Midway News and Views
Every now and again I love to dig into the past and learn about new places; for instance, I have had a long-held curiosity for British history. But it is also intriguing to find out the story behind the town that you live in and the reasons why things are as they are today. To this end, I consulted with Bill and Leslie Penn at the Historic Midway Museum Store for some background on our town. I pinned Bill down to a “Top Ten Facts About Midway” list to really hone-in on the things about Midway that make it interesting to him. He really is quite a historian on Midway, as are former Midway correspondent John McDaniel and others. If you have time, stop by the Museum Store in the middle of Midway; it is worth a visit for the conversation alone about Midway history.
Bill Penn began with the most oft answered question asked about Midway: “Why is it called ‘Midway?”
1. It is both halfway between Lexington and Frankfort and halfway between a potential line from Georgetown and Versailles. Midway was the first town in Kentucky founded by a railroad. The construction of the railroad reached the site of Midway in 1833, but the town was established in 1835.
2. Fincastle surveyors: However, even earlier than that, the area around Midway, on the waters of Lee’s Branch and the South Elkhorn, was first surveyed in 1773-1774, when it was still part of Fincastle County, Virginia. Lee’s Branch was named for Willis Lee, one of the Fincastle surveyors, whose camp was a half mile south of Midway at Lee’s Big Spring. These first surveys were for military grants to British Army officers in the French and Indian War.
3. Lexington and Ohio Railroad: Col. John Francisco purchased property here which figured into the coming of the railroad. The Lexington and Ohio Railroad was incorporated in 1830, one of the first railroads west of the Alleghenies, and opened in 1832, with the cars pulled by horses. A steam locomotive was in use by 1833, the year the railroad reached the site of Midway. But when construction began, Francisco supposedly became angry with the company for damaging his property, and, in 1835, the L & O Railroad bought his 216-acre farm. During the Civil War, guerrillas burned the original depot, which was mid-block on the south side of Railroad Street. After purchasing Francisco’s farm, the L & O Railroad executives decided to lay out a town called Midway.
4. Midway University: The Kentucky Female Orphan School obtained a charter in 1847 from the state legislature to educate orphaned girls to be self-supporting teachers. Since then, it has been a high school, junior college, four-year women’s college, and since 2016, a coeducational school, now Midway University.
5. Southern Railway: Although Midway was founded by an east-west railroad company in the 1830s, which continues to operate as the R. J. Corman Railroad Company passing through downtown, another railroad track, now abandoned, passed through our town in a roughly north-south orientation. This railroad, owned by the Southern Railway System, operated from 1889 to 1940 between Georgetown and Versailles. The Southern depot was by the water tower.
6. Weisenberger Mills: Only a few miles east on Weisenberger Mill Road on South Elkhorn is Weisenberger Mills, founded in 1865, now the oldest continuously operated mill in Kentucky. Some of the original millstones can be seen adjacent to the mill.
7. Early horse farms on Old Frankfort Pike: The Alexander family established Woodburn Farm in 1790. Famous stallions including Lexington and Asteroid were part of what a historian called “the most prestigious stock farm in America.” George Armstrong Custer visited these horse farms and the Midway area in November 1871, looking for horses for his own breeding operation.
8. Civil War in Midway: Three noteworthy events took place in Midway. During the July 1862 First Kentucky Raid, John Hunt Morgan’s raiders detained the Midway telegraph operator at gun point and had his own man telegraph deceptive messages to Union commanders. Some telegraph lines were also cut. In 1864, Sue Mundy and other Confederate guerrillas raided nearby Woodburn, taking many valuable horses. In another raid on Nantura, guerrillas killed Adam Harper, Jr., for which Union General Burbridge ordered four CSA prisoners shot in reprisal. Their “Martyr’s Monument” and graves are in the Midway Cemetery.
9. Lee-Cole Tavern: The tavern at Nugent’s Crossroads near Midway on the Old Frankfort Pike dates to the 1780s-1790s and was built by Major John Lee. The first stagecoach stop was established here in 1804, leased by the Lee family to John Kennedy and William Dailey. Jesse James’ mother, Zerelda (Cole) James, was born in the tavern.
10. Midway Historic Districts: The federal Midway Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, and 176 historic buildings are included within the district boundary. Woodford County also zoned a historic district in Midway’s downtown Main Street business. Other historic districts on the National Register near Midway include Weisenberger Mills, Nugent’s Crossroads Historic District, and Pisgah Rural Historic District.
Bill’s wife Leslie also had some interesting facts about Midway to add one afternoon when I stopped by the store. “It is said that John Hunt Morgan came through Midway and tied a bank teller up in Midway. He then cut the telephone and telegraph lines so the north couldn’t talk to the south,” she said. Interestingly, the statue of J.H. Morgan that used to stand outside the courthouse in downtown Lexington, was of him riding his horse Black Bess. His horse was a mare, but for the purposes of the statue, they made the horse a stallion because it was deemed unmanly to have him riding a mare!
“And at one time the town’s population was about 52 percent black. It’s down to about six percent now, and most moved out in the 50s and 60s to take better jobs up north,” Penn added.
She also mentioned that there is a black cemetery behind the Community Garden in Midway and that the current site of the Community Garden is where the white cemetery was.
I asked Bill Penn if he had any Midway haunted Halloween stories to tell as it is that time of year, and he had two. One was that someone once saw a ghost in the Museum’s upstairs bookstore. And that once when he was out back, Bill briefly also saw something in the upstairs window.
If you have any Midway Halloween tales to share of ghost sightings and haunted buildings, please send them to me at email@example.com. I would love to hear from you.
Halloween is just a week away but the Midway Women’s Club have been busy judging the best decorated houses and businesses in Midway. The results are (drum roll please):
Halloween Best Overall Design: 119 E. Stephens Street
Halloween Best Business: 101 Sexton Way.
Halloween Creepiest: 232 W. Higgins Street
Halloween Best Daytime: 209 Gayland Drive
Halloween Most Fun: 121 Carriage Lane
Halloween Best Use of Inflatables: 231 W. Higgins Street
Halloween Kid Friendly: 323 S. Winter Street
Halloween Best Pumpkin: 106 Cottage Grove
Halloween Scariest: 211 S. Winter Street
Halloween Best Spiderweb: 219 Cottage Grove
Halloween Best Use of Technology: 138 Carriage Lane
Congratulations to all the winners and thank you to all the residents of Midway who go out of their way to make Halloween and Trick or Treat special!