Many of you know about the Meade County History Museum in Brandenburg, on 281 Oaklawn Road. Did you know that there is another history museum nearby in the town of West Point? It is only a 20-minute drive from Brandenburg to West Point and well worth the visit.
West Point is a little town with a whole lot of history. The West Point Kentucky History Museum is located in Hardin County at 508 Elm Street in West Point. The operating hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. and admission is free. The museum was closed in March 2020 due to COVID restrictions, and I would recommend calling ahead to be sure it is open. Please call Monie Matthews, the museum curator, at 502-930-0001.
I met Gerry Fischer at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 5 in the parking lot of the Meade County History Museum, and we took off in his truck to West Point. Gerry pointed out areas of historical interest along the way on Old Mill Road, such as where the old mill used to be, the location of the town of Garnettsville, and its cemetery. We drove across Dixie Highway into the town of Muldraugh and traveled a short distance down Main Street. Gerry told me that this road used to be part of the old 31W before the new Dixie Highway was built around 1942.
As we neared West Point we passed through an area where Dixie Highway passed through some cliffs that had been blasted through to allow the road to pass on more even ground. Gerry said that, during the Civil War, anyone traveling from West Point to the Brandenburg area had to go up over the ridge, and it took a long time to travel that way.
Gerry took Main Street into West Point. This road was part of the original Dixie Highway/31W. When the new highway was built it bypassed the town of West Point and was one of the reasons that the town’s businesses declined.
The West Point History Museum is located on Elm Street directly across from the West Point City Hall building, which also houses the Police Station and Public Works Department. There is an interesting sign in front of the City Hall which reads: “The 38th Parallel. You are now crossing the 38th Parallel. This is the same latitude as the line separating North and South Korea.”
The museum is located in a building that once housed a medical center. A plaque on the front reads: West Point Medical Center Dedicated In Memory of O.C. “Doc” Wilson 1957. On the front window, sandwiched between the signage for the History Museum, is the West Point logo. The logo is a large pilot’s wheel with “City of West Point Kentucky” at the top and “Founded 1796” on the bottom. In between is a large anchor above some waves and in the waves is written “Anchored Between Two Rivers.” The two rivers that shaped the history of West Point are the Ohio and Salt rivers. The 150-mile long Salt River converges into the Ohio River at West Point.
We were greeted at the West Point Museum by the curator, Monie Matthews. Monie is a man of many talents. He was a teacher in the Jefferson County School System for two decades and is a minister at the Church of Christ in Guston. He has authored a book entitled Robert Hendershot: Youngest Civil War Hero, and he portrays Mark Twain at several historical events. Monie has volunteered at Ft. Duffield Park since 1993 and knows many interesting details about the fort. Matthews has been the curator at the West Point History Museum for a little over 3 years. He has been collecting historical artifacts from the West Point area for over 25 years. Several of the items on display at the museum were personally collected by Matthews.
The history museum houses exhibits that tell the history of the town of West Point and the area nearby. The first settlers came to West Point in 1776, but for at least 20 years they were not able to maintain homesteads due to constant Indian attacks. In 1796, the town was founded by James Young from Virginia. After the Indians left the area, Mr. Young received a land grant that encompassed the whole town. Young built a brick home in 1797 on Elm Street and it is standing there to this day.
Monie Matthews related the story of how important West Point was to the Lewis and Clark Expedition and their exploration of a waterway route to the west coast of the United States. West Point was most likely the first settlement where the explorers stopped after they left Clarksville, Indiana, on Oct. 26, 1803. They stopped to pick up John Shields, who lived in West Point and was a blacksmith and gunsmith on the expedition, and hunters Reuben and Joseph Field, who lived near West Point in southern Jefferson County. Shields and the Field brothers are mentioned prominently in the journals detailing the expedition.
At one time West Point was a bustling town, in part due to its location on the banks of the Ohio River and near the mouth of the Salt River. Both rivers provided commerce in the form of fishing and transportation of goods. Some families earned a living harvesting mussels in the Salt River. The mussel shells were sold to a factory in Leavenworth, Ind. where they were fashioned into buttons. From the late 1800s up until the 1940s many people lived on Shanty Boats on the Ohio River and several were docked in West Point. The residents of these boats worked as fishermen and in local industry.
Some major railroads passed through West Point. They included the Louisville, Henderson, & St. Louis (L.H. & St. L.) and the Louisville and Nashville (L & N) railroads. After the Great Depression the two railroads merged and became simply known as the L & N Railroad. Another railroad, the Illinois Central, carried passengers from Louisville to New Orleans. The last time it stopped in West Point for passengers was in 1957. On display in the history museum is an original conductor’s hat and telegraph machine from the Illinois Central railroad depot in West Point.
Also on display in the museum are some original bricks and lots of pictures about the brickyard that was in operation in West Point from 1895 until 1967. There were six large beehive kilns that turned out bricks that were used in buildings all around the area, including Louisville. The site of the brickyard is off limits now, and very little remains of the once thriving operation.
Being so close to major rivers became disastrous for the residents of West Point when flood waters rose too high. In the museum are multiple photos of floods that devastated the area. The worst flood was in 1937. It started raining on Jan. 8 of that year and by Jan. 28, the Ohio River and all its tributaries overflowed their banks. The Ohio River flooded past its 28-foot flood stage and kept going. Entire houses were knocked off their foundations and swept downstream. In Veteran’s Memorial Park down by the bank of the Ohio River stands a tall light pole with high water marks upon it marking the high water marks of the worst floods in the area. The highest flood mark on the pole is for 1937, followed by 1945, 1964, 1884, 1883, 1913, 1997 and 1907. The latest big flood (not noted on the marker) was in 2018. Although several houses and businesses were flooded, it was nothing to compare the prior major floods. Regardless of the danger of flooding, the residents of West Point are resilient. After the flood of 1997 resident Larry Price was quoted in the Christian Science Monitor as saying that West Point survives because its people pull together. “It’s gonna take time to get everything back to normal,” he conceded. “But ... neighbors and good old-fashioned help goes a long way toward alleviating fears.” Mr. Price’s remarks encapsulate the tenacity of the residents of West Point.
An important component of the West Point History Museum is its research center. Monie Matthews has collected over 5,000 newspaper articles on the town and has information on about 1,200 families with ties to West Point. This is an invaluable tool for people who are researching their family history.
There were so many more exhibits in the museum; for example, the display about local musicians who became well known, including Randy and Bob Atcher. A large array of local veterans from several wars encompasses a wall, as well as items relating to the practice of Dr. Dan Roberts. One exhibit contains several athletic jackets and jerseys worn by basketball team members from the West Point High School. Next to this is a large trophy case filled with athletic trophies from that school. West Point High School closed in the late 1950’s, but the West Point Independent School remained open for grades Pre-K to 8th Grade until its closure in 2020. All students now living in West Point will be bused to schools near Elizabethtown in Hardin County.
The residents of West Point, Kentucky at this time include people who are employed at nearby Fort Knox, the CEMEX cement plant close by in Kosmosdale, and other industries and businesses in the Louisville vicinity.
West Point was a very strategic location during the Civil War and I visited Ft. Duffield, the Union fort that overlooks West Point. Monie Matthews gave a Gerry Fischer and I a fascinating tour of Ft. Duffield. I will continue my narrative about West Point history in Part 2, and that will include my tour of the fort.