Birk City, Kentucky
Named After: Jonas A. Birk
The little town of Birk City is located on the Green River, 22 miles from its mouth, and 12 miles east of Owensboro. It was founded by Jonas A. Birk, who came to Birk City from Cloverport in 1857. Mr. Birk succeeded in laying the foundation for the town. It contained three stores, a blacksmith shop and one tobacco factory built by Mr. Birk. At the time of his death in October 1877, he owned over 450 acres of land. He was buried in the Birk City graveyard about ½ miles north of Birk City.
A saw mill was built in 1857 and used as such for 10 years. It was then used as a distillery for three years. In 1870, it was converted into a tobacco factory, approximately 60 x 70’ in size. The first blacksmith was Peter Rarick, who came with Mr. Birk.
The first ferry was granted a license in March, 1861. It was noted as being on the banks of Birk Mill. It was ran by Jonas Birk. It was required to keep one substantial ferryboat and skiff boat at the ferry landing. The boat was 38’ x 9’ with railings two feet high. Restrictions were for heavy loads with four horses and four-wheel wagons, or two wheel carriages with horses. Sheep, goats and hogs and lambs were a fifth of what the horse charge was. Horses cost $.10. Horses and man $.15, and foot man was $.05 cents.
The first store was opened by William Hollace in a house built by Jonas A. Birk for that purpose. Other merchants were C.E. Birk and L.P. Birk, both of whom were Jonas Birk’s sons, along with C.B. Lancaster.
It was a wilderness and no settlement had been made within a mile. No clearing was visible and the first tree cut down was where the old sawmill stood. The mill was built and work began on improving the land. Mr. Birk brought with him to Daviess County $5000 which was invested in the mill. The purchase money of the land amounted to $3000 more. Various misfortunes followed. His stock died from sickness, cash could not be obtained from lumber and in a couple of years Mr. Birk found himself in serious financial difficulty. Mr. Birk suffered heavily during the war but afterwards, he received $2000 for his tobacco crop, and his corn crop $2000 more. He was back on his feet again.
In 1860, an ad was in the paper mentioned that town lots had been laid out and was being disposed of on reasonable terms. It stated that Birk City was located in a most desirable part of Daviess County, easy access, and immediately on the Green River, trade is good and constantly improving, and has a good class of citizens in the place and neighborhood. Mr. Birk predicted that a Catholic church was going to be erected in the place and other valuable improvements would be made in a short time. He also said it was a good opportunity to those wishing to invest; mechanics particularly will find this a splendid opening.
In 1874, according to the Owensboro Monitor, an article stated that Birk City was 11 miles from Owensboro and was neatly situated on the Green River. Birk and his sons were the proprietors of the wagon, carriage and blacksmith shop and that they do extensive business. Ferdinand Birk was the proprietor of the dry and goods, notion and drugstore. George Birk was his salesman and bookkeeper and also Postmaster of the town. CE Birk ran a grocery and produce store and Frank Birk was the District Constable. The reporter added that there were several more he didn’t meet but it seems to be that every man there was a Birk. He said they were all clever, industrious and honest men who attended to their own business and that the city was thriving. Esq. Newman, one of the counties “dads” said that Birk City would furnish the next county judge and sheriff. Mr. Bellew still had a successful operation of a large sawmill.
The city was on the Green River and had a road to Owensboro. Some towns on the river had no roads leading to the bigger towns. The Green River was how everything was shipped and sold in Evansville. They bore the excessive steamboat rates known as the Green River monopoly. A small distillery called the Eagle Distillery was built at Birk City in 1880. The Eagles Distilling Company had a still there along with bonded warehouses. It had 10 barrel capacity. TJ Monarch was President. Its office was located in Owensboro. The brands of whiskey placed on the market were TJ Monarch, Imperial, and Cliff Falls. JW McCulloch bought the Birk City Distillery and moved it to a site on the railroad west of Owensboro and made the famous Green River Whiskey. The distillery moved from Birk City by 1892 to western Owensboro and changed its name to Green River Distillery.
A post office was established there in 1864 to serve a developing Green River port town. It was named by and for its first full Postmaster. After the town was laid out it was called Birk Mill. After his first two sons were Postmasters, John Duncan, Bud Wiles, Charles Reynolds, and family of Susan Whitehouse followed. It was discontinued and moved to Stanley December 1903 where there was rail service. Mr. Birk’s ambitious plans for the town failed to survive the century. A few years earlier a new Post Office between Oakford and Birk City opened up in 1886. It was named Adlai, in honor of Hon. Adlai Stevenson, the first assistant Postmaster Gen. BA Mitchell became the first Postmaster. It only stayed open a short time.
