Pulaski County Fact Book II
Chapter 4 Industrial Development


The laws granting land to the early settlers of Kentucky were so generous that the land was claimed rapidly and in most cases even before the counties were formed. As a consequence of the ease with which land could be obtained, agriculture very early became the primary industry in Pulaski County, and Somerset became the center for exchanging farm products for the necessities that could not be produced on the farm and the few available luxuries that the farmer could afford.

Tobacco, corn, and wheat were the leading crops and these were the main exports also. Most of the goods brought into Somerset in the early days were either brought up the Cumberland River or hauled by wagon from Lexington and Louisville. The river transportation was the more convenient but it was limited to the rainy seasons when there was a high water to allow the boats to go past the shoals. Much of the corn crop was used in the manufacture of whiskey, which was also one of the leading exports. Flour made from the wheat grown in the county was another export. This indicates that milling has been one of the leading industries of Somerset from the first. This is also borne out by the fact that the county court granted several people permission to erect gristmills on many of the streams throughout the county. One such mill was located on Buck Creek at Hail, for Thomas Hail petitioned for a mill site in 1859. With permission to construct a mill dam, wheat and corn were ground into flour and meal at this mill which was in operation in the early twentieth century with George Gregory as one of the last proprietors. Another of these old water-driven gristmills was still in operation in 1950. It was located at Short Creek which is about ten miles east of Somerset. This steam, which is about two hundred feet long, flows from the foot of one cliff into the base of another. According to Collins, "milling power of the finest kind is furnished by Buck and Pitman Creeks, and flour of superior quality is made at mills established on them about 1855." Some other early mills were Parker’s Mill, Mill’s Mill, John Long Mill, Mose Lewis Mill, Cundiff’s Mill, Wait Mill, and Cameron Mill.

Milling did not become a part of the industrial life of Somerset until near the beginning of the twentieth century. For several years at least three milling establishments were in operation. They wee the Citizens’ Milling Company, The Farmers Milling Company and Robinson Milling Company. These turned out excellent flour and meal as well as preparing feed for dogs and livestock.

Hemp and flax were produced in limited quantities for exportation. Beans were among the exports which were sent down the Cumberland to some of the towns farther south along the rivers. A great amount of the exports were sent to Nashville, Tennessee.

Tobacco was also one of the early exports from the area. Shawnee Indians grew tobacco in Kentucky around Indian Fields, according to a 1751 report of John Finley, a Pennsylvania explorer. But tobacco production west of the Appalachians soon flourished with a steady influx of Virginia and Carolina pioneers. They brought along seed and tobacco farming experience. Their settlements were along the Kentucky, Licking, and Salt River Valley. One such settlement was Boonesboro. Its area in 1783 was created with Kentucky’s first commercial tobacco production. As with other products, the rivers provided natural and economical routes to markets. Most early Kentucky-grown leaf moved on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. There it was shipped to U.S. Ports in the East and to Europe.

Warehouses for the storage and inspection of the grain and tobacco and flour were located in Somerset and along the road south to the Cumberland River. These warehouses or centers of inspection were established by the General Assembly at first but later the county government was given authority over them. These warehouses could be located not less than three miles apart. An act passed by the General Assembly February 10, 1798, prohibited the shipping of tobacco unless it had been duly inspected and properly packed in hogsheads or casks. Anyone violating this act was subject to a fine of 50 Pounds per hogshead.

Two inspectors were appointed by the county court and one by the governor for each inspection center. These inspectors were under oath to refuse to receive or pass any tobacco that was not "sound, well conditioned, merchantable, and clear from trash." The inspection cost the grower four shillings rent on each hogshead received, inspected and delivered out of the warehouse. Each farmer was given "receipts" or "notes" for his tobacco which he might sell to a tobacco merchant, exchange for some commodity, or use them in payment of debts.

The inspectors were required to make their reports in the month of September. They were to report the number of hogsheads examined during the past year, the condition of each warehouse, and the amount of tobacco the warehouse could "conveniently and properly hold." In 1821, 197 hogsheads of tobacco were inspected; in 1822, 182; and in 1823, 201. A report of 1823 stated: "Neither house, beam on scales and scales or weights safe for either planter or merchant to depend on."

On February 13, 1800, a grant permitted the erection of a warehouse for inspecting tobacco, hemp, and flour to be shipped down the Cumberland (Pulaski County). The first licenses inspection, known as Campbell and Stapp, was established on lands owned by Thomas Cowan. The second licensed inspection, established December 16, 1801, on Samuel Newell’s land on the north side of the Cumberland, was known as New Market.

