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Want a Fun Way to Expand Your Family?

In Kentucky towns, a writer learns more about a grandfather and gets to know inhabitants who followed

Illustration of a crowd gathered at an outdoor bar in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky.

Ilustration: Chris Lyons (source Gayle Keck)


“We always say, ‘Let’s go see Hugh,’ when we head to the 17th hole,” the golfer explains — the Hugh in question being my great-great-great-great grandfather, Hugh Steers, who fought in the Revolutionary War. He rests mostly peacefully in a wooded patch of land amidst a northern Kentucky golf course, in a grave decorated with flags and plaques placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Because I am from a small family — one brother, one cousin on each side, and no offspring among us — I’ve found it comforting to reach back in time for additional family. Visiting places where my ancestors lived gives me a visceral connection to the flow of my history. I especially wanted to explore this area of Kentucky, knowing that grandfather Hugh had returned to live near the very place he was captured and held prisoner for two years by Native Americans fighting for the British.

Author Gayle Keck stands behind Hugh Steers' gravesite

Courtesy: Gayle Keck

Author Gayle Keck stands at Hugh Steers' gravesite.

After paying homage at Hugh’s golf course grave, I drive to the nearby hamlet of Big Bone, because the odd name sparked my interest when I discovered it on my ancestor’s census record. I’d soon learn that Big Bone, sited in a protruding knob of Kentucky across the Ohio River from the Indiana-Ohio border, was named after mastodon, mammoth, giant sloth and other ancient bones unearthed from a salt lick.

Specimens from Big Bone caused a stir in the late 1700s and found their way into collections of Benjamin Franklin, the King of France and Thomas Jefferson, who sent William Clark (minus his other half, Meriwether Lewis) to collect more. Jefferson thought these mysterious giant beasts still roamed the West, and he hoped the Lewis and Clark Expedition would find them.

Today the surroundings are part of Big Bone Lick State Park, where some truly big bones are on display. Hiking a park trail, I inject myself into Grandpa Hugh’s past, amid the rolling, wooded landscape. When I discover a worn shard of patterned pottery by a creek, I imagine it may have come from my super great-grandfather’s era.

As I continue exploring the region, I can see what attracted early settlers here: The land is rich and loamy, water is plentiful and the nearby Ohio River was a vital highway of navigation. But why did Hugh return to live just a few miles from where he was captured in a battle known as Lachry’s Defeat? At a spot now marked by a monument, Native Americans attacked his group of Pennsylvania volunteers as they headed down the Ohio by boat. Visiting the Indiana site, I try to conjure the disastrous scene where all of Lachry’s 107 soldiers were killed or captured.

I learn that the Mohawk commander, Joseph Brandt, was schooled in English and the classics, had traveled to England and was presented to King George III. That’s mind-blowing considering Hugh made his “mark” on documents I’ve found online — meaning he couldn’t read or write.

Rabbit Hash General Store exterior with historical marker

Courtesy: Gayle Keck

The Rabbit Hash General Store was established in 1831.

Friendly innkeeper

When looking for a place to stay during my visit, I’d spotted another Kentucky village near Big Bone with its own quirky name: Rabbit Hash. An apartment called the Old Hashienda was available for nightly rental. The whimsical name alone fished me in, but I also discovered it was located across the street from the Rabbit Hash General Store, established in 1831. Maybe Hugh shopped there?

Rabbit Hash, population 1.5 (the .5 resides there only half the year), is a 3-acre clutch of wooden buildings beside the Ohio River, including a log cabin housing a small museum, a barn where monthly dances rock the countryside, and the Old Hashienda, which shares its location with the Verona Vineyards tasting room.

As innkeeper Terrie Markesbery checks me in, she tells me the structure was once much closer to the river, but a flood floated it up the hill. Folks here have been at the Ohio’s mercy for more than 200 years.

I wander over to the general store, home to a wonderful conglomeration of necessities, knickknacks, old stuff and souvenirs filling antique glass cases and shelves that climb to the ceiling. Innkeeper Terrie, who doubles as the store proprietor, sits at the checkout counter in front of a hand-painted sign reading, “Because nice STILL matters.” Her customers take that to heart. Frankly, I was a bit nervous about venturing from my home in liberal California to rural Kentucky, but folks here are as welcoming as a visitor could ever want. Are some my distant cousins?

By the store’s refrigerated case, a middle-aged man with worn, dirt-slicked jeans asks where I’m from and what brings me to Rabbit Hash. When I tell him, he asks, “Where have you eaten?” Turns out this outwardly grubby guy — who’d been fixing a leak in his boat — is a local foodie.

