Henderson County, Kentucky



As springtime breaks, Hendersonians will stroll through their Central Park to enjoy the peacefulness of the fountain, the squirrels bounding across the lawn, the dappled shade of the century-old oak trees.

But they will not likely realize that their park has had to withstand nearly two centuries of threats, ranging from nearby eroding into the Ohio River to being subdivided into building lots.

Or that long before the present-day Easter Egg hunts, the park was the site of public executions.

But such are the events that mark the history of the oldest city park west of the Allegheny Mountains.

The Transylvania Company, the land developers that founded Henderson, donated the grounds "for public use … and no other" in an ordinance on August 9, 1797.

The original boundaries exceeded modern-day Central Park, taking in everything from Water to Green Streets, between First and Washington Streets - the equivalent of six city blocks.

The donation wasn't necessarily as generous as it would seem. In a report to the Transylvania Company, its agent, General Samuel HOPKINS, who helped lay out the town, explained:

"We have left perhaps a larger proportion … than might be judged expedient, but it is the lowest land in the whole site and is much incommoded with ravines and ponds and of course by far the least estimable for habitation," according to Maralea ARNETT'S 1976 book, "Annals and Scandals of Henderson County, Kentucky."

An early public use came in 1799, when HOPKINS deeded two acres at First and Main to the newly formed county court for the site of a log jail, the community's first public building. In 1814, the first courthouse followed, built on the mound where the current courthouse, built in 1963, stands.

Some theorize the knoll isn't natural but rather was constructed by the prehistoric mound builders who occupied this region and that the many ponds that once pockmarked the vicinity were left after dirt was excavated for the mound.

Neither Henderson nor its public grounds prospered in those early years. "From 1810 to 1830, indeed we might say up to 1867, Henderson seems to have struggled with perilous travail for a mere existence. All accounts go to show that her progress was rather of the retrograde and backward nature." Edmund L. STARLING wrote in his 1887 "History of Henderson County."

Thus, the early townspeople devoted little energy to improving their public grounds, which one early resident described as "grown up in brush and briars."

Perhaps that explains their actions in 1825, when some descendants of the Transylvania Company - the prominent ALVES family and Richard HART - laid a claim to ownership of five-sixteenths of the town, including residents' lots and the streets, alleys and public grounds.

Years later, STARLING maintained that the foundation of their claim "really amounted to nothing."

But the town trustees and lot owners "became alarmed and held a great public meeting at the Court House."

Rather than fight or negotiate, they offered two-thirds of the original public grounds - the area between First, Main, Washington and Water streets and the two blocks between First, Green, Washington and Elm - plus other property to the claimants, who accepted.

Sixty years later, STARLING fumed about the citizens "bartering away property donated for public uses."

That left today's citizens with only the area contained in modern-day Central Park (for years known as the Public Square) and the current courthouse and city building properties (known then as the Court House Square; at one time, Center Street extended between the two squares.)

Though, far from reverently regarded, the Public Square still was used.

In 1819, a gallows was erected in the square for the public hanging of convicted murderer Charles CARR, the first official execution in the county.

Six years later, townspeople erected the Union Church - the town's first, and for years shared by several congregations - on a hill in the square along Washington Street. A marker in the ground marks the spot today.

In addition, "Hundreds of country horses, teams, etc., have found a pleasant hitching place there," STARLING wrote later, "and many a circus tent has been pitched upon it, and many a side-splitting laugh indulged at the turn and wit of the clowns," including the world-renowned Dan RICE. Nevertheless, the Public Square remained a "poor, neglected spot," ravaged by the erosion of drainage ditches and a ravine until, by 1856, "not only the street, but half of the square had washed into the Ohio River."

The ravine even formed a pond that skaters used in the winter, while small fish and frogs were caught there in the summer, he wrote. Finally, in 1856, the old Union Church hill was cut down to help fill the pond and ravine.

During the Civil War, federal troops camped in the park and used the courthouse as a headquarters, prison, hospital and cookhouse (and left the building, according to STARLING, "indescribably mutilated.")

Another threat to the grounds came in January 1865, when the city council decided to sell building lots in the Public Square to pay for upgrading the public wharf.

Henderson voters approved the idea by a 180-to-33 margin, and the Public Square was promptly divided into 26 lots.

Seventeen of the lots - each measuring only 24½ feet wide - stretched along the old Center Street extension between Elm and Main. Those lots were too narrow for anything but shotgun houses, and there's a legend that the section may have been intended as a "red light" district, similar to some in New Orleans where narrow bungalows stood side by side. (Interestingly, the city's old plat of the subdivision shows an alley running behind those Center Street lots called "Maiden Lane.")

Others doubt the legend, but at any rate, a public sale was held Sept. 9, 1865.

It was not an unqualified success. Five lots went unsold, and several purchasers later reneged. Deed books indicate that only 16 of the 26 lots changed hands.

Moreover, some purchasers fell behind on their installment payments, and in February 1868, the city filed lawsuits against them to collect.

But the defendants argued that "the attempted sale of ground in the Public Square" was "wholly null and void" because the city had "had no lawful power or authority" to sell property set aside as public ground.