In 1902, John W. Parker bought a tract of land on Pitman Creek, just over the bridge on the Grundy Road. Parker came from Pendleton County, Kentucky and had had experience raising Burley tobacco in that county. He began raising tobacco in Pulaski and taught his neighbors how to raise the crop. One of the difficulties faced at that time was getting pure Burley seed it often came mixed with Dark tobacco seed. Nine hundred pounds of tobacco per acre was very good in those days. The farmers did not have regular tobacco barns so the tobacco was stripped, graded and packed into hogsheads, hauled by wagons to the railroad depot in Somerset and shipped to Lexington for sale.

For two decades and longer, from 1880 on, many independent growers of tobacco in Kentucky maintained their own pattern of selling leaf. They had been encouraged by buyers representing domestic and European firms to "sell direct." At barn doors, in market town streets, or at designated meeting places on country roads, buyers bought leaf without benefit of auctions.

Around the turn of the century most of the tobacco farmers in Kentucky were having a difficult time. Several farmers pools, meanwhile, had been organized in the Burley districts. Most conspicuous of these was that known as "the Lebus pool," after the president of the Burley Tobacco Society, Clarence LeBus. With changes in buying practices after 1911, and the high prices that prevailed during World War I, the brutalities of the pooling combines were largely forgotten.

A pattern of selling new to Kentucky began in 1906 when Charles Bohmer of Virginia opened the first "loose-leaf" auction warehouse at Lexington. The last hogsheads of leaf sold at auction in Kentucky had been rolled off the warehouse floors during the 1929-30 season.

By the time "loose-leaf" selling became popular, the roads leading North from Somerset had been improved until the farmers could hire a neighbor with a truck to haul his tobacco to Lexington or Harrodsburg.

The first tobacco market opened in Somerset in November 1948. A million and a half pounds of burley were sold the first week at an average of $41.95 per hundred pounds. This market was the Farmers Tobacco Warehouse whose walls encompass five acres of ground and was said to be the largest tobacco warehouse in the world under one roof. Another tobacco warehouse was completed in 1949. In November of that year the peoples Tobacco Warehouse invited the farmers to bring their tobacco.

In 1965 the yield of tobacco averaged 2,430 pounds per acre and the tobacco sold for an average of $68.51 per hundred pounds.

Statistics have been kept on tobacco production in Pulaski County since 1919; some of the interesting years follow:

Year Acres Yield Per Acre Pounds Total Production Value

1919 151 118,000

1929 1834 1,705,000

1939 2960 960 2,842,000 $ 457,307

1944 4435 1190 5,278,000 $2,143,070

1949 4250 1335 5,674,000 $2,431,691

1952 4700 1385 6,510,000

1962 3430 2140 7,340,000

1965 2791.91 2430 6,780,239 $4,465,242

This indicates that for many years tobacco was one of the chief commercial items of Somerset and its environs. In 1971 tobacco farmers began selling their crop under the poundage allotment in lieu of the acreage program.

According to Collins (History of Kentucky II), the early settlers near Somerset engaged in the manufacture of salt as late as 1846. Salt wells were dug, and the water evaporated to obtain the salt. These wells were located on Fishing Creek, above five miles west of Somerset. According to tradition, salt was produced there by the soldiers during the War between the States.

A very strange industry which was undertaken by some of the early settlers in the vicinity of Somerset was the production of raw silk. Perhaps this industry reveals the true pioneering spirit of these early inhabitants of the town. Collins wrote that the first raw silk produced in Kentucky was at Somerset in 1842. It was of a fine quality and expected to rival that produced in France. Apparently, the producers were disappointed in the returns from the enterprise for it was soon abandoned and very little information concerning it seems to be available. Cyrenius Wait was connected with this enterprise for a few notes kept by him indicate that he had considerable interest in the raw silk industry. According to Wait’s notes, his first silkworm eggs hatched in the spring of 1840. These eggs had been purchased from William Edwards. In August of the same year Wait noted that he had four bushels of cocoons. This information shows that silk was being produced as early as 1840, but in a very small quantity.

The location of the silk enterprise was just east of the town where the tourist home, "The Pines," now stands. Wait is said to have constructed the original building which has been remodeled in recent years. Several years ago there were many mulberry trees growing in the field around the building which could have been sprouts from the larger trees which once grew there.

  1. Wallace McKitrick, president of the Silk Growers Association of America, stated that it had been

demonstrated by the wonderful success in silk growing "that no state or country, Europe not excepted, to say nothing of the inferior silks of Japan and China, can excel Kentucky in the production of raw silk cocoons … no state can produce more crops of raw silk annually than Kentucky; it can raise three full crops of raw silk in one season."

