Friday, May 20, 2011
Nestled between I-24 and Lake Barkley is a small community with a name that is hard to miss: Confederate, Kentucky. According to the Place Names Gazetteer, the only populated place in the nation named “Confederate” is this tiny community in Lyon County. There are variations, such as Confederate Ridge in Virginia, but the only community simply named Confederate is in the Bluegrass state. Among the homes and churches you’ll also find a vacant store building (much more on that later) and the Confederate Cemetery, with a nice gated sign saying “Confederate Cemetery”.
Naturally, our curiosity was aroused. What is the story of Confederate, Kentucky? It took a little digging to find out. An initial trip to Lyon County and inquiries there produced no solid information. Our subsequent research, though, led us to Deborah Atchley, who put us in contact with Mrs. June Thorpe, grand-niece of Confederate’s founder, Linn Gresham.
The history of Confederate most likely really begins with the story of the nearby Tennessee Rolling Works. While Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia is well known, there were a number of iron mills in Lyon County before the war. Describing the fledgling antebellum Southern iron industry, a copyrighted New York Times article published on November 15th, 1897, by J. E. MacGowan said, “The forges made a very fine grade of iron, resembling closely the soft and tough product of the Swedish forges and rolling works. It is probable that these furnaces...could have produced 75,000 tons of iron in the year 1860.”
Moved from Nashville in 1845-46 according to the Kentucky Historical Society, the Tennessee Rolling Works mill in Lyon County became the center of a community. According to the book One Century of Lyon County History, “...at least 1,000 Negro slaves and 500-600 workers were employed at the Tennessee Rolling Mill during its operation. Hundreds of little houses stood on the hills around the mill…”. There was a company store, as well. One Century also says that in 1878 The community of Tennessee Rolling Mill still had over 200 inhabitants, a school and a church. The Mill was transferred to Louisville in 1884. It is likely the decline and demise of the mill led to the birth of Confederate.
One Century describes Confederate this way: “The history of Confederate is the history of (Linn) Gresham for it is his store that is the hub of activities from buying and selling during the day to the community center of Rook games and cracker barrel philosophizing at night. It was on Gresham’s land that that the spring was located and it was at Gresham’s house that the school teachers boarded.” One Century states that Gresham founded his store in the “middle 1800’s”, however June Thorpe says that her uncle built the store in 1882. The 1882 date would be significant since with the closing of the nearby Mill just two years later, and the closing of the company store with it, it made Gresham’s the natural place for people in the area to gravitate towards. June Thorpe feels that the Mill closing was possibly a catalyst in Gresham’s decision to open his store, perhaps Gresham anticipating the mill circumstances somewhat, or perhaps the company store closing before the mill actually did. Linn Gresham had at least two brothers in the Confederate Army, William and James. William is buried in Confederate Cemetery, and James across the street in Bethany Cemetery. The Adjutant General’s Report confirms that James served in Cobb’s Battery, and William in the 1st Kentucky Cavalry. Two other Gresham’s (more brothers, perhaps, but that could not be confirmed), John and M. C., enlisted in the 1st along with William.
Linn Gresham’s store operations grew through the years. Across from the store was a spring, in a grove of Maple trees. Traveling salesmen, known as “drummers” often availed themselves of the shade and water. This would prove significant. Initially the community became known commonly as Gresham. Some time after the store was founded, though, a post office was set up there, and a place name was needed. Apparently there was some discussion as to what to call the place. According to June Thorpe, it was one of the “drummers” who suggested the name Confederate.
Perhaps we’ll never know the exact reasoning behind this visitor’s suggestion, but it would seem reasonable to think it came from his perception of the place. There seemed to be no resistance in the community to the idea of being called Confederate, which would enforce the feeling of the salesman that it was a place of Confederates.
The Confederate post office survived until 1914 (postmarks from Confederate, Kentucky would likely be a hot collector’s item today if they could be found). The store passed to Leonard Gresham, June Thorpe’s father. He operated it from 1918 until 1959. In 1952, June joined her father in the business. She operated the store until it closed in 1974.
The store had to be moved in the 1960’s because of the construction of Lake Barkley, which now covers all of what was Tennessee Rolling Mill and much of what was Confederate (nearby Eddyville also had to be relocated in its entirety). Though closed since 1974, the building (after the move) is still standing.
So, there you have it; Confederate, Kentucky was founded by a family of Confederates, named by a visitor who saw something Confederate in the place, and after more than 125 years we still couldn’t imagine a better name.
Originally printed in the Fall 2007 publication of The Lost Cause
Posted by David at 1:35 AM