In March 1869, the matter was tried, and the city lost. The deeds were canceled and the city was ordered to buy back the lots (plus pay for the one or two houses that had been built), with interest.

The collapse of that scheme gave way to a newfound regard to the Public Square as a park, prompting a cinder-and-ash sidewalk to be laid through it.

Nearby, the city in 1873 constructed the first city hall and city jail on First Street behind the courthouse. (It, along with a later city hall and an adjacent fire station, stood until the early 1970s.)

In 1878, the city voted to construct a building, to be known as Park Hall, in the park. It was intended for public gatherings that "are moral and decent in their character," as well as for a library, reading room and lecture and concert hall.

To help pay for the building and beautify the grounds, the council said the building could be rented out for "entertainments" that were judged "proper."

But neither STARLING nor city records indicate that Park Hall was actually constructed, just as they don't confirm the construction of a "bath house" that the council authorized John HAFFEY to build in the park in 1878.

However, at least one structure did stand in the park since the council voted in 1878 to rent a "store house" in the Public Square to J. A. HOFMANN for $12.50 per month.

That same year, the city and county agreed to close Center Street between Elm and Main and merge the Public and Court House squares.

Still, some officials evidently weren't enthused about park land. In 1879, the public works committee recommended the Public Square be rented out as a cow pasture; the council rejected the suggestion.

So more park improvements followed. The county paid $3,000 for a handsome iron fence to be erected around the combined squares, and the city launched a beautification effort.

But by the early 1890s, some Hendersonians were no longer satisfied with the amenities their park offered.

"Henderson has a park given to her work today $50,000 and in it is to discover a country band stand, a country fish pond, a ground hog house and a bank of flowers not bigger comparatively than a silver dollar," the Henderson Daily Gleaner complained on April 17, 1892.

The newspaper campaigned for the erection of a fine fountain, and in May the city council complied, agreeing to spend up to $5,000.

The fountain, constructed of iron and pot metal, was a tall, elegant affair, with cherubs riding open-mouthed fish and a column topped by the statue of a woman. Goldfish once swam in the fountain's pool.

(After years of deterioration and vandalism, it was eventually dismantled, perhaps in the 1950s, and its figures stored away to prevent further vandalism. In August 1963, Mrs. W. C. COOPER led a campaign to restore or make a replica of the old fountain, though she soon learned that the statue of the woman had vanished, and the campaign died.)

With the improvements of the 1890s, the old Public Square had come into its own and became known as Central Park.

"Of the six blocks of (the original) park, we have two left," local librarian and historian Susan Starling TOWLES wrote in 1922. "They are still 'a thing of beauty and joy forever' to us notwithstanding it has been a battle to keep them free from unaesthetic uses."

Along those lines, tremendous controversy erupted in 1969 when then-Mayor Maurice GALLOWAY acknowledged plans for constructing a new city hall in the park, near where Center Street once extended.

An organization called Friends of the Park quickly formed, declaring that "our city officials are violating a public trust" and warning that the proposal was "only the first step to the complete destruction of Central Park."

"You didn't find any people in favor of it," recalled William L. NEWMAN, a city commissioner at the time who succeeded GALLOWAY as mayor and resided over construction in 1973-75 of the current city building at First and Elm, outside Central Park proper.

In 1976, the city constructed a new fountain on the site of the original structure. But it operated poorly and within a few years fell into disuse.

But by then, the use of Central Park had greatly increased. Over the past 15 years, the park has been the scene of innumerable public events, including re-enactments ranging from a mock Civil War skirmish to the crucifixion of Christ.

Thousands line the park and nearby streets on July 21, 1980, to watch President Jimmy CARTER as he rode by during a visit here - just as 3,000 turned out to hear Franklin D. ROOSEVELT speak in the park on Oct. 1, 1920, when he was the Democratic nominee for vice president.

Music often wafts through Central Park during free concerts presented by groups ranging from the Louisville Orchestra to the local Canoe Creek Band.

Indeed, the park has served as the musical venue for everything from blues (as part of the annual W. C. HANDY Blues & Barbecue Festival) to bluegrass (thanks to Bluegrass in the Park.)

Each Memorial Day, the American Legion places hundred of crosses in the park in memory of Henderson County veterans. Similarly, there are permanent monuments honoring policemen killed in duty and local soldiers.

The Downtown Henderson Project's annual Easter egg hunts draw an army of children each spring. And Operation Community Prides' Christmas in the Park, which sparks each year with its thousands of lights and decorative village - and highlighted by visits by Santa to his "workshop" - attracts untold numbers.

In addition to those and many other public events, Central Park is enjoyed by folks who simply pause at the gazebo (constructed in 1986), stroll beneath the towering trees (of which there are 24 species) or relax beside the new fountain and its shimmering balls of water (put in place in 1990 by Alcan Aluminum and Industrial Contractors, Inc.)

Julie Turnipseed (Martin), manager of the downtown project, says she is told by longtime residents that "the park was never used as much in the past as it is now."

It may have taken awhile, but Hendersonians clearly have come to cherish their Central Park.

Reprinted with permission.
Henderson County: Home Of …, The Gleaner, March 27, 1993, Pages 164-165
Written by Chuck Stinnett

Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2003 HCH&GS