History Detectives

Orloff Miller, center, and his crew of archeologists search for clues at the site of the former Harrison Tavern along Kentucky 11 near Lewisburg Friday. The tavern can be traced back to 1807.

A cultural study along Kentucky 11 near Lewisburg has uncovered an old tavern that may have once housed travelers visiting Mason County.

Local archaeologist Orloff Miller said his crew was hired by the Fleming-Mason Airport after the airport purchased the property that was known as the Earls Farm.

According to Miller, the airport planned to use the property to add a protection zone at the end of the runway for planes landing at the airport, in case they were to overshoot.

"Anytime you're going to complete a project using federal money, you have to have a cultural study completed," Miller said. "The study is similar to an environmental study except you're trying to find anything of historical/cultural significance."

Miller said he began the project in summer 2016. At that time, he had not planned to find anything like that has since been uncovered.

According to Miller, the foundation dates to the early 1900s, but the tavern dates back to around 1807.

"We were going after a tavern that started here in about 1807," he said. "The spring house is the only building still remaining that was here about the same time. I expected to find, maybe, one room. We had completed the research on the area before coming out and I knew there was once a tavern here, but I never expected anything like this."

The tavern would have been built by Dominic Harrison. It was later purchased by the Earls family. The latest house, which was torn down recently, was built around the early 1900s.

Miller said as his crew began uncovering the tavern, they discovered a 66-foot building that would have been several rooms.

"We were hoping to uncover the backyard of the tavern to see what was going on behind the scenes and get some sense of what was happening in the service area. Instead, what we found was more building. It was buried and no one would have known it was there," he said. "Someone had brought in a magnetometer/ground-penetrating radar and we targeted different parts of the lawn based on those results and what we found was this enormous building."

Miller said a tavern of that era could have been just a small place for travelers, but instead they found a dedicated building.

"This was, obviously, a professional innkeeper," Miller said. "We also found evidence of stables, so the owner would have been capable of keeping several horses and a large number of people at one time. There would have been several servers in and out, taking care of people. It would have been a busy place."

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Miller said the tavern building was built in stages. It was originally a two-story timber frame structure with one room down and one room up. It was later expanded.

"The first expansion was uphill and under the farmhouse. The farmhouse obscured the remains," he said. "Coming out after the farmhouse was demolished, we were able to test the footprint and that was when we found the second house."

According to Miller, the tavern was most likely in use until the 1880s or 1890s when it may have been destroyed by a fire.

"It went through a catastrophic fire," he said. "We have archaeological evidence for that, but we don't have newspaper evidence. I would like to find that because it would have had to have been explosive and gone up fast; so fast that it melted the plaster off the walls and it spread across the floor like molten lava. I've never seen evidence of that kind of heat."

Miller said he believes the tavern would have stored whiskey barrels and one of them could have caught fire, resulting in the destruction of the inn.

Miller said he is currently in the mitigation stage of the project.

"As a part of that, I've been asked to record all of the architecture and that included all of the interior and exterior of Earls' house and all of the outbuildings, which included barns, dairies, sheds and other buildings. We have drawings of all of those."

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