The first school opened in 1865. A black school opened in 1887 and the land was finally deeded over 15 years later in June 1902.
In 1877 another tobacco factory was built and opened by John Gaw. It was a 40 x 80’ building. In 1879 he built a 42 x 90’ addition. It had a capacity of about 500,000 pounds. It cost about $25,000. The Baptist Church was organized in October 1876 in a house used as a store that was occupied for 13 years by the F J Birk. It was then sold to the Baptist and converted into a church. Rev. D E Yeiser was the first preacher of this congregation. R C Kenner was the town physician. Some of the residents listed in the 1876 Daviess County Atlas map are: William Balee, blacksmith; FJ Birk, merchant; LP Birk, J a Birk, farmers; HD Bellow, Miller; JW Grimsley, farmer; Edwin Hawes, M.D. physician and surgeon; Barnett Kelly, farmer; in N M Newman, Carpenter; JL O’Bryan, WH Payne, farmers; James Wiles, George W Wiles, farmers. B. A. Asher, general blacksmith; Charles Birk, Birk City ferry; C.E. Birk, groceries and hardware, furniture and grain dealer. In 1883 Birk City had a population of 200.
According to the city directory in 1894, Birk City also had two boarding houses, one blacksmith shop, and one Baptist church with 44 members, one colored Methodist Church with 30 members. Rev. Jewell was Pastor. H. Scott was a ferryman. A man name Reynolds operated the livestock yard there where they loaded livestock on the boat. The man who helped him was a full-blooded Indian. In 1898 it put the population at 100 people.
The Green River created many problems for Birk City over the years. The floods of 1883 and 1884 were big. According to the Messenger there was a high water in 1900 and which the river was so swift and high that the ferry was unsafe for passengers to attempt to cross the stream. The ferry got out of control and floated half a mile below the landing. The next day it returned from Henderson County and had the same experience. The boat was a considerable distance below the town and could not be brought back until the water went down.
In 1904 Peyton Atkins was the blacksmith of the town. C E Birk was the grocery owner and undertaker. His wife ran the hotel. L P Birk was Postmaster and Magistrate. Thomas Chatham was a physician. Charles Nourse was a schoolteacher and C E Whitehouse ran the ferry boat. F.E. Birk was a tobacconist. C.E. Lancaster had a hotel, saloon, and grocery.
In the Birk City cemetery, there are some 15 tombstones and a several unmarked graves. The grave of Jonas A. Birk has a large headstone about 10 feet tall and a caption that says “Immigrated to the United States in 1838. Founded Birk City“. The last person buried there according to the markers was Cynthia Wells. She died in 1901. The graveyard is approximately ½ mile northwest of the town. It is on a ridge that follows the Hurricane Slough.
In 1899 when JM Wiles of Birk City made a renewal of his liquor license. A remonstrance was filed by many in that town saying the reason that they opposed the saloon was that it was in the same building as the Post Office and that Birk City was a small country town with no police protection. The people living in the place are often compelled to submit to indecent and profane displays of drunkenness which the saloon brings to the town. The bar room was not in the same room as the Post Office but it was under the same roof. Many went for their mail and were insulted by the drunken men according to the Messenger. The petition was signed by 40 people for the license and 20 people for the re-remonstrance.
In July 1906 the Methodist Church was dedicated in Birk City. Rev. Frank Thomas, Pastor of Settle Memorial gave the sermon. The sermon was dedicated to the Elizabeth Birk Memorial M. E. Church. At the close of the service a collection was taken amounting to $132, the amount due on the building of the church. A bible was given to the church by the members of the crew of the Steamer Glenmore, which was well known between Cannelton and Evansville. In 1915, lightning struck the Methodist Church and destroyed it and then it was moved to Stanley. Church leaders were C W Tackett, E F Benham, Junis Whitehouse, J McHatton, C W Reynolds, John Brown, L A fields and H D Hunt. A few years ago I talked with a 93-year-old man who moved to Birk City in 1923. He lived in three different places around the little town. He operated the ferry for three years between 1923 and 1926. He would move the ferry back across the river by walking and pulling on a wire to pull it across. He said there wasn’t really that much traffic other than when he ran it. When the river would flood he could not operate the ferry. He remembers a few of the paddle wheelers passing by the town but only a few would stop and pick up cattle or hogs. The boats had already stopped picking up people by 1923 and livestock a few years later. Birk City had almost come to a standstill until the 1937 flood. Where the original town was located, it was the lowest spot in the area along the river.
