KENTUCKY’S LITTLE SWITZERLAND?
In the Commonwealth of Kentucky? Am I kidding? About the mountains, the forests, the people, the water? The gravel? And what about Abraham Lincoln’s grandmother?
How do we get there? Through Springfield, Kentucky on this trip, and then cross-country over the rugged hills of the Eden Shale Belt. They show the tight dendritic drainage pattern so familiar in Eastern Kentucky, only lower in elevation.
I can see the knobs of the higher Mississippian Plateau off in the distance. Here, in the hidden reaches of the upper Rolling Fork of the Salt River, Muldraugh Hill [the face of that plateau] has been dug into, ridges and hills sculpted into special spaces and habitat places. Gravel Switch, Forkland, Bradfordsville. Old Penn’s Store.
Take Logan Road, Highway 243, in from Springfield. You are going into the clefts cut into those mountains by the Rolling Fork River. You are in the cradle of these waters. Its mother trunk begins here, and sprouts within the slopes of these mountains.
Let us go directly to Gravel Switch, where the L & N Railroad once extended east, trying to reach Knoxville through Mt. Vernon. At Gravel Switch, the train could take a spur heading south, to load gravel for ballast and further railroad construction. For just across that ridge of knobs is the North Rolling Fork River. And its riverbed is a gravel highway!
Rounded, pebbly, beautiful banks of stone, cut out of the knobs by the river and rolled patiently along for your use when you finally arrive there. Drive inside those mountain gaps and see for yourself. Reach into clefts and valleys and meet the fine people that live here.
And now become a hunter. Those L & N tracks have long ago been pulled up. Their low, manmade ridges now hidden from inspection. It is always a good game to learn of the early railroads, and tracking them down where they are now hiding.
Now let’s head over toward old Penn’s Store set off in the distance. Against a mountain next to the river. It has been there since before 1850, and has been owned by the Penn Family and their descendants ever since. Stop in one weekend for some nostalgia and say hi to daughter Dawn behind the counter!
Penn’s Store is a place of community history. Jeanne Penn Lane, the family artist and Nashville songwriter, established the Celebration of Kentucky Writers, to which I was recently invited to read from my “Surrounding” series. There are deep roots in our Commonwealth, and I was proud to dig in alongside them!
Now let’s explore this Kentucky Little Switzerland! Keep driving on past Penn’s Store on Highway 243. But don’t veer off when it wants to escape the valley further up. Instead, turn left [depending on your car’s suspension] onto Maxeys Valley Road, and take the Little South Fork of the North Rolling Fork River up to where the first raindrops formed its passage!
This road was paved once, but there are no painted lines now to guide you. It is somewhat narrow, with an increasing number of potholes. Look over into the creek’s crib, and you can see that it is lined with pebbles and rock ribs.
The road moves up the mountain at increased elevation. But the mountainsides do not close in. Not yet. For there is a hanging valley with rustic modern homes scattered about up there. Beautiful.
Enter the now tightened forest, more open in places, but mostly dark and wet looking. The road becomes a chapel covered in overhanging boughs swung forward by its branching attendants. Believe it, Kentucky is a jungle! And at the top, an open, inhabited crest. Glimpses of mountains all around. Another Kentucky wonder.
You now drop down into Maxeys Valley. We are out of the Salt River drainage now, beyond its mountains. The Pioneers knew this important area as the junction of the Salt, Green, and Dix [Kentucky] Rivers. This is the way into the heart of Kentucky, after crossing through the Cumberland Gap and struggling through its mountains.
Let us now cross back into the Salt River watershed, into an area the locals call Forkland. And that is where Lucy Hanks, Abraham Lincoln’s grandmother, came to live from Virginia. We could drive right by her place, if we knew how to find it. And, as we will soon see, her creek valley habitat was quite similar to what the young Abraham Lincoln would find at his boyhood home on Knob Creek, farther west along Muldraugh Hill.
But now turn south at the Maxeys Valley Church on Highway 906. Drive along the face of the knobs [they are striking here], and then turn back into the mountains on Kentucky Route 78. You immediately rise up and over Turkeyfoot Gap, and are back in the upper Salt River drainage, into a quaint and comforting thought. Into a valley that time forgot. It is the resting place of the Big South Fork of the Rolling Fork of the Salt River. Wide, flat floodplains, surrounded by knobs and ridges. Exceptionally scenic. Time for a picnic on a riverbank pebbled table.
