town of Petersburg, for example, was a large late prehistoric village site with at least two periods of habitation dating to c. 1150 A.D. and c. 1400 A.D.
The prehistoric Indian cultures who inhabited Boone County may well have been the ancestors of those Indians popularly known as Native Americans. Perhaps the first European to visit Boone County was a Frenchman who sailed down the Ohio River in 1729. He highlighted Boone County on his chart with an inscription in French that translates "where they found the bones of an elephant." Thus, Big Bone Lick became one of the wonders of the world. That Frenchman was followed a decade later by Captain Charles de Longueil who was credited with the first investigation of the Big Bone Lick area. His account of the huge bones of prehistoric mammals provided incentive for further exploration, and attracted the attention of the British and early American colonists. The salt deposits at Big Bone Lick had long been known to the American Indians and, in 1755, Mary Draper Ingles, the first recorded Euro-American woman to visit this region, escaped from her Shawnee and French captors while they were boiling water from the lick to make salt.France claimed the Ohio Valley until the end of the French and Indian War. A veteran of that war, Captain Thomas Bullitt, led surveyors to this territory in 1773 when it was a part of Fincastle County, Virginia. In 1789, over a decade after the first settlement in central Kentucky, John Tanner, a Baptist preacher from North Carolina, established Tanner's Station, now known as Petersburg, along the Ohio River. Tanner's Station was the first formal settlement in what would shortly become Boone County. The community's name was changed to Petersburg in 1814. Soon other pioneers occupied tracts of land above and below Tanner's Station. Many came from central Kentucky, from what is now Woodford and Scott counties, and in 1794 seven people founded the Bullittsburg Baptist Church in the North Bend Bottoms area up river from Tanner's Station. Bullittsburg Baptist Church is the longest continuously active church in the county, still holding worship services in their 1819 sanctuary. Within a few years, other settlers came to this area from central Kentucky, perhaps with some knowledge that a new county would soon be formed. In c. 1797 Cave Johnson arrived and made his home along the Ohio River in North Bend Bottoms. Johnson built an impressive brick home (still in existence and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988), became Boone County's first County Clerk in 1799, and spent time visiting his friend, and future President, William Henry Harrison who lived across the river. Other early settlers such as Captain Jacob Piatt and Captain John Brown, both of whom were Revolutionary War veterans from New Jersey, received or bought land grants given for service during the war for independence.
Boone County Established
When Boone County was officially established in 1799 (having been created by
the Kentucky Legislature in 1798), less than two hundred men owned all of the land in the County and the population of the County was approximately 1500. On June 17, 1799 the first county court, held at the William Cave home in North Bend Bottoms, decided to locate the county seat on a seventy-four acre site donated by Robert Johnson and John Hawkins Craig in the north-central part of the county. The town, originally known as Craig's Camp, was initially named Wilmington and, at the request of the Post Office, renamed Burlington in 1816. In January of 1801, the Boone County Court Order Book notes that "... Court [was] held for the County of Boone at the Courthouse . . ." after having met for over a year at homes in and around the county seat. According to early reports, this Courthouse was a log building and was used for sixteen years until a large brick structure, facing Jefferson Street, was completed in 1817. After being remodeled several times, this courthouse was demolished and, in 1889, Boone County built its third courthouse, still in use today. Many pioneers arriving during this first period of settlement migrated from Virginia. Many were of northern German ancestry and came from the Germanna communities in Culpepper and Madison counties of Virginia. Eleven people from that part of Virginia arrived in Boone County in November 1805 under the leadership of Ephraim Tanner. The following year, they organized the Hopeful Lutheran Church in the east-central part of the county. Other families came after them and settled in Florence and Hebron (named after Hebron, Virginia), eventually establishing the Mt. Zion and Hebron Lutheran Churches. In the northern part of Boone County immigrants from southwestern Germany settled among the steeply wooded hillsides and fertile floodplains along the Ohio River where the landscape is very similar to the Rhine Valley in Germany.
Ohio River Influence
In its earliest days, Boone County prospered largely because of the Ohio River that forms its northern and western boundaries. At one time there were six major ferry crossings to the opposite shores of Ohio and Indiana, and at least as many shipping points with warehouses. The c. 1817 Anderson Ferry at Constance, along the county's northern river edge, has been in continuous year-round operation for almost two hundred years and is today one of only three full-time ferry operations remaining along the entire stretch of the Ohio River.Nineteenth century agricultural activity in Boone County was dominated by largely subsistence farming but a surplus of goods produced and easy access to river shipping routes provided the opportunity for extra income. The floodplain fields in East Bend Bottoms and North Bend Bottoms feature rich soils and continue to be the sites of some of Boone County's largest twentieth century farms. Most nineteenth century farms were 50-150 acres and had diversified production that included row crops, livestock, a dairy herd, and a tobacco base. Larger farms sometimes specialized in raising imported stock with prized bloodlines. The twentieth century truck farms of North Bend Bottoms (also known as the "fruit belt") have given way to popular farm markets along scenic Route 8. These markets continue to provide locally grown produce and flowers to the surrounding urban population and are a growing tourist destination.Early county industrial activity included distilleries at Petersburg and Hamilton, and the building of steamboats at Big Bone and Belleview. Inland, the waters of Gunpowder, Woolper, Middle, Mud Lick and other creeks were harnessed by the development of grist mills, grinding corn to meal and wheat to flour. Blacksmiths, sawmills, and general stores flourished at crossroads communities serving neighboring farmers who cleared forests and cultivated grain in the rich soil.
