Category Archives: Town Branch History

Bourbon History along the Town Branch of the Elkhorn Creek, Lexington, Kentucky

Bourbon has a long and rich history in the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky. The distilling of whiskey began about as early as settlers arrived here from the north and east. The reason this area was so conducive to the making of whiskey was on account of the numerous limestone springs in the area that could provide cool clear water all year long. The importance of good water to the area’s distilleries cannot be overstated. One of the unique ingredients of Kentucky bourbon is the water that comes up from its limestone springs. The water that comes out of the springs has been filtered of impurities and unwanted minerals, such as iron. In addition, the spring water is rich in calcium. The calcium in the water reacts favorably with the yeast during the production of whiskey.

Though there are no distilleries any longer in use in Fayette County, some of the earliest of our Bourbon History took place along the Town Branch of the Elkhorn Creek in Lexington.

Elijah Culpepper, came from Culpepper County, Virginia to Kentucky when it was still a county of Virginia. Legend has it that some time around 1776, Elijah Culpepper settled at what came to be known as the “Old Pepper Spring” near Lexington on the Frankfort Pike. There he is said to have built a log cabin distillery about 1780. The story goes that Elijah Culpepper, finding his name “too long and too troublesome to write,” dropped the “Cul” and became Elijah Pepper.

Elijah Pepper’s son, Oscar Pepper, operated several distilleries in Kentucky including the current Labrot and Graham’s Old Oscar Pepper Distillery and another in Versailles. He hired James C. Crow as his master distiller. James Crow is known for using his knowledge of biochemistry to introduce scientific principles into the distilling process. Together the two men brought fame to the Old Crow and Old Pepper brands. Their whiskey became a big hit with men such as Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, John Calhoun, Ulysess S. Grant, William Henry Harrison, and Daniel Webster. Labrot and Graham’s Old Oscar Pepper Distillery is named for Oscar Pepper.

Lexington (1826)

Lexington is situated in the centre of what the Kentuckians affirm to be the finest body of land in the world. I believe no country can show finer upland; and for a great distance from the town, plantation adjoins plantation, in all directions… There is a balance in conveniences and defects, appended to all earthly paradises. But when the first emigrants entered this country, in its surface so gently waving, with such easy undulation, so many clear limestone springs and branches, so thickly covered with cane, with pawpaw, and a hundred species of flowering trees and shrubs, among which fed innumerable herds of deer, and buffaloes, and other game, as well as wild turkeys and other wild fowl, and the delightful aspect of the country directly contrasted with the sterile region of North Carolina, which they had left, no wonder that it appeared to them a paradise…

Lexington is a singularly neat and pleasant town, on a little stream that meanders through it. It is not so large and flourishing as Cincinnati, but has an air of leisure and opulence, that distinguishes it from the busy bustle and occupation of that town. In the circles where I visited, literature was most commonly the topic of conversation. The window-seats presented the blank covers of the new and most interesting publications. The best modern works had been generally read. The university, which has become so famous, was, even then, taking a higher standing, than the other seminaries in the western country. There was generally an air of ease and politeness in the social intercourse of the inhabitants of this town, which evinced the cultivation of taste and good feeling. In effect, Lexington has taken the tone of a literary place, and may be fitly called the Athens of the West…

I shall have occasion elsewhere, to remark upon the moving or migratory character of the western people generally, and of this state in particular. Though they have generally good houses, they might almost as well, like the Tartars, dwell in tents. Everything shifts under your eye. The present occupants sell, pack up, depart. Strangers replace them. Before they have gained the confidence of their neighbours they hear of a better place, pack up, and follow their precursors.

Timothy Flint


Town Branch Quotations from History

“The town layout was not to be oriented to the compass, but rather aligned to the Town Fork of Elkhorn Creek, whose course became the site of an elongated common ten poles (165′) wide. Lots were arranged on a grid in three rows, one on the rise south of the stream, extending to Hill (High) Street, and two on the more level north side divided by Main Street and bounded by Short Street.”

—1781 Lexington Town Plan.1

“This stream flows unseen beneath the streets of the city now and with scarce current enough to wash out its grim channels; but then it flashed broad and clear through the long valley which formed the town common, – a valley of scattered houses with orchards and corn fields and patches of cane.”

— James Lane Allen story, “James Gray,” in which the hero relates the tale of the Battle of Blue Licks while on the bank of the Town Fork.2

“They beheld a land of bewildering beauty; a land of running waters, of groves and glades and prairies and canebrakes; a land teeming with game, great herds of shaggy-maned buffalo, the lordly elk, the deer, the bear, and the panther, flocks of wild geese and turkeys and paroquettes—a land literally flowing with milk and honey.”

— Maude Lafferty’s description of Town Branch as seen by settlers in 1775.3

1 Clay Lancaster, Vestiges of the Venerable City, a Chronicle of Lexington, Kentucky (Lexington, KY: Lexington-Fayette County Historic Commission, 1978), 9.

2 James Lane Allen, “John Gray” (Lippincott’s Magazine, June 1892) in Wilson,Samuel M., ed. “Sesqui-Centennial Symposium: A symposium of tribute to Lexington on the occasion of the sesquicentennial anniversary of its birth” (Lexington, KY: 1925), 37.

3 Maude Lafferty, The Town Branch. 1917, p. 2.

Dry Stone Retaining Walls and Fences

Historic stone fences are a unique and distinctive feature of the Bluegrass landscape. An example of these fences can be seen at the former landfill on Old Frankfort Pike. In addition to stone fences, the Town Branch Trail will highlight other dry stone structures, retaining walls, which can be found along the Town Branch to maintain the stream banks and channel the water. British and Scotch-Irish craftsmen supervised much of the dry stone construction during the 1800s.

Dry stone structures do not depend on mortar to hold retaining walls or fences together. Instead, they rely on the skill of the craftsmen to shape and place individual stones as well as the forces of gravity and frictional resistance. Mortared walls generally have a shorter life span than dry stone walls because frozen rain and snow get trapped in mortared seams and push the joints apart. Due to construction techniques, dry stone retaining walls and fences can drain naturally without damage. Remarkably, as a dry stone structure settles over time, it actually becomes stronger. The dry stone retaining walls found along Town Branch have been exceptionally durable and have functioned well for up to two centuries and counting.

References:

Alvey, R. G. Kentucky Bluegrass Country. pp. 37-47. 1992.
Dry Stone Conservancy. www.drystoneusa.org

The Disappearance of Town Branch

The Disappearance of Town Branch

by Zina Merkin, November 2001

Many mid-western cities are laid out on a grid oriented to the four principal directions. Lexington’s grid, and its designations of North Limestone and East Main Street are curiously askew from those compass directions. The city originally was oriented along the banks of the Middle Fork of the Elkhorn, also known as Town Fork or Town Branch. But this stream along which the town initially was laid out is now nowhere to be seen. This paper sets out to track the vanishing of Town Branch, the reasons for its disappearance, and its influence on the development of the city of Lexington, linking this particular history with issues in the settlement and development of the United States in general.

While the stream in the earliest years may have been a pretty little creek, it quickly took on an urban character. Water supply was derived from springs, and later, wells, while the creek supported early industry. Tracking the fortunes of Town Branch offers an interesting window on the development of various kinds of urban infrastructure, and a reflection of Lexington’s growth, its changing economic base, and local effects of landscape changes occurring on a national level.

Click this link to open the “The Disappearance of Town Branch” in PDF format (100 kilobytes).