However, in spite of this acclaim, the production of raw silk continued to decline in the United States. According to statistics published by the United States Department of Agriculture, only sixty-three pounds of raw silk were produced in Kentucky in 1888.

Some coal has been mined for many years in various sections of the county around Somerset. During the middle of the nineteenth century coal was being mined at Hail at the "Slip-up Mine." The operation was carried on by Thomas Hail who sold his interest in the minds to John M. Hayden and Tunstal Quarles Jasper. Much of the coal was sent down the Cumberland River in hand fashioned barges which held several tons of coal. Several mines were opened during the early twentieth century in the eastern part of the county at Acorn, Squib, and Line Creek vicinity. One of the more recent mining operations is beyond Mt. Victory near the Rockcastle River. Barges of coal are being sent down the river to the John Sherman Cooper Power Plant. Many homes and business establishments purchase coal for fuel, but this amount was decreased when Natural Gas was piped into town. The entire output of coal is locally consumed. The coal industry had very little influence in the development of Somerset.

In Somerset, in 1872, there were nine dry good stores, three grocery stores, and confectioneries, one boot and shoe store, one drug store, one National Bank, two hotels, a Masonic College, six Churches, four Sabbath Schools, and "not a single whiskey shop." According to Collins there were eight mechanic’s shops, one carriage factory, one wagon and plow factory, one tannery, one bank with $150,000 capital; six lawyers, and five physicians, also one hotel in Somerset in 1870.

In July of 1894, Beecher Smith established a wholesale grocery in the one room Swaim Building on South Main Street in Somerset. The business was moved uptown to the large quarters on Market Street in 1907. The Somerset Republican carried the following advertisement in its March 7, 1907 issue:

  2. J. Smith Co.

New 3 story building, 3rd St.

With Jobbers Prices


Our Special Offer

is on


We have thousands of bushels of finest quality,

bought at great advantage in prior of


before the recent rise in price.

You will make a mistake if you do not see us

before buying your seed.

We give you this advantage



you will find all Field Seeds, Oats, Corn,

Milet, Wheat, Rye, and Grain Seeds.


PROVISION – Bacon, Lard, Flour, Meat, Salt


FEED – Corn, Hay, Shipstuff, Bran, & Mixed Feeds


BUILDERS SUPPLIES – Lime, Cement, Plaster.

Wood Fiber – all brands.


VEHICLES – Buggies, Phaetons, Carts, Run-abouts, full line.


Remember we sell to consumers at Jobbers Prices.

The concern grew by leaps and bounds and became the largest wholesale grocery house in Southeastern Kentucky, and one of the biggest in Kentucky and Tennessee. Branch houses were established in Burnside, Monticello, Whitley City, and Celina, Tennessee. At one time the R.J. Smith Company operated 24 trucks in making deliveries to many stores in Kentucky and Tennessee and 81 persons were employed by the wholesale house.

Frank Ellis Jr. And Herbert Ledford acquired the R.J. Smith Company, wholesale grocery concern and assumed management of the business March 1, 1947. Ellis and Ledford operated in the old R.J. Smith building and under that name until someone dug the foundation for a new building behind this building. The back of the building collapsed, taking with it several hundred dollars worth of fruit jars. They rented the Richardson and Cundiff buildings east on Market Street, moved the business there and changed the name to Ledford and Ellis Wholesale Company. This company was merged with Jellico Grocery Company, December, 1960.

The Cumberland Grocery Company erected two three-story brick buildings with basements and located on Depot Street, in 1905. "They cost approximately $70,000 and were used by the company until it went out of business in 1932. The structures contained about 23,000 feet of floor space and each was equipped with a freight elevator. The buildings were splendidly constructed and equipped." The Commonwealth for December 21, 1932, announced the sale of the stock in the District Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Kentucky in the matter of Cumberland Grocery Company:

Thursday, December 29, 1932, in the main buildings at Burnside of the Geo. P. Taylor

Company, a subsidy of said Cumberland Grocery Company, inventorized at a value of

more than $4,000 and located in the following points: Burnside, Somerset, Eubank,

Albany and Monticello, Kentucky.

In 1927 Linzie Carter, who had been working for the R.J. Smith Company, started the Carter Candy Company and operated at two different locations on Market Street before establishing Carter Brothers Wholesale Grocery Company on West Mt. Vernon Street, in partnership with his brother Alonzo. In August 1941, they sold their business to the Jellico Gorcery Company of Jellico, Tennessee.

