Henderson County, Kentucky History


Henderson boasts magnificent old homes

An afternoon stroll down the streets of Henderson's downtown residential areas can quickly confirm what's been said about the "grand old ladies" - those magnificent homes - lining the streets.

There were a lot of them built, and many of them still stand as a tribute to an era in this booming river town just following the Civil War.

Writer and historian Boynton MERRILL put it into words in "Old Henderson Homes and Buildings" when he wrote in the foreword: "With the exception of the metropolitan areas of Louisville and Lexington, there are more fine 19th-century homes and buildings in Henderson than in any other county in Kentucky."

Indeed, for the size of the city, there were an exceptional number of expensive homes in Henderson by the end of the 1800s to celebrate the glory of the Victorian age.

It happened, for the most part, in the post-Civil Way boom years of Henderson's dark tobacco industry, when many local businessmen - including wholesalers, processors and exporters - made their fortunes shipping the dark leaves to Britain.

Those who sold goods or services to those in the tobacco business also cashed in on the action, building grand homes that reflected their prosperity.

MERRILL tells us that just before the war, Henderson was known in England as "the great tobacco port" and was the largest dark tobacco market in the world.

By the 1890s, there were 51 tobacco processing factories or stemmeries in the county.

Amid this era of economic comfort, the Italianate, Queen Anne, Victorian and homes of other architectural style of the time popped up rapidly.

Some were constructed with bricks that were made right on the property, such as the one built at 612 North Main Street by William SOAPER.

Many could be generous with available materials, such as the builder of the TALBOT-GADIENT home at 726 North Main Street. Its walls are solid brick, 13 inches thick.

Other homebuilders waited anxiously for riverboat - and later rail - shipments of imported marble for fireplaces and floors, ornate ceiling medallions, leaded glass, elaborate cornices, hood moldings, terra cotta exterior trims and other fashionable building materials of the time.

For all the details that link them in time and place, there are certain things that make some of the grand old ladies unique within their peer group.

The RASH Home at 115 South Main Street is of an Italinate style, which was extremely popular in Henderson in the 1860s and 1870s, but the dentil work on the house is the one of its kind in town. The cost of its construction - $3,000 - seems impossible in modern times.

The FARMER-LACKEY Home at 305 South Main Street is unusual in that it boasts teardrop cornices made from hand-sawn and turned wood, a design that is used by only one other house in Henderson - at 300 South Water Street.

Some of the things that make these old homes unique are historical attributes. One home, the SOAPER-PRESTON House at the corner of Fifth and Main streets, was once the office of the large SOAPER Tobacco Factory that was built there sometime between 1840 and 1880.

The OBERDORFER-FINLEY House, which still has its original windows, served as a place for another part of Henderson's culture to take root. It was built by Hannah OBERDORFER, a German Jew who had come with her husband through the port of New Orleans up river to Henderson. The meeting to organize the Jewish congregation was held in her parlor.

The majestic Italianate home built at 205 South Elm Street by banker and farmer L. C. DALLAM right after the Civil War included a handsome tower on the northwest corner that contains a 12-foot by 12-foot floored room.

Legend has it that lanterns were carried to the room to signal riverboats, but it is unknown whether it was a commercial enterprise or a pas-time of the owner.

There are many other stories about these old beauties, some that date to the 1820s, but surely just as many more that have been lost across the course of time. If only their walls could take.

Reprinted with permission.
Henderson County: Home Of …, The Gleaner, March 27, 1993, Pages 148-149
By Donna B. Stinnett

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