Harry Jesse had his own neighborhood park long before The Parklands of Floyds Fork.
He grew up on that same long stretch of bottomland well ahead of the dreamers, planners and bulldozers. He fished it, hunted it, swam it, rode his bicycle across it, raced a home-made Soap-Box-Derby car down its steep slopes and wasn’t all that far removed from it when his helicopter was shot down in Vietnam.
Sure, you can now rent a canoe to float Floyds Fork. But when Harry Jesse was 10, 12, maybe 13-years-old he and his buddies would talk an older neighborhood kid into a ride the eight miles from his home place on Old Heady Road to that old cement bridge on Shelbyville Road across Floyds Fork.
“It’s where the park is over there now,” he explained. “We’d take an old truck inner tube and tie any kind of a piece of plywood on top and just float all the way down to where I lived on the Fork.
“It could take us all day. Sometimes it would be four or five of us, sometimes it would only be two of us. We just did it because we wanted to, swimming and fishing all the way.”
Old Heady Road drops a few hundred feet down a steep, wooded hill before flattening out to a sod farm at the edge of Floyds Fork where Jesse’s old, cement block home once stood – a sod farm where he worked as an 11-year-old for maybe 90 cents an hour.
History, old maps and common sense say that at one time that Old Heady Road connected to the Old Heady Road on the east side of Floyds Fork.
There’s no trace of that crossing now – although The Parklands is building a pedestrian bridge across the Fork nearby.
History and some evidence also says that just up the hill from that sod farm, at the edge of the steep woods, are the remains of old, forgotten cemeteries, one possibly for settlers and another for slaves.
And Native American arrowheads were scattered so thickly over the bottomland that Jesse took finding them for granted.
“They were just there,” he said.
He doesn’t even remember what happened to them all. But he does remember the sod farm:
“It had two little flatbed trucks and when they built all these houses up along Billtown Road we’d haul the sod up there.
“My boss liked the way I worked so much he’d leave me there to water while the rest had to go back for more sod.”
Old Heady’s slope was tough to navigate in cars and trucks on winter ice – not to mention riding it on second-hand, fat-tired bicycles in the summer.
It was a hill Jesse rode many times before the advent of The Parkland’s engineered bicycle paths. He’s 65 now – looking fondly back more than 50 years. At 13 he was the neighborhood bicycle-repair-guy, the designated maintenance man.
“We rode bikes everywhere,” he said. “I probably kept every bicycle part I could find from somebody’s garage. And all the kids, they’d bring their bicycles to me and I’d fix them.”
The Soap Box Derby was then in vogue, too:
“We used to make our own go-carts or soap boxes. We’d take lawnmower wheels and whatever wood we could scrap up from around people’s houses.
“We ride down Old Heady with us boys in the carts and Dad would clock us at 35 or 40 miles an hour.
“And you was lucky if you made it down there with three wheels on it. There was no brakes. You’d just go on out through the bottom til’ you stopped.”
“You know how a bunch of boys are.”
Jesse’s parents were originally from Shelby County; their families mostly farmers. His father, Paul Jesse, worked at General Electric. His mother, Margaret Ritter Jesse, raised their three children, cooked, gardened, canned and sewed. When the three children got older both parents worked for the State of Kentucky at the I-71 rest stop.
Paul Jesse always wanted to live in the country, could only afford to rent other people’s houses; picked them because loved the fishing and hunting nearby.
He rented a series of houses along Hopewell Road – one right behind what’s now Fisherman’s Park – and then the big house at the bottom of Old Heady.
The house had a huge kitchen – another childhood memory maker – and a living room that stretched all the way across the front.
Upstairs were three bedrooms – one for each kid – and a covered, second-story porch looking out over the fields and woods. Louisville – even Jeffersontown – seemed 1,000 miles away.
“My Dad would sleep in the morning and get up and work at nighttime,” Jesse said. “My Mother, she was a homemaker, but she knew where we was at, so she wasn’t real strict on us.
“We’d just run around or play all day long.”
It was their park. They played basketball on rickety, home-made hoops, baseball in flat farm fields and camped out on lakes and along Floyds Fork.
The best swimming and fishing spots were within 100 yards of the house; an easy morning walk to the deep, shaded hole where the swimming was easy and the fish plentiful:
“The hole was shaped like a key so we called it “The Keyhole.” …We’d cut grapevines and drop off into the water when we was swimming.
“My Dad always had little rods and reels and that. We’d just catch bluegill and some bass and perch.
“And lots of times in the spring they’d have what they called “suckers’ that would be on the run.”
The boys never bought bait. It was all free; night crawlers slinking above wet ground in the moonlight; smaller worms to be dug or found under rotted boards. Then there were the “Horse Weed” worms; the insect larvae to be found within the stems of giant ragweed by cutting them open.
