The Voice of Rowena Past and Present
Hello, my name is Rowena, and I grew up on the north banks of the Cumberland River. I hope you will take a minute to listen to my story. Please sit back and bear with me for my memory of the early days isn’t as clear as it once was, and some of what I tell you may be as it was, or it could be that I’m sharing it as my heart wants to remember my friends.
I’ve rested a lot since everyone left to find new homes when Lake Cumberland was being filled in 1950. Through the years, I’ve seen so many boats go by – fishermen and guides rushing past before the sunup looking for the perfect fishing spot, followed during the warm summer days by houseboats with families, ski boats with tubes, cruisers and pontoons. In the Rowena Cove, across the river and just above me, people would often visit on the weekends to launch boats or swim in the waters at the end of the road that long ago led to my ferry crossing.
I remember there were families that lived up the road to the south who put their boats in the lake were the road ended above me and learned to ski. Some even became champion skiers, and I’ve heard stories of their love of my waters. But, the years since the first families left haven’t been the same as before, and I’d like to share some memories with the help of the Russell County Historical Society, Russell County, Kentucky, History and Families, and steamboatrowena.com.
I’m blessed that they have kept the memories of my earlier times and that I can share those memories with you because things are changing, and I’m so excited about the new memories and the families that are bringing me back to life in a very special way.
But first, please bear with me while I tell my story because I’m not sleeping much these days, and I have some new exciting memories to share – and I hope you and your family will want to be a part of these new memories. I was established by the Kentucky Legislature on Feb. 10, 1847, and I want to tell you about those early days and my life during the more than 100 years before Lake Cumberland was impounded in 1951. I want to tell you a bit about the families, the churches, stores and schools that called me home, and I believe they loved me as much as I love the memories of those days.
The Rowena Methodist Church was a two-story church trimmed in brown with a Masonic Lodge on the second floor and a post office next door. I remember hymns sung by some with voices like angels and by others with the heart of an angel and a love for their church. But I don’t quite remember all of them as songbirds. There was a one room Beech Grove Christian Church and Beech Grove School. Both were white wooden buildings. I think the Beech Grove Christian Church congregation voices were better than the Methodists, or maybe they just sound better in my memory.
The Rowena School was at the corner of the road just up the hill from me, and there were two nearby country stores. Luther and Lula McFarland had a farm that grew some of the best corn around, and they owned one of the stores. Elsie Story owned the other and had a wonderful selection of food and candy. Both were gathering places for my friends and many wonderful stories were shared as men and their families shopped and visited.
Most of my families had farms, and some of the names I remember are Marion and Dakota Stephenson, Dr. Porter Ballou and his wife Bessie, Larken and Nancy Story and the lovely Miss Lara Snow. I smile when I think of Floyd Stearns driving his school bus, a small truck with a covered bed and rows of plank seats. He drove all the way to the high school in Jamestown and shared many tales and much laughter with the children he knew and loved.
Jess Stephenson and his wife, Mort McFarland’s family, the Dunbars and Louis and Nora Humble lived just down the road from Floyd’s home. Then there was Leonard and Elcie Mann’s big white square home with lovely porches and grand oak and maple trees. Ray Mann and his wife Hulda owned the third Rowena store and it was called the Kendall Store.
George and Ethel Mann lived just across from the Beech Grove School, a small school filled with these families’ children, their laughter and mischief. The Long family and the Allen family lived west of me near the mouth of Indian Creek. Tommy Hay lived in Swan Pond Bottom and was the foreman for the ferry along with Beckman Barnes.
They carried my friends, visitors and travelers along with all sorts of cars, cargo and animals between the north and south banks of the Cumberland River. I loved watching them come and go and listening to the tales and stories they would tell as they crossed.
My fondest memory of those early days is from the mid 1800s and is of Ena, the daughter of the family whose home was closest to the northern bank of the river. According to Ernest “Chief” Ross, she was a brave and fiery girl who often rowed people across the river to cheers from her passengers and onlookers on the bank calling out “row, Ena, row.” Her family loved her spirit and she, and I became known as “Rowena.”
The Cumberland River was my lifeblood. The families, my friends who I’ve just told you about would fish, swim and play along the banks of the river. And then there was the Steamboat Rowena.
She was a beautiful boat that first came along in 1912. She was a majestic boat over 168 feet long from her bow to her paddle wheel and almost 30 feet wide. She could carry 60 passengers in her 20 staterooms and 56 berths, and those passengers enjoyed their meals in a lovely dining room as she made her way up and down the river. It was always a grand event when she stopped by.
I remember she would carry sheep or a goat on her lower level for a penny each and a 6-horse wagon with the driver for 65 cents. When the Captain blew her whistle, the sounds carried up and down the river and the hills to my north and south. She came by for over 20 years and then I didn’t see her again. I heard that she sank just upriver from me in June of 1934, ending a 100-year era of steamboat transportation on the Cumberland River.
My families loved the river, and I loved the people that lived with me. But there were many times the river would rise like an angry giant and flood my friends’ fields, stores and homes. I learned of a plan to tame the river with a dam and then my friends began to leave to other homes near and far.
That was a time filled with sad goodbyes. But in 1949 I learned there was a master plan for the new lake the dam would form. That plan called for a different kind of community place to be located above me. The new community place was to be called a “marina.” That news filled me with hope that new families would call me home, and I waited for them to come. Then the dam was completed, the waters rose above me.