The Mt. Sterling Grocery Company came to Somerset in 1938, rented the old Cumberland Grocery buildings on Depot Street, and changed the name to the Somerset Grocery Company. The Commonwealth for March 5, 1947 reported:

The property of Dr. L. I. Farmer and Mrs. Edgar Murrell and leased to the Somerset Grocery

Company was destroyed by fire of undetermined origin early Friday morning. All of the

contents were lost … The fire was discovered about 4:15 o’clock Friday morning. The

Somerset Grocery Company has been located in the building for several years doing a

large wholesale business in the area. H.H. Wheeler of Ashland is president of the company

and Joe Keeton the local manager.

The company set up offices in the Beecher Hotel and then rented the building on West 80 now occupied by Economy Wholesale Company. In the fall of 1950, they began liquidation of their stock, all of it being sold by February of 1951. In March of 1951, a new company was formed and now occupies the same building. This is Economy Wholesale Company and Joe Keeton is its manager.

Jellico Grocery came to Somerset in 1941 with the purchase of Carter Brothers. H.A. Vaughn was made manager.

The Jellico Company was organized in Jellico in 1903, and now either owns entirely or is

affiliated with 13 wholesale groceries in this section of Kentucky and Eastern Tennessee.

A.T. Siler of Williamsburg is president of this company and U.S. Jones, Jellico, founder of

the business is vice president and general manager. The company’s capital stock

originally was $50,000. Today it is incorporated at $500,000, being one of the largest

wholesale grocery organizations in Kentucky and Tennessee. (Somerset Journal, Thursday

September 4, 1941).

With the purchase of Ledford and Ellis Wholesale Company in 1960 Frank M. Ellis became manager of the Jellico Grocery in Somerset on University Drive, the cash and carry outlet on Market Street, formerly Ledford and Ellis, and the cash and carry house in Corbin, Kentucky. After seven months Mr. Ellis resigned to become manager of the Louisville Grocery Company and Herbert R. Ledford was made manager. The Somerset Division of Jellico serves businesses within a 70 mile radius of Somerset, employs 37 people and operates 7 trucks. (Interview with Herbert R. Ledford).

Somerset did not actually begin to grow industrially until after the tracks of the Cincinnati Southern Railroad had been completed in 1875. Following this event, the city increased in population from 587 in 1870, to 2625 in 1880. Even more interesting was the increase in population in the ten years between 1880 and 180. In 1880 there were 805 people living in Somerset compared with 2625 in 1890.

After 1877, when the railroad had been extended to Chattanooga, Somerset began to grow. The town’s railroad history was completed with the construction of the Ferguson Shops in 1906. Establishment of division headquarters at Somerset, followed by the location of the Ferguson Shops resulted in a substantial building boom in the period around 1905-06. Considerable capital was attracted to the town for investment at that time and Somerset received an industrial backing of major importance, which has since been largely responsible for the city’s growth and prosperity

The railroad between Cincinnati and Somerset was built principally by Cincinnati and Cincinnati capital, and was considered one of the finest and best equipped roads in the State as early as 1885. When the line was extended to Chattanooga it was joined by the Southern System and was for a time known as the Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Texas Pacific Railroad. Later the line from Cincinnati to Chattanooga was leased by the Southern System. The railroad was later made a double-track line between Cincinnati and Chattanooga with the exception of a few tunnels. The charter was passed by the Kentucky legislature, and the right of way granted through the State, January, 1872.

It is said that the original survey of the railroad through Somerset located the depot near the courthouse, but the high price demanded for the site at that location caused the promoters to accept free of cost the land belonging to Dr. J.W.F. Parker and the depot was located three-fourths of a mile south of the courthouse. Not long after the completion of the railroad and the erection of the depot, a small thriving community began to develop and became more or less independent of the larger community to the north. This community was given the name South Somerset and for a time enjoyed prosperous existence. It had its own newspaper The South Somerset Sun. In this community, the railroad built is hospital and there were several stores, a church, two restaurants, a hotel, and an axe-handle factory. About 1885, R. A. Johnson built a large two-story brick building at the intersection of Monticello Road and South Main Street, known as Johnson’s Block. The building contained a drugstore, a hardware store, and a furniture store. Another part of the lower floor of this building was occupied by a general store. Most of the second floor was used as an auditorium. It was also used as a dance hall and as a skating rink. This building was destroyed by fire about 1913.

