BUCKHORN, Ky. — The drive from Hazard across Highway 28 takes you over some of the most scenic mountains in the county to the historic and quaint center of Buckhorn, a small village situated in the northwestern section of the county. Buckhorn is one of the smaller communities in Perry County, yet it is also one of only three incorporated cities.
Over the last century, Perry County has seen significant changes in its landscape. Thousands of people moved in with the industrial age, and they built thousands of homes, hundreds of buildings and businesses. Roads sprang up and the pace of life has quickened.
In nearly every corner of Perry County this is the case, but in Buckhorn, life very much resembles the way it was in 1930.
Prior to the 1920’s, Buckhorn was primarily farm land owned by a War of 1812 soldier. Jeremiah Smith and his family were the only residents in the area for many years, but through marriage and people moving in, it became a small community.
In the early 1900’s, a man named Harvey Murdoch came to Buckhorn as a part of a group called the Society of Soul Winners. He was from a wealthy church in New York, and was working with the Soul Winners as a secretary in charge of checking up on various churches they have started in rural areas.
While visiting a nearby church, Murdoch Stumbled upon Buckhorn and saw the need for a school and church.
“He came here from New York City from a very, very wealthy Presbyterian church up there,” said H.C. Sparks, business owner and lifelong resident of Buckhorn. “He came down here on a mission, and he saw the need for a boarding school because there weren’t any roads in this area.”
Murdoch started a school, then a church, and eventually built up a log compound in the center of Buckhorn, helping to determine the town’s central location. According to lifelong resident Pat Wooton, even into the modern day the main occupation of people living in Buckhorn is education.
The community that Murdoch helped build served students from across the region as a boarding school, hospital and trade school. It was eventually called the Witherspoon College. According to Sparks, while the school served many students, the name was a misnomer and it never actually acted as a college.
“What I heard was that he did that to get a hold of people who want to attend the school thinking it was a college,” said Sparks.
The Log Cathedral that was built as a part of this compound has become a landmark for this town, being one of the few buildings from this time that still exists, and the only structure in Perry County listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. It was constructed based off of traditional cathedral plans drawn up in New York City, but built with wood native to the area and with methods used on many log cabins.
“All of those buildings were like that, the hospital, dormitory,” said Sparks. “There were 18 of them all together.”
Sadly, nearly all of these buildings are gone now, with the exception of the gymnasium and the cathedral. According to Wooton, it was this wooden construction that was the downfall of these buildings. In the early 1950’s, many of the buildings burned to the ground. With limited fire departments and availability of water, the fire made quick work of the all-wooden structures.
Around the same time that Murdoch came to Buckhorn to start his community, H.C. Sparks’ grandparents were establishing a store that would remain in the family to this day.
“We have been here since the early 1900’s,” said Sparks. “My grandmother had it, then later on my mother and dad had it, and then it came down to me. We have just had it for a long time.”
The store moved into a new building in the 1950s, but has remained relatively unchanged since its earliest days as one of the community’s trademark businesses.
Like much of the northern Perry County, Buckhorn at one time had a serious problem with flooding. Floods had damaged Sparks’ store and the Log Cathedral, along with many of the other historic buildings in the area. But with the construction of the dam at Buckhorn Lake, flooding became much less of an issue.
“Flooding was a problem,” Sparks noted. “The store we have now flooded on many occasions, but now that this flood control dam has been in there since the 60s that prevented that completely. We don’t have that anymore.”
Prior to the building on the flood control dam and construction of Buckhorn Lake, Buckhorn had a sister city, Bowlingtown. Bowlingtown, Saul and Buckhorn all lived in a symbiotic system with Bowlingtown having several businesses and a clinic that offered jobs and a road connecting Saul and Buckhorn.
In the 1950s and 60s, the Army Corps of Engineers began working with many communities with flooding problems, and it was decided that they could solve Buckhorn’s flooding by damming the river and permanently flooding Bowlingtown.
When Bowlingtown was flooded to create Buckhorn Lake, it cut off Saul from the other communities in the county and forced the residents of Bowlingtown to move out, but according to Sparks it did not have this detrimental effect on Buckhorn.
Many of the residents of Buckhorn that worked in Bowlingtown began working at Buckhorn Lake, though education still remains one of the most in-demand positions for people in Buckhorn. Even those not working in the school often still work with children at the Buckhorn Children’s Center.
The center is in the old boarding school and helps troubled children that are wards of the state.
“It was first a boarding school, then Witherspoon college, then an orphanage, and then became Buckhorn Children’s Center probably next,” said Wooton. “Now it is actually Buckhorn Children and Family Services.”
The people of Buckhorn can nearly all trace their family lines back multiple generations to the days of Harvey Murdoch and the building of the town. The same families living in the same areas running the same kinds of businesses can be found throughout the community. Sparks attributes this consistency with Buckhorn never having its boom time like many of the former coal camps in Perry County.
“Really, mining is just now getting to this area,” said Sparks. “I am not saying that there wasn’t some mining going on, but it wasn’t anything great. We never had a mining camp or anything like that here.”
This means that unlike much of the county, they never had a huge increase in population.
Some are working to modernize Buckhorn, even if it is just slightly. In the early 1990’s Buckhorn incorporated so that they could get city water. Wooton, whose wife Veda is the mayor of Buckhorn, said that by assuming the responsibilities for the lines as a city, they were able to get water from Hazard’s plant to the city of Buckhorn.
“We basically exist as a water company as much as anything,” said Wooton.
Like many other communities in Perry County, Buckhorn has an interesting name. Unlike many communities it seems everyone is in agreement as to where it came from.
“Up the river here from Buckhorn, somebody built a little spring and they built a little rock building around it,” Sparks explained. “Somebody killed a buck, and when they did they took its horns off and mounted them on that building and they called it Buckhorn.”
The name became official when Wooton’s grandmother wrote it down as the name of the post office. This took the town from being “where the spring is at the buck’s horn,” said Wooton, to the city of Buckhorn.