A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The Licking River: The river keeps trying to carry Jones Grocery away

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Part five of a seven part series

The Licking River begins with a whimper on its 300-mile plus journey north from headwaters in the mountains of Kentucky to its crescendo as it converges with the Ohio River at metro Cincinnati. Veteran reporter Andy Mead undertook his journey in an aluminum canoe, braving the elements on and off over more than a year, to experience himself the good, the bad, the ugly and the spectacular of a river that runs through nearly every culture, geography, economy, environment and society known to its home state. Along the way he talked to dozens of experts – from ecologists, scientists and environmentalists to historians, farmers and fisherman – and met dozens of real Kentuckians whose lives are entwined with the river. Thanks to support from the Northern Kentucky University Ecological Stewardship Institute, the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism, the UK Scripps Howard First Amendment Center and KyForward.com for making possible the story of this incredible river.

Jones Grocery, in Sherburne, Ky. (Photo by Andy Mead)

Jones Grocery, in Sherburne, Ky. (Photo by Andy Mead)

By Andy Mead
KyCPSJ Senior Reporting Fellow

SHERBURNE – You can’t usually see the Licking River from Jones Grocery, but Carolyn Jones knows there’s trouble when it leaves its banks and shows up in the street outside the store.

“There’s no sense in worrying about it – until it starts crossing the road,” she said.
The river has crossed the road – and come inside – many times since the old general store was built sometime around 1900.

“The last time was in May 2010,” Jones said. “The water was seven-foot and five inches in here. In ’97 it was higher than that – seven-foot and nine inches, but it didn’t do as much damage.”

The store has flooded so often that the Fleming County Fiscal Court wanted to use federal funds to buy the building and tear it down. It wants to do the same with several of the remaining houses in the once-bustling town of Sherburne.

“It will give these people the opportunity to sell their real estate for a fair market price and relocate,” Fleming County Judge-executive Larry H. Foxworthy said.

The plan was for the store, like the other buildings, to be replaced by green space that will be owned by the county.

 Carolyn Jones on the steps of Jones Grocery (Photo by Andy Mead)

Carolyn Jones on the steps of Jones Grocery (Photo by Andy Mead)

But Lawrence Jones, Carolyn’s husband, turned down an offer for his nearby home and opted out of the program, so no offer was made on the store, said Kristi Dodge at the Buffalo Trace Area Development District, which administers the buyout program for the county. Carolyn Jones said the offer for the home was turned down because it was too low. “We weren’t going to give it to them,” she said.

As for the store: “I’m still here,” she said.

But the future of Jones Grocery is uncertain. What is certain is that the old store, the last of what once were five general stores in Sherburne, is fading away.

And, like the town itself, it is a shadow of what it once was.

The years and the frequent river incursions have taken their toll. The concrete block foundation, added after a flood long ago, is cracked and bowed. The walls and floors sag this way and that. Some siding has rotted away. Jacks have been installed to hold up the second floor, which used to be living quarters and now is used for storage.

One of the things you might notice when approaching Jones Grocery is that there is no sign outside that says it is, well, Jones Grocery.

“I’ve never had a sign since I’ve been here,” Carolyn said. “I don’t need it. People know where I’m at.”

The Joneses have run the business for 26 years, and Carolyn Jones said her aunt ran it for 29 years before that. For years, the Joneses kept the store open from 7:30 in the morning until 9:30 at night, seven days a week.

“I was getting too old for that and I quit,” Carolyn Jones said. Now Lawrence works at a Kroger supermarket in Mount Sterling, and Carolyn is only at the family store from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., six days a week.

The shelves are mostly empty of groceries. On a visit last year, for example, there was only one bottle of Heinz Ketchup, only one can of Bush’s black beans. Only the top shelf is crowded, with old photographs and with clocks, cake pans and various other treasures collected by Lawrence.

“He’s worse than any woman in collecting,” Carolyn said.

There was a wall display of old tools before the last flood. They were all saved when the wall was damaged, but they haven’t been rehung.

The gas pumps that once stood outside are long gone. If there were ever hitching posts to accommodate shoppers who rode in on horseback, those too are gone.

Much of the store’s business now comes from the lunch crowd of farm workers and neighbors. Carolyn knows most of them by name.

