Three storytellers living Cynthiana’s history

Telling Time

Found among rolling hills and farmland along the South Licking River, Cynthiana is a bustling town of 6,300. Founded in 1793, markers of its history dot the landscape. Cynthiana’s citizens live within this rich history, and, for many in town, it plays a significant role in their lives. Here are three of those people.

One fixes the 163-year-old clock in the tower of the courthouse. One crisscrossed the county to document forgotten cemeteries. And one expresses her passion for the past by helping at the town history museum.

Muse at the Museum

By Theophil Syslo

The Cynthiana Harrison County Museum is home to thousands of historical relics that capture the history and heart of the community through everyday objects.

On Walnut Street in downtown Cynthiana, a block from the historic courthouse, the Cynthiana Harrison County Museum spans 15 rooms in a century-old building that once served as a theater.

Museum volunteers built the collection through a door-to-door search for objects. Items lining walls and shelves tell stories of local life and industry. Without glass encasements, visitors can touch the array of personal objects, tools and mementos, offering a chance to experience Harrison County history as it is preserved.

The museum is staffed by volunteers like Karen Bear, 63, who values the heritage and artistry of the objects housed there.

“Things that are passed down from generation to generation, family heirlooms, antiques, all of those things — everything has a story.”

Karen shared three objects among the thousands in the museum that carry special meaning for her.

1930's Sketchpad of Drawings & Poems

BY Jane Sugg, a woman from a prominent local family.

“Things like this are just – look how beautiful that cover is. It’s the aesthetics of everything from the past, you know, everything was made to be beautiful.”

1940 Stenograph Machine

Transcription machine was used by Harrison County stenographer Pauline L. Linville. Donated by Karen.

“I loved that this still existed, ‘Patty Perfect’, and here she is and she’s got her curls on and he’s looking very serious. And to be able to look back and see how far we have come.

Child’s Toy Piano

Karen has owned the piano, made by Schoenhut Piano Company, for most of her life. She donated it to the museum after she started volunteering there.

“The idea that something of mine, some tactile piece of me, is there is a sweet thing for me to know. A little piece of me is in the museum even if I'm not there.”

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Karen lives with her husband, Avi Bear, 63, on a 150-acre farm 10 miles outside of town. The couple moved to Cynthiana from Ohio in 1997 and raised two sons here. 

“I think we have flourished more than we ever imagined as members of this community. But I can say that our lives are so much richer because the community has allowed us to be who we are, and use what we have to, you know, to give back.” 

“Tactile history is something that I love and I appreciate, but music is my gift … My value system tells me that I'm here to take the gifts that I have and use them to better my world.”

Karen taught for 20 years as a music educator with a choral emphasis in Cincinnati. “So when we moved to Harrison County, I left the classroom and I went to work for my husband as an office administrator in our business. But I never stopped singing.” 

She stayed involved with the symphony chorus in Cincinnati, driving back and forth each week for 17 years to rehearse. “But I always had in my mind that coming into a new community, ‘Wouldn't it be great to develop a community choir?’ ”

“And here we are 10 years later. The greatest blessing for me is to be able to do what I love the most in the place that I live.”

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The Servant Historian

By Taehoon Kim

For Denny Lipscombe, history is a job that needs to be done. The Cynthiana native crisscrosses the county cataloging lost cemeteries and graves.

“I’m single... and I don’t work. That means I’ve got more than enough time to do what I want, when I want.” 

Denny Lipscombe takes a moment at his parents' tombstones at the family plot at Battle Grove Cemetery in Cynthiana, Ky., on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. His father Thomas F. Lipcombe & his mother Betty D. Lipscombe died in 2006 & 2011, respectively.

Denny grew up in Cynthiana learning to appreciate history. He spent days exploring fields with his father, an avid collector of local artifacts. He was taught how to handle old and rare books at a young age — Denny still collects first editions for his personal library that fills his home.

He finished high school, then dropped out of two colleges. He found a job in a factory. He drank and was in and out of jail. He sobered up in 1986, when he was about 29 years old, and became a therapist specializing in substance abuse. Denny was passionate about his work. 

“People were dying every damn day,” he says. “I [had] no right to sit back and watch them do that if there’s anything I can do.” 

In the early 2000s, Denny developed a tremor — a genetic condition passed from his grandfather to his father and now to him. He lost his job and he couldn’t find another. His marriage suffered. He and his wife got a divorce, the second in his life. His doctors told him he couldn’t return to work, so he went on full-time disability.

“It was all I could do to just hold my mind together,” he says. “And it took two to three years to learn how not to work, because work is what I do and that’s who I am.”

These changes led Denny back to his original love: history. “I’m single... and I don’t work. That means I’ve got more than enough time to do what I want, when I want.” 

He started visiting and photographing old houses near Cynthiana. On his trips, he noticed many of the houses had family cemeteries nearby. They captured his attention. 

Over the last three years, Denny has visited, photographed and cataloged 148 cemeteries in Harrison county. Once word of his new obsession spread, people started passing him information about nearby burial plots. Some are easy to find. Others are on remote, private lots. He remembers each one.


As photographed by Denny Lipscombe

Photo by Denny Lipscombe
George Lail House and Family Graveyard

“George Lail was born in 1727. He was part of the Ruddle’s Fort massacre in 1780. He survived the attack. He was forced to walk from here to Detroit, Michigan, and stayed there until the end of the [Revolutionary] war. After the war, he came back here. He died in 1792.”

