Some days the pursuit of a good historical Parklands of Floyds Fork tale – the people involved, the twists, turns, good luck, full circle and serendipity of it all – becomes as interesting as the subject matter itself.
For instance, it turns out the Ben Stout House – that rustic, carefully restored 200-year-old stone home that seasonally serves as Parklands icon and welcome center for visitors to Turkey Run Park – came very close to being knocked down and hauled away in a dump truck to become part of another Floyds Fork area home.
What a loss that would have been; the venerable Stout House; the oldest survivor of the many stone, wood and log homes along Floyds Fork where long forgotten Kentucky pioneers lived, farmed, hunted, fished and died in bloody battles with Native Americans way before anyone thought about creating a park out there.
That three-story antique – dirt-floor lower level included – with two chimneys and three fireplaces built around 1800 at the bottom of the hill just off Stout Road and a little way past Turkey Run and the now Brown-Forman Silo Center.
The house laboriously created of hand-hewn stone on property once owned by Jane and Squire Boone – Daniel’s brother – with proof of that ownership in a framed deed now hanging on a Stout House wall.
All of that nearly leveled and hauled away to leave a blank space in The Parklands landscape and story – if not its mission.
Add to that the stories of a woman born in that house in 1936 – and of a young man, a fixer-upper kind of guy, who bought that old stone shell of a house when it had no water, heat, decent electricity or bathroom, and added all that – and more.
And the part-time Realtor who sold it to him.
It’s a story that mirrors the larger work of The Parklands of Floyds Fork itself; the timely preserving and restoration of something distant and valuable before it was all lost to development – and inviting the public to share it forever.
So this will be – if you will – a history of that history. It begins with Squire Boone, who along with that somewhat more famous brother, Daniel, made several long hunts into Kentucky from 1767 to 1771, and helped with the creation of the Wilderness Road – the pioneer highway from North Carolina to Kentucky – in 1775.
Squire Boone became involved – somewhat disastrously as it turned out – in early Kentucky land speculation where unscrupulous and land-hungry squatters, bad surveys and property-title issues were part of the landscape.
Old survey records show that on Aug. 27, 1786, Boone took possession of 1,500 acres of land that now straddles part of The Parklands and Floyds Fork – although he never lived on it.
On April 21, 1792, Boone sold 500 acres of that land to a John Mundle – and the stone house appeared on that property soon after that, apparently built from rock quarried from a site near what’s now Billtown Road and hauled downhill and across Floyds Fork.
The early residents of the house were named Omer – the family that probably built the house – with some 15 Omer children born or raised in its narrow confines and bottomland acres. History – as usual – leaves no record if slaves were involved in any of the construction; about 25 percent of the state’s population was then black.
One logical and historical theory – given the layout of the original windows and doors of the house – is that Stout Road then passed what’s now the back of the house; the Floyds Fork side with its longer, more protective view.
In 1867 the house was sold to Benjamin Stout – a sale which provided a home for seven of his children, and gave it the name “Stout House,” although members of the Omer family firmly believe the Omer-Stout House more fitting.
Modern Stout House history – and its near leveling and removal – first came into view when Benjamin Stout died in 1910, leaving the house and land to his daughter, Fannie and her husband, Foree Jean – a family that would stay on the surrounding land and farm for almost another 100 years.
Some of the early Jeans lived in the old house, then it became home to a succession of tenant farmers. In 1936 Shirley Speer Risinger – the daughter of tenants – was born in the house with the Dr. William Rush, the legendary Fern Creek doctor in attendance, making the trip from town and across Floyds Fork in horse and buggy.
“You didn’t go to the hospital to be born back then,” said Risinger. “The doctors came to you.”
Her parents were then living in an apartment in Louisville, but her mother had grown up in the old house, and wanted to go back to have her child born there.