“You didn’t buy anything back then,” said Jesse. “We didn’t have any money.”
They hunted frogs day or night, wading out into Floyds Fork where the water met stones, working the low ripples, using a frog gig by day and adding a flashlight to freeze their prey at night.
His bolt-action .410 shotgun – a gift from his father – kept him in the contest when the boys kept score of squirrels and rabbits taken home in season.
In winter they would slide down the steep bluff above the Fork on an old Chevrolet car hood; eight or ten kids packed inside; laughing all the while to keep their fear at bay – at least until the one time a scared kid stuck out his leg to stop the hood and broke it against a tree.
Getting in trouble had a different definition back then – even a different degree of difficulty:
“We didn’t go around tearing up people’s property and everything,” he said, “but I’m sure there was some stuff that we did that wasn’t approved of.”
High on that list would have been their walking across the Pope Lick Trestle, a skinny, 772-feet of rusted metal and railroad track with no guard rails that still rises about 90 feet above Pope Lick along Taylorsville Road.
The trestle’s lore included it being home to the Pope Lick Monster, a half-man, half-goat with sharp horns, greasy hair and maniacal disposition.
Walking the trestle with your buddies was a rite of passage – and several young people fell to their deaths as a train came hurtling across leaving them no good way to escape.
“I was in junior high,” Jesse said, “and there was about seven or eight of us all the time running around, but not all of us walked out there at the same time.
“We always pretty much knew when a train was coming because you could hear the whistle and you knew how far off it was.
“There was two platforms out there where you could stand. But you needed to be holding on or sitting down because that thing vibrates with a train on it.
“You got to use your head on stuff like that. Back then it felt good, because when I went into the service I jumped out of airplanes.”
One grand adventure was the stuff of a coming-of-age movie – a kinder, gentler “Stand by Me.” It sprang from a random, cross-country trip that led the boys to an old, deserted house up in the woods off Shinks Branch, a small stream that wandered down off a rocky hill.
The boys heard a noise in the house – maybe a raccoon – and climbed inside the dim interior to check it out. They found dust, debris, rotted walls, pieces of old furniture and a pipe organ as tall and wide as a doorway.
“A couple of the guys didn’t even know what it was,” said Jesse.
One of his buddies sat down at the organ and began to pump the pedals. He could sense the organ’s air pressure build up beneath his feet.
He pushed the keys, expecting nothing, and organ music flowed into the room – right there in a crumbing, deserted house on a wooded hill in the middle of nowhere above Shinks Branch.
As will happen, it took awhile for the possibilities to sink in.
“We just went on,” said Jesse. “At the time we didn’t think no more about it. Afterward we got this bright idea we could make a haunted house back there.”
As the boys conspired and planned, their adventure spread to their peers by word-of-mouth: A haunted house up Shinks Branch.
Soon other teenagers began to make their way up Shinks Branch – parking their cars on a rocky road a few hundred yards away and walking to the house.
On three or four nights – as Halloween drew closer – Jesse and his buddies got to the house first. As the visitors approached, they would pump the pedals and hit the keys to release the organs, mournful reverberating cry.
“Of course most of the boys that came brought their girlfriends with them,” said Jesse. “The girls would start screaming and everything and the guys would have to take them back to the cars.”
The fun ended when some visitors began tossing firecrackers into the house. Jesse and his buddies, fearing a fire, never went back.
He hasn’t been back since. Fifty years. The old house and its pipe organ now long gone.
The growing up came quickly – too quickly – almost in bursts. Jesse dropped out of high school at age 16. He went to work landscaping for Frank Otte, moved on to General Electric. He got married and two years later, in August of 1969, was drafted into the Vietnam War.
On one mission he was a door gunner on a helicopter, assigned as personal security to a colonel in an engineering unit. The helicopter was shot down by ground fire about 100 feet up. Jesse was thrown out as the helicopter fell, smashing his knee caps.
Another helicopter flew them out. He still deals with knee problems – and the effects of Agent Orange on his diabetes:
“I eat a ton of pills and I go to the VA hospital all the time for whatever reason.”
He earned his GED in service. Back home he began driving a truck over the road for a living, then became a terminal manager for Key Oil Company & Service Transport for 28 years. He worked two years for Thornton Oil Transportation before retiring.
“I was pleased with how that turned out,” he said.
His wife, Judy, is an operations manager at the Cane Run Road Thornton’s Transportation. She is his second wife. Together they share seven children; three from his previous marriage, three of Judy’s – and one together. They lost one child last year to cancer.
He’s still never been very far inside the modern Parklands of Floyds Fork – although he’s driven the roads across it. He does, on occasion, drive the old neighborhood up on Hopewell and Old Heady roads, and maybe back up Pope Lick Road, looking for changes in the landscape, searching for old neighbors and memories.
Some days he finds them.
About the Author
Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system – all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill’s stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.