A View of Big Bone Lick and Rabbit Hash in 1894
James Duvall, M. A.
The following was written about a visit to areas along the river in Boone County in 1894 by Reuben Gold Thwaites. He and his family and a friend traveled down the Ohio River in a boat. He published an account of the trip as a book, Afloat on the Ohio (1897). It was reissued as On the Storied Ohio (1903). Before arriving at Big Bone the company first stopped at Rabbit Hash, another noted Boone County Landmark.
Rabbit Hash, KY (502 miles), is a crude hamlet of a hundred souls, lying nestled in a green amphitheater. A horse-powered ferry runs over to the larger village of Rising Sun, its Indiana neighbor. There is a small general store in Rabbit Hash, with postoffice and paint-shop attachment, and near by a tobacco warehouse and a blacksmith shop, with a few cottages scattered at intervals over the bottom. The postmaster, who is also the storekeeper and painter, greeted me with joy, as I deposited with him mail-matter bearing eighteen cents’ worth of stamps; for his is one of those offices where the salary is the value of the stamps cancelled. It is not every day that so liberal a patron comes along. “Jemimi! Bill! But guv’m’nt business ‘s look’n up – there’ll be some o’ th’ rest o' us a-want’n’ this yere off’c’, a’ter nex’ ‘lection, I reck’n’.” It was the blacksmith, who is also the ferryman, who thus bantered the delighted postmaster, — a broad-faced, big-chested, brown-armed man, with his neck-muscles standing out like cords, and his mild blue eyes dancing with fun, this rustic disciple of Tubal Cain#. He sat just without the door, leather apron on, and his red shirt-sleeves rolled up, playing checkers on an upturned soap-box, with a jolly fat farmer from the hill-country, whose broad straw hat was cocked on the back of his bald head. The merry laughter of the two was infectious. The half-dozen spectators, small farmers whose teams and saddle-horses were hitched to the postoffice railing, were themselves hilarious over the game; and a saffron-skinned, hollow-cheeked woman in a blue sunbonnet, and with a market-basket over her arm, stopped for a moment at the threshold to look on, and then passed within the store, her eyes having caught the merriment, although her facial muscles had apparently lost their power of smiling. Joining the little company, I found that the farmer was a blundering player, but made up in fun what he lacked in science. I tried to ascertain the origin of the name Rabbit Hash, as applied to the hamlet. Every one had a different opinion, evidently invented on the spur of the moment, but all “‘lowed” that none but the tobacco agent could tell, and he was off in the country for the day; as for themselves, they had, they confessed, never thought of it before. It always had been Rabbit Hash, and like enough would be to the end of time. After leaving Rabbit Hash, the travelers pushed on toward Big Bone Lick: We are on the lookout for Big Bone Creek, wishing to make a side trip to the famous Big Bone Lick, but among the many openings through the willows of the Kentucky shore we may well miss it, hence make constant inquiry as we proceed. There was a houseboat in the mouth of one goodly affluent. As we hove in sight, a fat woman, whose gunny-sack apron was her chief attire, hurried up the gang-plank and disappeared within. “Hello, the boat!” one of us hailed. The woman’s fuzzy head appeared at the window. “What creek is this?” “Gunpowder, I reck’n!” – in a deep, manlike voice. “How far below is Big Bone?” “Jist a piece!” “How many miles ?” “Two, I reck’n.” Return Big Bone and Big Bone Lick Big Bone Creek (512 miles), some fifty or sixty feet wide at the mouth, opens through a willow patch, between pretty, sloping hills. A houseboat lay just within – a favorite situation for them, these creek mouths, for here they are undisturbed by steamer wakes, and the fishing is usually good. The proprietor, a rather distinguished-looking mulatto, despite his old clothes and plantation straw hat, was sitting in in a chair at his cabin door, angling; his white wife was leaning over himm lovingly, as we shot into the scene, but at oncre withdrew inside. This man, with his side-whiskers and fine air, may have been a head-waiter or a dance-fiddler in better days, but his soft, plaintive voice, and hacking cough, bespoke the invalid. He told us what he knew about the creek, which was little enough, as he had just recently come to these parts. At an ordinary stage in the Ohio, the Big Bone cannot be ascended in a skiff for more than half a mile; now, upon the backset, we are able to proceed