Tracing an Invisible History
This story was featured in a 2/15/2014 Courier-Journal article that can be read, in full, here.
John T. McGraw, one of the six children of Clark W. and Bessie McGraw who grew up along Floyds Fork, had a fifth-grade education and a poet’s heart. Asked by his daughter, Pam, to write a personal history of growing up on the family farm that he could never quite leave, he responded with an essay that far transcends details such as grammar and spelling.Here are a few excerpts:‘My name is Wisdom’ If I could come back again after my death, I would like to be a red fox or a big oak tree. The fox is smart, the tree is strong. When I walked the woods years ago, I would think about what goes on at night out here. You could see tracks in snow & mud. Cows and horses ate grass all night.
Rabbits hopped all night, also. I have thought about the noise in the trees. Did they talk to themselves, or was it just the wind? At the top of the hill, before we got to the Stout house, there was three big oak trees.
We had to open the gate for Dad to drive through. When I was little I wanted to be big and strong like that tree. So when I return, my journey with the Lord will be that big oak tree by the gate at top of our hill. You see I am 80 feet tall & my canopy is about 90 feet across. My trunk is 4 feet thick. My roots are my toes —20 feet in ground. So you can see my name is Wisdom. Beauty is my girlfriend and she is next to me. Strength is just behind me. We can see over the bottom and Echo Trail across the creek. I have seen people in love, holding hands as they pass under me. I can hear them talk about work & play. I known when they miss school. I have seen people come and go. I have seen people poach and steal also.Mr.Chick Hawk that sets in the top of my tree. His name is Claw. I can feel his claw when he comes to light. He is very smart; he lives on the dumb and weak. Mr. Cow comes to see me also. He makes a lot of noise, his mouth lets all know he is here. Billy the coon comes at night and looks over the bottoms also.
Hoover the owl also comes by. The ground squirrels fills my toes with nuts for winter. Mr. Buzzard comes my way also. I am sadden when he comes cause death is his friend. I don’t talk to him much. It’s so nice to just let your mind run loose and think about being young … I have been blessed with love and nice friends… Edna my sweet wife takes good care of me. I’m happy to have her.The next time I’ll write about the Red Fox. I used to dream about being a Red Fox. Enjoy, I love you all. Dad
A fine, but invisible history lives in the 150 acres of corn stubble of a bottomland field along Floyds Fork near Louisville’s eastern edge.
Even more history can be found in an old, forgotten pioneer cemetery along the stream — with what little remains of its stone walls scattered beneath fallen limbs and leafy debris, one of its time-stained headstones dating to 1799.
The stream’s edge of that bottomland will be well preserved and protected within the boundaries of the still-under-construction Parklands of Floyds Fork, as will the cemetery with so many more of its secrets waiting to be uncovered — rediscovered — more than 200 years later.
They are in a rural, twisting, more lonesome section of Floyds Fork called The Strand, one of five distinct sections in the almost 20-mile park.
What we know for certain is that a classic, two-story, eight-room house of yellow pine and poplar with green shutters, tin roof, tall porches and six fireplaces once stood in that broad field of corn stubble — the only remnant of it now a skinny utility pole wrapped in grape vines and hackberry tree limbs.
You look at that pole, the empty acres around it, the old photos of the farm house of uncertain lineage with its 12-foot ceilings, papered walls, classy railings and hand-carved scrollwork, and you wonder who lived there in such grand 19th century isolation — and where did they all go?
Part of the story begins with a man with the sanctified name of Lee Honest McGraw, who was born in Ohio in 1851 and later moved to Monterey in Owen County, Ky. There he built a very successful business as a tobacco wholesaler, patented inventor, land owner, banker and merchant sending his goods by boat downriver to Louisville.
For all his merchant success he firmly believed his sons should become farmers. One of them was a Clark Wright McGraw, who owned a small variety store in Danville, Ky.
Bowing to his father’s wishes, Clark and his wife, Bessie, sold the store, loaded up a wagon and, in 1917, moved to the remote farm his father purchased for him along Floyds Fork between Fisherville and the long-gone community of Seatonville.
The roughly 220-acre farm was a mix of woods and knobby hills that rose as a backdrop to the rich farmland overgrown with brush and weeds.
That big house was already there, held above the ground on chiseled limestone supports, cast-iron grates in its floors through which children would watch snakes crawl on the ground below.
The house was bathed in the shadows of very specific trees someone had planted there; hickory, walnut, pecan and Chinese elm among them. It was an almost two-mile trek on foot, horseback or in wagon to Old Heady Road to get out — and then you had to ford the flash-flood-prone waters of Shinks Branch.
