Long before the arrival of the first settler in the area known today as Owen County, Kentucky, great herds of bison laid claim to the land. The huge, shaggy beasts munched on vegetation and as they lumbered through the tall grasses to reach the salt springs in the area, they forged the first trails. In 1773, the McAfee brothers and their party were likely the first whites to explore the land of the future Owen County. By the late 1700s, settlements sprang up at springs or near streams where mills were erected. In 1792, Mr. Rowlett built and operated a trading post in the area known as Rowlett’s Landing and in 1805, James and Alexander Williams opened their post at Williamsburg which was later renamed Monterey.
In 1819, four years after the close of the War of 1812, Owen County was formed from parts of Franklin, Pendleton, Gallatin and Scott counties. The new county was named for Col. Abraham Owen, a Kentucky patriot who sacrificed his life at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. The first county seat was established at Heslerville, which later became simply Hesler, until the county lines changed in 1822. When that occurred, Owenton became the county seat. In 1858, Owen County’s first courthouse was completed. Today a new justice center stands a few miles away, but the old courthouse remains as a landmark of Owen County law and order.
Some of the communities of early Owen County included Beechwood, Breck, Bromley, Canby, Cedar Hill, Claxon Ridge, Cull, Eagle Hill, Elk Ridge, Gratz, Greenup, Hesler, Jonesville, Long Ridge, Lusby’s Mill, Monterey, Mountain Island, Moxley, Natlee, New Columbus, New Liberty, Owenton, Perry Park, Pleasant Home, Poplar Grove, Squiresville, Sweet Owen, Tackett’s Mill, Teresita, Truesville and Wheatley. New Liberty, incorporated in 1827, is the oldest town in the county and the first newspaper, the “Owen News,” was initially published here. However, its editor J.M. Clark soon moved the publication to Owenton. Today “The News-Herald” continues the practice of fine journalism in the tradition of its predecessor.
From the time of the earliest settlement, religion played a vital role in the lives of Owen countians. The first churches in the county included the Church of the Twins (later New Liberty Baptist), Mountain Island Baptist Church and Mussel Shoals Baptist Church. Education has always taken a place of prominence in Owen County. At the close of the Civil War, there were 68 school districts in the county and most of the schools combined all grades in one or two rooms. Today Owen County’s dedicated teachers and school staff educate Owen County children in one primary, one elementary, one middle and one high school, all of which are located near one another on Hwy. 22.
During the War Between the States, the people of Owen County were decidedly pro South. Two Confederate recruiting camps were located in the area, one near Lusby’s Mill and the other in Vallandingham’s barn. It was stated by one gentleman of the time that Owen was the best-known county in Kentucky to “produce more rebels to the square yard, and always more Democrats to the square inch, than any county from the Big Sandy to the Tennessee line.”
It should be noted that years before the Civil War commenced, the wills of Owen countians Mrs. Susanah Rogers and her brother James Herndon freed their slaves and bequeathed their estates to them. Today the descendants of these slaves own the land on Mountain Island.
At one time, the sheep industry was strong in the county and today the Forsee Family, owners of the oldest flock of Southdown Sheep in America, still operate their sheep farm on the family homestead on Hwy. 127. Dairy farms were prolific and took on an added importance in 1936 when Kraft Foods opened a plant in Owenton. For almost 100 years, tobacco was king in Owen County. It was a cash crop and farmers depended on its success to satisfy debts and provide necessary staples for the year. It paid mortgages and put children through college. Today, Owen County farmers are more diversified and the cattle industry has taken a predominant role in the county’s economy.
Much of Owen County history is steeped in stories of the Kentucky River and the steamboats that stopped at the many landings in Owen County. Landings that boasted names such as Hogs Thief, Eagle Valley, Green’s, Riddle’s, Balls, Minor’s, Riley’s, Savern, Gratz, Monterey and Hardin’s. Early commerce of the area depended on the ability of these mighty powerhouses of the river and the pilots who guided them through the sometimes-cantankerous waters of the Kentucky to safely deliver passengers and cargo to their destinations.
Owen County - quaint, rural and definitely flavored by Kentucky indefatigable determination - has produced state and U.S. representatives and senators. It boasts of artists, poets, authors, doctors, lawyers, and judges. Its organizations serve the people not only in preserving the history of the area but also in achieving goals to enrich and expand the vision of a better future. Just as important to the viability of Owen County are its farmers and their families who continue to diligently till the soil and preserve the integrity and tradition of America.
By Bonnie Strassell from “Discover Owen County 2013” published by the Owenton News Herald.