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Kentucky by Heart: Harrison County’s friendly Cynthiana has alway been a community of interest

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

I figure I’ve passed through the town of Cynthiana, Kentucky, in Harrison County, a couple of thousand times in my life.

For all the years attending college at Eastern, in Richmond, I drove back and forth on Highway 27 through the town. I also drove the same highway to my parents in northern Kentucky from homes in Winchester and Lexington for nearly four decades.

Additionally, the Flairtys took their tobacco crop to the Lebus warehouse in town annually in my early years. My father delivered ice cream to stores there for Clover Leaf Dairy and I sometimes rode along and helped. More recently, residents Harold Slade and Tom White are part of my Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes book series.

Harold Slade was a founder of the Cynthiana-Harrison County Museum and White led in a project to establish a more high profile grave memorial for World War II Iwo Jima flag raiser Franklin Sousley.

 Image from civilwaralbum.com

Image from civilwaralbum.com

An amazing number of acquaintances I’ve made over the state in years past tell me they’re from Cynthiana. I sometimes wonder that if they all returned to take up residence again, it could become the biggest city in Kentucky. Yes, the place about 45 minutes from my home in Lexington is a community of interest to me.

According to the Kentucky Encyclopedia, the town was built on a 150-acre tract donated by Robert Harrison and named for his two daughters, Cynthia and Anna. It was first settled in 1775 and incorporated in 1860. In the nineteenth century, distilled whiskey, made from the area’s productive grain farming, was probably its most thriving industry.

During the American Civil War, Confederate General John Hunt Morgan and his men raided the town in 1862 and 1864. The 3M factory came to Cynthiana in 1969 and until the late 1990s, was the only producer of the noted Post-It notes. Town resident Richard Gruelle’s son, Johnny Gruelle, is credited as the creator of the Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy dolls. Former Kentucky basketball coach Joe B. Hall was born and raised in Cynthiana. Bianke’s Restaurant has served meals and attracted out-of-towners since 1894, and a fire happening at the site in 2013 was major news in Kentucky.

I talked with several individuals who were raised in the Cynthiana area. Rather than commenting on things and people of national note, they shared some items of local color that still endear them to the town, years removed from their youth.
Beth Underwood now resides in Lexington, but she enjoyed the winters growing up in Cynthiana.

“Sleigh riding at the country (golf) club was always a huge deal,” she said. “We’d go out as soon as we’d eaten breakfast, come home to warm up and get a change of clothes at lunch, then back at it until dinner. Sometimes, even the adults would join in. There was a recent conversation about which fairway had the best hills. I would vote for fairways 7 and 9.”

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood day trips (and sometimes overnight ones) orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points being in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state now. After teaching 28 years, Steve spends much of his time today writing and reading about the state, and still enjoys doing those one dayers (and sometimes overnighters). “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes, and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

The town seemed safe and wholesome.

“What probably stands out the most is the fact that we were able to walk and bike just about anywhere without a care in the world,” continued Underwood, whose father, Dr. A.C. Wright, was a physician and later a surgeon there. “I grew up in Grandview, which was a fairly quick trek into town. At the time, we had Ben Franklin and Newberry’s department stores which seemed to sell everything anyone could ever want. I remember many special times at the drug store counter having a root beer float with my dad.”

Speaking of sweets in Cynthiana, our family sometimes stopped on the north end at the Pine Villa Restaurant for a plate lunch. I especially remember the delicious chocolate milkshakes served in a glass with a dollop of whipped cream on top. On the other end of town, my brother and I got real excited when we stopped at the Dairy Queen to get a “creamy whip” cone. At that time in the 1960s, it was one of the few Dairy Queens I remember seeing anywhere.

Rita Saltsman recalls a downtown store called Patton’s.

“It had wooden floors that that creaked when walked on,” she said. “There were counters with wooden stools that twirled where the women would sit and look at the pattern books. While my mom looked at patterns, my brother and I would be at a different counter twirling on the wooden stools.”