Petersburg was the largest community in Boone County until the Civil War and the coming of the railroad. The town featured a well laid-out grid street plan, the large Boone County Distilling Company, several other smaller industries, two inns, many active community businesses and a bustling riverfront. Petersburg retains many fine examples of early Boone County building traditions, both residential and commercial.
Further south in Boone County, other familiar communities had their beginnings as well. In the mid-1790s, Archibald Reid was active in the early government of Campbell County (founded in 1795), and owned considerable land near today's Walton. Reid became one of Boone County's first justices in 1799. He also apparently established a distillery and a tavern house. Abner Gaines purchased the property from Reid in c.1813. Gaines continued to operate a tavern and inn, building a striking new house, preserved today, in c. 1814. Abner Gaines was a Boone County Justice from 1805 to 1817, at which time he was appointed Sheriff. Gaines also became the proprietor of the first stagecoach line that carried mail and passengers between Cincinnati and Lexington; a thirty-four hour trip in 1818. His oldest son, James Matthews Gaines, became the first postmaster for the community referred to as Gaines Cross Roads in 1815. The Kentucky Legislature renamed the town Walton in 1840. In the central part of Boone County, the Aylor, Fowler, Stansifers and Steers families were among those contributing to the early settlement of the Union area along Fowler's Branch of Gunpowder Creek. In c. 1817 Benjamin Piatt Fowler built a magnificent stone house on part of his father's 5000 acres and, in 1818, Revolutionary War veteran Hugh Steers (buried on the eighteenth green of today's Lassing Pointe Golf Course), donated land for the Bethel Baptist Church on Frogtown Road. Union developed at the crossroads of the Covington-Louisville Road and the Gaines Old Stand-Visalia Road and was designated a United States Post Office in 1830. The early farms had ready access to the Ohio River and its river markets, and most appear to have thrived in nineteenth century Boone County. The towns along the river, such as Constance, Taylorsport, Petersburg, Belleview , and Rabbit Hash, however, failed to develop as trade centers for the interior of the state. They instead became specialized centers for cross-river ferry traffic, post offices, general stores and businesses that served the needs of the surrounding rural population. The fertile floodplain along the Ohio River in Boone County seems to have attracted those settlers who were more interested in agriculture than in commerce, but there are other reasons, including geography and the nearby development of Cincinnati, for the lack of commercial growth in Boone County.
Despite Boone County's proximity to Cincinnati, its nineteenth century development was largely isolated from that of its more urban neighbor. Early in its history, Cincinnati became the chief metropolitan focus for the central Ohio River Valley because of the reputation as a fortified settlement offering protection from Indian attacks, its role as a stopping point for westward bound settlers, and the feature of a large floodplain, suitable for expansion. The population of Cincinnati in 1800 was 750 while that of Boone County was 1,534 but, between 1800 and 1820, the population of Cincinnati took the lead.The Kentucky cities along the Ohio River that became successful gateways to central Kentucky were either closer to the geographic center of the state, such as Maysville and Carrollton, or opposite the Ohio from Cincinnati, such as Newport and Covington. Even Boone County's potential advantage of having a major transportation corridor, the Dry Ridge Divide, pass through its border seems to have had a minimal effect on the county's economic growth until recent years.In the mid-nineteenth century, the southern part of Boone County saw an influx of Irish immigrants who were no doubt escaping the famine in Ireland. A substantial Irish population developed in Verona, where the newly arrived Boone Countians established St. Patrick's Catholic Church. The skilled Irish craftsmen may have constructed many of the stone fences once prominent along southern county turnpikes. Boone County's Irish- Americans became prosperous in their new home and contributed much to the heritage of southern Boone County.Florence, a major crossroads community, was established at the intersection of roads from Covington to Louisville and Lexington. Ten miles from Covington, it eventually became the first stagecoach stop on the trip south. In the early years of development, Florence was known as Crossroads, Polecat, Maddensville, and finally Connersville, under which a Post Office was established in 1828. The Post Office again caused the name of the community to change, and it became Florence in 1830. The Covington and Lexington Turnpike brought a tremendous amount of traffic through Florence and its nickname of "Stringtown" may well refer to the many businesses and services that sprung up along the turnpike. The mid- to late twentieth century brought tremendous growth to Florence as it became a regional commercial and retail hub.