Big Bone Lick State Park historic site sign. “birthplace of vertebrate paleontology”

Courtesy: Gayle Keck

Big Bone Lick State Park is near Saddlebag, Kentucky.

He shakes his head when I tell him I’d lunched near the state park at Jane’s Saddlebag, “Home of the Woolly Mammoth Burger and Ice Age Pie.” He recommends the Farmstand restaurant a few miles away, where I go for dinner — and boy, is it good, with a casual menu full of local produce. As I dig into its homemade bourbon-pecan pie, I chide myself for being a coastal snob.

Leaky-boat guy, aka Mike, also recommended I try “goetta,” a local breakfast specialty made with pork and oatmeal, and told me the go-to brand: Glier’s. On the drive back to the Hashienda after dinner, I pick up a fat tube of it, then slice and fry it with eggs the next morning. Not bad. Chalk up another one for the Rabbit Hash gourmet.

It seems wrong to visit Kentucky without sampling another local product: bourbon. I venture a few miles upriver to Petersburg and the Boone County Distillery, a recent entry with deep roots. While giving me a tour, cofounder Josh Quinn explains that the town once hosted a thriving bourbon business founded in 1833. Since Hugh lived until 1846, did its bourbon soothe his later years?

In a nod to historical methods, this newer distillery grinds its own grain and uses a pot still to produce its bourbon. A sample went down smooth at tour’s end — probably smoother than anything Hugh sipped.

Back before bridges spanned the Ohio River, ferries did the job. One still operates upriver, linking Hebron, Kentucky, with the outskirts of Cincinnati just as it has since 1817. Aboard the Anderson Ferry, I gaze down the expanse of tawny-colored water bordered by thick woods, imagining Hugh paddling along with his company of Revolutionary soldiers, soon to be ambushed. What must it have been like back in 1781? Not all that different from today’s view, I’d wager.

That night, in nearby Burlington, Kentucky, I dine at Tousey House Tavern, originally a home built in 1822 that belonged to a far wealthier family than I suspect Hugh’s was. The two-story, red-brick Federalist building is beautifully restored, with tables spread among several intimate rooms graced by fireplaces. The food ranges from Southern fried green tomatoes and fried chicken to a charcuterie board and ravioli with portabella cabernet cream. I enjoy my Kentucky “hot brown,” with turkey, country ham, Mornay sauce, melted cheese, bacon and tomato, served over toast.

I plan to work off the meal at tonight’s Rabbit Hash barn dance. Unfortunately, the rock band’s amps are cranked up so loud that many folks seek refuge outside in the cool September evening. It’s an interesting cross-section of locals — Harley bikers, people in cowboy hats, young couples. Mike, looking much cleaner, is there and asks if I’ve followed his tips; I praise his savvy suggestions. It’s a beautiful night, as sunset paints the river pink and gold.

Rabbits running for their lives

I’d solved the mystery of Big Bone’s name but hadn’t gotten to the bottom of the Rabbit Hash moniker. For that, I meet up with Rabbit Hash Historical Society President Bobbi Kayser. As Bobbi tells it, at Christmastime one year, major flooding kept rich folks from getting across the river to the steamboat landing to retrieve packages of fancy victuals they’d ordered. While discussing what they’d be serving instead for Christmas dinner, they noticed the town drunk, Frank, listening nearby, so jokingly asked what he’d be eating. Seeing lots of rabbits escaping rising waters, he replied, “Looks like there’ll be plenty of rabbit hash ’round here this year.”

They thought that was so funny, they started calling him Rabbit Hash,” Bobbi says.

Not long after that, the county asked the town — then known as Carlton (and more populous) — to change its name because mail kept getting confused with the county seat of Carrollton. So, in a bit of poetic justice — and a dollop of whimsy — the place got named after the town drunk.

In another nod to quirkiness, I discover Bobbi was campaign manager for former Rabbit Hash mayor Lucy Lou, her border collie pup. A canine mayor? In 1997, mayorless Rabbit Hash held a mayoral election to celebrate Boone County’s 150th birthday. In a shameless display of wanton graft, anyone (even non-residents and kids) could vote by donating a dollar to the Historical Society. A dog named Goofy beat out several human candidates, and canine mayors have ruled ever since.

I’d set out to commune with the landscape where my ancestor lived but ended up communing even more with its inhabitants. They were kind, outgoing, savvy folks, possessed of a great sense of humor and fondness for a good tale. I’d come wanting to expand my small family by getting to know four times great-grandfather Hugh, but left feeling like I’d expanded it by many more.

Gayle Keck is a travel, food and archaeology writer in the midst of moving from California to France. She has written for Afar, National Geographic Traveler and The Washington Post.

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