By Harry G. Enoch
The main branch of Lower Howard’s Creek begins in Winchester and flows generally toward the southwest until it gets to Kitt’s Hole near the Kentucky River. This deep pool takes its name, according to legend, from a man named Kitt who supposedly drowned there. From Kitt’s Hole the creek makes a sharp turn to the north then to the east, passing the mouth of Deep Branch, before finally turning to flow almost due south. This horseshoe bend encloses an area of about 15 acres called “Thompson Ridge” that is now included in the Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve.
Thompson Ridge is not a name used in the local area and is not found in deeds, maps or other records. We first encountered the name in an archaeological report that Cultural Resource Analysts Inc. submitted to Clark County Fiscal Court in 2001. The consultant, referring to a map that showed an “A. Thompson” living there, coined the name “Thompson Ridge” to describe this 15-acre tract. The same land was called the “Exum Sawmill Tract” in deeds from 1877 through 2000, but we’ll stick with Thompson Ridge for this article. We’ll look first at who owned the land over the years and then try to identify families who lived there.
Thompson Ridge was part of Col. John Holder’s 1,000-acre patent on the Kentucky River. After his death, his son-in-law Samuel R. Combs acquired the interests of Holder’s other heirs. Combs was the son of Benjamin Combs, one of the Frederick County, Virginia men who claimed land in the Indian Old Fields area. Samuel married Holder’s daughter Theodocia and took over many of Holder’s business enterprises, including the ferry, boatyard and warehouse. Combs also erected a sawmill on Thompson Ridge a little downstream from the mouth of Deep Branch. He was murdered in front of the Clark County courthouse in 1833. Combs must have been a hothead. He had previously been sued for assault and for slander and the day before his murder had shot a man named Nelson. While being taken into custody, Combs and two of his sons got into a fight with two sons of Ambrose Bush. One of the Bush men cut Combs’ throat—“his throat was nearly severed from his body”—and Combs died immediately.
Josiah A. Jackson bought out most of Combs’ heirs to acquire 324 acres of their land, which he then sold to his brother Samuel G. Jackson. These were the sons of Francis Flourney Jackson and grandsons of the Clark County pioneer, Josiah Jackson. In 1845, Samuel Jackson sold this land to Shelton Hieronymus who then sold a small piece, including Thompson Ridge, to Robert C. Boggs of Fayette County. It is unlikely that any of these men ever lived on Thompson Ridge.
The first actual resident-owner may be Isaac Clark. Although a deed of purchase from Boggs (died a bachelor in 1863) cannot be found, Clark’s heirs sold Thompson Ridge to Milton Martin in 1877. How Clark obtained the land from Boggs is uncertain. The 1860 census lists Isaac Clark as a free black, age 50, living alone near James Woodward. Woodward was then residing in the manor house on what later became the Stevens farm, presently owned by Pat Shely. The deed to Milton Martin is the first to refer to the land as Exum’s sawmill tract.
Benjamin Exum did not live on the tract, or own it, but he did operate a sawmill on Lower Howard’s Creek. An 1853 map shows Exum’s sawmill standing just behind what is now the back parking lot of Hall’s Restaurant. Benjamin married Emily Hieronymus; her family will be discussed in a separate article.
The site of the house occupied by A. Thompson, shown on an 1861 Clark County map, is Stop 3 on the John Holder Trail. The site stands just across the creek from the Robert Martin house. A. Thompson is identified in the 1860 census as Allen Thompson, head of family, age 56; Catherine, wife, age 43; and seven children ranging in age from 5 to 16. All that remains of the house is a 50 x 65 foot stone foundation. An ,archaeological investigation conducted in the area recovered artifacts indicating a longterm domestic occupation, probably beginning in the 1820s. The earliest artifact was a fragment of a pearlware saucer dating from 1780. The residential area is separated from the agricultural fields by a stone fence and has daffodils and yucca plants still growing in the yard. There is a fine stone springhouse (Stop 4) about a hundred yards from the site.
Allen Thompson was a son of Capt. Laurence Thompson (1753-1835) who was born in Orange County, North Carolina. Laurence served as an officer in the Revolutionary War, fought in the battles of Germantown and Brandywine, and years later was awarded a veteran’s pension. He married Keziah Hart, a daughter of Nathaniel Hart, one of the partners in the Transylvania Company that established Kentucky’s second permanent settlement at Boonesborough. Nathaniel moved his family to Boonesborough, established White Oak Spring Station nearby and was killed by Indians in 1782. Laurence and Keziah resided in Madison County on the land of her father. In spite of excellent family connections—the Harts intermarried with Shelby, Clay, Hickman, Irvine and Combs families—Laurence was plagued with financial problems, faced continuous court battles over land and died insolvent.
Laurence’s son Allen served with the Union army during the Civil War. His unit, the 20th Kentucky Infantry, saw hard fighting in numerous engagements, including the battles of Shiloh and Perryville. Although Allen lived on Thompson Ridge in the 1860s, he never owned land in Clark County. He gave his occupation as farmer or laborer. Allen later moved to Henry County where he died of dropsy in 1875.
Richmond Arnold and his heirs owned Thompson Ridge from 1879 until 1926. Arnold was a stonemason and lived on Lower Howard’s Creek for many years. He married Martha Jane, a granddaughter of William Martin, the Revolutionary War soldier. When and where the family lived on Thompson Ridge is unknown, but they could have resided in the house Allen Thompson vacated.
Allen Thompson’s son William lived nearby for a time, possibly on the ridge, before moving over to Madison County. William’s son Scott was the first member of his family to own land on Thompson Ridge, 4 acres that he purchased in 1909. His home place is uncertain but could have been at the one other house site found on the ridge: a 25 x 50 foot stone foundation located near the trail about 300 yards north of Stop 3. Scott married Mary Martin, a great-granddaughter of William Martin. They raised a family of eight sons and one adopted daughter. This daughter, who was left as an infant on their doorstep, eventually married into the Martin family.
Scott’s son Frank purchased the remainder of Thompson Ridge in 1926 but kept the property only three years before selling to Harry and Mabel Pritchard. Mabel was a great-great-granddaughter of William Martin. The Pritchards, the last residents on the ridge, occupied the house at Stop 3 until their deaths in 1970. They farmed the hillsides on both sides of the creek with their extended Martin family. Their extreme isolation was somewhat broken by a dirt road across the ridge, known in memory as the old Athens-Boonesboro Turnpike. However, the Pritchards never enjoyed any of the modern conveniences—electric, telephone, sewer or water service—that almost everyone took for granted by 1970.
Continuing on the trail, Stop 5, is on the narrow, steep neck of the ridge, which overlooks Kitt’s Hole on the north side and Hall’s Restaurant on the south side. Leaving Thompson Ridge and approaching Holder’s old road, we come to Stop 6, a beautifully constructed and almost perfectly preserved stone fence. Jane Wooley, a preeminent expert on Kentucky stonework, has stated that this is the finest example of an early quarried-stone fence she has seen.
Details of Martin family relationships gleaned from census records, deeds, marriages, wills, death certificates, newspaper obituaries, etc.—too numerous to include here—are available from the author.