During the past few years, officials in the Scott County town of Sadieville have started looking around with new eyes.
What they see is history that has been ignored and is in danger of being lost: deteriorating hotels and saloons where Sadieville's history got started, a sagging Rosenwald school once used to educate African-American students, a historic church that sits empty.
"We're getting a huge preservation appetite," Mayor Claude Christensen said. "The more we looked, the more we saw and uncovered these things that had significance."
It's the same story in hamlets all over the state, and it's why they are highlighted in Preservation Kentucky's Most Endangered Historic Places for 2011.
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Part of Kentucky's charm is picturesque small towns such as Midway, Millersburg, Lynch, Marion and Perryville, said Rachel Kennedy, executive director of Preservation Kentucky, part of the Kentucky Heritage Council. But they are in increasing danger.
"Using Sadieville as a case study, we recognize that disinvestment in these small towns is a serious problem," Kennedy said Monday at a news conference. "For example, when a historic school closes in small-town Kentucky, that makes it more difficult to attract new residents and their investment in the town. It also makes it difficult to retain middle-class families and residents. The town treasury suffers these effects through a declining tax base and a lack of community spirit. Without positive change, a town like Sadieville could fade away."
Small towns are usually defined as having fewer than 2,000 residents, even though many of them used to be much bigger and economically thriving. Sadieville, for example, flourished around a busy railroad depot used for shipping livestock and other goods.
According to research by city clerk Cynthia Foster, during the prime days of Sadieville, from 1900 to 1930, it boasted 119 households, four churches, two tobacco warehouses, two storage warehouses, two blacksmith shops, two public stables, four saloons, two hotels, two hardware stores, two restaurants, five general stores, a broom factory, a carriage shop, a woodworking shop, a post office, a jail, a fire department, a public cistern, a wash house, an ice house, a creamery, a drug store, a newspaper and telephone exchange, an undertaker, a harness shop, a grocery and a barber shop.
Christensen said the first push for preservation will be to restore the Rosenwald school, one of 5,000 built across the South by clothing baron Julius Rosenwald to educate black children in the early 20th century. Officials would like to turn the school, in the center of town, into a history center or museum. In addition, they'd like to turn the empty church next to the school into a performing-arts center.
But the lagging populations in many small towns have created small budgets that preclude much expensive renovation.
"It has to be funded externally," Christensen said. "We can barely keep our head above water as it is, and most small towns are having that same struggle."
Preservation Kentucky wants to help towns turn their history around, through clearinghouse programs such as Main Street Kentucky or by getting a listing in the National Register of Historic Places, which permits property owners to get federal and state tax credits for historic preservation work.
This year's list of Most Endangered Historic Places is being presented differently. Preservation Kentucky will announce several pieces in the next few months, including information on historic preservation funding and the dangers to barns and outbuildings.