She makes the sandwiches herself, and the price is right. A country ham sandwich on white bread with a slice of homegrown tomato is $2.75. Add a 75-cent can of Coke and a 50-cent bag of chips and you have lunch with change back from your $5 bill.

At lunchtime on a hot summer in July, nine people were gathered at tables at the back of the store, eating and talking.

Among them was Kenneth Gray, who said he had been coming to the store for “about 81 years.” It turned out he was 81.

Gray farmed for 50 years, then worked for 18 years at an IGA grocery in another town that had recently closed.

“I have to eat somewhere so I come here to get a sandwich,” he said.

He remembers when Sherburne had a lot more houses, as well as a bank, a doctor’s offices and other businesses, and a lot more people.

Carolyn Jones talks to lunch-time customers at Jones Grocery in Sherburne. Many have been coming to the store for years. (Photo by Andy Mead)

Sparse canned goods on the shelves of Jones Grocery. Co-owner Carolyn Jones depends on a lunch trade for much of her business these days. (Photo by Andy Mead)

The top shelf at Jones Grocery is filled with clocks and other items gathered over the years. They are not for sale. (Photo by Andy Mead)

The most famous attraction in Sherburne once was the covered bridge that crossed the Licking River. It was the only suspension covered bridge in Kentucky and perhaps in the nation. It was built shortly after the Civil War and destroyed by arson in 1981. Now only the historical marker remains. (Photo by Andy Mead)

“A lot of them died, bless their hearts,” he said.

And he remembers seeing Jones Grocery flooded. How often? “Plenty of times.”

At another table was Charles Ovington, a retired farmer, and his wife Nancy.

“We like coming down here in the mornings,” Charles said. “She used to open earlier and she would set out rolls and toast and anything you wanted for free. You would buy a cup of coffee for a quarter and eat whatever you wanted for breakfast. That’s the kind of lady she is.”

Last April, as part of the county’s effort to buy and demolish the store, Cultural Resource Analysts, Inc., in Lexington completed a historic documentation of the building. The report, by Sarah J. Reynolds and Kathy Martinolich, confirmed much of the history Carolyn Jones and her customers knew about Sherburne and the old store. And it added a good bit more.

Sherburne got its start in the early 1800s, they wrote. By the 1840s, the plentiful iron ore, coal and timber nearby fueled a manufacturing boom. In the late 1800s the community boasted wooden sidewalks and the first steamboat that navigated the waters of the Licking River. Sherburne was a stagecoach stop on the Maysville and Mount Sterling Turnpike. The coach brought visitors and new residents.

Another store stood on the same spot as the present-day Jones Grocery through much of the 1800s. It burned in 1899 and the building that would become Jones Grocery took its place.

Sherburne and the grocery flourished into the mid-20th century. But the town and the store began slipping into decline. River traffic dwindled. New highways bypassed the town.

The floods did their destructive work.

Homes and businesses disappeared one by one. Even the 253-foot Sherburne Covered Bridge, an impressive structure built just after the Civil War, is gone – a victim of arson in 1981. All that’s left are stone piers and abutments – and an historical marker.

Jones Grocery is the last commercial building that survives from the early 20th century. Only one other commercial building is left in the community, and it is vacant.

Today, the historic documentation report notes, “Sherburne is barely able to keep one store afloat, and the Licking River has tried to carry away the building itself many times.”

Last summer, before her husband opted out of the buyout program, Carolyn said he would not be sad if it closed. She is 67 and would slow down a bit, she said, finding something to do only one or two days a week instead of the current six. And she will have more time to visit her mother, who is in a nursing home.

“It’s in bad shape anyway,” Carolyn said of the old store. “It’s leaning a lot and it leans a little more every week.”

ABOUT THE WRITER

Mead_125x150

Andy Mead
Senior Reporting Fellow

Andy Mead retired from the Lexington Herald-Leader after 34 years, where he distinguished himself as a reporter, with a particular interest in the environment. He also worked at the Boca Raton News for four years before coming to Lexington. He grew up in Savannah, Ga. and graduated with a master’s degree in history from Florida Atlantic University. He is a widower, living in Lexington, and has twins who are college students. As Senior Reporting Fellow for KyCPSJ on the Licking River project, he worked closely with NKU’s Ecological Sustainability Institute and engaged with faculty and students at NKU as a guest speaker and visiting professional-in-residence.

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