Blog

Rooted in Family

| Bob Hill

Melvin and Dorothy Porter – married 73 years in May and still appreciating the journey – were sitting in the kitchen of their Bardstown Road farmhouse he helped build by pushing wet concrete in a wheelbarrow, the two of them often speaking as one, not only finishing each other’s thoughts and sentences, but each other’s lives.

Melvin is 93. Dorothy is 90. Their lives remain rooted in family, their two children and the land around them on which Melvin was born – five generations of Porters living in Nelson County and Jefferson County near the Bullitt County line since the early 1800s.

Melvin and Dorothy Porter

The first of the Bardstown Road Porters moved in only 20 years after the 1862 Civil War skirmish that was fought from the ridges and in the flatlands where their house now sits – cannon balls and mortar shells flying across the valley as Union and Confederate armies miss-managed their way toward the accidental battle of Perryville where almost 8,000 soldiers would be killed or captured.

Porter family history parallels Bardstown Road, which had its beginnings in 1816 as the Jackson Military Road – part of which still runs past the front yard of their farmhouse.

In 1838, the Jackson Military Road became the Bardstown-Louisville Turnpike with a tollbooth just above Floyds Fork –a precursor of things to come.

The earliest road included a long series of switchbacks up and out of the river bottom south of Fern Creek.  It was first spanned with a wooden covered bridge, then a series of three concrete structures that welcomed delivery wagons and Model T-Fords – all of that now changed into a modern sweep of four-lane highway just out the Porter’s front door.

The family at one time owned four adjoining farms in the area. Two generations of Porters ran “Huckster Wagons” along Bardstown Road, selling eggs, fruit, vegetables and poultry to the locals – a Kroger’s on wheels – with fresh horses waiting in Beuchel.

The stagecoach route from Louisville to Mount Washington ran along the top of the ridge on the western side of Floyds Fork behind their house.

The story is the neighborhood will change again as the newly-minted Parklands of Floyds Fork will soon complete its almost 20 mile journey from Shelbyville Road to the front edge of the Porter property.

It will include almost 4,000 acres of hiking and biking trails, ornate bridges, fishing lakes, children’s playgrounds, old growth trees, quiet vistas and a silo to climb for a better view of forested hills and bottomlands moving right to their doorstep.

The good news is that the Porters and The Parklands – along with former Lt. Governor Steve Henry and Future Fund – all value that same history. They are now involved in more land preservation and protection along Floyds Fork and beyond – all of it in separate stages – eventually taking aim at the 100 mile “Louisville Loop,” the Salt River and, yes, maybe even someday touching Bernheim Forest.

It’s a legacy that will fit the tenacity and work ethic of the current landowners. Melvin has been logger, carpenter, mechanic, long-time dairy farmer and former Western Auto storeowner in Mount Washington. Along the way he built about 15 homes – including one for his wife’s parents.

Dorothy served as company bookkeeper, caretaker of the flower and vegetable gardens, cook, seamstress and photographer – she has created 40 thick albums of family history with most of the timeless black-and-white photos taken with a boxy Brownie camera.

She also took care of their two children – and Melvin – with seven decades of love and pride.

“He could do anything,” she said of her husband.

He didn’t argue her assessment:

“I was just born natural to do quite a bit of things, and I always enjoyed that kind of work…. I kept close watch on a lot of things.”

His toughness is hereditary. His father had him out in the fields – weed hoe in hand – before he was old enough to go to school.  He’d run the cows from the pasture into the barn where he learned to milk by hand. When the family first purchased the farm it was covered in cedar trees. Father and son cut them down, sawed them up and sold fence posts.

The Porters milked cows twice a day for years until 1956 when the diary industry converted to bulk tanks. Melvin, who began driving a tractor at age 11, then switched to beef cattle, mostly Black Angus, while raising his hay, corn, grain and tobacco.

His first meeting with the then Dorothy Swearingen was at Mount Washington High School when both were teenagers. She grew up on a farm near Mount Washington.  He was there only because the Mount Washington school district, in desperate need of students, arranged to have him and four or five of his Bardstown Road and Fern Creek area neighbors picked up in a Model-T Ford and hauled to Mount Washington. Later came some rides to school in a Pierce-Arrow – then finally a school bus.

While in high school, Melvin was sitting high up in the school gymnasium when Dorothy came bounding up the rows toward him.

“There was a fellow in my class and he was kind of chasing me,” she explained of her run, “and I think he had his eyes on me. And Melvin was sitting in the gym way up high. I guess I knew what family he came from, but I had never even talked to him.

“So I go bouncing up there to get away from the other fellow, and, of course, the other fellow walked off.”

Melvin and Dorothy Porter were married May 29, 1942 – three weeks after she finished high school. They first lived in an old family farmhouse on a very steep hill that’s now about the site of the northbound lane of Bardstown Road.

They would have to climb about 20 steep steps to get to house – which did not offer the benefit of indoor plumbing.