Melinda Renaker Boyer is a lifetime resident of Harrison County who has fond memories of her youth in the 1950s and ‘60s.

“It was a great town to be a part of, although at that time I just thought it was boring like most people,” she said.

She mentioned Saturday movies at the Rohs Theatre on Walnut Street, along with buying candy and a 45 record at Ben Franklin’s.

“I used to love the Christmas parades,” said Boyer. “They were a big deal back then, complete with marching ladies dressed in red and white fur, like Santa. Candy was thrown to the children in great abundance.”

Boyer now owns New Day Herbs in Harrison County, and has worked at Harrison County’s Griffith Woods, on U.S. Highway 62, which, according to the web site, “contains the best known remnant of the unique and fascinating bluegrass savanna-woodland and other vegetation that once covered this region before the pioneer area.” The old farm where it is located, said Boyer, “has 695 trees over the age of 200 years.”

Todd Probus, Versailles, loves his hometown of Cynthiana, where he graduated from Harrison County High School in 1992. He shared positive sentiments about some of the aforementioned places and activities, and added as memorable those “late spring nights on the Hilltop watching Harrison County Thorobred baseball…(and) listening to (and, if you were lucky enough, calling) the annual Lions Club Radio Auction.”

Todd Probus (Photo from ntaonline.com)

Todd Probus (Photo from ntaonline.com)

Probus also commented on a local icon around town.

“There are a lot of interesting characters who live in or out of Cynthiana, but none have become more of a mythical figure than Harmon Moore, the man who has spent pretty much every day for the last, at least, 30 years simply riding his bicycle around town, saying very little, honking his bike horn and waving hello at everyone. Some days he wears a long blonde wig, some days he carries flowers, some days he’s in completely non-descript attire…but he’s always waving, always smiling. And everyone loves him.”

For Suzanne Isaacs, a trip to Cynthiana from her Bourbon County farm at Shawhan was a big deal. She recalls traveling to nearby Oddville to visit family and friends.

“Mom owned some property there, and we stopped to collect from the renters,” she said. She also has fond memories of the Frische’s Restaurant, a small grocery store on Pike Street called Solomon’s, and a small diner sitting across the street from the courthouse called The Lunch Box, where her grandfather, Cal Slade, frequently dined. The highlight of the trips, mostly taken on Saturday, was going to Newberry’s Department Store.

“It meant getting a little bag of chocolate malt balls,” she said. “I would accidentally drop them on the wooden floor and my mother would scold me for wanting to me to pick them up and eat them.”

She also remembers being with her parents at funeral visitations in town, where, she said, “I learned to love flowers.”

Despite all of the 21st century problems that the town—like a legion of others—possesses, some, like Probus, will always be ambassadors.

“Cynthiana’s best resource has always been, and always will be, its people,” he said. “I’ve lived a lot of places, and no place has more genuine, caring, and salt-of-the earth people as Cynthiana. They’re hard-working, humble, creative, and honest; and every time I return home, I’m reminded of their character.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *


Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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  1. Rhonda Cooper Strawzell says:

    Tim and Sue are some of the greatest people I know! Thanks!!

  2. Rhonda Cooper Strawzell says:

    Thank you for a wonderful tribute to our cozy little town. The people here make “home”!

  3. Lois May says:

    Lawrence Pressman is from Cynthiana. Lerman’s wasn’t mentioned. Renaker Drugstore? Too many stores were omitted. If my granny hadn’t passed 2 yrs ago at 93, she could have given you a real history lesson.

  4. Lillian Ravenscraft Simpspn says:

    Lillian Ravenscraft born in Claysville Kentucky and moved to Cynthiana when I was 10 years old. Went to Marshall School and Harrison County High. They were wonderful schools. I live in Florida now but Cynthiana has my Heart.

  5. Margie Howard says:

    Gary Sandy also makes his home in Harrison Co. Dick Clark has visited our town as his secretary was from Cynthiana

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