Shirley Risinger never lived in the house – but would visit the area often. She remembers a two-room addition on the north side of the house; now all gone. She remembered the old dug well past that. She remembered when the big silo on the south side of the house had a tobacco barn nearby; when the field below it – now being restored by The Parklands into native trees – was all tobacco.
In 1948 her parents moved from Louisville to Seatonville – just a few miles upriver from the Stout House – when her father bought the old Seatonville country store.
She worked in the store as a 12- and 13-year-old; running it when her father was off doing tenant work, or going to town to get supplies. The store had only two rooms; one for storage and the other for merchandise. The biggest seller – at least to the kids – was ice cream cones.
“Saturdays were great,” she said. “Everybody from around the area came to buy groceries or sit around and play checkers.”
She remembered learning to swim in Floyds Fork, walking the fields over by Chenoweth Run, small children being hauled down country roads in wagons to the store – and the night in 1950 when it burned down; apparently an electrical fire.
“All we could do was stand and watch,” she said. “It was terrible.”
She still has some keepsakes of her life there. One is an early 1930s photo of children seated in front of the old Seatonville School at Seatonville Road and Echo Trail – the attire ranging from barefoot boys in bib overalls to young girls in simple, knee-length dresses.
One young man covered all the bases; he was bare foot but wearing what looks to be a suit jacket.
Her other reminder is still in use. Her father had helped build the golf course at the long-gone Irongate Country Club in the Seatonville bottoms. Her husband tore down an old, wood-plank tobacco barn on that property and rebuilt it on the Markwell Road farm where she lives; a neighbor still uses it to dry tobacco.
And there are days she rides over on Seatonville Road, parks along the edge, and looks at land, the house where her parents lived – now jacked up on poles above the flood plain – and the bare field where the old store once sat.
“A lot of good memories,” she said.
The Stout House sat vacant for much of the 1950s and 60s; its windows and door rotting; weeds and vines crawling at and up its edges. Large snakes and rodents took custody; even the Jean kids feared to poke around inside.
Then came a man named Ralph Tromble, an engineer with General Electric. In 1969 – after he and his wife spent hours driving along rural Eastern Jefferson County seeking land for a mini-farm – they purchased 25 acres off Echo Trail just above what had been Seatonville, and a few hundred yards from Floyds Fork.
The initial plan was for a contemporary home on a hill with a long view the flowing landscape. In the meantime, he and his wife had attended a class on Oriental rugs to begin the interior design. They bought one, took it to Cincinnati to have an appraisal confirmed, and passed in route a log cabin for sale. They bought it, totally on impulse, for $500.
A couple of weeks later, browsing the old Louisville Times, Tromble saw a log house for sale in Milltown, IN. A few hours later he was in Milltown – and left the proud owner of two log cabins.
So much for the contemporary design.
“The big task,” he remembered, “was to determine how the two log homes could be joined once they were dismantled and brought back to Echo Trail.”
The possible answer was close by. Their search for rural land had taken them along Stout Road. Sitting there – at the bottom of the hill – was an old, abandoned, shell of a stone house. “We thought,” Tromble said, “wouldn’t it be neat to buy that house and make it the central part of our new home.”
The Stout House seemed a goner; its fate to serve as a centerpiece for book-end log cabins. But as it turned out Stout House owner, Orville Ray Jean, would not sell it without selling some of the land around it.
Tromble did not want any land. Negotiations fell through. Tromble found his centerpiece at another nearby source; the remnants of an old stone barn over on Broad Run Road – but also on Jean property. Local legend was that barn had been built with stones taken from an Indian fort high on a hill above Broad Run.
It took 32 dump truck loads to haul the stones over to the Echo Trail site about four miles away – but the Stout House had survived. Tromble – still very much enamored of the Stout House – created that Echo Trail centerpiece in almost the same dimensions as the Stout House, including some inside trim and fire places.
“I just really liked that design,” he said.
