Not long after the end of the Civil War, in a 50-or-so acre area in eastern Woodford County, former slaves and other African-Americans began gathering in a community that came to be called Huntertown.
Their history, like that of many of those who lived in African-American hamlets, has been mostly forgotten, except for the dwindling number who lived there or grew up hearing family members talk about the village. Thanks to former middle- and high-school teacher Sioux Finney and others, that is changing.
In 2016, in one of the last classes she taught at Woodford County High School before retiring, Finney and a group of freshmen undertook a historical research project on the history of Huntertown. Finney said she and her young charges became excited about both its past and possible future. “And so I said, ‘When I retire, I’d really like to keep working on this,’ and that’s kind of what happened.”
Last November, the Woodford County Community Fund awarded Finney a $2,300 grant to further explore Huntertown’s rich history – which began years before the first deed discovered from 1884.
“Huntertown Road was originally known as Crawfish Road, because it was so swampy,” Finney said. (The area was plagued by flooding and related issues made worse by the 1964 opening of the Bluegrass Parkway that split Huntertown. The county bought out the last property owners in 2010.)
The first property record uncovered by Finney and company dates back to 1871, when Jerry Gatewood, a lifelong resident of Woodford County who’d served in the U.S. Colored Troops, bought five acres for $500 from a white man named Isham Railey. (Finney said Railey appears to have purchased the 50 acres that became Huntertown for $5 and 34 mules – suggesting a sizable profit over the years.)
“We have deed upon deed upon deed that show property being purchased, and then a lot of times, (they were) sold off in small parcels by the original owner,” Finney said.
The 1880 census showed 100 people living in what became Huntertown; in 1900 and 1910, there were about 175, Finney said. The 1920 census showed 12 women from Huntertown who listed their occupations as “washerwoman.”
Many Huntertown residents worked on surrounding farms. One of the best known Huntertown citizens was the Rev. Jerry Williams, who, before giving the pulpit his full attention, was a “very famous porter” on the Riney B, L & A and L & N railroads. He was the subject of multiple news articles, including a profile in L & N Employees magazine. The Riney B stopped twice a day in Huntertown, Finney said.
“The families grew gardens, they planted orchards, they raised hogs out there – they (lived in) a community that took care of each other and was separate from Versailles by nearly a mile-and-a-half, and yet was a vibrant, thriving community,” Finney said. “It was a place with stores and all sorts of enterprises out there.”
As for its name, Finney now believes that the original explanation of its origin – that it was named after the Hunter family – is incorrect.
“The general story is that they had sold land to their former slaves … and all the research we’ve been able to do, it’s clear that Isham Railey bought the 50 acres … and within a year, he was turning it around and selling it in parcels to African-American women who were formerly enslaved here in Woodford County,” Finney said.
Five of those acres were bought by a family who then sold it to their former slaves, a family named Cloudus, Finney said. Some of the new property owners were women: Ellen Cloudus and Phoebe Burris, both of whom had been slaves.
(Finney noted that interpreting cursive writing in deeds and other documents makes deciphering the exact spelling of some names a less-than-exact science – and that the project itself is a work in progress.)
Racial mores and transportation issues were among the factors that made Huntertown an almost-entirely self-sufficient community. The Huntertown Colored School, with 101 students in 1801, is believed to have been located in a house that was also a “church meeting place.” It was founded in 1895 and educated black children until 1940. The Bluegrass Parkway now runs above where the school once stood, Finney said. They even had their own baseball team: the Huntertown Sluggers.
Eventually, whites began integrating Huntertown, but by 2010, after the county bought out the remaining land, Huntertown residents who hadn’t left for flooding and other reasons were gone, Finney said.
They weren’t forgotten, however, even before the history project began. In September 2015, a ceremony was held to mark the just-posted “Huntertown Cemetery” sign, and the fruits of the cemetery clean-up were displayed. Donald Morton was there for at least three reasons – he helped remove brush and trash, he was a member of the cemetery board, and his grandfather, George Morton, is buried there.
Morton told the Sun he believed there were more than 100 graves there, many marked only with a rock, and many belonging to slaves. Some were of veterans of World War II – and all are African-Americans, he said.
During the dedication, the pastor of First Baptist Church, Rev. Floyd Greene, called Huntertown “one of the strongest and oldest communities in Woodford County” – a sentiment with which Finney passionately agreed.
“It has put a face on history for me,” she said, then apologized for getting “a little emotional.”
“It puts a real face on people’s lives – people who lived during the Reconstruction era who were dealing with having to start out as free people in a world that didn’t treat them as free.”