Photo by Denny Lipscombe
Adams Cemetery

“My all time favorite has to be the one at the end of Adams Lane, because of where it is. It’s easy to find it. It’s so peaceful back there… I’ve been back there a number of times.”

Photo by Denny Lipscombe
Brewsaugh Graveyard

“Sometimes [the headstones] are covered in thorns and thistles and I have to move all those and get in there. When I get out of there, I’m going to have blood on both hands and both arms. But you gotta do what you gotta do.”

When he visits a cemetery, Denny takes a moment to pause. Sometimes he sits, sometimes he lies down. He focuses. He imagines the people here. Who were they? What were they like? What was life like for them?

The headstone marked “Unknown Youth” in St. Edward’s Cemetery remains stuck in his mind. How old were they? How did they die? He sees a family who never found out what happened to their child.

“I can’t imagine. My mind stops, my emotions stop, and I start to empathize.”

Denny photographs the cemetery — with his tremor, he guesses he has to make five pictures for every usable image. He takes his camera home, sorts and catalogs the images on his computer and shares them on Facebook.

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People from across the country, looking to discover their genealogies, comment on his posts. He doesn’t get paid for any of this work, and he doesn’t want to be. 

And how does Denny — the man who spends his days remembering others — want to be remembered when he’s gone? 

“I’m not sure I need to be,” he says. “I think that my work needs to be.”

The Clocktower Keeper

By Mimi d'Autremont

Cynthiana installed the four-faced clock in the Harrison County courthouse in 1856. Since then, there has always been a keeper of the clock. Steve Ewalt took over that role in 2015. Since then he climbs to the top of the clock tower six times a year, leaving behind the modern world of the bright, well-kept courthouse as he passes through two trap doors, emerging in a six-by-six foot antique machine room.

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Steve grew up in Cynthiana in the 1960s. He remembers squirrel hunting, building model airplanes, and riding his bike into town to buy Hot Rod Magazine and vanilla Coke. On Saturdays, he rode past stores full of people running errands. Like so many in the area, he worked on farms after school and on the weekends, baling hay and cutting tobacco.

“There’s a lot of things that are just dying away, and I wish when I was growing up I had paid more attention to the older folks and asked more questions. But I didn’t do that. It just didn’t seem important at the time.”

Steve Ewalt (bottom left) after a 1967 squirrel hunt with his brother Robbie (bottom right), Father Edward (top Left), and Family friend Terry Farris.

He left Cynthiana in 1981 to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which took him all around Kentucky. He always loved antiques, enjoying the history of an object as much as the tinkering required to fix it. He came home to Cynthiana in 2001 when he retired and took up a hobby job at the local jewelry store. 

He bought Ewalt Jewelers on Main in 2011 and kept the store’s old-fashioned interior. He likes that it transports people to another time when they step inside, like walking into a memory. It’s a thread he follows to the pieces he repairs.

“In the world of jewelry repair, there’s always some sort of sentiment attached to that thing and so, you’re kind of fixing memories in a way,”

With the store on Main Street across from the courthouse, Steve finds himself becoming part of the story of the town in a way he didn’t expect.

He was working at the store one night in 2015 when he heard the clock chime.

“The clock just kept chiming. It was like 5:30 p.m. and the clock shouldn’t be chiming. We finally got ahold of Alex Barnett, the county judge executive, and that’s how I wound up with that job. Because the previous guy had passed away and so there wasn’t anybody to really take care of the clock…

“And so I guess now I will be part of Cynthiana history.”

Now in his 60s, Steve traded his hot rod magazine for a muscle car. He restored every detail of a red 1969 Chevrolet Camaro Z28, which he's been showing off at car shows since 1989. It also has been featured in a number of magazines, including on the cover of Camaro Corral magazine in 1992.

Steve in his airplane

He earned his pilot's license about three years ago, a lifelong dream of his. He is a member of the local flying club, and loves to fly when he needs to escape the strain of the delicate work of his second career.

“When you climb in there you better be focused on what you’re doing,” he says. “You have to leave the rest of the world behind you.”

Steve says he doesn’t see himself as one of the significant players in Cynthiana, just someone who goes to work and tries to fix things as best he can.

“There’s a lot of things in the world that it doesn’t seem like people have paid attention to in history. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you're bound to repeat them. And a lot of folks have a huge interest in history around here.”

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Digital Storytelling Workshop Team

Mimi d'Autremont
Taehoon Kim
Theophil Syslo

Jonathon Berlin
Sam Wolson

Design & Development
Maxx Berkowitz
Ken Harper
Tim Klimowicz

Writing Coach
Tarryn Phaneuf

Dalton Puckett

Our special thanks to Steve Ewalt, Denny Lipscombe and Karen Bear for their generosity and time. 

We are also grateful to Mountain Workshops faculty and staff who provided additional support for this project, especially Jonathan Adams and Jack Gruber.

Also, thanks to Museum President Mary Grabel and the volunteers of the Cynthiana Harrison County Museum, the Cynthiana-Harrison County Flying Club and the Licking Valley Singers. Our appreciation to Alex Barnett, Harrison County Judge Executive, for access to Cynthiana’s historic courthouse.

This project was created using Webflow, we thank them for granting Mountain Workshops access to its web design tool.