Floyds Fork history took another turn yesterday, this one marked by a white tent staked into a broad meadow that was once part of a foolish dream to build a great golf course in the middle of nowhere.
The tent served as temporary shelter for more than 100 casual guests and well-dressed dignitaries brought together on a gentle July morning in river bottomland off Seatonville Road for a groundbreaking ceremony publicizing the fourth and final phase of The Parklands of Floyds Fork.
Also on hand to give full flight to the ceremony – and to celebrate the park’s new direction – were members of the Louisville Chapter of the Kentucky Mountain Bike Association.
The bikers were to demonstrate their art on two sloped mounds of brown dirt behind the tent – hoping to fly about 15 feet from one mound to the next as a prelude of Parkland things to come.
History has brought a lot of change to this still remote section of parklands off Seatonville Road and Echo Trail, but few of its early pioneers would have guessed flying dirt bikes.
The earliest history was marked by the many Indian arrowheads to be found along the bottomland closer to Seatonville Road.
In the 1780s a man named John Mundell opened a mill along Floyds Fork near Chenoweth Run – the mill site only a half-mile from where the white tent would be staked to the ground. Mundell sold the mill to the Funk family – who operated it until 1876.
Funk’s Mill gave capitalistic rise to nearby Seatonville, a village along the banks of Floyds Fork that in the late 1800s boasted 75 residents, two stores, a saw mill, a wooden covered bridge and a one-room school.
Farmers built small houses and barns on the higher, dry side of the big meadow just hoping to eke out a living; some of them to be buried in the nearby Seaton Family cemetery.
It’s all gone now; torn down or rotted away; buried beneath summer weeds and tall grass; very few of those gathered at the white tent yesterday even knew any of it had ever existed.
They also didn’t know that in 1960 a wealthy developer from New York City named George Roche Jr. somehow found his way to these very same Floyds Fork bottomlands with plans to build a world-class, 54-hole golf complex where the Funks had once milled corn.
He was accompanied to Seatonville by famed golf course architect Robert Trent Jones, a man who helped shaped the Augusta National Golf Course in Georgia, home of The Masters Golf Tournament.
“I think,” Jones had announced at a luncheon in Louisville’s lofty Pendennis Club in May 1960, “we will have one of the finest courses in the country here, possibly the equal of the Augusta National…”
Tell that to all those gathered 53 years later beneath that white tent in an otherwise empty, 60-acre meadow stretching between Floyds Fork and a rising backdrop of hills and green trees.
There was a small and temporary golf course success: An often-flooded nine-hole course – eventually called Irongate Country Club – was salvaged from several attempts in that meadow, giving the grassy plain its contemporary name: “Irongate Meadow.”
After that washed away came a horse stable with trails through the woods above the meadow. Later on someone tried a Christmas tree farm up on the tall ridges.
The meadow was planted in some crops or cut for hay over the years but it stubbornly resisted all other changes; staying exactly what it wanted to be; what it was meant to be.
In 2007 The Parklands of Floyds Fork purchased about 460 acres of the Irongate property as an integral part of the ever developing Parklands of Floyds Fork. Its plans are to wind a road and path through the area and up into the 1,000 forested acres above it – with a place up high to stop and look back across the big meadow.
Steve Henry and his Future Fund dreams to save the land for posterity were already involved in the area. Louisville philanthropist Mary Bingham had helped early in the preservation effort with a donation of money that led to “Mary’s Island” – an oval-shaped piece of Floyds Fork bottomland near the old golf course created from two divergent streams of water.
Then, over the next ten years, came the intricate planning, development and construction of the first two parks within The Parklands complex; Beckley Creek Park and Pope Lick Park. Then, on that gentle July morning, came the white tent off Seatonville Road with its guests and dignitaries.
These last two promised parks – Turkey Run Park and Broad Run Park and its connecting Strand – will encompass about 2,400 acres of the total of almost 4,000 acres in development, and promise to be the most rural, natural and interesting.
Turkey Run will include about 1,000 acres of hiking and biking trails, and the Brown-Forman Silo Center with an observation tower in a seventh-generation, family-farm silo.
Broad Run Park will have 600 acres of limestone cliffs, waterfalls and playgrounds and a dog park. Construction costs for these two parks are estimated at about $35 million for roads and infrastructure – with more than $122 million already raised in private and public funding to purchase the land and build the entire park system.
In now familiar language the speakers at the yesterday’s groundbreaking spoke of the continuation of the Olmsted legacy in Louisville, the ongoing co-operation among the many private, public and political entities that is required to create one of the biggest and best parks in the United States, the many hundreds of donors who made it possible.
Dan Jones, chairman and CEO of 21st Century Parks, reminded those gathered under the white tent that Frederick Law Olmsted had said “A park should be an unfolding series of experiences” – a message 21st Century has taken to heart.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer suggested the park system will leave an “indelible mark on the city.” Brown-Forman Vice-Chairman Jim Welch said the Louisville community “literally will be forever grateful” for the new parks.
U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell praised park benefactor David Jones, Sr. for the incredible focus he brings to such community projects, and praised his son, Dan Jones, for his passion in seeing it through to its 2015 completion date.
David Jones told a funny story of receiving word from Senator McConnell of a needed federal grant for The Parklands that would help create miles of interconnecting roads and bridges, giving the whole project momentum.
Jones said early reports had led him to believe the federal grant would be for $3 million. He was working out in his basement about 10:00 p.m. that night when he got a phone call from McConnell saying the federal grant for The Parklands had been upped a bit just in the last 15 minutes; it was now $38 million.
“Hold on a minute,” Jones told McConnell. “Let me sit down…Say that again.”
After all the introductions and “Thank you’s” the dignitaries were handed the obligatory pale green and blue shovels – The Parklands colors – and moved behind the two dirt mounds where they broke a little ground to generous applause.
Waiting off to one side to test the jumpability of the temporary mounds was a small herd of dirt bikers from the Kentucky Mountain Bike Association.
It’s president, Billy Davis, a man as passionate about dirt bikes as are The Parklands directors of their park, explained that thanks to a grant from John and Annette Schnatter of Papa John’s fame the new park development will include miles of bike trails and a mountain bike center and training area that will make it one of the best in the country – and one of the very few this close to an urban area.
“It will transform mountain bike riding from an elite sport into something for everyone in the family,” he said. “There will be national and international events here.”
Finally – and accompanied by a brief burst of yellow, blue and orange confetti – three mountain bikers took turns successfully flying up and over the mounds, taking their first, tentative leaps into Floyds Fork history.
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.