The Rabbit Hash General Store, long the center of social life in a small Kentucky river town, is on track to reopen this spring after a devastating fire.
The Rabbit Hash General Store, a fixture in the small Northern Kentucky hamlet of Rabbit Hash since 1831, was gutted by fire on February 13, 2016. Don Clare, president of the Rabbit Hash Historical Society since 1979, shares his thoughts on why preservation of our historic places is important, and his appreciation for the many individuals and businesses who rallied together to help rebuild.
What’s all this talk about a Phoenix arising from the ashes in a small Kentucky town? Well you can believe it.
Like the resilient phoenix from Greek mythology, which is associated with the sun and periodically consumed by solar flames only to rise again from its own ashes, a very similar regeneration is taking place in a small Ohio River hamlet called Rabbit Hash. In Kentucky mythology, Rabbit Hash is The Center of the Universe. There’s even a full-length movie to prove it. And for decades the Rabbit Hash General Store served as the center of life in Rabbit Hash.
On February 13, 2016, however, one the coldest nights of the year (reaching nine degrees, not counting the wind chill blowing off the river), this iconic Kentucky Phoenix was devastated by Hephaestus, the very same Greek god of the blacksmith, fire and volcanoes. Had it not been for the insightful Kentucky blacksmiths of earlier times who fashioned an ingenious system of hand-forged iron hooks to securely protect the building from multiple flooding events, then the Greek God of fire would have certainly claimed his prize that night!
Ice-covered firemen from five different Boone County departments, most of them volunteers, valiantly fought off those hungry flames that feasted on the 185-year-old wooden building. Under the very worst conditions and circumstances, they persevered and were able to contain Hephaestus’ goal of total destruction. Our beloved phoenix, however, was barely recognizable as torrents of warm tears blurred the vision of what the future might hold.
Oddly enough, not one member of the hamlet’s immediate family had any doubt. This phoenix will absolutely rise up out of the ashes and once again take its rightful place as the centerpiece of the National Register District of Rabbit Hash, Kentucky. Great pains have been taken to restore the store to look and feel exactly as it did before the fire, and we expect to again welcome visitors to the Rabbit Hash General Store by early Spring. Folks who have memories of the general store — and there are many — will no doubt feel right at home in the new “old” store. There will be the same “potions and notions,” the same ambience, the same personnel, and the same ‘Behind The Stove’ live music sessions on Sunday afternoons.
I am often asked, “Why is this project so important to do? Why even bother? Buildings burn down all the time.” In order to answer questions like these, one has to internalize. So here is my answer: My history and my heritage are quality-of-life issues. I revere them as much as I do fresh air and clean water. Capitalism and greed beget land development and natural resource arrogance. To preserve a natural or heritage resource precludes personal gain and profit in favor of something larger and long lasting.
My history and my heritage are quality-of-life issues. I revere them as much as I do fresh air and clean water.
Since 1831, the Rabbit Hash General Store served as the very pulse of our rural agrarian community. An almost universal trait in humans is the need to socialize. As the very center of the Rabbit Hash community, the store filled this need and provided a neutral place for sharing personal thoughts, beliefs, concerns, fears, enjoyment, happiness as well as every other emotional trait and component. It served as the 19th-century Facebook, and for 185 years the store has played this role in this community. It is woven into our cultural fabric in these parts. It is our duty to see it continues.
Historic Preservation in this country is very different than in other countries of the world, however. Over the water (and I don’t mean Rising Sun this time), history and heritage and cultural traditions are celebrated and revered and the governing bodies see to it that this trait remains so. But in our country, preservation is more or less an afterthough. It seems that it is supported and approved by the masses only if it doesn’t interfere with development or with making a profit. It plays second fiddle in our capitalistic orchestra.
Preservation of our national treasures is not a given. It does not go without saying. Usually it has to be initiated and choreographed by one lone individual with enough passion, courage and determination (and more often than not, money) to really like-minded individuals into a reckonable force to see it through.
