Join us to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Kentucky's oldest city!
Founding of Harrodsburg
Although many explored, hunted, and trapped in the Kentucky area, James Harrod and his men were the first to map out a town on June 16, 1774 – it would become known as Harrod’s Town. As the first permanent British settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains, by 1776 it had a county militia, a delegate to the Virginia Assembly (James Harrod), and a county court.
Under siege frequently during the Revolutionary War, George Rogers Clark and volunteers, from the blockhouse at Fort Harrod, marched into and secured the area from the Great Lakes to the Ohio River for his new nation. As soon as the Revolutionary War ended, families flooded into Harrod’s Town. Once the Indian threat diminished, Kentucky’s two most noted industries – horseracing and distilling – got their start at the race paths established by Michael Humble and John Hagan, where many respectable settlers sold liquor without a license.
By the 1780s, Kentuckians sought to become a state. In 1785, the Virginia legislature established Mercer County, with Harrodsburg as the seat of government. With the western borders still in flux, the British still holding forts west of the Ohio River, and the Spanish seeking to extend their empire east of the Mississippi, the United States needed a stronger military presence in Kentucky. Thus, Kentucky became the fifteenth state of the United States on June 1, 1792, with Isaac Shelby as its first governor.
As settlers migrated to Harrodsburg after the Revolutionary War, crude wooden cabins were replaced by brick structures which were monuments to the community’s prosperity and permanence. When the War of 1812 broke out, Harrodsburg sent a number of men to fight as far north as Canada and as far south as New Orleans. Following the war, education and agriculture thrived.
Bacon College opened with sixty students in 1839. Greenville Institute for young ladies, later Daughters College, taught a full curriculum to students from 26 states. The Presbyterian Church opened the Harrodsburg Female Academy, later Hogsett Academy, in 1847 with 100 pupils. This earned Harrodsburg the moniker “the Athens of the West.”
As the area grew, neighboring communities like Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill (founded 1805) prospered and were soon noted for selling seeds, Shorthorn cattle, Berkshire hogs, and sheep from Britain. Goods flowed through ferries such as Harrod’s Landing and Shaker Ferry to markets as far as New Orleans. Flourishing trade combined with a number of elegant Greek Revival homes, a County Fair and Horse Show (which continues today), and an economy producing hemp, tobacco, livestock, corn, wheat, and highly prized race horses boosted Harrodsburg’s reputation.
By the mid-19th century, Harrodsburg had been home to three governors, one U.S. Ambassador, and a famous confectioner. It was also home to the nationally known resort, Graham Springs. Dr. Christopher Graham had created this Eden by combining Greenville and Harrodsburg Springs. In 1820, he erected a classic building resembling an old-world castle, where guests from across the nation partook of the supposedly healing waters and enjoyed a lively social season that lasted from June until September.
This peaceful prosperity would be shattered by Civil War in the 1860s. Being a border state, Kentucky lay at the heart of the conflict. Governor Beriah Magoffin of Mercer County, exhausted every effort to maintain Kentucky’s independence, clinging unsuccessfully to the right of neutrality. Union supporters controlled the legislature, but representatives from sixty-four counties met in Russellville to declare Kentucky “a confederate state.” The next year, U.S. Gen. Jeremiah Tilford Boyle, also a Mercer County native, oversaw the war effort in Kentucky.
The war divided the community. When Confederate general John Hunt Morgan entered town, local women prepared baskets of food for his men and supplied their horses with forage with some “waving their handkerchiefs at the guerilla Morgan” in welcome. A few months later, the town raised the 19th Kentucky Regiment for the Union to defeat the same men.
When the Battle of Perryville began, the citizens of Harrodsburg could hear cannon fire and many hitched their wagons, waiting for the battle to subside so they could retrieve the wounded. The ballroom of Graham Springs became a gruesome makeshift hospital where both sides received medical care. The city then remained under martial law for the remainder of the war.
When peace returned, Harrodsburg’s future looked dim. The main business district of the town had been destroyed by fire, the beautiful resort lay in ruins, and Kentucky University had just made its move to Lexington. But the city rebuilt again with new opportunities such as the Wayman Institute, a vocational school for African American students. Harrodsburg would rise from the ashes and prosper again.
Mid 20th Century
In the mid-20th century agriculture, especially tobacco, was still the most important industry in Mercer County, but new factories existed. Sportleigh Hall (later Cricketeer) manufactured women’s clothing; Cudahy Plant made Black Mountain dairy products; and Corning Glass excelled in specialty glasses. The Dix River Dam was constructed by Kentucky Utilities in the 1920s to provide hydroelectricity; its reservoir, Lake Herrington, is now a popular residential and vacation spot.
Harrodsburg’s downtown was constantly busy, with a full complement of locally owned shops and businesses, offices, churches, and a lending library. A drive-in movie theatre operated during the summer and the Fair Grounds had a roller-skating rink. On Saturday, pedestrian traffic on Main Street could be three deep and parking was hard to find.
Remembering Harrodsburg’s unique past, James Isenberg and other leading businessmen determined to build a reproduction of Old Fort Harrod. Upon its completion, Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the George Rogers Clark Federal Monument in person on Nov. 16, 1934 in front of a crowd of 40,000 or more. The old Daughters’ College building was reopened as the Beaumont Inn; its dining room has an international reputation and has received numerous awards. In the 1950s a movement was started to restore Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, a major Mercer County tourist attraction.
From the Revolutionary War to 21st century conflicts, Harrodsburg men have always been involved in the military. We especially honor Company D of the 192nd Tank Battalion stationed in the Philippines in November 1941. Approximately 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers, forced to surrender to the Japanese, participated in the Bataan Death March. More than 7,000 soldiers died on the brutal sixty-three-mile march; of the original sixty-six Harrodsburg Tankers, only thirty-seven survived the death march and imprisonment by the Japanese. There is a period tank and small park dedicated to their memories on North 127 as you enter town.
Today Harrodsburg has all the charm and friendliness of a small town along with the progressive spirit of its pioneer ancestors. Agriculture is still the backbone of Mercer County’s economy, while manufacturers such as Corning and Hitachi provide diversified interests. Educational opportunities expanded in 2018 when Campbellsville University opened a campus in Harrodsburg. When John Chiles operated a stagecoach line in the 1830s, it took days to reach nearby cities; on the modern highway system, a trip to Danville, Lexington, or Frankfort takes less than an hour.
Civic-minded citizens continue to work for the betterment of the communities of Mercer County through churches and service organizations. Restored and well-kept buildings in Harrodsburg’s vibrant downtown house shops and offices. Events such as Pioneer Days and Oktoberfest provide entertainment and community building opportunities. The County Fair and Horse Show is still an annual highlight; first held in 1837, it’s the longest running fair in the state. Harrodsburg also boasts The Ragged Edge Community Theatre, which showcases the talents of local actors and playwrights. Anderson-Dean Community Park, a 213-acre site developed in 1993, offers sports facilities, playgrounds, and community space.
As we keep pace with a modern economy, Harrodsburg continues to honor its history and heritage. In the 1960s, the Harrodsburg Historical Society restored Morgan Row, the first row house west of the Alleghenies. Many other old homes and buildings have since been restored by individuals and the James Harrod Trust.
Locals and visitors alike continue to enjoy the historic places that help define Harrodsburg and Mercer County: the Beaumont Inn (since 1819), Herrington Lake and Old Fort Harrod (since the 1920s), and Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill (restoration begun in the 1960s).
Want to learn more about Harrodsburg and Mercer County's history?
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The Mercer County Public Library
Harrodsburg Historical Society
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