Bradfordsville, at the junction of the North Rolling Fork and the Big South Fork, establishes the Rolling Fork River proper. Big, wide, productive floodplains punctuate the middle of these mountains. Rivers that support communities that join with them in their forming.
Bradfordsville is 9 miles from Lebanon, and 9 miles from Gravel Switch. Well positioned to serve this mountainous community. Now, let’s circle back to Gravel Switch!
But turn right, before reaching Gravel Switch, on Highway 243, and head back toward Penn’s Store. Pass Scrubgrass Road on the left [that’s where Lucy Hanks lived]. Then turn left up Highway 37 to follow the North Rolling Fork River to its founding waters as the mountains close in upstream.
What a beautiful place. Another wide valley with a flat floodplain to farm, framed by knobby ridges and mountain peaks looking down. It reminds me of the scene for so many of the movie serials of the 1930s. Even more so, it looks to me like part of the Kentucky setting for the movie, “Raintree County,” that was filmed during 1947.
“Raintree County” starred Elizabeth Taylor [nominated for an Oscar], Montgomery Clift, Eva Marie Saint, and Lee Marvin. It was MGM’s answer to “Gone With the Wind.” And some of its scenes were filmed in nearby Danville, Kentucky.
Keep going. You are now in the Forkland community. The people here have converted a schoolhouse into a Museum [for the inhabitants’ and Lucy Hanks’ history] and Community Center. And they have held an annual festival there for the last 50 years [in October].
Stop in and visit [the Museum is open Saturdays], and then get back going. This is an idyllic, linear valley, with an excellent road for driving. “Pleasant Run?” I’ll say! And be sure to stop to hike and visit the Central Kentucky Wildlife Refuge, established in 1965 and associated with Centre College of Danville. Another one of Kentucky’s special secret places of nature.
Now up to the defining ridgetop. It is narrow and only partially open. But there is a Catholic Cemetery here! Far away, I think, from any church. But it is a reasonable location. Don’t we all seek a higher place when leaving? And maybe there was a church built here when German immigrants came to this ridge. Is that why it is now called, “Catholic Knob?”
The road down the other side reminds me of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Heavy, thick forests of thickly clad slopes. It must have been wonderful finding these forests as the Pioneers climbed up and over to the fertile Forkland valleys. On our way down, we find a church, a Speedway [“Kentucky’s Baddest Bullring”], and an old sign that says, “Peckerwood Gro., White Oak Rd., Knott Hole, Ky.” A nearby building says “Welcome,” and then, “Beware, Dog!”
Junction City. I can think of a number of reasons to call it so. The Junction of three rivers? The Junction of railroad and road? The Junction of pioneer paths into Kentucky? The Junction of dreams of westward expansion? Perhaps it is named for the Junction of the Lebanon Railroad that once connected here.
Head back, now, toward Springfield, along the edge of the mountains. But stop first at “Bud & Cheryl’s Ice Cream Shoppe.” A busy establishment in Alum Springs, and full of excellent eatings!
Let’s not neglect that valley, wherein lived Abraham Lincoln’s grandmother. The strongest of women, she headed west with her daughter, Nancy Hanks, around 1784, from Virginia. Turn back into the mountains at Mitchellsburg to climb back up and over, onto Scrubgrass Road [Highway 1856]. This is another canopied slope trail to the first water drops founding Scrubgrass Branch. And that name probably says enough to describe the hardship in scratching out a living in this thin valley. But here and there, floodplain fields appear to give hope and succor to those that stayed to raise a family.
And, here, Lucy Hanks married a Sparrow, and gave birth to eight more children [many of whose descendants still live in the area]. And she remained for more than 35 long, fruitful years, living on Scrubgrass Branch. She had a difficult life, and was scorned early on in Kentucky. Perhaps she had fled Virginia with her daughter only to find the same accusations of immorality here. Was she an unwed mother? Regardless, her new Forkland community came to her support. And the rest of her wedded life is now our history.
Kentucky’s Little Switzerland? Consider this. When the Germans immigrated to the mountain crest at “Catholic Knob,” they established a new community. They called it “New Austria.”