In 1971 the Stout House was sold to a William Canada, who along with Kenneth and Lois Schmitt, owned Bix-Wagon Wheel Antiques in Jeffersontown. They refinished old furniture, and, on occasion, old houses.
They did put a wood-shingle roof on the house to preserve it, but never got around to fully refinishing it. Vandals spread graffiti on the interior walls, and a charred floor indicated someone had started a fire in there.
The house again went up for sale about 1975. The part-time Realtor was Henry Holloway; Lois Schmitt was his wife’s sister in-law.
“Ken just gave it to Lois,” said Holloway, 80. “He knew she liked to tinker, but she decided not to do it.”
By that point, Holloway explained, the restoration was a daunting task:
“It was a mess. The window frames were all walnut but there were no actual windows and no doors…The fireplace down stairs had this iron swing like you could put a pot on it and swing it out.
“It needed a lot of work. I’d sometimes make four or five trips a week to meet people more interested in just looking at it than buying it…I came out one time and there was a snake in there that was about two inches in diameter and looked about 19 feet long.”
The eventual buyer was Kevin Kane, then 25, who grew up in the remodeling business and had deliberately sought out a rural area with the least amount of traffic, people and noise.
He paid $12,000 for the house and .435 acres of land – $3,000 down and $150 monthly payments. The house had no heat, water, indoor plumbing or useful electricity. One 12-guage wire had been installed to allow one of the tenant farmers – Shirley Risinger’s family – to have a ringer-type washing machine and one plug in the wall.
Kane covered the windows in plywood. He slept on a cot in a room heated by fireplace logs – logs he sawed up from fallen trees across the road and at the edges of the old golf course.
He repaired the walls as best he could, divided up the big room. He added a kitchen, living quarters in the back, several decks and a hot tub.
He built an adjacent machine shop on a cement slab. He wandered over to the lot next door which neighbors told him was once site of an old log cabin; itself torn down and hauled off to Brush Run to become part of another house.
There was that old, decaying outhouse next door that could be seen in so many old photos – and the old, hand-dug, brick-and-stone well nearby with the year “1940” carved in the newer cement top; the outhouse and water supply Shirley Risinger remembered as going well back before 1940.
“I was just enthralled living here,” said Kane. “It was living history that had been neglected for some 50 years.”
Kane – twice married and divorced and with three children – would live in the house 28 years. He added a field-tile sewage system, water pipes, updated electricity and an electric furnace. He added an upstairs bedroom with dormers for his two daughters – that light pink ceiling upstairs still remains after the most recent remodeling.
One of his daughters – who was with him on a tour – became excited, a little emotional, when she saw the ceiling again.
“It’s exactly the way it was,” she said.
In 1983 – after a lot of pushing by Kane and local Fern Creek leaders – the Stout House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2004 Kane – tired of living in a flood plain with all its recurring issues – sold the house to Louisville Metro Parks. The sale was funded by a $100,000 grant from 21st Century Parks, creators of The Parklands of Floyds Fork. Metro Parks still holds title to the house – subject to the deed restrictions of the 21st Century Parks master plan.
The Stout House was then gutted of all earlier additions and restored with donated funds to much the way it could have been in the early 1800s – save the removal of a big back door, the closure of a fireplace, and the addition of new plumbing, wiring, heating and windows.
But two centuries of history linger inside; the stone walls; the arched fireplace; the thick wooden joists; the sense of time and place. It’s all there to be enjoyed – and remembered.
The Ben Stout House will resume interpretive center hours this spring. Beginning on Saturday, April 2, Stout House will be open to visitors from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday. Weather permitting, drop-in hikes will occur from this location on the 1st and 3rd Saturdays of the month from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m.
During hours of operation, Interpretive Rangers will be on hand to answer questions about the house, and The parklands wildlife and history. The house will host small events, and serve as a gathering site for hikes along the nearby Wild Hyacinth and Boone Bottom Trails.
Watch out for ghosts in buckskin or riding a doctor’s buggy.
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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