for two miles, leaving but another two miles of walking to the Lick itself. The creek curves gracefully around the bases of the sugar-loaf hills of the interior. Under the swaying arch of willows, and of ragged, sprawling sycamores, their bark all patched with green and gray and buff and white, we have charming vistas – the quiet water, thick grown with aquatic plants; the winding banks, bearing green-dragons and many another flower loving damp shade; frequent rocky palisades, oozing with springs; and great blue herons, stretching their long necks in wonder, and then setting off with a stately flight which reminds one of the cranes on Japanese ware. Through the dense fringe of vegetation, we have occasional glimpses of the hillside farms – their sloping fields sprinkled with stones, their often barren pastures, numerous abandoned tracts overgrown with weeds, and blue-grass lush in the meadows. Along the edges of the Creek, and in little pocket bottoms, the varied vegetation has sub-tropical luxuriance, and in this now close, warm air, there is a rank smell suggestive of malaria. These bottoms are annually overflowed, so that the crude little farmsteads are on the rising ground – whitewashed cabins, many of them of logs, serve as houses; for stock, there are the veriest shanties, affording practically no shelter; best of all, the rude tobacco-drying sheds, in many of which some of last year’s crop can still be seen, hanging on the strips. We are out of the world, here; and barefooted men and boys, who with listless air are fishing from the banks, gaze at us in dull wonder as we thread out tortuous way. Finally, we learned that we could with profit go no higher. Before us were two miles of what was described as the roughest sort of hill road, and the afternoon sun was powerful; so W___ accepted the invitation of a rustic fisherman to rest with his “women folks” in a little cabin up the hill a bit. Seeing her safely housed with the good-natured “cracker” farmwife, the Doctor, the Boy, and I trudged off toward Big Bone Lick. The waxy clay of the roadbed had recently been wetted by a shower; the walking, consequently, was none of the best. But we were repaid with charming views of hill and vale, a softly-rolling scene dotted with little gray and brown fields, clumps of woodland, rail-fenced pastures, and cabins of the crudest sort – for in the autumn-tide, the curse of malaria haunts the basin of the Big Bone, and none but he of fortune spurned would care here in this beauty-spot to plant his vine and fig-tree. Now and then our path leads us across the winding creek, which in these upper reaches tumbles noisily over ledges of jagged rock, above which luxuriant sycamores, and elms, and maples arch gracefully. At each picturesque fording-place, with its inevitable watering-pool, are stepping-stones for foot pilgrims; often a flock of geese are sailing in the pool, with craned necks and flapping wings hissing defiance to disturbers of their sylvan peace. The travelers we meet are on horseback – most of them the yellow-skinned, hollow-cheeked folk, with lack-luster eyes, whom we note in the cabin doors, or dawdling about their daily routine. On nearing the Lick, two young horsewomen, out of the common, look interestedly at us, and I stop to inquire the way, although the village spire is peering above the tree-tops yonder. Pretty, buxom, sweet-faced lassies, these, with soft, pleasant voices, each with her market-basket over her arm, going homeward from shopping. It would be interesting to know their story – what it is that brings these daughters of a brighter world here into this valley of the living death. Two hundred yards farther, where the road forks, and the one at the right hand ascends to the small hamlet of Big Bone Lick, there is an interesting picture beneath the way-post; a girl in a blue calico gown, her face deep hidden in her red sunbonnet, sits upon a chestnut mount, with a laden market-basket before her; while by her side, astride a coal-black pony, which fretfully paws to be on his way, is a roughly dressed youth, his face shaded by a broad slouched hat of the cowboy order. They have evidently met there by appointment, and are so earnestly conversing – she with her hand resting lovingly, perhaps deprecatingly, upon his bridle-arm, and his free hand nervously stroking her horse’s mane, while his eyes are far afield – that they do not observe us as we pass; and we are free to weave from the incident any sort of cracker romance which fancy may dictate. The source of Big Bone Creek is a marshy basin some fifty acres in extent, rimmed with