The effort to preserve Mount Vernon was initiated by one individual. The same goes for Monticello. Rabbit Hash was first saved and preserved only because of the insight of one man who determined that “this place just needed to be saved.” Lowell Lee Scott bought the old Ryle Brothers Feed and Seed store in 1978 because it meant something to his personal history and his community’s heritage. He then bought a dilapidated General Store the next year as it was circling the drain. Building after building, parcel after parcel, he continued to play Rabbit Hash Monopoly until he won the game. Again, just one individual! Eventually, the torch (not the one belonging to Hephaestus) was passed and the 501c-3 non-profit Rabbit Hash Historical Society purchased the town from ‘Louie’.
Over the years, the Rabbit Hash Historical Society has implemented every possible tool in the Historic Preservation Toolbox. That is why the town is still intact and viable now. That is why Hephaestus and other forces can never dampen our spirit and passion. Due to the fact that there were three walls standing on an intact (but damaged) floor on the original locust post foundation, the Rabbit Hash General Store was allowed to retain its status on the National Register of Historic Places, provided that its restoration follow the very stringent guidelines in the National Register Guidelines for Historic Preservation.
This was not an easy task. There would be a plethora of regulatory agencies to deal with on local, state and national levels in order to even begin to realize this restoration. It takes a universe to raise a village.
Gray and Pape Heritage Management, one of our tenants, is a national consulting firm that specializes in cultural resources management and historic preservation services. Kevin Pape, owner and CEO, generously offered one of his upper-level management team members to act as our project manager in order to get all our ducks in a row. This is the reason we were fortunate enough to plow through the hard, unbroken ground of regulations and bureaucracy in order to plant our passion fruit seed and nurture it along to harvest time which, fittingly, will coincide with the season of renewal and new life this spring.
Oh, sure, there were plenty of critics, naysayers and accusers to face in this fairy tale, but as any good yeoman knows, you have to negate the weeds to enjoy the harvest. Dan’l Wilson, a former proprietor of the store and local musician, once wrote a song called “Good Things Take a Little Time.” This has served us well as our mantra theme song. It is so true, too.
We’re blessed with an abundance of passion, love and dedication mixed in with faith, hope, perseverance and determination, yet something major was missing. Butterflies may be free but historic preservation sure isn’t. It takes lots of money!
Fundraising is usually quite painful, but thankfully not in this case. Suffice it to say, the General Store is destined to rise from the ashes thanks to the many individuals, organizations, groups, companies, businesses and positive energies of this cosmos that all coalesced to foster its renewal.
Just as that devastating fire needed fuel, oxygen and ignition, so too do the restorative efforts. The fuel came in the form of five different vintage structures — all donated and available for the taking (down). The oxygen was the aforementioned faith and passion. And the ignition, of course, was the cash, which was so graciously donated from every level imaginable and serves to congeal all the other ingredients. Now we are cooking!
When forces like these come together, nothing is impossible. And the combined knowledge and skill of many individuals has come together to help restore this local, regional and national treasure. The list of local businesses who have donated materials or services, or who have substantially discounted them, were major forces in making this restoration possible. There have been more than a few major individual donors to this restoration effort. We are operating on a tight budget, and are continuing to raise funds for the project and for ongoing maintenance through fundraisers and contributions.
For example you may have heard that we recently elected our fourth dog mayor of the town. We hold a new mayoral election to coincide with every national Presidential election, and so far these elections (four in total) have raised more than $9,000 each time. All of the money goes right back into the town.
Onlookers and visitors regularly reveal their innermost feelings with gasps, tears, smiles and other expressions of joy upon seeing the work done so far, and we can’t wait to unveil the final result. We cannot express enough gratitude to everyone involved with these efforts and look forward to welcoming you again to Rabbit Hash, The Center of the Universe.
Donations to the Rabbit Hash General Store Restoration Fund, a 501c-3 non-profit organization, are appreciated care of Forcht Bank, Rt, 18 Burlington, Ky 41005. Visit rabbithashhistsoc.org for more information.
Head on over to the shop for great deals on fresh Kentucky gear, or come on down and visit us at the Fun Mall, y’all! 720 Bryan Ave. in Lexington.