It’s interesting how people have different ideas of historical preservation.
This was a subject Carolyn Crabtree, a local historian and genealogist, became aware of a few days ago when she heard students read their presentations from research they did on McDowell House and Jacobs Hall.
Speaking to the Boyle Landmark Trust at its annual meeting Dec. 9, Crabtree said signage and documenting information on old buildings in Danville are important to inform people the reason historical buildings are worth saving.
Crabtree said one student did his presentation on McDowell House after he took a tour of the building without anyone to describe the house and why it was important to save the structure as a historic site.
The student knew about the surgery performed by Dr. Ephraim McDowell, but he did not seem to understand just how important it was and the far-reaching effects of that surgery. He was not aware it was the first abdominal surgery performed by McDowell in 1809 to remove a large tumor from a woman who recovered and led a normal life. He also did not know McDowell was a leader in early Danville.
The student visited the building and surrounding area, and observed no one except himself visited the house while he was there. He was there during the fall when not many visitors come as tourists to the area, so his observations were probably correct for that time period.
He knew an important surgery had been done in the house, but really knew very little about the family who had lived there, or even the far-reaching influence of Dr. Ephraim McDowell after the world-famous surgery.
This student’s conclusion was even though the building was significant in the past, since it didn’t seem to have that same significance now, why bother to put so much money and effort into its preservation.
“He apparently left the house without doing any other research,” Crabtree said. “His report made me realize that the preservation of old houses and buildings just for the sake of the buildings is not enough to make their protection valuable to the newer generations.
“We as historians and preservationists must help the younger generations see the importance of the heritage they have as part of this historic area and the contributions that older buildings and farms make to create a uniqueness to this community. They must come to realize that inspiration can come to young people from knowing what happened in these old buildings and how far-reaching the significance is of each one. They also must have some understanding of the people who lived, worshipped and worked here to build the community where they now live.”
Another student, who is deaf, did his research on Jacobs Hall.
He was inspired by the fact Jacobs Hall was a beautiful building with wonderful architecture, but inspired even more when he learned the Kentucky School for the Deaf was a standard for other schools in this nation that were built for young people like him, said Crabtree.
State-supported schools in the South and Midwest were created because of the example of the deaf school in Danville. Men from this area went to other states to help build those schools.
Because of the help the student received in understanding the far-reaching effects of Kentucky School for the Deaf, he also saw the reason why people continue to work to preserve Jacobs Hall as an icon for the history of the school.
Education important in preservation
“Boyle Landmark Trust has worked hard to educate the community about endangered properties,” Crabtree said. “Members of Landmark Trust board also serve on other boards and committees in central Kentucky in educational roles to help keep preservation awareness before the community as a whole. With the help of the public we have erected a Kentucky Highway Marker in front of the Willis Russell House.
“I can tell you as a former tourism employee that signage for that building has been needed for many years. Visitors were constantly asking about the ‘log cabin down the street,’ but local people passed it constantly and had very few questions about what happened there. Now, people will know the history, not only of the Russell House, but its connection to the buildings on Constitution Square as well.”
Willis Russell House has been opened four times this year for visits by school groups from several area schools and home-schooling families and by the citizens of the surrounding area as well.
“Landmark Trust’s fall event at the Bright Farm owned by Chris Kubale was a great success. Besides giving a history of a beautiful historic farm in our area, we provide information about sustainable farming and give other businesses in the area that support the area farms in new and different ways some needed exposure. Some of the Centre College students helped with this event and they liked the idea of being part of the community,” said Crabtree.
“We have developed an endangered watch list for the Boyle County area with the help of the Heart of Danville and have written letters encouraging owners of these properties to consider the importance of preservation. We have a presence on the Internet at website http://www.boylelandmarktrust.org and also on Facebook, thanks to Jerry Houck.”
Crabtree added with the help of other genealogists and historians in the area, they are building a written history of a number of the endangered homes in this area as well as their families, especially those people connected with the Willis Russell House.
Charles Gray, a local genealogist, has donated his extensive collection of materials on African-American history to be preserved by the local library. A history of the African-American community in Danville, especially their educational history, also is being compiled at the library.
Crabtree said she has been inspired to do more than tell stories of Boyle County’s history and encourages others to speak out about the county, especially to the younger generations.
“Tell others why this area is significant in the history of Kentucky and the United States, and why Boyle County’s historical buildings are worth saving,” she said.
Editor’s note: The photographs are among a collection of glass negatives owned by Harold Edwards of Perryville.