In the 1930s the Adam Bishops camp on the Green River near Birk City had several picnics including the Knights of Columbus. Different clubs from Owensboro would use the camp for their picnics on the Green River. E T Lyle had the only store left in Birk City in 1937.
When January 1937 rolled around the rains came in the biggest flood ever and completely covered Birk City. The population had dwindled down to around 150 people. The Ohio River had reached the stage at over 54 feet in Owensboro the river raced so fast that the people got caught unprepared for the high water. When the water hit there was no radio station in Owensboro. The people did not have newspapers to see what was expected to be coming down the river. Jack McClure, County Agent, was placed in charge of boats to help rescue the farm families and livestock. In the county over 600 families were affected in that over 90,000 acres were flooded, about 30% of the county. When the Ohio River broke over in the Bon Harbor section and raced toward the Green River over Highway 60 it raced toward Katie Meadows Slough on toward Rhodes Creek toward Birk City. It had powerful current as the Ohio River was higher than the Green River and had a terrifying roaring sound. Nobody had ever seen this happen before. The planning mills of Owensboro built several deep bottom boats, 12 x 24 and one was sent to Birk City. Several other flat boats as well as the Birk City ferry help rescue families and livestock as the people went to the Knights of Columbus Hall in Owensboro. The livestock were taken to the Bellwood Hill section to be unloaded near Sorgho.
H. H. McCain was cruising around in the Birk City section looking for refugees and found about 50 on house tops. They removed the people as well as many livestock but many animals drown. Murray Hagan’s house was used as a contact point by relief boats. When the flood receded, Horace Nelson went back to his house and found that several of the homes had water up to their roofs. Every house west of Mrs. Mittie Lee Birk’s had been washed away and were entirely gone. Mr. Nelson’s home had been washed away after anchoring it to some Maple trees with strong wires. Onis Greer’s ferry house and his camp house were gone. The only store, Bennett’s grocery store was deep in the water but the garages and outbuildings were turned over and were floating around. There was not a house in that section that was not in several feet of water. People had put some of their livestock in their homes before they left to keep them alive but the water drowned most of them. Several mules were found in neighbors houses. Because water came up so fast, residents were able to save very little from their home leaving only with their clothes on their backs. Most of the people returned after the flood but found it was in near ruins. The six homes that were washed away in the current were hanging in the trees along the Hurricane Slough all broken up. There were lots of livestock hanging on fences. The school was abandoned after the 1937 flood because of the big cleanup and also in the fall the new Sorgho’s consolidated school was opening and the children were bussed there.
The Oil Boom
In July 1938 the big oil boom hit Birk City. The Blackwell lease well hit big across the green River in Henderson County. There were four wells drilled in Henderson County before they drilled the first in Daviess County. The first was drilled on the Onis Greer ferry landing lease. Two weeks later a contract was let by the Daviess County Board of Education to drill two wells 1900 feet deep on the school lot. People from Texas and Oklahoma and anyplace there was oil business came to Birk City. Every farm around was leased up soon. The biggest lease to produce was the Lindsay Taylor lease. For over a month in July and August 1938, the oil news made front page coverage and headlines in the Owensboro Messenger every day. Some of the names of the leases were; S E Thruston, O L Boswell, Grover Harrington, Lindsay Taylor, Onis Greer. The Greer well was the first in Daviess County coming in with the flow of 1420 barrels a day and settled down to 300 barrels a day for a good while. Most of the oil sold for around one dollar a barrel. Aetna Oil and refining of Louisville first loaded oil on a barge and shipped it out on the Green River. Then a 5000 barrel tank was built in Birk City for storage and a new pipeline was built to load train cars near Newman to go to Spottsville refining. When it closed down tanks were set up on the Ohio River to load barges by Ashland Oil Company to be shipped out. A new pipeline was laid from Birk City to the Ohio River. By 1939, over 150 oil wells had been drilled. When the oil well on the C G Bennett property was drilled oil spurted about 125 feet into the air for an hour and 40 minutes before drillers could get it under control. A heavy gas fog spread over the town resulting in the temporary evacuation of some 100 residents. Parents carried their children from their gas field homes and according to the newspaper article, a Negro band playing for a dance said Bennett store obtained a boat and crossed the river after the gas had broken up the dance. Flares at surrounding oil wells were put out to eliminate dangers of fires. E L Newton, President of the Hoosier Drilling Company, who brought the 1600 barrel discovery well in on the Blackwell lease, formed a corporation known as the Birk City Oil Company Incorporated. Newton’s first six wells were producing over 2300 barrels daily. At one time there were 23 tanks holding 100 barrels each sitting on the Green River bank to hold the oil until the barge could load it.
