I was recently drawn into a discussion about the history of Mammoth Cave and the surrounding area, and stumbled upon a mess of half-truths and urban legends that are truly irreverent to the real history that is being smothered and stifled by these misconceptions.
With the need to preserve a local landmark, the town of Park City, in northern Barren County, KY, went through all the channels to have their own Bell’s Tavern pronounced a State Historic Site. The ruins there are now protected by the state, and people who are historically minded can visit the site. But recent internet surfing for Bell’s Tavern brought me some startling results. Only one site, Waymrking.com, has the history of the place at more than 90% accuracy. All others are vague or poorly misinformed. To get to the truth of Bell’s Tavern’s history, one must actually pick up written literature on the subject. The best resource is a book entitled KY: A guide to the Bluegrass State, which was printed in 1939.
Colonel William Bell was a Revolutionary War Veteran (and no relation to John Bell of Tennessee’s Bell Witch fame!) who came here from Virginia, and settled on a 3,500 acre land grant, building a plantation that was eventually measured off into plats and lanes that would become known first as Three Forks, and later as Bell’s Station. In the 1820s, three major roads met at this spot, and at this crossroads, Bell built a small inn and tavern so the stagecoaches could stop, and weary travelers could find aid and accommodations. In a relatively short time, a saloon and store were built near it. But nothing would overshadow its brightness.
The first structure was a rambling wooden affair, added to from time to time as the patronage grew, and was noted far and wide for the hospitality dispensed by its owner, Col. Bell. Service was lavish, and the fare testified to the epicurean taste of the owner. Col. Bell himself prepared his favorite appetizer, a homemade peach brandy and honey, a beverage of exhilarating potency, and he was very generous in dispensing it. Coffee was served from a silver coffee pot that was carried from table to table by Bell’s favorite slave, a timeless old gentleman named Jim, who had server=d both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in his youth.
After the death of Col. bell in January of 1853, his son’s widow, Mrs. Robert Slaughter Bell, who was born Maria Louisa Gorin, to Franklin and Louisa Underwood Gorin, continued to run Bell’s establishment, and maintained the tavern’s reputation for the remaining years of its existence. Her husband, Robert Bell, passed away in 1845, and she remarried on 30 November 1853 to George M. Proctor, who was an up-and-coming local businessman.
Bell’s Tavern was completely destroyed by fire on a night in late 1859 or early 1860. Mrs. Proctor planned to build a magnificent stone structure in its place, the proportions and appointments of which would be worthy of the tavern’s reputation. The building was to be 105 feet in length and about 60 feet wide. The outbreak of the Civil War doomed completion of the new tavern that was begun by Col. Bell’s grandson, William F. Bell, and his step-father George M. Proctor. The massive walls of dressed stone had reached a height of 15 feet or so before the work stopped, never to be resumed.
In the year 1859, a more important endeavor was completed, right by its side – the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. In the dark days of the Civil War, George Proctor made plans to help finance an important spur of this railroad to nearby Glasgow, and also a spur to take tourists to nearby Mammoth Cave. By 1859, Three Forks was a sleepy village with 75 inhabitants. It was universally known as Bell’s Tavern for the town’s famous hotel, and was the departure point for the eight mile trip to Mammoth Cave. One and a half miles north of Bell’s Tavern, very near the road to Mammoth Cave, a slave of landowner Jessie Coats discovered a pit in the rocky bottom of the valley on 14 July 1859. Lowered on a rope into the cave, this first visitor thought sparkling calcite formations resembled diamonds, and the name for Diamond Caverns was born.
In addition to running Bell’s Tavern with his wife, George Proctor showed the Diamond Cave to travelers. At the same time, his brother, Larkin Proctor, managed the Mammoth Cave Hotel, and also owned the stage line that served Bell’s Tavern, Diamond Cave, and Mammoth Cave. On 12 December 1859 Maria Proctor’s uncle, Joseph Rogers Underwood, a renowned Bowling Green lawyer and senator, bought Diamond Cave and 156 acres from Jesse Coats for $1,200.00. In addition to owning the Diamond Cave property, Underwood was also the managing trustee of the Mammoth Cave Estate, which had once been owned by Maria Gorin Bell Proctor’s father, Franklin Gorin.Underwood was responsible for making Mammoth Cave a commercial success. The Civil War effectively shut down visitation to Diamond Cave, as well as to Mammoth Cave. Guerrilla raids, use of the railroads for military purposes, and dreadful economic conditions ended tourist travel on the roads and railroads.
The vine-covered walls, arched windows, and moss-grown steps have remained for over 150 years as a magnificent testament to Mrs. Proctor’s plans for reviving her father-in-law’s hospitality. Maria Gorin Bell Proctor sadly passed away in 1865, at the close of the Civil War, at the age of 44.
On an end note, an earlier mentioned favorite slave of Col. Bell’s, old Jim, was buried under an apple tree in the old orchard nearby, which I’m given to understand no longer exists. I’ve been to the Lions’ Club behind the Tavern grounds three times over the years, picking up participants from the annual Park City Christmas Parade. It’s a quiet and peaceful site, and I plan to go back sometime in the near future and walk around, visit the family cemetery and the place where the orchard was. If you’re interested, you should go too! 🙂
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