Henry County Historical Society
The Henry County Web, History, Henry County KY
Henry County Kentucky
by Linda M. Roberts
--the name today evokes simple images. A white church on a knoll ... a rustic bridge ... breathtaking scenery ... sulphur-saline water. Drennon is unpretentious in outward appearance, but with a past that is as multicolored as the spring waters that transcend the generations.
Drennon Springs' past dates back to prehistoric times when a shallow sea covering Kentucky receded and left salt deposits. Later the ground water mixed with these salt deposits and carried it to the surface. The salt spring became known as a "lick" as mammoth, buffalo, and deer, in search of salt, trampled a road wide enough for two wagons to travel side by side.
With the animals came the Moundbuilders, a prehistoric Indian tribe, in search of food. An 1832 article reported that "Drennon's Lick has bones and mounds." No one knows when the Moundbuilders left or for how long the area was without inhabitants. When the first white people in this area arrived it was claimed by four Indian tribes. The Shawnee who lived north of the Ohio were the closest tribe to this area. They were the group most dreaded by early settlers and surveyors who had been sent out to investigate the land.
|The McAfee Brothers left Virginia in 1773
to locate land in Kentucky. They spent several days at Big Bone Lick. While there, an
Indian traded his knowledge of another lick to Jacob Drennon and Matthew Bracken.
Pretending they were going hunting, they discovered the Lick on July 6, 1773. Four mineral
springs were found by Drennon during his time at the "Great Salt Lick" in 1773.
Drennon and Bracken were condemned for their behavior of taking advantage of their fiends
and bribing an Indian when the remainder of the McAfee party arrived two days later.
Although Drennon gave his name to the Lick no steps were taken to claim the
property--possibly due to the dishonor he had received.
Colonel George Rogers Clark, who "won the west" for the USA, was the first settler at the salt springs of Drennon. After seeing no survey marks on trees he made inquiries about the land. He was especially interested in the salt-making possibilities. When he found that the land had not been claimed, he built a cabin there and planted corn in a clearing in 1776. The Land Court of Kentucky County, Virginia, granted him 400 acres and added an adjoining 1,000 acres for land improvement. Prior to 1779, Clark built a "log fort" at Drennon Springs. It was a temporary residence for surveyors, hunters, explorers, and salt boilers. The salt-boiling had begun about 1775 and was continued by different groups. The saline content of the springs was light compared to many others in central Kentucky and the manufacturing process was discontinued when the price of salt made it unprofitable.
In 1780 an Archibald Dickerson thought he discovered a silver vein in the vicinity of two of the springs. It was really sulfide of lead. The mining of lead ore for its silver content began on the Drennon Springs vein in 1783. Willard Jillson, a former state geologist, identifies this as the "first lead mine 'in Kentucky." Desired results were not achieved so work stopped until around 1815.
The pioneers learned from friendly Indians the use that they had made of the sulphur water from one of the springs. The medicinal use of the waters soon spread beyond the neighborhood. In 1833 Asiatic Cholera spread throughout Kentucky. The proprietor advertised that Drennon Springs was the "safest retreat from cholera in Kentucky." By 1840 the Springs were known not only as refuge for the sick but a site of entertainment for those who were desiring a better social life after putting their economic affairs in order. Large numbers of Kentuckians were joined by wealthy cotton and sugar cane planters who came to avoid the hot weather and yellow fever prevalent in the southern summers. Trade between the regions was facilitated and the Springs and the marriage market became synonymous terms.
A. O. Smith purchased the property, spent about $100,000 on improvements including several multi-level structures for housing and planted trees on newly terraced land. In 1848 the owner announced in the Louisville Daily Courier that they could accommodate 800 persons. Innumerable governors, social headliners of the day, and the grandchildren of Henry Clay came to visit. At the height of the resort's popularity in 1849 cholera broke out. The hotel complex was abandoned within 24 hours. Faith was lost in the miraculous waters. For two years the hotel lay idle.
Owner A.0. Smith sold the site and buildings to the Western Military Institute (WMI)--a private military school originally established at Georgetown--that was seeking more adequate housing. There were 216 students from fifteen to eighteen southern and midwestern states on the cadet roster. James G. Blaine taught math in 1851 from February to December. He later became Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Secretary of State, and a candidate for President. During the time the military school was at Drennon, an effort was made to introduce the grape-growing industry on the southern slopes of Drennon. Native Swiss vinegrowers were imported and settled in log chalets among the hills to teach the basics of the industry in the area, which was so similar to the wine regions of France and Switzerland. The school was beginning to be known as the "West Point of the South" when cholera broke out. Enrollment decreased considerably. Finally, in the fall of 1854, the WMI moved to Tennessee and in April of 1855 became part of the University of Nashville.
The barracks were used as a Union Recruiting Station during the Civil War and many skirmishes between the Union and Confederate forces took place around the Springs. The main buildings were destroyed by fire toward the end of the Civil War. Collins' Historical Sketches in 1874 indicated that the March 23, 1865 fire was the "work of an incendiary."
Invalids continued to come and five following the war. In 1890, a second hotel was built close to the Blue Sulphur Spring. The Commissioner of Henry County sold this property in 1894.
In 1900 a third hotel was built overlooking the White Sulphur Spring. Bathhouses and tall glasses of sulphur water before breakfast were provided to the guests as well as testimonials from leading physicians and medical schools. The fact that water from the Blue Sulphur Spring won the highest award at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition was prominent in all advertising. During this time the water was shipped to Louisville, Lexington, Cincinnati, and Tennessee. Various amusements entertained the guests. But with the coming of automobiles and good roads, picture shows, and other more modem amusements, the Springs became less popular. Regardless, the hotel was destroyed by fire in 1909 when an epidemic of chickenpox broke out.
Drennon Springs does evoke simple images today. But, when placed in an historical perspective, there is so very much more.
Bingham, Berry. "Town with Three Lives-All Spent," Courier Journal, 10/12/52.
Coleman, J. Winston. "The Springs of Kentucky," (1955)
Davis, Clara C. "Drennon Springs" manuscript (1939)
Durrett, R.T. "Famous Old Drennon Springs," Henry County Local, 5/9/02
Jillson, W.R. Bibliography (annotated) of Drennon's Lick (1950)
Geology of Henry County, Kentucky (1967)
Kentucky Home in the Woods, Pamphlet (Circa 1905)
Smith, Z.F. History of Kentucky (1886)
Symmes, Hallie Smith. Old Drennon, 1893 (Original Manuscript at Filson Club)
|Materials on file:
Filson Club, Louisville, KY.
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