Alongside that road, just where it angled up a hill from the bottomlands, was a scattering of big stones that Lee Honest McGraw told his children marked the graves of slaves. He also believed the wooden shacks then near the old house might have been slave quarters.
And closer to the old house, alongside a sunken carriage and wagon road that ran along the edge of Floyds Fork from Fisherville to Seatonville, was that old cemetery with finely carved epitaphs that predated the McGraw family’s arrival by more than 100 years.
The farm also came with wooden outbuildings: smokehouse, chicken coop, buggy shed and a tobacco barn with attached corn crib.
The buildings were framed with yellow poplar beams held together with pegs. They were held about 30 inches above the ground on more limestone supports.
The name “BRADBURY” was carved into one building, and a later check of land deeds going back to the early 1800s showed such names as Frederick, Wisehart, Gunn, Hummel and Pound, but the McGraws never would learn who shared the farm’s history and sense of place with them.
Clark McGraw, a novice farmer who still dreamed of being a businessman, would at first plow the fields wearing a suit and tie. During the next 23 years, he and Bessie had six children; five boys and a girl: Melvin, John, Clark Jr., Larry, Lee and Mary.
Most couldn’t complete grade school; the schools were too remote — the interest not always there, the farm work all-consuming.
Their lives were sprinkled with early marriages, occasional squabbles, periodic legal incidents and serious motorcycle accidents. Some of the boys would use their innate mechanical abilities to find work outside the farm, then drift back onto it, unable to pull away — not wanting to pull away.
Lee Massey McGraw, the oldest son, was about a year old when his parents moved to the farm in 1917.He stayed and worked on and off the farm — mostly jobs in town — for almost 60 years.
He and his wife, Anna Mae Bohn, had two children — Anna Lee McGraw Brinley, 72, and Lee Massey “Bud” McGraw Jr., 71, who lived on the farm much of their early lives.
It’s their writings, old photographs and memories that helped solve some — but not all — of the mysteries of the farm. The one certainty was the McGraw clan not only lived on the Floyds Fork
bottomlands, they lived off it — creating a bond with land and woods.
Their farm — especially during the Depression — sustained them. It provided the food, fish, fowl and firewood that kept them all warm and fed. It gave them squirrels to hunt; mink, fox and muskrats to trap for pelts; great soil for a crops and vegetable garden; pasture to raise cows for meat and milk; and a nearby swimming hole in which to play.
“In the summertime,” Lee McGraw Jr. said of the nearest neighbor, “you couldn’t even see another house.”
Lee Jr. was only a year old when his mother died. He and his sister, Anna, lived on the farm with their grandparents while his father lived and worked in town. Then he remarried Emma Moss Angel, whose name mirrored her nurturing instincts. They all lived for a time in Indiana and then moved back to the farm— with Uncle Melvin McGraw living upstairs.
In grade school, brother and sister walked the almost two miles of fields and steep woods and across Shinks Branch to catch the school bus on Old Heady Road — then walked the same path home , about 45 minutes each way.
By the fourth grade, they began walking the other direction, downriver to Seatonville Road to catch the school bus; that was about a mile and only took 30 minutes.
As they grew older, they helped milk 11 cows by hand in the morning before catching the school bus, then milked them again when they got home, processing the milk in a hand-cranked separator.
They switched back to walking together to Old Heady Road to catch the school bus to Fern Creek High School. By then, Anna and Lee Jr. had pooled $175 in tobacco wages to buy a 1950 Ford to drive the rutted road from the house to the school bus stop, parking the car at Old Heady Road.
But the Ford wasn’t reliable — and some days they still walked.
“I was a senior,” said Anna McGraw Brinley, “and we had this deal where we knew if we weren’t by a certain persimmon tree when you heard the train go over the trestle at Fisherville you knew you were
going to miss the bus.
“This particular morning I didn’t feel like running, so I told Bud that if I didn’t make it I didn’t make it. So instead of going on, our school bus driver waited for me.
“So when I get to Shinks Branch, I am carrying my school shoes in one hand and wearing an old pair of shoes. I look up and the bus is waiting. So I run the full length to Old Heady Road and everybody on the bus was cheering.
“I’m embarrassed to death, everybody’s screaming and hollering, ‘Come on Anna,’ and when I got to the bus I was so exhausted I missed the steps and fell. “We always went to school with wet feet.”
