• John McGary, Woodford Sun Staff

Historical society building itself a part of history


In 1969, the Woodford County Historical Society paid $10,000 for a 150-yearold building at 121 Rose Hill Avenue that was once a church and later, at least for a while, sort of the opposite. Today, an all-volunteer crew of five (Marti Martin, Eric Petty, Linda Finnell, Harold Lee and Ruth Ann Adams) help visitors learn about their ancestors, their land, and, yes, the history of Woodford County. Most visitors are from Woodford County, but in 2016 alone, they came from at least 18 states to find out more. "When people come in, they think, 'I'm going to look for an hour and so and see what I'm going to find.' Well, some of the old families, they find so much, they stay all day," said Martin. They do their research - often assisted by Martin and company - in a building that is itself a rich piece of Woodford County history. In 1819, the two-story structure was built and named Big Spring Baptist Meetinghouse. Two doors on the Rose Hill Avenue side were used, Petty believes, as separate entrances for men and women. According to a quarterly society newsletter from 2014, guest preacher Alexander Campbell's sermon in 1833 split the congregation, with the Campbellites taking over the church and the Baptists moving elsewhere. The Campbellites outgrew their church and moved to Locust Street in 1855. After that, the building was used for all sorts of purposes: a private girls' school, boarding house, "black funeral home," cabinet shop and a "house of ill favor." The society keeps the lights on and the building climate-controlled with visitor and other donations and a bit of taxpayer-funded and church-provided help. In the last four years, the Versailles City Council contributed $12,000, including $4,000 last year to help pay for a new HVAC unit. Inmates from the Woodford Detention Center, working for the Versailles-Woodford County Parks Department, mow the lawn. Recently, members of Journey Church cleared brush around the back of the building. The council also purchased two bricks for a total of $250 to honor people Versailles Mayor Brian calls "great public servants": Woodford Magistrate Bruce Gill and Versailles City Council Member Gary Jones, both deceased. Those bricks, and others named for and on behalf of donors, are in the front of the building, around the flagpole. Without the five unpaid public servants who keep the building open and help look into other places and people, though, there'd be no Woodford County Historical Society. Martin said she does it, in part, to satisfy her curiosity. "Because researching - it's like a mystery. I like to read mysteries a lot. And researching the past is like solving a mystery," Martin said. Martin said she'd long been interested in genealogy and thought of pursuing it as a career. "But I thought, 'Well, I wouldn't enjoy doing anybody else's.' I do!" she said. When she's not solving the mysteries of others, Martin, who's volunteered there for eight years, has unraveled a few of her own. She learned that her great-great-great-great-grandfather. James Starks, a Midway resident, owned a slave named Henry. When Henry was freed, he took the last name of his former owner and became Henry Starks. Among the others she's helped are those whose legacies are more difficult to research - largely because until 1870, African-Americans weren't counted as people during censuses. Sometimes, they discovered who their great-great-great-greats were - and sometimes, who they were owned by. "There was one that I've done a lot (for) and she went wild. She was so excited," Martin said. On a cool, sunny day last week, a bearded man accompanied by three of his seven children walked inside and asked, "Where should I go to learn about this thing?" Jonathan Donley and his family moved from Lexington to Oregon Road in February, and he was wondering about a building of the sort that American politicians used to claim as birthplaces. "There's a log cabin on it that I'm guessing is early 1800s. The front section of the house looks early to mid-Victorian, and then there's like a 1960s-1970s addition - I'm just guessing at all that information. I just want to figure out if it's right," Donley said. Donley works in construction and wanted to find out more about the cabin, which he plans to transform into a master bedroom. Later in the day, Martin said, "We didn't have much luck in researching the Oregon Road property, but I had a few suggestions for him." She added that she'd forgotten to mention that the society has insurance maps from 1861 and 1877 listing the names of property owners. There are old wills and deeds and school yearbooks and death notices. Much of the data is recorded on microfilm, including old Woodford Sun and other newspapers. The society also operates a website (www.woodfordcountykyhistoricalsociety.com) and has a Facebook page. Upstairs, there are relics ranging from a carriage to miniature models of the old Nonesuch School and Nonesuch Presbyterian Church and pictures of four Union and four Confederate generals from Woodford County. "We're running out of room for things," Petty said. Even the building itself is an object of curiosity to those who don't know its rich history. "You'd be surprised how many people poke their inside and say, 'I did not know what this building was," Petty said. The Woodford County Historical Society is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday - and remember: the door opens inward.

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