WINCHESTER — A trip to the Lower Howard's Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve is more than a hike in the woods; it is a journey back into Kentucky business history.
This was, after all, Kentucky's first industrial park.
I would never have guessed it as I began walking down the hill with Clare Sipple, who manages the 350-acre preserve, and her husband, Harry Enoch, a retired biochemist who chronicled the creek's commercial history in his 2009 book, Col. John Holder: Boonesborough Defender and Kentucky Entrepreneur.
The first sign of that history was when we reached a large millstone, thought to have quarried on Pilot Knob in Powell County, hauled here and finished with wrought-iron fitting. It would have been used on one of 15 mills that once operated along the creek to produce wheat flour and corn meal for export down the Kentucky, Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans.
In addition to grain mills there were sawmills, distilleries, cooperages to make barrels, leather tanneries, a warehouse, a woolen factory, blacksmith shops, a boat yard, a ferry, a tavern and a store. The largest businesses were housed in buildings of dry-laid limestone quarried along the creek.
Most of the valley's two dozen businesses were along the creek or the Salt Springs Trace, a road built in 1775 from Fort Boonesborough to the salt deposits at Blue Licks in Robertson County. It was one of Kentucky's first heavily-traveled roads.
This area is now a remote corner of the rural Bluegrass on Athens Boonesboro Road behind Hall's on the River restaurant. But from the 1780s until the Civil War, it and neighboring Boone Creek comprised one of the largest manufacturing centers west of the Allegheny Mountains.
Much of the development of Lower Howard's Creek was the work of Holder, a land speculator and businessman who had been a leader during Fort Boonesborough's heyday in the 1770s.
"He had a lot of business contacts in New Orleans," Enoch said. "He must have been quite a wheeler dealer."
Lower Howard's Creek reached its commercial zenith as the Civil War began. But the war cut it off from its main customers in Southern markets. After the war, railroads started replacing river navigation. Steam engines replaced unreliable water power. The last industries on Lower Howard's Creek were gone by the dawn of the 20th century.
Mother Nature has slowly reclaimed this valley, now covered with second-growth forest after extensive logging in the 1800s. The preserve has more than 800 species of plants, including many rare and endangered ones.
River otter and beaver now ply the rushing creek that once powered Kentucky's first manufacturers. The trees shelter a wide range of birds, including warblers, tanagers and cedar waxwings.
"It's unusual to see some of these birds in Kentucky," said Sipple, 62, who grew up in the area and first explored the creek on horseback as a child.
Lower Howard's Creek is dotted with ruins of the old stone buildings, as well as the stone fences, earthworks and remnants of the Salt Springs Trace. The Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund purchased much of the preserve's land, which is now owned by Clark County Fiscal Court. A 228-acre tract was dedicated as a state nature preserve in 2001.
Some of the most significant stone ruins are Jonathan Bush's mill, which had four levels and a 20-foot mill wheel, and his home. Both have been ravaged by time and vandals, who a few years ago smashed the detailed inscription on the 1855 tomb of Diana Bush, his second wife of 35 years, who he obviously loved very much.
The preserve's John Holder Trail, which begins at Hall's on the River, is open during daylight hours. Sipple leads periodic hikes through the rest of the preserve. For more information, go to Lowerhowardscreek.org.
Sipple recently secured a $600,000 grant to restore some of the Salt Springs Trace road and its fences. A shelter was built over Bush's house in 2004 to limit deterioration until money can be raised to restore it. But 200-year-old Bush's mill is rapidly falling apart.
"Every spring I come down here I see more stones that have fallen," she said, estimating that it would take $1 million to restore the huge mill.
"There are stone buildings all over this valley," Sipple said. "It's a really significant site. But we've always been limited by funding."