History of Big Spring Kentucky

This small village, resting at the point where Breckinridge, Meade and Hardin Counties join, was once known as the “Dodge City” of its time and place, due to the three saloons and violence in the town. In the early days, because of it’s location, Big Spring did not receive attention from law enforcement officials as did other towns. According to legend, it was a bit of a “wide-open” town; another legend tells how people enroute to Big Spring were cautious about traveling through the “long hollow” east of town, especially at night, because of robbers. The quiet, peaceful and serene little town of today in no way reflects the period of time when Big Spring was a thriving center of trade, commerce, tourism and recreation.

The little group of buildings comprising Big Spring sits there, sunbaked and wearing the look of age. The not only look old, but they are old, some dating back to the pre-Civil War era. Surely, if the buildings in the small village could talk, they would tell stories about struggle, strife, drama, courage, tragedy, affection, happiness, and examples of “man’s inhumanity to man”. Stories could be told about the early pioneers, Thomas Lincoln’s visit, and the days when Big Spring was the “shopping center” for a wide area of the state. Stories could be told about the Civil War, of prisoners being held in the cellar and being shot as reprisals. Stories of guerrillas and the terror they brought could also be told. According to local legend, Sue Mundy, one of the most vicious of the guerilla leaders, was captured near what is now Irvington. Mundy was brought to Big Spring and held in the cellar of the old general store, the one that burned in recent years. He was then taken to Louisville, where he was executed by hanging. More stories could be told, some of which would be about runaway slaves being held in the cellar while waiting for their masters to come for them.

While the dates of first arrivals in the Big Spring section are not known, they are thought to have been during the late 1770’s. In 1780, Captain William (Big Bill) Hardin, with his party, came down the Ohio River to the point where Stephensport is now located. They turned up Sinking Creek to the falls, where they landed. From here, they journeyed over land to find a suitable site on which to build a fort. Sometime later, the mend discovered they were being followed by Indians. In order to avoid a fight, they abandoned their plans and set out for Hynes Fort in Severns Valley (Elizabethtown). The men traveled all night until they reached a big spring where they paused to quench their thirst and rest for awhile. It was in this spot (presumed to be Big Spring) that the Indians overtook them and a fight ensued. A Mr. Sinclair was killed, the others escaped to Hynes Fort.

Many towns in Kentucky claim the Lincoln family stopped there on their way to settle in Indiana. Big Spring, too, makes this claim and with probably more reason than most, as it appears to be a direct route to where the Lincolns crossed the Ohio River. It is claimed that Thomas Lincoln and his family made camp in a field near the spring on land owned by a family by the name of Board. One hundred years later, there were old timers in and around Big Spring who could point out the trail the Lincolns took.

Some of the best farmland in the county can be found in the Big Spring area. In the early 1800’s, many people began buying tracts of land for farms and businesses. Ernest Bewley, a 76-year-old resident of the town said, “My father told me many times that when land was first sold in this area it went for 12.5 cents an acre. This was in line with the wages, which were often no more than 5 cents a day.”

For a time, Big Spring was a stage stop for the coaches running between Elizabethtown and Hardinsburg (Hardin’s Fort). the town gradually grew up in the early 1800’s, around the clear, cool spring that rises in Hardin County. The spring flows about 50 feet, passing the junction of the three counties, then sinks and reappears several times. It finally flowes underground for three more miles to emerge in the Sinking Creek, a tributary of the Ohio River.

In early days, a large tree bearing leaves that were three shades of green was called the “Corner Tree” as it stood at the geographical point where the three counties joined. Big Spring residents claim that the leaves facing each county reflected a different shade of green. A granite marker now sits near where the “Corner Tree” once stood.

Big Spring served as a summer resort for people from Louisville and other places who were seeking a restful place to get away from the heat and noise of a large city. At one time there were two hotels, which were usually filled in the summer months. Some type of entertainment was always available for the many visitors. If the quiet became too pronounced, there were plenty of events and activities with which to keep busy.

The most popular form of entertainment was found at the race track, owned by McHenry Meador, a prominent resident of the town. Many fine horses were owned by some of the citizens of Big Spring. Harness racing fans from all over Kentucky met there.

At this time, there was a saloon where the men could quench their thirst and idle away time. Several red hot poker games were often held, and at times, someone would draw a knife or gun on a member of the game who was caught cheating. The county line between Breckinridge and Meade Counties was moved during the early days and happened to pass through the center of the tavern. With Breckinridge County being dry, and Meade County wet, the proprietor simply started serving alcoholic beverages across the room on the Meade County side.

Herb Hodges, life-long resident of Big Spring said, “A fellow could buy a shot of whiskey in one county and go across the room to Breckinridge County and drink it. This often led to confusion when the sheriff tried to arrest someone. If the sheriff was from one county, and the criminal was across the county line, the law officer had no authority to arrest him. Often no arrests were ever made.”

Dances were often held in homes or the dance hall, and a ten-pin alley attracted the younger men. At different times of the year, there were quilting parties, corn huskings and apple peelings. Play parties were very popular with the summer visitors as well as the locals. r the more sober minded, there were two churches: a Methodist and a Baptist, at which they could worship on Sunday and attend weekly prayer meetings.