Their first child – Bonnie Porter  – was born in 1943 in that drafty old house on Christmas Day with the local roads covered in ice and snow, one sister-in-law available as birth assistant and Melvin frantically chasing down two country doctors.

Dorothy had very much wanted their first child born at home. Given the weather, the sister-in-law, Alice Porter, who lived nearby, seemed most likely to be available to help – although she had never delivered a baby.

“If the baby comes,” she assured Dorothy, then barely 18, “we’ll take care of it.”

The Porter’s regular doctor was out of Whitfield, KY.  – and on that day, out of touch.  His wife worked at the old Nicholson Hotel in Fern Creek. There were no telephones in the Porter house. Melvin made two worried trips to Fern Creek in frigid weather on icy roads in his 1941 Chevrolet to talk to the doctor’s wife – who couldn’t find her husband.

His car spun out on the icy bridge – the same day a man was killed by a car walking the bridge.

As Dorothy went further into labor, Melvin drove south to Mount Washington looking for another doctor. He wasn’t in, but the doctor’s wife assured Melvin she would pass on the word.

Melvin drove back to their house.  Just about the time the Mount Washington doctor showed up, satchel in hand, the Fern Creek doctor also showed up.

“So I had two doctors,” said Melvin.

The Mount Washington doctor packed his satchel and left. Bonnie Porter was delivered five minutes afterward. The Porter’s second child, Murrell Dean Porter, was born 18 months later – in St. Anthony Hospital.

“Nobody had to ask me to go to the hospital after that,” said Dorothy. “I would have crawled to the hospital.” 

When they moved to the house where they now live in 1945 Melvin solved the telephone line problem; he installed his own, what he called a “grapevine.”

“I put it up,” he said.  “It went up over the hill to my uncle’s place, and down to the place where my mother and dad lived, and across the creek and up the road to Mount Washington.”

As a child he had rarely fished or hunted along Floyds Fork; there was too much farm work. His son, Murrell, also worked the farm, but found time to wander and explore – often on solitary journeys.

His connections to his home place at 11512 Bardstown Road remain visceral, enduring, going back to being a small child standing at the door of the house watching his father harvest crops.

 “But Mom wouldn’t let us go out,’ he said.

He would walk the Floyds Fork bottomland alone to a big Sycamore tree with a large hole at its base. He would climb into the hole, slither up 10 or 12 feet inside the tree to another hole and climb out on a limb.

Then there was that rope swing he could grab and fly out into the river, and an island out on Floyds Fork he could reach on a homemade raft.

His work ethic came early, too. His grandfather gave him a few pigs to raise – a farm animal his father hated – but Murrell had success with them. He began to raise and sell them as a small business while in high school.

“When I went to college,” he said, “Dad got rid of them.”

He attended the University of Kentucky, majored in agriculture engineering. He became interested in the Air Force through ROTC, went into pilot training, served a tour in Vietnam in A-37 ground attack aircraft, and then flew C-141 jet transports all over the world.

He retired a colonel after 30 years, worked for Lantech Corp in Jeffersontown for 10 years, all the while working on family histories, hiking, riding his bike and canoeing along Floyds Fork both within The Parklands and south of his parent’s farm on its more remote and beautiful sites. He now lives in Glenmary Subdivision only two miles from his parents.

“I loved that farm and would have returned to it after college if it had been larger,” he said.

He and his parents have done the next best thing – they are protecting and preserving much of it. The timing is right. Melvin is now dealing with prostate cancer and is thinking about a smaller, more accessible house. Dorothy doesn’t want to leave the farm, but understands the situation.

Murrell sees another park further south along Floyds Fork and has been dealing with Steve Henry, Future Fund and the Parklands to preserve that land.

He has led family and friends on kayak trips along that section of Floyds Fork. He marveled at the rugged beauty, the long series of rain-aided waterfalls, the large beds of ferns, the Great Blue Heron nests – the obvious problem being how to give the area public access and yet protect it at the same time.

He is also a big fan of the work already done at The Parklands of Floyds Fork.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “They are thinking far out ahead. When the Olmsted Parks were built they were far out in the country, too.”

Steve Henry said Future Fund is in the process of buying a narrow, half-mile strip of Porter property as well as land from the old abandoned golf course nearby to add to its holdings.

“Future Fund has a mission to specifically try to connect historic property from Oldham County into Bullitt County,” he said. “Our main mission is to protect Floyds Fork. …Once it goes under Bardstown Road you rarely see a house.”

The Parklands of Floyds Fork, the Bullitt County Fiscal Court and the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest are involved in the discussion.

Parklands CEO Dan Jones said The Parklands already has easements on property south of Bardstown Road and plans to integrate it into The Parklands at some point, but “currently have our hands full through end of the year to the north.”

Henry said that one day it may be possible to walk from Beckley Creek Park at Shelbyville Road and the northernmost section of The Parklands of Floyds Fork to Bernheim Forest in Bullitt County.

“Surprisingly,” he said, “it seems very do-able.”

About the Author

Picture of Bob Hill

Bob Hill

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.

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