gently-sloping hills, and freely pitted with copious springs of a water strongly sulphurous in taste, with a suggestion of salt. The odor is so powerful as to be all-pervading, a quarter of a mile away, and to be readily detected at twice that distance. This collection of springs constitutes Big Bone Lick, probably the most famous of the many similar licks in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. The salt licks of the Ohio basin were from the earliest times resorted to in great numbers by wild beasts, and were favorite camping-grounds for Indians, and for white hunters and explorers. This one was first visited by the French as early as 1729, and became famous because of the great quantities of remains of animals which lay all over the marsh, particularly noticeable being the gigantic bones of the extinct mammoth – hence the name adopted by the earliest American hunters, “Big Bone.” These monsters had evidently been mired in the swamp, while seeking to lick the salty mud, and died in their tracks. Pioneer chronicles abound in references to the Lick, and we read frequently of hunting-parties using the ribs of the mammoth for tent poles, and sections of the vertebrae as camp stools and tables. But in our own day, there are no surface evidences of this once rich treasure of giant fossils; although occasionally a “find” is made by enterprising excavators, -- several bones having thus been unearthed only a week ago. They are now on exhibition in the neighboring village, preparatory to being shipped to an Eastern museum. As we hurried back over the rolling highway, thunder-clouds grandly rose out of the west, and great drops of rain gave us moist warning of the coming storm. W___ was watching us from the cabin door, as we made the last turning in the road, and, accompanied by the farm-wife and her two daughters, came tripping down to the landing. She had been entertained in the one down-stairs room, as royally as these honest cracker-folk knew how; seated in the family rocking-chair, she had heard in those two hours the social gossip of a wide neighborhood; learned too, that the cold, wet weather of the last fort-night had killed turkey-chicks and goslings by the score; heard of the damage being done to corn and tobacco, by the prevalent high water; was told how Bess and Brindle fared, off in the rocky pasture which yields little else than mulleins; and how far Towser had to go, to claim relationship to a collie. “And weren’t we really show-people, going down the river this way, in a skiff? or, if we weren’t show-people, had we an agency for something? or, were we only in trade?” It seems a difficult task to make these people on the bottoms believe that we are skiffing it for pleasure – it is a sort of pleasure so far removed from their notions of the fitness of things; and so at last we have given up trying, and let them think of our pilgrimage what they will. The entire family now assembled on the muddy bank, and bade us a really affectionate farewell, as if we had been, in this isolated corner of the world, most welcomed guests who were going all too soon. In a few strokes of the oars we were rounding the bend; and waving our hands at the little knot of watchers, went forth from their lives, doubtless forever. The storm soon burst upon us in full fury. Clad in rubber, we rested under giant trees, or beneath projecting rock ledges, taking advantage of occasional lulls to push on for a few rods to some new shelter. The numerous little hillside runs which, in our journey up, were but dry gullies choked with leaves and boulders, were now brimming with muddy torrents, rushing all foam-flecked and with deafening roar into the central stream. At last the cloud curtain rolled away, the sun gushed out with fiery rays, the arch of foliage sparkled with splendor – in meadow and on hillside, the face of Nature was cleanly beautiful. At the creek mouth, the distinguished mulatto still was fishing from his chair, and standing by his side was his wife throwing a spoon. They nodded to us pleasantly, as old friends returned. Gliding by their boat, Pilgrim was soon once more in the full current of the swift-flowing Ohio. We are high up tonight, on a little grass terrace in Kentucky, two miles above Warsaw. The usual country road lies back of us, a rod or two, and then a slender field surmounted by a woodland hill. Fortune favors us, almost nightly, with seemly abiding-places. In no shelter could we sleep more comfortably than in our cotton home.
Reuben Gold Thwaites. Afloat on the Ohio (1897); reissued as On the Storied Ohio (1903). This excerpt from p. 190-201.)