For some time, I’d wake each day with excitement and watch for signs of this new marina. The years passed and there was no news. I dosed off more and more. It was so quiet for so long. Then I heard stories of someone that had a dream of bringing me to life. I learned Tony and Bettye Sloan believed in me. They shared a vision of a new community that would be an exciting place for the people that lived above my shores and that come to this lake – Lake Cumberland.
I heard that Tony spent countless hours sharing his vision for bringing me back with his business partner, Tom Allen – a relative of the Allens that lived near the mouth of Indian Creek. The dream for this new marina became more vivid as they talked day after day over the years. I started to listen more closely to see if the stories were true, and I remember in January 2012 I heard voices along the ridges above me talking about a marina and sites for things called “Recreational Vehicles.” I heard someone say “Tony, the views are spectacular!” and I thought to myself, I agree!”
A few more years passed, and I was beginning to wonder if I had imagined all that. Then, in 2017 I heard machines moving rocks and workers returning. They talked of building a new community – a marina! I began to sleep less. I wanted to hear every word as my new home came to life. Craftsmen came to build a huge new boardwalk that floated and was even wider than many of the streets of my home far below the water.
I was amazed to see some of this new boardwalk even has a roof and when it rains people can walk without an umbrella! In addition to the craftsmen that are bringing me back to life there is a Construction Superintendent, a General Manager, a Harbor Master and other members of this great team that keep my home safe and welcoming. Another member of the marina team also is a bus driver and, much like Floyd Stearns, has a special way to welcome children, friends and visitors alike.
I watched as these craftsmen worked to build a new center for the community. This building grew along my southern bank until it was almost 100 feet wide and more than 200 feet long. A new area that reminds me of some of the flat fields my earlier friends grew crops in took place on the banks above, and I learned this grand space will be for cars. Cars that will not cross the lake and take people away, but cars and trucks that will bring men and women, families and children, friends and visitors to come to this new grand home.
A few boats I’ve heard they are called “houseboats” arrived in 2017 and 2018 and even more in 2019. I realize I have friends and families again. There are even children that laugh and play and some that are pushed along the boardwalk in strollers. All of this and more started to become clearer in the summer of 2019 and I’ve been filled with excitement. The Sloans’ dream was more than just a dream. Their vision is bringing new families to me and I will have new friends and memories.
I didn’t sleep much during the summer of 2019, and I remember the air was full of excitement on Wednesday, July 31. The wind was calm, and the morning mist had risen from the lake. The building these craftsmen built along the shore was white with black trim and a grand white roof with a taller copper roof in the center. The colors remind me of the Rowena Methodist Church. It is even larger than Leonard and Elcie Mann’s big white square home and it has porches that are even more grand than those which surrounded the Mann’s home.
These wide porches surround what I’ve learned is the new community store and a restaurant. These craftsmen moved that building from along the shoreline out to the mouth of the cove and attached it to the wide boardwalk in less than an hour! I would have shouted and raised my voice in joy if it could be heard. Instead, the red-tail hawks soared above and called out their salutes to the grandeur of this new site from early that morning until dusk. I think they shared my joy and excitement.
That evening my new families came out to this new center of my community to gaze west almost to the dam that formed Lake Cumberland, east to beyond the mouth of what is called Beaver and Otter Creeks and north to the hills above the shores.
Families from Clinton County, just south of my shores have joined my new families and friends on the floating docks, gathering on the porches of the restaurant on the west and the store on the east. Some sit in quiet appreciation of the view from the wave break benches at the end of the boardwalk that extends down the center between the marina store and restaurant. I have heard their voices speak in hushed tones as they are amazed at the view as the sunset changes the sky from shades of blue to crimsons, reds and oranges.
I’ve heard people talk about walking a circuit of almost a mile along this wide boardwalk from the parking lot to the store and restaurant and back. Others have walked about a half a mile from the shore up to an entrance to what will become the site for recreational vehicles.
Some continue along that road to the northwest end and back for another mile and a third. They talk about the morning sun as it streams silver shafts of light between the grand oaks, pines, cedars and trees that cover those hills. They talk about those same red-tail hawks that call from the sky above. And, I’ve heard of a Bald Eagle that has flown across this southern cove. I pray this eagle will stay and join my new family and friends.
If I may digress for a moment, Hal Rogers, U.S. Representative for the Kentucky 5th congressional district, has believed in the dream to bring me back to life and loves Lake Cumberland and the region. Much like the legislators that established me in 1847, his support has helped bring life to this new and wonderful marina community and I thank him.
This is just the beginning of my new life and its story. I’ve heard this story will be told on the walls of the store and restaurant and there will be photographs of my earlier life and my revival. I hope you will visit this grand boardwalk to see my new community and read my story as it unfolds.
There will be a place for the people that have supported the dream for a new Rowena community, a “marina,” and that have brought it to life to sign their names. And, as I said, my memory of the early days has faded a bit. If you have a story or a photo you’d like to share, please let me know so that we can add it to my history for our friends to see.
I’m so thankful for the memories, for the dream that became a vision, for those that brought that vision to life and for the view of the sunset. I am thankful for my new community and all my new friends. I’d love to share all this and more to come with you and thank you for taking to time to let me chat for a bit.
I hope you will come by soon and walk along my boardwalk, see my photos, admire the view and watch a sunset. I look forward to visiting again and God Bless these memories, our families and the memories to come.
by Jim Miller, a friend