Harold Slade, 93, straightens one of many buildings he made from old picture mat board for a scale model of downtown Cynthiana in the late 1800s. Photos by Tom Eblen
CYNTHIANA — There is a lot of history in this little town, and more of it than you can imagine is stuffed inside a former movie theater and roller skating rink.
The Cynthiana-Harrison County Museum is like a well-organized community attic. A hodgepodge of treasures are displayed alongside relics from everyday life, things that otherwise might have been sold off, thrown away or lost to time and change.
This museum has been a 19-year labor of love for Harold Slade and a group of his neighbors, who have lived a good bit of Harrison County history themselves.
“There’s not many things in the museum older than me,” said Slade, 93, a retired factory worker who never liked history in school but has made it a second career.
The museum opened in 1994. By 2007, it had outgrown its first home and was moved to the long-vacant Rohs Theatre, which also once housed a skating rink. The museum’s collection now fills almost every square foot of the place. Still, the all-volunteer staff always finds room for more.
Cynthiana has had a few brushes with history, including two Civil War battles, both involving Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan. Battle-related items include a state historical marker that stood along a roadside until a schoolboy noticed that one of the battles’ date was wrong.
“They made a new one for the highway,” Slade said. “We got this one.”
The museum has artifacts from all aspects of Harrison County history and life. There is the oldest known copy of a Cynthiana newspaper, The Guardian of Liberty from July 14, 1817, and a wicker body basket once used by a local undertaker.
Harrison County schools are represented with dozens of school yearbooks, trophies and class photos. A mannequin wears a uniform from Harrison County High School’s marching band.
On one wall is a framed letter written by statesman Henry Clay. On another, a giant Kentucky map made of buttons. There are lots of old tools, including the stone axes of prehistoric Harrison Countians.
WCYN Radio’s old control board is preserved here, as are spare pipes removed from the Methodist Church organ when it was renovated in 1935.
The museum includes some of Slade’s own history, from his World War II Army uniform to the attendance book he kept as a scoutmaster. Among the Boy Scouts’ names is one Joe B. Hall, the future University of Kentucky basketball coach.
Hall isn’t Cynthiana’s only claim to fame. The museum has the black robe worn by Mac Swinford, an influential federal judge who died in 1975, and an exhibit of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy dolls. The children’s storybook characters were created by Johnny Gruelle, whose father was born in Cynthiana.
Local business memorabilia includes tobacco artifacts and items from the Webber sausage plant, which started here in 1930. The company was later bought by ConAgra and left town in 1994 after the factory was destroyed by a grease fire.
Harrison County once had more than 30 bourbon distilleries, making whisky under such names as Old Tub and Belle of Harrison. The prize of the museum’s bottle collection used to be an unopened bottle of Old Van Hook from before Prohibition. Then, one day, it disappeared from its display case.
“A few weeks later somebody brought the empty bottle back to us,” said Mary Grable, secretary of the non-profit trust that owns the museum. “We think we know who drunk the whisky.”
Perhaps the museum’s most interesting piece is a huge scale model of the town as it looked in the late 1800s. Dozens of buildings were accurately recreated from bits of colored picture frame mat board by Slade and Neville Haley, who died in 2009.
Each building is an amazing work of intricate detail. The layout includes a model of the long covered bridge that for more than a century crossed the Licking River that runs through Cynthiana.
Donald Hill made the bridge from wood salvaged from the real bridge, which was demolished in 1948 after it was replaced by a new concrete bridge named for Morgan, the Confederate cavalry raider.
“Didn’t make a lot of sense,” said Randall Boyers, 86, a museum volunteer. “The man burns the town and they name a bridge after him.”
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