Lifetime resident Kenny Watts remembers ‘good old days’ in Jessamine County
Kenneth Watts was born and raised in Jessamine County after his family came to live here by way of the Kentucky River in 1805. Growing up, Watts was one of nine children and can remember how different the county was in stories he was told from before his time and in the memories he has made throughout his life here.
“I remember that everyone knew everyone,” Watts said. “You didn’t lock your doors at night. I remember once my aunt sent me a letter and put a silver dollar and taped it on a piece of paper which said, ‘happy birthday, Kenny Watts Nicholasville KY,’ and they delivered it to me. The mailman even knew all the kids’ names. How impressive is that it (the county) was so small he even knew what house to bring it to, and no one stole the money out of it.”
Watts said his family came to Kentucky from Virginia by boat which they would sometimes have to pull along through the Kentucky River when the water was too shallow. Happening upon what is now known as Camp Nelson, his family was tired of traveling and decided to stop in what later became known as Jessamine County.
“They were looking for a place to stay and said, ‘why don’t we just stay here? We have been traveling all this time,’ and the rest is history,” Watts said.
His grandfather opened a general store in what is now the Democratic headquarters on Main Street. His father worked for the old T.C. Willis Grocers, a building which is currently undergoing renovations.
“We were told that this street (Main Street) was a buffalo trail,” Watts said. “The Journal was where the old county jail was located on Main Street and they had written it took two weeks for the herd to pass night and day as they traveled to Great Crossing and Stamping Ground. That was some buffalo herd.”
Growing up, Watts was told stories of how his uncle at 5 years old would wait by where the current Central Bank sits for tobacco farmers to come along with their horses pulling wagon loads of tobacco. Watts said the farmers’ wagons would become stuck in the mud of the flowing creek and all the kids would get behind the wagon and push it up the muddy hill.
“Sometimes, they would have to unload the tobacco and then carry it up the hill and they would pay those boys a nickel,” Watts said. “They would have the tobacco sticks and they would carry them back up the hill to reload. They would take enough off for the horses to be able to get up there and they would sit down and wait for the next wagon to come through so they would get another nickel.”
Watts worked at the old L & M grocery store on Saturdays when he was a teenager. One Saturday in particular, Porter Wagoner came in, and being a 16-year-old boy behind the counter, Watts was quick to recognize him and let him know it.
“I said ‘I know who you are,’ and he said, ‘OK, well who might you be?’” Watts said. “I told him I get off at four and he said, ‘well how about I buy you a Coke.’”
Not long after Watts agreed, Dolly Parton walked in the store. she was 16 years old, just like himself, and Watts said he quickly told her he had seen her singing on television.
“We sat outside and talked for two-to-three hours,” Watts said. “Porter got ready to leave. They were going to play the Jessamine County High School. She asked me what I did, and I told her I played the guitar and drums. She said, ‘we are down a drummer. Our drummer is sick and can’t make it. Will you come and play drums for us?’ I said, ‘no, I can’t do that. I am going frog hunting.’”
Sometimes, Watts said a group of 10 to 12 boys would hop the trains up-town to what is now known as Brannon Crossing. Spending the day hunting and swimming in the ponds, the group would make sure to catch the 5 p.m. train coming back down to Danville in order to make it home for dinner.
“We would be gone all day,” Watts said. “If the train was going slow we would get on top of the boxcars and take off running and jump and land in the sand cars. They would call detectives on us, but they were so fat they couldn’t catch us, and we knew where we were going and they didn’t, so we would jump the creek and they couldn’t get across the creek.”
Watts said his mother never turned down any hobo riding the trains either. Sometimes, Watts and his friends were bribed to try and get the hobos food, and his mother would pack them a sack full of biscuits, bread and whatever kind of meat she had on hand.
“After we had fed them and talked they would say get away because a guy would walk down with a big stick and check cars and look in them,” Watts said. “They would stand in the back and in the dark. Later they would wave at us when they would leave and take off.”
Sunday afternoons Watts said were spent washing your car and swimming at a pond past the Black Ridge Corner Restaurant.
“Everyone would go down there and swim and wash their cars on Sunday,” Watts said. “You’d bring a bucket and detergent and then your dad would let you swim after work was done. There were all kinds of cars that would come down and wash their cars on Sunday.”
Three of Watts’ brothers served in World War II, and Watts was told stories of how the group went down to enlist with their cousins after the bombing at Pearl Harbor. Wanting to get even with the Japanese, Watts said their patriotism would be a sight to see today because in most areas of the nation patriotism is going out the door.
“The police called and said, ‘you got to get up here, your son called from San Diego and is shipping out,’” Watts said about his parents receiving a phone call in the 1940s. “They put them (my parents) in a police cruiser and they ran them to Oak Street where the fire station was.”
Watts later married and had two children, a daughter who currently lives in Washington D.C., and a son who lives in Louisville. Besides a brief time attending Indiana University, Watts has never lived outside Jessamine County and started his own real estate company in town in 1969, which is known today as Watts Realtors and Auctioneers, Inc.
“My mother-in-law said, ‘what on earth do you think you are doing (going into real estate)?’” Watts said. “‘You with a wife and two kids and needing to make a living.’ She said, ‘as soon as you sell your friends you will be out of business.’ A couple of years later when we were the biggest ones here she came and apologized and I told her, ‘well I am just glad I didn’t have any friends.’”
The small town atmosphere is what still attracts Watts to Jessamine County after all the years he has spent here. Walking up and down the street, Watts said people still stop to speak to you and know who you are and who your family is.
“When you were a kid they would say, ‘well whose boy are you?’” Watts said. “I remember if you acted up on Main Street and the merchants had seen you they would say, ‘boy, I will call your daddy on you,’ and that would straighten you right up. Where today they would probably sue the guy for saying something. That was how things were. The groups would correct the kids if they had seen them doing something wrong.”
With all the growth in Jessamine County, Watts said there are now many people that residents do not know. Farmland is also becoming scarce, and Watts said his wish is to see everything preserved.
“I would like to preserve the historical sites so that the other children can enjoy it,” Watts said. “Just preserve the history of it.”