Possibly the most exciting event that disturbed the serenity of this small village was the tornado that struck the town in March 1849, killing several citizens and destroying several buildings. The Methodist Church was left in ruins, it was rebuilt in 1881; the Baptist church was build in 1884. Near Big Spring one can easily locate Hurricane Hollow, named for the 1849 tornado that swept its length before hitting the community. Another catastrophe hit the community in about 1911, when it was almost destroyed by fire. The town has also survived several droughts and floods.

In the 1870’s, businesses flourished, a town plat had previously been drawn and many building lots were sold to those wishing to settle in Big Spring. Vine Grove, 10 miles northeast of the busy little town, was the major shipping point. At this time the population in Big Spring was around 200. It was during this time that two physicians, Dr’s J. R. Gray and C. B. Arnold, practiced in the town. The druggist was J. C. Smith.

Other businesses included: W. A. Burkhart, blacksmith; J. Caldwell, barber; Eskridge and Brothers, blacksmiths; A. Grief, jeweler, tinner and trunk maker; T. B. Howard, hotel proprietor; McHenry Meador, general and furniture store owner and undertaker; A. R. Morris, administrator (mayor); T. A. Robinson, carpenter; James O. Sturn, furniture; and G. A. Meador, flour mill operator.

At one time, Big Spring supported a large distillery, owned by Jim Wheatley. It was located behind and to the right of the Clarkson-Hardaway mansion. The whiskey made at the distillery was known as “Big Spring Straight.” Since it was not sold in bottles, customers had to fill their own containers from spigots that were in the end of each barrel.

There were several fine houses in the town. One of the most elaborate was known as “Maplewood,” the Clarkson-Hardaway home. Today, this house is even more beautiful than ever. The home, at one time, was surrounded by large, maple shade trees. During this home’s course of time, it has housed many elegant furnishings (there will be more about this home in a later issue of this paper).

Big Spring was hit by two outbreaks of typhoid fever. The first was in December 1883 through January 1884. Nine people died before the cause of the disease was found. It was discovered that the town well, which was only used when the spring go muddy, was contaminated with typhoid germs. Carl Martin, an 85-year-old resident of Irvington and former Big Spring resident, said he remembered the other outbreak of typhoid. “People got sick and some died. No one know what was causing the sickness. Finally, the town well was tested, and once again, authorities found typhoid germs in the water. The well was never used again,” he said.

Big Spring has several claims to fame. The chief claim is that it is the birthplace and/or home of several great men. Amon them were Proctor Knott, who became governor of Kentucky; Charles Harwood Moorman, a Judge of the United States Circuit Court of Appeals; and Dr. Milton Board, chairman of the Kentucky State Board of Health.

Another claim to fame evolved around the production of hog feed. In 1885, on his farm near Big Spring, Tom Moorman was concerning about the poor condition of his hogs. He wrote the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington, D. C., and received a formula for a remedy or “hog tonic”. Mixing it painstakingly, according to directions, he fed it to his hogs- and it helped them! Soon neighbors wanted to buy some of the product. Then and there the Moorman family established a small business in their barn – mixing, packaging, and then delivering the product with a spring wagon. It was in 1900 that two of the Moorman sons, E. V. and C. A., saw the possibilities of the product in the hog country of the Midwest and moved to Gorin, Mo., where they later established the MoorMan’s Company. The small business that was founded near Big Spring, has now developed into a billion dollar… (the remainder of paragraph is missing from paper).

Some of the best educators in the state taught school at Big Spring. In the early 1900s, the school was the center of activity. The building was used for church services and all community events, including plays and Christmas activities. Beginning in the 1920s, enrollment at the Hall School near Big Spring began to decline. Fifteen students were enrolled in 1920, and by 1936, the number had dwindled to four and the school closed. The Sphires School at Big Spring was discontinued in 1951. Today students attend Irvington and Custer elementary schools. High school students attend the school of their choice in one of the three counties.

Compared to the earlier days, the Big Spring of today is virtually a ghost town. There are still three churches, a post office is located in the only grocery store, and Mr. and Mrs. Dan Hardaway own and operate Hardaway Elevators, Inc. one-fourth mile north of the town. The Big Spring post office was established in 1826. This post office merged with Plains in 1894 and High Plains in 1927. Mrs. Glenda Miller, owner of the store, said, “The three churches work together to help needy residents in and around the community.”

“It’s really wonderful when you see all three churches come together, not only for their own members, but for those who don’t belong to the churches,” she said. “I don’t think you’ll find a town better than Big Spring when it comes to helping each other.”

Big Spring – a link with the past, was settled long before many of the other towns of the area. It grew fast for a period of time, then slowed, and stopped. To keep the town alive, each year Big Spring holds “Down Home Days,” the first Saturday and Sunday in June. This event brings former residents together with friends and relatives for a visit and a chance to reminisce. This 15-year-old even has never been rained out and it draws an overflow crowd.

Information for this article was obtained from the following sources:


  • Interviews with Big Spring residents.
  • The News-Enterprise: September 20, 1979, and December 14, 1987, story by Peggy Riley.
  • The Breckinridge County Herald News: April 15, 1965, and August 31, 1978, story by Linda Matthews.
  • Kentucky Place Names by Robert Rennick.
  • MoorMan’s booklet, About Our Company.
  • Two Centuries in Elizabethtown and Hardin County by D. E. McClure Jr.
  • Brave New Beginnings by the late Burnett Powell.
  • Breckinridge County Board of Education minutes.
  • The Herald News microfilm.

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