When the oil boom hit Onis Greer purchased two more ferryboats. One was an 18 x 60 ferry and he also bought the Hambleton ferry boat. Greer said he kept three boats busy for some time and even set up a soft drink stand in the summer time for the hot dusty conditions. In 1938 a truck with an oil rig on it slid off the ferry causing the boat to stand up right in the river. There was no damage to either the boat or the truck. Some of the farmers who own the leases were hired to dig the pits for the oil rigs when the wells were drilled. Some would use a team of mules with slip scrapers and some used tractors. Most would receive around $20 to dig a pit. It may have taken around two days for each one. Later on in the 1940s and 1950s after the oil business calmed down, there were a few summer houses built east of the original town. Most of the original town was gone by then except for the big brick house built by one of the Birks.
Gas flares burned during the day and at night and eerie glow light shined in the region. Many of the people who move back after the flood built new small frame cottages when the pool began to yield oil. Alongside the river are a few summer camps but those were less attractive since the sound of the drills in the pumps and the odor of the gas and oil interfered with warm weather. By 2010 there probably wasn’t about 20 wells pumping, many making only one barrel a day.
By 1945, as many as 250 wells were pumping in the seven mile square oil pool. In 1945 the river raised high out of its banks again. There were only a few people left to ride it out. There were many interesting flood stories told over the years. One true story is that my grandfather Peter J. Ebelhar along with Arch Harris, James Gillis, Dennis Ebelhar and his brother Vincent Ebelhar took a small boat from the Birk City area to the Sorgho neighborhood to get some groceries. Upon their return, the heavily loaded boat encountered difficulty as it entered the channel of Rhodes Creek where there was a strong current. The front end of the boat plunged under the water and the five jumped into the flooded creek, the channel being many feet deep. As the five jumped they were fortunate in being able to grab the small bushes to cling to. On the edge of Bellwood Hill stood two bystanders that happened to see what was going on. William McCann and Hugh Ebelhar heard them jump out of the boat and they quickly got another boat to go rescue them. Nobody could swim or had a life preserver. All were safe.
One of the names that most people recognize from Birk City was a man named Murray Hagan. He and his father Sylvester Hagan raised purebred Jersey hogs. He raised certified lespedeza seed which became a popular and useful commodity for farmers who could not raise other clovers. He also became the first to raise hybrid seed corn in Kentucky and soon was in the seed corn business known as Hagan Hybrids. According to Jack McClure, the County Agent, Murray became a leader in organizing the Kentucky seed improvement Association. He introduced to state legislators a number of statues controlling seed production. He also was chairman of the Daviess County Red Cross board. He worked with the Board of Trade which was a forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce; he brought about the appointment of the first county agent of Daviess County. In the early 1950's when the Corps of Engineers announced plans to replace the Green River dam at Spottsville with a higher one that would eliminate the dam in Calhoun. Hagan led a group that convinced the corps navigation that it would be helpful in that thousands of acres would avoid flooding if both dams were rebuilt rather than building a single high one. Hagan was a pioneer in calling the Corps hand on threats to the environment.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s tug boats pushed barges down the Green River full of western Kentucky coal. Millions of tons have been pushed down river going to power plants going to different rivers. The last paddle boat to travel past Birk City was the Belle of Louisville. It made the trip to Calhoun for a festival that was being celebrated.
At present Birk City is mostly farming area. It has only 15 homes and several trailers. Most are used as summer camps. There are only around 35 people remaining there full-time.
Information was obtained from 1883 History, 1876 Historical Atlas, Owensboro Messenger & Monitor Newspapers and oral history from several older residents of the area. Written by: Grady Ebelhar