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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.”
Design & Development
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.