The Civil War Years
Relative to its population in the years preceding the Civil War, Boone County had a fairly large slave population. In 1800, the Boone County population consisted of 1194 whites, 325 slaves and 15 free blacks. Local families generally owned less than ten slaves and master and slave often worked side by side on Boone County farms. Although poor treatment of slaves as well as the obvious burden of enforced servitude is a documented fact, some slaves in Boone County appear to have been considered trusted members of the family. Skilled black workers crafted many historic homes, barns and outbuildings in Boone County.
Boone County participated in the horrors of the Civil War. Although Kentucky was officially neutral, men from the county served on both sides of the conflict. During the War there were two brief skirmishes in Boone County, one at Florence in 1862 and one at Snow's Pond near Walton in 1863. Also in 1863, the famous Confederate General John Hunt Morgan came through Boone County after his escape from a Columbus, Ohio prison. Generally speaking, after the War, men who had fought against each other for five years returned home and once again became neighbors, fellow church members, and friends.As was the case in many communities throughout the country, the women of Boone County kept families and farmsteads together during the long years of the Civil War. The women took on added responsibilities and dealt with the loss, crippling, and poor health of husbands, fathers, brothers and sons returning from the War. Some widows or spinsters, such as Julia Dinsmore, successfully operated large farms. Miss Julia, as she was known, inherited her farm, with its 1842 home, numerous outbuildings, and family cemetery, from her father, James Dinsmore. The farm was home to five generations of the Dinsmore family before becoming a non-profit museum in 1988. Fully and originally furnished and well preserved, the Dinsmore Homestead is an excellent example of upper middle class life in nineteenth century Boone County.
A Changing Landscape
With the completion of the first rail lines through the county in 1869, the town of Walton held great promise as the county's primary railroad community. By the late nineteenth century, it was the Boone County's largest city with a population of 538. The architectural landscape of Walton is an excellent showcase for building styles and innovations that were popular around the turn of the century and into the 1920s. Walton's downtown has suffered several disastrous fires, including one in 1876, another in the early twentieth century, a third in 1971 and, finally, the loss of the former City Building in 1983. Walton has the positive distinction of being home to the first county high school, established in 1901, currently in active use as apartments. A recent Main Street revitalization effort has brought new life to Walton as well as a deeper recognition of its distinctive heritage.Throughout Boone County, many small communities were centered around churches, schools, grange stores and low key commercial concerns. Some small communities, such as Devon, Landing, Hume and Hamilton, were even official Post Office sites while towns such as Berkshire, Grange Hall, Gunpowder, and Gainesville are only names on the back of an old picture, part of family legends or simply a memory. Some Boone County communities retain their sense of identity even though commercial activity has long since disappeared; among those are Bullittsville, Beaver, Francisville, Big Bone, and Limaburg. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, young and old left Boone County farms for work in the city, and shopping "over the river" became the popular thing to do as the railroad through Richwood, Walton and Verona offered extensive passenger schedules. When the new school was built in Verona in 1914, students from the counties to the south would ride the train daily to attend classes. In the late 1880s, the town of Erlanger was established across the county line from Florence. The railroad promoted the sale of land near its right-of-way, and Florence's population fell 24 percent at the turn of the century, and remained so until 1930. With the advent of automobile, long, tiresome journeys to the city, over the river road through Constance or the Dixie Highway through Florence, became short and enjoyable. It became possible to work in the city and live in Boone County. It was the beginning of a new era.
The Recent Years
The population of Boone County grew slowly between the Civil War and the 1890s and then declined slowly until the great population surge that began in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The average farm size fluctuated little throughout the twentieth century from 93 acres in 1900 to 102 acres in 1969. Today, county acreage devoted to agriculture is steadily decreasing. Despite rapid development, the horse community in Boone County continues to grow, and the County can rightfully claim to be Greater Cincinnati's horse country. In 1946 the Cincinnati Airport was dedicated in northeastern Boone County, although it is owned and operated by Kenton County. The population of Boone County grew by twenty percent from 1940 to 1950. With the construction of Interstates 71 and 75 in the late 1960s, Boone County became one of the fastest growing counties in the nation. Based on the 2010 census figures, Boone County is still one of the fastest growing counties in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.The last half of the twentieth century has been a time of tremendous change for Boone County. There are three incorporated cities, Florence, Union and Walton, but much of the county is unincorporated, including the county seat of Burlington. The twenty-first century will be an exciting time for Boone County. The county's geographical diversity provides an excellent quality of life and every indication is that Boone County will continue to grow and prosper.