Nov 28, 2012 — Welcome to “The Derringer”–a little blog with a big punch! This blog is not confined to one subject, but will inform and entertain you on a variety of topics. Let the blogging begin!
by Leslie McCarty
History of Owensboro
Owensboro is the county seat of Daviess County, located on the south bank of the Ohio River. The community was known as “Yellow Banks” because of the deep yellow color of the riverbanks of yellow clay content. By 1799 the first permanent settlers had been established. William Smeathers with his wife and sister built a cabin on Yellow Banks. He raised corn and potatoes and hunted for meat. In 1809, a keelboat man, Andrew Norris, who was spending an evening at the Smeathers’, insulted his sister Polly and the leader was fatally knifed. Smeathers was later acquitted and moved to Texas.
Joseph Hamilton Daveiss, who defended Smeathers’ at his trial, was awarded extensive land tracts in Daviess County in a Supreme Court case and moved with his wife to Yellow Banks in 1805. Daveiss became famous for the prosecution of Aaron Burr. Daveiss was killed two years later at the battle of Tippecanoe.
In June 1815 Daviess County became an official county. The county seat in December 1816 was called Rossborough, in honor of David Ross, a local landowner. A major street was named after his son, Frederica. Frederica Street was a buffalo trail from a salt lick near Panther Creek to the banks of the Ohio River when Bill Smeathers settled here. Thirty-five days later the town’s name was changed to Owensboro, in memory of Col. Abraham Owen, who was killed at Tippecanoe. An interesting fact about Abraham Owen is that he never lived in Owensboro. He was from Shelby County.
Once described as a “city of churches”, Owensboro, prior to 1815, had two established churches and two established distilleries. Owensboro’s first house of worship was a log cabin where slaves met for worship in about 1830. The cabin belonged to Phillip Thompson, who is best known for a duel he fought with Robert Triplett across the river. Five years later the First Baptist Church would be organized. The cabin had also been used for the first school in 1816. Susan Tarleton, known to her students as “Aunt Sukey,” came to Owensboro that year to start the school.
In 1835 Phillip Thompson fitted a room in a building at First and St. Ann streets that was known as the “Old Warehouse” for what became Owensboro’s first theater. A community theater of sorts operated until 1846 in the building which had been designed for a grocery and freight shipping business. The city’s first newspaper, The Bulletin, began on the second floor of the building on Oct. 8, 1842.
The population growth of Owensboro was slow. By 1850 the population had increased to only 1,250. Owensboro’s first post office was located in the parking lot of the state office building. In 1840 the mail came on the stage from Louisville to Shawneetown, Ill. Twice a week residents of the settlement would hear the stage trumpet blow out on the Hardinsburg Road (now US 60) and started running toward the tavern owned by Postmaster William Bristow.
The courthouse was built in 1859. When news of the Fort Sumter reached Owensboro in April 1861 the sympathies of the people were divided. A home guard was organized to protect local property against marauders. When secessionists moved into Owensboro in September of that year, President Lincoln dispatched two gunboats, the “Lexington” and the Conestoga” to protect Owensboro. A year later the confederates raided Owensboro in a skirmish across from Lee School. A Union officer, Lt. Col. Netter, was killed but the Confederates were turned back. On Jan. 4, 1865 Confederate guerillas burned the courthouse but, city officials were allowed to remove the records.
During the next few decades the community began to blossom. By 1880 there were 17 stores and commercial establishments and 23 tobacco factories. Other leading industries included wagon or buggy plants.
Owensboro’s first cemetery was on Fourth Street, extending from St. Ann to St. Elizabeth streets. The first elevator in Owensboro was in the Rudd House, a hotel built on St. Ann Street in the late 1880’s. There was a glass dome on top and you could see for miles up and down the river.
In 1886 across from the courthouse Kelly G. Wethington operated one of the city’s first bowling alley’s at 215 W. Second Street. On February 16, 1887, four mules were hitched to a streetcar decked with flags, banners and bunting at the stables at Second and Triplett Owensboro’s first public transportation system began. In 1906, John P. Walker opened the first moving picture show—the Nickelodeon—at 219 W. Second Street. “The Rahjah’s Casket” was said to be the first film.
In the early years of the nineteenth century Mulberry Street was Owensboro’s “red light” district. From about 1896 to 1939 it thrived as a free zone for prostitution and Sunday beer. Originally there five houses, and later came a sixth. According to old timers, 105 Mulberry was “the” house in town. It was a large, yellow brick structure with seven or eight rooms. On Sundays, male patrons of the houses and the women would stroll down to the river to watch the boats go by. The district hit its peak in the years around World War I and by World War II it was gone. More than 1,000 women are estimated to have worked in these houses.
All sources for this article came from the Kentucky Room at the Daviess County Public Library.
Lawrence, Keith, Applegate, Tom, “An Invisible History.” Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer. Sunday, 18 November 1990, pg. 1G-3G
Chamber of Commerce, Welcome to Owensboro.
Swift, Shelia, “A History of Daviess County.” Kentucky Heritage Magazine of the Young Historians’ Association of the Kentucky Historical Society, Spring 1968