Railroad employees and transient travel brought more business and additional interests to Somerset and the "South End" grew rapidly. Houses sprang up almost overnight. Streets were laid off and named. Some of the principal streets were Bourne and Griffin Avenues; High Street and Depot Street were the cross streets, with Jacksboro Street being formed at the junction of Depot Street and Griffin Avenue. Jacksboro is said to be part of an old Indian trace that ran southward into Tennessee. A boardwalk and a muddy wagon and stagecoach road connected the two parts of the town for several years.

In May 1941, the Southern System placed in service the world’s first Diesel Electric Railroad Freight locomotive. This locomotive passed through Somerset, southbound for Chattanooga, on September 19, 1941. Other Diesel engines have been put into service by the railroad and by 1950 almost all the steam locomotives had been replaced by them. This change over from the steam engines rendered the Ferguson Shops practically useless since they were manned and equipped to service only steam locomotives. Only a skeleton crew of less than one hundred men remained where once nearly a thousand had been employed. Thus Somerset witnessed the exodus of some of its best citizens and business firms, the loss of their patronage. The shops were ultimately disposed of altogether.

The railroad passenger service became quite limited with only four trains offering passenger service to Somerset, two northbound and two southbound trains during the day. Freight service was continued but on a lesser scale. By 1966 all the tunnels between Cincinnati and Chattanooga on the Southern Railway had been removed in order to carry tiered freight, such as automobiles and large pieces of machinery. Improvements in the railroad service were a central train control system and removal of most of the double track. This provided for speedier and more efficient railroad traffic. The cost of these improvements amounted to several million dollars, some of which benefited Somerset.

The improved highways have prevented Somerset from feeling the loss of the railroad shops as much as was expected at first. There are two arterial highways passing through the town. These highways did much to help the merchants and business firms of Somerset to withstand the depression in 1930-33. Highway 27 was first promoted through organization of the Cincinnati-Lookout Mountain Airline Highway Association. The second meeting of this association was held in Somerset, 1921. Agitation for the road from Cincinnati to Chattanooga was started then and continued until the completion of the route in 1930. Parts of this road, especially between Burnside and the Tennessee line, comprised a total wilderness as far as highways were concerned. By 1960, a rerouting of highway 27 bypassing Somerset was completed and is referred to locally as the "truck route." It was made a four lane highway from Columbia Crossing some seven miles south to Waitsboro. By 1966, several business establishments were located or being located along this by-pass. The erection of two modern motor courts, the Holiday Motel and Quality Court Motel, along with the Tradewinds Shopping Center, new and used car lots, drive-in restaurants, a bowling alley, service stations, farm supply stores, grocery stores, and the marine has made this a busy thoroughfare, contributing much to the financial well-being of the community.

Highway 80, which runs east and west through Somerset connecting it with the town of London, Laurel County and Jamestown, Russell County, has opened up the coal fields on the east and a large territory to the Somerset retailers and wholesalers.

By 1904, the people of Somerset had begun to realize that their town was beginning to grow industrially. One of the leading industrial concerns of the time was the I.R. Longsworth Company, manufacturers of hardwood products, carriage and buggy materials. This establishment purchased from $50,000 to $75,000 worth of lumber a year and had an annual payroll of $300,000 to $400,000. This industry was regarded as an important asset to Somerset. Other business firms included a machine shop, a plumbing shop, the R.J. Smith Wholesale company and several hardware, furniture and retail grocery stores.

There were a number of industrial establishments by mid-twentieth century in the immediate vicinity of Somerset. Among the largest of them was the Palm Beach Company. The building was erected in 1946 at a cost of $215,000 by Somerset Industries, a corporation formed by local citizens vitally interested in the development of the community. The building has recently been purchased by the company and they manufacture men’s coats and employ a total of 490 people. Another is the Cumberland Wood and Chair Corp. Its products are bed headboards and sofa frames and it employs 145 men and one woman for a total of 146. Crane Companies produced viteous china, sanitary ware with an employment of 140 males, 5 females or a total of 145. By 1966, the American Metal Products Comapnies began the production of auto seat structure frames and springs, with approximately 250 employees including both men and women. The Southern Belle Dairy Company, Inc., engaged in the production of fluid milk and ice cream mix, employing 84 men and 8 women, for a total of 92. General Electric Company manufactured pressed glassware, employing 32 males and 30 females for a total of 62.

Somerset in its earliest years was dependent mainly on the surrounding farms, forests, a few rock quarries, and coal mines for its income, but with the coming of a number of important industries, it has become an increasingly growing industrial community and shows indications of expanding in this direction in the years ahead.

Chapter Five

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