The old road in and out was in constant need of repair and gravel. Some days the two would return from school, milk the cows, eat dinner and then walk back out the dirt road to Old Heady Road and over to Hopewell Road to go to church.
Later on, Lee Jr. would walk nine miles round-trip from the house over to Hopewell Road to visit his girlfriend, Fay Brinley, who soon became his wife and moved onto the old farm with him.
In winters, the farmhouse was heated by fireplace, iron stoves and firewood; Clark McGraw didn’t like coal. By then he had gotten into the truck-farming business, selling vegetables, tobacco and meat in
Louisville from a Model T truck he had to back up the hill because it wouldn’t pull the load in forward gear.
He died of a heart attack in 1947, falling from his blue, maple-wood rocking chair to the floor. His body was taken out to Old Heady Road in a horse-drawn sled. His survivors continued to work the farm, selling cream, butter, milk and eggs up and down Old Heady
Road. Sweet corn, apples and okra were frozen, jellies and jams preserved for family.
They helped harvest the hay, plant the corn, slop the hogs, feed the chickens, set out the big tobacco crop, hoe the fields, sucker the plants and harvest the brown leaves.
For a time, they lived downstairs in the house while the upper floor was used to cure the tobacco — the odor wafting all through the house.
Electricity came to the farm in 1953 from the far side of Floyds Fork, supported on those skinny utility poles. The house wiring would include one light bulb attached to a string in every room.
“I was always scared of the dark until I got into my early teens,” Lee Jr. said. Electricity meant an electric blanket for Anna, who slept in an unheated upstairs room, rushing downstairs to a fireplace or iron stove to get dressed in the morning.
Their first telephone was an eight-party line; the talkative neighbors had to be asked to get off so others could use it. The bathroom was outside — a three-holer. The old house never did get indoor plumbing that worked.
When company came — and that would include many relatives on most summer weekends — the guests were treated to freshly killed chickens, the children going off later to swim in Floyds Fork, swing on
grapevines and wander the woods.
The McGraw kids and kin soon developed names for certain areas of Floyds Fork. The “Riffle” was where the shallow waters broke into tiny rapids. The “Blue Bluff” was a popular swimming place downstream of the house where a limestone wall rose above the water. The “Flat Rock” was just that. The “Deep Hole” spoke for itself.
Fishing was a hands-on sport. Lee McGraw Sr. practiced the ancient art of “noodling” for catfish by having his two children stand in the shallow-water rocks and ledges to block any escape while he ran his hands beneath the water feeling for the fish.
“He said he would always rub their belly and it would quiet them down,” Lee Jr. said. “Then he’d worked his thumb into their mouths and pull them out.”
The old cemetery wasn’t far from the house, but the children mostly left it alone; a mix of respect and fear.
“It was a foreboding place,” Anna McGraw Brinley said. “It was kind of unkempt, and the trees had grown up through it, and the old stones had green, mossy look to them.
“It wasn’t one of our places we liked to be.”
They knew nothing of the people buried in the cemetery — and still don’t. In time, Lee Jr. and Anna and their families left the farm for blue-collar and retail jobs, both lamenting years later that they had ever left at all. What seemed like so much work and hardship at the time turned out to be some of the best days of their lives.
“At the time, I probably thought we had it pretty rough,” Anna said, “but as I look back, I think it was really kind of unique. And I think it made us stronger people, to learn how to deal with life.
“I also got to do a lot of things that other people don’t have a clue.”
There was one last change in store for the McGraw family farm after Lee Jr. and Anna left. In the 1960s, a wealthy developer named George Roche Jr., decided to build a world-class golf complex in, of all places, the distant, Floyds Fork bottom lands near Seatonville and up Echo Trail.
Roche’s company took an option on the McGraw property and the farm next to it as one of several courses in the area. Contractors tore out all the fences and began pulling rock from Floyds Fork, grading
the property and building greens.
“Dad quit farming,” said Lee Jr. “He sold all his cows and his plow. He started doing work for the developers, just acres of all kinds of work like planting grass. He didn’t have any cows left or fences or anything.”
“The developers tore up the ground. … And Dad got up one morning and all the developer’s equipment was gone. They’d gone broke and left.”
Lee McGraw Sr. sold the farm in the mid-1970s. In the early 1980s, the time-ravaged trees and rotting old house — then being used to store hay — were bulldozed and burned.
Some of the old McGraw property will be in the new park. The rest of the open, bottomland acreage is now a well-tended farm with a new owner.
In February, all you can see of the farm’s history is a utility pole and corn stubble.
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.